Mike Hadreas’s chipped, painted fingernails peak around the Matador Records office door, pushing it open from the inside just as I am about to knock. The 32-year-old singer/songwriter/wunderkind Perfume Genius says a quiet hello. Of course, at 32 he’s not really a wunderkind, but he looks like a kid and sings with the emotional urgency of a teenager. The elevator ride down to street-level for a cigarette is awkward. “I don’t like to talk in places people can overhear,” he explains once we are outside in the blistering heat. He offers the same explanation when he declines my suggestion that we find a cute West Village café for the interview.
And that means we are quickly back up in the conference room shared by record labels Matador and XL Recordings and Rough Trade Records, and 4AD—all the Beggars Group cool kids. Interviewing someone in their label or agent or publicist’s office is never a good idea. It results in antiseptically safe answers, or even worse, answers that are cookie-cutter and have already been fed to a horde of other journalists. But Hadreas bares himself immediately from the get-go. I’d like to say it’s skill, or because I knew him vaguely when he lived in New York City seven years ago. But truth be told, it’s just who he is. He doesn’t lack a filter; it’s more his inclination and need to spill his heart to those who will listen, despite his own hang-ups.
And that’s exactly what makes the songs on his new album, Too Bright, out today, so potent. They are dangerously, grittily, open-a-vein honest—a quality Hadreas maintains even though this is his third release and despite the album’s amped-up, venue-filling production work. Songs like “Grid” and “Queen” have an epic quality when it comes to the instrumentation—electric, very rock ’n’ roll, a screaming guitar in place of the bare-sounding piano from his previous albums. And yet, all that sound never drowns out Hadreas’s quiet, nuanced, often pained words. Perhaps that’s because he’s added a new quality to his lyrical aesthetic: defiance.
How did you start making music? It kind of felt like you came out of nowhere?
I dropped out of art school to move to New York because music was the thing I really wanted to do, the thing I was most obsessed with. But I ended up censoring myself because I didn’t think I would be good enough to be, like, Cher. But I think when I got healthy and sober after I left New York, I was more willing to commit to stuff in general. I just decided, I’m gonna make a song. My mom was out of town, and I had the whole house. I was like, I’m gonna make a song, I don’t care if it is shit, I’m gonna do the whole thing. And then I was kind of impressed with myself.
What was the name of that song?
It’s called “Learning,” which is actually the name of my first album, too. And it’s the first song I ever wrote.
From that point on, it just sort of worked for you?
Yeah. Previously when I tried to write music, it sounded like there was no cohesion, nothing catchy. Everything—the lyrics, the melody—they were getting lost. Somehow I found a way to click into it.
Getting healthy, leaving New York, it was like I got all this manic energy. I felt like I did when I was young, before I started drinking. I could see things more clearly; I could see the bigger picture. I had this strange confidence that I hadn’t had in a long time, even though things seemed shitty and a lot of shitty things still happened, I move on in some way. The music’s kind of a therapeutic thing in that way.
It’s your third album. The production is bigger. How has the process of writing changed for you?
I used to just write out lyrics and put music underneath. But this one was more about starting with sounds then writing on top of that. Just knowing people are going to hear it changes a lot of things. Not that this album isn’t personal it’s almost more personal than the other ones—but a lot on the first two albums is me telling stories about things that have happened. But this one I couldn’t. Like I tried writing it the same way, but I needed to switch it up.
I definitely pushed much harder in the studio, too. I wanted the mixes to be really loud, which was probably really annoying for my neighbors. But I really wanted the sound to be more pummeling, really tribal and ancient. There are some pretty moments, too. It’s a lot more musical than the other albums. The drums are a lot more rock—all kind of glam-y and stoner-sounding. I kind of redid the vocals to match that. I wanted to make something really audacious and brave. It ended up being a louder, more abrasive thing. A lot more defiant.
In terms of being “defiant,” I’m curious about your thoughts on being a gay musician. Without having a stereotypically “gay sound”—you’re fairly overt about your sexuality. And it’s interesting that your biggest mainstream hit to date seems to be your new single, which is called “Queen.” Somehow you’re very in people’s faces about things—and yet this is music for a non-sexuality-specific audience.
Well, originally, it was very important to me that I was very open without making a big deal out of it. I was definitely being told to tone it down—that it would give me a broader appeal. That I’d be more of a success if I were less explicit in my lyrics about who I am.
That kind of thing really pisses me off, though. It’s a feeling I personally have all the time. Like, the only way I can survive in a situation is by clenching my fists to hide my painted nails. I actually find myself doing that sometimes just in case someone would give me a hard time for being gay or feminine—maybe no one would—but someone might. So it pisses me off that I still feel like that at 32. I’m 32, and I still feel meek and apologetic about who I am. In a way, I’m ashamed that I’m not 100 percent there. But I want and need it to be 100 percent there—hopefully for me and other people.
If I had heard a gay man singing about a gay man’s experience in this specific way when I was young, I think I would’ve really been into that kind of music. But it didn’t exist for me.
It seems like good timing for you, though. Suddenly our culture is in a place where gay-themed art is no longer niche. It can be part of the mainstream landscape.
Well, I think people are now comfortable that they don’t have to 100 percent relate to me to be moved by the music. I mean, I listened to a lot of feminist artists growing up and I found that inspiring and I’m not a woman. I think people are able to do that now. But at the same time, I can get married in Seattle, and in another country I could get the death penalty. Just because I can get married in Seattle, it doesn’t mean that things are better. I mean if someone ever asks me, “Why are you going on about this?,” I can think of a few reasons why.
Let’s finish up back on the music. You’re really connected to the New York scene, having lived in the city—and your writing really reflects that. But living in Seattle is clearly very important to you creatively. What is that exactly?
Well, I actually live in a house, so I don’t share any walls with anyone. I can be as experimental and potentially ridiculous as I want, knowing I’m not going to get any noise complaints even in the middle of the night. And I don’t think I’d be able to do that anywhere in New York. I need a certain amount of isolation in order to trust myself enough to go for it.
And I think if I was in the city and more social, then I’d second-guess myself more. I suppose it could be inspiring, too, but I’m more the second-guessing type of person.
You said before you were drawing a lot of inspiration from negative experiences in your less-healthy New York years. Is that still the case now on this album?
Not as much this time. My circumstances have gotten way better. But my mental health has not quite caught up, which is frustrating. I really don’t think I’ve found my place. Although I have a newfound purpose with music, I still don’t feel like a serious person. Like I don’t feel respected when I walk around—of course, it’s mostly me telling myself that. But I still resent it. This album was really about me showing up and being more forceful. Whereas before I didn’t think I deserved it, now I’m saying, Fuck you, I’m going to take it.
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