Interview: We Talk Beauty and Grisliness with Perfume Genius - Beat Magazine

Interview: We Talk Beauty and Grisliness with Perfume Genius

Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, has long been stationed at the intersection of beauty and grisliness. But on No Shape, his most recent album, Hadreas is laying claim to a lusher, poppier take on his usual themes. With a (slightly) brighter outlook and his boyfriend and collaborator, Alan Wyffels, and his band behind him, Hadreas has been on the road these past few months, preaching the Genius gospel worldwide.

Onstage, Hadreas croons about love, loss and terror, churning his way through a series of syrup-slow body rolls with a kind of spectral glamour. Offstage, on a brief break between tour legs at home in Tacoma, he’s been biding his time on the couch with Riverdale and Uber Eats. He spoke with BEAT about his new directions, his dark beginnings, Fleetwood Mac and his favourite Warrior Princess.

As we speak, you’re partway through the No Shape tour. Does this tour feel different to you?
Yeah, I think it does. I’m paying attention to more details than I was last time, just from practice and doing it long enough. I used to just wear what I was wearing during the day and just go on stage. Now I have this expensive jumpsuit that needs steaming. I’m trying to create more of a 360 world with this album.

Tell me a little bit about creating that world. When I saw your show in Brooklyn, it did feel like an immersive, murky experience.
Oh, good. I think it’s become part of it now, for me. The fashion, the videos — it’s always been part of it in a way, but now I feel like I can make it all live in the same place, have it all be part of the project, not cobbled together at the end. It all feels like it’s coming from the same place the album did.

Do you start thinking about the look and the video and the tour and the whole experience as you’re writing, or does that come a little bit later?
I think a little bit later. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m not certain how it’s going to end up. Especially with this album, the sound of it was made in the studio. I had a lot of ideas, but I was really open to them completely changing once I got there. I knew I wanted it to be more ornate, I knew I wanted it to be bigger. I wanted it to be weirdly American, and I wanted it to be poppier but fucked up…

To me it sounds like the best of fucked up Fleetwood Mac.
Ooh, I’m into that. Fleetwood Mac was a weird touchstone for some of the songs, too, and I knew that I was in danger, just the way I was writing, of going full-on in that way. I wanted to have the feeling of some of that, that American-y, really familiar thing but I didn’t want it to be fully in that direction because I think it would have suffered for it if I did.

You recorded it in L.A. — Fleetwood country. Do you feel like L.A. infected it?
I think in a weird way it did. I recorded my other albums in England in the winter — even on a farm, one of them. It’s a little weird because you bring your music there [to L.A.] — you already have the music. But then it starts to alter the end product a little bit. The first studio we recorded this album in, there was a pool, and people coming in and out. It was a lot more social. I think we’re going to move there now, too. So obviously we liked it enough to permanently be there.

Even if my instincts are to hold back every night, I don’t. I’m proud of that.

What was the response like when you take the record on tour?
I think well. You’d have to ask them. I’m proud of myself for really going for it every night, especially considering how shy I was when I first started all this. Now I just feel kind of unlocked, or something. Even if my instincts are to hold back every night, I don’t. I’m proud of that.

I went to the show with a friend of mine who saw you years ago and he said how different it was — before you were more withdrawn, very still and quiet. Now you’ve got a full-on glam show. Is that a challenge to come out of yourself like that?
Yeah. It’s kind of terrifying. But I kind of get off on that now. Especially the moves and everything. If I’m doing a really sultry, extended body roll and nobody’s into it, that’s mortifying. But if I do have that feeling during that show, I really dip into it even more.

It’s like the mortification of a Medieval saint.
It used to really terrify me and that’s why I would hold back. If I really go for it and nobody likes it, then what am I going to do? But I’ve played enough shows where I sang really bad or I fell or forgot the words and nothing terrible happened. My career didn’t end. Even now I’m watching back some of the shows and I feel like I could even go farther with it.

I think you can always tiptoe a little closer to the ledge. That’s what makes a great show.
I think so, too. When I go to a show, I want to see someone freaking out or really going for it. I love effort.

How do you mean?
I like people that are trying really hard. I think it’s a really vulnerable thing. I think coolness has become attached to having it all seem effortless and easy, which is rad, too. There’s a spot of that for me too but I kind of like it when you can tell they’re really working themselves up into a fervour, or really trying to get somewhere kind of ecstatic. You can’t do that and be really detached and cool, I don’t think.

Do you feel like Perfume Genius comes alive in that kind of show? Or are you also Perfume Genius when you’re bumming around at home in Tacoma?
I definitely get more out during the performance than I do during the day. I have my moments at home, I guess. Maybe I’ll scream or something — you’ll have to ask Alan. Mostly jokes. I think I can get it through laughing and stuff at home. [But] when I go onstage, and when I make the music, I feel like I turn off a bunch of anxieties that I carry around all the time, and rebel against them. I don’t do that as much just day to day.

So the music and the performance exorcises whatever demons you were writing about in the first place?
Yeah. It didn’t used to feel so separate. But now it does. Now if I go a long period of time without doing [a show], I feel like I can get kind of spun out.

So you need to keep it up.
It’s digestive in a way. Or like I’m in therapy or something.

I feel like it functions like that for the people there, too. I was looking around at the show, and there were so many people who seemed visibly validated by seeing you.
Good, that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. You never know. That’s what I want.

I was curious about it, because that’s such an amazing thing to be able to give to people, but it also puts such a burden of expectation on you. There’s a whole group of people looking to be represented — as artists, as queers, as whatever the hell they choose to identify as.
I like that. Growing up, I was never helpful, really. I don’t mind that kind of responsibility. But it can be weird if you’re onstage and you don’t know if that’s happening. That can mess with your ego. It’s a weird thing to do, to have a bunch of people looking at you, especially if you grew up insecure or with a lot of complexes and stuff that you avoided your whole life [now] happening on a bigger scale. I’m enhancing all the things I was made fun of for, essentially, my whole life.

Onstage I’m like, fuck you. It’s a fuck you to me myself, a fuck you to everybody else.

That’s what I think is so amazing about the stage looks you’re putting together, and the makeup and the outfits, the whole thing: It’s sort of superhero-ifying exactly what used to be torturous, for you and for a lot of us.
It’s fun. It’s kind of thrilling. Even photo shoots can be the same way. I’m not super comfortable with my body, but on photo shoots, I’m like, ‘Fine, I’ll change in front of everybody, I don’t care.’ It’s so weird to me. I would not just walk around every day without a shirt at the beach or whatever people do. But onstage I’m like, fuck you. It’s a fuck you to me myself, a fuck you to everybody else.

How did that look develop?
I think it’s just a mix of what I needed, what made me feel more amped up, and also just like a taste thing, a lot of things I loved growing up. And an extension of what I was trying to say with the music, trying to say the same thing with what I wore, I guess. Like with Too Bright, I was very into the idea of dressing like a woman dressing like a man, like when a woman does male drag. I liked that mix. A man dressed as a woman dressed as a man.

How is it different now?

It’s a little more free, I guess. It’s not so sharp. I feel like the last album was sharper. It was more at people. I was dressing maybe more deliberately to bother someone. Now I feel like I’m dressing more for myself.

I think that dressing to bother someone really lines up for me with what Too Bright was about, just coming at people with this sort of fabulous defiance. Are you saying that now you feel a bit better, a bit happier?
I guess so, yeah. When I really think about it, for sure. I think now it’s less deliberately in your face. It doesn’t mean that it’s not defiant. Putting blush on is defiant if you leave the house in it. It’s more in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with all those other people. I think that’s what the protest is. This world is mine. I’m not trying to convince you or bring you into it. I don’t mean the people at my shows, I mean whoever I was mad at last album.

What changed to bring you to that better place?
If I were writing it all down, I’m more balanced. But I don’t necessarily feel that way. It’s more trying to. More like I notice things that were better that maybe I realised how ungrateful I was or how beautiful and magical things are around me that I wasn’t giving enough attention to. I tried to write some songs that were a little more kind to all those things, and kind to myself.
In reading all the reviews of the album, a lot of them hit on it being religious in a way — “sacramental” was a word that kept coming up. I’m curious if that resonates with you at all.
I’m not on the whole trying to pay attention to my actual lines. It’s more in the moment, more connected. [But] it feels like a very spiritual thing to me. Certain spiritual ideas and ways of thinking are what helped me change my life a long time ago. And from there is where I started making all this music.

Are you talking about when you got sober and entered recovery?
Yeah. A.A. is very spiritual. I don’t go to meetings any more but they definitely helped me in the beginning of getting sober. The spiritual thing, which everybody is so terrified of and gets so much shit for those programs, being culty… but dude, if the cult makes you better and less of an asshole and maybe kinder, show up to work? I’m into that. It just shifted the way that I think. It made me less disgustingly self-absorbed.

So you feel you absorbed some of that spirituality and are now channeling it in your own direction?
Yeah, for sure. And I’ve always been sort of obsessed with religion. Growing up and stuff. I have really deep fears of — but also sort of obsessed with — both God and the devil. I used to cry going by churches because I thought I was going to hell so bad. But then that made me sort of obsessed with the devil and darkness at the same time. I love hymns and church music but I
felt almost like they were written to take me down. So my writing music with that kind of quality is spiritual music that’s for me.

When people write about you, there’s a certain seriousness that attaches itself. I wonder if you think that’s accurate or kind of overblown. When I read what you write on social media, and talk to you, you’re also very funny. Do you think people are overstating the deep moral quandaries and pain-channeling you go through to get to where you are?
To be honest, the music part I am very dead serious about. The longer I do it, the more lightness and camp and cheekiness is coming through in the music now, too, but I feel pretty dead serious. My whole life, how I got by is by being silly. I was the class clown growing up. So that’s what I was, who I was, really. It was kind of fun and sort of exciting to be taken so seriously. That’s actually what I missed in my life. What I craved the most was having some kind of clout. But I don’t know. I guess it’s a weird balance. I guess I get sick of talking about how sick and gay I am all the time. But I also made four albums about it so I can’t get too mad.

You only started making music after recovery. It’s relatively late for a musician to begin in their late 20s. Do you ever think about what it might have been like if you’d been playing music earlier?
I don’t know. When I was young, when I was 17 or 18, I wrote a lot — short stories. I thought that’s what I was going to do. They were pretty good, to be honest. Then I went to art school and then I thought I was going to be a painter for a while. All of it had this really over the top angst to it — everything I made was really bloody and disturbing. All the short stories were things about my life but dramatized — they were the worst things that have ever happened to anyone. And I still kind of feel like that. But I’ve gotten over things enough; getting sober and becoming a little healthier in my body and my brain has made me see the big picture a little bit more. In some ways I wish I wouldn’t have been through some of the things I ended up going through, but I wouldn’t be the same person so I don’t think I would’ve made the same things. If it’s any indication, all the stuff I was making before, I’m glad I’m not making that stuff. It seems sort of easy now.

I guess I get sick of talking about how sick and gay I am all the time. But I also made four albums about it so I can’t get too mad.

I think the harder part is to find the joy.
Yeah. And I felt that even though the first couple albums, people thought they were depressing and melancholy, to me they were infinitely more warm and hopeful than the stuff I was drawing or writing before. If you think those early albums are depressing, wait till you see the early paintings. They were all real blood.

You were painting with your own blood?
Yeah, as much as I could bear. Not very much. I was very wimpy about it.

Do you bring books or magazines or Netflix on the road?
Oh yeah. I just got the really expensive Kindle — a used one. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on tour — and just in general, I guess.

What should I read?
Octavia Butler. Have you read any of her books? Dawn — seriously so good. It’ll change the way you look at everything. It changed the way I looked at my boyfriend, at the world for a while.

How did it make you look at the world differently?
That book is a lot about an alien race coming to earth and wanting to sort of join with us. But it would mean that humans would be different forever, that they would be altered, and human relationships would be changed, because the way that you would have sex is with this weird little alien between you. Humans never touch, but it’s supposed to feel really amazing. I was trying to think if I could do that. If me and Alan could have a third, this weird little alien…

Maybe the music is your little third alien, sleeping between you. You make music together and play it together. Is it challenging to work with your boyfriend and then come back and live with your boyfriend when you’re not working?
I don’t know any other way, really. He’s played every show with me, and that first album, those were the first songs I ever made, and the first shows for it were the first shows I ever played. And they were all with him. Every tour I’ve been on, he’s been there. I mean, it’s weird. I think most couples don’t spend 24 hours a day with each other for years on end. You for sure can take the other person for granted much easier, because they almost feel like an extension of you. You’ve been together so much that it’s very clear they’re not leaving, so you can be as mean to them as you want. It’s hard not to take advantage of that sometimes if you’re stressed out. We fight a lot. But it’s almost like sparring. It’s just to get out stuff we can’t process otherwise. We get over it really quick. But I think it can be jarring for the people around us. My band has just gotten used to us cussing each other out really viciously and then be giggling and cuddling 10 minutes later.

When I was at the show, I have to tell you, I loved the Dana Scully T-shirt. I thought she was a perfect icon for you.

Me too. I’m really proud of that one.

Are there other icons like that, that we’ll see on future Perfume Genius merch?
Xena has been a big one for me for a while. I always wanted to do a Xena shirt.

You’re such a lesbian.
Kind of, yeah.

Who else?
I had a Mariah shirt for a while, Mariah with tears in her eyes, and it didn’t sell. People kept asking me, “Why is Mariah crying”? That’s the whole point!

This interview is lifted from BEAT issue #22 – grab a copy here!

Styling: Bojana Kozarevic, Photography Assistant: Tom Ayerst, Hair: Shiori Takahashi, Make-up: Siobhan Furlong Look 1: Jumper and trousers by J.W. Anderson. Look 2: Rollneck jumper by Lanvin. Trousers McQ. Look 3: Jacket by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.