Perfume Genius on trying really hard
June 20th 2017
- Perfume Genius :: Interview with Caroline Gates
In May, Mike Hadreas released his fourth record as Perfume Genius, titled No Shape. It combines the strength and charm of all past three albums into one romantic epic that’s both tender and dramatic. Across thirteen tracks, the album examines the challenges of staying present, staying alive, and staying in love as a queer person in 2017.
Caroline Gates caught up with Hadreas to talk about his hopes for the album, pleasing his parents, the fear of being basic and surviving Trump’s America.
It’s been a couple of weeks since No Shape was released. Have you had a chance to reflect on the album and how it’s been received?
I keep having new things to think about so I don’t really feel caught up. I’m trying to do everything I’m supposed to do and make sure it’s all good, so I’m mostly just focused on the live show now. But we just did a small tour for it and all the anxiety of playing the songs for the first time, my outfit and everything – it’s all mapped out. So I think just this week is when I’ve really had time to catch up on the stuff that’s going on. But I’m really proud of the album, and I’m really proud of all the shows we just did so I feel really good.
What’s been the process of taking the album from the studio to the tour – you said you were feeling anxious about it?
I always do, I’m always anxious, but I think that’s why I do everything I do, so I don’t really fight against it as much anymore. I think you just want it to be good, you know? And there’s so much more on this album, there’s so much more instrumentation and stuff going on. I can’t travel with a choir or an orchestra, so trying to figure out a way to keep the songs as big and keep the spirit intact and stuff, but do it within our means. I was nervous about that at first but we’re just doing it. I feel like maybe the songs are a little bit more band-y or there’s not live violins, but we figured out a way to have all the songs communicate the exact same thing that they do on the album and maybe we don’t even sound that different. In some ways you can enhance certain parts that you couldn’t in the studio. There’s a yodelling part on my song ‘Wreath’ which I was really into, so I just extended it live and even turned it into an acapella song in the end, hopefully that’ll go over with everyone else but I’m super into it.
You’ll be hopping between Europe and America for the rest of the year. Do you have a favourite place to tour?
I think as the music has gotten louder, America’s easier to tour. When I first started making music and it was really folk-y and quiet, it seemed to do better in Europe and we always played churches and really special places, in Europe more so than in the States. But now that it’s gotten a little more in your face and louder, I feel like the States has become easier to tour. It’s easier to pull off a show at a dive bar when I can scream a little bit.
I’d love to see No Shape in a stadium.
Oh my god I’d be super into that too! But only if the production is really big, like I want to descend and have ramps and stuff, some kind of pyrotechnics even.
It was really interesting on Song Exploder to hear you break down the process and the instrumentation on the album. How comfortable is it to let people behind the scenes to that level?
I think the more that I do this, the more I realise how many people it takes to do it and how much is involved in it. I’ve never really been the kind of person that keeps some sort of mystique around it, it’s just too exhausting. There are some musicians that don’t do interviews, or if they do it’s very controlled and it’s always on brand. I’ve just never been too good at that, it’s just too exhausting for me and I’m not that kind of personality that can pay so much close attention to every little thing. So I don’t feel shy about that anymore, letting people in. If I felt like it hurt the music I wouldn’t do it, and I used to worry about that at first, especially since my Twitter is so silly and the music is so serious I thought those would hurt or cancel each other out but they haven’t, so I don’t really worry too much.
There’s no real sense of artifice.
People are convinced that being cool is being effortless and not showing that you’re trying and I think it’s really clear to everybody that I try really hard. But I’m kind of into it, and I like seeing people try really hard, I think it’s fucking badass.
Have you always tried really hard?
Oh god, yeah. I mean I never really built a career on it until now. I’ve always liked drama, or just people really going for it or trying to get somewhere really ecstatic and crazy. It’s always been what I’ve looked for.
Who are some artists that influenced that?
I think PJ Harvey was a big one for sure. Her commitment, like if a song was dark she was like right there at the source of darkness. Same with Diamanda Galas. Bjork for sure, how she built another dimension for herself to be in. And how she seems to completely follow her instincts 100% which is really hard to do, especially when she had more people listening. She probably had a lot more people in her ear telling her what she should do or how she should be and she never seemed to listen to anyone else, and I think that’s really amazing.
It was really beautiful to hear the song ‘Alan’. I can’t remember growing up hearing a queer idol singing about a relationship like that. Do you get a sense from your fans that your music means a lot to them in that way, especially younger fans?
A lot of it is what I wish I would’ve heard when I was young too. I wish I had more music that was hyper-specific and it was very clear that it was a man singing to another man or a woman singing to a woman. I found a lot of music growing up that I really connected to, that made me feel less lonely. If I was on the outside it made me feel like there were other outsiders that I eventually would meet or at least it could be a magical thing. It didn’t have to be so lonely. But I still wish I would have had more music that I could hear more of myself in. And after doing this long enough and getting letters, and talking to kids after shows, I definitely keep them all in my head when I’m writing. I want to make things that, even if they start somewhere really personal, I know they’re going to be helpful or mean something to them.
Do you see yourself as an outsider?
Yeah but I’m into it now, I built my whole identity around it so I’m almost terrified of not being one. I have a deep-seated fear of being basic now because I’ve built my whole life around being on the outside.
How does that gel with getting older and being in a long-term relationship and having a certain level of success?
That’s what the problem is! That’s the issue, because all the stuff I’m craving now like connecting or being more in the moment, they all seem really basic to me. They’re just all basic ideas [laughs]. So this album is a way of me having all those basic things, and still be magical and dramatic again.
I think part of the reception of this album shows that there is something exciting and challenging about seeing someone like you as an artist having that level of basic.
You can weirdly feel kind of defiant at the same time, just having a normal life in the face of a bunch of people telling you that you can never have that, or that you just aren’t wired that way. That can feel sort of badass too.
Have you read Owen Pallett’s review of the album?
Oh yeah, it was really moving, he touched on some things that I hadn’t heard about before. I really admire him… I took lessons and never really learnt how to read music, and he’s just so wicked smart and so musical that having someone like that write positively about my music really means a lot to me. And he’s just a good guy too, I really value him as a human.
He says “all the right decisions are being made”. That must feel pretty fucking great!
Yeah that’s a good review!
A lot of the narrative around No Shape is about it being bolder and more defiant and more personal. Where were you trying to push yourself with the album?
I guess when I wrote Slip Away it was more free and warm, that felt more dangerous and uncomfortable for me than the stuff that was stereotypically more dangerous, uncomfortable-sounding, that I was making before. Usually I make better stuff when I’m outside of my comfort zone, and then I realised that that’s actually what the story needed to be. It needed to be more about not just me trying to find really fucked up memories; it needed to be more about how I feel now and what’s around me, and less concerned about trying to change people’s minds or yell at people. I felt like I needed something that was more for me and my family and for people who were already listening to music to begin with.
Have you played the album to your family and your close friends? What have they felt about it?
My dad’s always very practical about it. I’ll play him the album and he’ll go “I don’t like that one and I like this one”. He’s supportive but he’s not shy. My mum… my whole life she’s asked me why can’t I make something nice, why does it always have to be so bloody or disturbing or weird? So I think she’s just so excited that for the first time I’ve done something sweet. They’re both really supportive. I put them through a lot growing up, thank god they were there for me the whole time. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have them to run back to, but now I don’t have to run back. I don’t need their help in that specific way anymore, which I was constantly taking advantage of. I’m sure it’s just as freeing for them!
This is the one that sets you free.
Yeah I think so, it’s the one that my mum can play for her friends and they’re not like…[laughs] you know, and all the articles aren’t about “he’s had such a horrible life”, and her friends read them. That narrative is now gone. I mean it’s still there but there’s more of a balance.
When you were writing this record, did you have any ambitions or hopes for it? Or did you just want to see how it went?
I had personal ones. I wanted it to be big, I wanted to really go for it. I just wanted to be more thoughtful about little details that maybe I didn’t pay attention to before, and I wanted to take it all very very seriously and work really hard. I used to think that working really hard would make the emotion be sucked out of it, but I figured out that it doesn’t really work like that and that I can work on the structure and write the chorus and specifically think of it as the chorus and it can still be really heartfelt and special and very honest. I think that was an important thing for me to learn… And I wanted it to do good, it’s this weird combination of ambition and hoping that we can stay in nicer hotels the next album but then for some reason when i sit down to write, mostly I make stuff that probably guarantees it won’t. It’s a weird thing cause I’m older now so I have to think a bit practically and think of it as a career. I think if I really would feel like that, the music would be very different.
You recorded in LA and said that you felt like moving there afterwards, why was that?
We have a lot of friends there, where we live now we don’t know anyone here. It was sort of nice when we’re on tour and we’d just come back and could hide out for a while. But after touring Too Bright we were home for a year, essentially on our own in this house and it was good for writing, and isolation I like for making stuff, but it was definitely not social. We weren’t even social with each other, we didn’t go out and do anything. In LA we have a lot of friends and there’s so much to do, and the weather’s so nice and there’s like 10 different Indian restaurants that all deliver. And beyond that, with everything shitty that’s going on in America, being in a small town feels weird now. I need to see other people that are on my side and more gay people and goths when I weed my house. Because right now when I go walk my dog I don’t see anyone, or if I do I couldn’t tell if they voted for Trump or not.
You’re just looking at everyone right in the eyes and wondering…
How is the climate at the moment?
It’s bad, it’s horrible man, it’s surreal. I think everyone is spiralling out. If you really tap into it and think about it, it’s just so overwhelmingly terrible. It’s this weird combination of trying to be informed but not so much that you really freak out. Enough to take action and be aware, but you still have to find a way to just exist. Some people don’t have that luxury, so if you have it you should refuse it but also use it for good at the same time. It’s confusing. And it’s only getting worse, it hasn’t even been that long and every day there’s something new.
Do you feel like there’s hope in the country that things will change?
Maybe eventually. I knew how fucked up everything was before this and so did a lot of other people, but some people didn’t, and maybe now they’ll be willing to stand up and show up for the people that were having to deal with this shit for a while. So maybe next time, people will show up but I don’t really see anything good happening until then.
Just to totally change topic. You’re helping curate a festival in The Netherlands in November. Who was on your wishlist?
Oh man, I’m so excited about it, I have The Bulgarian Women’s Choir coming to perform which I can’t even imagine, I’m just so excited about it. Alan played me one of their records when we first got together and I never heard music that did that, it was something really spiritual and I can’t even explain it. And Aldous Harding, the last time we were in Australia we toured with her and I became such a big fan of hers.
You came out here in 2013 and 2015, is a next visit on the cards?
I hope so, I know that we’ll come I just don’t know how soon. We went over there pretty late after Too Bright came out and I hope it’s sooner this time. We really like touring Australia, we had such a great time last time.
Perfume Genius – No Shape is out now via Matador / Remote Control.
Transcribed by Krishtie Mofazzal.
Host of Tuesday Lunch, 1-3pm on FBi 94.5FM.Read more from Caroline Gates