Perfume Genius on pigs, kids and fame by Mareike Lütge & Verena Spilker

In November when Perfume Genius came to Berlin to play a show at Lido, Mareike and I had the chance to interview him. Mareike had met Mike Hadreas, the mastermind behind Perfume Genius four years before, when he gave her one of his first interviews ever.

Unfortunately, the recording device didn’t work so the interview never got published, but you can read a recap of that night here. It was a very intimate and special show with just Mike and his boyfriend Allan both playing the piano and maybe twenty people in the audience. He had just released his first album Learning and it was quite obvious that this beautiful music wouldn’t go unnoticed by a bigger audience for much longer. Since then, things have shifted around quite a bit. His second album Put Your Back N 2 It received much more media attention. This was partly due to YouTube being super prudish and taking down the album trailer from its internet site and the reaction this provoked within the queer community and beyond. Now after releasing his third album Too Bright, he’s been featured on magazine covers and appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Due to a broken tire, Mike and his band arrived later than expected to the venue so we only had a couple of minutes to do the interview with him, but this is what Mareike, me and Mike talked about:

TQU: I don’t know if you remember, but we’ve met before. In summer 2010, you were playing a show at Privatclub and we had an interview before your show. At that point you told us that you were recording your songs in the basement of your mother’s house. Is that still the case, or how have the circumstances changed?

Mike: It’s changed, yeah. I have an apartment now with my boyfriend and we’ve been living together for four years, pretty much ever since 2010.

TQU: And what about the process of writing songs, would you say it’s still kind of the way you used to do it?

Mike: It’s changed. I mean, you know, the first album was a very manic feeling. It needed to come out and I was just doing it for myself. The second album was still personal, but I knew that there were going to be listeners. I kept them in mind while I was writing. But the third one, this last one, has been very different. Just because the way I had been writing before wasn’t working as well. There are still some songs that are like my old music on the new album, but some of the newer ones I went about writing very differently.

I have opportunities to work with people and I can have other musicians come in. So while I was writing songs for the new album, I sort of had ideas in mind for other instrumentation, and maybe even with songs that were led by a piano like they used to be.

TQU: But do you write your songs all by yourself? Because now there are more musicians involved than on the first album.

Mike: Yeah, but originally I write it all by myself. And I think that one of the things that has changed is that I know that I’m going to go into the studio. I have opportunities to work with people and I can have other musicians come in. So while I was writing songs for the new album, I sort of had ideas in mind for other instrumentation, and maybe even with songs that were led by a piano like they used to be. So I kind of wrote over distortion and noise and stuff, it’s kind of a placeholder for eventual synths. It ended up being pretty piano-y and synthy, but I tried to leave it a little open.

TQU: How is it going to be on stage? Do you have a lot of musicians with you?

Mike: I think, four years ago it was just me and Allan, wasn’t it? And then the second album, I had a drummer with me, and now I have a drummer and my friend Tom plays bass, guitar and synths. So it kind of is like a real band.

TQU: Do you consider yourself more as a band now and not as a solo artist?

Mike: Kind of both in a weird way. I mean I write the music, but to make everything happen it takes a lot more than just me, especially live. It became something bigger than just me, and the actual songwriting part.

TQU: How was it for you when the trailer for your last album came out and it had to be taken down from YouTube and Amazon and all these things? What did you think about that?

Mike: It was that weird combination of I wasn’t surprised and I was at the same time. I wouldn’t have been as surprised if it were a little more sexual or if I had been intending to provoke and be confrontational, then I wouldn’t have been surprised. But the actual ad was sweet and one of my prettiest, sweetest songs on top. It was just this slow embrace. We had our shirts off which is suggestive, but what was suggested is that we liked each other, you know (laughs). So it was really weird for me that that is what they considered not to be family-friendly. It was just the potential that maybe these two men would kiss at some point or have sex which would be so disturbing that even the idea, without actually seeing it, the idea would be too much for, I don’t know, a mother (laughs) to watch before something.

photo by Jason Harrell

TQU: Yeah, I thought it was really weird because it was so sweet. But maybe the problem was that it was so emotional and that you could kind of feel the magic, and that that makes people afraid.

Mike: I don’t really look at it as a bad thing, because way more people have seen it now (laughs). It ended up being good publicity. I know that right when my publicist got that email from YouTube, he sent it out to everybody and made a big fuzz about it (laughs). And people were upset about it and kept talking about it. That would never have happened otherwise.

He was pulling lots of favors. That’s how we got to do all our crazy ideas. It wouldn’t have happened if we did it in New York, but in Kansas City we could get the pigs for example, just like that.

TQU: You made two videos for the new album. The first one with Cody from Ssion. How was that experience making that video?

Mike: It was good. It was very different than the other videos I made. Because usually I make them in big cities and we can only afford to spend two hours max on whatever ideas we had. But when I shot with him, we went to Kansas City, which is smaller and we shot over five days. We ended up there because he used to live there and we could have so much of his friends’ help. He was pulling lots of favors. That’s how we got to do all our crazy ideas. It wouldn’t have happened if we did it in New York, but in Kansas City we could get the pigs for example, just like that.

TQU: Because there’s lots of pigs in Kansas?

Mike: I guess so and because we could just ask somebody he knows: Hey, do you have five pigs? And they were like: Yes, I do, would you like to see them (laughs) and hang with them for a while? In New York, it would cost you thousands of dollars to get some piglets (laughs).

I’m just going to rollerblade a lot, which I haven’t done for 15 years.

TQU: And there is this other video for Grid.

Mike: Yeah. That was kind of a little more amped up than my other videos. We did that one in London and it was kind of quick. I really liked it. The director of that video, Charlotte Rutherford, I asked her to do the next one as well. I’m going to film one with her right after this London show, but it’s kind of a lot more last minute than the other ones. I’m just going to rollerblade a lot, which I haven’t done for 15 years. I’m telling her I’m going to do all these tricks. There’s this one scene with judges, and I’m doing a routine. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that. In my mind, I’m really good at it and I can do spins and stuff. When I picture it in my head, I can see myself spinning, but I doubt that I can actually do that. I’m going to try…

TQU: Will you have time to practice for it?

Mike: No. I’m just going to snap them (the skates) on and try to look very hot and cool in the video.

TQU: I saw a video of you performing on the David Letterman show, which is a big in the US, isn’t it? How was that?

Mike: Oh yeah, it’s really big. It was great!

TQU: In the video, when David Letterman came to you on stage, you looked at him kind of confused or unsatisfied.

Mike: Yeah, it was right after I was finished, and in that moment, I kind of relaxed. For weeks I had been nervous about it and up until then, the way that I deal with things that make me nervous is that I completely detach and pretend that they’re not happening, so while performing, I was not really paying attention to it that I’m on that show or that these people were there. Then he walked up to me, and I realized that I just did this big thing.
That thing, it’s a big deal, but the reason it’s a big deal is because it’s the thing your mom will get excited for and people that don’t read indie blogs will watch that and know about. So all my friends from high school were excited about it. That’s why it was so nerve-racking too, because it’s not a performance that goes straight to people that will see my other stuff too. That’s why I got a lot more mean comments, because it went to “Moral Middle America.”

TQU: So was it also kind of a political act, to bring some queerness into the normativity of American television?

Mike: Big time (laughs). That’s what I was so excited about. That’s why I wore a fucking harness under my suit too. And it was really fun for me that we got to sing that specific song, on that specific show.

TQU: How is that in general? When you’re on tour, I guess the people are always super friendly because they like you and that’s why they come to your show, but what about comments on the internet, is there a lot going on?

Mike: There was. I stopped, for some reason right after the Letterman Show, I stopped. I used to google myself and read everything. It’s hard not to do, but I’ve stopped. Yeah, people are just… When people get very specific [it is hard]. I don’t mind the ‚”faggot” stuff . I mean it bothers me, I made a whole album [Too Bright] about why it bothers me. But I can understand [why they think that]. It‘s like: Yeah, I know that kind of person and why they’re doing it and it doesn’t really get to me, but people can get really specific and really personal. That’s really awful. It’s not even what they say, it’s that they’re saying something mean, you know what I mean? And I can’t even imagine [why they would do that], I know what it’s like to hate things or to be upset with them, but I rarely ever contact that person and say “Hey, I hated this.” You know what I mean? That’s really strange to me.

That’s really awful. It’s not even what they say, it’s that they’re saying something mean, you know what I mean?

And if you read comments like that enough, you start to think that the whole world is like that and that’s a really damaging thing to think. That people in general are that awful, which is not true. But those people are a lot more specific and that’s what sticks with you unfortunately. I will have one mean message and a lot of nice supportive ones, but I kind of dismiss all of those nice ones and go ’yeah, whatever’, and then the mean one I read and I’m like ”oh, they’re right, they figured me out, I’m shitty and awful.” So I need to detach from it. But it’s been kind of helpful in a weird way too, because I need to have a thicker skin, a little bit and, care less, like actually care less what they think. Not pretend like I do or think that I care less, but actually be ok with how I am, and not to need input from someone, either way, good or bad, so that I don’t need any of it.

TQU: But that seems hard to keep up all the time.

Mike: Yeah, I know (laughs). If anybody can do that, they’d probably be a really weird person.

TQU: Also I read something about your mom wanting you to have kids. Do you want that as well?

Mike: I don’t know. I never really thought about it, I never really planned [that]. It just wasn’t in what I though my life would be like. My life is really different from when I was 18 though. When I thought about how my future was going to be like, it’s really different, but also, you know, I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to have children. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to get married. It’s hard to answer, but I know my boyfriend wants to have kids. I can’t even imagine [it] (laughs).

TQU: We just have so many friends who have children in our circle of friends, and it seems kind of exhausting.

Mike: Yeah. My friends have some awesome kids, too. I just can’t, I don’t know. I wish I would have gotten over a lot of the things I’m getting over now, years ago. I think I would be more ready than [I am] now. I don’t think you’re ever really ready, kind of like how you’re never really ready to quit smoking. It’s never a great time, but you just figure it out. But, I don’t know, I think I need to get to a point where I see a cake, and I can control myself and not eat the whole thing. I think if I’m still treating myself really shitty, I probably shouldn’t have kids yet. I need to be a little more solid. I’m not going to be perfect ever, but I need to have a little bit of a grip on myself (laughs).

TQU: So, what’s coming next?

Mike: Just that video, and more touring, festivals and stuff like that. Things are always kind of set up the same way: you release the album, then you tour a little bit, then you do a video, then you tour a little bit. I like doing all those things, but I want to do something different. Do the next album somehow differently. And not in a corny way like people try to do that, like Björk, with the apps for everything, I mean did anybody ever do the apps, the Björk apps (laughs)? It’s a cool idea, but it’s like, I don’t have any friends that are like: I know all the Björk apps. So I don’t want to do apps, but it would be nice to find some way to kind of flip it around so it’s not just the constant same structure. Even though I like the structure, but I’ve been doing it enough, so it would be fun to do something different like a movie or something.

And we for sure are looking forward to that or whatever comes next! Thanks Mike, for being so awesome, open, friendly and approachable. It was a pleasure meeting you (again)!

photo by Jason Harrell

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