With his urgent, assertive new album, Perfume Genius parades the modern queer experience through the mainstream.
The world needs Perfume Genius.
Because even as marriage equality sweeps across America and the LGBTQA acronym adds new letters like some kind of Scrabble pileup, the blazing fury that ignited queer culture’s greatest moments has shrunk to a tiny flame. Whither the effigy-burning outrage of ACT UP, the advocacy group formed in 1987 to rail against the indifference of political leaders to the AIDS crisis? The enough-is-enough anger that ignited the Stonewall Riot in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when the gay, lesbian and cross-dressing patrons of a West Village bar challenged a police raid, sparking the modern gay rights movement?
Leaping off the grooves of Perfume Genius’ Too Bright, that’s where. This is not the same artist who once retreated to his bedroom from catcalls of “faggot” on the streets of Everett and later emerged with the bruised, delicate 2010 debut album Learning. Emboldened, angry and louder than ever, the third album from Mike Hadreas confronts listeners with unflinching glimpses into the queer experience.
“No family is safe when I sashay,” Hadreas warns on the chorus of “Queen,” tossing off righteous anger with cool composure, like the Incredible Hulk’s big pink cousin flicking aside puny humans. In the video, he turns an executive conference table into a catwalk, kicking up a fuss in high heels, full slap and a suit that might have hung in Morgan Fairchild’s closet. The song “Fool” savages those who treat gay men as cute sidekicks, just another accessory to complement the purse-sized Chihuahua.
“Anything new that comes along is either too gay or not gay enough,” Hadreas says of the dichotomy that runs through contemporary queer culture, where a TV series like HBO’s Looking is considered groundbreaking in some corners and little more than a gay Sex and the City knockoff in others. “When I made this record, I knew I was running the risk that people would say the same thing, but it’s powerful to make something balls-out, audaciously gay and unapologetic. I don’t want to be treated like a straight person; I wanted to be treated as equal to one. I think people get confused about that.”
Queer sexuality has been integral to the Perfume Genius package from the beginning. Hadreas’ debut single, 2010’s “Mister Peterson,” examined the odd but influential relationships that sometimes evolve between gay teachers and their teenage charges. “All Waters,” from 2012’s sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It, acknowledged the fear and reluctance that prohibited the 33-year-old singer from holding his boyfriend’s hand in public.
Most famously, two years ago YouTube rejected a 16-second teaser clip for his video “Hood” as not being “family safe.” The full-length promo depicts Hadreas and gay porn star Arpad Miklos, both shirtless, applying makeup, toying with Nightmare on Elm Street masks and talons, and interacting with disarming tenderness. Unsettling, yes, but never explicit or obscene.
The rejection surprised Hadreas, who’d thought the tidbit submitted by his label was “too sweet, bordering on cutesy. I actually made a version of my own that looked more like a phone-sex commercial, complete with big, flashing yellow text.”
Lana Del Rey gets a pass for showing side-boob while embracing a shirtless, tattooed dude in front of an American flag, but two topless men hugging? Rejected. Hadreas still sounds incredulous.
“That promo reel was so basic and essentially involved just a long embrace. I could understand if I had made something I knew was pushing the limits or was more scandalous.”
This time he has. Whereas his first two albums smoldered with contemplative musical settings that belied emotional extremes, Too Bright blazes with tribal rhythms, unsettling electronics and lyrics like “I’m as open as a gutted pig.”
Even as Hadreas discusses the record on a sunny Saturday in Seattle, sipping Diet Coke and pausing occasionally to smoke another Parliament, that cleansing fire rages. Friends and colleagues wonder why Hadreas doesn’t just sit his skinny ass down, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and chill the fuck out.
“You can do that, and everybody else can, too, but I’m going to be the one who doesn’t,” he says. “I’m going to be the one who really takes it there, even if that means I have to be angry or thinking all the time. I’ll do it,” he insists. The last three words hang in the hot afternoon air like a threat.
Hadreas didn’t expect his new record to sound so aggressive. Adele’s second album, 21, won six Grammy Awards in 2012 and has sold 30 million copies worldwide. Well-intentioned colleagues thought Perfume Genius could snag a piece of that mainstream action, too—and he was inclined to agree.
“Before I made this album, a lot of people suggested to me that I tone it down,” Hadreas says. “Essentially they’re telling me to be less gay and not deal with these kind of themes so explicitly.”
At first, Hadreas responded with a spate of “universal pop songs that were kind of impersonal.” These felt labored, but he had reasons to color within the lines. “I’ve been with my boyfriend a while, we’re getting older, we want to live in a house and my music is all that I have going on. So why shouldn’t I be more adult and professional about this? Write some music that is still me but would get in a commercial and make me some money? A lot of people do that and nobody seems to mind.”
His muse did, however. The songs dribbled out oh-so-slowly. “I was spending a month on one song, maybe two, really laboring over them,” he says with a sigh. The emotions that originally fired him to make music and share it on the Internet, leading to his deal with New York’s Matador Records, were in short supply.
“There was no bravery in any of the new music I was making. And even though bravery doesn’t always have to be loud, I felt something missing.”
He scrapped it all and started again, veering in the opposite direction. No more suppressing visceral impulses, no more risk-dodging. Bingo! New ideas gushed forth.
“As soon as I started making these things that were more mental, they felt more like me, even if they maybe weren’t very good at first. There’s more of my heart in it.”
For inspiration, he returned to the music of his adolescence. Hadreas lived in Iowa until he was seven but grew up in assorted Seattle suburbs. At 15 he came out of the closet, telling his younger brother that he was bisexual. (“It changed nothing between us,” he recalls.) His mother expressed concern, mostly for his future happiness. Rather than say anything directly to his father, Hadreas signed up for trial subscriptions to LGBT periodicals like Out and The Advocate and left them lying around the living room.
Casting back to those teenage years, Hadreas shoved aside the spirit of Adele and rekindled an old favorite to ignite Too Bright. “If I had to name one inspiration, it was PJ Harvey,” he says. “I was listening to her, I was listening to a lot of Diamanda Galás.” Saber-rattling women unafraid of issuing bloodcurdling shrieks and threats of castration. “People who really go there, who are tapping into the source. For me, there’s a lot more power when a woman does that.”
Hadreas recalls the first time he heard Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love,” with its talk of cursing God and laying with Satan. “She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t apologizing. That was a really powerful thing for me and I wanted to conjure up some of that in myself.”
It was the right stylistic decision, mortgage payments be damned.
“I didn’t know if I was being irresponsible or too rebellious, but even before I finished making the record, it was such a relief,” he says. “Fuck it. Even if I’m acting out, that’s something I want to do and I’m going to do it.”
Too Bright sounds radically different from previous Perfume Genius. Hadreas hasn’t entirely banished his breathy tenor and delicate piano, but quiet selections like opener “I Decline” are the exception, not the rule. “The music and the actual sounds are heavier, and I’m happy for that,” he says. Throbbing, abrasive songs like “My Body” and “Grid” distort and smear his vocals, buffeting them with harsh electronic textures. Crude synthesizer riffs underscore a bolder, more confident singing style. Horror movie soundtrack textures permeate the mix, too.
Hadreas started to push his sonic palette before he completed making demos for Too Bright. First he augmented his electric piano with distortion, plug-ins and reverb. When that wasn’t enough, he started banging on the synthesizers that belong to his boyfriend and bandmate Alan Wyffels. Armed with this material, he sought out a suitable producer. Ali Chant, who engineered and played guitar on Put Your Back N 2 It and co-produced Too Bright, suggested an ideal candidate: Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
“I’m obsessed with Portishead,” Hadreas says flatly, as if his affinity for the heart-wrenching vocals of Beth Gibbons should be obvious given the other singers in his pantheon. But another strong woman factored into the decision, too.
“I listened to the soundtrack Adrian did for the old silent film about Joan of Arc,” he says, referring to the restored Passion of Joan of Arc with music composed by Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory in 2010. “It was super intense and dead serious. And I really like it when people go for it like that, with zero levity at all.”
Utley instantly connected with the disquieting energy of Hadreas’ music. “I was really taken by everything about him: his mood, his lyrics, his vibe,” the producer/guitarist says.
Hadreas spent a month recording in Chant and Utley’s Bristol studios. He says the sessions felt stilted at first, especially because this was only his second time in a studio (his 2010 debut Learning was recorded in his bedroom). Nevertheless, his natural artistry impressed Utley, whose credits also include Bat for Lashes and Marianne Faithfull. “I’ve worked with singers who are brilliant but have a real struggle to get where they’re going,” he says, “whereas Mike’s quick and never sings anything terrible.”
Although Hadreas studied piano as a child, he rarely practiced, preferring to improvise if he hit a patch in a piece he didn’t know well enough. “I didn’t start making music until fairly late and even after I was touring I wasn’t certain that I was a musician,” he says. “I have a lot more confidence from making this record and can really do whatever I want now. I take it in whatever direction I feel like, and not just write lyrics and put everything else underneath it on the piano.”
Another key contributor on Too Bright, John Parish, brought Hadreas within one degree of separation of his beloved Polly Jean Harvey, who has collaborated with Parish for years. The drummer stripped away the colder electronic rhythms that originally anchored “Queen” and threw in a stoner-rock beat instead, prompting Hadreas to re-record his vocals with more in-your-face, glam-rock attitude. Parish kicked up the excitement of “Grid,” too, throwing double-time drumming behind the caterwauling backing vocals that cap its conclusion.
Yet Hadreas’ collaborators point to the music’s author as the prime agent of transformation. “Mike wanted to change things to where they are now,” Utley says. “We just took it further than he probably knew how to on his own. That’s all.”
Hadreas’ attempts to approach his music with a more “adult” attitude backfired beautifully. And his pursuit of a white picket fence is progressing since he and Wyffels moved out of Rainer Valley and set up shop in the Theater District of Tacoma a couple of months ago.
“We’re going to be traveling for at least a year straight and we didn’t want to pay so much money for rent,” he says. “Rents are cheap in Tacoma and we like it there.”
Like any family—the couple also has a Chihuahua named Wanda—Hadreas and Wyffels have their ups and downs, especially since the latter quit working as a barista. “Now he’s just making music with me, so we’re really together 24 hours a day,” Hadreas says. “In Tacoma.”
His boyfriend wants children and his mother has started knitting baby clothes, but Hadreas has reservations. “Having children never entered my mind as a possibility so I haven’t grown up my whole life expecting it or thinking about it. It’s like with marriage. And I don’t not want those things but I don’t specifically want them either.”
Still, the couple’s domestic bliss increases as they learn to make compromises. “Before we got together, Alan was very healthy. He was a vegetarian and didn’t drink soda. I cook a lot of comfort foods, lots of cream and butter, but we’ve gotten a little healthier.”
Yet as the unsettling “My Body” intimates, the former party boy—he went through rehab before making Learning—still feels uncomfortable within his own skin. “I quit doing drugs. I quit drinking,” he says. But I still don’t think of my body as something that should be taken care of. I smoke a pack a day, I binge eat a lot, I drink about two liters of Diet Coke. Relative to what I had been doing, my thoughts haven’t changed. I’ve just cut a couple things out.”
And that’s good. Because the world needs Perfume Genius—even if he balks when fans says so to his face.
“A lot of people give you credit for something you didn’t do, so I tell them, ‘I didn’t do any of this: You did! You did all the things you say my songs helped you do.’”
Hadreas smiles as he recalls looking into the audience at all-ages Perfume Genius gigs and seeing teenage boys in dresses.
“All the weirdoes come to my shows, and I love that. It’s very safe-feeling. And I bet they feel safe, too,” he says. Maybe they didn’t wear that dress to another show, but they can wear it to mine.”
Photo by Steven Miller.