A CONVERSATION WITH PERFUME GENIUS (PART 1)
I first saw Mike Hadreas, A.K.A. Perfume Genius, perform a few summers ago in Long Island City at MoMA PS1, and then ran into him again in Berlin, the summer before last. I recently Skyped with him on the eve of the release of his new album, Put Your Back N 2 It, for EVB, with the following conversation fairly unexpurgated.
Performance photographs of Perfume Genius by Courtney Cheatham
Skype portraits of Mike by Michael Stipe
Michael Stipe: Hi Mike, so I’m transcribing the whole interview and um, I want to do it Interview Magazine style. You know that reference, right?
Mike Hadreas: Kind of.
Stipe: They would find people that are not like, journalists, but were usually famous, because Andy Warhol was the publisher and he was obsessed with famous people .
Hadreas: Ah, that’s like conversation more than an interview?
Stipe: It’s a conversation. But I did take three pages of notes. [laughs]
Hadreas: You did not!
Stipe: Yeah, because I’m really not, uh--
Hadreas: I don’t even know if I could take three pages of notes on myself. [both laugh]
Stipe: It was easy to do, in fact, because I’ve been on that side of an interview so many times.
Hadreas: Sometimes people are nice and then sometimes people try to, like, trick you--
Hadreas: Trick you up. And I just read one. I shouldn’t be reading any of them.
Stipe: I think it’s good to read them.
Hadreas: I know, I’m reading all that now, and it’s like a spiral.
Stipe: It’s also really easy to get self-obsessed. [laughs]
Hadreas: Oh, totally! [laughs] It’s just my natural state, too, and now I Google myself, too.
Stipe: [laughs] So, we’ll start in Mexico because I was just there for six days with whales and friends and your new record.
Stipe: What’s the most exotic place you’ve ever been?
Hadreas: Oh lord, it all feels pretty exotic to me. I guess Asia was the biggest culture shock. We went to Korea, China--
Stipe: I haven’t ever been to Korea.
Hadreas: You haven’t? We really liked it there. We went to a restaurant and then accidentally ordered three of the same thing. [laughs]
Stipe: [laughs] Was it good?
Hadreas: And then we felt obligated to eat all of it. It was good. I’m kind of a wimp about spice though.
Stipe: You’re in Seattle right?
Stipe: Do you kinda consider it your home base at this point?
Hadreas: Yes, I always think that I want to move. I’m always thinking that I want to leave, but then I’m always happy to come back so--
Stipe: You have family there?
Stipe: And your boyfriend?
Hadreas: And my boyfriend, who’s taking a nap right now.
Stipe: Good, I’ll try not to be too loud.
Hadreas: [laughs] It’s okay.
Stipe: I want to talk about New York ‘cause I’m here, I live here, and I read that you went to film school at NYU.
Hadreas: [laughs] I didn’t though, I don’t know how that happened, people keep asking, and I never went to NYU. I don’t know how that it got out like that.
Stipe: Did you live in New York, or--
Hadreas: I lived in New York, but I just partied and lived in Brooklyn for three years, I didn’t do anything. I actually dropped out of school to move there. I was in art school here in Seattle.
Stipe: What was your medium in art school.
Hadreas: I was studying Fine Art, like painting and stuff.
Stipe: Yeah, me too, I mean, I always knew I wanted to make music, but how did that happen for you?
Hadreas: It’s what I always wanted to do, but it was the thing that came the least easy to me. I could always sit down and draw something that I was somewhat happy with, but I don’t know, maybe because I listened to so much music--there’s like, a catch when I would start that would just cancel everything I was doing. [laughs] I don’t think that I ever really followed through with anything I was doing until a few years ago.
Stipe: Do you think it’s a more difficult medium than painting or drawing or other plastic arts?
Hadreas: Ummmm, it is for me. But it’s the most rewarding when everything clicks together.
Stipe: When it works.
Stipe: I couldn’t agree with you more.
Hadreas: I feel like with painting, or other stuff, I was always doing one thing at a time, and with music I feel like I’m clicking five things together at once when it happens. It doesn’t always happen.
Stipe: I’m going to ask you a couple of desert island questions.
Stipe: I hate questions like that, because that’s not how my brain works, I think and talk in a fairly tangential way so if I go too far off track just let me know.
Hadreas: That’s okay, I do the same thing.
Stipe: Okay good, I had a feeling. [laughs] Okay, what’s your favorite song on your first album [Learning]?
Stipe: Just--first thought.
Hadreas: The very last song, ‘Never Did’.
'Never Did' - Perfume Genius
Stipe: Yeah, and what about on the new record [Put Your Back N 2 It]?
Hadreas: Um, [pause]. I guess the one I’m most proud of is ‘Dark Parts’. I’m not sure if that’s my favorite song but that’s my favorite, like, message, and my favorite experience with a song. It’s for my Mom and I played it for her and I guess it’s just a--an adult, more healing moment.
'Dark Parts' - Perfume Genius
Stipe: Cool. The question I’m getting to is, a lot of your stuff seems very confessional, and I wonder if, in terms of writing, do you see yourself as being confessional and autobiographical--or what?
Hadreas: Um--I guess. This is just always how I’ve done it, so I don’t really know [laughs] what to compare it to, you know? I think I am, but I think that the “what that means to me” is changing a little bit. Like it’s always been very angsty, and very teenagery, for FAR too long, ‘til I was way too old to do that. I hope that with my first album I switched a bit to be a little more, um, not so indulgent, or whatever. It’s always going to be a little bit, but--
Stipe: I don’t think it’s indulgent, but it’s a certain way of writing. So are you taking real experiences and kind of building them up, and making them more theatrical, or are you creating a narrative in a lyric that may be based in fact, or even autobiographic--but is it exactly truth--or do you take poetic license?
Hadreas: I do. I wouldn’t want to go too far with it, but I’ll patch things together. I feel like sometimes the message comes through more than if I was just going to straight-up say what exactly will happen. The second album was a lot less specific, less detail and stuff which I was kind of worried about because I respond to, and I think people respond to, really specific things.
Stipe: Well, I so loved your first record, but I--I barely went back to it, I was so taken by the new album.
Hadreas: That’s really good to hear.
Stipe: One thing that was really surprising to me, especially, I think it’s the third track, called ‘No Tear’
'No Tear' - Perfume Genius
Stipe: Your voice comes in and there’s a vocoder that pitches the voice really low and it totally just blew my head off, because the last thing I expected from Perfume Genius was that kind of manipulation of the vocal.
Hadreas: [laughs] It was me, and they sped it up, and I sang it fast, and then they slowed it down. Because I wanted a very classic background vocal sounding thing, and I wanted to be very masculine sounding, like a choir of butch dudes, but it was just my gay ass.
Stipe: [laughs] So you butched out with vocoder! [both laughing] Well, it did the job! So you know the term sophomore jinx, I’m sure? The sophomore jinx is when you put out a first album that’s so brilliant that everyone loves it, and then you’re putting out your second record and everyone’s like “it’s gonna suck”, and so you’re basically fighting your own reputation at that point.
Hadreas: For sure.
Stipe: You’ve managed to, uh, I think just with that single action, on ‘No Tear’, you’ve managed to completely place the first album in the past, and say “This is now, and this is who I am, and this is what I’m doing now,” and it worked, it really worked. So you’ve blown the jinx out of the water, completely.
Hadreas: That’s really good, I was really worried about that, and thinking about it a lot when I first started writing, and then I really had to give that up. I was writing like I was gonna try to convince people to like it, instead of writing for the people that just--will. [laughs] You know what I mean?
Stipe: Are you writing for other people when you write, or--
Hadreas: It wouldn’t be a lie, but it doesn’t always start that way. For the songs to stay important, I have to bring somebody else in there. Or um, [long pause] think more about who would be helped by it.
Stipe: Yeah, okay. Wow. That’s a lot to carry with every line of a song.
Hadreas: [laughs] I’m not sure I pulled it off, but that’s the intent in a way.
Stipe: That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, as a lyricist, certainly. Are you writing songs for, like, a teenage version of yourself do you think?
Hadreas: Oh, I thought about that a couple times, like I’m writing music that I wish I would’ve heard when I was younger.
Hadreas: You know what I mean? And then there probably is stuff like this that I could’ve found back then but--I didn’t find it.
Stipe: I have this whole thing about peripheral influence and how there are things in your universe that you may not have been completely focused on, but you look back, and you realize those influences were always there. They might not have had a direct impact or correlation on the trajectory or the arc of your path, but they were always there. With that in mind, one of the questions I wanted to ask, are there two or three songs that you can think of that you heard on the radio or things that, um, made you really sit up and go, “Wow this is--this touches me like nothing else”?
Hadreas: Sometimes I feel like you pick your influences. I remember Liz Phair--I read an article somewhere, and I got that album, I mean I was older, like, umm, 14, but I listened to that on my waterbed.
Hadreas: Umm, I mean I had been listening to exclusively Ace of Base for a long time, and then somehow I got the Liz Phair CD and that completely changed how I thought about music.
Stipe: Her first record?
Hadreas: I think I got the second one first. She’s just really very sexual, very nasty and I didn’t even know you could talk about those things, let alone sing about them, [laughs] and I was still--I was terrified to even acknowledge anything sexual about myself at all. I was always, [pause] you know, because I knew it probably wasn’t going to turn out how I had hoped.
Hadreas: And so to hear someone else unapologetically talk about that, I like, I shut my door. It was really important to me.
Stipe: Like head down, and headphones on, studying every word.
Hadreas: Yeah, and then I realized that I could turn it up really loud, and my parents are going to be really freaked out--and then I started doing that.
Stipe: And were they?
Hadreas: Yeah but I think I freaked them out a long time before that, too.
Hadreas: I was struggling with accepting it, but I think my parents pretty much figured it out when I was dancing with a black veil at my fifth birthday party.
Stipe: With accepting your sexuality?
Stipe: Okay, alright, that’s funny. Parents are cool though, are your parents cool?
Hadreas: Yeah, they’re cool.
Stipe: So we have Liz Phair, we have Ace of Base--Liz Phair was really there for you, and she’s going to be thrilled if she catches wind of this interview, I’m sure. But, umm, what influences are you really proud of, and what influences are you really embarrassed of? First thought.
Hadreas: Oh man [long pause]. I guess I’m most proud of things where the lyrics are really important, like folk music. Bob Dylan and stuff like that, where the music is really simple underneath, and the words are what’s carrying everything, and if I could be like that at all, I really like that idea. Umm, what am I embarrassed of? [pause] I don’t know if I really am embarrassed of-- [laughs] I remember one of the only ever times I did karaoke, I did that Eiffel 65 song, ‘Blue’.
Stipe: I don’t know it.
Hadreas: That song that goes "blue daboo dee daboo dah..." a terrible song.
Hadreas: And I still kinda like that song in a really weird way. [laughs] Not a real influence but that song is awful, and actually, they kicked me out, or they just stopped the track when I was singing it.
Stipe: That’s embarrassing. Alright, I’m going to have to do a little search on them and listen to it.
Hadreas: [laughs] Oh please don’t. It’s a terrible song.
Stipe: Do you think there’s--maybe there’s footage of you online doing karaoke to ‘Blue’ by Eiffel--what’s it called, Eiffel something?
Hadreas: [laughs] Eiffel 65. I think you’ll remember it, I mean it’s like a brain worm kinda song.
Stipe: Okay. Those I have a real problem with. But that raises a point. Last week I was in Athens, Georgia, and the B-52’s came and played. They played the song ‘Mesopotamia’ which has this really amazing funk baseline and Fred Schneider is like Mike D., you know, he kinda yells in this really metronomic shouting style. Anyway, that song is my melody broom. If there’s a worm song that’s stuck in my head for three days and I can’t get it out and I hate it, I can sing ‘Mesopotamia’ to myself and it clears out all bad songs.
Hadreas: It clears it out? How does that happen?
Stipe: I don’t know, I think it’s because you can sing all the parts of the song. You can sing the bass part, you can sing the clavinet, you can sing the girl vocals that Kate and Cindy are doing, you can sing Fred’s part, although he’s just shouting like Mike D. But nothing really latches on, like all of it is so--odd and brilliant. Do you have a song like that? Do you have a melody broom?
Hadreas: [long pause] Oh, me and Allen have been doing the Titanic theme song for a really long time. [laughs] We do a back and forth, like the first line of it, [laughs] but it’s like, um, compulsive, you know what I mean? Like a commercial will come on for a TV show and he’ll just start humming it and then I’ll start singing. [laughs] Once, when we walked into a public bathroom, and Allen didn’t think anyone was in there, he immediately started [hums out the beginning of the Titanic theme in a high voice, laughing] like that, and there was some dude in there.
Stipe: Taking a shit?
Hadreas: I mean, it was in like this rural area, and these two gay guys come into the public restroom and immediately start singing that theme.
Stipe: That theme from Titanic, that’s perfect. [laughs]. People have made comparisons between your music and your voice and other people. I hear a lot of things, I hear Neil Young--
Stipe: And I hear Nico--
Hadreas: Neko Case?
Stipe: No, Nico from the Velvet Underground. Just because she had that darkness. So here’s my question: Do people think that you’re really dark and gloomy all the time, and you’re not?
Hadreas: Yeah. I think people are disappointed sometimes when I’m not. I mean people, like, they think you have to be how your music is all the time, or else they can’t take either one seriously. Or that one of them has to be phony, which I don’t think is true.
Stipe: Yeah. Now I think I can tell, listening to your music--this is just me as a fan, but also having done it for 31 years--I can see that you’re not a dark person, but I can see the darkness in there.
Hadreas: I’ve learned that that’s something you investigate when everybody’s asleep. You know what I mean? [laughs] Like going through my day, I try not to bother people with it, and plus it’s not like it’s always right underneath and seasoning everything that I do. I don’t know, some days it is, but--
Stipe: Yeah, but there’s a toughness, a real toughness there that I really admire, I have to say. I mean I think it makes the music. It adds another depth and another level to what you’re doing lyrically. And also melodically and the presentation, like the production that you do and blah blah blah. I’m not blowing smoke up your ass, but I mean that’s the thing with music, is that one projects oneself onto the work of someone else and it becomes yours. And then if you’re interested, if you become a real fan, you really want to know what their thought was, or their intention going into it. But you don’t necessarily want that to supersede or overwhelm your-- [pause]
Hadreas: --your take on that.
Stipe: --take on that, yeah. [laughs]
Hadreas: Well, like my friend Heather thought that ‘Hood’ was very sad and a very important song to her, and then she was kind of mad at me for making a somewhat silly video for it. Because there is nothing humorous about that song to her. You know what I mean? [laughs]
Stipe: No, but there’s levity, and that’s something I learned from Patti Smith. There’s levity in the video but there’s also, there’s a toughness, man, to your performance in that video. You’re not giving it up easy, and I think it actually balances the funny parts and, you know, the Janet Jackson pose, the mask and the whole thing.
Hadreas: [agrees and laughs]
Stipe: That brings me around to--because I went to look at Arpad Miklos [the actor in the 'Hood' video], I didn’t know his work--
Hadreas: I didn’t either! And everyone keeps telling me I’m full of shit, but I didn’t. I had never seen his stuff before.
Stipe: No, he’s not really my type but he’s very handsome, and he seems--cool and game. I want to ask this: How did you hook up with Arpad? How did you come to that idea?
Hadreas: Umm, it wasn’t originally my intention to have a porn star in it. I just wanted a really big butch guy, but a lot of, like, bodybuilders weren’t willing to put, like, makeup on me, and embrace and stuff. so we found Arpad.
Stipe: Did you shoot it in Seattle or--
Hadreas: In New York. We did it all in one day.
Stipe: In terms of casting he plays that role beautifully.
Hadreas: [agrees] Oh good.
Stipe: He is hyper-masculine and it looks real.
Hadreas: We didn’t even really talk that much when we were shooting it. You know what I mean, but there were very sweet interactions that I wanted to have happen, and I was kinda nervous, too, but everything worked out really. I don’t know, sometimes you have those moments when things are happening where--this is exactly what I wanted to have happen.
Stipe: Awesome. I think it’s a beautiful piece and whatever happened with YouTube? Did they accept the, umm--
Hadreas: The ad [for the 'Hood' single]? I don’t know. I don’t think that that ad went through.
END OF PART 1. FOR PART 2 CLICK HERE.