perfume genius would die to collaborate with mariah carey
We catch up with singer Mike Hadreas as he tours his third album, to talk about SSION, high heels and feels.
Reading interviews with Mike Hadreas you imagine that he might dissolve, at any moment, into a pool of his own tears. Journalists describe the Seattle-based singer, better known by his stage name Perfume Genius, as "fragile" and "melancholic." The NME underlined the "rip-your-toenails-out-bleakness" of his first album, Learning. And Hadreas himself billed 17, a track from his second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, as a "gay suicide letter."
But then you watch the video to Queen, the epic single from his recently released third album, Too Bright, and you wonder if you got it all wrong. Wearing a metallic vest and sailor trousers, he looks like someone you'd call up when you want to go dancing until 6am. While the song's lyrics draw from the same well of sadness as earlier tracks ("Don't you know your queen? / Cracked, peelin', riddled with disease"), that despair has morphed, at least in part, into anger and defiance. The sound is dark, crashing, synth-heavy and exuberant.
In one scene, Hadreas stalks a boardroom table in high heels and shoves lobster tails into the faces of men in suits. Hadreas has spoken about the pressure in the music industry to be "less gay." And this scene (this album, even), with its empowering, campy energy, explicitly says "in your face." As he prepares for the US leg of his tour, we chat with Mike over the phone — from his mum's house, just north of Seattle — about what's different this time around.
The name Perfume Genius first appeared on your MySpace page. What was your thought process there?
There really wasn't one! When I made my MySpace profile, I was watching the movie Perfume. My friend was making fun of the movie (though the book is great!) and kept calling the lead kid a "fucking perfume genius"! And when I made my profile, I had no idea that I would get a record deal and that the name would stick. So I didn't put any thought into it. It might have been even more embarrassing if I had — it probably would have been very pretentious. I used to read a lot of very serious books...
Like what? What are your other influences outside of music?
A lot of filmmakers: David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke. Anyone that kind of goes for it. I also read a lot of poetry. Since I started making music though, I pretty much only listen to Top 40. And I watch really shitty TV and read trashy books — I don't know what happened! I guess I need to escape more now. All the catharsis I was looking for, and all the darker stuff, I just do it on my own now.
What did you listen to as a kid?
A lot of mum music when I was younger. Then at around 12 or 13, I got a Liz Phair CD and I started getting really into music. Her first couple of albums were a big deal to me when I was younger. I also liked sad-sap guys like Elliott Smith. And The Breeders is still probably my favourite band. Cat Power I was obsessed with too. I have live recordings; if she had ever performed a song once on the radio, I had it on my Discman and had made a mix out of it.
What's your recording process like now?
For Too Bright, I rented a house and wrote all the songs in a tiny room at the back. It was a weird process. Before that, I had been touring my second album, and my ego was all over the place. I didn't really have time to process anything: that I suddenly had a career, that I'm a musician and I play shows. When I got home, I looked at what I had been doing for the first time. So I was a lot more self-aware when I was writing Too Bright, and aware that I was going to be sharing it with tons of people — with fans, but also with people that might hate it.
You worked with Adrian Utley from Portishead too, right?
I recorded my second album in Bristol in England with the producer Ali Chant, so when I made all the demos for this album I sent them to Ali to see if he had any ideas. He thought of Adrian because of all the synth sounds I was working with, and the darker, nastier quality of some of the songs. So we all started writing and Skype-ing.
And how did you end up working with Cody Critcheloe from SSION, who directed the video for Queen?
I'm just a fan of his. I reached out to him online. We had kind of been Internet friends, on Twitter—if you've ever heard of Twitter?! He's amazing. When it came to making a video, I wanted to do something crazy and cool and he's the craziest and coolest.
What were the initial ideas you started working with?
The video has so much weird shit in it! We just sent a bunch of crazy ideas back and forth and collaged them together in a dreamlike sequence. But my main idea was the boardroom scene, and terrorising all those white dudes in suits. I don't mind a little bit of campiness but I wanted it to be creepy and cinematic too. I like a mix of serious and funny.
Was that scene fun to film?
I pretty much have the urge to do that once a day. Like that would be working out to me. Which I don't do, but it would be the same kind of release.
After working with Adrian and Cody, who's next on your list of dream collaborators?
I'm just going to be honest. The first person I thought of was Mariah Carey. I don't know what we would do together. But Mariah — that's just what my gut tells me.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Matthew Leifheit