Q&A: Perfume Genius On The Weird Politics Of Being A Gay Artist
If there were any justice in the world, Perfume Genius’ sophomore album, 2012’s Put Yr Back N 2 It, would have been a much bigger deal. As it was, that record, though critically beloved, drew attention for lots of weird reasons: The promo ad was rejected by YouTube for not being “family safe” (i.e., it showed two men hugging) and the album’s excellent “Hood” video became extra poignant and sad after one of the video’s stars, adult entertainer Arpad Miklos, later took his own life. The album’s somewhat harrowing subject matter tapped into relatively universal themes — the desire to love and be loved, how we choose to make peace with our past — but still so much of the conversation regarding the album centered specifically on its gayness. As an out gay music journalist myself, I found it sort of grimly amusing how many times I was told by my straight white dude peers something along the lines of, “You know, I actually really love that Perfume Genius record,” as if it were somehow surprising they might relate to something so queer, usually with the unspoken tone of “I’m not gay, bro. But I’m cool with this.” It’s the same thing I used to hear back when the Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs back in 1999, and older rock critics that I knew had to stop talking about Wilco for five minutes to admit that, yes, even I can relate to this.
So it’s with no small amount of satisfaction that I’ve been obsessively listening to the new Perfume Genius record, Too Bright, which chooses to address the problems that so many of us gay folks — even those of us living in liberal enclaves like NYC — still feel regarding our place in popular culture. Informed by what the artist, aka Mike Hadreas, describes as “an underlying rage that has slowly been growing since age 10 and has just begun to bubble up,” the album takes on subjects like gay panic, confused identity politics, and the infuriating sense that one is simply being tolerated. The record doesn’t entirely forego the shimmering beauty of Hadreas’ early work, but on the album’s best tracks — “Queen,” “My Body,” “Grid” — the music moves in much weirder, darker directions, creating a sonic landscape populated by booming drums, tortured synth sounds, and the occasional scream.
For Hadreas, the album is an opportunity to address those who might view him as, as he puts it, “a walking, talking candelabra.” For someone who has historically been described in terms of his delicateness, Too Bright is a way to embrace his own power and reject certain lingering stereotypes. “I’ve met people that laugh at EVERYTHING I say,” he says. “I could be talking about OJ or Munchausen Syndrome or bloody stool — I am still just the cutest thing. Here only to enrich their lives, not have one of my own.”
STEREOGUM: When Matador sent me the new record, they were like, “It’s crazy!” And it is crazy in some ways, but it sounds like you. It’s not like a radical reinvention.
HADREAS: I understand how they have to market it like that. But it’s not like I’ve changed and am dismissing everything that came before. Everything came from the same place, it’s just sort of processed differently or something.
STEREOGUM: When you come off tour there’s always that weird limbo time, where it’s like, Well I guess I need to start figuring out what I’m going to do next. Between the last record and this one, was that a much harder process getting back into the zone of making songs?
HADREAS: It was, just because I had that much more pressure to keep ramping things up, as well as figuring out whatever it was that everybody wanted from me. At first when I was writing, I thought about that a lot.
STEREOGUM: What did you feel like people wanted from you?
HADREAS: It was more that I felt like I had a responsibility because this is my career. Like I needed to make sure the music was going to take me to nicer venues … that feeling like I need to make something that’s gonna let me continue doing this. But that made me go around things wrong at first. It made me very frustrated. I usually write a song very fast, one in a day, and suddenly I was writing songs where it was taking me a month to write. They were very simple but less personal than I used to make. I ended up being so frustrated working like that.
STEREOGUM: It often happens on the second or third album, but just in general, it’s so hard not to get in your own way. As you continue to make art, you wanna do the thing that’s supposed to naturally come out of you but you don’t want to do the same thing over and over.
HADREAS: I have a really small and strange job history. I didn’t go to school. This is really all I’ve got. I started trying to say “fuck it” about all that, but still thinking about [the new record’s potential] reception in a better way: thinking about who actually would want to be moved and inspired by it; just remembering that doing what’s important to me, talking about things that were inspiring specifically to me, was working so far. And I’m not sure why I thought I needed to change that.
STEREOGUM: It’s a healthy thing to scrap material sometimes, even if it’s annoying to do all that work and then not use it.
HADREAS: It is very much part of how I work. I needed to do that before I got to the stuff that I made. But that’s a hard thing to remember while it’s happening, especially if you’re creatively frustrated and feel like it’s never gonna come back. But it did, and I was really happy about it.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Adrian Utley from Portishead on this record. When do you know it’s time to go from the demos to finally bringing in other people?
HADREAS: I record things — that’s how I write. I do barely fleshed-out demos of everything. Even as I was writing I was thinking about how it was going to be played live and what other instruments were going to be on it, so I had pretty clear ideas beforehand. Still, they didn’t always end up exactly how I was thinking. It was different too, because usually when I’m recording I will just play — me and the piano — and then I’ll add little things on top of that. This is a lot different since some of the songs I didn’t even start with piano. I wanted everything to be really pummeling and a lot more relentless than I was capable of doing on my own at home. The producer had a lot of the actual synths I was trying to mimic, like the actual things. I remember playing one of them and it was the exact sound from the movie Legend. You know that movie? And not like the emulated version of those synth sounds, it was the actual synth itself.
STEREOGUM: I used to watch Legend like it was my full-time job.
HADREAS: It’s so good! So many things overlooked about that movie, like the way it’s really pretty but everything is also kind of rotting. I really respond to that kinda stuff. You know, really beautiful but all these icky parts underneath. There’s something unsettling about that; I like that.
STEREOGUM: It was interesting to see all the different reactions to the “Queen” video. How was the process for making that? As music videos go these days, it’s pretty involved.
HADREAS: It was very involved. I knew I wanted to work with Cody [Critcheloe of SSION]. We had a sort of internet relationship. And just from the way we’d talked to each other, I knew that we could meet in the middle. He has a very specific style, and I knew it wouldn’t be just me making his video or him making mine, it would be a collaboration. So I sent him tons of my really ambitious, insane ideas, and he sent me his, and then we sort of curated it into a weird, dreamlike thing. All his ideas, all the references, I knew where he was coming from and I trusted him.
STEREOGUM: Where did you shoot it?
HADREAS: Kansas City, which I think is why we were able to do all the crazy setups. In [Seattle] we would only have been able to do one or two, because of the price and time, but we were there for five days and he got it all. I can’t believe he got it all. The baby pigs? With a wrangler! There was a woman popping balloons in the elevator trying to scurry them out. And the boardroom? We just put something on Facebook and we managed to find all of those older men to play the executives. It was a really intense shoot, but he has a lot of friends there, and could pull favors. We shot in a movie theater. That bathroom scene is in a movie theater bathroom; we were there from 10pm-6am. I’d never done anything like that. I was jetlagged from having been in Asia for three weeks. The shoot was just insane.
STEREOGUM: Subject matter-wise, I love that it deals with the idea of gay panic, which is something I always think about when going back to the Midwest. One of my friends who lives in Kansas was recently talking to me about this very out gay couple in her small Kansas town. She said no one really bothers them and is always like, “Isn’t that great! No one has even bothered them!” I respect them for being pioneers in that sense, but I don’t think she understands how psychically oppressive it is to live somewhere where you are, at the very least, always known as “the gay couple.”
HADREAS: It’s a lot to carry around. It’s a well-intended thing, but it’s magnifying how different you are. THE GAY COUPLE.
STEREOGUM: I grew up in my Oklahoma and didn’t come out til I was in college, so my whole high school and adolescent experience was about hiding, trying to avoid being sussed out for fear of what would happen. I also grew up in a farm town, so it could have easily been a very Boys Don’t Cry scenario. When I go back there now, it’s not like I’m out in drag or anything, but I feel very conspicuously gay. I hate that. I always resent how uncomfortable that makes me.
HADREAS: I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to negotiate with yourself, too. And sometimes I know I’m doing it to myself. Sometimes nobody is looking at me or cares, and I’m kinda still somehow frightened. But then sometimes I let my guard down and then someone calls me a faggot on the street. So it’s like, “Well, wait, I guess I do need to be on guard.” It happens less and less — especially since I live in a fairly liberal place — but that’s not the case all over.
STEREOGUM: Why did it feel important to address the issue in “Queen” — where did that need come from?
HADREAS: I just needed to. I’m not always that defiant, that “fuck you” about it. I’m not, though I am more than I used to be. But I just needed it. And I’m just sort of pissed when those things happen. It just felt important to me. And I knew what the backlash could be, but I did it anyway.
STEREOGUM: I wondered how it would be for you, being on a label like Matador and operating within the milieu of popular indie rock, which is ostensibly a pretty liberal zone unto itself, but did you experience any weirdness from that world? Always being described as the gay artist somehow crossing over?
HADREAS: Kind of. It’s like I’ll go into a venue and they won’t take me seriously, or think I don’t know what I want because I’m sort of impish or tiny or feminine. And that’s frustrating. And that’s almost what that song is too. I’m just as badass as anyone; my clothes are just more silken. But then I’ll meet a dudey-dude band, like the Men, and they were super nice and really fun and easy to get along with. And even going to the South, I was terrified, but it was really friendly. It’s just surprising. Then there’s some asshole in some liberal area. That’s just how it goes. I did a lot of interviews where I’d get these crazy introductions. In France I was being translated live for the radio show. It was like, “He is Perfume Genius: He is gay, he is sad, he is addicted to porn.” And I had to stand up like, “Excuse me?” The first two, yeah OK, but I’m not addicted to porn! I like that that’s their lead-in, like nothing about the music, just that I like to fuck dudes, basically.
STEREOGUM: That is so weird and yet not surprising to me somehow.
HADREAS: It’s weird. I’m proud, I want to talk about those things, to make an issue of them, but I don’t want that to sacrifice the music — like how hard I work on the songs, the lyrics — on its own. And that’s the whole fear, that’s what tripped me up when I was first was trying to write the record, trying to not alienate me.
STEREOGUM: A lot of the record has to do with things you’ve written about in the past — things connected to the body and to physicality.
HADREAS: I’ve always thought that writing — for me — is thinking about things that have already happened, and then processing them. That’s kind of how I’ve always worked, really. But this album was more about the things I was thinking about in the moment and going through right now. And I was a little surprised at all the things that came up. I was surprised by how I really took things further.
STEREOGUM: Which things?
HADREAS: Well my body … I could’ve written about some of those issues in a more compassionate way, which is how I usually do things, but I sort of basically just said all the awful things that that I think about and the ickiness that I feel about myself and just said them. I did it in a kind of defiant, making-people-listen-to-it kind of way.
STEREOGUM: People must have crazy expectations of what you’re like as a person — like this tortured, delicate thing. And that must become oppressive, to have that expectation all the time.
HADREAS: Sort of. Though it was sort of liberating at first, because that serious side of me wasn’t something I showed in my life to other people, so to be able to talk about, and sort of celebrate those things, was very good. I think people have a hard time dealing with a bunch of things at once. They can’t have something be disturbing and funny at the same time. They can’t have that kind of combination. Which is weird to me because I feel complicated about most things. But maybe when people are listening to music or watching movies, they want something clear. They want the happy movie to be happy. Other countries aren’t so much like that, but they’re the ones who are even more intense with me in interviews. Like in France — though maybe that’s a language barrier.
STEREOGUM: I know it must get tiresome to always be talked to and about as a “gay artist” — with the focus always on the gay element of what you do, or your own “gayness” — what has your experience been in dealing with the gay media as opposed to the regular music media? Do they expect you to be representative of something or like you’re supposed to be speaking for something?
HADREAS: I notice that in general about other things. Like that show Looking on HBO. Even within my own circle of friends, everyone was so passionate about it — either loving or really hating it. Whenever anything “gay” comes along, everybody wants that thing to somehow be everything to everybody. And usually it is too gay, or not gay enough. There’s never the right amount. I think that happens a little bit in the media. Even in YouTube comments, I’ve had gay men write, “Why is he still going on and on about all this stuff?” or “I don’t wear heels and lipstick; why is he trying to make it like all gay men do that?”
STEREOGUM: Those issues are so complicated; Looking is a good example. Maybe it says something about how few representations of gay culture there still are, that when one does exist, people expect and need it to speak for everyone, when it could never possibly do that.
HADREAS: We should just be happy it got a budget and it could be made, regardless. Same with Will & Grace. I’m forever going to be “Jack” to some people, which is very frustrating to me. If I go to a small town, it’s like, “Oh you remind me of Jack from Will & Grace!” just because it’s the only thing they know. But it’s important that that show existed, even if there was no full-on making out, and they never really did anything other than just having a novelty, jokey, sort of like a “non-man” [identity] as their punchline.
STEREOGUM: On the subject of things like wearing lipstick and heels, I know a lot of amazing queens here in NYC who really mix it up — not really transgender, not really in drag, but working this very indeterminate kind of look. It’s the future. I think that is really revolutionary. To be comfortable in that kind of ambiguity — to leave your house every day and work that kind of life aesthetic — is not easy. I find it so inspiring. As someone who has a beard and wears T-shirts, I don’t really have it that hard.
HADREAS: I’m just doing what I want. I’m not thinking, like, “Today I’m going to dress like a woman.” I’m not even thinking about that. I’m just thinking, I want to wear this today, I want to be this today. It’s not like an either-or thing sometimes. I know when I see pictures of some of these NYC queens it’s inspiring because there’s something sort of mystical about it still.
STEREOGUM: People who can live their life that way, and can take the subway in New York looking however they want to look — that is really revolutionary to me.
HADREAS: I think people don’t understand how completely badass that is, and how tough it is. I mean, sure, some people do, but some don’t. I think it’s taken me a while to feel that way about myself, about who I am and how that’s going to be if I let myself really do it. I still have a lot of latent things, censoring voices, thinking certain things mean something about me when they really don’t. I’ve had to just personally break some of those down. We moved 40 minutes out of the city, from Seattle to Tacoma. I don’t really have a bearing yet on what’s okay or what’s pushing it there. And I wish I didn’t even think about it at all. One day I went out to run some errands and I just knew something was going to happen to me. At first I was going to change clothes — and sometimes I do kind of dress down — but I had decided to wear what I had on because it had made me feel good before I’d thought about everything else. So I thought, fuck it, I’m just going to wear it. And of course, somebody said something to me. It’s very frustrating.
STEREOGUM: I get annoyed with myself that I still feel self-conscious. When I go back to Oklahoma I revert back my 14-year-old mentality, which sucks. You find yourself in a grocery store and suddenly wonder if the cashier is looking at you funny and mentally calling you a faggot.
HADREAS: I think it’s impossible not to, and that’s what’s so inspiring when you see people letting that go, especially when they’re gay and you know they have same amount of weird self-awareness from when they were little as you probably did, from recognizing they were different really early on. It can make you crazy, that awareness. It makes you very aware of how you’re sitting, how you’re carrying yourself, really early. For me, I become more and more obsessed with it, to the point where it was almost like an Inception-level of awkward, constantly thinking of how I come across. To see people who have probably dealt with that saying, “Fuck it” … it’s good. That’s what I want for myself. And I do it way more now than I used to.
STEREOGUM: Well this record is a big step toward that. Your live performances are very powerful already, but thinking about playing this new material live, does it feel different? Do you feel more at ease now than you used to? More powerful?
HADREAS: Yeah, even though I’m clearly an anxious person, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of constantly seeking out reassurance and acceptance whether it’s given to me or not. I’m sick of looking for it everywhere. I just want to take it and give it to myself. And I think a lot of this album is me trying to do that, trying to figure out my place that I can make for myself.
STEREOGUM: If only we could all do that for ourselves.
HADREAS: I guess it’s weird to talk about it though because I’m not fully matched up with it yet. I want to be that powerful figure. I feel like in performances and in interviews I need to be right there, with a puffed-out chest talking confidently about everything I’m doing now … but that’s really not how I am, so it’s still sort of strange. Even playing these new songs on stage is still a little weird. I didn’t go out thinking I was going to do this, thinking I was going to have all these moves. I didn’t make this record thinking that I can’t wait to go out and do these moves on stage. My boyfriend was like, “You should perform in front of a camera and then watch it back.” And it’s kind of a good idea but I just can’t bring myself to do it, so I’m just doing instinctual things, doing what I used to do, over-emoting. Now I’m just doing it standing up, just me. I probably look not as crazy as I think I do, but I definitely feel kinda insane and not like I’m doing very flattering moves. I’m not a dancer. I mean, my stage moves … they’re not moves really, like with the beat. I’m just kinda winging it out there. I just did a music video in London and I did a dance where I kinda drop it and pick it up really suggestively. I thought I did a good job of that. We’ll see though. Like I said, I’m still kinda figuring all of this stuff out.
Perfume Genius’ Too Bright is out 9/23 via Matador.