The artist gushes about his latest album, Liz Phair, and making unapologetically queer art in the era of Trump.
25 July 2017
The artist gushes about his latest album, Liz Phair, and making unapologetically queer art in the era of Trump.
There is a flash during "Otherside," the opening track from Perfume Genius's fourth album, No Shape, when the sound shifts from soft and delicate—acoustic, even—to explosive and expansive. (Picture a vintage black-and-white film bursting into full 1080p technicolor.) The switch, which doesn't get any less alarming the more you hear it, might cheekily come right after Mike Hadreas, the man behind the moniker, sings of "rocking you to sleep," but from the moment it hits, exactly 70 seconds into the album, it's clear that he really wants to jolt you awake.
For the past seven years, Hadreas has been making deeply personal music as Perfume Genius. On his first album, 2010's Learning, Hadreas buried his voice under simple piano melodies and sang just as earnestly about a murderous ten-year-old as he did about possible molestation by a high school teacher who later committed suicide. His following release, the memorably titled Put Your Back N 2 It, featured "Hood," a single whose video found Hadreas playing dress-up in a white room while well-known (and since deceased) gay porn star Arpad Miklos erotically doused him in lipstick. 2014's Too Bright had a similar revelatory moment with "Queen," a "fuck you" to the "basic people" in his life, which manifested itself as an anthem for rebellious flamboyance.
And though one could have anticipated analogous growth in the fourth album simply by tracking the gradual expansion of Hadreas's sound in each of the previous three, something about No Shape is still unprecedentedly massive. It's no doubt the artist's finest work to date, bolstered by his willingness to fully immerse himself in any style that's thrown at him and uplifted by his willing embrace of a sound that's markedly brighter and more hopeful than he's used to.
It's also the first album where Perfume Genius is dealing with his present life as Mike Hadreas (as opposed to rehashing his troubled history), which meant explicitly dedicating a song to his longtime boyfriend and frequent collaborator Alan Wyffels. In a conversation with PAPER following the release of No Shape, the singer cited that decision as an inevitability given Wyffels's deep involvement in the work of Perfume Genius. Hadreas also opened up about getting over his high school bullies, addiction and sobriety, why late-night donut deliveries prompted his upcoming move from Washington to Los Angeles, being scandalized by Liz Phair's "talking about sucking dick," and how the continuous success of his music career is helping him gain confidence. After all, as he jokes with me when explaining what moving to New York initially did for helping him find a community of like-minded people, "I don't know. There probably is a gay picnic area...somewhere."
Courtesy of Inez & Vinoodh
What inspired the title, No Shape, of the new album?
It has a few different meanings to me. I like that it could mean that there's no real rule for how you're supposed to seem or be or look or act. A lot of the songs have this weird recurring theme that I don't necessarily intend for my album to have, but [somehow] I end up writing about transcending the body a lot. It's more like a spiritual meaning—kind of leveling up, I guess. Just reaching and unlocking your brain, or getting rid of your flesh bag.
I definitely pick up on that spiritual aspect. But if that isn't a subject you're deliberately trying to write about, do you think it's something in your subconscious that is always cluing into that aspect of life?
Well, I can kind of tell when I'm doing it! It's just not until you gather all the songs together and start writing up a lyric sheet [that you realize] how many times I say 'body.' It's like fifty times on the album! But maybe you'll have an idea that these are things that you're thinking about or playing with, but you don't really realize how clearly the undercurrent of your brain is just laid out [in a particular way].
Maybe in the other albums it was a little more deliberate, especially since I was writing out memories and things that had actually happened. It was a lot more brainy in a very specific way because I knew what the story was. With these songs, I was trying to write about how I feel and I wanted everything to feel really immediate and very earnest. So if something was embarrassing or I realized I was talking about something a lot, I didn't censor it because I was trying to have it all feel real, I guess.
Was there something in particular that happened in your life that caused you to approach your writing differently?
I just think it wasn't what I needed anymore. I didn't feel like I needed to go through my history again or heal up anything. A lot of the things I've done in the last five years made me pretty anxious at first. [The music stuff] all happened really quickly and my life changed a lot, but I don't think I necessarily noticed because I was so focused on just doing it and showing up. Just making sure that I pushed my anxiety down so that I would actually do all the singing. Now I've done it enough where those things don't scare me as much and I can kind of look around. It made me feel really ungrateful that I had all these things but I really wasn't letting myself think about them. You know, I've been with Alan [Wyffels] this whole time—a long time—and, I don't know, I felt like I needed to write some things that were kind to him in a very specific way.
Alan Wyffels (l) and Mike Hadreas (r) at a Perfume Genius show / Getty Images
Speaking of Alan, you dedicated the closing track on this album to him and you frequently collaborate with him on your music. How does it feel to work with someone you are in a relationship with? I imagine it could be just as frustrating as it is fruitful.
I mean, it's a mix. We definitely fight and that can get complicated, but there are also really wonderful things about it at the same time. I also just haven't ever done it really differently, so I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't know—maybe we're completely fucking crazy! We just have a routine, especially with how I write. I will write all day. I have an isolated solitary thing and, usually, he'll be working too. Then he'll come home and listen to what I've done and we'll talk about it, and he will give me his ideas. He can also tell when I'm not on the right wavelength, like when I'm pushing it or when I'm trying too hard. Essentially, when [the work] is not inspired, he can catch that quicker than I can. I so badly just want to have something to show that sometimes I will just force it down. He just knows me really well and he knows what I want the music to be. He knows the kind of things I want people to feel from it. He's also a lot more musical in a very technical way than I am. He studied music at school and that's something I didn't do, so sometimes he hears different things than I do. When we put our heads together, I think the songs get better.
For "Alan," specifically, did it just feel like the right time for you to very explicitly dedicate a song to him?
Yes. Even just because of that song, I'm talking about him a lot more in interviews. There have even been some photo shoots where he got his picture taken. We've been touring for like eight years and he's played every show that I've ever played and I felt like I should be talking about him more. So that's why I put the song out.
You two are planning to move from Tacoma, Washington to Los Angeles. Given the obvious differences between those two places (a relatively small town vs. one of America's most populated cities), what is prompting you to make the move?
I don't know. We moved here because when we would go on tour it was so hectic and exhausting. We were in the big city, just a different one everyday, and we didn't really need it anymore. We wanted home to be an escape. When I got done touring my last album, we ended up being here in a smaller city for like a year straight. We don't really know anyone here. We have this nice house and everything is really cozy, but the isolated part that is so good for writing and is so nice for escaping doesn't really do it for us for an extended period of time. Then we went to L.A. to record the album, and...I think a lot of it is food. It's really like 50% food. The food was so good, and you can get so many things delivered. Like donuts—multiple donut places delivered! Just stuff like that.
But some of it is a little sadder, a little more intense. With just the way shit is going on in the country, I just don't feel as good being in a smaller city. Even though it's been wonderful here, I want to be somewhere where when I leave my house I can see more gay people, more fucking weirdos and other people that are on the other side of all the horrible shit that's going on. I feel like I need to see and feel those people around me more now.
Obviously, the current political regime has affected the way many queer people feel in their surroundings. Has the Trump election affected the way you approach your work in any way?
I wrote this album before the election. It's not like I'm not always fucking railing against the people that voted for him—I have been since I was 4. But I don't think there's any way that it couldn't change the way that I write. It's changed the way I think about everything and the way I move around now. But there's also a rebellion in fucking doing whatever you want and not having that affect the way that you work, as long as I feel like it's a deliberate thing. If it's deliberately making a joyous song in the face of all this that has no tinge of [the anger we feel towards him], then I feel like that makes sense too. But that's still being directly informed by it.
I think the stuff you have to say ends up being more important if it's actually what you have to say. I feel that my music is political, but it's usually after; the core part of it is personal. I'm not very good at writing fables or something with a moral at the end. Whenever I've tried to write about a thing and it doesn't start in a personal way, it's not as good or somehow it feels like it doesn't work as well. Other people are better at that, but that's just not really my expertise.
Well, your queer identity has always been central to the music you create. Do you think having that marginalized identity was one of the driving factors that drew you towards wanting to create music in the first place?
It's the same as writing. I'm just kind of doing whatever I want. It's the same with dressing everyday: maybe I'll put on a dress just because I want to, but then when I leave the house in it, it becomes a fucking statement—even if it didn't really start that way. It definitely became more important to me though. I think, in the beginning, I was just writing whatever I was thinking. But a lot of it [now] is just having other people listen to it. Just knowing that other people are going to hear it, everything becomes a lot more deliberate.
Both No Shape and its predecessor Too Bright were noticeably bigger (musically speaking). Did the growth of your audience and the fact that people are listening influence your change in sound?
Yeah. When I was writing, I started caring for the people that came to my first shows. I just started writing for more people, too. Also, everything became really rebellious. The things I noticed I was getting shit for with my music or what people felt like couldn't be taken seriously because it was too gentle or too earnest or whatever...I was just like, well fuck you. I'm going to be 5,000 times more gentle and earnest next time. Some of it became more of a 'fuck you' the longer I did it.
"Queen" seemed to be a kind of a "fuck you" to those people, and also happened to be the song that really broke you through to the next level. It was still personal but it did seem to respond to the outside more than your previous work, which was always very internal.
I was kind of throwing it back at them. It gets pretty exhausting carrying that shit around all the time and you end up getting so pissed off. It's just this quiet anger that I've had my whole life about constantly being weirdly awkward and self-aware, and scared, and uncomfortable. Whether or not I needed to be, I still felt that, for safety reasons, I needed to be on high alert all the time. I still just get so exhausted and tired of it and just fucking pissed off at basic people. I just want to rage against them! Sometimes they're just kicking it. I get so mad at basic people sometimes but they're just doing their thing...but every once in a while, they kill you.
At least it worked to your advantage. That song ended up helping you gain a lot of momentum.
Yeah that was rad. That was kind of what I was trying to do for myself with the song, was to sort of grab some power from all that stuff that made me feel like I was on the outside. It was a way for me to really build myself up and I think that song kind of built me up like legit.
Did being able to be explicitly yourself (and subsequently experience greater success as a result) help to build your confidence in yourself?
Of course. With everything I've done with this music stuff, I just keep doing things I didn't know I was capable of or that I convinced myself I couldn't do a long time ago. You get this idea of yourself in your head when you're little and it doesn't really budge for a long time. I just keep doing things even though I'm afraid or uncomfortable, and if you do those things long enough it becomes more second-nature. But then I kind of just move on to something else, haha. But I think that's part of why I make stuff though. It's this weird combination of needing a little bit of anxiety because it leads me to write and gives me a problem to try and figure out. I think there's a decent kind of magical amount of it that is good and then there's some that is just needless and sad that I can shake off. I think I've definitely shaken off a lot more of it in the last five years than I ever did growing up.
I think the confidence that you gain then gets funneled back through your music, which is then given to your fans when they listen. What does it feel like to know that many queer people look up to you now?
It's surreal sometimes because I remember I was the same way when I was growing up. I really looked to music to help quell that loneliness I was feeling. Music was a big comfort to me and really helpful. I had musicians and singers sing about things that I was still keeping a secret or didn't have anyone to talk to about or be in it with. That's why I'm so hyper-specific in my lyrics now; it's because I wish I had people that I could connect with even more. You know, connect to 100%—people who didn't change pronouns or didn't just "happen" to be gay. I wanted people who were specifically gay. I wish I had more of that growing up.
But it can be surreal. It's weird to me that people would think that way about me. But at the same time I can't just walk around hugging everybody and we say 'I love you' back and forth. I think it's just an intense amount of energy. I feel like when I write I'm kind of writing to myself when I was in high school. I'm writing music that I wish I would have heard when I was younger. It's a big part of it for me.
Who would you say were some of the defining artists of your youth?
Liz Phair, for sure. I got her album when I was twelve and it changed music for me. It changed what I thought music could be about or what you could say or sing about. It really changed everything. And I was really obsessed with Björk. (I still am.) Those two gave me something in very different ways. Liz Phair, she sang proudly and without shame about sex. She was talking about sucking dick and all this stuff that I was scandalized by when I heard it. I had just kind of come out to myself in my head, but then hearing her off-handedly talk about blowjobs and stuff like that? Being gay isn't all about sex but, for sure, that's what you're told is the most disgusting and deviant part of it. So that's where the source of a lot of the shame is—and it's before you've even done any of it! When I heard Liz Phair for the first time, I wouldn't be touching a penis for a long time but I still felt very guilty about it. Hearing her tell these things that were like
shameful ideas and secrets to me, and she was singing it in such a badass dismissive way. And then Björk was almost an alternate universe or something. She was so on the outside that she made up her own language and her own world. She wasn't even using real instruments; they didn't exist yet. She was so advanced technically. She made being on the outside feel like a very magical cool thing. There's something spiritual about the whole thing and very earthly at the same time. She's great. I love her.
You touched upon the idea of queer artists who change pronouns in their lyrics and, obviously, that has never been you. What are your thoughts about artists who dilute their work for marketability?
I understand why they do that. You make more money. If you come out, you'll make less money, you'll play for fewer people, and people won't give you a shot as often. That's just how it is. I definitely get more press in some ways because of it. Lord knows there are endless headlines about Queer Depressed Perfume Genius…blah, blah, blah. I definitely have more of a story, I think, which is in my favor. But at the same time, it makes you easily dismissed. Some people will just never listen to me because they think it's not for them because they're not like, you know...gay. It's just how it is. It's how you're trained in your brain. When an actor comes out as gay, nobody's going to buy them in a straight role. But straight dudes can win a shit load of awards if they make out with a dude on screen.
Did you always feel disinclined to using gender neutral pronouns?
Yeah, it just didn't feel right, especially after people started listening to the music. Before I started making music, I wasn't really doing much. I didn't feel very purposeful and I definitely didn't feel helpful in any sort of way. Kind of the opposite, to be honest. But after I started making music, I didn't mind that responsibility. I don't mind any of it just because I've never had it before. I just feel good about it. It makes me feel good—like I'm doing something. I don't know. I'm a pretty selfish person in a lot of ways but I feel like I kind of let that go a little bit when I'm writing. I think about more people and I kind of feel better.
In your most recent video for "Die for You," you're wearing a few different Palomo Spain looks. The brand is very known for their approach to gender fluidity, which mirrors your thoughts on wanting to freely wear a dress without it becoming a "statement." When did you get to a point where you felt comfortable ignoring those gendered norms?
I mean the music, to be honest, is a big, big, big part of it. I went a little nuts. When I first sort of allowed myself to follow my instincts and wear whatever I wanted, I went all out. I was wearing head-to-toe costume jewelry; I looked like a Golden Girl for like maybe two years. It was like a baby's version of what a beautiful woman would wear. It was very grand. I felt like a little kid in a lot of ways: I can finally do whatever the fuck I want. I guess I didn't really know what that was. Now, I still do whatever I want. I kind of dress like a construction worker half the time, to be honest. I can wear construction worker and then just one bangle—like a hard hat and just one gold bangle. I can do that.
When you said it was the music, was it the success that came with the music or was it just getting into writing and creating?
I think it was just having something. I had something that made me feel a little more untouchable, like people couldn't fuck with me. I have this music thing, like check it out. I played this show in Paris! You know what I mean? I don't know. I didn't really have that before the music thing. When I would go to family reunions and stuff, I was just mortified. I didn't have anything to show. Not that you have to, not that that means you're a bad person if you don't. I just...I don't know. I was proud of myself! I think that's mostly what it is. I felt like I could show up more.
I think what I thought I was going to do was this experimental, almost like spoken-word, dark music with a lot of throat-singing. I was kind of teaching myself how to throat-sing and make these demon noises. It was really kind of dark. Then, I don't know. To be honest, it all felt really weirdly easy and comfortable. It didn't really feel inspired even though I was trying to push things. But then "Slip Away"—which was this kind of warm pop song—came out and it felt way more uncomfortable to me and way more inspired. It felt like I was pushing myself. It just felt more like what I was supposed to be doing and the other stuff felt more like what I thought I should be doing.
It's funny that you say it didn't feel inspired because one would think if you have to teach yourself how to do something new (like throat-singing), that would be uncomfortable and inspiring.
I mean maybe that's what I'll do next time. I think a lot is just mood stuff in the moment though. It's what you need and that's not what I needed then. I needed something more free and not so evil. Not that the stuff I was making was evil but I was getting dark to try and find some power in those darker places. Like, sometimes I'll watch forensic detective shows, and if you watch them long enough you get this icky feeling. You really don't need any of that information. I don't need to know more details about that case. You just feel gross. I think that's what was happening. I was forcing it. I was going to places and digging into things for no real reason except that they were gross or because they were icky. "Slip Away" was warm but it felt like it was about something; it felt important.
You've been vocal in the past about the years you spent getting bullied in high school. Did any of those experiences directly contribute to your eventual foray into making music?
In a way. But to be honest, a lot of that time period was muddied with drinking and drugs for me, which kind of keeps you locked. From when I started that [phase of my life] until when I got clean, I think there are a lot of things that I didn't deal with. A lot of things that didn't come up during that whole ten-year chunk of time. So once I got clean, [I felt] all of these emotions and stuff that I hadn't dealt with for a really long time, and I think I just needed some way to puzzle it out. Writing was a way for me to be a lot more patient with all those things and more thoughtful to help me see the big picture more than just sort of buzzing with a bunch of random anxieties. I could kind of piece it out.
Did music function as a form of personal therapy for you in that way?
For sure. In the beginning, it was very much a personal therapy thing. Then I shared [what I made] with my friends just to show them that I had done something. I was friends with a lot of musicians and artists at the time but I didn't have any of my own things to share. But a lot of good things happened [during that time] too. It wasn't this completely horrible dark time. Yes, I got kind of fucked up, but I also met a lot of good friends and I had a lot of fun. It was the first time I had been around other gay people and it got twisted up in the end but it kind of saved me in a lot of ways too. That's what's so complicated I think about that stuff. It kind of works in a good way for a while. Well, drugs are always kind of lame. I mean no one really needs to do cocaine, I don't think. People can do it and whatever, but I never want to kick it with anybody who's just doing coke. Talking about your dad for three hours? I don't need to hear about that.
How do you enjoy touring now?
I'm really into it now. I think what's scary about it is how much is it out of your control. I'm in complete control of the mood when I'm writing. I think that's why I resisted performing the way I do now for so long. It's scary. I'm full-on dancing now more and really committing to moves and if they don't work, then I can't do anything about it. But now it can be a lot more thrilling in a really physical way; I kind of get off on it now. I even get off on how scary and nerve-racking it is. It used to be paralyzing, but it feels a lot more like fuel now. When the shows are a little bigger, I can just feel everybody. I think I'm less nervous too so I can pay attention and look at everybody when I'm playing. It's still scary but in a fun way now. I'm always kind of at least a little nervous and maybe a little awkward...BUT I do a lot of body rolls.
the mansion I eventually die in must have buttresses... not sure what they are but I know I want to haunt them. Honestly
— Perfume Genius (@perfumegenius) May 30, 2017
You're very known for your vibrant Twitter account. Your fans really seem to respond to your sense of humor, which is often playing off the concept of finding the light in something inherently dark. What role does humor play in your life?
It's the same thing I do with the music but just the flip side of it. If something bothers me, it's a way for me to flip that situation into something funny or a joke or to make it a little more witty or make a song out of it or something. I think just laughing about all of it is more what I do day-to-day. It's my default zone. I feel like that's what most people that know me would think of me.
When my music came out, a lot of my friends were really surprised about how dark and serious the music was. They really didn't know me as that kind of person. So it was fun for me to get attention for this part of me that felt a little more secret or a little more serious. It would be weird for me to curate my Twitter and Instagram like that. I could maybe curate a 360 experience that is 100% serious or dark but it wouldn't really be real. It's a lot easier to laugh because I feel like I'm constantly trying to bat away dread; it's always slowly coming towards me and I'm just kind of pawing at it all the time. If I was just constantly writing songs about it, it would be too hard.
Since humor is your default, do you make a certain deliberate effort to be serious and get to the nitty gritty of things when writing your music?
A lot of it is just taste. It's just what I like music to do. The kind of music I want to make is just really intense. I want it to make you cry. It's just what I want it to do. Now that I've been doing it longer, I feel like humor is slipping into it a little bit. Especially in the videos and the clothes, there is a little bit more winking and I don't feel like it sacrifices the feeling. I used to feel like those two worlds couldn't meet because they would cancel each other out but I don't really think that way anymore. But in all, I think it's a specific kind of power in how serious I am when I write that I really like, so I don't want to give that up. I kind of look forward to how seriously I take myself in what I'm doing.
Splash photo courtesy of Inez & Vinoodh