Perfume Genius: The 13th Floor Interview 2017

Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is just about to release his fourth album, titled, No Shape. Hadreas, who was in Auckland performing at The Kings Arms back in 2015, is a resident of Seattle, Washington although he and his partner Alan Wyffels have plans to move to LA, where No Shape was recorded.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Perfume Genius recently and discussed his creative process and the personal approach he takes with his songwriting.

Click here to listen to the interview with Perfume Genius.

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:


MD: So when you’re preparing to newly present a new album, what’s going through your head? How’re you feeling about it?

MH: Well, we’ll see.  I mean, there’s a lot more elements in this album than before; so, I was just kind of making sure that the spirit was kept; hopefully at some point I’ll have enough money to travel with a full choir or something, but it’s just four dudes ; so, we’re just trying to find a way. Some of the songs are a little more bandsy, which I think is actually kind of fun, but just some of them are going to be more fun to play; not just because they’re new, I mean we’ve been playing the same songs for five years, but there’s a lot of energy in all of them that’ll be fun to negotiate with everybody, and get onstage.

MD: I was just listening to the opening track, called Other Side, and it really kind of starts out – or eventually comes up – with this big explosion of sound. I was wondering if that was a way of drawing attention to this new, bigger sound that you’re planning on.

MH: A little bit. I like that sort of trick at the beginning of the album. It sounds very much like things[that I’ve done before, and then it has this unexpected, really epic and ecstatic break in it. I thought that would be a good song to start with.

MD: You like to keep your audience a little bit on edge, so they’re ready to be surprised?

MH: I think so; it’s fun! I think it’s just a tasting too. I like music that does that: that’s surprising, and has plot-twists; I enjoy a plot twist.

MD: I think I read where your producer, Blake Mills, was talking about the fact that he was looking to get a bigger voice out of you in this record. Was that something that the two of you discussed?

MH: A little bit. When I was writing, he experimented with my voice in different ways. He definitely kept my vocals a lot more present in the mix than I’m used to – it’s pretty upfront, and almost in your brain, which is weird to hear myself – but it really helps to communicate the lyrics. My vocals are very clear, and I think it helps.

MD: And some of the tracks are extremely intimate: some of the ones that don’t have a lot of backing behind them, like Every Night, it’s like you’re singing right into somebody’s ear. I think I read that that song is actually about ghosts and visitations or something. Can you elaborate?

MH: Yeah! I mean, it’s all drama, essentially. It depends on my mood, from day to day.  I have all this buzzing dread or anxiety a lot, and sometimes that can turn into eating a whole cake, or I could turn it into, “I bet there’s actually some kind of presence.” Sometimes I don’t know if it’s just misplaced anxiety, or if, truly, I’m having some sort of supernatural experience; but I think it could be either one.

MD: Well, either way, it’s going to be anxious and anxiety-inducing, so…

MH: Yeah. Good material, either way, I guess.

MD: Absolutely. Now, I’m here in Auckland, New Zealand, and you were here in February of 2015; and when you were here then, I think you performed solo. What have you been doing since then? How have you evolved as a performer or as an artist in the intervening couple of years?

MH:  There’s been a lot of change in how I think what I’m capable of. When I first started playing shows for my last album, it was the first time I was not behind a piano anymore, and I had to get up and sing, and it was just me there. It was fairly awkward at first; and eventually, everything that kept me self-conscious, I turned into a weird fuel, and then I almost got off on the choice. Then it just made me… more like a true performer, I think. I started looking at the audience, I started feeling. It felt more like a shared experience, instead of just being witnessed – which is how it felt for a lot of years: that people were spying on me. Now I feel like I’m singing to people and for people, and with them; and I just thought about all the musicians that I love, and what I want to see when I go to a show. I want to see someone, basically, freak out. I want to see them look like they’re close to whatever source they were tapping when they wrote, or whatever weird spiritual thread they were connected to when they were making things – some kind of cathartic thing – so, I just sort of said, “fuck it” eventually. I just whipped all my anxiety and fear into going for it. And the possibility that it might look ridiculous, embarrassing, almost adds to it; feels like riskier, in a fun way.

MD: Right, right. So, has that change in your attitude about performing translated into any kind of difference in the way that you approach your song writing now; with the songs that are on the new album?

MH: Yeah, I feel more free. I feel like I’m better at it, really. A lot of it is practise. I feel I could write different kinds of music than I thought. I thought before that – when I first started making things – that I was a lyric-writer, and the music supported the lyrics, but now I feel much more confident in the music. It’s more mathematical this time, thinking about chords and structure of the songs, and I felt like it could hold up to a lot of instrumentation. I felt confident singing low and high. I think I went with the same enthusiasm I started performing with: not being afraid to maybe try on an influence that I hadn’t tapped before, because I thought I couldn’t pull it off; now I just go for it.

MD: With that new mindset: you must’ve discussed that with Blake Mills, and with the other folks that you’re working with, making the record. Did that open up more possibilities – as far as what you could do in the studio – this time around?

MH: Well, for sure, and I wrote thinking about the studio. I didn’t want it to be led by our piano; so, I really wanted the sound to be, basically, a hundred percent created together in the studio.  I sent Blake all my demos, and he wrote back this really long, thoughtful reply, and different things he heard, and influences that were right on with what I was feeling, and then also a bunch of zanier ideas that were really exciting. I kept wanting to let loose, and I let everybody else let loose on the songs I felt… could either leave it big, or I… could whittle it down if it’s not going to hold up to everything; but I kind of just let everybody to go crazy on it. Blake is such an amazing guitar player, and everything he does is so fucking weird: it’s a trite thing for some of us; it was really, very exciting.

MD: Sounds like it. You mentioned that he picked up on some of the influences that were involved; that you had making it. Can you be specific about some of those influences, and how they influenced particular songs on the record?

MH: I think I tried to write my version of a good Bruce Springsteen stadium rock anthem. I didn’t necessarily want to prepare it that way, but the way I wrote it was with that specific spirit, and I think he understood that I wanted some kind of really ‘dudely’ American stuff in there, but in a twisted way. We both are obsessed with this Bulgarian women’s choir, and they’ve released a few albums of really beautiful choral music. He likes a lot of different – I guess what in America, we call – world music, because it’s not American. He was unafraid to pull from a bunch of stuff, like Sade and Prince, and we’re both pretty obsessive fans of Nina Simone, too; Talk Talk, I think was a big one for us, too.

MD: Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s face it: Talk Talk was not an American phenomenon at all; they were virtually unknown over there. How did you get exposed to them?

MH: Actually, from my last album: a couple of people have asked me if I was influenced by them, and I hadn’t heard it; so, then I started listening to it, and became obsessive, and now it totally popped up as a major tone; but it was almost by accident.

MD: Sounds like there’s a lot of give-and-take between you and your fans – especially when you’re out on the road – and that obviously has an effect – you learned about Talk Talk – but also, I get the feeling that, because of the subject matter of a lot of your songs, that there’s probably a certain amount of more emotional connection as well between you and your fans. How do you find dealing with that?

MH: I love it. It’s the best part; a very heart warming thing. I remember listening to music for the same reasons that I told you: it helps you feel less lonely when you’re having experiences and shame that feels very specific to you, and you don’t have a lot of examples of it. It doesn’t feel shared, or sometimes it’s a secret, and then to hear someone else sing about things that you’re keeping to yourself or that you’re ashamed of. It’s why I’m so specific about what I talk about – my sexuality, and things like that – because I wish I would’ve had people, growing up, that I listened to, that were as exact, and not changing pronouns or making it vague. When I push through my writing, it’s essentially doing therapy for myself, but it feels more like a group thing now; that kind of thing. I realize that I have to keep it really personal, or it ends up being preachy; especially if I try to have some kind of message, or something… people turn it off.

MD: The next thing I wanted to ask you about is the track Sides – that’s on the new album – that you worked with Weyes Blood. I was just wondering how that collaboration came about, and maybe give us a little inside information on that.

MH: I’m just obsessed; I’m obsessed with her, essentially. We were talking about listening to music growing up, and I listened to her albums; same way that I listened to music when I was a teenager: I listened to it front to back, multiple times in a row, and I don’t do that with music that much anymore; so, I was just a big fan. And I wrote that song, and then Blake started playing this funky bass line after it. We’d made this extended outro, and thought it was good to have someone sing that; it would be cool. It was kind of fun because she wrote her part – her melody and lyrics – almost as a response to me, and Blake wrote the music that’s underneath her section. The song’s kind of about a relationship, but it ended up  more  mine, in the beginning, but it turned into a fiction that all three of us made together; like a conversation; it’s cool.

MD: So, it really is a collaboration, isn’t it?

MH: Yeah, between all three of us.

MD: Were you surprised with what it ended up being? Was it a ways away from what you originally planned?

MH: In a way, but so many of the reasons why I wanted her to sing that… because she has a richer voice than I do, and traditionally, when the men and women sing together, the man’s voice is very deep and low, and then there’s a very wispy, high female voice on top. In this it’s kind of flipped: my voice is sort of more wispy and higher, and hers is more deep and rich; and I like that there’s a funky bass line, but then she has some very medieval influences over a slap bass; super into it.

MD: So, you’re, kind of, the Nancy Sinatra to her Lee Hazlewood, or whatever.

MH: Yeah, for sure.

Perfume Genius, aka Michael Hadreas, on piano, right, performing at 92Y Tribeca with Alan Wyffels, left. Photo by Ari Mintz. 7/20/2010 NYTCREDIT: Ari Mintz for The New York Times

MD: The final track on the album is a song called Alan, which I believe is named after your partner, Alan Wyffels. He worked with you on the music as well; is that correct?

MH: Yeah. I treat writing like a job: I will… go into my room and write when he goes to work, teaching piano, and then when he comes home, I’ll play him everything I made. He’s also played every single show with me, and played on a couple of albums, and helped formed the live[shows a lot; so, he’s very much a part of the music too, as much as a part of my life; sort of a weird, strange thing, because I still write it, but it’s very much informed by him too.

MD: What was his reaction to having a song written about him, or named after him?

MH: Well, I didn’t tell him I was going to name it after him, when I played it for him. Also, since he’s so involved in all of it – in every step of the way too – it’s not like I gave him this fully-formed song as a present; like, “this is your song.”  That song’s about us…. He listened the way that he always does: he’ll listen very critically at first, and then when I go to sleep – he wakes up a lot earlier than me – then he’ll listen to music and have a more emotional response to it, later, that I don’t get to witness. Unfortunately or fortunately, I get to witness his more critical side, right after writing something.

MD: I would imagine – having that kind of creative relationship – you need to be able to get away from each other to be able do certain things, just to make the relationship continue to work in a certain way.

MH: Yeah, or just learn how to fight really well.

MD: Right, that too! Yeah, absolutely!

MH: We can fight – we can have like a knock-down, drag-out fight – and make up within ten minutes. I guess it’s probably not very fun to witness, but mostly, our band knows that. We’ve learned that when we’re fighting it’s usually because we’re hungry or tired; it’s never really about what we’re fighting about. He’s a morning person; so, he’s up for four hours when I’m still asleep, and I’m awake at night when he’s asleep; so, that’s how we get our own time; otherwise, we’re around each other all day; especially on tour.

MD: And I think I read somewhere that you’re planning on moving from Washington down to L.A. Is that something that’s still on the cards?

MH: Yeah, I think so. I just miss the city. I think firstly – with the way things are going in America – I need to be around more people, more outsiders, or what everybody thinks are outsiders; and I’m in that group…. When I go walk my dog, or walk into stores, or something, I don’t see anyone; let alone goths or gamers or gay people, or whatever. I feel I need a bunch of weirdoes around me. I mean, it used to be that laws – at least on paper – were protecting words. It didn’t usually work, but at least they were there. And that seems like it’s in danger of not happening anymore; so, I really just need people to play it with me.

MD: If you do change your location, will that have an effect on the music as well?

MH: I don’t know. I think so. I recorded the album in L.A. too, and that was the big deciding factor… I ended up enjoying it. I don’t know! I’ve recorded… the second and third album in the countryside in England in the winter, and it was very isolated and dark; and I guess people would say they could hear that. Maybe you can hear some sunshine on this album, I guess….

MD: I guess it would be more about where the songs were written as well.

MH: I guess so. Maybe I’ll make some sort of very beachy… album; surf and turf.

MD: Your first surfing album; it’ll be fantastic!

MH: Yeah!