Perfume Genius is Passing Through the Portal

Michael Alden Hadreas was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 25th, 1981.

When he was 21, he moved to New York City, where he lived for something like four or five years before returning to Seattle, Washington, where he had spent most of his life. When he was 25, he began writing music about sex, life, alcoholism, abuse, the danger of being the only openly gay man in a high school, the danger of being an openly gay man anywhere, power, kindness, sadness, beauty, and love.

The Genius’ first two albums—Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It—were examples of determination and a blossoming master of introspective storytelling, creating compelling compositions largely limited to a piano, a voice, fuzz, and conviction. The promotional video for the latter album depicted Perfume Genius embracing well-known pornstar Arpad Miklos, and was removed from YouTube due to the platforming deeming the video inappropriate for young viewers; perhaps a sign of the times crumbling.

His third album, Too Bright, was released in 2014 to critical acclaim and featured a more explorative, daring sonic element, as Hedreas ventured further from the piano seat. In albums No Shape and Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hedreas traversed the stage, putting forth compositions which retain the intimacy of a man at a piano spilling himself out on the floor, but included a more diverse set of instrumentation and upper tempo tracks that let Perfume Genius be the vivid frontman he was meant to be, flanked by synthesizers and guitar riffs that found their way deep into your daily hums.

It’s difficult to write about a musician as storied and experienced as Perfume Genius. Even more difficult: writing an intro for a truly engaging interview which doesn’t give any of the good parts away, so best to just read it yourself below.

You lived here in New York for a while, right?
Yeah, I think 2003 to 2007?

What were you up to?
I was working at a personal ads company. This was pre-iPhone tech, so people would send their pictures that they wanted to have in their personal profile, and I’d scan it and post the images for them. I did some other customer service stuff too, but this job was the most memorable.

Were you playing music in New York?
No, my boyfriend was a musician but I wasn’t at that time. I didn’t sing or anything growing up either. I really have no idea why I started writing music when I did.

I’ve started and quit a lot of things, why did you stick with music?
You kind of said it. I was doing a lot of starting and quitting. When I lived in New York, what I was really doing was drinking, and when I moved to Seattle, I quit drinking eventually and needed to start something, so I tried to write a song and it worked. I was addicted. It also arrived at a time when I had a lot of things to say and a lot of things that I needed to work out in a way that wasn’t just talking about it. I needed something and I’m really glad that music was the thing.

What would you be doing if it weren’t music?
I don’t know, man. I hope something cool. When I got my record deal, I was working at this store that was a nicer version of a Walmart… they had Levi’s, a little more upscale. I hope that I would have gotten my shit together and moved towards something better. Not that there’s anything wrong with working where I was working—I actually miss a lot of my coworkers and things about that place—it just wasn’t fulfilling for me.

Your music is very satisfying to hear, it feels very full. Not in a dense way, more of a everything-in-its-right-place way. How do you go about constructing your songs?
I think that comes from listening to a lot of music, being obsessed with it. Because of the amount of music I listen to and have been exposed to, when I’m writing a song, I have so many things to turn to and so many directions to pull from. Maybe this is a snotty thing to say, but sometimes I’ll hear someone’s music and think, ‘alright, this person clearly only listens to this one kind of music.’ When you listen to a lot of different things and from different times, it just gives you a bigger pallet. I didn’t study music theory, but I spent a lot of time with music and I think that that’s given me a lot of the tools I need to write the way I do.

What are you listening to right now?
At the moment, a lot of The Distillers. Makthaverskan I’ve been listening to a lot, they’re really, really good. They’re very nostalgic, I’ve been liking them.

What influences your music outside of music itself? Movies? Books? Politics?
Movies for sure. If anything, when people ask me who I want to collaborate with, I always say film directors. Dancing has been a big deal for me the last couple of years. I made a dance piece and made the music for it, which is the record that’s coming out in June. Through that, I’ve been really informed to where it feels very different now, where I don’t just dance with people in an extracurricular way. It’s therapeutic to me; it’s another way that I’ve figured out how to express and arrange feelings that I have and don’t know how to get out in any other way. I started this thing where I’d post a song and discuss it, but then I realised that I hate talking about the process because I have no idea how to do it. I make the song, and that is the feeling, that is the thing. I made the song because I don’t know how else to talk about it.

I think it was David Lynch who said something like, ‘I spend all this time making a movie, and then people ask what it’s about and why and how, but that’s what the movie is. Just watch the movie!’
I feel that a lot! And I feel very smart when I’m making stuff, I feel like a little king, but then when I have to talk about it I have no idea what to say, so I minimize it or try to avoid talking about it.

In my experience, most artists have the reflex to not call themselves an artist or minimise their work, which is weird because music is also a world with a lot of ego.
A lot of ego! Totally, but I want to have some tact. It’s part of my job to really step into that world when I’m making something, but it feels like overkill to linger on it and keep talking about it. It’s embarrassing. Like you said, I don’t want to call myself an artist. I will say that I am way better now than I was maybe 10 years ago. Back then, I couldn’t talk about anything, it felt so tacky or like I was taking myself too seriously, but now I understand that it isn’t hokey, it’s just talking about the things that I’m putting a lot of time and energy into and I should be proud of it.

If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t ask. It’s interesting that you worry about taking yourself seriously, when the content of your songs is often very serious. Very danceable, but very serious.
Everybody has their reason for being engaged in stuff, and for me, I want to be annihilated. When I go to a show, I want to be annihilated by it. Not like, super devastatingly sad or something, but I want to be ecstatic. Cathartic. I don’t know. It’s also what we were talking about, it’s my time to be very serious and be very engaged, and music is where I go to be and do all of that. I think that it’s what I’m good at; gathering something kind of heavy and packaging it in a way that people can come to and take with them.

I wouldn’t say that your music is theatrical, but it is sort of epic. You’re playing the Vivid show in Australia soon. How do you approach live performance and incorporate yourself into the music?
It’s different now than it used to be, but now, I want to feel like I’m losing my mind. Very hyper present, in the zone. But what is the zone? I guess it depends. I’ve been feeling very raging at shows lately. I think of it like passing through a portal. I spend time at the beginning on stage sort of writhing and looking for the door or entryway into some energy, and I’ll go through it. Sometimes I’ll get to the other side and it’s very hazy and dreamy, but lately it’s been full rage, red, violent. I feel like I want to destroy everything and I don’t know why. I’m not as fully out there as some people, but it’s a lot more for me than when I was just at the piano singing.

What have the crowds been like now that you’re returning to tour?
I can’t tell. Every city is different. Cities in Canada were wild. In the US, people were shyer. I felt more like I was in a play than a rock show. When I go to a show as an audience member, I’m fully immersed, but I’m not screaming or anything. So even though people are being quiet, that doesn’t mean people aren’t with me. It’s just different.

I wrote about a shift in the perception of cool to this stoic, non-dancing, boring version. 
That’s still going? There will be a fallout for that, hopefully. It’s so exhausting that showing any sort of effort or admitting that you’re trying is uncool, because everyone is trying. It’s so transparent, I don’t know how people think they’re fooling anyone, but they are and people are being fooled by it. I see effort in everything, but I guess some people don’t. I’m very forgiving when I see theatre kid energy in people, that’s fine by me. Everybody else has it too, they’re just hiding it. Why is it uncool? There’s a limit to the theatre kid energy, tamper it a little bit, but it’s not cool to be so serious and hide yourself like that.

How are you coping with touring in this weird, quasi-post-covid era?
It’s very complicated. Sometimes I feel very liberated, other times I feel very guilty and worried for everyone. It feels like we shouldn’t be touring and then it feels like this is absolutely where we need to be, and that’s within a few minutes. Everybody is in a chaotic place right now. I am really relieved to not be worrying about it as much, but that was an active decision I had to make, as a necessity to go on tour. You’re interfacing with more people every day than in a month not on tour.

What’s the mental toll like? You’ve spent two years inside, how are you coping with belonging to everyone again?
I think I’m doing a good job? I haven’t processed any of it yet. When I think about the beginning of the pandemic, I was convinced that I was going to die if someone walked past me at the grocery store. I was just so scared. I bought things like a big knife and survival apocalypse stuff. A bunch of plastic sheeting and a life straw, it was dark. I didn’t make any music. I was just fully in a dark zone. I’m very happy to be out of it. I had an album coming out at that time which I had to do press for, and I could rally for that, but I enjoy the distinction between outside persona and inside self, so it was confusing. It felt really weird.

Buying a bowie knife is a pretty drastic reaction. What advice might you give to folks who are coming out of their dark place?
One thing that helped me is being old enough to know that there are down days in my life where I don’t feel right, and those can last for over a year. But I know that those times are not permanent and they always come back up. I always come out of it and am better for it in some way. I wouldn’t wish it upon myself, but it’s part of getting somewhere better. That’s the same way I think about writing. When I start working on a new record, I write shit for a month and feel like I’ll never be good again, but then I make something that’s good. I think about that with life. When I’m in the depth of a down wave, that’s just the beginning of the up wave.

Catch Perfume Genius live on June 11th, 2022 at Carriageworks for Vivid Sydney. Tickets here.

More dates:
Thursday June 9, Friday June 10 – Melbourne Recital Centre with Hand Habits
Saturday June 11 – Vivid Sydney @ Carriageworks with Hand Habits
Wednesday June 15 – Princess Theatre, Brisbane with Hand Habits
Friday June 17 – Dark Mofo, Hobart

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