Perfume Genius is just as charming during our phone interview as I had hoped. The solo project of Seattle-native Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius is having a moment. The release of his third album, Too Bright, threw a flurry of attention towards the chamber pop artist’s moody palette of songs. The album is being called one of the year’s best and rightfully so. Too Bright is a gut-punching stallion that shines a light on Hadreas’s talent. Single “Queen” covers the reality of gay panic and homophobia and remains dark, sexy, funny, emotional. Too Bright has got range too, it covers ground that Perfume Genius hasn’t explored before musically while still paying homage to his earlier work. Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012) were collections of emotion-driven singer-songwriter tracks sewn together from life experiences. Where his previous two albums were beautifully emotional, they stood in the corner of the room. Too Bright is a shining, translucent dome in the center of the room. Perfume Genius is occupying a space in music that is newly blossoming into whatever Hadreas would like it to be. Perfume Genius is currently on tour and will be stopping at The Independent on 10/21. I was excited to speak to Hadreas and find out more about his music, the way he works, and, of course, his views on astrology.
TBB: I was a big fan of Put Your Back N 2 It and your new album, Too Bright, is being called a radical change for you. What changed in recording Too Bright?
What’s strange, I think, about it is, how deliberate it all was. Originally, that’s how I wanted it to be. It felt important and therapeutic to, even if I wasn’t completely there yet, to make the music more badass. To make the presentation more direct and in-your-face. But it didn’t’ take long for me to just feel that way. You know? I think a lot of that was cause the first music I started writing was, when I was trying to for this album [Too Bright], was still very slow and soft and there’s nothing wrong with that. I still really like my songs better like that. And there’s even still songs on this new album that are more quiet and tender. In some ways, it wasn’t doing the trick for me. I’ve always thought of my music as sort of a weird therapy. And the therapy I needed was to sort of say what I really wanted to say, and sing at people.
TBB: Do you think being more direct and in-your-face on Too Bright is related to the success of the album?
I think so. And in simple ways, too. I sing about darker and strange, messed up things on the first couple of albums but the music beneath it was pleasant. And now when I’m singing something filthy or nasty, the music is just filthy and nasty….And people like loud stuff. And I think I used to be sort of defensive about my old music because I know it’s quiet or whatever, but what I had to say wasn’t and it would frustrate me that people would think it lost some kind of strength just because I wasn’t yelling what I had to say at people. But I don’t know if that album is rebelling against that.
TBB: The video for the first single, “Queen,” has a lot of duality in it: it’s dark, it’s emotional, it’s sexy. What is the significance of duality in your music?
In a lot of ways, it’s just what I like. When I watch movies I like when things are disturbing and funny at the same time. I like it when horror movies will have something that’s awful and disgusting but they’ll also have a weird funny moment. And I like it when things are kind of complicated like that. They usually sit with me longer and I think about them afterwards. So and in my videos, I like having some fun things…like a bunch of baby pigs but then there are some more dead serious moments in the video too.
TBB: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you won’t stop addressing topics like gay panic and homophobia in your music which makes you influential to kids who are questioning their sexuality. Who do you ideally make music for? Who do you want to listen to your music?
Oh, I guess just anyone who needs it. I think that’s the danger when I’m specific and direct. People think I’m being very specific and direct and only talking to one group of people. And that’s not what I mean and what I want. Anybody that needs to listen to [my music], can. I didn’t grow up only listening and responding, and being moved by gay men. Well because, number one, there’s only like, four. [Laughs] You know? So I like that people could listen to weird…Gay kids in the suburbs could 100% relate to my music, but that’s just not how it works. I listen to a lot of women…like a lot of badass feminist music growing up and I was as equally inspired by that. I’m hoping that people will understand how much overlap there is with outsider-ness and feeling very different [from other people].
TBB: Tell me about how working with Adrian Utley from Portishead influenced Too Bright.
I made pretty fleshed out demos for all the songs but I’m technically not a very capable musician in a lot of ways. So I think he really responded to where I was trying to go with a lot of sounds I had on my demo….So without really having to talk to him too much, he knew where to go in the studio to get that sound. And beyond just him being technically more capable, he knew. I knew he would scared to be as dark and weird as I wanted to be so that was a bonus too.
TBB: Do you find any of those challenges when you’re playing shows?
Well I have other musicians on stage with me. [Laughs] And luckily all of them are a lot more knowledgeable than I am…and you know, I’m getting better at a lot of those things and then me and my boyfriend, I mean, we know about music, we know how to write music but we don’t know about like a lot of the machines and stuff like that but we’re slowly learning that…but my bandmates are all good at that stuff too.
TBB: What does the name Perfume Genius mean?
To be honest, it doesn’t mean anything. [Laughs] It was just something dumb. It was like the first words I thought of when I was filling out my MySpace profile a long time ago. People hate it. You don’t know how many tweets I get from people saying they hate my name!
I’ve always thought of my music as sort of a weird therapy. And the therapy I needed was to sort of say what I really wanted to say, and sing at people.
TBB: Really? There are a lot of really dumb band names out there but I really think Perfume Genius resonates with you and your music.
Oh, thanks. I also like the way the words look together…I might have picked something really serious and pretentious otherwise so…
TBB: You’ve battled drugs in the past and a lot of artists have addictive personalities that leads them to excess. Would you say that you still fall into that group of creative people?
Oh I do, I mean the thing is, even though I quit doing drugs and drinking, it doesn’t mean that I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict, it just means that I’m one that doesn’t do those things anymore. But it still leaks into my daily life a lot. I’m very kind of manic when I’m writing. I rarely ever eat a regular amount of food. I kind of look at everything as [something that could] change the way I feel. Like, yesterday, I felt kind of nervous before the show so I took some Sudafed…and it made me feel zany and messed up. So I still have these kind of destructive and weird tendancies but luckily, I’m kind of—well, not kind of. I’ve completely let go of the two biggest, most harmful things.
TBB: What do you in your spare time?
To be honest, my favorite thing to do is to do nothing. When I have time off and my phone dies, I just leave it dead. And I just put that Netflix on and I just kick it at my house for days on end. That can snowball too but nights I look forward to the most are at home just doing absolutely nothing. But I do miss writing a lot.
TBB: Do you believe in astrology?
I do. And the answer is “why not?” I believe in it when I feel like it. [Laughs] When I feel like it doesn’t apply to me or their wrong—their wrong! But if I feel like it does, then I’ll take it. I’m a Libra and…My family member Tom, we’re always fighting because I believe in magic, and Gods and Goddesses and stuff like that and he doesn’t believe in any of that. So we’re always fighting about ghosts. But, it’s like a choice. I can’t prove it either way but it’s more fun and it’s more meaningful for me to think that way. Just like his way of thinking works for him.
Perfume Genius, Matteah Baim
October 21st, 2014
Originally published on The Bay Bridged on Oct. 13, 2014.