Perfume Genius: ‘I thought I'd grow up to be a woman’

Mike Hadreas talks sexuality and the days of reciting Twitter T&Cs with his drug dealer. Now, he’s sober and wondering: what would Springsteen do?

The night before our interview, Mike Hadreas, who makes soul-baring, emotionally lurid pop-rock as Perfume Genius, flooded his hotel room. He’d just arrived in London from Berlin, the last leg of a European press tour in support of his excellent new album No Shape, was in the shower and accidentally left the sink taps running. By 2am, his room was filled with hotel staff armed with towels. It was, he says, the sort of drama that would have troubled him a few years ago. “I thought I’d struggle to sleep afterwards,” he says through a haze of vape musk as we amble towards east London’s Hackney City Farm, “but I managed.”

After two albums – 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It – of haunted, piano-based horror-ballads detailing sexual abuse, violence and suicide, No Shape follows the broader sonic template mapped out by 2014’s Too Bright, but replaces that album’s anger with something nudging stability. “A lot of the things I’m writing about now are more like questions,” he says. “It’s more dissonant. But I ended up liking that part of it.”

Dressed for a morning at the farm, albeit in a wonderfully Perfume Genius way – green coat, Aran sweater, black boots but with three-inch heels – Hadreas, a youthful 35, is immediately drawn to characters. A lame duck is described as having “a hitch in his get-along”, while the baby goats are likened to something out of Pan’s Labyrinth. Geese, however, are given short shrift. “I don’t fuck with geese,” he states, his accent a strange hybrid of New York drawl (his boyfriend, Alan, is from there) and a southern twang he can’t place (he was born in Seattle and lives in Tacoma, Washington). We settle in the farm’s cafe where he orders a Diet Coke, one of his few remaining vices. “If I drink coffee I have to turn the lights off and lay down,” he laughs. “I can’t handle it.”

Watch the video for Slip Away.

When Hadreas was young, he would stage shows for his family, often putting a towel on his head “like long hair” and performing Gloria Estefan songs. “I felt they were truly blessed to witness my performance,” he cackles. Outside of the bosom of his family, however, people weren’t quite so accepting. “I remember that time, around fifth or sixth grade, when everyone started looking at me differently. Even before that, I could tell I was making adults uncomfortable,” he says. “I originally thought I’d grow up to be a woman. I didn’t question that when I was little.” He was bullied at school, with the persistent homophobic name-calling eventually leading to him coming out to his mum, aged 15.

Three years prior, he’d started taking anti-depressants, while most of puberty was spent in and out of hospital with Crohn’s disease. His illness, mixed with the bullying, steadily came to define him. “I would take months off school but I could probably have gone, to be honest,” he says. “Everyone was telling me I was sick, and I felt sick, so it was this weird combination of that being my identity.” A recurring theme in his music – wanting to escape the physical – can be traced back to that time where he felt betrayed both by a body that was ailing, but also giving up too much about him. “Sometimes I’m not into being a human,” he shrugs.

Hadreas quickly turned to music for solace, specifically the holy triumvirate of 90s female angst, AKA Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and Alanis Morissette. Later on, having dropped out of high school, he started to paint, eventually enrolling at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. He enjoyed the feeling of his work making people uncomfortable, but was often upstaged.

“Someone tried to commit suicide on camera and there was another guy who only painted pictures of his dick,” he laughs. Emboldened by being around other social outcasts, at 21, Hadreas moved to Brooklyn to be with his first proper boyfriend and live the life he’d always dreamed of. “I’d been waiting a long time to be a drug-addict artist,” he states. “Part of me glamourised it for sure, and the reality of it ended up being different, but I thought that’s what you did. I didn’t have a lot of examples for how I felt, or any end game. Most of the books I read were about junkies and hustlers.”

Watch the video for 2014’s Queen.

In Seattle, he’d “developed a pretty strong relationship with alcohol” and had tried drugs, but things spiralled out of control in New York. “It became a regular thing, and I pushed it to a different level than most people did; they would stop and I would continue.” He talks about lost days spent vacuuming with his drug dealer, “or one time she read me the Twitter terms of service, like the whole 20 pages and I was like: ‘Uh huh, keep going.’” He’s vague on exactly what it was he was using – “Stuff people did socially I did not do socially” – but has previously said it was “everything but heroin”. It peaked during what he calls a “sustained death attempt”.

“The last few times I went out, I was so at the limit that if I kept going I was going to die, and I kept going anyway,” he explains. “I’d wake up and feel like a very different person.” After four years in New York, Hadreas returned to Seattle, checked into rehab, and moved back home with his mum and stepfather, both recovering addicts. “Maybe my mum felt guilty for me having to witness some of her problems, so it allowed her to be more enabling and not confronting,” he says. “I have a hard time talking about all of this because I don’t want to make it seem bigger than it was, or smaller than it was,” he says, his cartoon-huge blue eyes narrowed by a slight frown. “They’re just things that happened; they weren’t good.”

Over time, Hadreas adjusted to his new-found sobriety and he started writing songs. “It’s like I had frozen myself emotionally, and then kept myself in this stasis, so when I stopped [using] all those things came back,” he says. Those early songs, sketched out on piano and sung in a troubled choirboy voice, formed the basis of Learning, his 2010 debut led by Mr Peterson, a hollowed-out ballad about the titular teacher that hints at sexual abuse and ends with suicide. “It’s a story,” Hadreas says, “and a lot of it is true and some of it is imagined, almost like the fantasy of it.”

It was around this time that Hadreas met boyfriend Alan Wyffels, a classically trained musician who also plays in his band. While Put Your Back N 2 It continued to deal with the fallout from his earlier experiences, and Too Bright was about being more outwardly confrontational (the bolshy Queen tackles homophobia head-on), No Shape is more about exploring the weird flux of relative stability. “It’s trying to connect in the moment, rather than thinking of things that have already happened,” he says.

Full of ecstatic punches to the solar plexus, No Shape’s press blurb describes it as “an American rock’n’roll album by big American pop star Perfume Genius”. “I was thinking of a pop star like Bruce Springsteen, about how they write, and the confidence they have that when they give people music, everyone’s like: ‘Yes!’” he explains. “People don’t ask: ‘What’s your relationship with your sister?’ They just say thank you for this music. So I thought: ‘What if I made an album with that sort of energy?’”

As with all of his records, No Shape doesn’t shy away from presenting a variation of the queer experience and the album closes with an ode to Alan. “It’s about how if he truly needed me I would be there, and that wasn’t always true of me,” he says. “There are a lot of songs about youth and young love, especially in relation to gayness; I wanted to make sacred the other side of that.” He’s happy to be presented as an LGBT spokesperson, thinks that culturally things are progressing in terms of awareness and representation, but doesn’t sugar-coat a future under President Trump. “Oh yeah, it’s evil,” he says, a strained smile twisting his lips. “It’s only going to get worse. I have no hope. Zero optimism.”

Later that afternoon, Hadreas is laid across an arcade game in north London bowling alley Rowans. Like a holiday camp pleasure palace, it feels like the perfect place to accentuate the 80s-inspired, retired-Beverly-Hills-mom chic he’s channelling for the photo shoot. “This is more fun than I remember,” he says as we start bowling. After a strong start is followed by some miscues, he reassesses things. “I’m going to approach it in a different way, spiritually,” he declares. Immediately he gets a strike. Then I do. There are high-fives, smiles, celebratory sips of Diet Coke. “Gay magic,” he says.

No Shape is out now on Matador


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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