It’s been just over a year since we last spoke with Perfume Genius, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, about his bedroom-recorded breakthrough album, Learning.
Since then, the Seattle-based piano man has recorded a strikingly beautiful second album called Put Your Back N 2 It in a ‘proper’ studio for respected indie label Matador, co-starred in a music video with gay porn star Arpad Miklos, ignited a minor controversy with a too-hot-for-YouTube ad and earned a rep as a fearless and talented performer that’s willing to go there — in song and occasionally in interviews — on a number of difficult-to-broach topics.
We recently reconvened with Mike on the phone to chat about his new album, his insecurities and his amateur porn interests, as well as bait him into one of those super gay arguments that pits Beyoncé against another female pop star. Read the Q&A after the jump!
Your first album was mastered off MP3s so it was difficult to hear your voice at times. In what ways did you want to take advantage of a proper recording studio for your second album?
I wanted to step up but I knew that wouldn’t be very hard to do from my first album. If you could hear me singing, then that was a step up. I just wanted to go for it but still have restraint and not slap a whole bunch of instruments on it just because I’m in a studio. I was kind of nervous too so I didn’t want a whole bunch of people coming in.
Why were you nervous?
Oh, just because I’d never done it before. The way that I had made music before was at home and I had made a lot of really goopy mistakes, but I ended up liking some of it. I thought that I wouldn’t let loose with a bunch of people watching me.
So it’s still important for you to have a rough or imperfect quality in your music?
Yeah. It has the same sort of – I guess ‘intimacy’ is the word. It doesn’t mean it has to be lo-fi, but still personal. I’m sure people could figure out how to do that and have a million things going on but I like to keep it sparse.
Can you tell me about your producers?
Most of the album was in England with a producer called Drew Morgan. We had never met or anything but we wrote back and forth for a little while. We became like pen pals. He was just very sweet. I wonder if he would be mad if I called him sweet? [laughs] We were writing and he’s very much into the meanings behind all the songs and the intentions. I was scared that working with a producer was going to be very business-y. He was very professional but it wasn’t that business-y feel. He knew what I meant.
I also worked with John Goodmanson in Seattle in that studio that Pearl Jam and Nickeback recorded in. There were platinum Nickelback albums there, which I thought was awesome. [laughs]
Oooh, haha. So did you take advantage of the tricked out set up?
All the music people talk about the room and how the roooooom sounds and everything. I don’t know about rooms that much. I know about my room. [laughs] I was surprised by how easily everything went.
Well then let’s talk about the music video for “Hood” co-starring gay porn star Arpad Miklos because you had a minor controversy after that came out. How did you feel when YouTube rejected the ad for your record that incorporated footage from that video?
To be honest, I didn’t understand that at all. When [the label] showed me the ad I kind of liked it but I thought maybe it was too sweet, you know? It was almost sappy, which is fine. I don’t mind being sappy or sentimental but I actually worked on my own ad that I thought looked more like a phone sex commercial.
[laughs] Do you remember USA Up All Night?
I’m in Canada, so no.
They’d play raunchy b-movies on the USA Network late at night and then the commercials would always have girls trying to get you to ‘just pick up the phone!’ and call them so I made one that, at least to me, had that kind of tone to it. It probably would’ve passed [YouTube’s] standards because there were no shirtless dudes with their nipples almost touching, which I guess is really scandalous. They’re just so close! The nipples are so close together that they might eventually touch! And children can’t handle it!
So you couldn’t fall back on your phone sex ad?
I showed that to everybody and I think they thought it was too lo-fi or something. You know, I’m supposed to be a legitimate dude now. I still think it’s really goofy. Even reading the YouTube comments on the music video is like being back in high school. Someone made a YouTube profile to post ‘you’re going to hell’ type of comments and ‘all gay people should be rounded up and stoned’ or whatever and his screen name is The Rankest Snatch, which is a scary name. It just takes me right back to being in high school when I read things like that. I feel like I should be over it but I’m not, to be honest. So I wrote him a personal message.
Did he write back?
No. I just told him that I was going to eat his heart.
They always say that if you write those people they’ll apologize when they realize the person they’re ridiculing is an actual human being.
Sometimes, but a lot of trolls are just waiting for more fodder so it’s a tricky road. I wish I was the kind of person that would just let it all go. I don’t know if I should talk about this, but [YouTube] censored me and so I wanted to delete all those hateful comments but I just think it’s weird of me to censor when I was censored. I guess being hateful and making death threats is a lot different than making a sweet video about two men.
If you’re reading YouTube comments are you also reading reviews and the coverage of your records? Or do you switch off from all that?
Oh man I wish I was switched off from that but I read everything. Me and my boyfriend Alan try to put a moratorium on it. Like, ‘today we’re not going to Google me.’ [laughs] It’s just left over stuff. I just want validation so bad and I should just be getting it from myself but now I can just Google for it.
And it exacerbates the problem.
Oh totally. It’s like jealousy. When you’re jealous you’re kind of hoping that something bad is going to happen just to justify how you feel. So I’ll read all of these nice things and then I’ll read one mean one and I’ll be like, ‘Oh there we go! Oh shit!’ It’s the same as when I get jealous of my boyfriend or feel insecure. It’s the same kind of spiral.
Do you think the barrage of anonymous hate on the Internet will ever subside?
I don’t think so. Teenagers are wicked. I was a wicked, wicked teenager too. If I could’ve had any kind of presence on the Internet as a teenager and be wicked at the same time I’m sure I would’ve done it.
How were you wicked as a teenager?
Maybe not in the same way but I was just very dramatic. You think all of your opinions are really important. And now there’s a whole bunch of avenues where you can share them all the time to everybody and I’m sure I would’ve done that. I had a really dramatic Live Journal. That was, like, my thing.
What did you post on it?
I wrote short stories about my life and stuff. I guess not a lot has changed but hopefully [my work now] is a lot better than my teenage short stories.
So back to the music video and Arpad Miklos. I read that you had never heard of him or watched his movies before. Is that true?
Yes and everybody thinks that I’m full of shit. His production values are too high. I’ve seen a lot of work in his field but I tend to not watch things that are well lit.
The videos you used to post online were these homemade fetish videos that you’d re-edit to your songs. The first track on the record, “AWOL Marine,” was inspired by homemade or amateur porn. Do you have a collection of homemade or amateur porn?
Oh god. Um, well you know! I think I amassed a light one before I was in a relationship. I mean, not that you can’t watch porn when you’re with someone, but I cleaned up my hard drive a little bit.
What did you gravitate towards? Anything specific in terms of genre?
Oh my god.
Jesus! Well, you know, I like things where people seem like real people, which is maybe a lofty thing for anybody being filmed having sex. There’s a performance to it, but I mean that’s how I listen to music too: I try and see the real thing or hear the real thing. That’s my diplomatic answer.
And in writing “AWOL Marine,” you were inspired by a moment in a homemade basement porn when the performers were off camera, probably doing drugs?
What was it about that moment that captured your imagination in particular?
There was no performance to it. I feel bad because I felt like that was a really soulless and crazy situation and [the actors] could’ve had a really good time or been completely fine afterwards. I’ve been in situations where I did things against my morals to get what I needed so I’m not sure why I was searching that stuff out… but maybe because I could watch in my home and be safe knowing it’s not me.
Another song on the album, “Take Me Home,” you describe in the press notes as “a pop song about hookerism” that you hope will find its way into a TV commercial. What kind of commercial is that song best suited for?
I’d LOVE it to be in a car commercial or one of those commercials where it’s all slow and a bunch of straight people are looking up.
As in the-eyes-of-wonderment-staring-at-the-sky type of thing?
[Laughs] Yeah. I just like the idea of subverting something like that.
You describe the song “Floating Spit” as “The Neverending Story in a bath house.” What’s the bath house scene in Seattle like?
I tried to go to one once with my friend Kara Lee and they wouldn’t let us in because she’s a girl. Now, I’m sure a million people are going to call bullshit on me because I’ve never been to a bath house. [laughs] But if you need the names and the locations I can tell you where they are.
What would you say the songs on this album have in common?
I’m just used to being ashamed and I’m convinced that all the things that I think are gross about me are actually gross or worth being ashamed of and they’re not. I can see that really easily in all my friends and my family members that have secrets that they feel broken by. I can see how completely untrue that is and I wanted to write songs to remind myself how untrue that is.
You based one song on an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “Dirge.” How does that fit in?
I just really like that poem. It’s about mourning and passing.
Who are your favorite poets?
Sharon Olds is my favorite poet. She writes about things that would be scary to write about and she’s really good at it.
It seems like you have to have a similarly fearless attitude in tackling difficult subject matter to turn it into triumphant or uplifting music. Is it difficult to write these songs out or do they just come to you?
Sometimes it’s hard to be compassionate about my experiences and write about things in a kind way. Even if the experiences were bad, I don’t want to be mopey or I don’t want to write about my hard time that I think I had. It’s nice to write songs where that ends up happening and I just don’t keep those ones. I just try to be multi-tiered about it.
There’s a song “17” on the record that is about gay suicides. In the press notes accompanying the album you observe that there are so many uplifting pop songs on the radio that are being lumped into the anti-bullying movement.
And so Lily Allen tweeted something recently that made me think of you. She said “Sorry are motivational speech making skills pre-requisite for all pop stars these days, seriously, f*ck off.”
[laughs] Umm hmm.
What do you think about that sentiment?
Well, I don’t think that there’s less value in being almost after school special-y about things. That could still be inspiring but I’m not ready to hear that all the time. I’m not ready to hear about the future. Sometimes I want to hear about how bad it is right now. Both are good.
Perfume Genius performs “17” live on WNYU.
What’s the key to a good sad song? What makes a sad song a really great sad song?
I think just trying to be as real about things as possible and to try to not just listen to yourself 100%. What I like best in sad songs is when people tell the truth on themselves. When they’re not telling truth about other people, but when they’re telling a truth on themselves, if that makes any sense.
I like how you can hear the ephemeral studio noise on the album, like breathing or your fingers hitting the piano keys. Why did you keep all that in?
They kept asking me if I wanted to cut all that out and I left it all on. Except if you could hear snot or something. I think I had them cut that out. Even when I go to shows my favorite songs are when the person plays by themselves with the guitar. I like hearing the creak of the piano bench. I think it’s inviting.
When I was listening to “Dirge” on my headphones the other day I kept hearing all these noises and I thought someone had gotten into my house and was creeping around the hallway.
[Laughs maniacally] I like that too! Maybe that was my secret intention. I should start making those sounds up.
Just add in doorbells and fax machines.
Like someone rustling around paper or stomping on bubble wrap.
So that’s it. Before we say goodbye is there anything you’d like to say about the state of pop music? Any final thoughts?
Pop music? Well I really like Ciara. I guess I could just end with that. I get in big fights about Ciara versus Beyoncé kind of thing.
What’s your line of defense?
This is my thing about Ciara-Beyoncé: Beyoncé learned how to do everything, she learned how to move like that and Ciara was born knowing how to move like that. That’s what I think!
It might be nature over nurture in terms of dancing but as far as the music goes, Ciara’s albums tend to be more consistently disappointing.
I guess Beyoncé’s music is better but I like Ciara more. I just like how she gets down.
Did you see the clip of Ciara doing the Matrix move on The Wendy Williams Show? Where she’s doing the interview while bending over backwards through a hula-hoop? You should send that to the haters.
Hell yeah! Thank you for that.
We’ll end on a Ciara video. Any requests?