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Interview: Perfume Genius

By ; February 17, 2012 at 2:30 PM 

Beats Per Minute (Philip Cosores): So how do you feel at this point before the album comes out? Is it like a calm before the storm or are you nervous about how the album will be received?

Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas): Um, I’m completely freaked out. -laughter- To be honest, I could probably be cooler about it. I get overwhelmed easily just doing the normal things I have to do… But yeah, it’s going to be what it’s going to be and I’m just happy people want to talk to me about it. That’s a good sign, right?

For sure! I’ve heard the album and I think it’s really great, if that helps.

Well, good.

So, I was looking at the Matador website and you posted descriptions of every song from the new album, Put Your Back N 2 It. In the piece, you are very blunt and honest about what the songs are about, even when it delves into some darker material; like “AWOL Marine” talks about you watching basement porn and other songs touch on addiction and prostitution. Do you have reservations about dealing so directly with this type of material?

Sometimes I have reservations about explaining it because some people have a different interpretation of what the song is about. But, I’m happy I wrote all that. Like, with “AWOL Marine,” my friend had a different idea of what that song meant and I didn’t want to disrespect her idea because people should be able to take whatever they need to from it.

Yeah, I mean, with artists, there are sort of two schools of thought. Some artists think it should all be up to interpretation, but you go a different route by putting that all out there, giving a pretty confined meaning to a song.

I guess that just feels more important for me to do, but I don’t think that has to be true for all artists. But when I’m making things, that ends up feeling the most honest to me.

Yeah, and I think that might be why people connect with your music… the honesty in it. So, it follows that you would be so forthcoming about your subjects.

In the description of the first song people heard from Put Your Back N 2 It, called “All Waters,” you talk about reservations you had publicly holding your boyfriend’s hand in some parts of Seattle. On the other hand, the video for “Hood” is very sexually open and doesn’t really pull any punches. It takes a certain amount of bravery to pursue your art with that kind of honesty, but why do you think it is harder to be brave when you are just a guy on the street?

I guess because I feel like I have more control over it when I’m making something. I’m not sure why I can’t get over it in my daily life but when I’m sitting down to make something, I can. All of those things in that video are things that I have been ashamed of or made fun of in my life and I just went ahead a made a video of it and showed it to a bunch of people. -laughter-

I dunno, if I can find any way to at least feel like a badass at some moment in my life, I’m going to do it. But, there is some weird disconnect between me walking around town and the stuff I make, sometimes. If I’m going to create something, I’d rather it come from that place than somewhere else… that probably didn’t make any sense. -laughter-

No, I understand what you mean. Like, I’m sure you get a lot of positive feedback but have you received any negative responses to being that open?

To the gayness of the video?

To the video or just to your music in general.

Yes, for some reason some people think that they should be heard when they say “that is really gay.” They are like “yeah dude, that’s gay bro” on a comment. -laughter- I just like to think about that dude watching the video and thinking “hey, I’ve got something to say,” and then that’s it. All he has to say is “that’s gay.” -laughter- Then he can go eat his sandwich or whatever. -laughter-

You gave some background on the video when it was posted on Pitchfork and you said something like “if John in Pittsburgh doesn’t want to listen to listen to my music because I’m gay, I’m okay with that.”

Poor John in Pittsburgh.

Somewhere there is a John in Pittsburgh who is really sad.

Someone wrote me and said that the people in Pittsburgh are really open and friendly. It could have been any name from any city.

The show Queer As Folk actually took place in Pittsburgh.

Did it? Oh… Maybe I should write an apology.

Sorry Pittsburgh.

We once played Pittsburgh and I got heckled. -laughter- We had only played two songs and some guy yelled “one more song!” at me. -laughter- I think that might be why I quickly went with Pittsburgh when I was talking to Pitchfork.

One of the things that differentiates Put Your Back N 2 It from Learning, your first album, is that even though the songs are about very specific situations, the lyrics are allowed to feel more universal. Was that a conscious shift when you were writing, to make the songs more universally relatable?

I think part of it is that I was new to being healthy when I wrote that first album and I was still kind of convinced that everything I was going through, well, it was just a lot better than when I was going through it. So, I was kind of thinking my problems were unique. And then when I got better, through the experiences that I had and the friends I made, I just felt more a part of things and that my experience wasn’t so unique.

Also, there was a little more pressure on me, or maybe I just put it on myself, because now I had to play my music for a label and think more about people listening to it, so I was writing more for people than just for myself.

Since you have been healthy, going from someone who battled addiction to becoming a touring musician, it seems like it might be easy to regress in your recovery.

Well, it would have been a lot cooler of me to fuckin’ do it all now. -laughter- We could be doing that stuff in a lot cooler places than, like, a basement.

It’s not something that goes away. Sometimes I forget about it for a while, but not for very long. It hasn’t been easy. But, that’s sort of the point of the music in that it’s been helpful to me. If it was just me, I would be drunk. And, I wouldn’t make it to all the things I need to do in a day.

Yeah, we wouldn’t be having this interview.

Or, we would but it would be a lot different.

Lyrics aside, the music on the new album sounds, I don’t want to say engaging, but there is definitely more going on besides what you are singing. Like, you could conceivably ignore the lyrics and still gather genuine emotion from just the melodies and the arrangements, whereas Learning seemed more like the lyrics were front and center. Is this the product of more experience with songwriting or or was it a conscious decision to expand the scope?

I think a lot of it was that I had help recording. So, it’s just a little more inviting, maybe. I was very paranoid about going into a proper studio and slapping a bunch of stuff on top of my songs just because I could. But, I wanted to think about everything a little more, while not over-thinking it.

You mentioned that you had help on the album. Who worked with you on it?

We had two producers. First I went to England and I recorded what I thought would be the whole album while I was there with producer Drew Morgan. Then, when we got home me and some other people noticed how slow the whole album was. And, I was asked if I could write more “singles” or something “single-like.” -laughter- At first I was pissed, but then when I listened to the album I realized that all those slow songs, when put together, lost some of their weight. So, I tried to write a couple new songs, still about stuff that I cared about but that were a little more fun, and I recorded them in Seattle.

Which songs were those?

“Hood” and “Take Me Home.”

Those two do stand out, because they have percussion and, well, they sound like a full band.

With “Hood,” I explained to the drummer sort of what I wanted and I didn’t really expect him to get so into it. So, when I heard him recording it I was sitting down, like I usually am when I listen, but when I heard him get into it I stood up and, -laughs- I don’t think a song I have ever written has made me stand up before.

It is that kind of moment, like Perfume Genius before that was one thing and at that moment when the drums kick in, it becomes something else. Like, it’s a little scary but it’s a little awesome at the same time.

MP3: Perfume Genius – All Waters

So, I saw you perform for Learning in probably not the best environment, at the Matador at 21 festival.

Yes. Right after The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.


And then we come out and walk our little asses out on stage and are like -sings- “Laaaaaaa.” -laughter- It was only, like, 10 minutes, wasn’t it? It is actually still the biggest show we’ve ever played.

I remember, and I actually tell this story to other people when I’m talking about your music, but I was in the front taking pictures and in the front everyone was really into it. But, in the back by the bar there are all the drunk people talking through it. You know, they’ve been in Vegas for a day and a half, they just saw Jon Spencer. So, during “Mr. Peterson,” right at the point where Mr. Peterson commits suicide, you hear someone in the back just yell “holy shit!” It was like he was watching football and a linebacker just leveled an unsuspecting slot receiver. And, I don’t know if it was just that he was so into the song or if it was just the content of the song…

Or he just came down a bit in that one moment. -laughter- My favorite thing is that when we were opening for Beirut, nobody there had really heard our music and when I sang “he let me smoke weed in his truck,” people would start cheering because I guess weed is something to cheer about. -laughter- I was like, “wait a second…” It would crack me up and it was weird to giggle in the middle of that song.

That’s what I was going to get at. When I saw you perform, it was emotional and it was engaging, but it seemed like the songs were still very raw and real for you. Has that faded over time or are the songs still as emotionally immediate when you perform them?

They are when I relax. Sometimes I’m too nervous or self-aware when I perform that I can’t get into it, and often times it goes back and forth within the same song.

I dunno, I still need whatever I get from performing those songs. The catharsis, I guess.

I’ve talked to other people who have seen you live and catharsis is a good word for it. It can feel like that in the audience, too. When you share that kind of emotional moment with somebody, it can feel cathartic to them as well if they can relate to what you have gone through.

I’m kind of a hippie about it, too. I don’t like to practice a lot so I don’t get too used to the songs, but my boyfriend, who I tour with, is more professional and wants to practice hard, so we fight all the time about it. I want to be legitimate and more confident and put on a good show, but I don’t want to be bored, either. It’s a tricky balance.

Because there is more instrumentation on the new album, is the performance still going to be the same, with just you and your boyfriend?

No, actually the musician who played drums on “Hood” in the studio is going to be touring with us now. He has a drum box-thing that he sits on and he plays guitar. I mean, its still pretty low-key. -laughter-

No fireworks? No go-go dancers?

No, but that would be good, though.

So, I guess it’s been a couple years since Learning came out. And, I know you were just in Europe and have toured all over. Did you ever think this little album that you made at home would allow you to do all the things that you have?

No! And, I try to stop and be grateful about it and I get so scared when I take a step back and actually think about what I am doing. That’s a really powerful thing to me. I was pretty convinced five years ago where my life was going. And, it didn’t turn out like that. It’s really crazy.

Yeah, and your musical project has turned into something that is very real for a lot of people. Like, I don’t know how aware you are of it, but Learning meant something to this small contingent of people, something more than just an album they like. Does that put pressure on you to live up to something?

I do, but it’s the best kind of pressure. The are other bullshit pressures on me, but that is the most important one.

When I first started to write this second album, I thought that I needed to convince the people that didn’t like my music before to like it now. And, I wasn’t making anything while thinking that way. But, when I reconsidered who I was writing for, that was a lot more helpful.

Perfume Genius’ sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It is out on February 21st through Matador Records.

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