The inspiration for a song on Placebo’s latest album, Loud Like Love, comes from an unlikely place: James Frey’s controversial account of drug addiction that drew headlines for its falsified passages. For frontman Brian Molko, the book tapped into something he wanted to pursue musically. And it’s not the first time the musician has used his interest in reading to inspire a song.
Molko has released seven albums with Placebo since their self-titled 1996 debut and often takes a literary approach to songwriting. The band’s new disc, which recently came out via Universal, extends their lengthy and darkly moody discography, exploring serious subject matter like drug addiction. For Molko, books are a way to tap into new ways of expressing ideas and aid songwriting by learning new words and turns of phrase.
The songwriter and musician spoke with Hive about his experience with books, what sort of literature he prefers and just why he’s so compelled by James Frey.
What book brings you back to your childhood?
The first book that I remember sort of becoming obsessed with and carrying everywhere with me when I was at school was a book by Milan Kundera, a Czech author, called "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." I carried that book everywhere and in a year read it three or four times, I think.
I was quite a romantic youth, I suppose. I still am, but not really in terms of romantic like a candlelit dinner for two. More, I suppose, in a literary tradition kind of thing. I was quite blown away by its scope really. There are so many stories happening at the same time in this book. I also was quite fascinated with the idea of revolution and the politics in the book. It was a real eye-opener for me. I have very fond memories of that.
Do you prefer fiction, nonfiction, poetry?
I don’t read a lot of poetry anymore. It’s pretty 50/50 for me in terms of fiction and nonfiction. It’s very difficult for me to find fiction that stimulates me a great deal.
What are you reading currently?
I just started this nonfiction book by Evgeny Morozof, it’s called "The Net Delusion." I think what it’s pointing toward is a post-Internet society and where we’re going. It’s quite interesting because I’m quite fascinated by how society’s changing so much. It seems to be about the illusion of democracy and how the net perpetuates that. From what I can gather so far from the beginning of it. How we feel we’re freer, but perhaps we’re not.
Digital or paper?
Digital only when I’m traveling. It frees up a lot more space for my clothes in my suitcase. I overpack. I’m very female that way. A girl needs options.
What’s the best book you’ve read on tour?
I don’t know if it has any direct relation to being on tour, whether a book is the best book or not. Certainly the book by a contemporary author that’s impressed me the most in the past two years or so—simply because it really fucks with the form of the novel itself—is an American author called Jennifer Egan. She wrote "A Visit from the Goon Squad." I think it won the Pulitzer Prize. She’s a phenomenal writer. That’s a really incredible book. The story happens, it’s a bit like "Cloud Atlas," it sort of happens in lots of different eras.
What’s the most number of times you’ve read a book?
There are books that I always carry with me. There’s a couple that I’m in a perpetual state of reading. Simply because they are, for me, kind of like guides to living more than anything else. I suppose a born-again Christian would travel with the Bible. I travel everywhere with "The Power of Now," by Eckhart Tolle. And "The Four Agreements." Simply because they help me stay sane.
Do the things you read influence your songwriting?
What I do think is amazing about reading a book on an iPad is that it has improved my vocabulary. All you have to do is press the word that you don’t understand, and you get a dictionary definition. It’s fucking amazing! But I do have a dictionary and a thesaurus on my phone and on my iPad, which I think is normal for someone who uses words for a living.
Definitely, if you’re gonna write, if you’re gonna make a living using words, you have to read. The more you do, the more words you know, the more adventurous you can become with how you construct sentences. Writing lyrics is more like writing slogans than anything else. It’s very, very much about trying to say as much as possible with the fewest words. Well, for me anyway. There are bands that don’t do that. It’s like a distillation process for me.
Has something you read ever specifically made its way into one of your songs?
I’ve stolen book titles for songs before. On the first album, there was “Lady of the Flowers,” which is a Jean Genet book. On this album there’s “A Million Little Pieces,” which is also a book by James Frey. A memoir of drug addiction. It made sense to me and I wanted people to make the connection, because I think the subject of the book gives the song context.
Has a fan ever gifted you a book that you already read?
It’s just kind of absurd. The last time it happened somebody gave me a book by Italo Calvino, in Italian. I’m like, “I don’t read Italian.” And she went, “Oh, you can learn.” Like I have time or the inclination to learn Italian. It’s absurd. So I gave it to somebody who spoke Italian.
Is there an author that you hope incorporates your music into their writing?
I’m aware that it’s happened a few times, actually. It’s happened in France and in the UK. I would just be thrilled for any significant, vital, contemporary author to even get a mention. I think it’s very, very unusual. I don’t know how successful these books have been. But most of them have been French. We’re big in France.
What book would you recommend to someone who is a fan of your band?
Read "A Million Little Pieces." It will give you a very, very realistic view of what it’s like to be an addict. To suffer from the disease of addiction. And what one has to go through in order to recover. And continue to live. If one is fortunate enough to achieve a state of recovery in one’s life, because a lot of people don’t.