Mike Hadreas applies a new sheen of red lipstick to his pouty lips. It’s midday in Seattle and Hadreas–better known by his musical moniker Perfume Genius–is at home, doing some casual stretching on the sofa. “I do a lot of stretching on this couch,” he says, one leg up in the air. “Actually, maybe that should be included in the article. It seems relevant.” He gets up to check his makeup in the mirror, nodding his head with approval. With his cuffed jeans, coiffed hair and painted nails, he looks like a 50s hustler after raiding a dress up box.
“I’m from the suburbs,” he’s says, “so until I moved to Seattle to go to art school I’d never been around other gay people or weird people. At university I made my first real friends, I started drinking heavily, and my social life quickly became more important than school. Most people learn how to balance it, but I couldn’t.” He pauses, his ice blue stare growing increasingly vacant. “It was almost ten years before I started to get my shit together, and I’m still not all the way there.”
These years–years of excess, addiction, and tormented love affairs–formed the landscape of Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut record, Learning. Full of delicate, lo-fi piano ballads, the deeply confessional album won the praise of fans and critics alike. Two years later, now settled into his life of sober domesticity, Perfume Genius has released his sophomore album, the equally intimate Put Your Back N 2 It. But while his tales of prostitution, pedophilia and suicide may disturb some, his candor has earned Hadreas an army of misfits disciples, making Perfume Genius a poster boy for the age of over-sharing.
“I was living in New York,” he says, “which is where I escaped to after dropping out of art school. I moved there for a boy,” he smirks, half embarrassed. “We met on that website Makeout Club, which is, well, funny. But in New York things got worse. I replaced alcohol with coke, and then meth, because meth is cheaper and a lot more fun. But toward the end it wasn’t fun or social anymore, it was tragic, like spending four days high at my drug dealer’s house, helping her vacuum.”
Three years later, in an attempt to get sober, Hadreas moved back to Seattle to live with his mother, herself a recovering alcoholic. “I’d go to family dinners and nobody knew what to talk to me about,” he recalls. “Like, what were they going to say: Hey Mike, how’s being a gay drug addict going?!” He rolls his eyes self-deprecatingly. “I think my mom feels guilty sometimes,” he continues, “like she passed this problem on to me or something. After New York, when I was at my worst, I’d come home to her house in the middle of the night all strung out and she’d be checking my pulse. You know, really dramatic, ‘after school special’ kind of stuff.”
Soon after returning home Hadreas entered AA. It was during this period of recovery that he recorded the demos that would later become his debut album. It was also during this time that he met his current boyfriend, Alan Wyffels, at an AA meeting. The pair have been dating for two years, and Wyffels now acts as the other member of Perfume Genius’s live show, singing back up and playing keyboard. “One of the rules of the twelve steps is that you’re not supposed to date anyone, so I guess we broke the rules,” he snickers. “When I met him I thought he was way out of my league, because he looks like a movie star. I feel really lucky to have Alan as a boyfriend. Plus it’s cool having him on tour because we’re both sober, so I don’t have to be the only one sitting in the hotel room like a boring loser while everyone else is out having fun.”
The afternoon sun pours through the windows of Hadreas’s bedroom as he lounges on his bed, absently flipping though the pages of a magazine. He and Wyffels like here together. Their place is cozy, clumsily decorated with thrift store junk–oil paintings of horses, taxidermy bear heads that have never been hung, etc. Some duffel bags of dirty clothes sit by the front door, leftover from a three week American tour supporting Beirut that ended yesterday.
Hadreas takes out his laptop, saying he wants to show me some of the fetish videos he’s been watching recently. Fetish has become a reoccurring theme in Perfume Genius’s music, as well as a visual motif in the DIY music videos he regularly makes, most of which are footage he ripped from Youtube and then either slowed down or reversed.
He stares at the screen, transfixed, as a woman in a papier mâché mask wades back and forth eerily in a snow covered field, staring back at him as her dog runs circles around her legs. “This woman’s channel is one of my favorites,” he says. “She has a mask fetish. One of her videos made me cry once.” In the background Perfume Genius’s forthcoming single, “Hood”, blares from the shitty laptop speakers–a two minute, super slow jam with a crooned, doo-wop melody that breaks your heart.
For the next hour he scrolls through countless bookmarked fetish videos. They are rarely explicit, but rather possess a warped, almost childlike intimacy that mirrors Hadreas’s music almost too perfectly. He watches videos of breath control–no nudity or masturbation, just people holding their breath for long periods of time–and people in zentai, full body latex suits that cover everything from their face to their fingers. “I’m kind of into this whole second skin thing—everyone is so smooth and hairless with no blemishes,” he says, his big, Anime eyes grow even wider. “When I was a kid I was really into spandex. Before I fully understood what sex was, I used to imagine that intercourse was just a guy in spandex pressing his soft package against my face. That was like the ultimate for me. I also had this other fantasy where I was lying down on a four post bed and my mom’s fat Australian friend Chris would come and lay on top of me. And that was it–that was my five year old idea of sex.”
“So if you’re into all this fetish stuff,” I say, “does that mean sex with your boyfriend is really, like, kinky?”
“No,” he shrugs. “Normal sex if difficult enough for me as it is without incorporating all this other stuff. For a while I toyed with the idea of letting guys sniff my feet for money, but I looked online and all the dudes wanted big nasty jock feet. My little geisha feet just weren’t going to cut it.”
With Hadreas there are few secrets; his candid lyrics and interviews welcome us into his world of perversion, vice, love, and vengeance. In his single “Mr. Peterson”, Learning’s most heart-wrenching track, Hadreas sings of a grade school teacher with whom he had a romantic relationship, who was later driven to suicide. His voice is poignant, trembling through the track. ‘He let me smoke weed in his truck / If I could convince him I loved him enough / He made me a tape of Joy Division / He told there was a part of him missing / When I was sixteen / He jumped off a building.’
“Both in my music and in real life, I always try to speak about situations and feelings as if I have no shame about them,” he says. “My boyfriend and I disagree about it sometimes. He thinks if I’m too open about those things that I’ll be pigeonholed and will alienate people. But I didn’t want to make an album where I shied away from doing or saying anything out of fear, ya know? I’m not making music for my dad to listen to. I’m making music for weirdos.” However it’s precisely this shamelessness that makes Perfume Genius so endearing. Hadreas shares everything with us, even if it’s embarrassing or uncool, and we feel closer to him because of it. We see pieces of ourselves reflected in his insecurities, his faults and his fuck-ups.
“When it comes down to it,” he says, “I’m just really bad at hiding things, and I give up really quickly on trying to be any different than how I am. Cultivating mystery requires a certain level of coolness, and I just don’t think I’m that cool. I’m good at keeping secrets when they involve other people, but why should I care what people know about my dumb ass?”
The Seattle sun is beginning to set as we make our way to Value Village, a nearby second hand shop where everything costs like $5. Hadreas has changed clothes for the outing, putting on an oversized pink sweater that drapes to his knees like a dress.
“Excuse me,” says Hadreas to an elderly female employee. “Do you have any brown silk in stock? I’m really into brown silk at the moment.”
The woman looks him up an down, seemingly confused about whether he’s boy or a girl, or perhaps something different entirely. “I’m sure we can find something,” she whispers, and heads toward the women’s department.
He smiles wide. “Wonderful. Lead me to the brownest silk you have.”
In between trying on an array floral jumpers, Hadreas talks about the process of writing his new record. Oddly enough, this seems to be the only subject he gets shy talking about. It’s sort of cute. “I didn’t want the record to be another series of diary entries about all the bad or creepy things that happened to me,” he says. “See, I used to be attracted to the idea of a destructive lifestyle. Stupid, romanticized bullshit. I’ve read all the fucking gay hustler books there are to read—Dennis Cooper, JT Leroy–I was obsessed. But I just can’t do it anymore. Since getting sober I crave more heartwarming things. Like, I literally just want to read books about elves.” He shrugs, discarding a pair of stirrup trousers into the pile of clothes at his feet. “This time, when I was writing, instead of trying to distill the feeling I get when something bad happens, I was trying to distill warm feelings. I don’t think I’m in that different of a mental state than I was when making my first record, but where I want to be is different, so it just felt really instinctive to write lots of sweet, love songs.”
Put Your Back N 2 It comes out this month on Organs. Recorded in a studio in Bristol with producer Drew Morgan, the more sleek sound is a departure from the raw, home recordings of Learning, where at points you can literally hear Hadreas’ feet hitting the piano pedals, or his mother’s two Chihuahuas running about in the background. “I hate the sound of my own voice,” he says, crinkling his nose. “Seriously, I sound like a tranny toddler. So I wanted to work with someone who would convince me not to put my vocals so far under everything that you can’t hear them. I wanted to do what I would have done at home, but with someone who actually knows how to record.”
The new material is sublime–from the most delicate, whispered moments through to the heavy, emotional crescendos. Full of sparse, sedated piano tracks, the record is poignant in the way all the best love songs and all the best sad songs should be. This is more than just a series of dairy entries–it’s a look into a soul made radically transparent.
It’s later in the evening now and Hadreas is back at home, responding to some Facebook messages from his fans. He says he gets contacted a lot, mainly by teenagers who relate to a lyric or a song, who want to tell him their problems in exchange for guidance of some kind. That’s the thing about over-sharing: it’s a two way street. “I don’t get to reply to enough of these,” he says with a frown. “It stresses me out, because I always want to write the perfect response.” His concern seems genuine. “The thing is, I know what it feels like to be that freak in high school, getting the shit kicked out of you for wearing leg warmers and glitter in your hair. School fucking sucked for me. I got made fun of really badly, I got into fights a lot, I was scared and mean and mad. And in the end I couldn’t take it anymore and I dropped out of high school. But if what I say, or how I act, can have even the tiniest influence on people out there like me–if I can inspire some hope in some freak kid from Missouri–then I’ll be happy.” He smiles to reveal a mouthful of lipsticked teeth. “I’m not claiming to have made a masterpiece, and my album isn’t a PSA, but I just don’t see the point of creating something that doesn’t have a message.”
Perfume Genius is not the first musician to bare his soul, and he certainly will not be the last. And whether Hadreas is a product of Generation TMI, a queer prophet, or simply a boy with a lot of feelings, it’s sort of irrelevant. Truth is seductive, and we are heavy under his spell.Check out his video for “Hood”!