2016 marks 20 years since Placebo released their eponymous debut album. Many things have happened since then: six more studio albums, around 11 million copies sold worldwide, and many line-up changes, with Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal staying strong in the vanguard.
Having performed in front of the UNESCO World Heritage temples of Angkor Wat, Morocco, and snow-strewn Alps over the years, Placebo have never shied away from concerts in remote and/or unusual places.
A three-week tour of Siberia was the latest addition to this list, which they decided to document on film. The spirited and ever curious Stefan Olsdal took it upon himself to be the protagonist of the film. “I wanted for this to happen very much and felt it was important for us as a band. Brian has narrated many of our past documentaries, so we both agreed that I was going to spearhead this one,” he explains. And so, fronted by Stefan, the doc plunged straight into the alternative art scene of some of the most far off corners of Russia, including Novosibirsk, Omsk, Krasnodar, and many others.
“I remember we got offered a three-week tour of Siberia when we were on our Loud Like Love tour, and we sat debating it in an Italian restaurant, wondering if it was too crazy an idea to even consider. We’d never been that far east in Russia, and knew only of playing St. Petersburg and Moscow. After very little deliberation, we decided to accept the offer,” he recalls.
In between playing and travelling, the band met and chatted to a number of artists specialising in everything from animation through architecture to music. Having a prior interest in the country’s art scene, Stefan had a clear idea of whom he wanted to talk to. “There were a few people I really wanted to meet before we started, like Petr Pavlensky and Recycle Art Group of whom I had read up about before. The Calvert Journal, a London-based Russian Arts website, was a big help in helping us discover many more talents, and Igor who worked there was also friendly enough to talk to us about what was going on in Russia behind the scenes,” he explains.
The making of the documentary coincided with the Ukrainian crisis, so while Russia was at the forefront of current affairs all over the world, little was reported of its internal culture, which gave Stefan the idea for the concept.
“All we hear of Russia where I live is the politics. We knew there was much more to see and experience, so we decided to try to meet as many interesting people on our tour as possible. We wanted to broaden the scope of the documentary and take it away from being just about music and a band on the road. The art scene is very diverse, and so are our interests.” An aspect that he found particularly surprising was that a lot the artists he met were thriving in a politically conservative environment.
“As with most parts of the world, as soon as you go out and meet people, you find that we all share similar hopes and dreams. All the artists I met very much intend on staying and living their lives in what I had first perceived to be a place that people were trying to get away from. Many of them found this particular time in Russia’s history an inspiring one.”
Yet when it comes to Placebo’s ever growing Russian fan base, the situation is slightly different. Most people cannot travel to see the band in the biggest cities, such as St. Petersburg and Moscow so, as Stefan explains it, they “wanted to bring the music to them.”
And they certainly sound like a crowd worth bringing it to. “Hand on heart, I must say our Russian audiences have been, and continue to be, some of the most organised and positively giving we have experienced. They do many flash mob-type gestures which we have been truly touched by. My favourite was at the Gorky Park show in 2015, where six people lit up coloured flares corresponding with the coloured stripes of the Rainbow flag. I salute their bravery and imagination!”
Indeed, the crowds at the band’s concerts brim with love, warmth and unity. What is particularly astounding is how young the majority of them are, considering a lot of them weren’t even born when Placebo’s first album came out. When asked about his feelings on influencing such young minds, Stefan expressed a relaxed, balanced point of view.
“The people in this world who should be responsible role models are parents, teachers, and politicians. We express ourselves, and do so sometimes with brutal honesty, and very often that in itself becomes a political act. We stand for what we believe in, and our message goes against many governments of the countries we play in. If anything, I believe we promote tolerance and acceptance, which is much needed in this world.“ – he says.
This tolerance and acceptance is felt through and through in Placebo’s live performances – it is an essential element of the unforgettable energy that fills the room when they play, which Stefan describes as “fleeting moments in time that they share with their crowd.”
“I remember seeing LCD Sound System and The Flaming Lips, and feeling transported into a different state of consciousness. It’s a transcendental moment heightened by the audio and visual stimulation, and it’s a short period of time of shared joy, oneness, and energy that is hard to create in any other situation in life. A lot of people are obsessed about trying to capture the moment digitally, but I feel it is impossible to do. To be in the moment is much more profound and memorable.”
Asked about potential plans of touring any other politically repressive countries, Stefan is definitely open to the prospect: “We are always interested in playing new places,” he says. “If we didn’t play countries whose government policies we didn’t agree with, we would hardly play anywhere!”
However, it might be a while before we get to see another Placebo documentary because, as Stefan puts it himself: “It would have to be a very special concept!”
PLACEBO: ALT.RUSSIA will be shown at London’s Picturehouse cinema on Friday 4 November at 6.30pm. For more information abot the screening, and the Doc’N Roll Festival as a whole, visit the official website.