Perfume Genius: Bolder, Brasher, & Brighter Than Ever

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pg_embed2Photo: Courtesy of Matador Records.
As we careen into the fall, September is shaping up to be an exciting time for new music. This week on Refinery29, we’re talking to four artists who have some of the most hotly anticipated records of the month. While all could be, and have been, loosely tagged with that increasingly meaningless description "indie," they come at their work from different places, with wildly contrasting personalities and inspirations. These artists are not new to the scene. But, all four have found new voices with their latest work — unanticipated turns, exploratory moves, and re-invigoration. They are all well worth your time.

We begin with the one who underwent perhaps the biggest reboot from his last album to the current one, Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius. With his achingly raw 2010 debut Learning and its more layered successor, 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas won widespread plaudits for creating gorgeous, quietly moving songs built on piano-driven simplicity. At times so confessional as to be discomfiting, at others more impressionistic, the songs all had an underlying strength to them, but the vulnerability of Hadreas’ delivery and the tenderness of the arrangements left many with the impression that Perfume Genius was fundamentally fragile.

Well, look again. Call it mojo, call it growing a pair, call it throwing caution to the wind, but there is a new Mike Hadreas in town on Too Bright. Its audacity first began to reveal itself earlier with “Queen,” the single in which Hadreas throws down a gay gauntlet: “No family is safe/ When I sashay” he declares. But, “Queen” is just the tip of a glorious iceberg. This album explodes with sonics new to the PG palette: jagged electronics; a savage, raucous break on “My Body;” soulful doo-wop finger snaps on “Fool;” and lyrics that fixate defiantly on nonconformity and body issues. There’s even a dark, fantastical track called “Longpig” — the cannibal term for human flesh. Provocative, potentially unsettling, and thoroughly exhilarating — that’s Too Bright. I sat down with Hadreas at Matador Records’ New York offices to discuss one of the more stunning albums of the year.
pg_embed1Photo: Luke Gilford.
Mike, it’s good to see you again. I don’t know where to start except to say, wow. To say you have come out of your shell would be an understatement. I know you had been working on a more traditional-sounding album, but then made this pretty radical shift. Was this like an epiphany?
“I just suddenly decided I wanted to make something really audacious and with conviction, and not…safe. And, whenever you do something like that, you run the risk of being really all over the map in how people feel about it. I think if I would have made something akin to the first two, I think it would have been received okay, but not much else.”

Was there one moment where you changed things up? I know that the songs you were initially writing you were feeling unsatisfied with.
“Yeah, I went in thinking essentially, I was gonna take this seriously. And, at first that meant to me, career-wise. Like, I’m an adult, I needed to make this music that had integrity, but still was going to be a success, that will bring in some money so I can pay my rent! I mean all I have going on is my music. So, the songs I was making were definitely universal, kind of soul ballads. Using simple language and very methodically plotting every word and chord, over like months at a time working on like one or two songs. But, there was just not enough of my heart in it. You know they were touching songs, and they were emotional, but it was not really me. It lost some kind of conflict or something.”

So, what was the first song that represented a change in direction?
“‘I’m a Mother’ was the first. It’s got this kind of pitch-shifted vocal, and that’s the one that I made where I went, ‘Okay, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m just gonna go for it,’ you know what I mean? The mood was thicker, and it was more kind of nasty and defiant in a certain way, and so were a lot of the songs that I did after. I don’t know, for a long time I had been kind of constantly seeking reassurance and acceptance all over the place, and wanting to be taken seriously but waiting for someone else to do it for me, do you know what I mean?”

Well the first two records were taken plenty seriously, no?
“Oh no, not musically, I just mean as a person!”

Some of what you have had to say about the song “Queen,” and how it kind of gets in the face of “gay phobia” is interesting for me because, while I guess “gay phobia” still exists, I don’t think of it as really a thing in 2014.
“It isn’t in some places, but in some places it still is, you know what I mean? I mean, I can get married in Seattle, but I could get the death penalty in a different country.”

That’s true.
“And so, me and my boyfriend [keyboardist Alan Wyffels], I mean, we don’t fight about it, but we talk about this. Because he’s sort of, ‘Well things are at least better, can’t we just get on with it? Why are you still on about all this shit? Why are you still angry?’ and stuff. But, I feel some weird sense of duty to like kind of still push it. I’m not going to be really happy until it’s truly a 100% better. And, I don’t know if that can ever happen, but…”

And, that dissatisfaction leads to more interesting art, rather than just complacency with the world, I would think.
“Yeah. That’s what I kind of try to tell him. And, that kind of sounds like I’m forcing myself to be troubled all the time, which is not that hard for me to do. [laughs] You know what I mean?”

For a guy who makes a lot of music that is disenchanted with things — this is now the fourth interview we’ve done together, but you’ve never struck me as someone who has got the weight of the world on him all the time.
“Yeah…who knows? Probably no more than anyone else I suppose. I mean, it’s weird because my music is almost like a private part of me that I am sharing. How I am when I go about in the world is a lot more light, usually. But, underneath that are some darker thoughts [laughs].”
What I liked about “Queen” is that swagger, and my takeaway is you’re not willing to conform to someone’s idea of being a “good gay.” And, I’ve noticed that in you before, this desire to fuck with expectations.
“I think it’s — I don’t want to be treated like a straight person. I want to be treated equal to a straight person. I mean, people can be however they want. But, when you make something gay, it’s either ‘too gay’ or not ‘gay enough,’ do you know what I mean? Like that line, ‘No family’s safe when I sashay,’ either makes some gay people cringe, or it’s really empowering to them. But, I would rather have it be like that than something easily digested that maybe doesn’t get a reaction. I would rather have a few people really empowered and a few people really upset than somewhere in between.”

Yeah well, the sort of gay people who would be bothered by that attitude, I don’t really have that much time for.
“It’s the same ones who don’t like Pride. They say, ‘I just don’t understand Pride.’ Or, they don’t go to gay bars, they’re just like, ‘Oh I don’t hang out with other gay people.’”

Exactly. “I’m ‘post-gay.’ I’m too cool for that.”
“I always say, I’ve met people like that, and they’re always just as big a queen as I am. It’s like, ‘Do not even play a game with me. I know you, and I’ve gone home with a couple of you. So, I know what’s up.’ [laughs]”

I know you have said that one of your long-time heroes, PJ Harvey, and her fearlessness, were inspirational to you in finding this new fire. Was there one of her records in particular?
To Bring You My Love, for sure. All of them I love, but that’s the first one I heard and became obsessed with. The artwork, everything about it, and just how she talked about the devil a lot, in an unapologetic way. She’s walking with him, she’s laying with him, she’s hanging out with him. And, there’s no wink, there’s no like ‘Is this okay?’ She’s just saying, ‘This is what I did, fuck you.’ [laughs] And, that was terrifying to me when I was little, but also weirdly empowering, you know?”

There are body references all over the record. “My Body” is just amazing, and in it you talk about wearing your body “like a rotted peach.” In “Don’t Let Them In,” you say you’re “trapped in this body;” in “No Good” you talk about the body being no good; in “Queen” you talk about being “cracked and peeling, riddled with disease.” You come back to that topic a lot.
“Yeah, well I noticed that for sure when I was writing out all the lyrics, how many times I said ‘body.’ I don’t know — I just think I’ve lumped so many things in there, you know, so many anxieties and things into my body. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m older. Growing up, I never felt like any kind of sacred thing about my body, especially internally. I mean, I would like do my hair, but whatever was going on inside I did not care about. And, I also was sick a lot growing up, with Crohn’s Disease, and that can make for a twisted relationship with your body. And, so I’ve always kind of thought, especially inside, that there’s kind of a grotesque thing happening.”

Well, speaking of flesh and body-oriented things, I think a lot of people may not know that “Longpig” is a word that comes from cannibalism.
“[laughs] Mmm hmm.”

And, the hook line of that song — “we bury the meat for mama”? That’s nice and creepy.
“Yeah. [laughs] That’s one of the story songs. I made that synth line, and I thought it sounded very Goblin-y, like Suspiria or something, so I was in a horror zone. And, what I was imagining was this like lesbian utopia where men aren’t needed for procreation anymore. Like they’re just not needed in general. And, they had this community around this big tree, and they just use men like fertilizer, they just use their flesh to feed the tree, which is where they harvest all their sustenance from. And, then the call-and-response chanting part was supposed to be like women at their posts when they’re like guarding the village and stuff.”

Wow. I guess I just assumed it was a full-on cannibal reference.
“In a way, I guess. Only the tree’s eating them. [laughs]”

And, in keeping with the music, this album cover, which was shot by Luke Gilford, has this real toughness to it, from the slicked-back hair to the almost chain-mail looking shirt.
“Yeah. I mean, when I was first sending Luke references of ideas, they were just really iconic album covers. They were portraits of people, like there was a Grace Jones cover, or pictures of Madonna when she was sort of androgynous looking, PJ Harvey, stuff like that. I don’t know if it really came across in the photo, but I liked the idea of a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man. I wanted to sort of dress the way a woman dresses when she’s androgynous. Kind of like the video girls from that old video — I don’t remember his name, Palmer?”

Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love”?
“Yeah, that kind of thing.”

Right. Or, maybe like Annie Lennox when she used to do that…?
“For sure! I just like that it was really gay but still badass and defiant. I like that it was sort of sci-fi-y looking.”

I have to believe that you must be so proud that this record is so bold and so thrilling. I hope you are getting that reaction from other people.
“I think so. It’s kind of going beyond what I thought. You know, I think sometimes with the subject matter you’re scared that things are gonna become sensational, that they’re not gonna hear the music, like the power and badass-ness behind it. But, it sounds like people are really listening to the music, and recognizing the strength in it, which is important to me.”

Perfume Genius’ Too Bright is out September 23rd.