As Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas creates worlds and narratives on his albums that are as decadent as they are delicate. These worlds often serve as a sonic sanctuary for queer music fans that now, more than ever, are as life-saving as they are life-affirming.
No Shape, released earlier this month, is his best and biggest salve for the agony and ecstasy of the queer experience yet. If no family was safe when he sashayed on 2014’s Too Bright, he’s built himself, and us, a hell of a lot more walking room this time, lyrically as well as musically. Before he sashays onto the stage at Union Transfer this Thursday (a show that will be livestreamed via Pitchfork), Mike took a generous time out to talk about the album, the circular energy that can build at a show (including one particularly memorable night in Philly), and the importance of queerness in music and art in the current dark times.
The Key: You’ve grown a lot, musically speaking, from your earliest recordings. No Shape has a much bigger, more expansive sound than anything you’ve ever done. What inspired that expansion?
Mike Hadreas: Well the first album I made was the first songs I had ever written. Playing and performing them over the years, I just realized I’m more capable than I thought I was. I thought I was locked into a specific way of writing, that I was only as good as a certain structure, which I thought was fairly simple. I just tried to shake that off. With this one, I felt a lot more confident that the songs I had written could have a lot more instrumentation, be more full, and were well written enough to hold up to it.
TK: How do you think your live shows will evolve on this tour as a result of that newly expanded sound?
MH: I don’t know yet! We’ve done some rehearsals and I guess I have a kind of signature hip move. For some reason that’s like the only move I do. It’s a hip based activity. I’m trying to add an arm thing with it [laughs]. We’ll see.*
I used to be really scared to perform. It felt like I was just being watched. It didn’t really feel like a shared thing, and now it feels like a more circular energy experience. I look at the audience now. I even write more with everyone in mind. The music is sort of prepared for them more than it used to be.
TK: So the audience kind of gives you a sense of where you want to go next when writing new songs?
MH: I think so, yeah. People who write to me and talk with me after shows. It became important to me to not think so small when writing. The songs start in a personal way, but I carry all of those people with me now. I try to frame things in a way that will be helpful to them too. But I also know that if I ever get too preachy, it won’t connect. So I try to find a balance.
TK: The press release for this album describes it as “sounds that only exist inside Freddy Kruger.” What exactly is a Freddy Kruger sound and what makes him an inspiration?
MH: Well it’s more like a mood-based thing. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Freddy Kruger. I was always very scared of him, but he was also very silly and campy while being gross and creepy. There are also a lot of stills from those movies with a lot smoke and blue lighting that are really beautiful, but disturbing. I also used to have this recurring nightmare where Freddy Kruger would slap me, which sounds silly now. He didn’t even use the knives.
TK: I would imagine that was still pretty traumatic at the time.
MH: Yeah I’ve always really liked things that were sort of dark. But then I go back to things that I’m afraid of to see if there’s some kind of soul or humor or beauty in it.
TK: Another one of the things you’ve talked about in reference to the record is the idea that things that bother you personally are becoming less clear, more confusing, and that you’re finding freedom in that. Why do you think you think that’s happening?
MH: I think because they’re less circumstantial. I used to need things like money and have to find ways to get money, or need to repair a specific relationship because I had done that person wrong in some way. Now my circumstances have gotten better but my brain doesn’t seem to have caught up. I’m realizing how much of what I feel is just wiring. It’s almost like realizing that your moods and your feelings aren’t always true. That’s very confusing.
When I looked at it objectively, there was no real reason to feel the way that I do. A lot of that stuff just translates into this buzzing dread or anxiety, this formless thing. As I get older, I just pick something to funnel it into. Like I’ll pick my skin and be obsessing over it for three weeks. It’s obviously not about my skin. It’s just an easy, practical way to figure things out and try to control the situation when the reality is you can’t control or shake every feeling. I think a lot of the lyrics (on the album) are more open-ended, almost more poetic as a result, because they’re not stories about me or a specific thing.
TK: Has that way of thinking and managing less circumstantial anxiety gotten easier or harder in the past few months in the wake of current world events?
MH: It’s become weird (laughs). I have, like, no hope, no optimism at all about the way things are going. It’s very dark right now. But I can’t indulge that too much, because how can you exist within that space? It’s weird though to try and find warmth and brief moments of peace in that, but also be available to take action and be aware of everything and figure out ways to help. It can be its own spiral. I’ve always been pretty good at tuning things out but I’m trying to get better at tuning in. It’s not easy to find a balance.
TK: Has anything helped you to tune in more?
MH: I think, weirdly, Twitter. I think I’ve translated a lot of the world through my own experience, and as I travel more, I realize more and more how “American” I am and how I don’t know what’s going on. Travel has helped a lot too, but Twitter has helped me realize that I haven’t looked beyond myself as much as I should. I follow a lot of people who are much better at dealing with this kind of stuff than I am, much smarter and more patient. It’s helpful to read how they articulate things.
TK: One thing that I, along with a lot of other people, have always appreciated about your music is how you wear your queerness on your sleeve, unapologetically and even defiantly. I think it’s very important for artists like you to do that, especially now. Do think music in general is getting queerer?
MH: I think music has stolen a lot of ideas. People have been stealing from queer people, particularly queer people of color, for years. I think it’s important that the original voices of queerness are heard and that those ideas are heard. That can be very frustrating. People who are so talented and revolutionary can be on the fringes and then people in the mainstream pick and choose little parts of them to use and get all of the credit. I think that still happens a lot. But with the internet and people being able to put their music out there, I think it’s helping.
I think it’s important to be specific too. I don’t think everyone that’s gay needs to make explicitly gay music. There are different levels to gayness. I just really needed that when I was younger. I wish there was a man singing to another man in my youth and that it was clear he was doing so. I had Rufus Wainwright, I guess. That’s about it.
TK: I think you’re that person for a lot of people now.
MH: Well I’ve been through things, and didn’t have a lot to show for it. I’ve never really felt purposeful or helpful in my life before and I do when I’m writing. I don’t mind putting that responsibility on myself. I also think I’m good at it.
TK: You’ve played Philly a number of times over the years. I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about a particularly notorious night at Johnny Brenda’s.
MH: Oh yeah… [laughs]
TK: Someone threw a shoe at you!
MH: I don’t even remember that part! How could I forget a shoe!
TK: It started with someone heckling you, and then he threw a shoe.
MH: I remember he calling me Mark. He kept saying “Help me Mark! Help me!”
TK: He didn’t even call you Mike!
MH: No, and then his friend tripped the fire alarm when they were kicked out. There was also this drunk girl just sitting on stage staring out at everyone the whole time.
TK: I don’t remember that. I might have been too far back to see.
MH: I also got groped that night. It was my first groping.
TK: What keeps bringing you back to Philly after all of that?
MH: Well all of that energy, if you just poked at it a little, could shift into something really fun. I definitely remember that show more than a lot of the ones. I don’t remember the shoe though. How could I forget the shoe?
TK: You’re playing Union Transfer this time.
MH: Yeah I really like that venue. It’s a little less intimate than Johnny Brenda’s, but it gives me more of a barrier to do my thing.
TK: Do you tend to have a preference with big vs. small venues?
MH: I don’t know. Different things are good for the ego in different ways. Like when I play a really big show, I always feel really scared and nervous for it, but I use it as fuel. It almost makes it better because I’m so present and so dedicated to going for it. But then sometimes when it’s smaller, it feels more like a family gathering, a little more loose. That can free you up to go say things the way you want, make it more or less defiant.
You don’t even really know until you get up (on stage). I’ve had really intimate, tiny shows that felt very… not good (laughs). And I’ve also had bigger shows that felt very tense, but in a good way.
TK: Well I look forward to seeing what happens when you come back!
MH: Yeah we’ll see what happens! I kind of want something crazy to happen, but maybe something light or a little more joyous. Maybe someone will throw a light slipper!
Perfume Genius headlines Union Transfer on Thursday, May 18th; for tickets and more information, head to the XPN Concert Calendar. The show will also be livestreamed via Pitchfork’s Facebook Page starting at 9:45 p.m. ET