Perfume Genius – The Sparest, Most Minimal Thing

Siobhán Kane talks poetry, cover versions & sweaty pits with Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius.

Mike Hadreas
‘s new record Put Your Back N 2 It is a continuation of themes explored on his debut record Learning (2010), which was a shattering account of a dark period, which comprised addiction, isolation, depression and anxiety. Yet Hadreas managed to make something poetic and challenging out of such raw subjects, not in order to champion the dark, but rather, comfort those within it. His work acts like a balm, with his tentative, wobbly, and unusual vocal trying to understand, being nursed by skeletal, beautiful piano melodies that kept the record afloat, albeit on a sea of despair.

Put Your Back N 2 It is the next chapter in what seems like Hadreas’s epic novel; a work that takes in the vulnerability inherent in real love (Hood), the redemption that can always be found, though perhaps never sought (Normal Song), and the search for acceptance (All Waters). The result is something of an astonishing record which contains a quiet elegance, but ferocious spirit – unable to accept compromise, but willing to search for majesty. That bravery is rare, not only in music, but people – increasingly so. We are constantly disappointed, but Hadreas is an embodiment of the glow under the rubble of life. His records can go from a low hymnal to a squall in a moment, and his influences range from poetry (Edna St. Millay inspires Dirge), to David Lynch (which Awol Marine pays homage to); but while his first record used just piano, reverb and voice, his second is more expansive, using more instruments, exhibiting a greater confidence in his own musicality, even amidst utter heartache. Perhaps his impulse is most bound up in Normal Song: ‘Comfort the girl, help her understand, that no memory, no matter how sad, and no violence, no matter how bad, can darken the heart, or tear it apart.

Siobhán Kane has a quick chat with the very gifted Perfume Genius.

When you are listening to music, is it the melody or words that resonate with you first?
I think in a lot of ways, to be honest, it is the opposite of maybe most people, because I listen to the words first. Or at least that is what I like to think about myself, but I don’t know.

You chose Edna St. Millay’s poem to base the song Dirge around, what do you look for in a poem?
With all poetry, I flick through and find the sparest, most minimal thing. I do eventually go back and read the longer ones, [laughs] but I actually only started learning more about Edna because a lot of people seem to know a lot more about her than I did, she was so interesting.

You explore very delicate, but important themes in your work, the exploration can be harrowing, but is so sincere, because you have experienced it.
Exactly, but you know staying healthy can be more depressing and confusing than being fucked up. I think spending time alone is important to me, but you can spiral when you are alone, my thought processes become circular and keep going down and down, I don’t know if everyone is like that, but the first few moments alone are very cosy and reflective, but can turn sour pretty quick, and I need other people there to stop them. I don’t mean by giving advice or on a therapists couch, but looking at other people and realising other people have things too has been helpful, and goes into my work.

I believe you like The Innocence Mission, as I do, they manage to throw light on the most darkest of experiences, their work is almost like a collection of hymnals.
Every time I hear their music, I feel exactly the same way, I respond immediately to it, it is so beautiful. I listen to them a lot. They are one of my most played bands, I guess you could call them a band. They don’t seem to play too much either. I like how their music is very simple. I listen to a lot of other stuff that has a lot going on, and is more complicated, but I always come back to them and to music like that. I was thinking a lot about that when I was writing, I was intending to write something that people could listen to for longer than a month.

You also like This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren.
It is so intense, so slow. There is something hidden under the craziness of everything – very mysterious, I really like that. To be honest I only listen to that song over and over, that Tim Buckley cover, I love the original too.

I can only imagine how beautiful a covers record would be by you, because you have a way of stripping things down to what seems like an inalienable truth, inescapable. You could do a whole record set to poems, or a hip-hop record. I did get quite excited when I saw the grammar of your new record [Put Your Back N 2 It).
Ha! I would like to do both of those things you said, it would be really fun! That’s funny about the title of my record? Heh, I knew people might have thought it would be hip-hop, but…..surprise….it’s not! [Laughs]

How was opening for Beirut for their shows?
It was the last leg of their US tour. It was good, I realised I had been quite spoiled just playing my own shows, knowing that it was simple and people knew what to expect, whereas at the Beirut shows, ninety nine percent of people had no idea who I was, so I had to sell it more than I am used to, but it ended up being really good at teaching me a little more how to do that. I think I needed it.

Los Campesinos are another band that you not only like, but were quite pivotal in promoting your work early on, they have a certain looseness to their lives shows that I can imagine you admire.
They are great. I don’t go to a lot of shows, but I get a really young feeling when I listen to them, like when I first started going to see music, but now I can be a bit cynical now, well maybe not that cynical, but perhaps I am more suspicious and guarded about music, but I am not like that at all when I hear them play. The last time I saw them I went down to the pit, and I have not been in that pit for a really long time, and I felt very old, but I was all sweaty in the middle of all these kids, and happy, I was really happy.

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