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Perfume Genius on confidence, rage & hateful tweets

Written By Bianca Bosso on 09/19/2014

PerfumeGenius_interview

Seattle-born Mike Hadreas, most commonly known by his stage moniker Perfume Genius, is not your regular entertainer. After making an impressive debut in 2010 with his LP, Learning, Hadreas returned two years later with Put Your Back N 2 It, cementing his place as a revolutionary, emotionally-affecting showman. Delicate, yet emotionally intense in both their nature and delivery, these two albums were a beguiling introduction to the man that is Perfume Genius.

Two years down the track, and a controversial YouTube rejection in between, the singer/songwriter has made a bold comeback with the stunning new record, Too Bright. Its grandiosity and assertiveness a stark contrast from his previous works, Hadreas’ latest offering generates a figure that is a far cry from the reserved, vulnerable artist that first entered the music scene four years ago. Confidently delving into topics such as gender, race and sexual orientation, Too Bright is a bewitching, emotionally intense journey that is sure to delve into the inner psyche of any unsuspecting listener.

Upon his return from a three week touring stint across Europe, Hadreas and I had a chat about the new album, negative feedback, his influences and everything in between.

You’ve just returned home from your first tour of performing songs from Too Bright. How did everything go?

It was good, although I’m not really used to it anymore. I didn’t really feel clicked into the whole routine- waking up really early, going to bed really late. There’d be a lot going on and then I’d have to do a photo shoot and try to look, like, cute while I’m sweating. I gotta up my game perhaps and have a beauty regimen. I feel like I need handy wipes or something.

Was it mainly new material that you were touring with?

It was a pretty equal mix from all three albums. I guess I didn’t want to play too many new songs because I didn’t want people to hear them first in a YouTube video. Not that I think anyone cares enough to put them on YouTube but sometimes they do that. Also, my drummer lives in Paris and my guitar player lives in the UK, and we now live in Seattle so we have really limited rehearsal time. I wanted to make sure we had time to rehearse the new stuff before we play it, especially since there’s more elements now.

quote4Yeah, you have a lot more instrumentation this time around as opposed to your other records. Is it exciting to have a backing band on stage with you?

It is! I guess now it’s just naturally a little more complicated. I didn’t grow up in other bands so I’m not really used to it. It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s not just me singing behind a piano anymore, keeping things really minimal. I feel like I know how to do that, whereas this is risky and new. As much as it’s nerve-wracking, it’s also fun.

There’s obviously a lot of difference in the stage set-up for your previous, piano-based material, compared to your new material that requires the inclusion of a backing band. How do you find it, alternating between such contrasting materials when you’re performing?

I kind of have to map the setlist out a little differently so none of the songs are mean to each other. I’m a fairly crazy person so it’s not that hard for me to go between moods. I can get there pretty quickly but I guess there are some songs that are similar in subject matter and mood to some of the louder songs so I try to pair them together. I don’t want it to be too manic-depressive for anybody. Or maybe that’s cool, I dunno.

How did the audience respond to the new material that you played?

The first time I ever played the song, My Body, I played it in Tokyo, and nobody clapped or anything afterwards…but maybe it was just because they didn’t know the song. It was the first time we had performed anything like that and it was pretty loud and dark and everyone was a bit freaked out and shaken up afterwards and when nobody responded I was like…erm…But then I played it over in a few other countries and it seemed to go well.

I guess some of the songs from the album have the ability to leave the listener a bit unsettled.

Yeah, one of my friends said that when I play that song they just put their hands over their face and look in between their fingers, freaked out.

I feel that songs from this album can shake up something from within, enabling people to kind of draw references from their own lives.

I really hope that’s what it is. I hope it’s not like, “who is this screeching weirdo on stage!” Like when they played My Body on the radio, somebody tweeted, “Just heard the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life,” probably hearing just a bunch of disgusting noises with just a screech over it…which I guess essentially is kind of what that song is.

quote3So how do you deal with that kind of negative feedback?

With this music it’s very different. I’m really proud of this album so if people talk about the music and they don’t like it, it doesn’t really bother me. If people talk about how I look, however, like rude, grossly weird vain things like that, then I get really upset. It’s just really personal. Whereas when it’s about my music, it doesn’t really bother me that much. I’m kind of lying a bit because it essentially does bother me but not as bad as it used to.

I guess it’s quite confronting putting yourself out there creatively. Do you find you’ve become better at dealing with the feedback over the years?

I think so. And I think I feel really confident, beyond just the lyrics or what the songs are about. I’m confident the music is really good and this is the first time that’s happened. Not that I thought the music was bad in the other two albums, I really still think it was pretty and nice, it’s just that I was a lot more considerate and thoughtful about the sound on Too Bright, as much as the lyrical content.

quote5Too Bright definitely does sound a lot more confident, a bit more grandiose. You’ve also described it as “an underlying rage that has slowly been growing since ten and has just begun to bubble up.” What made you draw upon these references of your past in this album?

I’ve always made music to process things, so if something was bothering me, or something needed healing or a relationship in my life was screwed up, writing was a way I could deal. But I kind of used up all the memories that I needed to heal on the first couple of albums and this one’s a lot more about how I’m feeling now and almost a projection of how I want to be, not so much looking into the past. That anger was kind of some of the more immediate things that I needed to process.

With your songs and the visual representations in your music videos, I feel that you’re drawing upon not only this anger, but also some of the other deadly sins; greed, lust, gluttony. Was this intentional?  

No, but I like that. It perhaps wasn’t intentional but I like showing things that maybe I’ve been ashamed of or things I think are gross about myself. Or that I’m scared that other people think I’m gross or too ‘faggy’ or too feminine. I kind of like doing it defiantly and pushing it into people’s faces.

It seems you’ve managed to achieve this in the videos; kind of pushing it into people’s faces, providing an amount of intensity at times but then you manage to draw it back at just the right moments. You’ve carefully oscillated between the two ends of the spectrum.

Yeah, I never want the videos to be just pure rebellion, I want there to be a purpose to them, or have it be empowering or have some sort of importance. More than just giving someone the middle finger.

Do you have a lot of input of the content for the videos?

Yeah, especially this last one. Both of them are collaborations, but I feel like Queen was almost equal measure me and Cody Critcheloe (SSION), the director. I really trusted him and I guess that’s why I didn’t mind meeting in the middle more. I didn’t mind patchworking of all our zany ideas into one dream. I can come up with the ideas but I sometimes don’t know how to make it cool, you know? And the director I was working with was very cool.

It must be nice to tell people your ideas and have them filter it out into whatever you picture in your head.

Exactly, and that’s what she did. I sent her a bunch of weird, run-off sentences and words and then she sent me back this storyboard complete with pictures and visual references. Everything she had was exactly what I was thinking.

Speaking of collaborations, Too Bright was co-produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley. What kind of influence do you think he had on the album?

Technically, he’s more capable than I am. When I gave him emotional descriptive words, he’d know what instruments to use, what knobs to twiddle and what cord to plug in where to make that sound. He understood emotionally where I was coming from and he wasn’t nervous about going too far or being too dark and serious, while also not being scared of being too patient or gentle or sensitive about the quieter moments. We’re pretty open and light-hearted while we’re talking but creatively, we’re kind of dark and wild so it was like a perfect relationship to be in the studio.

You wrote your first album while living at your Mother’s house. Where did you write your music this time?

This last one I wrote in a thick-walled apartment, so I could write when I felt like it and I could scream and be as loud as I wanted and I think that was the big help for expanding what I do. I could experiment with my voice in ways that could have potentially been really embarrassing or goofy, but I wasn’t scared of being overheard; I was screeching and screaming and squealing.

quote6Your boyfriend sings and plays with you on stage. Does he contribute to the songwriting process?

Oh yeah. I come from an emotional place and he’s more musical. He went to school for music so his way of thinking is completely different. He would come home after I’d been writing and would listen to the actual song. Whereas I would only look into what the song meant, he would hear what it really sounded like, so that was really valuable.

Do you find he inspires you artistically?

Yeah, I would either take his advice or I would get rebellious and pissed off. If he said he didn’t like the song, I’d make it even worse.

How is it touring and being on stage with your partner? I can imagine there’d be friction at times?

It’s good, you’ve got to learn how to fight and we’ve learnt to fight really well because if you’re around each other 24 hours a day, it’s inevitable. But we’ve learnt how to fight and almost laugh immediately afterwards. I can’t imagine leaving and being gone for all those months without seeing him.

Perfume Genius’ Too Bright is out today in Australia, released via Matador Records / Remote Control. You can stream it here