Perfume Genius Talks Fashion, Feminine Energy, and Touring Under Trump
Freddie Mercury. David Bowie. Beth Ditto. Only a handful of artists have managed to straddle the line between emotion-provoking musician and style icon. Seven years after releasing his debut album, Learning, Mike Hadreas—better known as Perfume Genius—continues his ascent in that direction with his fourth studio release, No Shape. It’s nearly impossible to conjure the image of Perfume Genius without thinking of his glittering, studded “Queen” music video ensembles, or his iconic red lip in the video for “Fool” whilst hearing his impassioned haunting voice.
On his way to play his largest Portland show to date at Revolution Hall on July 16, we sat down with the Tacoma-based Hadreas for an equally laugh-filled and serious conversation on fashion, Trump, and the importance of feminine energy.
I want to talk to you about fashion. I feel like it’s such a synonymous thing for you. How do you feel about it? Do fashion and music feel equally important to you when you think about shows?
They do now, but in a very different way than they used to. I used to just dick around at Value Village cobbling things together, and now it’s a little more fancy. Just reaching out to people and following current things.
I started out at Value Village too! I think that’s how most people do in the Northwest. Do you have a stylist now?
I’ve worked with some for TV shows and things. I like looking online and reaching out to people or just straight up buying shit. But working on a video or an album it can be good to work with a stylist sometimes. You send them a mood board, but you never really know. It can turn into a whole different thing once you meet up and start trying stuff on.
Do you feel like you have any interest in that field? Have you thought about pursuing design in tandem with music?
Not like in a legit way, but I’ve thought about it. Music has become a 360 thing to me with the videos and the fashion. Like building a little mini world. And clothes are starting to fit into that too.
How does that start? Do you think of the video first, and then the song comes? Does it all build up at once?
It’s mostly a mood to be honest. It’s usually like a musical thing. I go in my room and start putting effects on my voice or cycling through patches on my keyboard until one comes. It’s almost like forcing yourself to have déjà vu or something. I’ll hit some weird reverb on my voice and it will be so heavy with mood and everything just kinds of jumps from there.
What do you think the mood was for this record? Or do you think of each song as a separate thing?
Yeah, they’re all kind of different. The first song I wrote for it was “Slip Away,” and that one was lot more joyous and free and warm than anything I have ever made. I’ve never made anything that sweet before.
Even the clothing felt sweet to me in the video with all the ruffles and colors.
It was all kind of born from this guitar sound I started playing on keyboard that sounded to me like Bruce Springsteen or a like a joyous anthem. And then I started piecing together the voice sound, the lyrics—it all comes from the one weird little idea.
We’re both Northwest natives, and about the same age. I feel like growing up here in that grunge time is just so different from your stuff now. How was living in Seattle in the '90s? Did you feel part of that? Or like it didn’t resonate with you?
No, it did. But I think I was just a little too young. I think I was in the sixth grade when Kurt [Cobain] died. And I think I started going to shows soon after that, but it was when some of it was winding down. But other things were born from it. I remember going to see Sleater-Kinney soon after that. My first show, I think I was 13 when I first saw them at Bumbershoot, and I saw them all throughout my teenage years. I saw them like 13 times live or something. So that specific kind of Northwest-y-ness, I was totally feeling.
Perfume Genius reminds me most of other female artists I like. Do you feel like it has a very feminine energy to it?
Me? Yes, for sure. One hundred percent. That’s very important to me. Because I have realized over my life that no one really cares that I’m gay. Nobody really cares that I have sex with men, except that’s what women do. Everything I get shit in my life for, everything I’ve been made fun of for, doesn’t have anything to do with being gay, it’s that I’m like a woman. And people hate that, and it’s what I’ve been shit on for. I mean, that’s pretty harsh, but I’ve had some harsh shit said to me. And those feel very connected. So it’s important for me to refine that the source of my power is a very feminine thing.
Are you drawn to male artists, or do you prefer female artists?
Growing up I listened to a lot of women. I felt that a specific kind of lonely outsiderness was quelled more by female singers, but I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith growing up and as I got older and got into folk music like Dylan and stuff like that. Prince. But I can’t really think of a dude that gave me the same brain commitment as female artists.
From my perspective, trying to write about fashion in the Northwest, it often seems like people want me to put a flannel shirt and Birkenstocks on someone and quit. But we have so much more.
[Laughing] The thing is, that’s kind of what I wear between tours. I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like weird Northwest-y drag I put on. I understand, though. My mom will buy me an outerwear mock-neck thing and I’ll put it on and then go, “Oh shit, it’s really comfortable and has really well-made zippers and pockets.” I give shit to a lot of people in Seattle who dress like they’re always going camping all the time, but that stuff is hella functional.
That’s how they get you—it’s a gateway drug. It’s functional and comfortable and the next thing you know, you just look like an urban camper every day. Switching over, I saw today is the seven-year anniversary of your first album Learning coming out. That’s huge.
Is it really?! I had no idea, that’s crazy. That’s a long time. I thought it was longer than that, so I am kind of impressed it’s only seven.
Do you think about your past work when starting something new?
A little bit, yeah. I like pushing myself. So I always sort of rebel against the thing I made before or try to figure out a way to one up myself, I guess. I never want to make anything easy or use all the same tools I did on the last one. It feels too easy and I don’t feel very excited by it. This last album was so big and had so much going on, so the flip would be something really minimal and spare, which would be weird and going back to the beginning in a way. Super 360. Who knows? I never really know what kind of music I’m going to make when I go in. I always have ideas, but they’re usually wrong. Like right now, I don’t know why, I keep telling people I’m going to go country. It probably means when I go in there it’s going to be industrial, like Nine Inch Nails or totally different.
I would love to see you do country. Think of the outfits!
Well that’s how I can fuck with people. Like what if I just put a shirt on now? [Laughs.]
All your records have been made on the liberal West Coast. We’re both in progressive cities, and now there is President Trump. Do you think that will change your writing at all? Or do you feel like it makes it a different experience?
I think I would have made something now that is more overtly in-your-face or specifically political instead of something so personal. But I don’t know. It’s not like I didn’t know how fucked-up people were before the election. My whole worldview was shaped with how I was treated and what I saw growing up. I knew people were misogynistic and racist and homophobic. I’ve known that for a long time. And I’ve always felt like I’ve been fighting against that. It just feels more out in the open now.
You just got back from a European tour. Did the shows feel different with all this focus on American politics?
A little bit. Versions of what’s going on here are happening everywhere, in France, and the UK. And every single interviewer in Europe asked me about Trump. They want to know if things feel different. Because they just hear about it. I don’t know. It’s also a complicated, heavy thing to talk about. I think people also get excited to come to our show where they don’t have to think about that for a little bit. And not in an avoidance or neglectful kind of way, but in a freeing, steal-a-good-moment-when-you-can, safe way. I feel that energy a little bit more at the shows, like people are excited about having a place where they can just be for a little bit. And I like that.
Well, people need to celebrate something good when it feels like so many bad things are happening. And that’s the thing about fans—we’ve all had that feeling at shows where it seems like we’re in something together and it feels safe.
It’s kind of churchy, I love it. I also feel like the shows are different because I was so shy when I started. And now I notice everybody more, and it feels more like a group event than it used to. I used to be so anxious on stage that I felt like a separation, just because I would be way too nervous if I really thought about many people were there and watching. But now I can do that a little bit and it almost enhances everything.
8 p.m. Sun, July 16, Revolution Hall, SOLD OUT