Not too far into “Too Bright,” the latest album by Seattle-based artist Perfume Genius — alias Mike Hadreas — the singer poses a rhetorical question: “Don’t you know your queen?” he spits, with a defiant immediacy not unlike that of, say, a merciless Marie Antoinette. It’s crucial to understanding the inner workings of the man behind the Perfume Genius monicker.
“Throughout my life I sort of hoped for and waited for reassurance that I’m all right the way that I am and that there’s nothing wrong with me, and that didn’t always go very well,” Hadreas says. “A lot of times I got the opposite for feedback, and the song is me just missing all that and stopping that sort of voice in my head that believes what everybody’s saying and just demanding respect [and] acceptance instead of waiting for it and just clearing a space for myself. And if people are going to be afraid or going to give me s— then they should. And they should just back up.”
Hadreas explains that he was bullied “fairly hard” while growing up, an experience that not only mangled his self esteem but convinced him that his vilifiers were right. As a result, he says, he adopted and maintained a defensive victim’s outlook on the world until long after graduating high school.
“Parallel to that was just this resentment and anger for having to feel that way,” he says. “And that’s where it’s complicated because I didn’t have to. I guess that’s why I made the song. You know, I wish I would’ve heard that song when I was 13. Here’s something I could’ve really fully related to in that specific way and could’ve puffed my chest up a little earlier.”
But not all of the tracks on “Too Bright” are about chest-puffing. It’s a bold, full album composed with grace.
“I didn’t want to just be rebellious,” he says. “Just like flipping people off. I wanted it to have a purposefulness.”
That purposefulness manifests throughout “Too Bright,” even on songs like “My Body,” a jarring, noisy dirge that hits almost halfway through the album, interrupting it with low backing synths and vocals alternately shrill and grating. Hadreas’ vocals are barely recognizable for the vitriol they are: “I wear my body / Like a rotted peach / You can have it if / You can handle the stink,” he sings.
“Every time I sing that song I get really into it,” he says. “Because the song’s a lot about this ickiness that I feel about myself. What’s liberating about that song is I’m saying all these kind of nasty things I think about myself and my homosexuality and my body and the inside and outside, all these things that, in conversation, they’d be like kind of timid confessions to my therapist or something, but in the song I’m yelling them and almost I’m proud of them in a really weird way, and there’s something kind of liberating about that.”
Horse shavings: Off-putting and cute
The conversation with Mike Hadreas gets off to a fuzzy start. When we happen to ask where Hadreas is when he answers the phone. He just so happens to be at the Washington State Fair.
“I just looked at a bunch of bunnies, like a hundred different types of bunnies. Guinea pigs, regular-ass pigs… Some deep fried Oreos,” he says. “I actually kind of felt sick after only a half hour of being here so I think I’m doing a good job.”
But Hadreas isn’t performing there, as we had originally thought (hoped). He is just visiting.
“Right now I’m sitting next to a sign that says ‘Horse shavings.’ Just the quietest spot I could find,” he says.
And towards the end of the interview, he says he has a whole other wing to explore.
“Guinea pigs are intense, too! There are some like really long-haired luxurious guinea pigs. And all their wayward fur…” he muses. “I find that kind of off-putting, but they’re cute.”