Metro Weekly

The Scent of Success: An Interview with Perfume Genius

Mike Hadreas had no direction in life until a stint in rehab helped him find his voice. Now, as Perfume Genius, he's the new queen of the indie music scene.

Perfume Genius Photo by Luke Gilford
Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) – Photography by Luke Gilford

“I love him.”

Mike Hadreas — aka Perfume Genius — is on a roll about Rufus Wainwright.

“I love him because he sings like a gay person. When I got his album at 15, and heard a gay voice, that was really powerful to me. And I consider myself as having a gay voice as well.”

He pauses.

“I’m sure some people would cringe at hearing me say that. A lot of people find it powerful to be the opposite, to have a voice that blends in and just happens to be gay. But, for me, hearing gay voices is really important.”

Hadreas shares much in common with Wainwright — there’s a certain degree of flamboyance and drama to his music. Where he differs is in the challenge he presents. Hadreas does not, on first listen, make his music easy to like. It’s not plug-and-play accessible. He makes you work. He makes you listen. He makes you think. At times, he makes you want to turn it off.

And yet, when the music of Perfume Genius does finally click with you, after repeated exposure, it’s like a dawning. You feel like you’re in on some kind of secret. We live in a world of processed, uninteresting, formulaic music, and when we hear something truly original we don’t quite know what to make of it. Perfume Genius puts us to that test. We are forced to listen, to respond, to react. He challenges us.

“The movies I’ve watched that left me with complicated feeling afterwards were the ones that shaped my life,” he says. “They’re the ones I thought about after I watched them. The same with books and music that brought stuff up for me that maybe wasn’t entirely pleasant, but it was lasting. And I guess that’s how my music is. I would hope that it stays with you in whatever way for some reason.”

It’s certainly resonating with critics.

The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones calls Too Bright, Hadreas’s third, recently-released album, “a profoundly beautiful record that remains intense throughout its brief, thirty-three-minute running time.” The New York Times calls the album a “transformative leap” for the artist, noting, “these are not nuanced tunes with genderless love interests, à la Morrissey. Too Bright is the gay indie rock equivalent of a swaggering Sylvester or Jobriath album.”

At times, there’s a soothing quality to Hadreas’s music, particularly on his earlier albums, 2010’s debut Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It. Too Bright is a leap forward, with an aggressively gay demeanor, and production qualities that veer toward the religious. Hadreas doesn’t eschew catchy melodies, instead framing them in short bursts of songs that start off quiet and build to a weird, often ecclesiastic frenzy. There is a formula for off-beat music, after all.

But it’s more than melody for Hadreas, who will appear in D.C. with his band at the Black Cat on Tuesday, March 17. He has a message to impart about being “weird,” about being the outcast, about being gay. It’s a take-charge message, one that, once you watch his music videos, becomes more apparent, as he flings himself at corporate types, daring them to love and embrace him. The 33-year-old man with a penchant for lipstick and jungle red nail polish may be our most unapologetic, unabashedly gay artist ever. His work is defined by his own exploration of self.

“I grew up my whole life thinking about my anxieties and my insecurities, thinking that the things that happened to me made me a wounded person,” says Hadreas, who was bullied in high school and later turned to drugs and drinking as a salve and salvation. “[I learned] you can be a nervous, weird, tiny, feminine man and be a fuckin’ badass. It doesn’t need to be solved for you to be okay.

“I made a career out of trying to figure things out,” he continues. “But just because they’re not completely figured out doesn’t mean there’s something wrong.”

Perfume Genius Photo by Luke Gilford
Photography by Luke Gilford

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your early life. Where were you raised?

MIKE HADREAS: I was born in Des Moines, Iowa. My family moved to Seattle when I was around 6 or 7. I grew up in different suburbs around the city.

MW: How old were you when you came out?

HADREAS: I was 15. It went — I don’t know, I doubt anyone was surprised. I told my brother. I told my mom. I never really officially came out to my dad. I just started ordering Out magazine and leaving it around the house for him to find.

I felt like I had been waiting to come out for years, even at 15. A lot of the people I know didn’t come out that young, but I just couldn’t do it anymore, you know? I was talking to my mom about people calling me a faggot in class at school, and she asked if I thought I was gay. I said, “Yes.” And that was it. Crying and stuff like that, and then it kind of opened up the whole coming out thing.

MW: Was it a positive thing for you, coming out that young?

HADREAS: It was a mixed bag. I wouldn’t change when I came out, but it certainly brought a bunch of shit with it. I was openly gay in all of high school — and I was the only openly gay person in my high school. My brother went to school with me, too, and he even ended up getting shit because he had a gay brother.

High school sucks for everyone, so to openly acknowledge that you’re different from everyone at the start makes it even more difficult. It was a very lonely feeling, but you just end up finding the other weirdos and banding together. I wish I’d have known when I was young that I wouldn’t always be alone. I think that’s one of the hardest things: feeling so separate. You don’t get to have the kind of things that other people have.

But I’m glad that I was open — keeping it a secret would have been much harder than all the shit I had to go through. But the shit I had to go through sucked. It was not fun. It’s now about 15 years later, and I still think about some of the ways people treated me. My outlook on life is still shaped by that.

MW: I take it you were bullied.

HADREAS: Yeah, I was.

Perfume Genius Photo by Luke Gilford
Photography by Luke Gilford

MW: How badly?

HADREAS: Shit, I mean, that’s relative. It felt pretty bad to me, but I’m sure it could have been worse.

MW: Can you give an example?

HADREAS: Well, I got one letter signed from the heterosexual population of my high school saying that they won’t treat me like a human being until I stop suckin’ dick. The worst part is, I hadn’t sucked dick yet. All I did was say I was openly gay, but I had no gay experiences at all. I was terrorized for a sexual life I didn’t even have.

MW: That’s horrendous.

HADREAS: And that was before the Internet, too. So you had to really work to get that kind of letter to somebody.

MW: If you hadn’t had any kind of gay sexual experience, what was it that made you so certain at 15 that you were gay?

HADREAS: Well, to me, being gay isn’t just about sex. When I picture my life, and who I’m going to be with, who I’m going to love, it’s a man. I knew very young that that’s just what felt natural to me. It didn’t feel natural for me to be with women. I didn’t dislike women, but it didn’t feel natural, the way that straight people just naturally develop crushes on the opposite sex and picture their lives with them. That’s how I was born.

MW: Were you also born with musical instinct? Was there musical background in your family?

HADREAS: My mom sang when she was younger — in nightclubs and stuff. My dad played the conga — he’s really into salsa music and has really good taste in music. But music wasn’t part of my life. It was basically just me taking piano lessons. I didn’t really grow up thinking I was gonna be a musician. I always loved music and loved playing piano, but I didn’t write music, I didn’t grow up singing in a choir.

MW: What launched you into this career?

HADREAS: I ended up going to rehab about six years ago, and when I got out I stayed with my mom. After a couple of months of no activity in life, I woke up one day and decided to write a song. It was something I always wanted to do but I was a little too embarrassed of my voice. I would censor myself before I ever finished anything. I ended up finishing a song called “Learning,” which ended up being the name of my first album. After that song, I never stopped writing music, so….

MW: Wait, go back a moment. You say you got out of rehab. What took you there?

HADREAS: I moved to the city when I was around 20 and was finally around other people like me — other gay people, other weird people, other creative people. I started drinking and socializing pretty much for the first time in my life. It slowly became less and less about socializing, and more and more about the actual drinking and drugs. And it wasn’t fun for years and years and years, but I couldn’t stop. And I didn’t know if I really needed to, because you keep surrounding yourself, as you progress in your habit, with people who are doing the same. It feels normal.

A lot of people treat cocaine and drinking to excess and stuff — at least in my friend group — as kind of like a normal thing. For some people it is recreational, and they do things like that once a month, or once a week. But I ended up at my dealer’s house for days on end. My life was falling apart and I didn’t care. I didn’t care about myself, or anything. It was a very scary feeling.

Perfume Genius Photo by Luke Gilford
Photography by Luke Gilford

MW: After what sounds like a difficult high school experience, you were impressionable.

HADREAS: A little bit, yeah. But as as far as my addiction goes, I was pretty predisposed to that the minute I started the stuff. No matter what my situation would have been socially, I’m pretty sure I would have ended up in the same place. It’s just how my brain is.

MW: So rehab worked for you?

HADREAS: It took a few tries. It was kind of off and on, but I’ve been sober now for about five years.

MW: Is it reasonable to assume that had you not fallen into drugs, your current musical career wouldn’t have happened?

HADREAS: I think that’s true. I definitely would be doing something different. I might be doing something creative, but what I want to talk about, the things I’m passionate about, would be completely different. All that crap that I went through gave me a lot of things to say, a lot of healing that I needed — and healing I wanted to help other people with, as well. It was therapy for me, but it gave me a message, which is corny to say. So I’m thankful for all that stuff. I mean, when you see one end of things, you can appreciate the other end, and it makes you more compassionate to other people. When you go to rehab and see all these people from all different walks of life having the same kind of experiences as you, it opens the world up a little.

MW: So how do you get from zero to suddenly releasing an album out?

HADREAS: After I wrote that first song, it just became a manic-obsessive thing for me. Years of things I’d been thinking about and trying to work through, somehow writing about them was very helpful to me. The whole process was a lot more patient than I am as a person, a lot smarter, a lot more articulate.

I made a bunch of songs and started putting them up on MySpace to share with my friends. Through that a record label in the U.K. contacted me, and came to meet me in Seattle. They signed me before I had ever played a show, or had cobbled my songs into an album form. Through them I met my label in the U.S., and then I made my album, made the artwork, played my first show and eventually started touring.

MW: How does it make you feel to know that just by chance somebody recognized you had talent and gave you a shot.

HADREAS: Very surreal. I don’t have anything else to compare it to. When I sit down and think about it, which I don’t do very often, I wish I was grateful more often, but I don’t really give myself the chance to be.

MW: Well, give yourself the chance here. How grateful are you?

HADREAS: Really grateful. But part of being grateful means stopping for a second and looking at it. And, to be honest, it’s still kind of overwhelming. I will read press, and I know that there are people at my shows, but I don’t let myself think about it because it’s too much. And I’m scared that if I really pay attention to everything that’s happening, I’ll freak out and stop. So I pay attention as much as I need to, but mainly I just try to think of the next thing.

MW: Until a telephone call like this comes along and forces you to examine it.

HADREAS: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MW: The live shows. Is that something you’re enjoying?

HADREAS: I do now. It took a while for me to enjoy them. I was terrified to play live. I don’t remember my first show because I was so nervous. I kinda blacked out. I’m still pretty nervous and anxious and can be kind of awkward on stage. But it’s worlds different than it used to be. I’m actually performing now, a lot more than I used to. Now it feels more like a transaction. I’m singing for people, as opposed to just kind of singing and people are spying on me. That’s how it felt before.

MW: Your songs tend to start off starkly and simply, but then grow in complexity. At times, they reach almost ecclesiastic height. The thing that kept popping into mind listening to the new album especially was religion. The arrangements at times evolve into an almost spiritual, heavenly rapture. Why that style?

HADREAS: A lot of it is my weird tastes. I’ve always really responded to hymns, choral music and spiritual music. Even though I’m not Christian, I’ve listened to Christian music. It’s weird to have a taste for that, but to not feel included in it. And so, I reconcile that with the music I make. I make music that feels old or spiritual, but I am included in it, people like me are included in it. I think that’s part of it.

MW: Some of your music on the new album gets aggressively primal. “Grid” is one. There’s a lot of discordant shouting at one point.

HADREAS: Yeah.

Perfume Genius Photo by Luke Gilford
Photography by Luke Gilford

MW: It’s not necessarily the most pleasant thing to listen to.

HADREAS: [Laughs.] That’s awesome.

MW: Overall, your music strikes me as part delicate, part aggressive, part flamboyant. An atmosphere borne out in your videos. Your video for “Queen” is totally flamboyant, but with an edge.

HADREAS: It’s consciously flamboyant. People constantly tell me that if I stop singing so specifically about gay themes, I would have a broader appeal, that I could make it in the mainstream if I changed my pronouns or didn’t use pronouns or talked about different things, or whatever. And even some other gay people have told me that, you know? “We get that you’re gay, but why do you have to talk about it?” Or, “Why does every song have to be about being gay?” Or, “Why are you wearing nail polish? We don’t all wear nail polish. It’s giving us a bad name, blah, blah, blah.” It’s all incredibly frustrating and backward bullshit to me.

My current album cover was like, “If you think I was gay before, I will give you the gayest thing I can think of. And in a fucking badass way.” Because there’s strength to that album cover, even though I’m wearing a glittery, flesh-toned top. I think I look like a fuckin’ badass.

MW: But why get annoyed when people complain you’re too flamboyant? Clearly you embrace it.

HADREAS: Well, it’s frustrating to me because a bunch of straight men can write really emotional music and nobody accuses them of being dramatic, you know? They don’t accuse other men of being flamboyant when they’re being emotional. So that is frustrating to me. I’m proud of who I am and it’s important to me to be explicit and specific about what I’m talking about. But you don’t want that to be all that everyone ever talks about when they talk about you. It’s a really weird, complicated thing.

MW: How important is mainstream success to you?

HADREAS: Mainstream success is not important to me. But I’m 33 and I didn’t go to college. This is my one shot. My music career is all I have, so I need it to be successful because I need to sustain myself so I can continue my music and pay my rent.

MW: What’s the story behind the name Perfume Genius?

HADREAS: There isn’t one really. When I made my MySpace profile, I didn’t think a career would come from it, so it was just a couple of random words I put together. But as people started trickling in and listening to it, I felt like I couldn’t change it.

MW: There’s a heightened level of gay when you consider the name Perfume Genius, and look at the picture on your album cover, and watch your videos. Are you consciously creating an alter ego to act out your feelings?

HADREAS: Kind of. Most of my life, the things I’ve been tortured about — made fun of for — are my feminine qualities. Exclusively. And that caused a lot of shame for me growing up. As I got older, I realized how fucking powerful and important and strong those qualities were. Some of my favorite things about myself are what people consider my feminine qualities. And a lot of the qualities people that think are masculine, I still consider feminine. My strength, if I had to name it, would be a feminine strength. I like my nails red because I think it looks pretty. Part of it is a protest and intentional to present myself in a strong way, in a feminine way.

MW: Your music falls along the lines of experimental, and there are going to be critics who vocally don’t like it. Does that bother you? Does it roll off your back?

HADREAS: I care. I care. I might be hurt a little bit — but it doesn’t cut very deep, just because I’m proud of the music on this album. It’s pretty solid. I also know that since I really went for it, it’s the kind of music people are going to love or hate, and that doesn’t bother me. It’s when people get really personal and it’s not about the music anymore that I get upset. I mean, even the good stuff can be kind of damaging for your ego.

MW: How so?

HADREAS: I already think about myself too much. I’m fairly self-absorbed, you know? But now I get my picture taken and talk about myself all the time and read all these reviews about me. It doesn’t do good things for your ego. You can go really high and then you read one negative thing and it goes all the way, way down, farther than before you read anything. So it’s just really up, down. Especially for me, feeling like a weirdo my whole life, feeling separate from everyone, to have all those things I was embarrassed of or made fun of for, suddenly being celebrated is an amazing feeling but it’s a strange one, too.

MW: When you look at where you are now and where you came from, does it seem remarkable this all came together the way it did?

HADREAS: Yeah, it’s insane. It’s a real feeling. It used to feel like luck or that I happened into all of this, but the longer that I do it, the more I realize why this had to be. It could have happened a long time ago. It’s just as I’ve gotten healthier and more confident, I’m stripping away the shit that held me back and clouded my mind and kept me from writing, kept me essentially from just committing and doing work, because I’ve always been really creative but I never committed to things and I never worked hard at them. Now that I do that, good things are happening. And every time I commit and follow through, something good happens. I think that’s the secret to all of it. It took a lot of rehab-type activities to make me the kind of person that can do that. Finally.

Perfume Genius performs Tuesday, March 17, at The Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Call 202-667-4490 or visit blackcatdc.com.

For more information on Perfume Genius and additional tour dates, visit perfumegenius.net.

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