Perfume Genius

Perfume Genius: “I Don’t Really Know What ‘Normal’ Feels Like”

Jayson Greene

By Jayson Greene

on 09.12.14 in Features
‘I have that happen to me a lot, where I’ll be trying to be serious, or to be taken seriously, and people are still laughing, telling me I’m ‘so fierce’ or ‘fabulous’ when I’m not talking about anything that could be called that.’

Mike Hadreas and I meet in the cookbooks section of The Strand, the massive independent bookstore in downtown Manhattan. It’s the sort of space where you can get swallowed up for five or six hours, if you choose, and Hadreas tells me he often did in his early 20s when he first moved to New York. “I used to come here a lot during the day,” he remembers. “I didn’t know anybody, really, except for the boyfriend I had moved up here to be with. I’d come here on my lunch breaks, always alone, and sit here too long.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Hadreas slipping by unnoticed for a few hours. In fact, he manages to walk right up to my face before I notice him. His build is slight and his shoulders are thin, making him look like a stick figure that leapt gracefully from a sketchbook. The only things grounding him amid the towering stacks are his unnervingly piercing, watery-blue eyes. To connect with them is to feel your psyche being patted down. There is nothing accusatory in his stare, necessarily. You just feel very — seen.

Hadreas’s music as Perfume Genius has always felt blessed and burdened by supernatural vision. Whether he was tenderly recalling the furtive advances of a suicidal high school teacher on Learning‘s “Mr. Peterson” or assuring traumatized friends that “no secret, no matter how nasty, can poison your voice or keep you from joy,” on Put Your Back N 2 It‘s “Normal Song,” he’s someone who sees too much, both in himself and in others. The first line you hear on Too Bright, Hadreas’s third and strongest Perfume Genius record, is “I can see for miles.” It’s a line ringing with classic-rock mythology, and Hadreas’s voice is calm and clear when he sings it. His only accompaniment, as it was on his stripped-down first two records, is a celestial-sounding piano. You sense a dizzying expanse being surveyed, those blue eyes passing over a landscape brimming with possibility. But Hadreas wants nothing to do with it. “No thanks, I decline,” he sighs, a few lines later. Why?

Perfume Genius

Photo by Rayon Richards for WS

“It’s a line I wrote early on, and it was sort of a key to the album,” he says. “I like to think of myself as a very emotional person, but underneath it all I always feel like everything is kind of…pointless?” He ponders his own word choice, and seems satisfied with it. “It’s a voice in my head all the time, and sometimes I kind of give in to it. Sometimes I’ll see a good path and a bad path, and I’ll decide that they’re both too determined. So I kind of just turn them both down. I can see the patterns I’m stuck in, the ways I can potentially get better, and I just — don’t.”

At this, we turn down the contemporary fiction section, and Hadreas starts pulling down books — perhaps to lighten the mood. He points to Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, and a Raymond Carver selection: “That’s how I like to write, too,” he says. It’s very simple language, and you have to read between the lines to get everything. But there’s still a lot of heart to it. I don’t find it cold.” He seems uncomfortable taking an authoritative tone for more than a few moments, however, and quickly undercuts himself with a nervous laugh. “I’m not well read enough to make my own decisions,” when asked how he chooses what to read. “I just read things that are supposed to be good. Sometimes I like them.”

‘I was thinking a lot about places in my life where I could assert respect instead of search for it, or demand it, or give it to myself instead of seeking it. Things in my life I might have been ashamed of before, I’m poking my chest out about them.’

Nonetheless, Hadreas is quick, cutting, funny company. He picks up a copy of Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife, a florid and purple piece of historical fiction: “I’ll only read these kinds of books if it has a lot of prostitution in it,” he says. “I like old-timey prostitutes.” On Nick Hornby: “You know when people get stoned and tell you a whole Simpsons episode? He’s that guy.” He picks up Shovel Ready, an apocalyptic genre novel by culture writer Adam Sternbergh. He turns it over to read the dust jacket: “Oh, I loooove apocalypse stuff,” he says. “I just feel like I’d be really good in that type of situation.”

I ask him what sort of societal role he imagines himself best equipped to play in an end-of-world scenario (Scavenger? Negotiator? Hunter?) “Scout,” he says. “I’m little, and I can get into tight spaces and not be spotted. I’m sure I could scout out the territory ahead and make sure it’s safe for the group. Also, I’m a compassionate bitch, but I can make tough decisions if it’s in the interest of the group.” Testing his resolve, I cook up the most gruesome possible scenario I can think of — having to intentionally trap a child under a rock to (somehow) save 50 other people — and he thinks for only a few seconds. “I mean, I wouldn’t be super stoked about it,” he says.

Hadreas seems to veer easily between these two extremes — divine compassion, breathtaking cruelty. His music, beginning with 2010′s Learning and continuing through 2012′s Put Your Back N 2 It, creates a weather system out of colliding emotional opposites. On Too Bright, which he made with his live-in boyfriend and collaborator Alan Wyffels as well as Portishead’s Adrian Utley, who ended up coproducing the project, the inkiest darkness collides with the most blinding light. Many songs, such as the glammy standout “Queen,” seem to glow with some unholy fusion of the two.

The song, as Hadreas has said, is a defiant response to gay panic, the palpable discomfort he feels emanating from groups of people just from walking past them. Over a trembling mountain of guitars and synthesizers, the biggest sound Hadreas has ever made on record, he delivers the immortal, T-shirt-worthy pronouncement “No family is safe when I sashay.”

“The demo for ‘Queen’ was much darker, more in the style of [album tracks] ‘Grid’ and ‘My Body,’” remembers Wyffels. “We put down all the synthy bits and some rough vocals and asked [PJ Harvey collaborator] John Parrish to come in and put some drums down. What he came up with totally changed the whole vibe. Now it’s a stoner glam anthem, and the first single.”

“I was thinking a lot about places in my life where I could assert respect instead of search for it, or demand it, or give it to myself instead of seeking it,” Hadreas says of the song, and the album. “That’s something I’ve done my whole life. Things in my life I might have been ashamed of before, I’m poking my chest out about them.”

Poking your chest out, for Hadreas, is not a simple gesture — indeed, nothing physical comes easily for him at all. Too Bright is the biggest-sounding record he’s ever made, pumped full of synths that alternately suggest Fever Ray and OMD; it contains the darkest and clammiest moments of his catalog. It is far away from the world of his first two albums, which felt recorded alone in unlit rooms, but it doesn’t feel like something that would stride confidently out onto a stadium stage. On “Grid,” he makes an unearthly shrieking sound, something that seems to emerge from his gut and throat at the same time — it’s convulsive, uncomfortable, and oddly triumphant. Something, no matter how oddly shaped, is being liberated from inside of Hadreas.

‘Any time I would have a reality check about what I was doing to my body, I would just get so disgusted with it that I would disappear again.’

“I’ve treated my insides like shit a lot,” he said. “My body just really makes me uncomfortable. I have Crohn’s disease, so I was a ‘sick kid’ growing up. That can really twist things for you, because you never get healthy. I don’t remember what an even level was — I don’t really know what ‘normal’ feels like. As I got older, I started drinking and doing a lot of drugs — I just didn’t take care of myself, and I never really have. I never thought much about it, really. And any time I would have a reality check about what I was doing to my body, I would just get so disgusted with it that I would disappear again.”

His body, and his discomfort with it, is a long-running theme in his music: On “17,” from Put Your Back N 2 It, he yearned to “take everything away/ this gnarled, weird face/ this ripe, swollen shape.” The theme reaches an apex with Too Bright‘s darkly pulsing “My Body,” an obsessively prowling two-chord murmur where Hadreas mutters, “I wear my body like a rotted peach.” When he sings the line, a massive synth burbles up from the bottom of the track — a shudder of revulsion given musical expression.

We wander into the fantasy section and he mentions, off-handedly, that a date once told him he looked like Gollum. “I get a lot of creature-y guys and elf chieftains,” he shrugs. “I wanted to get buff for this tour, to eat healthy and work out and look great and only eat kale. But I always fuck it up. I smoke a pack a day; I still drink at least two liters of Diet Coke a day. I read stories about people’s lungs growing twice their size because they’re drinking so much Diet Coke, and then when they say how much they drank, I’m like, ‘That’s a normal Tuesday for me.’ ”

“Food and caffeine is all we got left after getting sober,” confirms Wyffels, when I ask him, out of sheer morbid curiosity (two liters!), if Hadreas was exaggerating his Diet Coke intake. “Mike is an amazing chef; he cooks a lot when we are home. But I doubt he was exaggerating, the only person I’ve encountered that might have him beat is his mom.”

Wyffels’s offhand observation hints at a darker truth: When he was younger, Hadreas was doing much worse things to his body. He’s talked at length about his struggles with drugs and alcohol (he cleaned up in order to make his first album, and then, after releasing his second, relapsed and had to recover again) and we don’t linger on the topic. He picks up a Bret Easton Ellis book at one point, as evidence of a writer he hates: “As a grown-up gay, you kind of have to read a lot of stuff like that,” he says. “It’s on the syllabus. A lot of hustlers-and-junkies stuff. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I used to love — looove — JT LeRoy.” He once maintained a LiveJournal of “very self-serious” hustler-junkie style short stories inspired by JT LeRoy, he says, but “I deleted it, and it’s all completely gone now, thank god.”

Perfume Genius

Photo by Rayon Richards for WS

It’s around this time, motivated by what urge I cannot say, that I pick up Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, an infamous tome that originally came shrink-wrapped with a warning label, so graphic are its multiple depictions of incest and S&M. We read through a randomly selected passage, and Hadreas admiringly notes the use of the phrase “sacred engine” for the male genitalia. “I like that,” he says.

When I ask what he found resonant on the “grown-up gay” syllabus, he says “Michael Cunningham. The way he wrote about gay men. There are relationships, and there’s love. A Home at the End of the World was the first book I read where I remember that happening. I’m sure there are other ones, but that’s the first one I found. I bought that book for my mom.”

We exit The Strand, blinking. We abandon our first plan — Hadreas has confessed to a love of junk food, and I dared him to come with me to Guy Fieri’s Times Square emporium — for more mystic pursuits. We are going to get his Tarot cards read. The last time he went to a psychic, Hadreas was told, “‘Stop worrying about your health; you’re going to live for a long time. You need to focus on your career and you’re going to eventually make a lot of money.’ He said I’m obsessed with my career and I need to be patient with my life.”

As we walk over to the psychic (she works from home, in an apartment building off of Union Square), the talk turns metaphysical. I ask about the plaintive, soulful ballad “The Fool,” which feels like an indirect homage to Faith-era George Michael and features the lines “I titter and coo/ Like a cartoon.” “It’s sort of about times where I camped it up, or made myself into a novelty in situations to make things easier for other people,” he says. “Sometimes you can do that, and then people don’t have to pay attention to any ‘otherness,’ or really anything they may be uncomfortable about with you. You make yourself this funny afterthought of a person. I have that happen to me a lot, where I’ll be trying to be serious, or to be taken seriously, and people are still laughing, telling me I’m ‘so fierce’ or ‘fabulous’ when I’m not talking about anything that could be called that.”

‘What’s my earthly reason for wanting to have sex with a man? It’s not to have a baby, obviously. Am I stealing life force, then? Is that what I’m doing? Am I taking life force and away and killing it, so it can never be a baby?’

This is something Hadreas thinks about a lot, and it’s a topic we return to as we grab tacos before our appointment. “My friend is a lesbian, and I remember asking her why she thinks we’re gay,” he says. “What’s the reason? And she thinks that we’re just mistakes that exist genetically to curb the population. Which is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. It also feeds into this idea that we’re straight people’s helpers, like our service is to help them not make the world too big, and make sure their house is pretty, and make their hair all nice. That’s not what she meant, but in a defensive way, that’s what I thought of.” This position — gay man as the R2D2 of the universe — is one that gnaws away at Hadreas, culturally and personally, and he responds to it with alternate bursts of introspection, indignation and revulsion.

“I mean, what’s my earthly reason for wanting to have sex with a man?” he wonders aloud. “It’s not to have a baby, obviously. Am I stealing life force, then? Is that what I’m doing? Am I taking life force and away and killing it, so it can never be a baby? If that’s the case, that would fill me with shame…but it’s also kind of badass, you know?” I ask if Hadreas was raised Catholic or intensely religious — the notion of the sinful spilled seed is just too ripe with body guilt to ignore. “No, but I grew up terrified of it,” he says.

“I’m getting older, and if I wanna have children, it’s going to be in a different way than straight people could. There’s nothing better or worse about it, it just is the truth. I’ve thought about that a lot, you know? I can’t help it. It’s almost an embarrassing thing to talk about, because I’d much rather talk about how proud I am of who I am. But I think about those things a lot.”

“The children thing is sort of a tense issue,” admits Wyffels. “I have always wanted children and Mike flip-flops a lot. It is frustrating that we can’t just decide we want a kid and make that happen like most straight couples. Adoption is a super-expensive and stressful process and having a surrogate is complicated. I think the idea of being a parent freaks Mike out a bit, but I think deep down he wants it.”

Perfume Genius

Photo by Rayon Richards for WS

As we go back and forth, we touch on the song “I’m a Mother,” a queasy black cloud of synths and processed vocals where Hadreas moans about being “the smoke that rolls.” “I like to think there’s some kind of divine, spiritual, ancient reason for my being,” Hadreas says, “and that song is me trying to find some kind of an ancestral being of my own. So many women musicians I love seem to be part of some divine, mythical figure — Lillith, or some kind of demon — whatever. Like Diamanda Galas, when she’s just singing in tongues, I was trying to figure out where that would come from for me. So I created one, and it was me.”

It is finally time to peer into the future. Lucy’s home office is on the second floor. She welcomes us in; the folding table is up against the wall window and the apartment is strewn with books and magazines. Lucy and I chitchat about the weather while Hadreas shuffles the deck, searching for an appropriate question. “I’m a musician and I just made some new music,” he says finally. “It’s all coming out now, and I just want to know how it’s all going to go.” He hands it back, folds his hands on his lap, and waits.

Lucy briskly draws the first card: “Oh wow, yeah, you’re finished with it, that’s for sure,” she confirms. She flips the second card and sighs. “For some reason you’re feeling disempowered by it, like it’s out of your hands. You’re feeling weak about it.” She looks up at him — “You’re a wreck when you’re working, huh?” Hadreas winces apologetically. “Yeah, kind of,” he chuckles. She draws his crowning card, and narrows her eyes at him. “What are you so freaked out about?” she demands. “You’re ambivalent. I wish you had a little more confidence. Because you’re putting that out to the universe. You believe your music is good, right? Put that out there.”

She continues drawing cards, and every single one seems to displease her. “I would love you to take a break, because you need your rest,” she says. “I don’t know when you’re going to do that, but you’re a wreck right now. You need to balance yourself.” She draws again. “Your key card is about balance — surprise, surprise,” she says. There is a slightly unsettling amount of venom in her voice, and the mood is growing uncomfortable. “It’s just not cool that you do it the all-or-nothing way you do it. You end up feeling malaise afterward, and you’re burnt out. The universe hates this; it’s not the way to do things. It’s gotta fail.” Hadreas shifts a little in his plastic chair.

Perfume Genius

Photo by Rayon Richards for WS

Lucy draws more cards, Hadreas’s fate hanging in the balance. “You are in touch with your guides when you’re working, but when you’re not you’re lost,” she concedes. “You’ve got to find a way to make it more sustainable.” She doesn’t see a break for Hadreas until Christmastime. She draws the devil card, which actually seems to aggravate her: “Wow, you just won’t let go of it,” she accuses him. Hadreas looks half-ready to say he’s sorry.

She tells him, also, that his mother figure is unresolved, which feels like an observation of “you are going to die a horrible, horrible death”-level specificity. “Did she teach you how to work?” she asks. “She taught me how to survive,” he offers in return, trying to be helpful. Lucy nods, looking satisfied. “Remember when everyone thought the world was going to end in 2012?” she asks, as she sweeps up the deck. “Well, it did.” She pauses for effect. “And nobody noticed. The old ways went out, Mike, and there is a new energy pouring into the universe. You are poised to receive much from it, if you’re ready to hear it. If you’re pushing forward, pushing forward, and never listening to yourself or the universe, you’ll miss out. This is a new force, Mike, totally. It’s a feminine energy, a flushing out of all the old, masculine energies.”

For the only time in our 15-minute appointment, and maybe only the third time today, Hadreas breaks into a big, wide grin. “Finally,” he says.