The cigarette that brought Mike Hadreas outside has been extinguished, but he’s too restless to go back inside, so he paces back and forth in front of his apartment building. He’s discussing the latest Perfume Genius record, Too Bright, when midway through one thought, he goes silent, and out slips a quiver of an “oh.” I ask if something’s wrong. “I just saw a dog, and I thought, ‘That’s a cute dog,’ and it’s mine,” Hadreas explains with a snap of laughter. “It’s my own dog being walked by my boyfriend.”
Hadreas has been associated with Seattle since grabbing national attention with Perfume Genius’ 2010 debut, Learning, but he and his boyfriend and their dog have lived 45 minutes south in Tacoma for the past several months. “We moved here because I tour for a long time, and Seattle’s getting real expensive, and I didn’t want to pay as much money in rent,” he says. “The whole saving money thing didn’t really happen, but the apartment is really cute, and the kitchen is real nice, and it has a view.”
The view is a seemingly important thing these days. The first words that Hadreas sings on Too Bright are “I can see for miles,” and that line resurfaces on another song midway through the album. “I liked that it was an arrogant thing to say: ‘I can sort of see everything,’” he says of the lyric. “But both of those songs are defeated at the time. That’s kind of how I feel right now. I feel very amped up and confident, but it’s still complicated, and I’m still struggling with a lot of insecurities and anxiousness.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in late September and Too Bright’s imminent release is partly to blame for his anxiety. Both of Hadreas’ previous records were exceedingly well received, but Too Bright is something different. 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 was in many ways a logical extension of Learning – both a refinement and an expansion of its piano and vocals set up. Too Bright is a weirder, bolder, and more adventurous affair. Its finely textured landscape is one occupied frequently by synths that strobe and thrust and twinkle. Hadreas’ vocals, meanwhile, have never been more varied – even manipulated and distorted on occasion. Playfully, the record begins with a straightforward piano ballad.
To realize Too Bright, Hadreas reached outside his usual collaborators – most notably Portishead synth architect Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey drummer John Parish. But it’s still as personal an exploration of raw and sensitive subjects as past Perfume Genius records. Hadreas remains a fearless songwriter. Just as he’s found a way to address suicide, addiction, molestation, and struggling for acceptance as a gay man in the past, here he sings about homophobia and dysmorphia.
On a far less serious note, I offer solidarity for his well-documented craving for the nutritional black hole known as Diet Coke. “Well, that’s good to hear,” he says. “I feel like I’m the only one sometimes.”
“Maybe I’ll put it in my next album and we can all cry,” he adds. “We can all cry and then be moved by it.”
How do you feel a few days from Too Bright‘s release?
It’s a lot different this time. I feel a lot more proud of what I’ve done, and I’m a lot more impassioned and sure of the music. It’s definitely helpful that it’s been well received so far. Who knows what would happen if that wasn’t the case.
But I made something really risky. After I was done recording it, I didn’t know what direction it was going to go. I was worried for a while. But as I’ve gotten closer to the release, I have more resolve about it.
It challenges preconceptions people may have had about what a Perfume Genius record can be.
The way that I made my first two albums was very patient and gentle with the subject matter. That’s how I was processing things. It was important for me to work in that minimal way. It was a weird therapy. But it wasn’t working out when I started writing this new album. That same way of writing wasn’t doing the trick for me. So I started being a little more wild and experimental. My writing was even more improvisational and less overthought.
Over the years, I’ve let go of the limitations that I thought I had. I happened into music fairly quickly, and so I thought I was locked into a specific way of doing things. I thought that I was only capable of doing so much. I believed that I was good at being minimal, but maybe that I was all I was capable of. I shook some of that off with this album. I thought more about the sound. I was more experimental. I wasn’t afraid to add more instruments and to edit from there, instead of starting from a down place. I started letting loose a little bit.
What was pulling you towards electronic and synthetic instrumentation?
I still started with piano for a lot of these songs, but I was distorting the piano and EQ-ing it in a way that it didn’t sound like a piano anymore. I realized when I was doing it that I was trying to emulate snyth sounds that I had heard before and influenced me, but without the actual machine in my home.
When I went into the studio with Adrian [Utley], working with synths is very much his world. From my demoes and from my emotional descriptive words, he was able to know what knob to twiddle and what machine to go to.
Why start the record with “I Decline”, a piano ballad that falls closest in line with the music you’ve made in the past?
It’s a little sneaky and kind of fun. I like how it’s the first song and then following it up with “Queen”, like, “Fuck you.” [Laughs] It has that element to it.
[“I Decline”] is very much how I originally and have always made things, but it’s a little more bleak than usual. That song doesn’t really have a happy ending – it has the opposite. I think that’s a running theme to the rest of the album.
It’s one of the best sequenced records that I’ve heard in a while.
That’s really good to hear, because I was really worried about that. My boyfriend [Alan Wyffels] and I obsessed over the tracklist. I didn’t want it sound like when people experiment and are just trying out a bunch of new styles. I didn’t want it to sound patchworky. I spent a long time organizing the songs, so that even if they had differences, none of them were mean or disrespectful to each other.
The lyric “I can see for miles” shows up “I Decline”, and then again on “Grid”. What’s the significance of that line?
I liked that it was an arrogant thing to say: “I can sort of see everything.” But both of those songs are defeated at the time. That’s kind of how I feel right now. I feel very amped up and confident, but it’s still complicated, and I’m still struggling with a lot of insecurities and anxiousness. I still have a tendency to get in my own way a lot, even though I feel pumped up and lot more confident. Both of those sides are fighting with each other.
I like singing that line in a kind of a swaggery, old dude, Elvis-y kind of way. I like singing it super confidently, but at the same time, some of the subject matter is not cute. [Laughs]
There’s a certain economy to your songwriting. I’ll listen to a song repeatedly, and when I finally look at the lyric sheet, there’s always less on the page than I expected. Is direct communication important to you?
It’s a taste thing. I’ve always liked music and even literature that get to the point quickly. I read a lot of short stories – more so than novels.
I’m also paranoid about repeating myself. That’s why a lot of my songs tend to be fairly short. It’s a normal musical thing to repeat the song again to make it a full-length number, but I’m always very wary of that.
But I’m very obsessive about the words. Even though there are very few of them and a lot of times they’re written in very simple language, I obsess over the placement. They are very specific words. Hopefully you can tell that I’ve worked on it. [Laughs] Sometimes I wonder about that, because I’m flipping just a couple of very simple words. I’m always thinking about where they fit with other lyrics that I love and where they fit with how I have worked so far.
You tackle some very heavy issues on Too Bright, as you have on past records. Have you always been unafraid to address things head on?
I’ve always been that way creatively, but I’ve also been that way as a person in my life. My response to growing up and realizing that I made people uncomfortable was to basically see how much I could amp it up. I had issues with my dad not really understanding me, so I just gave him a shitload of things to not understand. [Laughs] I just threw it all out there, like, “Oh yeah? Well try this one!”
I’ve always overshared. That’s what I look for when I’m listening to music and watching movies. I’m very serious about it. I like to invest a lot and want to feel moved. I want a deep connection with things. I hope that I can communicate that with my music.
Do you think that your music empowers people – people who might not otherwise have the courage to talk about those things?
I certainly hope so. Even though people have told me that it might harm me to be so specific and explicit about the things that I’m talking about, that’s why it feels important for me to do that. Growing up, I had to really reach to relate to a lot of stuff. I still really value a lot of the artists that I listened to, but I never really heard someone speak my experience 100%. That’s what I like about what I’m doing. I’m not tailoring it or taking about the edges off things. I write music that I wish I had heard when I was younger.
At the same time, it’s a complicated thing to talk about, because people don’t need to share my experience 100% to be moved by it or relate to it. There’s so much overlap of things to talk about, like body image and outsidery feelings. People have felt that way across the board.
But I like how I can specifically move people who do share my experience more closely as well.
The visuals accompanying the record are striking. What sort of message are you trying to project?
I wanted to wear beige. I wanted there to be a lot of beige. I wanted the presentation of me and the album cover and the video to be very soft stereotypically, but then be presented in a defiant and badass way. I liked that defiant femininity.
With my videos, they’re often just things that I think are fun and I’ve always wanted to do in a video since I was a kid. I can’t help but throw a few of those in there. I just like to push it a little bit. I want to remain myself, but not be afraid to push it.
If I had more money to make those videos, the last video would have been way more bloody. I’ve always wanted to be completely covered in blood. It’s like in a horror movie when a woman is against all odds and she’s got a million people coming at her, but somehow she manages to whoop all of their asses and at the end she’s completely covered in blood and in complete survivor mode. That’s what I would like to do at some point, but I don’t have enough money to do it. I still really like that video, though. That wasn’t a diss. [Laughs] I wanted them to eat me at the end of the video, and originally, I was just going to be a head at the table – that was all that was going to be left of me. But I don’t think we had enough time or a big enough budget to do it.
Did you have the body suit made for you?
No, it was just something that the stylist brought in. To be honest, I was a little hesitant at first, because it’s skintight and I get kind of self-conscious. But then I realized that it was rebellious against myself to wear a skintight flesh-toned thing. It almost looks like a sci-fi outfit from the past. But I really liked it, so I had them ship it to me to wear in the video too.
Where did the title Too Bright come from?
I liked how that title can be taken in a few different ways and applied to its sound and what the album is about and even the cover. Before I made this music, I had a lot of people tell me that I’d be more successful if I toned it down. They essentially told me that I’m being too much. It was only really a few, but it affected me a lot. “Too Bright” comes off as a bit ironic, I guess, especially since a lot of the subject matter is as weird and twisted and specific – the opposite of what they suggested. [Laughs].
Also, a lot of the album is me dealing with a lingering depression that I’ve always had. Now that my circumstances have gotten better and I’m a lot healthier, I can see light and hope and how things are changing, and how I can change to make things, but a lot of the times I refuse to. I pass on it because change is too new and scary.