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
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.