‘Too Bright’ for the underground…

On the surface, Seattle and Bristol don’t seem to have much in common. Yet, somewhat strangely, for Mike Hadreas the city has become a home from home.

“I like Bristol a lot,” the man better known as Perfume Genius muses. “It kind of reminds me of Seattle a little bit, I’m not sure why. Just the way it’s laid out, maybe. I think if we move to the UK we might move there.”

Recording his third Perfume Genius album, ‘Too Bright’ (review), in the city perhaps helped him become accustomed to Bristol’s charms. Surrounded by wonderful musicians – Portishead’s Adrian Utley oversaw sessions, PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish stops by on drums – it’s his most outwardly confident record yet.

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‘Grid’, from ‘Too Bright’

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“Light-hearted seeming people, but then creatively very dark – that’s what I go to,” he explains. “It’s not a cold darkness. It is a little bit, but there’s a soulfulness to it.”

Yet the Seattle native doesn’t let his guard down easily. Over the course of two previous albums – 2010’s ‘Learning’ and 2012’s ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ – the Perfume Genius moniker has proved to be a byword in emotional, engrossing, devotional songcraft.

Asked if he was wary of working with additional people, Mike simply smiles. “Sort of… Emotional emails,” he grins. “Enthusiasm, but kind of really heartfelt. Intention. As much as I like talking about the more technical stuff, I actually don’t know that much about that. So, originally, I was just looking for an emotional thing. I was a big fan of Adrian’s music, too, so that was definitely helpful.”

Much of the material on ‘Too Bright’ was laid down at the singer’s apartment, where he has the privacy to truly indulge himself in the throes of creativity.

“I have to work myself into a fervour,” he insists. “I pace around a lot, I smoke a lot of cigarettes, drink a lot of caffeine. I’m more self-conscious doing that if someone’s around, I suppose.

“I’m more likely to let myself go off on experiments which might end up being ridiculous than if I was working with other people. But those goofy things can spark a more serious idea. So I need that kind of personal drama, sometimes.”

Initially penning material in the vein of his previous two LPs, Hadreas quickly reached an impasse. Ditching almost an entire album’s worth of songs, the songwriter deliberately pushed himself in a fresh direction.

“I wanted songs which were universal and not very specific to my experience,” he states. “They’re aiming to something which I really felt I needed to say.”

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I wanted to let myself do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t care if people thought it was overblown or whatever…

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And how does he categorise what he’s crafted? “It’s pop music. Sometimes when I write something it becomes for everyone, and less relatable than when I write something which is at least somewhat personal for someone who’s been quite moved. There’s more catharsis for them in that, and that’s kind of what happened.”

For Mike, the main aim of ‘Too Bright’ was to simply roam free. “I wanted to let myself do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t care if people thought it was overblown or whatever. There are a lot of times when I’m writing where I think: who do I think I am? Who do I think I am, thinking I can sing like this, or making music like that? I told myself to shut up and let myself go a little bit. So I ended up having a lot more vocal tics and saying words differently than I usually do.”

The new material places more emphasise on sheer sound, crafting atmospheres rather than indicating direct meaning. “I was thinking more of how everything sounded, as opposed to the message and what the content was lyrically. I was a lot more thoughtful about the sound of everything. I think, beforehand, the music wasn’t exactly plain-spoken, but I was playing a specific story.”

The results are striking. ‘Too Bright’ is at times warm, open and daring, but at others ferociously guarded. It’s the product of an artist growing up, refining his craft while also moving further out into unexplored realms.

Musing on his beginnings, Mike says: “I feel like I kind of just happened into it at first. I felt very much like an outsider artist, kind of thing. I was just making songs in my room and sticking them up online. People have even described me as that before. I don’t feel like that as much [now]. Which is weird because I guess, subject matter[-wise], people can feel it’s outsider music. But I guess it’s the opposite in some ways. It’s more outside [than] in, but everybody has that feeling to them. It’s kind of for everybody at the same time.”

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‘Queen’, from ‘Too Bright’

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‘Too Bright’ was ignited by the stunning video for ‘Queen’. Shot over the course of five days in a Midwest town with director SSION, it’s a glamorous, provocative return that hurls fear, hate and distrust back in the faces of bigots.

“It was both me and the director’s idea,” he explains. “I reached out to him to see if he wanted to work with me. Then we started writing back and forth with some pretty ambitious ideas, and then patched them into that dream-like treatment.”

“It’s very much a statement, very clear,” he continues. “There are some more experimental, stranger songs on that album, ones that are sort of like what I’ve previously done. That was a good middle ground, I think. That one had a very clear message and I kind of liked leading with that.”

It’s a clear switch, the point where Perfume Genius moves from a secret realm, a painfully introverted experience into something more universal, more outward focussed. “This is more like: I’m telling you. Instead of inviting you to listen to me, this is more like… telling you to.”

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Words: Robin Murray

Perfume Genius online. ‘Too Bright’ is out now and reviewed here. See him live as follows:

23rd – The Caves, Edinburgh
24th – The Wardrobe, Leeds
25th – The Oobleck, Birmingham
26th – The Haunt, Brighton
27th – Islington Assembly Hall, London

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