Perfume Genius: Pop’s Queerest Provocateur

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Mike Hadreas is anything but coy. Over the phone, he’s alternately confessional and self-deprecating, with an earnest, down-home charm that reminds me of a gay Dolly Parton. He sounds genuinely awestruck as he describes the “wizardry” of Blake Mills, the producer of his new album. “He was able to make a guitar sound new to me again,” he says. “And guitars have been around a while!”

Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius, may be known for singing “sadcore” music, with lyrics that sound like they’re being howled into a payphone, but his newest album, “No Shape,” is both tortured and hopeful, laser-specific and larger-than-life.

“I’m trying not to feel as alienated,” Hadreas says, “but if I’m really thinking about it, I do.” He laughs ruefully. “My circumstances have gotten so much better and I’m healthier but even though those things are true, it still doesn’t feel like that a lot.”

The narrative people like to attach to Hadreas’s life is that he did the rockstar career “in reverse.” Growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, he was the only out person at his high school. A delicate and femme gay boy, he was teased relentlessly and even received death threats from classmates. His only friend was a stranger he’d met online with the screenname “Tickled Punk.” They talked “all day every day,” Hadreas tells me.

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At the time, he confided in music, filling his personal website with paragraphs on his favorite artists, Peaches and Sigur Ros. But he was lonely and sick of being harassed, so he dropped out of school his senior year. Two years later, Hadreas was walking along a road when a car pulled over and a group of young men rushed out and ambushed him, landing him in the hospital. After he got out, he moved to Brooklyn.

In New York, he spent his nights partying and doing drugs, trying to forget. “When you’ve been on the outside your whole life, it feels good, like you’re finally part of this one giant thing,” Hadreas recalls. But the allure of the thumping, writhing nightclubs, as well as a burgeoning drug problem, left him unable to focus on his art, and he eventually moved back home to live with his mother, who is also a recovering addict, and the family formed their own makeshift Narcotics Anonymous support group. Hadreas sobered up, started making his own music and was booked by a respected indie label out of Brooklyn before he’d even performed live.

From the beginning, his lyrics were confessional and probing. He wrote one of his first songs, “Dark Parts,” about his mother’s own sexual abuse, filming the music video in his childhood home with his brother, mother and a robed character in a fencer’s mask. The four of them perform a ritualistic dance in his backyard before Mike leads his mother into the forest by flashlight, eventually curling up beside her inside a tree.“I will take the dark part / of your heart into my heart,” he sings.

Mike says he and his Mom still share everything with each other. “We will be laughing and then two minutes later we’ll be talking about the history of abuse,” he said. “Everything is all kind of wrapped up together; all the extremes feel very close to each other.”

Now living in a house in Tacoma with his long-term partner of eight years, Alan Wyffels, Hadreas has carved out a semblance of a normal routine for himself. He wakes, creates music — often going just by a tone or mood he wants to express — and then reunites with his classically-trained musician boyfriend in the evening to work on tracks together. “If we don’t fight it can be a really good balance,” Hadreas said.

His last album, “Too Bright,” received near-universal praise, with the New Yorker calling it, “One of the most encouraging albums of the moment.” In the music video for “Queen,” the album’s most celebrated track, Hadreas struts around in high heels and feeds raw shrimp to middle-aged businessmen while singing, “No family is safe / when I sashay.”

After the track came out, Hadreas grappled with what it meant to be known for dark and defiant music that was almost like a dare directed towards straight America. “I always feel like there’s a shortage of that,” he said, but when he’d tried digging deep to get at something “fucked up and dark” the songs didn’t make him uncomfortable enough. “It was too natural or something,” he says.

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Spiritual and forward-thinking felt like more of a risk. So did singing about love. “When you’ve been with someone for eight years, sometimes it’s not as epic or extreme in the drama of it, but it’s equally as warm, beautiful and loving,” he said.

It’s also hard not to read some of the album’s optimism as reflective of where it was recorded: in the sun, in Los Angeles, next to a pool. “It was the first time I’d had ever produced music in sunny weather,” Hadreas said, a bit hesitantly (he’s not ready to ascribe the tone to anything in particular just yet.) “All my studio albums were recorded in either the English countryside or in Bristol. You record in a dark room, and then you leave and it’s dark outside.”

None of which is to say that Hadreas has gone soft  — he’s still resistant to making anything too tamed and there’s an unruliness to his arrangements. And even when the tracks are “sonically cheerful,” as he puts it, they’re often paired with dark and deep lyrics.

But the grandness and relative accessibility of the album was entirely intentional. “I think when you’re a gay musician, for some reason people think listening [to you]means something about them. They have to qualify it, personally, like ‘Isn’t this cool of me to listen to even though I’m not a petite gay man?’” he added.

“Writing it pop-ier or even singing in a lower register is about me trying to steal from those dudes. Like I’m going to make an album that’s big and unavoidably good. I’m going to glean some of that weird confidence they just naturally get to carry around.”

The album opens with dusty piano strokes and Mike’s voice echoing like he’s in the bathtub. Then, without warning, glittery music bursts forth, seeming reflective of a more optimistic — even religious — state of mind. Hadreas describes the lyrics as a type of prayer. “Sometimes I need reminders that what I’m seeing is not necessarily real or how I’m feeling is not necessarily true just because I’m feeling it, that there’s sort of this universe and formula underneath that has nothing to do with me.”

He acknowledges that hopefulness is a weird thing to think about right now. “I wrote all of these songs before the election, but I think you can find peace and be outraged at the same time, in this weird way.”

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Other songs are more experimental. “Go Ahead,” has chamber-like beats as erratic as an arrhythmic heart, and is full of different sonic textures: Tibetan bells, ethereal strings. It builds menacingly, but Hadreas never raises his voice. “I felt like [speaking at a normal volume]was a luxurious place to be. You know: confident,” he said.

“Slip Away” has an infectious beat that reminds me of Animal Collective. But its exuberance belies a more complicated truth. “It’s about love in the face of people telling you that it’s never going to happen or it’s deviant or telling yourself that you don’t deserve it or you’re not capable of it,” he said.

Some of the album, in its folksy yet epic arrangements, seems reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright — an artist Mike loves. “Singing along to him, I realized I could sing from my gut for the first time,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can sing.'”

“I get mad when people say they don’t like him,” he adds. “I feel it’s equivalent to saying, ‘Well, I’m gay but I don’t like gay culture.’ And I love that you can hear the queerness in his voice. I needed that when I was little.”

Today, Mike is arguably the queer hero he desperately needed when he was a kid. And, to the delight of his fans, he seems to pour almost as much of himself into his devilishly clever social media posts as he does his music.

Unique in the world of recording artists, his Twitter account doesn’t seem sanitized, explicitly self-promotional or even especially coherent. It’s a messy but cozy home for him and his followers to live, filled with campy references and grotesque imagery. (Hadreas seems to have a thing for goblins and tentacles.) His tweets provide room for a sort of queer occult to exist in opposition to mainstream viability.

Of all his posts, one of the most iconic has him posing with a vacuum cleaner curled around his shoulder next to a sparkling swimming pool. “It was this multi-tentacled machine with dainty, little bristles,” is how he explained his attraction to the appliance. “Also, I’d been reading Octavia Butler and there are a lot of tentacles in her books.”

He’s worried at times that people wouldn’t be able to reconcile his goofy Twitter image with his intensely emotional music, “but it all comes from the same place.” “I admire people who can curate this 100% on-point, singular image but that just seems like too much work to me,” he said. “And I still think I’m building something, it’s just maybe sort of weird.”

In creating “No Shape,” he said he wanted to claim the mantle of the straight male pop star who doesn’t have to explain why his music matters. “Some major dude releases an album and people are ready to worship it before even hearing it,” he said. “They don’t ask him about all the emotional content.”

Photographed by Walter Chin; Styled by Taylor Brechtel; Grooming by Leon Gorman for Art – Dept; Producer Villani Productions; Studio Splashlight

About The Author

Steven Blum is the digital editor of FourTwoNine. He's written for Vice's Broadly, The Stranger, Blackbook Magazine, Tablet and the Daily Dot.

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