Know Your Indie Queen: the Perfume Genius interview
If you read my review of his Birmingham live show, then you won’t need me to tell you I’m a Perfume Genius fan. If you think I’m going to start banging on again though, don’t take my word for it – as we approach year’s end, Mike Hadreas’s genius third album Too Bright has already been spotted on many a ‘best of’ list after being greeted with four and five star reviews upon its release in September. So, what does the man himself make of this glittering critical reception?
“It’s great, really great,” Hadreas says simply, a small smile curling at his lips. “I mean, you know, before the album came out I was proud of it, and no matter what I was going to be proud of it blah blah blah... but of course it was really helpful when it was received really well and, more than anything, that it felt like people understood what I’m trying to say and, um, I wasn’t sure that would be the case.”
Despite his speech being punctuated with frequent ‘ums’, ‘erms’ and other hesitations, Hadreas is not an awkward interview – far from it, in fact. As we chat in a secluded corner of the night’s venue pre-soundcheck, he’s good company: soft-spoken but confident in his views, and as quick to chuckle as he is to deliver a frank admission. It’s a relief actually that he comes across as such a calm, collected and generally sweet guy, considering his music is so often dark, despairing and, as proved by Too Bright, dangerously unpredictable.
“Loud and scary” is Hadreas’s own assessment of songs like ‘Grid’ and ‘My Body’ which are a far cry from the sparse, spine-chilling ballads that permeated his first two records and continue to make room on the new album. The thing is, those ballads always had the same sense of isolation, heartache and frustration that the so-called louder, scarier songs share – only the sonic landscape and production has shifted to bring that anger to the fore, opening a startling new chapter in Perfume Genius’s musical journey.
As well as discordant electronic embellishment, Too Bright even embraces vintage Bowie glam pomp rock on lead single, the anthemic ‘Queen’. Despite having “pretty fully fleshed-out” demos before recording, Hadreas unsurprisingly reflects that there was room for experimentation. “That kind of glammy, rock and roll type stuff was more a product of being in the studio than how the original intention of the songs were; like the demo of ‘Queen’ was a lot colder, a lot more electronic – even the beats on it were gonna be beats and not drums, you know. But then the kind of stoned, slower drum beat that John [Parish, co-producer and longtime PJ Harvey collaborator] played on it meant we redid the vocal to match.”
When asked about the reaction of his devoted core fanbase, away from those gold-star critics’ reviews, Hadreas is honest – which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard his music for longer than ten minutes. “I’m very happy with it. I was worried a little bit about that because the songs are a bit different. I know what it’s like, you know, to follow a band and look forward to them releasing something new and they release something different, and it can be sort of disappointing – even if you like it, it wasn’t what you were really hoping for. Maybe that’s happened, I don’t know.
“I know when I buy a new Cat Power album, I want an album that’s just the slowest, saddest Cat Power album – just her and a piano and that’s it. So when she started releasing the bluesy stuff, it took me a while – like ‘goddammit, it’s harder for me to cry to this’.”
So, don’t fret, Perfume Genius fan. You may be crying like a baby to the likes of ‘No Good’ and the title track, which share the crippling emotional undertow of earlier PG hymnals, but finding it hard to shed a tear when Hadreas unleashes like a banshee on the delirious dervish dance of ‘Grid’ or comes apart at the seams on ‘I’m a Mother’, which is uncomfortably ugly but still somehow utterly captivating. Whatever your reaction though, Hadreas gets it – and, despite revelling in the more raucous, confrontational aspects of Too Bright, he is far from deserting the emotional heft that has marked his music from day one.
Asked what his favourite song is to play from the new record, he opts for ‘All Along’. “It’s the first song I’ve played that’s that simple and I’m not at the piano. You know, I’ll play some songs hiding behind the piano but this song, I don’t play and I’m just standing there and I guess some people might think it’s the most uncomfortable of the night because it feels bare in a lot of ways. It’s the easiest one for me to get into, I don’t have to try very hard to get into that at all.”
Considering this new balancing act between desolate torch songs and unhinged freak-outs, I ask if the quieter, more intimate songs (‘All Along’ and another twenty or so besides) offer him a better chance to connect with his audience? “I kind of get off on that in a weird way. I don’t know why, I think it’s because that’s the time when I can really feel the vibes in the room, I can feel some energy even if it’s kind of tense or maybe it’s uncomfortable, it’s really easy to feel it. And then the louder songs, it’s almost a little bit more disconnected in some ways because it’s so loud on stage and I’m screaming so I can’t really pay attention to the crowd, I can’t really pay attention to what I’m doing – like when it’s wild and crazy, it’s still my own and people are watching it, but when it’s quieter it feels like more of a shared, circular thing.”
Performing songs that touch upon violence, suicide, heartbreak and the more exhausting emotions of the human experience must pose their own challenges every night – does he find the process cathartic? “Yeah, I do. I mean, it took me a while to really enjoy performing. I’ve always really enjoyed writing; when I’m writing, I have control and it’s a very magical feeling – and I figured out there’s moments on tour and during shows now where that magical feeling is back.
“But it’s taken a while, it’s taken a certain amount of comfort and confidence I guess to relax enough. I mean, I’ve always gotten into performing – really tried to feel it and go hard.” He pauses here, following up his comment about his hard enthusiasm with a devilish snicker. “But now I can do that but I’m still self-aware of what’s happening and it’s not limiting me and not making me hold back. It feels like I have a little more command.”
Based on the show later that night, this is not in question. The hushed, reverent crowd were clearly in Hadreas’s possession all night, hanging on every moment. If the process is cathartic for Hadreas, then he’s not alone – what does he make of his fans finding solace in his songs and live show? He precedes his own answer with a smile and a warning that it’s “corny”, but it sounds simply sincere: “That’s the best part of it, that’s why I wrote all those songs, you know?”
The authenticity of his music – and the content of his pop promos (2012’s ‘Hood’ clip was controversially banned by YouTube for depicting an underwear-clad embrace between Mike and late porn star Arpad Miklos) – means Hadreas has found himself positioned as contemporary queer-indie poster boy. What are his feelings on being pegged as a gay role model? “It’s fine with me. It’s the price you pay, you know what I mean? It’s complicated because I’m proud of how explicit and specific my lyrics are and I’m happy to talk about these things, but there is sometimes a lack of balance; sometimes I’ll do interviews and that’s all it’s about, like ‘Why are you gay? Why are you gay AT me? Why are you doing this?’ Sometimes it can get frustrating because I want to talk about the music – the subject matter is not all about being a big ol’ homo, y’know? Some of it isn’t, and I put a lot of thought into the music. But I knew that when I made these songs the way they were, there was a danger that people could pass them off or only hear that part of it. I was rebellious in that I kind of did that.”
With the success of his third album, Hadreas’s profile is at something of a tipping point – he’s not exactly a Kardashian, but he’s moving beyond the exclusively indie sphere he’s occupied in the last four years to the point that he made his network TV debut in October. His performance of ‘Queen’, where bright red lippy and nails took second billing to an S&M harness nestled beneath a bright-white killer suit, was not the kind of thing one assumes middle America is used to seeing on Letterman...
“It didn’t go over perfectly, I’ll be honest, with a lot of people. It’s not just people who read Pitchfork who are gonna see that show, so I got some mean comments but I got some really nice ones too. I’m glad something came from it – it’s funny, some people were telling me it’s not that big a deal to play Letterman, nothing really happens, nobody cares. But it was a big deal to me – I never thought I could get on a show like that, especially when I first started out, and I’m glad I sang that specific song and wore that exact outfit when I was on TV.”
Playing the game his way is what makes the prospect of future albums from Hadreas and his band so enticing, whether they’re accompanied by further late night TV appearances or not. With our time together winding down, I ask what’s next for Perfume Genius – besides the ongoing tour and an upcoming video shoot for ‘Fool’, Hadreas is uncertain about what will come next. “I don’t wanna wait as long between albums as I did but I also don’t want to force it – it would be rude to me and other people if I just made an album. If it takes me a few years then I’m gonna wait that long because I knew when I wrote these songs, that they were the ones I wanted to share now and so I hope that feeling begins when I write again.”
He expresses an interest in “more of a band sound”, jokingly suggesting he may incorporate saxophones, choirs and him descending from the heavens downward to the stage. All jokes aside though, he is clearly curious about how he can push Too Bright’s progressive sound even further: “Sometimes now that I’m playing fewer quiet songs, I kind of miss that slow quiet stuff, but then a part of me thinks that the next one is going to be even more wild and darker than this one – even more of an up and down.”
Even wilder, even darker, even louder and scarier but just as likely to make us cry? We’ll take that, Genius.