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Perfume Genius on the influence of Edward Scissorrhands and The NeverEnding Story

The Wireless logo The Wireless 10/05/2017

Hear that spooky undercurrent?

Mike Hadreas AKA Perfume Genius. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited Mike Hadreas AKA Perfume Genius. Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius.

Photo: Supplied

Mike Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, has just released his fourth studio album. No Shape seamlessly stitches together intimate, often offbeat melodies with exuberant, catchy pop hooks. Likewise, the vocals on the album span from fragile grief to vast, echoing crescendos.

Growing up as a gay man in Seattle, Hadreas was the victim of repeated harassment and physical assault, and while his first three albums draw from his experience to piercing effect, the newly released No Shape finds him mining a new vein of optimism.

Mike talked to RNZ Music's Tony Stamp about Edward Scissorhands, manspreading, and finding God in cheesy, fake strings.

LISTEN > Perfume Genius interview: 

You did a Q+A on Twitter and one of the questions was "what were your earliest influences?" And you said the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack and Whip-Smart by Liz Phair.

I really feel like those influences have stuck with you through all your work. It was sort of like a penny dropped for me - it made so much more sense.

Well good, then I answered it correctly. Sometimes when you’re on the spot you can’t tell if things are from your gut, or if you’re just making them up. Those, for sure, I could answer because I just remember those things changing me.

I guess if we unpack it slightly, in the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack, those twinkling pianos and that sort of spooky undercurrent is something that has definitely stayed with you.

Yeah, and to me, that’s when things are truly beautiful. When there’s something vaguely unsettling underneath, both of those things get pushed and raised up. If it’s just creepy or just pretty then both of those you kinda forget a little, but when it’s some weird supernatural combination of both of those, that’s what I want. That’s usually a lot more lasting and magical to me.

You also mentioned that the new record is influenced by '80s movies like Legend and The NeverEnding Story, and you point out that same dichotomy: The joy on the surface, with something unsettling below.

Did those films have a more specific musical influence?

Oh yes, before I heard David Lynch it was them. There’s something kind of spiritual, but not religious about all the music in it. Especially in Legend, the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It’s so corny - cheesy fake strings, but not cheesy. Like, it sorta sounds like there’s God in there, or the Devil, or something. Just that combination. I don’t know how to explain why it fits so well with me.

It’s the same with the Twin Peaks soundtrack, that synthesized, very clearly fake string sounds. Even the album art’s kinda the same - really beautiful landscape but it’s just a painting. Not real. I don’t know what my deal is with liking that, but apparently that’s my vibe.

My impression of your first two records, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, is that the weirdness, or abrasiveness was pretty much a reaction to some experiences you had growing up as a gay man, and some of the discrimination you suffered, and some of the violence you suffered.

Is this record looking to something a bit more optimistic?

At least, trying to. I feel like my first couple of albums were a lot about trying to heal up my past and figure it out, and then the third one was just me kinda being angry. I think with this one I’m just less concerned with trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m too lazy and don’t really have time to do that anymore.

I’m more interested in building myself up and building up the people around me, and my family, and the people that already listen to it, instead of yelling at the ones that aren’t, or trying to convince them to.

The vast majority of influences that I’ve heard you cite are women - PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Weyes Blood, many others. I read that you wanted to surround yourself with women for the album.

The song ‘Every Night’ ends with you singing the refrain “sister” over and over. I’m wondering if the new record is sort of a celebration of womanhood?

I mean, as much as it could be from someone like me. I don’t know how much of any of that being in the music was deliberate. It’s just sort of my taste, it’s just what I like. When a woman says something I’m more likely to listen - I’ve heard from a lotta dudes for a long time.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it did make me wonder if, on the flip side of that is a rejection of toxic masculinity?

A little bit, but at the same time I’m sort of weirdly attracted to that. All of my songs are kind of about that. I wanted it to be about toxic masculinity, but it ended up being this weird admission that I’m sort of attracted to ... I don’t know.

Like, I hate manspreading. I’m against manspreading, but I’m sort of weirdly attracted that someone would have so much confidence and feel like they can take up that much space.

It’s kind of a weird battle because intellectually I’m against it but weirdly, physically ...

Moving on to production ...


Sorry, I had no follow up to that.

I don’t know why I brought all that shit up, not a good look for me either.

So, I’m wondering what drew you to work with Blake Mills, your producer on the new record, after you worked with Adrian Utley from Portishead on the last one? Also, do you enjoy the relationship between you and whoever is producing you?

Yeah, especially the more I do it. The more I write with that in mind, that I know I’m going to end up making a world with someone else, and they can bring it somewhere that’s beyond my capability. So, I write with that in mind. I make sure the mood is really heavy and all the chords are there, but I can make the sound in the studio.

And I feel like this album was much more like that than before, and I worked with Blake because I knew that he, technically, could take it to all of the places that I wanted it to go.

And also he made me feel really confident. He made me feel like the songs were good enough that they could hold up to a lot of instrumentation and experimentation. I wanted them all to be like American, and rocky, and have that familiarity of a band, but be kinda twisted and fucked up.

What he, you, and Adrian have in common is you’re really good at conjuring up this sense of dread. Also, all three of you are very good at having extremely quiet, borderline silent moments, and then having those really, really thick, syrupy, full, reverb-y moments as well.

That’s what I wanted, just like on a taste level, that’s what I want to hear. I just like to hear effort, you know. I like to see people really going for it, where it seems like they really are working hard and pushing themselves.

And I feel like you can hear that in the stuff that he does. It sounds really, straight up, inspired. And I feel like a lot of people are scared of effort, or they don’t want to sound like they’re trying ever, because that’s kind of uncool if it doesn’t work out. If you don’t try very hard and nobody likes it then you can be like “well, whatever”.

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