Celebrity Skin - Steve Forrest of Placebo

Published: 23 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

There are two things in life that Steve Forrest is passionate about, music and tattoos. Former drummer for Evaline and now making his mark behind the drum kit for Placebo, as well as guitarist and singer in his own band, Planes, his philosophy seems to be: if you can’t throw everything into something then there is no point doing it in the first place...

Drop Steve Forest behind some drums and you can see the passion he has for music; a quality that no doubt helped him a long way in joining forces with Placebo in 2008. But music is not the only passion in Steve’s life – the other is tattoos and tattooing. A passion that not only sees him having major ink coverage but that has also seen him do a tattoo apprenticeship. 

It takes a while but finally I track down the man and before I know it, find myself wandering the streets of London chatting to Steve about his twin passions. It all seems a little surreal at first but quickly, Steve’s personality takes over and we are deeply engrossed in all things ink and skins and how it all started out.

“For me, all the cool guys I saw were heavily tattooed. It was like ‘you have rock 'n roll AND tattoos’. It all seemed to come together at the same time when I was about eight. I thought to myself, there is one thing I definitely know and that is I want to have a lot of those (tattoos) and I want to make a lot of those (albums) and that was pretty much it. I think tattoos and music have been the only two things I have ever really been passionate about. My very first tattoo was on my ribs, when I was 18. I knew that I wanted to do my whole body, so I decided that I was going to start with the most painful bits first. That way, it’s all easy going from there.”

Not content with just collecting tattoos, a little time out from Steve’s first band, Evaline, saw him spending some time in a studio getting tattooed and learning a whole new skill.

“I only really got into tattooing about five years ago, before that I was really just interested in being a collector. But you know what it’s like, I was hanging around this tattoo shop so much that I started learning all this stuff and reading books about the whole world behind it. I found it all so interesting and then one day one of the guys said to me, ‘Why don’t you do tattoos?’ And I was like, 'Nah I’ll leave that to you boys’ and he was like, 'But you draw really well!’ And I was, 'Fuck it! Alright!’ And once I got into it and I did my first tattoo, it was such a rush. I was hooked.”

“People at the shop, they didn’t know I was a musician first and foremost. I think the people I was apprenticing under, sometimes it was a little hard for them cause they’re like, where do we stand? But when I was there, I was working hard and drawing all the time. I love to paint and sketch so it was all practice.”

Since moving to England in 2007, Steve has been keeping his tattoo skills sharp under the watchful eye of tattooist Xico. The same Xico who has reserved Steve’s back for a piece still in the planning.     

“Xico, who is my teacher now, is going to do a big Japanese piece but I told him, first let me finish up my right leg and have a think because I want to make it last because it is such a big thing. And I want it to be the last piece after everything else. I want to make a big statement plus it will take a couple of years as I am not going to be in every day getting it done.”

Making a cock-up live on stage may pass unnoticed, or be fixed if it happens in the recording studio but with tattooing, things are a little more permanent. How does that sit in Steve’s mind when he has a tattoo machine in his hand?

“I tattooed a couple of times on myself and since then I’ve been doing pieces on other willing participants and they’ve all turned out really great. I am just doing lots of traditional stuff right now and I haven’t fucked one up yet. I suppose if you are going to tattoo there can’t be any doubt in your mind that you are going to fuck up is there? You got to be confident but not overly confident so you forget to shade something or get a line wrong or misspell something. My friend, she got her upper back done and she was like, ‘Check it out, I got my upper back done. It says California!’ You know in big old English letters. And I was, ‘Yeah it’s great but where is the L? What’s Caifornia? She ended up getting it covered up I think, using these palm trees and stuff but oh man! And the guy who was tattooing her was Californian as well. How many times have you written that out? But I think it’s just being overly confident and I suppose it was also her fault for not reading the stencil.”

On that unfortunate note, we move back to Steve’s own tattoo collection which has been growing steadily since his first tattoo five years ago.

“My torso was done by Jay Shirley who also did a bunch of stuff on my leg. Jay worked out of Honolulu for a long time before he came to California. I met him in a town that is sort of next to my home town, and that’s the shop I ended up going to and tattooing for a few years and it’s the same place I got both my sleeves. That’s where I finished the upper parts of my leg, got my neck piece done and got the bottom parts of my hands done. I didn’t start getting tattooed outside that shop until the last three years. I ended up giving a limb to each artist cause I find I end up becoming best mates with them. Plus, I believe with limbs, where you have something big you want the same artist to do it. That way you have flow and it is all the same sort of style.”

Having been on both sides of the chair, as a collector and a tattooist, I ask Steve what he thinks makes a quality artist.

“A great artist will do a tattoo fast. Like my neck piece, it took an hour and a half. He didn’t take the needle out the skin. He was like, ‘Sit still!’ and he went for it. The tattooist’s name is Jeff Rassier and he works out of Black Heart Tattoo in San Francisco. I waited for two years to get in with this Jay. A few artists who work on me are the same in that they’re super quick but still produce great work. Really solid lines and amazing shading. I can only go about three hours tops in the chair. Once you hit that point where your body is saying it has had enough, you begin to take such a huge risk that your tattoo will get infected because your skin is under so much stress. It is a living organism, it fucks with you.

“Every time I have been really, really hard, trying to deal with pain but not handling it well, it’s always scabbed up really thick and been a bit of a bastard to heal. And this guy who did my neck, Jay, he even makes his own ink. I think it’s fantastic. A lot of the great ways forward are going back to how they used to do it traditionally. It is becoming a proper art not just some guy who tattoos flash off the wall to make a quick buck and does shitty work. 

“But at the same time the respect and the class seems to have been taken out of it. Tattooing used to be this really elite club. You know, you go in there, pay your money, sit down, you take it and there is a certain respect you get out of doing it the right way. It has been bastardised a bit; like so many things because everything in the world now has been made so available. It seems the only way to keep things going is to keep regurgitating stuff over and over again. And it’s a shame.”

I ask Steve if he thinks it is the sudden rise in popularity of tattooing, with the onset of the various ink shows, that has caused this or if it is a wider issue.  

“Some of this has to do with those shows. I love Chris Garver but I never watch those shows. All it is, is a programme about people’s shit sap stories about their mediocre tattoo ideas and I don’t really give a shit. If you’re going to put programmes on that the masses are going to watch, show the right way of tattooing, and show all the history about it. Educate people! And show them what a real good tattoo is and not the shit drama. But I suppose that’s programming. What I am interested in is, how did the tattoo get done, why does it look that way? Why was it placed there? What’s the whole thinking behind it you know? But I mean, what are you going to do? And how many girls come in a tattoo shop and go, ‘Alright, can I have these stars like Kat Von D?’ or ‘Can I have this like Cheryl Cole?’, 'NO!', 'Why?', 'Because it is shit! Go somewhere else for that! We like custom work here!'”

“And you can see it with Simon Cowell and the talent shows. That man. The thing is he never fitted in the industry, in the rock world. So he took his pop and just ruined the industry with it by making these shows and doing these giant karaoke competitions. He just raped the fuck out the industry so bad and now it has just lost all of its credibility. The problem is that no one wants to be a musician, they want to be a star. And they know that it’s only 15 minutes so it makes them even more creepy and eager to come out because they will do anything for their 15 minutes. They know they only get a glimpse but they’re, ’Hey we can do it!’ because of budget reality shows. 

“You know you got to pay your dues, spend the years in the sweaty shit clubs and touring in vans and you are just starving for something. And the same for tattoo apprentices, they go in there and they draw really well but as soon as they start getting clients here and there, they get cocky and all of a sudden they’re, 'Hey I made it!’ and their work stops dead. They stop drawing and they get this attitude and a lot of them end up getting fired from the shops. There are so many out there who have got halfway and gone, 'I’ve made it now. I’ll take it easy!’ and then lost it all.”

“If you want to be top of your game, you got to stick it out and keep working cause you never stop getting better, you can only stay the same or get worse. There was a musician, I think it was Steve Gadd, he said something like, ‘The moment that I go out and play every note perfect is the day I got to find something else to do'. It’s that little voice that keeps telling you that you’re shit that makes you better. Sometimes you are your biggest critic. I think that people with this mindset are the people who end up being known around the world for what they’re good at and not these people who have an attitude towards whatever their passion is. And other people do great things and might not always become super famous or super rich from it but that is not the point. The point is to do something fantastic that itself is going to be remembered more than you are and really that is the best bit. Because you’re going to be gone but if you wrote something or created something amazing, then that’s going to stick around for a while and I think that is cooler than any sort of fame.”

And Steve doesn’t seem to have had a problem making his mark on the music world either. His first band, Evaline, saw him enter the music world but it was joining Placebo that really threw him into the spotlight. When the band announced they were looking for a new drummer, Steve sent them a homemade video showcasing his skills and the rest is history. With Placebo now on a break, not only has Steve been brushing up on his tattoo skills but he has been recording a solo project.

“In September we did our last gig of the tour in Brixton and it was really hard because afterwards I was like, I don’t know what the fuck to do. I had spent all of my time with these people for the last three years. These are my family who I’ve come to depend on, the tour bus was my home, and this backstage area is my office. Hence the side project cause they were like, ‘Steve we are going to take the year off, you go and do your own thing but you’re not allowed to drum for anybody else'. And I just want to work for a living you know what I mean? I want to feel like I’m really earning and making something new and being creative and not just sitting back and letting things come to me. I’ve never really been about that. And they’ve worked hard for 16 years so they can take a year off to chill. 

“So we have just been recording an E.P. and we got to get it mixed and then hopefully get it out there in the next couple of months. Then I guess we’ll spend the rest of the year sort of touring and promoting and doing some summer festivals. I won’t be playing drums on this one, I’ll be singing and playing guitar. I got a guitarist, a drummer and I got this girl who plays violins, keys and sings. So that’s all getting going now which is great and hopefully we’ll do it right and it’ll end up taking off. It will be a cool project to go back and forwards to between Placebo. It has been great doing this other project because I get to orchestrate the whole thing and that was really fun. You know saying, ‘Here’s the parts, here’s how you play it but fuck with it a bit, make it your own, have some fun’.”

And another skill is revealed, the man can play guitar as well.

“I started doing both at the same time about 13 years ago because I found that one balanced out the other. The better I got at drums, I would go and get the guitar and practice and then go back to the drums and my co-ordination would be better. Then when that was going well I thought what else can I do? So I taught myself to play the piano. It’s like languages, you learn one and then another and it gets easier as you go. I can play about six or seven instruments pretty well but obviously my main two being drums and guitar and my main one being drums. I am a drummer first and foremost.”

I am starting to wonder if these passions of Steve’s are just a good cover for an underlying obsessive disorder but Steve is on hand to quickly put that straight.

“I’m obsessed with music and tattoos because I love them. I always had this complex where I wanted to be the best because I knew I wouldn’t ever be the best. Its like, you know you’re never going to be the best at something so for some reason that makes me want it so badly. But not even be the best at something, just do it more creatively than someone else or just differently that makes someone notice. You can be really crap but you can be really creative with that crap – hence the Sex Pistols. Or different movies and art through out time. And plus, for me, that was all I got. I put all my eggs in one basket. I’ve tried different things and this is one thing I am actually pretty good at so I’m going to give it everything… and yeah I am a bit OCD as well.

“When something is your passion, you want to do it all the time. And then sometimes you think, ‘Well this is great what I did last week, it’s the most amazing thing in the world!’ but then the next week you’re like, ‘Well this is a bit boring now, what if I did this...’”

Planes are playing The Lexington, London on June 27th – Debut EP out in August.

On joining Placebo

"It’s great, it’s an absolute dream. It’s opened me up to a world of possibilities and experiences that have totally changed my life. When I was with Evaline, we were getting ready to open up for this band from Europe and we were on the way to the venue and I said, ‘What do they sound like?’ So my manager put on the Without You I Am Nothing album and the first song was Pure Morning and I remember thinking, ‘This girl has got a really cool voice.’ And then we met him and I was, ‘Oh OK. He’s a man!”"

On applying for the ‘job’.

"I e-mailed them this video resume and I said, ‘I know you aren’t looking for anyone but if and when you do, maybe consider me.’ And they saw it and an hour later Brian called me. The funny thing is, he didn’t care about it, he hadn’t even watched it. He immediately recognised me from those gigs in 2006 when we toured together. I guess the whole band must have been backstage watching us. He said, ‘Yeah we used to watch you all the time, you’re and amazing drummer. Why don’t you come over?”

On English humour

"When I first came over to the UK, I was naive as anything and I didn’t really understand the English humour so they took the piss out of me constantly. Luckily I caught on really fast and I adapted to their humour, so much so that when I go home to California now to visit family and friends and I will take the piss and they are like, ‘Man you’re a dick!’ And I am, ‘No man, I’m not being mean. I am just having a laugh but they just don’t get it. I got to go easy on them."

On being a mentalist on stage.

"It’s funny - after I passed out on stage and they told me, ‘You’re too much! It’s ridiculous. You move way too much for your own good.’ So my fitness guys are paying a lot more attention to me. I am going to the gym and getting a lot of strength training so that if I do start feeling overheated or exhausted or anything, I have the techniques to calm myself down. And I really work on my breathing especially now that we are playing longer sets. Over the summer at festivals we would play hour sets but now we are playing two hour sets so I definitely had to get a lot more fit and I am really better for it."


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Kayla Wren