Earlier this year, Perfume Genius
released one of the most excellent albums of 2017. Entitled No Shape
, the album was a pretty massive turning point for Mike Hadreas (the artist behind it all), both lyrically and sonically. In comparison to his 2014 album, Too Bright,
it was much less... angry. Suddenly, he was taking care of himself. He was living in the present and learning to love. "It was more of me singing at whoever I thought was coming for me. This album is less concerned with that -- now it's more from me to people who were already listening to it," Hadreas told Baeble when we sat down for a chat. We went on to talk about what it's like working so closely with his boyfriend, the different production techniques used on this latest record, addiction, anxiety, and pretty much everything else. Talking to Hadreas is exactly what you'd expect it to be like -- his quirky and lovable personality manages to pierce through, even via phone. As he laughs in between his honest answers and speaks with a certain sweetness, it's evident that there's no one quite like Hadreas, and he might just be one of the most authentic artists making music today.
KIRSTEN SPRUCH: A lot of the songs on your latest album, No Shape, are pretty production-heavy. How did they typically come to fruition this time around?
MIKE HADREAS: For most of this album, I really wanted all the sounds to be made in the studio. I made demos and had a map for all the songs, some harmonies... But I wanted all the instrumentation to be made there, and I wanted it all to be beyond what I was capable of doing. I didn't want to be based around the piano, or even synths. I was more thoughtful about the destruction of them than before, so I knew that they could stand up to a bunch of production and instrumentation.
MH: I also wasn't super attached to it being any way. I just wanted it to feel kind of wild and free. Whatever musician came in to play, I just wanted them to really go for it, and I ended up keeping most of that shit in there. [laughs]
KS: And your voice really shines on this record, too, especially when you compare it to your debut album from 2010, Learning. On that record your voice was hidden deliberately, almost. Is that something that you've had to get comfortable with?
MH: Oh, for sure. Even when I make my demos now I still do it the same way. There's tons of reverb, and I pull out certain frequencies in my voice that I don't like, and it's kind of lower in the mix... Stuff like that. So every time I was in the studio it was still really jarring for me to have to hear myself so well and have it be so bad [laughs]. Even on this album, some the vocals sound like I'm right next to you. It's really clear, and it really freaks me out. But even if it makes me a little uncomfortable, if I knew it helped the song, then I left it. Because in the end, I'm not going to be the one listening to it all the time.
KS: Do you ever listen to yourself?
MH: Uh… no… well, I do. You know... like… no, I don't [laughs]. Well, when you're making a track listing, mixing, and stuff like that, I have to. But after the album's done, I don't listen to it.
KS: You've said that you like tricking people - having it sound kind of pleasant when there's something more hidden. Are there any secrets about this album that you think we wouldn't get from listening to it on the surface?
MH: I feel like that makes me seem too smug, if I think I'm going over their heads or something [laughs]. But you know... the song "Wreath" is a very warm and joyous sounding song, but it's about only finding peace when I die. Which isn't the most uplifting idea.
KS: And you start yodeling!
MH: [laughs] And live, I extend that part even further. I really go for it. That even turns into an a capella yodelling moment for a little while, too.
KS: It wasn't until my hundredth listen that I realized, with the exception of "Wreath" and "Die 4 You," there aren't a lot of drums on this album. Was that a cautious decision?
MH: It just sort of happened that way. There's no drum kit with me. There's some drum machine stuff and percussion. I think that a lot of that was just a consequence of that we all worked really closely with each other. Alan, the engineer, all of us did what we could do. We ended up having some musicians come in, but by the time that happened I think we were all really happy with how they all were. I also think that some of the songs I wrote could sound really slick and traditional, but I didn't necessarily want them to be that way. I think not having a kit helps them to go in that direction.
KS: Right, you've said that you didn't want this to be a straight rock record like Too Bright. That album was a bit, uh, scarier, while No Shape seems to have a more positive mood to it. What inspired that change?
MH: It was what I needed. Too Bright
was more directed at other people, it was more classically rebellious. It was more of me singing at whoever I thought was coming for me. This album is less concerned with that -- now it's more from me to people who were already listening to it. It's less concerned with trying to yell at people. I got kind of tired of doing that. Now I just want to focus on who's already there, and building up what's already good.
KS: How did the collaboration with Weyes Blood come about for "Sides"?
MH: I wrote that song as my boyfriend singing to me, so I'm kind of singing at him, which is already kind of weird I guess [laughs]. And then when I finished my part, my producer, Blake, started playing this funky bass line outro, but the outro ended up being a full minute and a half. It completely changed it, but I was really into it. I immediately thought of Natalie to sing on it because I have been such a fan of hers for a long time. It wasn't scripted out. I didn't write her part. It's very kind of David Lynch-y in the end. And Blake's in there too, because he wrote the music for the end. I liked it, her voice is sort of richer and more clear, and mine is a little wispier and more ethereal. The genders, in that way, are flipped. She uses kind of a low "dude" voice.
KS: What's it like working so closely with your boyfriend, Alan Wyffels?
MH: It's good. You know, every show I've ever played, he's played with me. It's not really any different. And I guess that I'm glad that I'm talking about him more, because he's been such a big part of it. But in sort of a strange way, because I write all the music. And then, when we go on tour, I'm the one doing all of the interviews and getting my picture taken. But he's such a big part of the live show, and he's played on the album. When I'm writing, I play him all of the music. He kind of helps me shape it and lets me know if it's... bad or good [laughs]. So I'm glad that he's getting his picture taken every once and awhile.
KS: You know it's real when you can go on tour together.
MH: Yeah, I know. It's pretty crazy, we've been around each for 24 hours a day for like, eight years now.
KS: And to tie that in with the album, lyrically, you sound more comfortable. This album seems to be filled with so much love. Did you feel that personally?
MH: I do feel that way, if I really think about it. I just don't generally feel that way, day to day. I think that disconnect really bugs me, and makes me feel really ungrateful and bratty. I have all this goodness and just take it all for granted so much. I feel so disconnected from it. Also, I wanted to write songs that pay closer attention to the things that I sometimes -- because I'm so in my head or wrapped up in whatever anxieties or problems that I have day to day -- ignore a lot. The idea of being in the moment can feel so boring sometimes. I wanted to see if my songs could make it more magical and more dramatic, and give it some kind of witchiness, so that it doesn't feel so boring.
KS: You've mentioned your anxiety before. What's your advice for other people who deal with that?
MH: Just do stuff anyway, and realize that, while it's not really gonna go away, it doesn't have to be a fatal thing. For so long I was so frantically trying to sooth myself, you know? If I was ever uncomfortable I was just constantly seeking out ways to be comfortable. It never really worked, but if it did, it was super fleeting and it really was at the expense of doing something else. So I just do all this stuff now and I'm scared the whole time. Like when I play shows, all this stuff I'm doing -- I've been anxious the whole time. I guess I always had this version of myself that was like, 'when I get this to this certain place, then I'll start doing stuff. When I'm finally healthy and stable, then I'll make this and then I'll do that.' But I don't think I'm ever gonna get there. So I think it's just about doing stuff anyways, and making decisions and commitments, too! Just fucking do shit.
KS: You made Learning after you stopped using drugs. Do you think that the album would have sounded the way it does if you didn't have that experience beforehand?
MH: Oh man, no. That was all a consequence of being sober. I mean, I don't think it's a requirement. There's a lot of people who do drugs and make good music. I just couldn't, you know? And beyond that, whether it was good or not, I didn't make anything when I was on drugs [laughs]. I've always written and I've always made things when I was growing up, and even when I was drinking and doing drugs, but they were all so angsty in ways that I really don't think was that dramatic. I couldn't see the big picture at all. When I got sober, I could click into something much more real. It was less indulgent. I definitely recommend getting sober. I'm not against doing drugs or drinking - I actually kind of support them if you can do it and remain scarcely sound - but if you can't, then I totally recommend getting sober [laughs].
KS: Do you think drug use is something that's being glamorized in the music industry today?
MH: I don't know if it as much. I remember when I was little, though, I started drawing pictures of people smoking when I was, like, ten. I knew I was gonna smoke, and I couldn't wait. And then, when I moved out of the house, I kind of knew I would be an alcoholic or a drug addict. That's what I thought you did, and then you're an artist! And all of the books I read growing up, about young queer people, they were always, like, junkies living on the edge. It didn't up being as… cool [laughs].
KS: So you're on tour right now. Do you enjoy playing live?
MH: Oh yes. I do now, a lot. I really look forward to it. It's weirdly therapeutic. It's like a whole body thing, now. It's a very spiritual thing. I guess I've just put so much drama on it now, way more than before. And I can even get off on how terrifying it is, now. Whereas it used to make me hold back, I kind of lean into it more. If I'm dancing, and I look around and people aren't into it, then there's something really exciting about that! [laughs]
KS: What's your favorite song to play live?
MH: There's a song called "Run Me Through" that's sort of jammy, and it's really satisfying to sing. It's super nasty. There was one show where I was on my knees and sort of grinding against the floor. It was so surprising to me but I was just like, "YEAH!" [laughs] I sort of go into this weird, nasty trance. I look forward to playing that.
KS: Do you prefer the stage or the studio?
MH: I don't know, they're just different. I think I feel the most connected to just writing at home, to be honest.
KS: Do you ever see yourself getting a larger band set up?
MH: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, that's all just money, really. I'd like to have a choir, and a whole orchestra and everything.
KS: So, I'm going to end on a silly note. Can you tell us what that "thing" in the "Die 4 You" video is?
MH: We call it "fleshing!"
KS: What is that?
MH: That's what we all called it, me and Floria, the director.
MH: Yeah, it's all stuffed pantyhose that this amazing Swedish artist arranges and paints. It's incredible.
KS: We were all trying to figure that out in the office when the video came out...
MH: Yeah, and you couldn't alter it any way. So, for the closeups we had to mimic it and create another "skin" so we could put sweat on it. Because everyone was really into it showing some sweat, but we couldn't even mist it with like a water bottle. There are some scenes in that video where I really went to town with that thing [laughs]. Maybe it was too much… There will be some outtakes that are at least R-rated.
KS: You should release a second version. "The More Sensual Cut."
MH: [laughs] Oh god… it really cracked me up after I did that. Because there were a bunch of people watching. It was just me in the video, but there was a whole bunch of people behind the scenes. But I sort of left them all behind and it was just me and that thing for a few minutes.