The tortured voice of Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) often seemed so fragile that one felt compelled to nurse it back to health. The Seattle indie pop songwriter has never been afraid to get painfully personal. For years, Hadreas came off as the most gentile and shy singer imaginable. But on Perfume Genius's dazzling 2014 album Too Bright, that hushed voice reached booming new heights. While Hadreas's tender side is still evident, he brazenly began busting out queer anthems like "Queen" burst with defiant confidence and a Bowie-like flair for the dramatic. As one of the most acclaimed albums of 2014, Too Bright landed on the year-end best album lists for Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, and a myriad of other outlets. After spending months on the road, Perfume Genius returns home next Tuesday (April 7) to play the Paramount Theatre as opening support for twee pop icons Belle and Sebastian.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Hadreas about eschewing subtlety on Too Bright, his favorite show at the Paramount, and finding comfort in Seattle's weirdos.
How has your relationship to the songs on Too Bright changed or evolved past few months on the road?
Performing the music in front of people is a whole different thing, and I don’t think I’ve really ever felt that big of a change til this album. With the first two albums I made, I essentially just performed them like I wrote them. I could’ve been in my bedroom or something and people were just peeking in. So it was basically going on stage and emoting, and people spying on me. (Laughs) That’s how my shows felt. But now, this music, to communicate it, I have to move my body. It’s not like I have to, but I feel like I should. I have to move my body—I guess I don’t have to, but I feel like I should (laughs)—and when it’s time to scream I have to really go for it. And it doesn’t mean that I do the scream from the album, I have to do the scream for that day. Things feel more immediate and it’s a lot different. It took a lot of getting used to, but all that nervousness I’ve had about is starting to change over into excitement before the show, so that’s good.
I remember the first time I saw you play, and the thing I really latched onto was that hushed intensity. It felt like the shy kid in the corner playing his music, and I was voyeuristically sneaking a peek at what he was doing.
I’m going to be real with you, that hasn’t fully gone away, and there are still a lot of moments like that. I’m a pretty anxious and awkward person, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t be a badass at the same time.
That "badass" quality is certainly the thing that stands out on Too Bright. There’s that sense of fragility found on the previous albums, but there’s also this sense of brash bravado—this intensity—that’s coming out. What led you to tap into that more brash side of yourself in the music?
I guess because I needed it, you know? I started writing this album very much in the same way that I always had written before. But my old way of writing wasn’t really feeling helpful or inspired to me. I realized that I thought I was limited to that: that I could only play piano a certain way and I could only sing in a certain range. I mean, I’m not dismissing the music I made. I’m still really proud of it. But at that moment, I realized that stepping it up and kind of being uncomfortable felt more important to me. So I needed to kind of overdo it at first, and overdoing it became kind of cathartic. Instead of being subtle, to actually full on scream felt really good. (Laughs) And to not talk around the edges of something kind of nasty or dark, just actually full on say it, and for the music to be as full on dark and nasty as what I’m saying.
What's been your reaction to the acclaim Too Bright has received? Beyond the critical acclaim it's an album that I saw many musicians hold up as one of their favorites of 2014. Is that something you’re comfortable with or anxious about?
I’m grateful for it, but also there’s a time after tour where you kind of process what’s happened. Because I don’t really think about it while I’m doing it, and a lot of it makes me kind of anxious, so I have to power through and detach a little bit. I think I do that with reviews and all that other stuff too, because it’s pretty overwhelming if I really sit down and think about all the stuff that’s happened. So I try to take tiny bits of it—just enough to make me feel good—but not too much where I freak out. It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know if I’ve fully processed everything. (Laughs)
How do you feel Seattle has influenced your music music?
I’m not certain, because people have called my music depressing, and I don’t want to say it’s because it rains or it’s overcast here or something. But one thing that I love about Seattle is there’s just a bunch of weirdos here. All flavors of weirdos, and I find that really comforting. I consider myself one of them. And that’s one thing I miss when I’m in other cities.
Are there any local up-and-comers that you think people should check out?
I’m gonna forget their name, but they have a song called “I Only Fucked You As a Joke.”
Yeah. I liked that song a lot. Is Chastity Belt from Seattle?
Yeah, that’s the same singer in both those bands.
I just saw their promo photos, and those in themselves—just the promo shots—I recommend.
Oh yeah, I think about them like once a week. They’re the best promo shots ever.
They’re super good. (Laughs)
If you weren’t a musician, is there another line of work you would’ve pursued?
I went to Cornish for a year for fine arts, and that’s what I always saw myself doing; something more visual. And now with music, I get to make videos and kind of get to do that in a small way, but I’d like to do something more full on.
What are you most looking forward to with regards to the upcoming show with Belle and Sebastian at the Paramount?
I mean, I love going to shows at the Paramount, but we’ve never been at a level where I can play that venue. I’m really glad that we’re gonna get to play there, and I’m glad its going to be with Belle and Sebastian.
Do you have a favorite show you’ve seen at the Paramount?
I saw Radiohead there. That probably was like 15 years ago, at least (ed. note: it was 1998, so 17 years ago). But it was one of the first shows I went to where I felt changed afterwards. (Laughs) It was super dramatic.
Do you have any particular goals going forward?
I just want to keep doing this and somehow sustain myself on it. I guess I’m constantly worried that I’m going to get into my own way. Writing can be really hard because sometimes you try and nothing happens. It happened with this album. It happens every single time I try to write. My goal is to think of all the difficult parts of not having ideas, or thinking my ideas are shit, or not knowing what’s going to happen, and having that be a part of eventually making something good. Maybe because I’ve been doing interviews and people are asking what I’m doing next, I’m anticipating some kind of hardship. I’m thinking about the hardship before I actually think about what I’m going to make. And now I’m just including that in the process.
Belle and Sebastian with Perfume Genius
Apr 7 at 8, Paramount Theatre, $41