Mike Hadreas, the Seattle songwriter who’s drawn great acclaim for the beautiful and pained records he’s recorded as Perfume Genius, is in a “frazzled” pre-tour state. He’s about to leave for a second U.S. swing in support of last fall’s Too Bright, his third and best record. It will bring him to Manhattan’s Stage 48 on Thursday, March 19th, ahead of dates supporting big-deal Matador Records labelmates Interpol and Belle and Sebastian. I caught up with him by phone, shortly after his return from Rite Aid, where he “somehow spent like a hundred bucks” in cautious preparation. (“It makes me feel better to have various cremes and serums.”)
As Perfume Genius’ popularity has steadily risen, Hadreas’ songs have become more assured. His first records drew a cult following for his hushed, intimate dissection of personal trauma. Too Bright contains both his most overt pop moves and his most unsettling sounds, a bold combination that brings Bowie to mind. But with songs that address body discomfort and lingering societal unease over homosexuality head-on, it cuts much deeper than even the most inspired bits of rock star dress-up. We talked to Hadreas about vintage glam, onstage madness, shaming his audiences, and the supreme indignity of vaping.
1970s glam-rock was widely assumed as an influence on Too Bright. Is that stuff actually a big personal touchpoint for you?
It wasn’t a conscious influence, but that’s unavoidable. I didn’t even really think about it because it’s so engrained. If you’re a weird dude like me that’s just part of what’s inspiring to you. I think a lot of that is mainly from “Queen.” Originally when I wrote it, I was going to have it be a lot more electronic, a lot colder, more clinical. John Parrish, who played drums, completely flipped the song. He made that kind of rockin’ stoner-y beat.
As awesome as they are, it’s hard to think about those old glam albums as very personal because they’re so over-the-top performative. With your stuff it all seems intensely personal.
Well, when I wear women’s clothing, it doesn’t really feel like playing to me. I think it was a little more playful for them. For me it’s more accentuating my femininity as a source of strength and badassness. Which is what they did as well, but I think there’s less of a sense of humor when I do it. (laughs) I’m more dead serious about it.
Were there artists dealing with ideas of sexuality and gender identity, even in a playful way, that provided you with a sense of comfort when you were younger?
PJ Harvey made some really terrifying songs, but it was very female to me. Liz Phair, her talking about her sexuality really unapologetically and unashamedly was really empowering to me, too. At least 20 years ago, when I heard [Exile in Guyville], I hadn’t heard a woman talk like that. I identified with that a lot more closely than if a man had done the exact same thing.
You also put sounds on this record that were actually sort of terrifying, where the earlier records were pretty gentle. Was that very deliberate?
Originally, what I started doing was not mining my backstory for songs. When I looked back on things that had happened to me, it was really important for me to be really patient and gentle with those experiences. That was helpful and it’s not as helpful to me now. I needed to speak in tongues for a couple minutes or something, you know?
Touring heavily and performing these personal songs over and over again, are you sort of outside of the feeling you had when you made them?
What’s more fun about this new music is that I have to get into some sort of fever to solve them. I’m singing for people and I’m more conscious that people are watching me and I’m performing. That used to make me really anxious, but now I’ve kind of turned that anxiety into excitement. Hopefully, I kind of lose my mind a little bit onstage every night.
You’re playing bigger venues, festivals, support spots for huge bands. How has your experience been broadcasting out to thousands of people?
Luckily with some of the songs now, the subject matters, I’m wagging my finger at people. So if people aren’t into it, it’s kind of helpful. I can just stare at them. Even if I’m going to scream, I have someone I can direct it at. I have a lot of songs where it’s like two chords, really slowly, over and over, cooing something really direct and personal and it can make it weird. When you pull that off, it’s almost more exciting. You feel like you kind of took over a little bit.
It’s kind of comical sometimes. I can see the one dude who’s pretty close to me the whole time talking, and he’ll kind of stop talking and stare at me during some moment. Or he kind of realizes that people around him are being quiet, like, “Oh, what’s happening, something’s happening.” (laughs) I’ve told people to shut up before. I played in Sydney and I shamed these two guys. I shamed them!
Are you already writing for the next thing?
It’s too soon. I’m fairly dramatic about writing. I tend to kind of have a period of time where it’s really hard for me, and I kind of panic. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Then something will kind of crack and I’ll figure it out and become inspired.
So is that process really solitary?
I mean, when my boyfriend comes home from work I’ll play it for him, whatever I did that day. He’s very honest with me, which is good… and bad. It’s pretty much just me, drinking a lot of Diet Coke. I used to smoke a million cigarettes, but I quit smoking a month ago. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. That felt like a big part of it, unfortunately.
Have you picked up some weird compensatory habit?
Right now I’m smoking a vaporizer. I’m smoking something called the E-Liquid, it’s this juice and I have to reload this machine every day. It’s really personally humiliating to me. I don’t know why, I don’t want to offend any vapers if they are reading this. I guess I could try to make it cool.
Do you feel futuristic?
It’s like smoking a Segway.