I did not have a good summer, but at least I had Perfume Genius’s Too Bright as its unexpected soundtrack. This album is as brilliant as its title suggests, released on the first day of fall to much critical acclaim. Too Bright marks a turning point in Perfume Genius’s trajectory. Mike Hadreas, who has been writing songs as Perfume Genius since 2008 has not abandoned the sparse, heartfelt piano ballads that defined his earlier career altogether, but has managed to expand his vision and sound. Too Bright is a refreshingly diverse record. Some tracks are glittering and grand pop hits like “Queen”, others are grimey and grim discombobulating noise tracks like “I’m a Mother”. Sometimes he sounds like Chris Issack fronting Suicide, sometimes he sounds like like Siren. When I had a chance to speak to Hadreas, he hinted that this is only the beginning of a development towards darker sounding, synth-heavy experimental future work.
I first heard Too Bright blasting over the work’s loudspeakers and I got chills. I paused at the door to our office before unloading the days work into a UPS truck. I didn’t want to go. I felt like I was listening to something very special. I felt intrigued, entranced. I was starved for something just like that. Something that managed to touch me at a time that I felt like a shell composed of raw nerves, filled with smoke.
I suffer from a pretty severe anxiety disorder that has gotten worse than ever in the past few months, eroding away all of the joy in my life. Everything seems to trigger irrational fear and physical freak-outs. I’ve been trying everything to help myself. But I cannot sleep at night and sometimes have trouble eating; my food doesn’t want to digest. I’ve tried meditation and medication. Every herbal tea or supplement. Acupuncture. Exercise. Meanwhile, it seems that nearly everything instills terror. It’s difficult to even do things that I enjoy. I recently had a panic attack at a spa. Nothing can calm me. I have better days and worse days, and it may seem silly but somehow Too Bright sounded like the triumph over all this that I have needed. Hadreas speaks openly about battling addictions, anxiety and illness and self-doubt both in interview and in songs. I felt connected to the contents of Too Bright in a way that does not happen so often; I found solace in the songs. I played the record over and over over.
I played the record for my Mother on a visit that I did not feel well enough to take. When she spoke over the music I became inappropriately agitated. It was like I was trying to communicate with her through the record and she just wasn’t listening. I had not felt that was since I was sixteen. I suppose being unwell and in the company of your Mother can make you regress. I played it over and over on the ride home, looking out the window and wondering.
I played the record walking two hours home from work when I felt too claustrophobic to take the train. It seemed to make the cloudiness disappear. As I walked with Too Bright in my headphones, everything became less scary and more cinematic. Feeling overwhelmed could be beautiful, I told myself. I will make something out of this one day when it is over. In the meantime, I stopped at a liquor store just before the Williamsburg Bridge for a nip. The balmy summer sun was beginning to set and as I made my way across the bridge, taking little forbidden sips I watched another day that I had survived become night. My time. Everything went from pink to light trails and stars. I fuzzed. I smiled to myself, finally. I reached my arms over my head because it felt good in the warm breeze. The rumble of the J train injected some sort of awe in the city. It felt good and amazing that I was there. I could finally stop thinking about by body failing, about shortness of breath or a rapid heart rate. It was good to be on a suspension bridge listening to “Queen”, walking in my own parade of celebration and defiance.
I may be overwrought, but that doesn’t mean that I am not fighting. Even when you lose a fight it doesn’t mean you didn’t fight. Too Bright encapsulated this for me and I was eager to speak to Hadreas about the record and see if I got these feelings right. He was gracious, open and even goofily funny- something I could not have anticipated from his music or the way that music writer’s harp on how he is sad, or his slight frame and watery blue eyes that hint towards tears but were- as we discussed- just very watery. We spoke about getting older, and trying to be kind to yourself and how the new record was intended to be fierce while still acknowledging struggle.
Fierceness and strength are not always rooted in doing well, or with winning. Hadreas found a way to own the difficulties and insecurities that he has to face and maybe that is why the album can still come off as a confrontation even at it’s more delicate moments. I was truly grateful for an opportunity to speak to Hadreas about the new record. I had real questions that I wanted answered. I just hoped I hadn’t gotten it all wrong. When I went to shake his hand goodbye, he gave me a hug. I really needed that.
There were certainly marked differences and musical progression moving from your first album, Learning to your second Put Your Back N 2 It; but Too Bright seems like a whole new chapter – or perhaps a dawn in your musical career. I know that you have expressed concerns about your music being “too sparse” in the past, ass well as difficulties identifying yourself as a musician. What lead to this bold leap musically? How much of Too Bright was inspired by personal experience versus changes in musical influence?
It is definitely a combination… I wanted to step it up, and I wasn’t sure what that was going to be like in the beginning. I started to write how I usually did and the songs were okay but they didn’t have the same amount of bravery that the first two records had. I didn’t want to go back to the first album, which is much more autobiographical and mines past experiences. I wanted to have a message, but I didn’t want it to be preachy or sound like an after school special. When I started thinking more about what I wanted to talk about, a lot of the feelings were louder feelings.
This album is darker, to me. A lot of people think my first two albums were depressing, and I don’t really think that they are. They are sad. But I think this album is a little bit more depressing because there is hope in the first two records and there is not a lot in this one.
But it is in a powerful way. I wanted to step it up all together, and that meant that I had to take myself seriously. That has been something that I have struggled with for a long time. I’ve always waited for other people to take me seriously.
You needed validation?
Yes, and I was constantly seeking reassurance from other people. In the end, I got kind of angry with everyone else. I was like ‘why are they not making me feel better?’ I finally had to say ‘fuck it’ and try as hard as I could to do it myself. In order to do that, I needed to tell secrets about myself… I had to make people listen instead of asking them to.
Musically, I just started working differently. I stopped just using the piano and started distorting the piano, starting off with noise first… Distorting my vocals, using pitch shifting. The music that came out was a lot louder and the lyrics followed suit.
I know that you have cited Diamonda Galas as an influence- I see this in the track ‘The Grid” in particular. Have you increasingly become more interested in noise and experimental music?
I have always been interested in outsider music. The song “I’m A Mother”, which is this slow, pitch shifted song originally had about three extra minutes on it. They had to convince me in the studio to shorten it.
I want to hear the longer version!
I think that is always the gamble that I run for this specific thing that I am doing… I want to keep a pop sensibility a little bit, but I want to throw more experimental things in there at the same time. If I wasn’t worried about what other people were thinking, I think I would go all the way in that [experimental] direction… And I might still do that. That is the good thing about that album, now I feel like I can do whatever I want.
I was going to ask if you could see your music continuing to become weirder and harsher, but I guess the answer is yes?
I think I could have even taken some of these songs into that place but I kind of held back. But I wanted it to seem like pop music with a bite to it. Underneath.
I felt like an outsider my entire life. A lot of these songs are about otherness. I want other people who feel that way too to listen to these songs, but I also want people who have never felt that way to be tricked into listening to these songs.
Does Too Bright tell a narrative story? I see a lot of themes woven throughout the album… Wondering if the songs are all part of one greater story? If it is, do you switch perspectives throughout the album… I am thinking of the song “I’m A Mother” in particular.
Well, that song is me. I was imagining somewhere dark and dank where I could give birth without any help as a man by myself. With Diamonda Galas, she is clearly tapping a source directly. I wanted to find my version of that. Cut the shit with myself. Stop over thinking everything and just get down to it. I think I managed to do that a lot more with this album. A lot of Too Bright is about me claiming some sort of power for myself.
Do you feel more powerful after having completed the album?
I do- but it is still a process. Since I started to make music I have been slowly growing, but I have a back catalog of difficulties. I am timid, almost embarrassed of myself. It is going to take some time to sort through, but the album definitely helped. I feel like I am getting close. There is a weird double-edged thing, because a lot of the time I feel worse than everyone else and other times I feel better than everyone else. I never really feel in the middle. But I am trying to approach a high middle.
Within these themes that I have detected in Too Bright, I am particularly interested in the queen and the body. To begin with the queen, you have played with gender performance before, especially in your music videos. The first music video for the record, “The Queen” is perhaps your boldest statement yet. I know the track was inspired by the almost ironic fright that you instill in people just existing in the world as a gay man. I have been wondering if some of the playfulness with gender is used like a tool to give a visual voice to this experience or if you blur the gender binary a lot in your own life? What is your relationship with being male and with gender in general?
It varies, day to day. When I first got more confidence, I went out full on. I always had to have my nails done and wear some crazy shit every day. It was almost like I had to allow myself to do that, but I have toned down a little bit. Sometimes I feel like neither gender. Sometimes I feel like a boy. But, I can do whatever I want. And I like that when you come to my shows that you may see a boy in a dress, and maybe he would not have worn that to a different show. But he can wear that to my show. You can wear whatever you want and I like that sort of safety.
I also wanted to talk about the body, the ‘rotted peach’. With age comes confidence, wisdom and hopefully a greater sense of certainty. But also wrinkles, pressure, panic, becoming less desirable sexually and getting closer to death. I am not calling old, by any means, but how are you processing getting older? Especially in the context of the doomed mythology in queer culture?
Growing up, I never understood any of this. I was attracted to older men. Now that I am getting older, I feel all those things about getting older and I am kind of embarrassed by it. I am embarrassed about how panicked I am about my skin sagging, when I wouldn’t care if someone else’s skin was sagging. I’m not gunna go to someone and be like ‘sorry, gunna have to pass on hanging out… You look a little loose’.
As you get older, I think you think about your body a lot more in general. I never used to really care for my body. I never really paid attention to it. I have always been more of a face person. I pick at that area, and focus on that area. Sometimes I would look in the mirror and realize… ‘oh… I guess that is what I look like’. As I’ve gotten older, I am thinking about my body a lot more than that. Especially because I have a long history of putting a lot of crap into it and doing a lot of bad things. I’ve cut some of those bad things out but it seems like you just have to keep cutting out all the good stuff. Everything great has to go in order to age… and not… die.
It is also really easy for me to place my anxiety on my body. If I am just having general anxiety, I can seemingly control what I look like.
It’s so hard. I feel like for a long time I identified- and got off on being the young girl. I liked that sort of attention. Now that I am getting older, it is really weird to feel that identification slipping away from me.
I’ve always been small. I have always looked younger than my age. I have always looked sort of innocent, even if I wasn’t. In my head, I was getting by because I was this sweet looking person. Now I am not princely – I am turning into the chieftain. I feel like I got a walking stick…
You’ve seen some shit.
It’s a weird shift. I have met gay men… Who turn 40 and they are done. It’s sad. I think this generation won’t have that. Historically, so much of the gay sexual experience has been hidden and behind the scenes. Everyone would just have a series of lovers and it wouldn’t even enter into people’s brains that they could have a long-term relationship. I imagine that was very lonely. Then when your body is used up and that is no longer how you are able to experience those fleeting moments of love, what do you do from there?
It’s not fair to have sexual experience completely removed from intimacy. It can’t just be a function. I think that is a great point though, about the possibility that aging and being gay may not be as hard on our generation… Hopefully you’re right! We’ll see!
You must be in a weird place right now. I would imagine that you are filled with daydreams and anticipation. Your album has been done for a while, it has a street date, and it must feel real. You’ve released the first music video and single off the record to a favorable response. How do you deal with this strange in between time, when something you have worked on is done but it is not yet out in the world? Are you already working on new things?
Like anything else, at first I panic for a little bit. Then you realize that you have to be grateful. I just get overwhelmed very easily and I am a very avoidant person. If anything is overwhelming to me, I will just leave. And then I will just do a lot of eating in the dark.
I mean it is hard feeling like you have to be on all the time. The creating part is almost the easy part. This is the hard part: I have to be articulate, I have to look good, and I have to perform well. It can be overwhelming, but you just have to remember that that feeling is coming from all good things. And they are supposed to be fun. But I over think.
I can relate to that. Not to bring my own experience into this too much, but a lot times when I am doing a lot creatively people assume that I am also doing really well. But in actuality, I am having panic attacks everyday and feel like I can’t handle everything that I need to do … And the root of it all are good
When I was drinking and doing drugs, anything good or bad was an excuse to go out. I still have that mentality, but all I can do is drink more diet coke and smoke.
Well, you’re still doing better. That being said, there seems to already be an increased interest in this album. Do you ever get a little worried about how success, this good thing, can affect your life? Especially your personal relationships and privacy?
It worries me- but it is what I want to do. I have to put myself out there. There is a fine line sometimes though. Even in interviews, sometimes it feels like a brief friendship. But then sometimes they will try to slip in a specific question that has no relevance but is ultra personal. The only time I really got worried was when I made that song [“Dark Parts”] for my Mom and there was a lot of her story in that song. Anything that I bring other people into. To be honest, I don’t even know what is happening half the time. I just sort of get in the car when I am supposed to.
I do feel like fandom is a strange thing, and it seems like you have a hard time with it in some cases. You have mentioned in the past that when people tell you that your music has helped them that you feel strange because you think that isn’t really true because they had to have helped themselves. I am sure that at some point in your life, however, you have thought that an artist has helped you. Even if you were a teenager and you look back at that time and realized that you really just helped yourself.
I got a Liz Phair album when I was twelve or thirteen and it was pretty filthy. She was singing very explicitly and unapologetically about sex. I hadn’t really heard anything like that coming from a female before then. I identified with her music and liked it coming from her so much more because… She is experiencing that “otherness” as well, being a woman and being that unapologetic about sex. That was very powerful to me and it made me feel empowered, even if I have not really figured out why yet.
Mostly women have had that effect on me. P J Harvey was the same way. She is tapping into something beneath. She’s said “I’m laying with the devil” and there is no winking. She was telling you and she was not asking you if it was okay. That was scary to me as a kid but oddly inspiring at the same time.
I know that when I listen to a Hole album- who might be my Liz Phair figure- I can’t help but wonder about why the music still sounds so good to me even though I don’t think I would like it if I heard it for the first time today.
I wonder that too. You remember that time, and that time was important. Those albums are still important. I sort of wanted to do that with this album. I wanted to make a sound tracked awakening about a chunk of my life. I wanted to make an album that could have made me feel the way that I felt about Liz Phair when I was younger.
I think that Too Bright has that quality to it. It certainly has a strange, intoxicating effect.
Going back to fans. People are looking outside for help and acceptance. Some people have picked me for that help.
Does it feel like a lot of responsibility sometimes?
Sometimes, but usually someone just says and hello and they are nice. Sometimes you do get some heavy messages.
I’ve watched people that are close to me deal with really deeply troubled fans who really believe that they know them and that they are owed something. Even to the extent of a deranged girl believing that an album was written about her and that she had a relationship that simply did not exist. Obviously, she has something pretty serious going on there…
Well, yes. So maybe we are not talking so much about that ,per say.
People do treat you like they forget that there is a real person behind the music. A lot of people think that you are what you made. While there is a lot of who I am in the album, it’s part of myself and not the whole thing.
I’ve definitely had people just come up and touch my face and my hair. Maybe I have had it really easy compared to some other people, but it is still really weird. But I remember feeling that way around people when I was younger. Being at a venue and seeing the person you are there to see and just like feel faint and forget how to stand. But that’s a person. They are probably going to have to poop. They are going to go take a dump in the bathroom.
And you might dump right next to them in the bathroom! Moving on from that, a lot of people seem to want to talk about dark parts of your life, and maybe that is because they find it more mysterious or perhaps relate to those parts the best. I was wondering if you have any positive personal rituals or practices. How are you nice to yourself?
I have to be very thoughtful about it. I have to make an effort to be nice to myself. It’s kind of embarrassing- and I don’t know why- but I do some praying when I am really losing it. I am not sure who I am praying to… More so, I am praying to allow myself to cut the shit. I lose the big picture a lot. I get wrapped up in tiny little things and become really hyper specific. I forget that I am basically taken care of. I forget that things are fine, a lot of the time.
In terms of rituals, I have two different throat sprays that I use before I play, but I am not sure if they actually do anything, I have one that is really harsh, and I use that one an hour before a show. I use the one that is light and gentle right before I go on stage, and sometimes I bring it on stage with me.
I call my Mom a lot. I need to baby myself sometimes. Every time that I go to my Mom’s house, I almost immediately pass out. I feel sleepy, like a normal person. I can usually only fall asleep when I am super exhausted and just can’t stay up anymore. At my Moms, I can finally relax. And she never runs out of toilet paper.
We sort of touched on this- but do you ever feel a major discrepancy between how you see yourself and how you think that you are seen?
Yeah. It’s hard. With this new album I want all the promo to be fierce. I am still sort of insecure, though. I am socially anxious. I feel nuts most of the time but there are moments- even if they are fleeting… When I feel proud of myself and ready to fight.
Everything is so weird. My album cover is photo shopped. I look good. Now I wish I could drag around big lamps with great light around, but I just got a little bb cream.
Speaking of your record cover, Too Bright seems like a big departure from earlier material even in terms of artwork. The first two albums had a collage and watercolor feel, more DIY and less slick and stylized.
I also thought it was sort of funny that the name of your new record is Too Bright and you choose a very muted, neutral color palate.
Well I did put some metallic gold in there! I wanted the record to be gold too- but I don’t think that you can do that? Not yet for little old me.
I’ve always wondered if those gold records actually have music pressed onto them… Is that possible?
They must, right? Why would they skimp on that after all this effort to make a gold record?
I’m gunna ask an expert here (at Matador Records).
I’m sure at some point that some one has tried to play one. Like high on coke.
Would be so glamorous to do coke off a spinning gold record.
Ha! Well, I don’t know. In terms of all the choices that I made with the art work- I had the time to be thoughtful. I wanted the cover to be as confident as the music at first I was hesitant to be on the cover of my record, but secretly, of course, I wanted a picture of me on my record.
I thought of all of my favorite albums and a lot of the times the artist is on the cover, unapologetic. I wanted to be on the cover, looking like the past looking into the future. Sort of Sci-Fi looking.
Slick. Did you make the first two album covers?
Ah man, I was looking at the record and there doesn’t seem to be an art credit so I wasn’t sure!
Oh really? That’s a shame!
Do you still see Perfume Genius as a solo project? I know that you have taken in other musicians to perform live and tour, but how much do other people contribute to the process of writing songs and directing the vision of the project? Do you still spearhead everything?
I do. I write all the music and all the lyrics. But, my boyfriend plays synth. My drummer that I used to just tour with recorded drums and that was important to me because I had been with them, playing old songs for a long time and I wanted them to be part of that process.
But, it is sort of a strange thing. I do have people helping me. But in the end, it is my music.
Would you say that it is all in your vision in that case?
I would. It’s mine. I feel selfish- I know I have help. But it is my thing.
Does your Boyfriend have another music project or solo project?
No. He went to school for piano, and that is how we met. Now he is not working either, just working on Perfume Genius with me.
That’s such a cool thing to share with your partner.
Yeah, but we are around each other 24 hours a day. It’s good, and we are used to it but it’s pretty intense. We have been together for four years but it feels much longer because of us always being together. There is no break. But I love him!
One last question, while we are on the subject of companionship. You seem to be a big dog fan- I’ve seen you talk about your dog and put dogs in your music video in the past… And there is a lot of dog-related material on your instagram. Do you think that dogs can give people a sort of support that humans cannot offer?
I think so. It’s also projection too. I miss my Dog a lot right now. He is staying with my Mom, because my boyfriend is visiting his family upstate. I always get bummed though because I am more of the stay at home Mom to the Dog, I’m the one wiping her ass and all that. I think she respects me, but she gets more excited when Al comes home. We’ve bonded though. We hang out and watch TV. When I was recording the album I sang to her a lot. She seemed to be into it.
But I love dogs, because there is no judgment. For someone who gets overwhelmed a lot, it is so good to have someone there who loves you the same all the time. No matter what happened that day or what you are thinking or feeling- it’s important to know that someone loves you just the same. I am sure a lot of my family feels that way about me but it’s easier to trust the dog sometimes. Just because it is simple.
And they depend on you too. You have control over each others emotions… I guess it’s just like any other relationship I guess.
Too Bright is out now on Matador Records. Perfume Genius is currently on a US tour, dates below.