“My favourite thing is when I see someone that has dressed up specifically for my show. Maybe they are too shy to wear it somewhere else,” says Mike Hadreas, the artist behind Perfume Genius.
Over the course of the last few years, the Seattle-based musician has been boldy transforming, releasing both fragile ballads and self-empowering anthems under his much-loved moniker, Perfume Genius. With each new album, it seems that Hadreas is becoming more extroverted. His latest album, No Shape, channels the self-confident flair of straight rock’n’roll giants such as Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen. We met Hadreas at his Stockholm hotel room for a chance to learn more about his new album and his experience as a musician in this modern age.
What is the most surprising thing that has happened to you in music?
Mike Hadreas: To be honest, the whole thing has been surprising to me. When I first started making music, I thought I was only capable of making one kind of music. I just keep upping what I think I am capable of, and who I think I am. I have this idea of myself that I formed a long time ago that I do not think is really true anymore. I keep learning that I can do a lot more shit than I thought I could. I think I like the drama of just constantly reinventing myself too.
Are you more comfortable with the idea of not being a bedroom musician but someone who performs to an audience?
Mike Hadreas: For sure, I used to be very scared at my shows. I used to feel as if everyone was spying on me, almost like I was in my bedroom, singing and having emotions, and everyone was watching me. Now it feels more like a circular thing. Like I look at the audience sometimes. I am so super awkward and weird, but it feels more like a shared thing; it feels more like a performance. But it does not feel less intimate or less real.
Which has been your most memorable performance so far?
Mike Hadreas: The first show that we ever played in Brussels. In the beginning when I made music I was very quiet, so in between songs people were also quiet, either because they did not know what to do or they did not like it. But in Brussels it was dead silence during the songs and in between them everyone was freaking out. I got an encore, but not a polite one when you have to give one, but I felt they really wanted me to come back and sing again. It was very overwhelming for me; it was the first time I felt that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
Singing seems to have this electric energy that no other art form can cause, right?
Mike Hadreas: I think so because there are clear messages in it, but there is something intangible about it too. I went to an opera and started crying. I still do not know what was going on in the opera. I had no idea what she was talking about; she just hit a specific note. There is something about the way she sings and the note itself. I just started crying, it was so cathartic.
In which ways do you think other art forms can be incorporated into popular music?
Mike Hadreas: It is like a sci-fi book; you can make a whole world. I have tried to do that a little more with the last two albums because I am thinking more ahead of the music. With the styling, the artworks and the videos, I am trying to create a world for the music to live in. They all influence each other. I started having ideas for that side of it while I was writing it. It is just more fun. An artist that I grew up loving, like Björk, has this whole 360 side to it. Now she is doing virtual reality and stuff. That just seems so fun; you can put your whole brain in that zone, you do not have to be in real life at all.
Do you think it is important for that unreal experience to be perceived as authentic?
Mike Hadreas: Sometimes the whole point is that it is very fake. It is only surface. With Björk it is such a balance with how soulful her voice is. Even if she is making really electronic music it sounds as if it is coming form the heart. It depends on the story that people are trying to tell. I can hate a dude playing acoustic guitar, or a really huge production. It depends on what they are saying and what the core of it is. A lot of people are trying to put glitter on stuff to cover up that there is nothing underneath.
You have been working on a new album in Los Angeles that is supposed to sound bigger. Going into the production of this album, what did you have in mind?
Mike Hadreas: I was thinking a lot about Bruce Springsteen and Elvis. He just gives these super-confident anthems to the people. I have never had that feeling. Like, ‘check this out.’ So I tried to think, ‘what if I stole a little of that confidence from all these dude crooners?’ and sort of adopt some of that feeling. I was essentially just thinking in my head that I was going to make a big, fat amazing album. I thought of it that way and really built myself up, instead of going about it very gently. I just thought it would be thrilling to do it that way. When I started writing music with that spirit, I was writing pop songs. My version of what would be played at a stadium or something. It was fun but the lyrics I was writing were not very poppy, so it is a trick.
So there is a dichotomy between the lyrics and the music?
Mike Hadreas: I think so. They all kind of go hand in hand. The songs can be very warm and triumphant, but it is in defiance; there is a conflict underneath. It is not all good. It is good because we are deciding to in protest. There are a lot of songs like that. They are seemingly about peace but it is only because you are in death or something. But that does not mean that it is a depressing song.
How much of the performance is an act; something you put on in front of your audience?
Mike Hadreas: It is kind of confusing, to be honest. I do not know if I knew much about myself before, so I do not really know if I am being more like myself or less. It feels like I take a little part of myself and blow it up or magnify it. Sometimes it is me if I was not so anxious; if I did not tell myself so many lies about how I look. Sometimes when I write music I shake off all the bullshit in my head, all the horrible shit that has been happening in the world. I feel more like myself sometimes, but it is also a very dramatic thing. To be honest, I do not have any idea.
Some of the most joyful techno music is made at war-torn places where the people go out at night to hedonistically celebrate life as bombs are dropped all over the town. With the political climate becoming darker, do you think there is going to be more celebratory music?
Mike Hadreas: As a protest, yeah. You have to find room for it. Not at the expense of being outraged and taking action, because you need to do that too. But you have to find room to just exist somehow. And you have to find room to exist in a joyful way even though people are telling you something is wrong with you, or you do not belong here or you do not deserve to be here. You have to find a way to be alive in more than one way. Also, the clubs and dancing could be a shared community, almost like a church.
Do you think that you have a community of fans that gather around your music?
Mike Hadreas: I hope so. Things that are happening in America are happening in France and the UK too. I think people come to shows for different reasons. Sometimes just to listen, sometimes to drink or to party. It is like a social thing. I do like that people know that they are safe at my shows and can do whatever they want. My favourite thing is when I see someone that is dressed up specifically for my show. Maybe they are too shy to wear it somewhere else.
How do you feel about performing in places where as of yet homosexuality is not very accepted?
Mike Hadreas: It is confusing because people will be mad at you for going. They feel like you are supporting that country, but you are not playing to the government. You are playing to the people that need you. It is scary too. I would be somewhat scared to go even if I am very outspoken. Especially as I do not just happen to be gay.
Following the media lately, it seems that certain parts of the world are finding ways to conceal the fact that much of the world is still very primitive.
Mike Hadreas: Yeah, but I think I knew all my life that people are very fucked up. When Trump was elected, I was not surprised that there were shitloads of racist homophobic misogynistic people in America. It was still shocking, it made me outraged and I do feel that they are really going for it now. It is very disgusting to be honest. There are the coasts and then there is America. The coasts are fairly progressive, but progress is very, very slow. We can get married and stuff, but I should have been able to get married since forever. Progress is threatening to all these white people, but my feeling is that all these white men will die soon. I have no sympathy for them. The idea of saying, ‘fuck you I am out of here’ is not that bad. They are always talking about giving gay people their own island so they can eat each other.
Do they actually say that?
I have heard that many times and if they do want to give me my island, I would happily go there. I like America because I like being able to buy a lamp at two in the morning or going grocery shopping at whenever. I like the convenience and I feel very American in a lot of ways, but there are even more ways that I do not feel patriotic. I do not like those fears of the other being preyed on. ‘Otherness’ is bothering a lot of people all over the world. This has been the default for so long, and it will still be for a long time. But I feel that people’s privileges are being threatened. Even giving a little bit of that away freaks them out, when really the goal is equality; to be treated the same and not being murdered on the street.
Do you think it is possible for society to change?
Mike Hadreas: I go online and see the way young people talk and how they think of things. How much more open-minded they are; how much more fluid their ideas are. That is a really positive thing. There seems to be more compassion. The worst part of being different is how lonely it is. Now people can find these communities we were talking about online. That is why I loved music growing up, because you could hear someone saying something that was a secret you had, something no one else you know was willing to tell. So it is like a companion. You can have this feeling that you belong somewhere.
Words by Jonatan Södergren
Special thanks to Playground Music for the press images