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Perfume Genius

Interview — Mohamed Sqalli
Photography — Flavien Prioreau

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When he emerged around 2010, Mike Hadreas moved us deeply with his fragile character and his introspective songs, telling about the hardships of being different in modern societies. Four years after, it is time for a counter-attack. Hadreas is back, more empowered and purposeful than ever. He warns us in the chorus of Queen, the 2nd track of the album : "no family's safe when I sashay!"

I had the impression with this Perfume Genius album that after being very vulnerable and in a very defensive position, you decided to counterattack…

In a way, but I really think that my previous music was strong and brave in a lot of ways too. I feel very purposeful now, and I don’t take what people have to say defensively. I’m just being more serious about my life. I don’t think just about the music, but also about the album cover, the promo pictures, the videos etc…

You said you tried to make a more universal album this time. At what moment do you say to yourself “ok this is not me, let’s make things more personal”?

When I tried to write more universally, it lost something. I think it’s more touching when I write from my experiences. I didn’t feel there was enough of my own heart in there. Even though I know that by being more explicitly personal I could rub people the wrong way, I’m sure that it will rub people that will need it the right way. I’d rather make something a lot people love t a lot of people hate. 

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In Too Bright, we can find more upbeat, distorted songs than in your previous albums. What brought you to make these changes?

There are a few different reasons. So far, my music is a therapeutic thing about the past. This album is more about how I’m feeling now. And I had more fire in my belly lately. I felt more wild, and more open to improvisation and experimental stuff. I tried to sing in gibberish, distorting my vocals, making demonic sounds sometimes. (laughing) In a way, I thought it was fun, but the things that I want to talk about now are more aggressive and a little more directed at people than just myself I guess. And I think that it’s the direction my music will take in the future too.

Do you consider yourself a universal artist?

I do. But the others don’t, they say I only sing about gay and dark themes. Which it total bullshit. My music is for anybody that needs it, not just for people that can relate to me at 100%. I grew listening to … You know, I didn’t have a lot of male singers that I could relate to. But I listened to Nina Simone, and I was touched and inspired by her protest songs. People should be smart enough and brave enough to be inspired and moved by all kinds of different people.

Do you think that some people don’t like you because you’re gay?

There must be, because there are people like that just when I walk in the street (laughs). I still get a lot of letters from people, kids that are in the closet. Not only gay people, but people who have secrets they can’t tell because they’re afraid of how it will be received. I still have a guard up, whether I need to or not.

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Do you consider yourself as an advocate for the gay cause?

Yeah, and I think people have to be honest about this. Some people keep saying they are not feminists. It’s bullshit! I think I have a duty about that. When I was young, I needed people to understand me and to make me feel empowered. Liz Phair helped me a lot in that period. She talked about female sexuality very explicitly. I related to it because I felt really bad about my sexuality. I needed to listen to her saying things that maybe people told her she shouldn’t say. She sang it proud and with no apology and it inspired me.

Did the label try to influence in some way? You said you began by writing soul songs before eventually beginning everything again from scratch. Did they try to give you instructions?

It’s not just my label. It’s also my dad. You know, people want your album to be a success. They’re not doing it in a mean way and I prefer when people are honest.

You worked with people among the finest musicians in the UK : Adrian Utley from Portishead and John Parish, PJ Harvey’s frequent drummer. Why did you work with them in particular? 

I’m a big fan of both of them. I remember getting Dummy when I was 13. That was an important album to me. I knew that Adrian could technically take my songs where I wanted them to be, that he could make my sound loud and harsh. After writing with him, I knew that he was very respectful of what my songs meant, as much as how they sounded. I really trusted him. John Parish is just very talented. I’ve never seen someone that could listen to a song once and do something insane in the top it immediately.

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Can you tell us about the atmosphere during the recording?

Everybody was very open. You know, I’m not the most technical musician, so I always had to explain how I was feeling about the songs. It was like “I want this song to be SLUTTY”, and they were “ok”. It was recorded in Bristol, a place that I consider my musical home.

Contrary to most songwriters, you begin writing the lyrics before the music. What advantages do you see in processing like that?

When I listen to music, the lyrics are what I remember. It’s very important to me. My boyfriend, he listens more to the music. If a song has bad lyrics, even if it’s inventive and stuff, I think it’s a shitty song. I very much want my music to have a message.

I read in an interview that you attended film school at NYU…

No, I didn’t! (laughs) It’s much cooler than what I actually did. I just moved to New York and just partied for 3 years. I didn’t work or anything, even if I tried to have little jobs. But I went to college for painting in Seattle, only for one year, then I dropped out. What I liked about art school is that people tell you “why do you have to go to school for painting? Why don’t you just do it at home?” while in fact, it unlocks your creativity. I remember one day I made a sculpture, and my teacher just knocked it over (laughs). It was really like a movie about art school. It helps to be more inventive. Art school is ridiculous. People are crazy. The ambulance came once because someone tried to kill himself on camera in front of the class. There was this guy that was always taking pictures of his dick or painting his dick. It was fun to meet a bunch of weirdos, just like me.

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