Mike Hadreas is tapping his “really long” nails on a table. “Can you hear that?” he asks.
The act seems insignificant, but for the Seattle-based musician – better known as Perfume Genius – it’s a rite of passage. That tap, tap encapsulates independence, rebellion and fearlessness – all facets of his confrontational third album “Too Bright,” where Hadreas redefines his musical genius to reflect a revelatory breakthrough.
Are you trying to make a statement with your androgynous look?
Originally it wasn’t a protest-y thing – I was just allowing myself to do whatever the hell I wanted. When I wear women’s clothes and makeup, to me I’m not dressing like a woman. I’m just doing whatever I want to do! I feel like I was being more myself when I did that, not more like a woman. When I first allowed myself to do that, I went nuts and I was wearing tons of costume jewelry and paisley maxi skirts all the time. I really went for it! (Laughs) It’s kind of evened out now.
I have my nails done. I’ve figured out where I naturally want to be. You know when women tap their nails on the table? Growing up I was like, “That is the bomb!” I wanted to do that. Now I can. One time before a show in Chicago I actually got acrylic nails and I wanted them long, but when I got up on stage I couldn’t play my guitar. It was really embarrassing! (Laughs)
How intentional are you being with your subversion of gender norms?
As much as it is just me being myself, I know it is a defiant act to leave the house or make a video with these things in them, and so there are times where I exaggerate it. I push it a bit just because that’s what I like to do. It’s important to me.
I like that when I play shows boys wear crazy outfits because they feel like they can. It’s super, super heartwarming. I mean, it’s a really corny feeling, but if I’m ever kind of contented for a moment or feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to, it’s when I’m doing things like that.
Is “Too Bright” a response to the fact that some people have pigeonholed you as a downer?
(Laughs) I guess. A lot of people call my albums “depressing,” and I don’t feel that way. I think that some of the songs are very sad, but that’s very different than depression to me. I’ve been depressed in my life and I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t even bother to microwave a burrito let alone write a song! (Laughs) Some people mistake patience or compassion for wimpy things when they’re some of the toughest and strongest modes you can be in. Maybe I was a tiny bit resentful of that (for this album).
You know, people qualify me as a “gay musician” right away. I have interviews in France, and they’ll do the introduction on the radio and they’re like, “His name is Mike Hadreas. He’s very depressed. He’s very gay.” Because of that, people told me before I made this album that maybe I should tone it down or talk about less explicitly gay themes. I did the opposite. People think that because I’m tiny or because I’m wearing a lot of silk that I can’t hurt you, but I can. I’m just as capable of murder as everybody else.
How much of “Too Bright” is a representation of you currently? Is this how you want to perceive yourself?
Yeah, hopefully. I mean, a lot of it is how I’m feeling now, and a lot of it is about how I hope to feel. I guess the first two albums were all about me processing and thinking about what had already happened, but I didn’t feel like it was important to do that anymore – to look back. This album is very confident and sort of confrontational, and I have some of that in me, but the music is almost more that than how I am. Some of it’s a projection.
How did you get into that mindset for “Too Bright”?
(Long pause) I did a lot of things for many years that sort of … it made me lost. I just wasn’t really present or paying attention or recognizing what was actually going on with me or outside of me. Then, when I got sober, there were a lot of really big problems that needed to heal and that I needed to figure out. Now, I’ve been healthy long enough that those big issues have sort of gone and I’m just kind of left with myself for the first time as an adult. I’ve been thinking about things that I never really thought about, like my place in the world and how I want to feel. You know, it was just a very complicated and weird thing, and I guess this is sort of a therapeutic figuring out.
How long have you been sober? And how long have you felt like a grown up?
Well, I don’t feel like a grown up yet. (Laughs) But I’ve been sober for four years.
On the album, you express feelings of anger, empowerment and defiance. How have they manifested within you? Is that part of the recovery process?
It’s partly that. But a lot of it is… I don’t know. (Long pause) I mean, growing up people would give me shit in class or on the street and it would magnify this otherness that I feel. Originally I would be ashamed at myself or feel like something was wrong with me, and I also just felt very victimized. Parallel to that is this resentment and anger about the whole thing. When I got older that whole victim-y outlook was not working for me anymore. I mean, it never did, but it’s very clear to me that that was not helpful, so I wanted to deal with these things and think about them in a more defiant and badass way, I guess. That’s how I feel and that’s how I want to feel, and I thought it would helpful for others to hear it put that way.
I remember being bullied and then growing up to feel victimized by the whole world. Then, you get to a point where you say, “Fuck everybody.” I mean, not everybody – not the good people.
But it feels like everybody. That’s how it gets twisted, and that’s how it got twisted for me. Even though I would be in situations a lot where probably nobody was gonna pick on me or nobody was gonna say shit, I still carried myself as if they were going to. I have a guard up all the time just in case, and I’m very resentful and pissed off about that. I don’t feel like doing it anymore.
When you shot the video for “Queen,” the first single from this album, what did it feel like to get on top of that conference table looking all lesbian chic in front of a group of presumably heterosexual men? Was it cathartic?
It was. That was my main idea, you know what I mean? Doing it, I was a little timid at first, but then I was like, “Fuck y’all. I’m gonna give it to you.”
What kind of kid were you?
I was just a little weirdo. On top of being feminine, I’m a very tiny person. I’m also weird – like a Gollum lady-like creature. But, you know, creatively I’m strange. I’m proud of that, though. I don’t think of that as a negative thing.
I felt strange, too, when I was a kid, so I tried to counterbalance that by doing “normal” kid things, like playing soccer. Have you always been proud of your weirdness?
I guess I worried about it and was very self-conscious and thought a lot about how I carried myself, but never to the point where I really changed all that much. (Laughs) I was getting shit, but I rarely if ever did it differently. I mean, I don’t think I could’ve even played soccer even if I felt like it. But maybe. I was on the wrestling team until my sophomore year in high school. I would’ve kept doing it except I came out when I was 15 and didn’t think I could stay on the wrestling team, which is a shame – there’s nothing really sexual about it. If anything it’s the opposite.
At what point in your life did you feel empowered as a gay man – not just identity-wise, but sexually too?
Oh god. When I was writing this album there were times where I was actually giggling afterward because I was going for it so much with some of the things I was saying. I actually surprised myself by how swagger-y and middle finger-y I was being about things. I was very insecure my whole life, so when I just do shit anyway is when I feel empowered. I’m still nervous and I still get that frightened feeling a lot, but I just do everything anyway now.
Do you remember when you first felt sexually liberated?
When it happened for me was (during the music video for Tupac’s “I Get Around”) where these girls are sponge bathing Tupac. I originally went in thinking I wanted to get in the bath, but then I started to realize that I wanted to bathe Tupac. I wanted to sponge Tupac! Then I was like, “You know what, let’s just be real.”
How does somebody who’s naturally nervous like you get on stage and perform?
You just do it. I commit to everything. I also realized that how I’m feeling is not real a lot of the times. You can lie to yourself and things wax and wane, so I never really feel like I’m in the right spot to perform. I never feel like I’m 100 percent ready, but I know that’s a lie.
How important is it to you that people connect to your music on an emotional level?
I like the idea of singing songs about things that people might feel lonely in. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, but that’s at least my intention.
I think your music is capable of that. I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t think there was truth to that.
I know. It’s just that I’ve noticed now as I’m doing interviews that I kind of have to be pretentious. There’s no way getting around it. I’m sort of embarrassed to … (long pause)
To talk about yourself?
Which song on “Too Bright” do you feel closest to?
“My Body.” It’s not an uplifting song, but I can always get in the right mood for it.
What do you mean by “the right mood”?
The song is about body image issues and feelings of just feeling icky – of just being an “icky” person. Icky physically. Just icky in general. But during the song I’m almost yelling at people. There’s no apologizing or feeling bad for myself. It’s almost like an exorcism; there’s something very cathartic about it. Telling these secrets about myself in a really big way to people is weirdly liberating.
Perfume Genius performs 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. For more information, visit http://majesticdetroit.com.