Way back in January we introduced you to the haunting piano music of Perfume Genius in the form of a cryptic Thelma & Louise YouTube video. Since then, we’ve managed to uncover that Perfume Genius is in fact the stage name of Mike Hadreas, a 29-year-old musician from Seattle signed to indie label Matador Records.
Earlier this summer Hadreas released Learning, a collection of lo-fi piano ballads inspired by the painful lessons he learned during a tumultuous, self-destructive period in his life. Thoroughly intrigued, we phoned him at an airport lobby in Philadelphia at the end of his first-ever North American tour, which included a performance at the big Matador 21 bash in Las Vegas, to find out more. The topics of discussion were varied, ranging from his cathartic approach to songwriting and his fascination with amateur fetish videos to his awful art school installations and his musical romance.
How was the Matador 21st anniversary party in Vegas?
It was pretty intense. It was definitely the biggest show that we’ve ever played and we went on right after the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, so it was like a really big buzz kill when we rolled out. But I think people seemed to like it. So that’s good.
Did you get to talk to Cat Power at all?
Um, I gave her a meek thumbs-up and a smile after she played and I don’t think she noticed me, but I wasn’t very assertive. Everybody was really nice but some people thought I was the caterer when I was back stage. [laughs] I’m the new guy, I guess.
Are you a big Cat Power fan?
Yeah I love her.
Any favorite albums or songs?
Moon Pix of course I would listen to when I was in a deep, adolescent stupor. That was the perfect album for that. I like how she’s matured. Some people don’t like it when people grow up or get better or anything. They don’t want to hear about it. But I like that. Same with PJ Harvey, you know? Everybody still wants her to sing about like, her vagina being on fire, but maybe it went out after five years ago? Maybe she doesn’t want to sing about that anymore?
What would you say your strengths are as a songwriter and performer?
I guess I just try to be genuine the whole time. I’m really dedicated to trying to stay as real as possible and I guess that kind of works out. But also if you think about being genuine too much that defeats the purpose if you’re trying to be really real and obsessing over it. You can’t really over think realness.
What do you mean by real? In terms of the persona you create for the record and the performance?
I think you kind of have to a little bit I guess because I guess some of the stuff [I sing about] is really heavy, so I don’t carry it around with me all day. But I make it like this cathartic 45 minutes where I can lay it out.
The first song on the album “Learning” is also the first song that you wrote. Can you tell me about the idea for “Learning”?
I wrote it at my mom’s. I guess that song is about, just like how everybody has something that happens to them ⎯ they never ask for it or they feel like it poisons them in some way. I think everybody feels that there’s something kind of wrong with them all the time, but there isn’t.
Perfume Genius performs “Learning” in Seattle in July, 2010.
What inspired you to start playing the piano and put all your experiences into a record?
I had always wrote journals and poetry and teenager-y things like that. I painted. I went to art school. I dropped out but I was painting for a year. Music is what I always wanted to do but it was the hardest thing, I guess because I loved it so much. It’s hard if you listen to a lot of music and then you start making something and you automatically censor yourself because you hear so much good music. How could I ever think to compare? Certain things happened to me and I just kind of got over that and I just decided I’m going to say whatever I want, for better or for worse, even if it’s complete shit.
What kind of things did you paint in art school?
Oh, they’re kind of messy. I like watercolors a lot and bleeding things into each other. I haven’t done it for a long time but I was still in a kind of a ⎯ they were pretty depressing. I was a really bad student too. Everybody would do these really amazing installations and stuff and I would just [starts laughing] hang a cardboard person from the ceiling with an extension cord. When they’d get to mine, everybody would be like holy shit! But not even in a good way!
Music was the first time where I really got out of the indulgent way of making things, you know? A lot of it was I just tried so hard and I think when I stopped trying, more authentic things came out. Plus I had more room after I healed up a little bit. I had more room for something more multi-tiered than just someone hanging from the ceiling. You know?
So it was just literally a cardboard person with a cord around its neck?
Actually I traced a friend on the floor and I just cut it out. And actually I dismantled a VCR as well and made genitals out of the little gears. Not very subtle!
Who is the guy that you’re on tour with and performing with?
He’s my boyfriend. I’m a little hesitant to say that because I don’t want it to seem like that’s the only reason he’s playing with me. [laughs] That came after the fact. We met through, I guess you would call it a recovery program in Seattle. I heard that he went to school for piano and we got along so we started playing together and you know, started doing it.
Why did you click musically?
I think, in a hippie way, the most important thing is he’s been through a lot of the things I have and he’s been through a lot of the same experiences. What I’m doing now is recovering and trying to be healthy so we’re in the same boat. I tried to play with someone before and they were really talented but I don’t know if they really understood what I was talking about in the music. Beyond that too, he went to school and he knows a lot about music so he hears things differently than me but he’s still able to keep things simple within the context of my plinky, normal, basic stuff.
Have you written a song for him?
Yeah, I did. It’s a new song. It’s called [laughs] “Put Your Back In To It”. It’s not my hip-hopera or anything. It’s a really slow song. I actually wrote that for him and it was very teen romance-y because I actually wrote that before we got together and when we were just practicing and stuff. And I had him sing with me and he didn’t know that the song was about him until a month later.
What’s the song about?
We both just had some not great experiences and that’s part of it. And when you’re drinking and partying and stuff, you don’t always have meaningful encounters and that song’s just about how there’s still really beautiful things about that, and I could show what that’s like.
The video Perfume Genius’ song “No Problem”.
You’ve said that the videos on your YouTube channel were inspired by fetish videos. Can tell me about fetish stuff you encountered during your travels on YouTube?
One was a breath control video. I guess dudes are really into girls holding their breathes for really long periods of time, and the first part is she puts all the weights on so she can stay under and at the end she comes up to the surface. It’s very clear what’s going on in the video but then I kind of cut both of those parts out and left the middle chunk. I’ve watched so much of them. It’s not really ironic or I’m not thinking of them as bizarre anymore. There’s just something really vulnerable about people making all these videos where they’re wearing masks and stuff and hanging out in their house. They’ll be all dolled up in these female masks but their golden retrievers will be running around. Like, I can see their books that they’re reading in the background. There’s something touching about it.
Do you relate to that, in that you’re putting yourself out there as well, but in a different way?
I think so because it becomes a middle ground thing. For me, I’ve always been extreme about what I like or what affects me: it’s either really dark and gross or really beautiful and loving. But it’s not always that black and white and in those videos you can see that everything is muddled up. If someone likes the fetish-y thing, it seems like something private and to be ashamed of, but for me that’s how I train to myself to think about a lot of things. Anything that makes us open up a bit…
Is a good thing?
Perfume Genius European tour dates:
Oct 22 – Brighton, UK @ The Hope
Oct 23 – Cardiff, UK @ SWN Festival
Oct 25 – Brussels, Belgium @ Bontanique
Oct 26 – Paris, France @ Le Point Ephemere
Oct 27 – Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Paradiso
Oct 28 – Hamburg, Germany @ Prinzenbar
[Photos by Angel Ceballos]