A few hours before I spoke with Mike Hadreas, the singer-songwriter who calls himself Perfume Genius, the Supreme Court of the United States had, in effect, shrugged. By refusing to review a set of cases, the high court crippled years of expensive, prohibitive legislation banning equal marriage access, opening the door to gay marriage in as many as 30 states.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Washington, where Hadreas lives, for two years, but he still celebrated the victory in a tour van outside of Boston. A gay man whose music challenges questions of gender identity and social acceptance, Hadreas writes to express his most dour thoughts and empower others through empathy and understanding. The court's decision offers a striking parallel to that mission.
Hadreas' third album, the new Too Bright, packs more impact than any previous Perfume Genius effort. Built on striking images ("I'm as open as a gutted pig," he offers, "on the small of every back") and powered by arrangements diverse enough to suggest The Flaming Lips and Antony & the Johnsons, it's a riveting record meant for dancing or drifting through the dark.
INDY: The songs on Too Bright reflect a new musical variety for you. There are the solo piano songs, but there's "Grid," where you're screaming over electronics, and "Queen," a huge pop number. At what point in writing do you realize that a song is meant to go in a certain direction?
MIKE HADREAS: I can always tell, but it's hard to pinpoint why things are working. It's guttural, instinctual. While I was writing this album, I wrote a few songs that were more dark and different than what I had made before, but I could tell that they were trying too hard. They were inauthentic in a way; that's pinpointing it right there. When a song is good to me, that means I'd be nervous to share it with someone, like I'm telling a secret or something makes me uncomfortable. A lot of this album, I wanted the songs to be harder for me to sing, harder for me to perform. I like to have a certain amount of stuff in a song that's going to make me work.
You've said that the songs on Too Bright lack the slivers of hope from your first two records, but you're also dancing and moving more on this tour, now that you're backed by a band. Does that produce or dispatch cognitive dissonance for you?
It is very weird. There's a song called "Floating Spit" off my second album. It's a pretty song. It has a Phil Collins-y groove, and it's kind of warm. I dance fairly sexually to it on stage. But I noticed that it's not really a sexy song. It's about excessive drug use, and that subject matter wouldn't make you move your hips usually.
The first couple of albums didn't have morals at the end, but I answered some of the questions. With these songs, I'm more just putting it out there. I'm not really resolving anything. That is very therapeutic in a way, too. It's weirdly liberating, singing about these darker things in a strong and confident way and dancing. I sing a lot of songs about body image issues, but I make a point to wear something sheer and see-through onstage. It's almost like a weird rebellion, and people respond to it.
Some people in America seem more willing than before to talk about equal rights, whether that means marriage equality or women's rights. Do you hope your songs participate in that conversation and reflect it?
For sure. All the music starts in a personal place, because I'm pissed off. But I hope I'm focusing that and giving it more of a purpose. I know while I'm writing that if I keep it explicit and specific and flip a lot of the subject matter to be more proud and empowering and badass, it will translate and be helpful, especially for people who are in small towns. Things are a lot better, but they're not better everywhere. Seattle, where I live, is very liberal, but it doesn't mean I'm safe from people giving me shit. I like that my music could find a weird, little, gay kid in some conservative family, and maybe they can 100 percent relate to me. This could be that rebellious music for them.
But it's not only for gay men. There is so much overlap with otherness. You can pull inspiration from any of it. I was listening to badass women sing about their sexuality, and it shaped my life. I was hoping to make music like that.
Do people tell you that you have succeeded?
It's the whole point in a lot of ways. It's kind of corny, but it's when people say stuff like that to me that I feel very contented, even for just a minute. I did what I was trying to do. It's very heavy and emotional but in a really sweet, real way.
Do you hope your music can open a window of sorts for heterosexuals, too, to make them experience and consider the world and its issues with a different view?
It's a goal. I have noticed that some guys have to qualify that they like my music. I read one review of a show in Amsterdam, and the first couple of paragraphs were about how the reviewer is a pretty cool guy, how he likes Metallica, and how he didn't cry but he almost did at my show. Years ago, maybe he wouldn't have written that or admitted to the crying part, so that's pretty awesome. I get a lot of tweets that are like, "No homo."
I think people are responding to this album more because it's loud. Even if they don't understand where I'm coming from or can't relate to it, I think people appreciate how loud it is and how unafraid it is to share certain things. Even normal people have weird secrets that make them uncomfortable. People like knowing that. You don't have to be perfect.
Is it a struggle or personal challenge for you to express those secrets?
It's just what I do, to be honest. My mom overshares, and our conversations tend to be inappropriate. That's how I've always been. I noticed that I always made people uncomfortable, without me saying too much and just being who I was. I would open our dealings with "Well, listen to this—if you're uncomfortable, try this embarrassing factoid about me out" or "If you don't like me now, wait until you hear about this awful thing I did." I'm like that.
I fought with my dad constantly growing up. He didn't understand me, so I gave him a shitload of things not to understand. I've always just thrown it out there. In school, I was the only openly gay person. People made fun of me a lot, but I still wore legwarmers and glitter everyday, even though I was terrified and mad. It's just how I am.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Just how I am."