There are trends. There are hypes. There are avant-guarde experiments. And then there’re records which surpass all of them, going straight to the heart, beyond fashion, beyond time. A couple of years ago Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, sent us a breathtaking letter of heartbreak and despair in the shape of “Learning”, a collection of home-recorded songs, just vocals and piano, which sounded even more fragile as the album was actually mastered from second-generation mp3s. An exercise in self-therapy which struck a chord with thousands of listeners. Still in his early 20s, Mike’s exploration of the dark parts – as he would call them – reaches now an arresting high with his second album, “Put Your Back N 2 It”. Richer in its arrangements and recording, his voice has found a confident and, dare we say it, mature balance. The minor chords give way surprisingly to some major ones, and you can actually feel like there could be hope at the end of this journey. Even if it still means having to go through more twists and turns (you may be aware that the album ad was rejected by Google/YouTube as being “not family safe” and “promoting mature sexual themes”). Disarmigly honest and strongly opinionated, as you would probably suspect listening to his songs, Mike kindly spent some time talking to us in the middle of a long american tour.
It’s been two years since “Learning” was released. Were you expecting all this interest and a genuine word-of-mouth success? Europe surely seemed to embrace you. Was it the same in US?
There seem to be more people at the shows in Europe, which is very nice. The food backstage is definitely better! It varies from place to place, but overall I feel like European audiences tend to listen more intently. Since our show is so hushed, it is much easier to share an experience onstage when you can feel that quiet intensity from the audience.
How did the work on the new album develop then? “Learning” was in chronological order of when the songs were written and recorded. Was it the same with “Put Your Back In 2 It”?
I put the tracks in an order so they could seem to be talking to each other. I set a more hopeful track after one that has a bleaker outlook. A song about grieving after a song about loss, stuff like that. It was hard to make it fit exactly, but that was my dramatic intention anyway!
It surely sounds less lo-fi than your debut. Then again, that was more due to how you recorded and saved the songs than an intentional statement. In any case, this time there seems to be a quest for clarity.
It definitely wasn’t hard to step it up for the second album. A proper mic was an improvement. I am not sure I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound before we went in the studio. I knew what I didn’t want, I didn’t want giant string sections and to slop a whole bunch of shit on the songs because I had more resources available. I knew the spot I wanted the songs to hit, I knew i wanted to get there with the least amount of elements. So I just cautiously added things on top of my vocal and piano until it got there and then left them alone.
In your music, there seems always to be a certain nod to classic songwriting. What kind of music you grew up with? And what do you think it influenced “Put Your Back In 2 It”?
I grew up on pop, Ace of base and Janet Jackson – until around 12 or 13 when I bought the Liz Phair album after reading about it in a magazine at the grocery store. That album changed everything for me. I didn’t know music could be that way, so nasty and unapologetic and confessional and badass. “Exile in Guyville”. That was a big one for sure.
While writing the album I didn’t listen to a lot of music. Only things I wouldn’t feel bad stealing from, like Otis Redding ballads and Bob Dylan. Stuff like that, things I’ve listened to already over and over for many years.
A more contemporary reference could be Antony and the Johnsons, though his background at least is very theatrical, almost performance-like, while your records possess a more intimate and personal feel.
I am a big fan, of course. I find him very magical and mysterious, I think my music is a little less so. At least not in the same way.
If anything, all the songs on the album end too soon. Less is more?
Most of the time, I think so.
Can you remember when you first got the urge to make music? What prompted it?
I was in my mom’s house about 5 years ago. She was out of town and I had been eating and playing video games all day. Which was basically what I had been doing for months. Very cool. I am not sure what happened. I think it had a lot to do with getting sober, from having some distance from the things I went through. All the feelings I had avoided for years and years started to bubble up. I had to make sense of them if I didn’t want to go back to my old life. It could have been anything, really. I am very glad it was music that helped to process everything. Very, very glad. It has given me a purpose I never thought I would feel in my life.
Let’s talk about the stunning video for Hood. Did you expect it to create such controversy? It also looks like you had lots of fun. Whose idea was to involve (gay porn star) Arpad Miklos?
I knew it would make a few people uncomfortable, but didn’t expect any form of censorship. Whatever, they can suck it. Arpad was suggested after we tried unsuccessfully to cast a male body builder. It worked out perfectly because he has experience in front of a camera and a lot of chest hair. He was very nice and very slippery, he was all greased up and i kept sliding out of his arms. I am very proud of the video, I think it is very tender and sweet.
You have given full details on each songs’ lyrics. Do you believe that clarity should be an artist’s duty rather than leaving the songs to a more open interpretation? Or is it because this time, even while dealing with subjects like homophobia, the lyrics seem to have a more universal appeal?
I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do it. Some people want to know the exact meaning behind a song, others want to decipher that meaning for themselves. My friend Heather thinks I wrote the song Hood for her, she feels like that is her song. I wouldn’t tell her otherwise. But I wanted to write out my original intentions with the songs just to make sure the gay children know there are songs for them.
To someone who has never heard of you, which song would you pick to represent you?
Oh dear. “Normal Song” is sort of the message I want to carry. That your background, your experiences…..the things you have done, the things that have been done to you…..no matter how filthy or horrible or shameful – they do not break you. You are not damaged goods, you are not broken or poisoned by your past.
When you are not touring or writing songs, you are…
Pacing, smoking and making zero sense most of the time.
“Put Your Back N 2 It” is out now on Turnstile/Matador