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There are plenty of reasons why Perfume Genius‘ 2010 debut is striking, but let’s start with the most obvious: The only instrument is piano. On Learning, the Seattle singer (nee Mike Hadreas) plumbs heavy topics like drugs, sexuality, and suicide—-fragile, personal stuff that’s only amplified by the bare arrangements and hushed, layered vocals. Hadreas recorded the album by himself at his mother’s house, although if you see him open for Beirut tomorrow or Wednesday, you’ll notice he’s added some bandmates. I spoke with Hadreas recently about his upcoming sophomore album, why he’s befuddled by dubstep, and why he’s more or less stopped listening to new music.
Washington City Paper: You’re currently touring with Beirut. How has that been? Is there anything you miss while on tour?
Mike Hadreas: It’s been good; I don’t think we’ve done a supporting tour before. We’ve opened for other people but not for a long stretch of multiple shows. We haven’t played big shows like this before. It’s definitely a lot bigger than if I was headlining. They’re a hard act to follow though since we have a little three-piece thing and then they come out with like, 20 horns and a million instruments. But it’s been really easy and really fun so far. Do I miss anything? I kind of don’t miss anything, I like the direction I have on tour, I have a little book that tells me everything I’m supposed to do everyday and I have a goal get up and just play everyday and when I’m at home I don’t know what to do with myself 90 percent of the time. I kind of like the direction even if it’s kind of busy sometimes.
WCP: Learning came out about a year ago. What are your future plans for a record? Have you been recording?
MH: I’m actually done with that! I recorded most of it up in England and then when we got home I kind of decided that I wanted to write a couple more louder songs cause I made like, the quietest album ever (laughs). I didn’t want it to all string along so I recorded some pop songs with drums and stuff and recorded them a couple of months ago. I think they’re announcing it soon; there’s all kinds of rules about that. I think it could be out really soon!
WCP: Is there a title yet?
MH: I have a title for it, who knows if they’ll get that mad at me. It’s called Put Your Back N 2 It [laughs].
WCP: That’s definitely different than Learning. I know you recorded your first album out of your mom’s house in Washington, and this album was recorded in England. Was it a big change in recording in a different location? Was one better than the other?
MH: It was, I was really nervous at first because I thought I wouldn’t let loose because there’s like three other people watching me, and I can hear everything that’s going on because it’s like, high tech, you know. But the producer that I found was really, I kind of told him I wanted it to sound like the first album as far as being really simple but you could actually hear my voice so it’s not like a million tracks or anything. It’s sort of what I would have done at home but with people helping me. There’s good parts for both kinds of recording because I had people there that could suggest things or if I had an idea for something I couldn’t do myself, I could ask them to work it out. Like, there’s a trombone on one song and I can’t play the trombone, so I don’t think I would’ve been able to smuggle some trombone at my mom’s house.
WCP: I know you do a lot of piano playing, but did you play any other instruments on this album? Is there anything you’d want to play?
MH: Well I listened to Joanna Newsom obsessively when her new album came out, and I’m kind of glad that I couldn’t play harps because even when I was listening to that I noticed that when I would try to write I sort of, like, was chirping and basically was imitating her, so it taught me that when I’m trying to write I can’t listen to anything. But I do play the acoustic guitar on one song! That’s my wildest departure. I also play…I wanted this, I called it a “thunder drum,” so I was trying to explain it to them so they basically set up this room with one big drum in it and I would just go smack that thing. So I’m a drummer now too, of one big drum.
WCP: Learning is a really personal album and you drew a lot from your own experiences. Did you go through a similar songwriting process or did your draw inspiration from new places or people?
MH: I wasn’t interested in going through my diary again, you know? Sometimes things have to start there because I’m just miserable and that’s how I know how to deal with it, but I just made sure with every song that I thought about my mom….I tried to write for other people and not just me. Even if I started with me I thought about it all to try and make it universal or dedicate it to one of my friends or my mom or something.
WCP: When I first heard Learning I kind of thought your voice sounded like Sufjan Stevens, and from what I’ve read I wasn’t alone on that comparison. Is it strange for you to be compared to other artists? Is there anyone you’d want to be compared to?
MH: I don’t know if I think about it really. I think sometimes if you play the piano and you sing really high, it’s like a really easy comparison to make to other people even if the music isn’t that similar. Like Rufus Wainwright—-I always get compared to him because I’m a homo that plays the piano. I don’t mind that one but I don’t know, I don’t really think about it too much. Sometimes I wish I was as cool as other people. I saw EMA and she was just super, super badass. I don’t know how I would work that presence into my music but I kind of wish I was a little more hip sometimes.
WCP: Maybe you should make an electronic music next, or get into dubstep.
MH: [Laughs] Like some party jams. I don’t know about that, I don’t get the whole dubstep game. It’s just quiet…well I like the James Blake thing but it’ll be like one thing, and then there will be five of silence and then like something awful again.
WCP: On that note, since it’s almost the end of December, what would be on your best of list of the year?
MH: It’s kind of recent but after the whole Joanna Newsom thing I decided I’m not going to listen to any new music until I’m done working. But I just got the new Kate Bush album a little bit ago and that’s really good and the EMA album is really good too. I think those are my top two—-and the PJ Harvey album. Basically ladies—-any lady that did anything this year.
Perfume Genius opens for Beirut Tuesday and Wednesday at 9:30 Club. Both shows are sold out.