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Music Interview: Perfume Genius

Special to The Chronicle / Luke Gilford
Special to The Chronicle / Luke Gilford

Perfume Genius is the stage name for Mike Hadreas, a Seattle-based musician who recently released his third album to critical acclaim. The Chronicle interviewed him in anticipation for his upcoming performance at Cat's Cradle on Oct. 10, 2014.

The Chronicle: Just to start off, what do you think draws people to your music?

Mike Hadreas: Well I tend to be fairly explicit about what I’m talking about. I don’t hold back or cover up things because they might be too uncomfortable to share….[people speaking in the background].

Jesus f*****g Christ. Sorry. This has been like f*****g hell. I got in a big old fight with someone trying to bum a cigarette off of me earlier and he called me a f****t and I sort of blew up on him…[more unintelligible speaking in the background].

You know what? Just walk on, sir! Go ahead and walk on! [pause]

Sorry.

TC: Everything okay?

MH: No, it’s fine. I just…I have a quick temper. These people are trying to bum cigarettes off of me...what was I talking about again?

TC: What do you think draws people to your music? You were talking about how you are fairly explicit about what you are talking about and don’t hold back or cover up anything…

MH: Oh yeah! When I was growing up, that was what I looked to music for and why I read the books that I read and stuff. You’re trying to feel less lonely and deal with all the complicated ickiness and weirdness and loneliness that just comes with being a person. So, the music I make is a therapy for me but also will hopefully be impactful and empowering or comforting for other people that hear their experiences in the music. People will feel less alone.

TC: I feel like you put a lot of identity into songs you write. Do you think that’s a common thing among musicians?

MH: I think there’s room for both! I don’t think it’s necessarily more valuable or less valuable either way. But I think I’m good at it! I haven’t felt very purposeful or proud of myself a lot in my life, but I feel like I’m good at sharing these secrets about myself and, you know, putting myself out there. So it feels important for me to do that.

TC: Do you ever feel too exposed by sharing all of this?

MH: I do. But the longer I make music the more I realize how I can keep it separate in some ways. Even my music is a little more amped up and a little more confident than I actually am.

TC: Has that always been the case? This new album is much louder and grittier.

MH: More this album. It’s still me, and I still feel like I have an equal amount of myself invested in it. But it’s more of a performance, and it requires more of a performance. Before, I was behind the piano and singing. I never really thought of it as a performance. It was more just, you know, inviting people to listen to me. I don’t know how to explain it. This one feels more like I’m singing at people and for people.

TC: If you are singing at people and for people, what do you think they draw from it? Do you think they draw something differently from it now that you are “performing” it instead of just “playing” it?

MH: I think so. But hopefully in a good way. I think people liked what they thought was a fragility about my earlier performances, and it was very clear that I was kind of scared to be on stage. That it was hard for me to sing. I think people responded to that and found something in that, and I don’t think I’ve totally lost that. I’m hoping that people who like my first album will respond to whatever I’ve, like, learned and come to terms with and what confidence I’ve gained.

TC: This darker, grittier side of the album I mentioned earlier. Do you think that comes from having a little more confidence?

MH: I think so. I feel a lot less limited musically than I used to.

TC: Why is that?

MH: I mean it was important for me to be very minimal at first just because that’s what I wanted. But, eventually, I felt kind of locked into it. It felt like I had to be minimal. But as I started writing and experimenting a little bit more, I realized that I am capable of adding more instruments and working with different sounds and not losing the power of what I’m trying to say. If anything, kind of amping it up…what was the question? Sorry.

TC: No, that was basically it. Going back, what caused you personally or musically to go in this amped up direction?

MH: I think the subject matter had a lot to do with it. The first two albums were a lot about healing relationships and looking to my past and trying to be compassionate and gentle about things that happened to me that weren’t necessarily, you know, compassionate or gentle experiences. Those were sort of looking back. This album, I’ve done that a lot, and it’s more about what I’m feeling now and how I hope to feel.

TC: Was it a conscious choice to make it more immediate? Or was that just kind of how it happened?

MH: I think a little bit of both. Like I didn’t start writing thinking I would make a giant departure from everything. I was just kind of doing my thing. I wanted the music to communicate the message as much as the lyrics this time. I write fairly dark lyrics about uncomfortable things, and sometimes the music underneath it was fairly pretty or soft. When I was saying something nasty this time, I wanted the music to be nasty, and I really wanted to go for it.

TC: The song “Queen” seems to represent this. Can you talk about that a little?

MH: Well, you know how that guy just like accosted me on the street? It wasn’t necessarily about me being gay or anything. But it’s the same thing. I’m just standing there, just like talking to you, I don’t want f******g people to f**k with me. Don’t f**k with me! That translates to the sort of gay thing too, you know? I’ve been called f****t on the street. Growing up, I had a lot of people giving me s**t. It was a lot more violent previously.

For a long time, I internalized all that, and I felt very victimized and ashamed of myself and very self-conscious all the time. And I’m sick of doing that. It has not served me well. I wanted to make a song that sort of flipped all of that. It says that all of these things you’re giving me s**t about, you can keep on talking at me, you can keep on doing whatever as long as you back up.

TC: Why didn’t this type of song and these kinds of words come earlier?

Mike: When I started making music, both of the first and second albums came after periods when I wasn’t sober. After you have a long time where you’re doing drugs and drinking, there are a lot of really big, glaring problems that need to be taken care of. It was very easy for me to see the things that I needed to change.

But this album, I’ve healed a lot of those. I’m a lot healthier. My circumstances have gotten better. But I still have maintained a lot of anger and resentment, and I’ve noticed, even though my circumstances are getting better, I still feel very insecure and unsure of myself, and it’s very frustrating, you know? It has kind of shown me how much of a problem I am for myself and how often I get in my own way. And I’m kind of rebelling against that. I feel a lot more purposeful and badass.

TC: To tie things up, what’s next for you? And, if it’s a different answer, what’s next for you as a musician?

Mike: Well, the funnest [sic] thing about how things are going is that I kind of feel like I can do whatever I want now. I feel like I’ve shaken off a lot of the…a lot of bullshit lately. I still have a ways to go, but I can do whatever I want. Like I don’t know if my next album is going to be way more experimental or dark, or if it’s going to be a little poppy. Either way, I feel very sure of myself that I can take it where I want it to go. Because that’s what happened with this album. I had a very clear mission for it.

I guess I’m just excited. People are into it. I’m just really happy that people are into it. Because that’s all I wanted.

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