Stefan Olsdal

© Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

Placebo co-founder and bassist Stefan Olsdal talks parenthood, bigotry and mental health with Sam Bennett

Did Stefan Olsdal always feel accepted as a gay man in rock ‘n’ roll? In the early days of Placebo, he says, and during their heyday, “I was struggling with my sexuality, I was not completely comfortable in my own skin.” He thinks he was accepted by others, and “maybe I was the one who wasn’t really accepting myself – that’s a lifelong quest”.

The band spent a lot of time touring, he says, recalling the nineties where despite there being gay bars in the places they played, “I did feel quite alone.” However Placebo co-founder and frontman, the openly bisexual and androgynous Brian Molko was there for him during times of loneliness. “We connected on many levels; as people, as creative musicians, as outcasts – we leaned on each other.”

While he may not have been accepting of who he was, his band “were quite honest about who we were from a very early stage. Brian was mistaken for a girl a lot of the time – we played with that.” The group’s queerness meant youths found a friend in them, he says, and found music and lyrics they could relate to; songs to “help them through the often isolating years a teenager can have – when you’re trying to figure out who the hell you are”.

Stefan1 (3)I then ask him about his own son, and what steps he takes to instil into him the values of acceptance and equality. “He’s got an issue with gender,” he informs me. “He can’t differentiate between male and female. He basically refers to people as people, and I’m like, ‘Ok, he’s helping me get my head out of boxes.’” Sometimes, he says, his child will return home from school where he’s been told by somebody that a man should marry a woman. “Well, no son,” he says back, “that’s not right – that’s simply not true. Matter of fact.” For him, “Equality and justice for all is such a matter-of-fact thing.” This is the way he’s trying to teach his son said values – “the way I believe it should be”.

If I were to have a child I’d so want them to learn the aforementioned principles and would feel real pressure to make sure they did, and would be frightened of failing them in that respect. “As a parent all your insecurities are brought to the front,” he says, “because you’re constantly trying to direct a person’s life in terms of what you know. And sometimes I realise I know nothing.” His kid will ask questions, he resumes, and he has no idea of the answers. “You try to make it up, but you don’t get away with it with kids because they see straight through you. You’ve just got to pull from your resources, you’ve got to grow up a bit, you’ve got to be consistent in what you teach them, and just go with what’s right to you. We all have our own realities and it’s just about trying to instil what I believe is fair and just – but at the same time I cannot force him to be or think exactly like me.”

He’s recently collaborated with Gizelle Renee to create a fingerless leather rainbow glove – based on Gilbert Baker’s world-famous design – celebrating their ‘mutual commitment to acceptance, respect, equality and human rights’. The idea, he says, “started with Russia”. He tracks back a few years to “a lengthy tour of Siberia – three weeks in cities we hadn’t even heard of”. With him being openly gay, Placebo’s lyrics, and Russia’s “draconian” attitude to sexuality, “We were like, ‘We’re crazy doing this. Are we going to get out of there alive? I don’t know.’” But he didn’t want to go there and not make some sort of statement: “I painted my bass in the rainbow flag colours, and managed to get away with it without being hunted down or beaten up.” It was a risk in Russia – waving the rainbow flag, so to speak, to an audience comprising minors, “but I managed to get away unscathed”. He even posed for a photo “in the Red Square with my rainbow bass – a symbolic f*ck you”. Then he felt he wanted to carry on with the message, but with “something a bit more portable and powerful in a different sense”. Inspired by the rainbow fist symbol, he teamed up with Gizelle Renee in creating “a really good quality glove” for him to wear onstage. “Then we said, ‘Why not share this, why not make something more out of this?’” Now others can purchase a pair of rainbow gloves, with proceeds being split between the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the LGBT Foundation.

“The message still needs to be heard. We’re in a world of bigots, still, they’re everywhere. There’s countries where we are still persecuted and some countries even carry the death penalty for sodomy. So it still feels relevant to stand up behind the rainbow – we’re pushing it out there.”

The day after I spoke to him, he appeared on a panel discussing mental health at the Robert Smith-curated Meltdown Festival, Southbank Centre. The panel replaced the planned Frightened Rabbit set, following the sad death of lead singer Scott Hutchison who suffered from depression. “Mental health is being talked about more these days,” Olsdal says, “and I welcome that dearly. I am openly in recovery as well,” he continues, “so I am going to talk about my experiences with addiction. That’s what’s happening on the fringes of my existence – I’m just trying to share my experience as an addict in recovery, and bring mental health issues to the forefront. I’m trying to encourage conversation and discussion and just let people know that help is out there.” He highlights the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), which ‘is leading a movement against male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK’. “I’ve been to very, very dark places,” he states, “and I know people who have committed suicide. It’s horrible, and I just want people to know there are other options.”

Who was there for him when he needed help? It was the Samaritans, who in a 20-minute phone call lifted “a huge burden” off him. “Samaritans is a great helpline.” CALM also provide a helpline, he tells me. “So as a first step, if there’s no one else you can turn to, these charities are there. It’s incredible just to talk to someone who will listen and can empathise. It can do you the world of good if you’re in a dark place.”

He says there’s a way out of loneliness, which he cites as something depression and anxiety stems from. “Humans aren’t made to be alone; that’s what causes anxiety, because we have to get back to our pack, our tribe – we’re pack animals, we’re not made to be by ourselves. A lot of anxiety and depression is about lost connections with people, or a lost connection with yourself or your values.” Loneliness, he says, like addiction, does not discriminate. “It happens to the whole spectrum of people.” In sharing his own journey he hopes to make the world a better place. It might only be a drop in the ocean, he points out, but that’s more than no drops at all.

The handmade, leather Rainbow Gloves, designed by Gizelle Renee and Stefan Olsdal, will be available on gizellerenee.com priced at £120. #rainbowglove

@stefanolsdal

 

CALM

Helpline

Nationwide 0800 585858 | London 0808 802 58 58

5pm-midnight, 365 days a year

thecalmzone.net

 

Samaritans

Helpline

116 123 (UK) | 116 123 (ROI)

24 hours a day, 365 days a year

samaritans.org

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