PERFUME GENIUS

Mike Hadreas has bat­tled de­pres­sion, in­se­cu­rity and sub­stance abuse all his life. But as avant-pop hero Perfume Genius he soars above his earthly con­cerns, be­com­ing some­thing divine. Laura Bar­ton vis­its him at home in Ta­coma to hear about the trans­for­mati

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Rambo

What makes the avant-pop artist oth­er­wise known as Mike Hadreas tick? Join us in Ta­coma as we delve deep into his psy­che.

The rain falls steadily on the Su­ma­tran tigers; an un­apolo­getic Pa­cific North West driz­zle that speck­les the ele­phants and the tapirs and the por­cu­pines at Ta­coma’s Point De­fi­ance Zoo. “That’s you, Alan,” Mike Hadreas says to his boyfriend, Alan Wyf­fels, as they stand be­fore the en­clo­sure. Wyf­fels de­murs. The tiger yawns. Rain pat­ters the hoods of their wa­ter­proof jack­ets. Hadreas, a slight, pale, na­tive North Westerner, is bet­ter known as Perfume Genius, a song­writer who emerged seven years ago with Learn­ing, a col­lec­tion of del­i­cate home record­ings that tack­led a num­ber of painful sub­jects – drugs, de­pres­sion, and the tale of Mr Peter­son, a high school teacher who woos a young pupil and later com­mits sui­cide. In the years since, Hadreas has re­leased two fur­ther al­bums, Put Your Back N 2 It and Too Bright, and his im­mense gift for sto­ry­telling and con­fes­sional song­writ­ing has evolved into some­thing more ro­bust, at times strik­ing a tone that is ag­gres­sive and force­ful and pop-driven – though still res­o­nant. As a per­former, too, he is no longer the fear­ful knot of limbs be­hind a pi­ano but a fine-cos­tumed com­man­der of the stage, the will­ing star of the promo video who has per­formed on Let­ter­man and sound­tracked Prada ad­verts. Hadreas’s per­cep­tion of him­self, how­ever – his sex­u­al­ity, sub­stance abuse, in­tense strug­gles with self-im­age – has re­mained at the core of much of his song­writ­ing. On his new al­bum, No Shape, for in­stance, he sings on one track of how death brings the blessed re­lief of fi­nally be­ing free from your body, and in the time we spend to­gether he will make fre­quent de­risory com­ments about his own ap­pear­ance – his skin, his face, his physique. At the zoo, Hadreas de­cided that if Wyf­fels, with his chis­elled good looks and phys­i­cal ease, was a Su­ma­tran tiger,tiger then he him­self was a yel­low­head jaw­fish – a small, pearles­cent crea­ture that bur­rows into the ocean floor, spit­ting out rocks as he goes. Hadreas liked him so much he took a video on his phone. Hadreas and Wyf­fels, a clas­si­cally trained pi­anist who is an in­te­gral part of Hadreas’s band and mu­sic, live not far from here in Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton – Seat­tle’s less ritzy neigh­bour, where the streets are quiet and the property prices low. They keep a pretty, pale yel­low house on the cor­ner of a sub­ur­ban street, the rooms dec­o­rated in a gen­tle kind of kitsch – paint­ings of owls, tchotchkes and porce­lain kit­tens, and where their chi­huahua, Wanda, clit­ter-clat­ters her way across the floor to bark up a fe­ro­cious storm when we en­ter. “She loves drama,” says Hadreas, af­fec­tion­ately, and scoops her up. This house played an im­por­tant role in the mak­ing of the new al­bum, Hadreas ex­plains as we sit drink­ing green tea in the back gar­den, where the grass has run long, and above the fence lies a view of next door’s cherry blos­som and an omi­nous sky. The ben­e­fit of liv­ing in a de­tached house and “not shar­ing walls” means his mu­sic has grown louder and more ex­per­i­men­tal, but the other dis­cov­ery has been how iso­lated liv­ing in the suburbs can be. “When I go walk to the store or some­thing, I don’t see any­one,” he says. “It feels very soli­tary. And some­times that can be paralysing. But I think I found a way to use it – I think some of the things I wrote about I was closer to be­cause I was so far away from ev­ery­one else.” It gave him time and space, he says. “And it was very lux­u­ri­ous to be able to think so deeply about your­self and your prob­lems and your emo­tions.” The re­sult of all that con­tem­pla­tion is quite dif­fer­ent to pre­vi­ous Perfume Genius al­bums. No Shape is a record that con­sid­ers a calm, quiet life in a pale yel­low house, and the emo­tional volatil­ity that still some­how per­sists: the songs turn from eu­phoric to dis­en­chanted to dis­traught, echo­ing Hadreas’s own shift­ing moods. “You kind of re­alise that things you thought would be taken care of when your cir­cum­stances changed, haven’t,” he says, re­fer­ring to the de­pres­sion he hoped might lift once he got sober and had fame and suc­cess and love. “You re­alise how much of it is just wiring. It’s just chem­i­cal. Be­cause, ob­jec­tively, there isn’t a prob­lem, but you feel very much like there’s a big prob­lem.” Even as a child grow­ing up in Seat­tle, Hadreas re­calls be­ing filled with the same per­vad­ing sense of “dread”, though he has made a cer­tain peace with it now. “It’s led to me hav­ing stranger thoughts and more fun thought pat­terns,” he ar­gues. “In a way, it’s made things more mag­i­cal be­cause I can turn into some­thing su­per­nat­u­ral some­times.” He sits qui­etly for a mo­ment, and a light wind whips fresh rain across the gar­den. “I think what I don’t like is, es­sen­tially, when it feels like I have things I haven’t dealt with buzzing around,” he says. There is a strange dis­ap­point­ment, he adds, in go­ing to ther­apy and find­ing your­self cry­ing about some­thing as pre­dictable and pro­saic as your fam­ily. “I don’t like how ba­sic that is. If I have prob­lems I want them to be re­ally crazy ones, or re­ally unique. I think that’s my big­gest fear, when I’m re­ally left alone, that there’s re­ally noth­ing spe­cial there.” The rain is heav­ier now, and we head back in­side – through the screen door and up the stairs to the loft space. All through the sum­mer, when the heat rose to make the loft un­bear­ably hot, Hadreas wrote the bulk of the new al­bum here, as if sim­mer­ing the wild thoughts and con­fu­sions into some sort of essence. “When I’m writ­ing I feel very smart, very pa­tient,” he says. “Or the op­po­site – con­nected, and wild. It just feels like what­ever buzzing noise has gone and I’m right close to the core thing. I don’t al­ways know what it is, but it’s a very spir­i­tual feel­ing some­times.” He is still sur­prised by how much dark­ness falls out of him. “It’s es­sen­tially just drama and I en­joy do­ing it,” he con­cedes. “But it can sea­son my day and my brain for a while if I make some­thing icky.” Still, he will seek out books, movies, au­topsy re­ports, any­thing to feed the cold, dark feel­ing. “And I try to fig­ure out why I keep go­ing there all the

time,” he says. “I think maybe I’m try­ing to find some soul in some­thing that’s es­sen­tially soul­less.” Yet some of No Shape’s most ar­rest­ing songs are ac­tu­ally mo­ments of bright­ness and ten­der­ness. “They felt more dif­fi­cult, which was why I was try­ing to do it,” Hadreas nods. “It felt more of a chal­lenge to make some­thing warm and sweet, a feel­ing that wasn’t corny or preachy. Ec­static, but not in a de­mon way – more like it feels in your throat when you’re about to cry, but cry in a happy way.” When­ever a movie has given him that same feel­ing it has been “very last­ing”, he says. “And it’s im­por­tant and rare.” I ask him to name such a movie and he alights, un­easily, on Billy El­liot. He smiles sheep­ishly. “So sweet, and kind, you know?” Kind­ness might be said to be the pre­vail­ing qual­ity of No Shape; it’s there be­neath the pop storm of Slip Away, the sul­try drama of Die 4 You, the play­ful, an­gu­lar rhythms of Val­ley, and in abun­dance in the pi­ano-led clos­ing track, Alan. “I’ve re­alised how un­grate­ful I can be,” Hadreas says. “So I wanted to write some songs that es­sen­tially gave kind­ness to the things that I push aside or take for granted be­cause I’m so wrapped up in my own head.”

As an in­di­vid­ual he is al­ways “try­ing to ex­ist in ex­tremes”, he says, but the kind­nesses of day- to-day life rarely feel ex­treme, or big, or dra­matic, so these songs were re­minders to cel­e­brate them. “I’ve been with Alan for eight years,” he says. “And a lot of love songs are about the be­gin­ning of love, but I wanted to write a song that was as sa­cred and dra­matic about be­ing with some­one for a long time. And not in a phony way. “It seems re­ally bor­ing to say the whole al­bum is about do­mes­tic­ity,” Hadreas con­tin­ues. “Be­cause when I re­ally think about it, all of those things that I think are small are re­ally beau­ti­ful and re­ally mag­i­cal. I like the heights, but I’m also try­ing to fig­ure out how to have my daily life as some­thing calmer yet also big in the feel­ings depart­ment with­out hav­ing to fuck it all up to make it crazy, which is what I used to do.” No Shape, in fact, piv­ots on these con­flict­ing emo­tions and im­pulses. “I got kind of into that idea,” he says, “writ­ing warmer pop mu­sic where the lyrics are not fully hope­ful, but close to hope, and hav­ing some­thing a lit­tle dis­so­nant un­der­neath in the mu­sic too, that keeps it never fully in ei­ther di­rec­tion.” The song Wreath, for ex­am­ple, “is seem­ingly up­lift­ing, and it is a very free song, but it’s es­sen­tially about dy­ing.” It used to be drugs that made him feel free and up­lifted, “But now it’s just mu­sic,” he says, and gives a lit­tle snub-nosed laugh. “I think writ­ing mu­sic does that] the most, but per­form­ing now more than it used to.” The pre­vi­ous evening he re­turned from LA, where he had been shoot­ing a video, per­form­ing a slow chair dance to a room of 20 peo­ple. “A few years ago, that would’ve been re­ally scary to me,” he says. “Then I would’ve half per­formed and half been in­side. But this time I was like, ‘I’m gonna just go for it…’” This new sense of con­fi­dence be­gan with his last al­bum, a record he re­alised re­quired chutz­pah and com­mit­ment to per­form. “And that just trans­lated into me not even car­ing,” he re­calls. “All the stuff that I was wor­ried about be­came thrilling to me – the idea that I might mess up, or that I looked stupid, or that I was singing poorly – now it’s kind of fun, in a risky way. I kind of get off on it.”

I was in­trigued, I tell Hadreas, when I read the press re­lease for the new record. No Shape, it said, was the new al­bum from the “big Amer­i­can pop star” Perfume Genius, and I won­dered then whether this was a bom­bas­tic rein­ven­tion, that Hadreas in­tended to be rub­bing shoul­ders with the Tay­lor Swifts and the Katy Per­rys. “It’s not re­ally about be­ing a big pop star,” Hadreas smiles. “I was think­ing of an artist] more like Bruce Spring­steen or some­one, of steal­ing the con­fi­dence that they have that seems very far away from me.” He has al­ways dreamed of such con­fi­dence – a bone-deep, un­ques­tion­ing sense of self. “And I also sort of re­sent them for hav­ing it,” he says. “But I also find it at­trac­tive. Men in gen­eral I feel that way about,” he adds, and laughs. “Be­cause as much as I hate some­one man-spread­ing, I just wish I had that much com­fort in my body and own­er­ship of every­thing that I could just be so easy about claim­ing things.” He feels this way about their mu­sic, too. “Like they say, ‘Here’s my big fat al­bum, it’s amaz­ing, isn’t it?’ And ev­ery­one’s like, ‘Yes! It is amaz­ing!’” This time around, he thought he’d try it too. “I want to taste some of that,” he says. “Be­cause I’m al­ways talk­ing about my back­story and my emo­tions – and it’s im­por­tant to me to talk about all of those things, but I also thought what if I just made a big amaz­ing al­bum on purpose and just gave it to every­body like, ‘Check this out, it’s amaz­ing.’ So I wrote with that in mind. Not that there aren’t mo­ments where it’s more open and ten­der, but some of the in­for­ma­tion is pre­pared with their kind of con­fi­dence.” Wanda ap­pears at his an­kles. “How did you get up here, bitch?” he asks her, places her on his knee and kisses her sev­eral times on her head. “I wish I could be in con­ver­sa­tion, the way that I am when I write,” he says. He is weary of peo­ple treat­ing him and his work like a del­i­cate flower. “Like…” – and here he adopts a dreamy, gen­tle voice – “‘…it’s a feel­ing and then it just turns into a song!’ That’s what I get a lit­tle re­sent­ful about,” he says. “Be­cause no one thinks Bruce Spring­steen must’ve just been hav­ing this emo­tion and it just turned into a song. No, they think that he was very cal­cu­lated and de­lib­er­ate in writ­ing that song.” He sighs. “But it is sort of like I have an emo­tion and it turns into a song. So I can’t get too mad about it.”

He is 35 now, and al­though there is still some­thing ado­les­cent to his de­meanour, to the slen­der frame – in a crop-top to­day – and fine, fal­ter­ing voice, there is some­thing tough about him too – some­thing flour­ish­ing and pow­er­ful and driven. “Every­thing’s so much about de­ci­sions, about com­mit­ting,” he says, near-zeal­ous. “My whole life has been like that. I waited my whole life to feel ready to start to com­mit, and it never hap­pened. Then I just de­cided to start do­ing things any­way and then good stuff started hap­pen­ing. So even if I don’t feel ready, or at­trac­tive enough, I still think, ‘Fuck­ing do it.’ And every­thing good has come from me just do­ing it.” And for a mo­ment he seems to vi­brate with some­thing dif­fer­ent – he is not Mike Hadreas, on the sofa in his loft room where his feel­ings turned into songs, but Perfume Genius, the big Amer­i­can pop star who writes mu­sic that is ten­der and kind and an­gry and sexy and dra­matic. He is the man who has made the de­ci­sion to just fuck­ing do it.

(Above) Hadreas per­form­ing with part­ner Alan Wyf­fels (left); ap­pear­ing on David Let­ter­man in 2014 (be­low). “When I’m writ­ing, I feel smart”: Hadreas hits a slump.

“I’m so wrapped up in my own head”: Hadreas in the home he shares with Alan Wyf­fels.

If you go down to the woods to­day: Hadreas strikes a pose near his home in Ta­coma.

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