Perfume Genius interview – ‘Sometimes I wanna rip everything apart’

From fragile balladeer to confrontational performer, Mike Hadreas’s transformation hails a new era of eclecticism and maturity

As pop transformations go, the recent one by Mike Hadreas – AKA Perfume Genius – takes some beating. When Hadreas first emerged around 2010, he was the definition of fragility: all hushed ballads, damaged lyrics, verging on tears during interviews. Skip to 2014 and he’s back with Queen, a brave, confrontational single that mocks both the homophobic insults he’s faced – “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease” – and the “gay panic” he says still exists in America today: “No family is safe, while I sashay!” runs the chorus. Where once a nervous Hadreas talked about being unable to look at his own reflection in a mirror, we now see him in the video, gyrating against businessmen in a skintight bodysuit, to a soundtrack of icy synths, ketamine-heavy drums and guttural “oomphs”. It’s quite something.

Throw in a bolshy press release – “If people see me as some sea-witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles – well, here she comes!” – and it seems safe to assume that the man behind such bold statements will have changed as much as his music. But when I meet Hadreas for an early-morning juice at an east London hotel, it becomes clear his newly confident approach is still a work in progress. Looking a very boyish 32 and with red-painted nails, Hadreas can be smart, open and often very funny. But occasionally his voice will crack at an unhappy memory, and he’ll admit he’s a long way from the self-assured performer of Queen.

“I wish I was more confident, and I want to say in interviews that I am, but I know I’m not really matched to the music yet,” he concedes. Yet Hadreas acknowledges Queen is a brave song to release, and one that still, depressingly, needs to be made.

“I see [homophobic abuse] less and less than when I was growing up,” he says. “But I can still be called faggot on the street. Or experience moments where a little kid will pull on his mum’s arm and point at me. They’re not deliberately rude, but if you don’t have your guard up for a second, then somebody will remind you that you’re different.”

The track’s frankness struck a chord with his fans, and Hadreas says the messages he has received from them sound more empowered. “Before it was: ‘Thank you for sharing this dark moment that I have as well.’ But with Queen it’s more like ‘Yeah!’” he says. “I’ve always been very resentful of the fact that something I have no control over would make people uncomfortable. So with this song it was more of a ‘fuck you’ thing – I was hoping other people would feel uncomfortable for once, not me.”

I think of the vivid, unsettling stories that underpin his best songs – such as Mr Petersen, a dark tale that views an inappropriate teacher/student relationship through compassionate eyes. Has he always thrived on being able to make others feel uncomfortable with his music?

“Thrived on it?”, he asks, with a nervous laugh. “It’s more that sometimes … ” His voice begins to crack, the confidence that seemed to be growing vanishing: “that sometimes, making people feel uncomfortable was all I had, you know? So I might as well figure out a way where it’s to my benefit.”

To understand Hadreas and his see-saw state of mind, you only have to look at his past.

Growing up in Seattle, he was left emotionally scarred by bullies, and spent the first half of his 20s battling serious drug and alcohol addictions in New York, before moving back home to try to salvage something from the wreckage. The first two Perfume Genius records, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, confronted his demons with insight and maturity, and acted like a kind of musical therapy – although he admits his self-destructive urges still lurk in the shadows.

“I quit a lot of the really big ones – drinking and doing drugs,” he says. “But I will still eat, like, half a cake in the dark at two in the morning! We try not to keep food in the house because I will just eat it. I still smoke constantly, drink a ton of Diet Coke … ”

Does he worry about slipping back towards the “really big ones”?

“I wanna be bad sometimes, I wanna rip everything apart, but it comes on less and less,” he says. “Doing all this music stuff is very good for it.”

Does that put a lot of pressure on the music? The fear that if it all goes to pot he could slip back into addiction?

“Oh absolutely. Terrifying. At one point I felt I was in a place where, even if it was just me on my own without my relationship and music, I would be OK. But I don’t feel that way any more. I feel like if those two things disappeared, I would go out again.”

That’s why Hadreas has thrown so much into his third album, Too Bright, which deviates radically from the introverted piano-ballad template into something far more experimental and eclectic: old soul, Scott Walker’s Tilt, Suicide, Sigur Rós and PJ Harvey are all detectable influences. As Hadreas says: “I tried to stop overthinking and just let go.”

It was written, like the previous two albums, in complete isolation. But this time, instead of pretending to himself that nobody would ever hear the results (“Someone else over my shoulder – I think I would intuitively try to spare them the creepy bits and icky earnestness,” he told me in 2010), he allowed himself to stalk around the room and imagine playing to a crowd of people.

Like Queen, one of the record’s other standout tracks, Fool, deals with homophobia – specifically, the way Hadreas says he finds it difficult to be taken seriously because of his sexuality.

“I realise there are situations where I camp it up, make myself into a sort of novelty character to ease things along,” he says. “Like, if I ever feel uncomfortable in a situation, I can just make myself into this funny Will-and-Grace-guest-star type of person, and maybe people will not pay attention to the deeper things going on. But I’ve also had it happen where I’m trying to have a serious conversation with someone, and they just keep telling me how fierce I am! Or they’ll say ‘Oh, you know who you remind me of?’ And I’m always, like: ‘Let me guess.’ Because it will either be Jack from Will and Grace, or one of the only gay people they’ve ever known. Like, ‘Oh you remind me so much of Todd!’ And then they immediately start dialing Todd, like: ‘You just have to speak to Todd.’ And I’m like: ‘I really don’t need to talk to Todd!’

He’s laughing now, but as with everything with Hadreas, there are conflicting emotions within these songs. For all its playfulness, Hadreas says that Too Bright is an album underpinned by rage.

“I think it comes from feeling very victimised, which I could have rallied and pushed against more growing up, but I didn’t. So I felt very ashamed and victimised, and that went in tandem with resenting everything at the same time.”

So what’s changed?

“I think now the victim part of me is leaving,” he says. “But the anger is still there. And I think this is me trying to puff up my chest a little bit and sort it all out.”


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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