“I didn’t even know what that law was that happened in Indiana. I didn’t even check it out. Bad gay!”
Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, broke free from the bruised inward looking songs that comprised his first two records, busting forth with Too Bright, a collection of robust, in-your-face songs that sits amongst the best of 2014. Hadreas took some time before his opening slot at Belle and Sebastian’s Portland show to talk about growing up in the Pacific Northwest, his music being “too gay” and wrestling. I’m proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Mike Hadreas.
You grew in the Pacific Northwest. How do you feel that, if at all, affects your music?
It’s hard to say when you grew up somewhere. Seattle is really beautiful, but you forget because you get used to it. After traveling around when I’m on tour and seeing how less green everything is and more dry everything else is, I think it does affect me. I think no matter where I am my music will always be as gloomy as Seattle, still. I had a decent grunge phase as a young teenager. I wore flannel (laughs).
There was no backlash there considering that’s where grunge is from?
There isn’t at all. They still play Pearl Jam at the airport. Everybody is really proud of that time period, at the least people I’ve met. No one is embarrassed of that. It never bothers me when people bring that up all the time.
Does grunge ever enter what you’re doing now?
I think more so with this last album. I don’t know directly, if I thought about it.
Do you live in Tacoma still?
We moved to Tacoma for like six months, just to try it out because the houses are much cheaper there. I eventually want to move into a house and I don’t really feel like moving to the suburbs. But we’re going to be touring now for basically a year straight, so we just moved in with my mom so we don’t have to pay rent and maybe save up for a down payment on a house.
We just rented a house in Seattle to visit last month and it was pricey.
Even just renting houses in the city is really expensive. I don’t know if I can even afford that.
The difference in house cost between Seattle and Portland is huge.
We thought about moving to Portland a bunch, but it’s just hard. We have some friends here. We’re always thinking about moving. We like to move. We’ve moved a lot, me and my boyfriend. We’ve been together for a while. We move often. We’ve moved all around the city. We’ve thought about moving to LA a lot. That’s the big one we’re always talking about. I doubt we ever will. We want to be in a house. We don’t really need to be in all the stuff, you know what I mean? Big city stuff. We don’t want to pay the rent to be right in the middle of something we don’t take advantage of. We never really go out. We don’t do anything but watch Netflix. We might as well have a nice house and a nice couch to do that in. Then we go on tour and I feel all cool again. Like a younger feel like, “Hey! I’m a cool city person again!” And then I want to move to LA.
I read somewhere that you were concerned before you put out Too Bright that your music was too “gay.” What does that mean and why is that even a problem?
I wasn’t really concerned that it was too gay. I was concerned that other people would because that’s what people have said to me, gay and straight. When you make anything being as explicit and specific about my sexuality, people are going to take issue with it, I think. Gay people think I’m either being too gay or not gay enough. It has to be all things to all people. Since there are so few examples, it has to fit with everybody, because everyone is looking to identify with it, I guess. And then I suppose the business people have fears that it will alienate listeners. That straight people wouldn’t want to listen to my music, which is really strange. There weren’t too many examples of gay musicians for me to listen to when I was growing up so I listened to a lot of straight people (laughs). I listened to a lot of women growing up and was inspired by them and I’m not a woman. I think it’s kind of bullshit. People are smarter than that. And if not, I don’t need them listening to my music.
Who inspired you woman-wise?
Woman-wise? (laughs) A lot. Growing up, PJ Harvey. Especially this last one.
Let England Shake?
That was a super good album. All of her albums are always good. I think To Bring You My Love is my favorite album of hers because it was the first one I fell in love with. I thought about that album a lot when I was writing this one. I wanted to make my version of something with that kind of power and dynamics. At least a touch of it.
The songs are definitely more muscular. And I don’t mean that in a masculine sense.
Laughs Muscles are good, I guess.
I am still hung up on what “too gay” even means.
It’s such a confusing thing. Talking about it at all is confusing because…I don’t know. There’s a group of people who want gayness to be normal. They want it to be something like they just happen to be gay and not make an issue out of it. We’re just like everybody else. Which is fine, but if you don’t play into that, people sometimes get upset. I never really wanted to be treated like a straight person, I just want to be treated as equal to straight people. Do you know what I mean? (laughs). But I think being “too gay” is threatening. Like I’m wearing heels or something and some people are like, “We’re trying to do this thing where we play football and shit. Why are you doing that?”
This is where it gets confusing, talking in circles about it. I think simply the reason people thought I would be too gay is just that I would make less money. When my dad is talking to me about it, that’s what he’s talking about. That’s what all the business people are talking about. They think I will make less money because I’m going to have less of an audience because it will be threatening to people that can’t 100% identify with every aspect of who I am.
Artistically, that sounds like bad advice.
Yeah, it is bad advice, but maybe it is good businesswise. I don’t know. But I didn’t really take it in the end. I tried to take their advice and write at first and make music with integrity that was more universal and not use pronouns, like a lot of people do. If I had written that way and it was inspiring or good, I would have kept the songs. It wasn’t working. Not all the songs on the album are about gayness.
How about “Gay Angels”?
“Gay Angels”? (Laughs). That song doesn’t even have words to it. It’s just gibberish. I just gave it a gay title! (Laughs). Yeah, I kinda flipped it around. I was like, “Fuck you. I’m going to be as gay as possible.”
I grew up with a gay father in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. It was something I didn’t tell anyone for 10 years after I found out. I feel like things have changed a bit politically since then. I’m wondering if I was a teenager now, would I be open about that? Now that you’re in your 30s and have been around, has the zeitgeist changed?
I do think so. I am rebellious and push things but I still think things have gotten much better and I do think things have changed.
Yeah, I was terrified that my friends would find out.
That’s because you were scared that it meant something about you (laughs). That’s the too gay thing. It means something about their sexuality if they listen to someone with music that has a different one then theirs. It’s strange. I think things would be different. But I think things could be equally, or scarily, worse because of the internet.
I didn’t have the internet when I was a kid.
I didn’t either, thank God. I think it would have been better in a lot of ways. I came out when I was 15 and I think now it would have been easier, but the internet could have made it much scarier. The internet is just scary in general. I think I could have found some support there but also people would know really how to get to me. People had to work for it to gay bash me right outside of my presence (laughs). That’s kind of frightening to me.
So, Indiana has been in the news a lot lately.
I’m going to be honest and I don’t even know what it is. What is the law? They have the right to refuse service?
Yeah, based on religious beliefs.
Then that pizza shop got like $1 million in donations? I remember a friend trying to get the morning after pill once and they wouldn’t give it to them because the woman at the pharmacy didn’t agree with it.
That was in Seattle, yeah. Then maybe she shouldn’t take it. Why do these people get to make decisions for other people?
I think it’s beyond gayness. I think any sort of otherness is frightening to some people.
I think that’s what it is. Because the core fear is not gayness. It’s not me. It’s not gayness. It’s if they let a little bit of something different in, everything is going to fall out beneath them. They are going to have to start thinking about all this other stuff they are denying that exists. All these other things are going to come in and everything is going to crumble. They have to keep everything one way.
I like the guy who is worried that just because there is a gay guy in the locker room then he automatically wants to fuck him.
You know what? The secret is sometimes they do (laughs). Sometimes when that gay person is looking at you they are thinking you’re hot and they may might to fuck you. So what? I don’t understand! Guys are really upset that it’s happening. But you know what? Sometimes it is. What are you going to do?
I suppose this topic comes up often in interviews for you.
A lot, but it’s part of what I’m doing. I knew it would happen and I don’t mind talking about it. I feel a sense of duty talking about it. The only thing that worries me is maybe I’m not the smartest or the best at it. I’m just doing what I know.
Do you have to be the smartest and the best at it?
(Laughs) No! But I didn’t even know what that law was that happened in Indiana (laughs). I didn’t even check it out. Bad gay! Sometimes I think as long as it’s in balance. I did work really hard on the music and really hard on the lyrics. You know what I mean? I worked really hard on that.
I’ve seen you play three times now. I’ve noticed that on the records the songs kind of linger but when you play them on stage, they end abruptly. You definitely seem more comfortable on stage now. You were even dancing last time.
I think I’m dancing even more now. I used not notice how things would be up and down and then just kinda stop. I just used to be so nervous that I was just trying to get through everything and I would just go right into the next one and then stop it. Now I notice that more. Nothing’s really changed (laughs). A lot of it is just how I work. I’m able to go up and down really quickly. That’s just how my brain is. I could laugh or cry whenever, so I don’t mind having ups and downs. I try to map out the setlist to at least where the songs communicate with each other or there will be chunks of the same kind of mood. So if the songs are short, you’re in the same headspace for a while. I’m not certain if that happens. I think it’s kind of bipolar as far as volumes and screaming and whispering still.
Do you still get stage fright?
I do, but in a different way. I almost prefer it that way because if I’m really nervous the shows are usually much better because it means I’m more present and I care about the outcome (laughs).
Is Belle and Sebastian the biggest band you’re opened for?
I think so. We opened for Sigur Rós for a couple of weeks and those shows were pretty big.
Ever since I’ve seen the “Dark Parts” video, I’ve been wanting to ask you, what the hell is going on in the backyard and who’s the guy smoking the cigar?
That’s my stepdad (laughs). He kinda ended up being a creepy character and he’s the least creepy guy in the world. He was just smoking out there anyways and I was like, “Hey, you just pan and show him.” Because my mom is in there. My brother is in the video too. My boyfriend…
(Laughs) My dogs! So I tried to get everybody in there.
Sometimes I don’t know what’s going or why (laughs). I’m sure if I sat down and tried to process everything there would be some kind of poetic reason for it.
That’s only for the video, right? That’s not something that normally happens.
What? The choreographed weird dancing around the fire? (Laughs) Not really, but to be honest, I wouldn’t put anything past my mom. My mom did choreograph all the moves we were doing. I don’t think you can really see the scope of the moves. She’s the one that came up with the movements that we did.
It was a really touching video and I feel like your appreciation for your mother is evident there. In the new videos, there seems to be some weird issues around food happening.
There’s a lot of shrimp. I had two directors work on the last three videos and shrimp…they’re just really into shrimp. That’s not even me (laughs). That’s like them. They’re just super into shrimp. I don’t know why the food stuff came up. I have weird issues around food.
I tend to binge a little bit (laughs). Most of the time how these videos work, I approach someone because I like what they’re doing and I’ll send them a bunch of crazy ideas and they’ll send me crazy ideas and we’ll patch them together. But none of the food ideas were mine. The glittery steak, all that shit, it was theirs. But I’m into it.
I just thought you were working out some food thing because it showed up more than once. So binging and watching Netflix are two passions?
Yeah, anything really in excess. I quit drinking and stuff but I haven’t lost that part of my brain (laughs). I still use it for pretty much everything else.
Do you feel guilty about it?
Eating? Yeah, I do. It’s an intentional thing. Making a full cake and then eating it at two in the morning by yourself…you don’t want to but then you keep pushing it in your face.
This isn’t the result of marijuana munchies?
No. I eliminated a lot of the stuff that used to medicate that part of me. I always feel like I need more of something. I never feel like I’m in the right mood. I always want my mood to be different. I don’t care even if it’s worse; I just want it to be different than it is at the moment. I’ll take aspirin when I don’t need it. I take vitamins.
Hence moving a lot?
Yeah, that’s part of it too. I think buying a house will fix it or that will change things.
Have a kid.
Yeah, I should (laughs). That’s the root of it. I just think about myself way too much. I think a baby will help eliminate that. I would be fine with it, you know?
I was going to ask you about Tacoma, but since you don’t live there….
We only lived there for six months. Tacoma has a bad rep in Seattle. It just to be more dangerous and didn’t have as many things to do there. Tacoma is much older than Seattle. All the architecture is much cooler. I actually like the way Tacoma looks much better than Seattle. The buildings are older. The way it is set up is cool. There are lots of old theaters and things like that. I really like it. The food is not as good as Seattle. And beyond the bad way I am with food, I’m also good with food. I like to eat.
We’re lucky here in Portland.
Portland is super good too.
Did you come down here a lot as a kid?
Not that much. We would vacation in Eugene a little bit. I don’t remember eating anything in Eugene.
What recent films and music has been inspiring to you?
There is a musician named Mas Ysa and I really like his music. I met him at the show we played in Kingston, which is in upstate New York and I made him send me his album that is not out yet. It’s super good. Since I started making music, I’ve been listening to new music much less. I also listen to it differently and that’s kind of sad. I think about them being in the studio making it and I didn’t know about studios and how all that worked before. I like things that are very familiar but have tiny little surprises in them. I am trying to think of movies. I watched Foxcatcher. Did you see that? It was fucked up, that movie. I grew up wrestling. My family is a wrestling family. My dad’s a wrestling coach. My brother wrestled through high school. I wrestled through high school. I wrestled all the way up until I came out of the closet in sophomore year in high school. So that was weird. That part of it was strange.
Was there something homoerotic for you in wrestling?
There wasn’t! That’s the weird part. Wrestling is gross. It’s not erotic at all. The mat stinks. Everything stinks! People are barfing all the time because you’re doing conditioning. There’s a garbage can in the middle of the room to puke in. It’s not hot at all. Maybe looking back, if I go back over those memories maybe I can find something, but at the time there wasn’t really anything erotic about it. I was always wrestling people in my weight class and I’m the tiniest weight class you can be. So I was always wrestling these tiny, little guys (laughs). Nothing against tiny people. In 7th grade, I wrestled in the 75 lb. weight class. In 8th grade, I wrestled 80 lbs and in 9th grade I wrestled 80 lbs. still. Isn’t that nuts? In 9th grade, 80 lbs! That’s fucked up.
I can’t remember the last time I weighed 80 lbs. So you’ve been on tour a long time.
We’re doing the rest of the West Coast with Belle and Sebastian and then we have time off. Then it’s festivals in Europe and the United States. We’re going to be in Europe for a couple of months. We’ve never played a bunch of US festivals, but with this last album we’re playing as bunch of them. I’m excited. They’re fun. They are usually more social. You meet other bands. They usually have a tent where you get a scalp massage or something or free slip-on shoes.
You guys get paid more for festivals.
Oh, hell yeah. They pay a ton of money. Well, for like me.
Man, I’m done with big festivals unless you like to see an 18-year-old girl puking at 1 in the afternoon.
There’s something weirdly charming about that. I think it’s because I’m weirdly detached from it that I can just watch it and I’m not in it, so it’s not gross and awful. People are crazy, though, and they are really going for it. I remember just being so careless when I was young, not knowing where my body was and what I was doing. When I watch other people do it I just wonder how did I ever survive that?
Will there be any time off for you coming up?
After this tour, there is about a month off. My boyfriend is going to visit his family for a couple of weeks and I’m going to be on my own, which is when I like to make music. I’d like to be all dramatic and do the cabin in the woods thing. I think maybe I’m going to try and make that happen. Maybe rent somewhere on Vashon Island and try to write. I want to release an album sooner than I did last time. I don’t want to wait so long. I just don’t have as much time in a row. If I wanted to release an album this year, I would basically have to write it with this month I have off.