Opinion
4 min

Perfume Genius’s flame is bright

Artist goes pop on his latest album, produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley

Too Bright articulates Perfume Genius’s long-simmering rage at the very notion of having to water down his gayness.

Many musicians have a backstage ritual.

Madonna gets a massage and a facial. The members of Coldplay reportedly engage in a “quiet and gentle” group hug. Erykah Badu lubricates her raspy wail with a bag of salted, plain potato chips. How does Mike Hadreas get the engine running pre-concert? By making up some bullshit and taking it to his boyfriend.

“Before I go onstage, I always pick a fight with my boyfriend,” the 32-year-old known as Perfume Genius explains, laughing, over the phone from his home in Tacoma, Washington. “It’s helpful because I get anxious. I think he knows what I’m doing, but I need a little bit of defiance.”

Hadreas’s Too Bright album is lit by a similarly rebellious fire, though it did not start out that way.

Initially, the Seattle-raised singer/songwriter took a career-minded approach to record number three. He is ready to settle down; he recently moved with his boyfriend from Seattle to more affordable digs in Tacoma, considered one of the most livable cities in the United States.

“I mostly watch Netflix at home, so I might as well do that in a nicer house,” he explains.

A full-time career in music was never Hadreas’s intent, but after posting homemade music videos online in 2010, he caught the attention of indie label Matador, which released his debut, Learning, to critical acclaim. The album was a collection of sparse piano ballads that bluntly tackled themes such as gay sex, addiction, hustling and suicide, recorded at home as a form of therapy following a stint in rehab.

He recorded the follow-up, Put Your Back N 2 It, in a proper studio to give his striking melodies a greater clarity.

For his third album, he tried to lighten up the dark subject matter and downplay the gayness by writing pop songs with universal (read: commercial) appeal.

“That was a paralyzing thing,” he admits. “It just didn’t work, and I ended up making a darker, more experimental and harsher album. The weird thing is I ended up making poppier music than I had before, even though the intent was to do the opposite.”

Produced with Portishead’s Adrian Utley and engineer Ali Chant, Too Bright articulates Hadreas’s long-simmering rage at the very notion of having to water down his gayness. Swaggering riffs, demonic vocal effects, burbling synths on songs such as “My Body” and “Longpig” intermingle with the elegant piano balladry of “No Good” and “All Along.”

Whereas the first two albums drew strength from vulnerability, Too Bright is occasionally sneering and confrontational, much like the female-fronted rock act Sleater-Kinney he adored as a teen. “No family is safe when I sashay,” he sings on lead single “Queen.”

“Sometimes defiant women were the closest I got to hearing some of my feelings being processed,” he says. “A lot of my rage comes from growing up as a small-framed, feminine, weird, creature-like person. That didn’t always go over very well with other people. It made me feel embarrassed and ashamed, even.

“But the way that I look at the world and myself is not working,” he continues. “I don’t want to feel victimized, and I needed to filter that into something more empowering. A lot of the music is defiant towards both myself and other people at the same time.”

Asked if he is over those feelings of resentment, Hadreas lowers his voice sheepishly.

“No,” he replies. “I’m more overly defensive than I need to be. Nine times out of 10 you don’t need to have your guard up, but that one time that you should’ve and didn’t makes you feel like you constantly need to be on guard.”

Sometimes he catches himself trying to ease other people’s discomfort with homosexuality by camping it up, an urge he satirizes on the finger-snapping “Fool” — the funkiest Perfume Genius song to date.

“Sometimes people say things like, ‘I love gay guys! Like, just in general they’re all so funny! And they’re so good at doing hae-yer,’” he says, repeating the word in his gayest accent to emphasize the point. “‘Hae-yer!’ All that crap can make you feel like a non-person.”

The middle part of “Fool” lapses into an eerie, show-stopping howl that he recorded in a studio lit with candles. “I was trying to summon up some gay ancestral, spiritual thing,” he says. “That’s, like, some gay realness in the middle.”

During the sessions in Utley’s studio, Hadreas experimented with vintage synths, pitch-shifted vocals and saxophone freak-outs only to edit most of that down to his preferred two- to three-minute song length.

The studio wizardry gives Too Bright a more visceral impact than his previous albums, but not at the expense of emotion. The challenge now will be conveying that energy onstage. He is touring with a full band and will spend more time at the front of the stage, mic in hand. To brush up, he has been studying Nina Simone and Karen O performances on YouTube.

“I like to see people that have completely have lost themselves onstage, even if it’s for a split second,” he says. “They’re completely locked into the moment. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do emotionally, but now I have to get the message across physically.”