When you hear the slightly folk-y piano of 'I Decline', the opening track on Too Bright, the third album from Perfume Genius, it feels like you're in for more of the same we found on Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It. Gentle, bare and exposed, it finds Mike Hadreas alone behind his piano, softly baring his soul. Beautiful, but something we've heard before.

So when 'Queen' lurches in, Hadreas' double-tracked voice loud and upfront and backed by booming drums and scuzzy guitar and synths, it's something of a brilliant shock to the system and the sound of a new, confident Perfume Genius complete with a willingness to experiment with styles. So while the title track recalls the previous record, we also have the discordant scream of 'Grid', the dance pulse of 'Longpig' and the otherworldly torch song seduction (despite the self-loathing in the lyrics) of 'My Body'. It's a varied, brilliant record but it remains, at its heart, pop music. It's also the sound of Hadreas getting defiant, empowered and confrontational; when it may have been done introspectively on the previous records, Too Bright looks outward. When I speak to Hadreas over the phone from his hotel room in London, we discuss how he arrived at the sound of Too Bright but with two shows of his fresh in my mind, we start with the Perfume Genius live experience.

I mention to Hadreas that I'd seen both of his sets at the End Of The Road festival; on the Garden Stage, complete with full band this was a confident, strutting Perfume Genius but it was his secret show in the woods on the small comedy stage that really hit home. A stunning solo piano performance, intimate and emotional, found Hadreas wracked with emotion, struggling to finish even abridged versions of his own songs plus heart-breaking, tear-jerking covers of Sade's 'By Your Side', Tim Buckley's 'Song To The Siren' and Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes'. Hadreas reveals he was more than a little worried beforehand: "That went so well!" he exclaims. "I was really worried first of all that no-one would turn up; and then, you know, I've actually never played a show on my own before. So, a lot of my songs are just two chords haha! But luckily people got really into it!" I ask if there was any particular selection process that led him to pick songs like 'Bright Eyes'? "Well, I love that movie; I thought no-one would recognise that song because in the States I don't think that movie was as popular as it was over here [the UK]," says Hadreas. "But I notice when I'm singing it, people recognise it and there are a couple of dramatic gasps! They're just songs that I like, really; songs that I could do and I'd be able to put enough of myself into them and it wouldn't just be karaoke." Hadreas continues, explaining that there have been some cover failures: "I've tried a couple of the covers before, like Boyz II Men, and it sounded like me basically trying to sing like them! I really wanted to do a Patti Smith cover too, but every time I try I realise I can't get out of doing her vocal affectations...I end up trying to be her! If I could do a cover where I meet in the middle somewhere, that would work..."

We're speaking in the morning following the release of the video for 'Grid', the second song to be released from Too Bright. Alongside the strident tribal rhythms, Hadreas' manipulated and double-tracked vocals and screaming synths, the video for 'Grid' also signals the continuation of a new defiant visual style for Perfume Genius. We've seen the press shots with Hadreas in trouser suit and heels, hair slicked back; the stunning video for 'Queen' and this new clip: Hadreas' face remains defiant despite being buffeted and battered by silver-clad dancers. As blood pours from his face we see his eyes staring right through us, a smirk starting to sneak across his face. The message seems to be "do what you like to me, I'm stronger and I can take it". I say to Mike that these powerful visuals, along with the confident songs on Too Bright seem to signal a deliberate effort to show Perfume Genius isn't going to take any nonsense this time around: "Oh yeah, definitely," agrees Hadreas. "It was a lot more deliberate, even with writing the music. I wrote all the songs for the album which I hadn't really done before. I'd more picked my favourites for the other albums, you know what I mean? And kind of patched them in." He continues, saying Too Bright was well-planned: "This one had a clear vision, I wrote for the album and afterwards I was a lot more thoughtful ...the press photos, the album cover...I wanted everything to be part of the same thing, I wanted it to feel kinda...whole."

There's a certain confrontational aspect to Too Bright that's also reflected in the jarring nature of some songs: take how 'Fool' suddenly turns on its head through mid-song dissonance, or the way 'Grid' lurches towards a dramatic ending - it feels like Hadreas has pitted his songs against themselves to create this dramatic dynamic, yet he insists it wasn't all about that: "We kinda done it for fun, too!" he laughs. "I always kinda like mixing it up, and sometimes in my songs I'm afraid of repeating myself too much; after I've said what I needed to I sometimes don't wanna say it again...so I switch what I'm doing. That makes the songs a little longer - like with 'Fool', it has that middle section...but it doesn't feel like two different songs together. I didn't want to repeat the chorus two more times...but on the opposite end that does make my songs fairly short sometimes."



Although both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It were records of quiet confidence, Too Bright finds Perfume Genius as not just a more lyrically confident act, but musically too. Hadreas has discovered a willingness to push his songs beyond the quiet reflectiveness of those first two albums into abrasive territory: electronics, rock and roll music, manipulating vocals, dance music...all make an appearance, and I ask Mike if this was a deliberate attempt to push himself musically: "Oh yeah, for sure" he affirms. "I mean, I had fleshed out demos of all of my songs and I knew the direction I was going and how far I wanted to take them...but I wasn't technically capable of doing that!" This is what led to Hadreas calling on the production skills of Portishead's Adrian Utley. Too Bright often recalls Utley's work on making his own band's third album such an unsettling listen, and Hadreas knew he was the man to make Too Bright's sound: I'm growing in confidence - and in abilities I guess in some ways," he begins, "but I know I'm not that knowledgeable when it comes to instruments and equipment. So from Adrian's work and knowing that he's technically way beyond where I am I knew he could get the songs where I wanted them to be - and he'd be unafraid to go very far in that direction." Mike explains how he got Utley to understand what kind of sound he was looking for: "I wanted them to feel like a sound from in your gut, and I wanted the nasty to be super-nasty...I didn't want them just to be the idea [of nasty] or on the edge of it...I wanted them to be full-bodied and filthy! I knew he could do that; but then after writing to him and sending him all my songs I knew he understood and had paid attention to what the songs were about and what their emotional content was, and that made him equally patient and kind to the quieter moments."

"I think a lot of people think, especially men, if you look inward or [are] introspective then that's not 'masculine'...which it isn't in your stereotypical way but just because things aren't masculine doesn't mean they're soft or meek."

Alongside Utley, drummer John Parish returned behind the kit; Hadreas turns out to be a huge admirer of his work with PJ Harvey: "Oh I was a big fan of his growing up too; just how wild a lot of the things he does are," he says. Parish's drumming is always excellent and on this record there are moments where he sets and controls the rhythm: "He has that specific kind of darkness, a kind of jangly darkness; he played drums and guitar on the second album, but they were more subdued but it was basically the same thing as happened before. He quietly listened to my new songs and he'd say 'I'm gonna try something'...and he did something completely nuts!" What kind of nuts? "Well, on 'Grid' there's a part towards the end where he double-times the drums and picks them up...that wasn't something that I asked him to do. I did the same thing with him where I'd give him 'feeling' words, but he always does little unexpected things which I hadn't thought of, but were perfect. At the beginning of the song he does a more tribal beat, which is one of the words I originally gave him... and again on 'Queen' too. I originally intended that song to be very electronic and not so rocky but he played a real stoner-y beat on top of that song so I ended up re-doing the whole song! I re-recorded the vocals and double tracked them..."

Returning to the theme of confidence, I say to Mike that lyrically he's sounding more assured than ever. It's something that's apparent almost immediately with 'Queen'; addressing "gay panic", the song contains the withering put-down "no family is safe / when I sashay". So I ask if it's something that's simply come to him over time, not just through his musical career, but personally too: "Ha! For sure!" he laughs. "I mean, I don't feel like I switched up my music as a response to how the other albums were received or anything, but I guess in some ways how they were received sometimes I think they were mistakenly judged." In what way does Hadreas think this was the case? "I guess...just like that gentleness, soft...that the willingness to be vulnerable was seen as being weak. I think a lot of people think, especially men, if you look inward or [are] introspective then that's not 'masculine'...which it isn't in your stereotypical way but just because things aren't masculine doesn't mean they're soft or meek. I find those things are much braver than looking outside for solutions."

"I decided to stop feeling limited in my music. I mean, I liked how minimal and bare a lot of my music was and if that was important to me I would have kept doing it...but I was a little insecure about that."

Mike goes on to say that the general cycle of writing, recording and touring has also made him a more confident musician: "I think from just y'know, playing shows and talking to people afterwards, people writing nice things about my albums," he says, "has given me some confidence and made me feel more purposeful and impassioned about sharing. I think it's now a little more deliberate in talking or singing to people as opposed to how it used to be more therapeutic or personal." I ask if writing about his more recent experiences also plays a part: "The first two albums were more about my past, more about feeling things which have already happened," says Mike, "and it was important then for me to be gentle and patient with those stories because they weren't always gentle and patient things. So it was important for me to be compassionate about them and try to see the bigger picture...but this new album is a lot more immediate, about how I feel now and how I hope to feel, even, sometimes...and feeling how I want other people to be too haha!" Is he addressing specific people at any point? "There's a little more finger wagging in some of the songs," agrees Hadreas, "and pointing at people and things like that. I need that, personally, to kind of shake off insecurities that I've got - and it was important for me to not get my own way. I'm still anxious and pretty insecure most of the time...but it's feeling more and more like it's a lie, like that's not really who I am...it's lies that I tell myself. So it was important for me to try and shake that off, and it was important for other people to hear it, and if I was honest and brave personally then maybe it would be helpful to other people."

I'm interested to know more about Hadreas' relationship with his partner Alan Wyffels. As well as being Hadreas' boyfriend, he also plays in his band and you'll find him joining in on the piano duet of 'Learning'. The imposing Wyffels strikes me as a totally different character to Hadreas and I ask how similar the two are, if at all: "Umm, no not really!" he laughs. "He's a very kind and compassionate person, but he's a lot quieter than I am and a lot more...he's always thinking, always worrying - but sort of a little more internal." Yet Wyffels has an understanding, to a point, of where Hadreas is singing from. Mike explains: "We had a lot of similar experiences growing up and he understands where I'm coming from and I understand where he comes from." But not always? "Sometimes I have to explain to him why I'm being so explicit...he'll be 'why are you making a song about this?' So even though we've had same experiences we've had a lot of different ones. As for what the songs are about...he's a little more musical, he went to school for piano, he's classically trained, so where I hear the lyrics first he hears the music." Hadreas continues, giving us a glimpse into how the two collaborate on song writing: "When he would come home from work and I'd play him the songs, I would be interested to hear what he has to say. I listen to the mood and what it's about, but he would listen to the song itself and what's involved in it - so it's interesting having discussions with him about the songs, getting into little fights about whether it's okay to talk about certain things....he's a little more protective I guess. He feels like I can over-share and go too far...I think that's true sometimes!"

As we come to the end of our time, I ask Mike if he can see a future mapped out for Perfume Genius, beyond what we find on Too Bright: "I don't know, but it's really exciting! Just because I basically feel a lot more capable now...I decided to stop feeling limited in my music. I mean, I liked how minimal and bare a lot of my music was and if that was important to me I would have kept doing it...but I was a little insecure about that. I thought if I added too many elements the music would have got lost - because it was all new to me. Now, I feel really liberated and I can really do whatever I want - it could go farther into Scott Walker territory and be all about hitting meat [laughs]...or it could go sadistically minimal!"

Perfume Genius' new album, Too Bright, is out now on Turnstile Records. Read our review of it here. All photos taken for The 405 by Tim Boddy.