Perfume Genius is still figuring it out
Mike Hadreas’s loyal fans are drawn to his honesty, his disarming vulnerability and the heartbreaking effect of his songwriting. The story so far is a story about sadness, self-perceived victimisation and queer introversion. Each time we hear from Mike, we feel his pain in his deeply personal words and his soft, haunting music. A healing process unto itself; defined by itself. So what happens when the music has finally done its work? We caught up with Mike to find out what it means to heal, when it all started and where he is right now.
“I put some under eye cream on so I feel like I should really have my camera on.” We’re looking at Mike Hadreas through the camera in his computer. He sits in his kitchen in Tacoma, Washington. His boyfriend and touring band member Alan wanders in and out of shot as we idly discuss their plans for the day. “I don’t think we’re doing anything today.” He sounds relieved, “I’ve been forcing Alan not to make any plans.”
Perfume Genius has really only existed for five years, but Hadreas’s interest in music stretches back to a time when he needed it to survive. “I bought an album by Liz Phair when I was 11 or 12 and that switched how I listened to music forever. I didn’t know you could say the things that she said in general, let alone in music. It was the beginning of me realising that you could be as truly weird as you wanted.” Mike is soft-spoken, reflective. His voice creaks as he remembers his troubled, conflicted childhood, “I felt very strange and different growing up and music was a way to not feel so lonely or to feel empowered even if it was just in my bedroom for a few minutes. I mean, I didn’t really feel empowered as a young person at all anywhere else.”
It would be another 15 years before Hadreas would start writing music and realising that not only listening to, but also creating music had therapeutic value for him. “The first two albums are a lot of me healing things that had taken place already”, he tells us, “When you do a lot of drugs and drink, your problems are really clear and big and those were the problems I was sorting.” Since then, however, Mike has cleaned up. “My circumstances are a lot better and things are going really well, so it’s embarrassing to still have anger and issues, and those things feel a lot more complicated now.”
The new Perfume Genius album Too Bright deals with that complex mix of emotions through a sonic palette that blends empowering pop anthems with slow, brooding melancholy to mesmeric effect. Lead single Queen is particularly atypical; a loud, rousing call to arms for Hadreas to stop playing the victim and feel empowered in comparison to the people who fear his otherness as a gay man; “The base feelings that song comes from are classically things that would make me feel very victim-y or sort of ashamed and I’m sick of doing that.” He holds back for a moment before talking about a recent statement he made in which he described himself as a ‘Sea witch with penis tentacles’. “I suppose it’s a more real way to process some of those feelings and it’s a little bit playful too. Making this big fuss over it will kind of magnify how ridiculous the themes are.”
With this transformation in mind, the Perfume Genius sound has been forced into exodus to make way for bigger production and more instrumentation. Where we were once confronted with an intimate and tortured soul, we’re now faced with a confidence that’s brought to life through anthemic pop music. “I worked with the right people”, he says of a production team which included Portishead’s Adrian Utley, “I wanted them to make it really harsh and pummelling, I wanted all the icky stuff to be disgusting and I wanted them to make it way more uncomfortable than I was ever capable of making it myself.” Despite not being – by his own admission – a particularly technically minded musician, Hadreas had little trouble communicating his ideas to the team, “I’d be like ‘I want this bass to be really slutty’, and somehow we were able to work together”, he laughs.
As Mike’s newfound confidence is beginning to manifest in his live show, he’s even taken to performing without his most valued prop, the piano. It’s a veritable challenge, he admits. “You have to exaggerate things a little bit and it’s weird for me to do that, because I never really thought of it as a performance, it’s more of people listening in on how I would have played these songs if I was on my own in my bedroom. I’m not like Karen O, I’m not gonna jump out and pour diet coke on myself or something.”
Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut album Learning was a cry for help, an exercise of personal therapy that helped Mike deal with his own sense of shame about his sexual preferences, and in 2014, Mike Hadreas is a considerably happier person than he was. But, he admits, he’s still got a way to go. “Maybe I’ll be super contented in a year or so and I’ll just make party music or something. But even though my life has got better, it’s still completely nuts, so I sincerely doubt it. Who knows?”
Too Bright is released 22 September via Turnstile