Progress Report: Perfume Genius
When Perfume Genius released Learning back in 2010, the record quickly became a kind of quiet sensation: an elegant rumination on heartbreak and abuse that sounded almost uncomfortably personal. It was hard to imagine how Mike Hadreas — the man behind Perfume Genius — might follow up such a confessional and emotionally harrowing record. Last week Hadreas released Put Your Back N 2 It, a record no less intimate sounding than its predecessor but with a slightly more panoramic — and gently optimistic — worldview. According to Hadreas, the perils of recording of album number two has less to do with overcoming the dreaded sophomore slump and more to do with simply trying to “make something really cool.” Early reaction to the record to the album would indicate that Hadreas has succeeded.
STEREOGUM: Have you been doing a ton of interviews?
HADREAS: No, not really. We went on a little promo tour thing in Europe. It was pretty like, fancy. Well, for me it was fancy. It was very legitimate, very musician-y thing to do.
STEREOGUM: How was it?
HADREAS: It was fun.
STEREOGUM: Has the idea of having to talk about yourself so much gotten less weird?
HADREAS: In a way. I’m not very good at thinking about myself too much, which makes my life weird afterwards, after doing interviews. Sometimes I need to cool out afterwards. But it’s kind of fun. It’s weird to be engaged with each person that comes in. Sometimes it’s actually pretty fun.
STEREOGUM: I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the other side of it. But I do know what it’s like to be the fifth person in a string of ten people to interview someone. You can tell there’s some kind of weird emotional fatigue happening from having to tell the same story twenty times.
HADREAS: Yeah. That press trip was really the first time I’ve ever done it. So I’m not worn out yet or anything. I’m just glad people want to talk to me, pretty much.
STEREOGUM: I was such a fan of the first record, I was really excited to hear the new one.
HADREAS: You like it?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I’ve been listening to it a lot.
HADREAS: Oh good.
STEREOGUM: For this particular column for Stereogum, I’m usually talking to people about the thing they just made or are in the process of making. A good place to start usually is to pick up on what’s happened since the last record came out leading into the making of this one. After Learning came out there was a certain amount of press coverage for you and I know you toured a lot … how was that experience?
HADREAS: I think they were light on me touring-wise because I was new. I think I had a lighter go of it than most people. Still it was a lot to get used to.
STEREOGUM: Did you play a lot of shows?
HADREAS: I don’t know. I think so? To me it was a lot, that’s for sure. But we had big breaks in between each of the tours we did. I think other bands tour a lot more aggressively. I’m randomly thinking of bands now. Tune-Yards, for example. She played a show where I live and then she came back two months later and I’m like “Holy shit, she’s on the road. Tune-Yards is on the road!” So I think we had an easy time of it. After I play somewhere I can’t imagine why they’d ever need me to come back there and play again.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by all the press attention?
HADREAS:I don’t have very much practice being grateful or proud so I would scour those press clips … just like when you’re jealous of something like when you’re hoping to find justification for being jealous. it’s kind of an embarrassing thing to say but I’d read the nice ones and go “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and then read the negative ones and think “That’s it, I’m fucked. I suck.” Even though the first three were good. The bad ones would justify all my negative thoughts somehow.
STEREOGUM: That’s a common thing, you forget the good ones and you remember that one bad one that’s something someone wrote on a blog in their bedroom. After touring for that record, did you take time off? Did you already have these songs percolating?
HADREAS: Some of them. Some of it was a lot more deliberate because I had expectations on me. But I was supposed to make something and I thought I needed to be isolated or set it up like I did the first album, without … well I was already sober so I didn’t need to do that again. So I rented a house because I live in an apartment building and my neighbors didn’t need to hear me sing. I rented a house but I just ended up eating a lot and being alone for a week and not writing a lot of songs. But I just figured out how to do it in moments alone in my apartment. It was nervewracking … especially in the beginning.
STEREOGUM: Did you fear the dreaded sophomore slump?
HADREAS: I guess so. I thought I needed to make something a lot of people would like, or make something really cool. I realized when I was writing it that I wasn’t really capable of doing that, so I was discouraged for a while. But then I thought about instead just making something for everyone, not in a bad way, but thinking about the people who wrote to me and the people I’d want to be comforted by the music, I don’t know, sort of a hippie thing, and then it came easier for me to write.
STEREOGUM: How do you usually work, alone with a piano?
HADREAS: Yeah, just very, I guess, normal, with a piano. I usually write the words out first, and kind of obsess over those more than I do the music.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting. For most people, it’s the opposite.
HADREAS: Well, especially since there’s only like seven — words, that is — in some of these songs, and you’d think if I was obsessed with the words I’d be a lot more wordy, but I’d get a lot more exact about those, even if I end up editing it down to something really simple.
STEREOGUM: That’s a cool idea. It’s kind of a bummer when you hear an artist explain that the words are often the last thing, almost like an afterthought. I like the idea of the music being built specifically around the words.
HADREAS: I just realized that the music I end up going back to is where the words are the most important things. Sometimes the music is pretty simple or not. If the music is first I can kind of become obsessed for a month and listen to it over and over but then I never go back to it. If the words are more important, I go back to it over and over again. So I was just thinking a lot about writing things that hopefully people would be able to listen to for a long time.
STEREOGUM: Thinking about the shows you played last year -– I saw you play a couple of times –- did you get a handle on what your demographic was starting to be? What were the fans like?
HADREAS: I thought I would. I thought I’d know the weird kids that would be at my show, but it really didn’t end up being like that all the time. I’m not really sure I have a demographic. Now that everybody’s talking to me about being gay all the time, I guess now I should expect my demographic to be a bunch of homos but I don’t think that’s gonna happen either.
STEREOGUM: Interesting. As a gay person myself — who writes for both gay and not-so-gay outlets — I think it great when you can be super open about your sexuality without it always being the sole focus of every interview.
HADREAS: It’s a weird thing to kind of balance.
STEREOGUM: That being said, it’s cool to see your music being discussed so much in the Pitchforky world of indie rock, which — while it’s ostensibly a pretty liberal zone — is mostly the domain of straight dudes.
HADREAS: Yeah. Even like that video I made for “Hood” … when we got to the studio to shoot the video, it was basically a room full of straight guys with beards. They were all really nice, but at first I scanned the room and it was a bunch of straight hipster dudes and I go in and put on a wig and come out and go “OK! This is what I wanna do now! I’m gonna jump up on this guy.” I expected people to be weird, but they weren’t. I don’t know, sometimes where you least expect to have acceptance or a really cool experience is when it happens.
STEREOGUM: It made me think of a conversation with someone who’s a really well-known straight guy, another music writer, who was talking about back whenever the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs had come out and was being written about everywhere, he was like “I’m amazed how much I can relate to it.” And I was like, “Really? You’re really shocked by the fact that you can relate to some art made by a gay person because you’re not gay?” This really enlightened, college-educated person suddenly had that realization, I was like “Wow.”
HADREAS: I like when people engage with the music, but I sometimes distrust the approval. I have so much leftover shit from growing up that … I don’t know. Whatever victim-y crap I carry around with me suddenly comes up when thinking and talking about this stuff.
STEREOGUM: Where was this record made?
HADREAS: Recorded? Most of it was in England. The first place was at a farm in … God, I keep having to … I don’t even know what the town was. In the country somewhere. But it was very singer-songwriter-y, there were goats, it was winter. And then, the second week was in a proper studio in Bristol. Then I came home and wanted to write a couple louder songs – well, other people wanted me to – and I decided that I could do it, so I recorded a couple in a Seattle studio called London Bridge. They had a Nickelback platinum album on the wall so that was cool.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process take, all in all?
HADREAS: I’m trying to … I think it was like a week and a half, maybe two weeks in England and then a few days in Seattle.
STEREOGUM: Going into making the second record, did you have a strong sense of how you wanted it to sound? Or that it should be bigger and be more lush somehow?
HADREAS: I wanted it to be a little bit fancier but what I really wanted to do is do what I would have done at home, but with help. And even the producer –- I was really paranoid about not slopping a bunch of crap on my songs just because I could and just because I was in a studio. But still I wanted to make sure that I sang out and made sure that you could actually hear my voice in the songs. It was still pretty simple. I didn’t have a bunch of musicians coming in. My producer played the cello on it, and the engineer knew how to play guitar, so I asked him to play guitar, just to keep it intimate, I suppose.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy performing live?
HADREAS: I still get really nervous but I’m over trying to fix it. I used to scramble to try to figure out something I could do to fix being nervous but now I know that it’s just going to happen and it’s usually a lot better once you get out there. So it has gotten easier.
STEREOGUM: Some of the songs on the first record were just so emotionally harrowing. I remember seeing you play and wondering what it must be like to sing those songs every night, to revisit those feelings on a regular basis.
HADREAS: I think, I don’t know … I’m not very … when I’m making music, I get to make a distilled version of how I’m feeling … I can kind of be smart about it or compassionate about it which I can’t really do just walking around town. So when I’m playing the songs, even if the memories or whatever I’m talking about is not easy, at least I’m thinking about it in a way that’s more sweet, which is good. It’s a good way to address that stuff. I’m kind of a mess otherwise, so I appreciate that. But I still get really nervous. It’s kind of a weird combination of being exactly where I want to be and doing exactly what I want to do but being really nervous at the same time.
STEREOGUM: The emotional nature of your music must also invite a certain kind of intense fandom. I would imagine that there are fans that want to interact with you in a very personal way.
HADREAS: It’s like they already know me. But I remember feeling like that about some music when I was younger. Sometimes I’m kind of surprised that people … I don’t know. I just go and hug everybody, pretty much. And I don’t think they’re expecting me to hug them. They’re just expecting me to shed a single tear and nod at them but I walk up to them with my arms up.
STEREOGUM: That’s so nice! There was a famous quote from Morrissey about hugging his fans. When it was suggested that he was giving fans the hugs they might not get in their lives otherwise, he suggested that it was the fans giving him the hugs that he would never receive otherwise. The hugging was actually a selfish act. This record seems to be imbued with a lot more optimism than the first one was. Does it feel that way to you?
HADREAS: Yeah. I knew I wanted to keep any of the songs that had that in it. I still don’t always write the most … I don’t know, I realize that I can still be kind of bleak. And my outlook can be incredibly dark sometimes. But I didn’t want to make anything from there. And I think maybe that’s growing up a little bit, too, for me, like realizing that my problems are not so unique … I don’t know … it’s harder for me just to write something really mopey. People can still argue that’s 100% what I’m doing — that it’s the only thing I’m doing — but at least in my head I was trying to be more balanced and bring more optimism, to think of more people than just myself in the songs. Also, I wouldn’t ever want to make my mama depressed. I wanted to go against my instincts a little bit, in a way to convince myself too, sometimes.
STEREOGUM: I saw the press release and photo for the album before I’d actually heard any of the songs. When I saw Put Your Back N 2 It, I wondered if this was gonna be your take on a hip hop album. I love that. It totally threw me.
HADREAS: That’s good because I think a lot of people hate that.
STEREOGUM: What, they hate the title?
HADREAS: They hate it.
STEREOGUM: I love it!
HADREAS: Thank you!
STEREOGUM: It works on a lot of levels. And I’m particularly fond of that “Don’t be a pussy” sweatshirt you are wearing. I collect cat stuff. Like, obsessively.
HADREAS: I do, too!
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you? Will you be on the road a lot?
HADREAS: Yeah, I think pretty much the whole year after the album is released. I think there’s little breaks and stuff but we’re doing a US tour and then UK and Europe, and then I think we do that again, and then festivals, and I think they want me to do support tour as well in the summer. I’m kind of reeling from the game plan they sent me. I’m excited, though. I just ordered a new keyboard and some vocal box thing that I don’t really know what it does but I told them I really needed it, so… (laughs)
STEREOGUM: What will your touring setup be? Will you have more people with you this time?
HADREAS: One more. Three of us. A big step up with one more person. There’s actually an engineer in that Seattle studio that played the drums on that album. We opened for Beirut for a few weeks and that was the first time he came with us. He plays this drum box that he sits on –- it sounds like a little drum kit but he’s just slapping it -– and he plays electric guitar. It sounds pretty simple but it breaks things up a little bit and makes even some of the songs from the first album that I couldn’t figure out to do –- like crazy endings -– it just sounds a little more full and I’m able to do a little bit more. I even sing one song without playing any instruments. I’m sure no one is as excited about that as I am. (laughs)
STEREOGUM: It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.
STEREOGUM: I mean that in a good way, not a bad way. (laughter) I’m sure the shows will probably be bigger, and there will be more crazy fans …
STEREOGUM: It should be fascinating. You need some good cat-related merch, for this tour.
HADREAS: I actually have some! I’ve been thinking of other merch ideas though. Have you seen those giant lighters? Like, the ridiculous oversized lighters that they sell at convenience stores? I want to get a bunch of those and put a bunch of Lisa Frank stickers on them and personalize them all … and if I could just find a bunch of extreme close-up cat pictures for t-shirts and stickers, that would be awesome. That’s my merch idea.
Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It is out now on Matador.