The Shy Retirer: Perfume Genius in interview

Pain, sadness, anxiety: it's a tough job being Perfume Genius. But things are looking up, Mike Hadreas explains

Feature by Chris Buckle | 16 Aug 2012

Perfume Genius’s second album starts with an intake of breath. It’s a preparation, a steeling gulp of air that readies both listener and performer for the brutalising sadness to come. The track to which it belongs, entitled AWOL Marine, is beautiful: solemn piano and distorted vocals locked in a slow dance and gradually absorbed by white noise.

Yet beneath its gentle exterior lurks a grim inspiration: a piece of amateur pornography in which a participant is heard explaining his need to sell himself in order to fund his wife’s healthcare, degraded by circumstance to turning tricks for the camera. The song, and the album as a whole, is devastating and addictive. Indeed, all across his burgeoning discography, Mike Hadreas delivers such intensely-felt emotion that it’s a wonder he can channel all that hurt without imploding. Yet while his voice carries the same slight, perpetually teary waver in conversation as it does in song, he’s friendly, chatty and a whole lot less socially awkward than his recording persona would suggest. But, he stresses, it wasn’t always thus. “If I think back to five years ago,” he shares, “I was terrified even to make a dentist appointment.”

But five years is a long time: enough time to halt a self-destructive lifestyle of drug and alcohol abuse, record an album (2010’s Learning), temporarily fall back into old habits, get clean again, record another album (the aforementioned Put Your Back N 2 It), and tour the world. According to Hadreas, it’s been a therapeutic process. “This whole music thing has just given me a lot more purpose, and I feel a lot more… proud of myself,” he suggests. “I’m not so worried about what people think of me. Before, I was terrified of that.” Why? “I guess just because I felt like I didn’t have much to offer anybody. But now…” he pauses. “I’m still really shy and I’ll sometimes hide in dark little rooms, but now when I talk to other people I feel like, I don’t know, like an adult! I don’t know how else to explain it.”

While Learning was written without expectations and recorded at his mum’s house, its successor represents a shift in Hadreas’s attitude. “I’ve been writing and thinking more as a professional musician now I guess,” he says. “Before I didn’t know what I was writing music for – I didn’t know that I would make albums and that I was going to be able to, you know, not have a day job – which is probably the coolest part.” The Skinny asks how his younger self would have felt about his career choice. Me as a kid? Oh, this is beyond what I thought I was ever capable of. I think I just thought I’d be an artist of some kind. I don’t think I even knew what that meant – I thought I could just do what the fuck I wanted.” He laughs. “You have to work a lot more than I was hoping for…”

Writing such bruised lyrics certainly sounds like hard work: consider, for instance, Learning’s Mr Petersen, an autobiographical tale with a gut-wrenching pay-off (“when I was sixteen he jumped off a building… I hope there’s room for you up above or down below”). Could he ever write music without having a close emotional connection with it – work as a songwriter-for-hire, for instance? “I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure that if someone wanted me to write a song for a commercial, I could find a way to slip in some crazy, semi-subversive thing into it,” he ponders. “I like the idea of making pop music that people will sing along to, but they’re actually singing about surviving sexual abuse or something, without even knowing it.”

People are already singing along: search his song titles online and you’ll soon stumble across a webcam-shot cover version. How does it feel to hear your words sung back in another’s voice? There’s a long pause. “I’ve gotten a lot less shy about a lot of things,” he eventually offers, “but that still makes me feel pretty shy for some reason. I guess because my songs can be really earnest anyways, and then when there’s a YouTube cover, that’s when people are, like, super-earnest… I just usually cry and shut my computer…” He reconsiders. “But there’s something really sweet about it too, and not in a condescending way at all. Something…” he hunts for the appropriate word. “Something heart-warming.”

As well as musical tributes, fans will often write to Hadreas. He replies whenever possible, though admits correspondence has fallen by the wayside of late. Does he consider it a responsibility? “I think if I was in an actual band then it wouldn’t feel like a responsibility, but I guess people are writing directly to me,” he explains. “They think they know me a little bit, and usually the messages are kind of heavy – not always, but sometimes they have secrets in them and stuff, so I try and respond to all of those. It’s a strange situation sometimes. I have to decide whether I’m supposed to give advice, or if I’m even equipped to give advice, or if I’m just supposed to write that I read your message and I understand.” Growing up, did he ever write to any musicians himself? “No, but I wrote to a lot of graphic designers and web designers when I was little. I don’t know why! But never to a musician – I was too shy.”

This oft-referred to shyness is presumably why, when writing, Hadreas favours solitude. “I write by myself usually, as alone as I can possibly be. Then I usually show my work to Alan [Wyffels, Hadreas’s boyfriend and touring band member]. He’s very…” He stops to rephrase. “Sometimes I just want people to say that it’s good, even if they don’t think so, just so that I can carry on doing it. Even just when we’re leaving the house – I want him to tell me my hair looks good, even if it doesn’t, just because I’m sick of thinking about it, I just wanna go out! But he’s the kind of person who will actually look at my hair and tell me whether it looks goods or not…” He sighs. “Which pisses me off! I mean, it comes in handy too, because I know he’s always being honest, but sometimes I’ll spend three or four hours on something and I’ll play it to him and he’ll say ‘nah.’ So I end up doing whatever I want anyway…”

Of course, with success, this freedom to do whatever takes your fancy is inevitably encroached upon. “Before I could just make whatever I wanted and not really think about it,” he says of life pre-Learning. “I guess I still make my weird gay videos, but I would like to start doing whatever I want again – just dressing up and making lip-syncing videos and all the weird shit I used to do. It’s all become very serious, and it’s always nice when it’s not so serious since you don’t put so much pressure on yourself. I think sometimes you end up making things that are more important when you’re not trying so hard. I’m scared of the routine of things, and the expectations – of either taking myself too seriously or making something too heavy-handed because I’ve been trying so hard.”

We wonder out loud whether humour is a useful way of alleviating this fear, citing the recent promo for Hood. It features the skinny, fragile-looking Hadreas in lipstick and wigs, striking a variety of poses with hyper-buff porn star Arpad Miklos; at one point, the latter dons a Freddy Krueger glove and they recreate the Janet Jackson boob-hold pose. Are such humorous touches a deliberate way of releasing some of the tension that builds up in his music? “I guess,” Hadreas considers, “but growing up that’s a defence too, you know? If something terrible happens, then I’ll find some way to find it funny just because it makes it easier. But I like having different levels to things. Something that was tragic yesterday could be really funny the day after – sometimes…”

Perfume Genius will return to Scotland next month, playing Glasgow’s SWG3 as part of No Mean City. Elsewhere, Hadreas has spoken openly about the discomfort that performing live has caused him in the past; does it come more naturally now? “Yeah, I think so – it’s definitely better than a few years ago,” he answers. “Now I’m able to relax enough to get into it instead of being so scared and detached the whole time. I used to try to fix how nervous I was,” he concludes, “but now I just let myself be nervous and do everything anyway.” The sentiment is hesitant but resilient, and as such, fits in with his music like a razor-fingered glove.

Perfume Genius plays SWG3 on 4 Sep as part of No Mean City