Placebo’s Stefan Olsdal: “The moments we shared with Bowie, the titbits of advice – they’ve all stuck with us. Having him work with us gave us confidence to keep going”

Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal
(Image credit: Sergione Infuso / Corbis / Getty)

In 2022, says Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal, making music includes using challenging and intriguing forms. The band’s eighth album, Never Let Me Go, had its genesis in 2019 – and Olsdal explains that bandmate Brian Molko came up with a fascinating concept for it.

“He came to me with the photograph that is now on the cover, and basically said, ‘Let’s take things, turn them on their head, and work backwards. Let’s start with the photo.’ It was a place to start again. Venturing into new horizons, starting a new chapter. 

“It was the first time we’d begun an album without a permanent drummer. It harked back to the days of me and Brian in his council flat just messing with broken toy keyboards and badly-tuned guitars. The only difference is that we did this one in my studio where there were expensive vintage synths and guitars.”

This pared-down writing process brought another freedom to the mix. “I’m not dissing any previous drummers!” he says. “But the more people that are in the room, the more opinions you have to take into account; their emotions, feelings, and ideas. Sometimes that can get in the way.”

The result is an electronics-filled piece of work which, as well as providing the unique Placebo crunch, has a subtlety of timbre through its meticulous focus on arrangement.

The four-string bass was there to add warmth, and the synth bass added gnarliness

“There’s a lot of sub-bass on the record,” confirms Olsdal. “Sometimes that takes precedence over my live bass, on the song Surrounded By Spies, for example. It was absolutely about trying to find the space for different tonal qualities and characteristics, so we needed to find which instruments suited the vibe of what we were doing. 

“Sometimes the four-string bass was there to add warmth, and the synth bass added either gnarliness or brought the electronic element into the picture – which has always been important.”

Pushing boundaries

Never Let Me Go continues the band’s interest in loops and effects, and the album’s opener, Forever Chemicals is an example of that approach.

“The album begins with a weird loop that started off as a harp, on an iPad. Then we distorted it, put it through various effects and introduced an element of experimentation, taking something that wasn’t necessarily supposed to be played in a certain way.”

We have very, very low thresholds of boredom. Brian can’t stay still on one thing for very long, and that’s good

That urge to push at boundaries, says Olsdal, is both inherent and valuable.

“You know, we have very, very low thresholds of boredom. Brian can’t stay still on one thing for very long, and that’s good. If something is too reminiscent of something we’ve done before, we pull each other up on it. The bottom line is that the music is the most important part.”

Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal

(Image credit: Sergione Infuso / Corbis / Getty)

Stefan Olsdal was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1974. It wasn’t too long before music started to speak to him, he says,

“I was about 12, and I found there was something there that helped me to express myself: Something I felt was mine in my early teenage years. I’d started to isolate in my head and didn’t really know how to communicate, or connect, with the world. 

“I was playing air drums to Queen in the back of the car one day, and I realized that I could actually learn music, so I got a drum kit and played along to whatever music was around. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, they were all part of the mix.”

He says that he soon decided to change instruments because he didn’t want to be seated behind the drums and placed at the back of the stage: As he puts it, “A bit of vanity came into the picture, so I bought a Fender Precision.”

Taking the Placebo

Stefan’s older brother was a guitarist, and as anyone with siblings can confirm, there’s always a blend of rivalry in play. Olsdal the younger decided to learn that instrument too, motivated by the opportunity to outstrip his bro’s chops. His first songwriting efforts followed soon afterwards.

“There was also a piano in the house, and that was equally appealing. I sat there and figured out why I liked certain notes with other notes, and basically taught myself music theory. I translated that to guitar and bass, and they all became part of the same picture. 

As we started to use the studio more as a tool, I started to use effects pedals live to fill in the gaps

“I would record covers of Depeche Mode by myself, playing all the instruments, and singing badly. I don’t really consider myself a bass player, or a guitar player. It was an amalgamation of wanting music in my life rather than, ‘I want to put some bottom end to this.’”

Enter Molko, who certainly was a guitarist. “The first time I saw him play he had a percussionist but no bassist, so I said, ‘Hey...’”

History often pivots on such moments of serendipity, and in 1996 Placebo released their self-titled debut album. Molko’s experimental post-punk leanings and Olsdal’s multi-instrumental nature proved an excellent fit.

“We were very young, so all the songs on that first album are at a breakneck speed. It was quite ferocious. We were testosterone-fuelled 20-year-olds. Placebo was a three-piece in the beginning, so our sense of melody and style were influenced by the limitations and freedoms of that. 

“As we started to use the studio more as a tool, I started to use effects pedals live to fill in the gaps. Over the years we’ve gradually increased to six people on stage: The gradual evolution of the sound, embracing other instruments.”

Placebo bassist Stefan Olsdal

(Image credit: NurPhoto / Getty)

Jazz roots

Stefan’s bass guitars in the early days were a Fender Jazz, which he used for the band’s first three LPs. Following that, he switched to a Gibson Thunderbird. For the new record, however, he’s turned back to a tried and trusted instrument.

“I’d not used the P-Bass for 20 years – it’s been in a lockup – but I was just drawn to it. The T-Bird can be very hard-sounding, which is great and responds well to distortion, but when it came to this album the Precision was more rounded, less aggressive. It brought out more of the melodic element. It was like, ‘Oh, hello, old friend. Let’s hang out again’. It’s like you’ve not seen each other for 20 years but still, it seems like no time has passed.”

The moments we shared with Bowie, the little titbits of advice – they’ve all stuck with us

A few years have now passed, though, since the band’s exhausting, lengthy tours. Olsdal still bears scars from those extended travels. 

“That last tour we did went on forever, and I had a rough time. I was so depleted and couldn’t really find any meaning within Placebo. 

“I’d lost any kind of reason to continue the band. It was the worst, personally, that it’d ever been, but the process of making this record has allowed me to really exorcise the bad vibes I brought with me from that, and to work things through. 

“Making the album over three years really helped me to get my head together and use the creative process to remind myself why I want to be in this band.”

Famously, David Bowie became a Placebo fan after hearing the huge hit Pure Morning. At the time, the group were absolutely flying and were able, to an extent, to take it in their stride. 

“To protect ourselves from being in awe and paralyzed, we let ourselves ride on our confidence. Things were going our way. The moments we shared with Bowie, the little titbits of advice – they’ve all stuck with us. There was a magnitude to his presence, and having him want to work with us was an affirmation that gave us confidence to keep going.”

These days, of course, it is Placebo who are the elder statesmen inspiring new generations – not that the bassist is comfortable with sitting on that particular throne.

“I don’t even think about it. I will always be that 12-year-old who’s just getting excited about playing.”

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