Perfume Genius: ‘It does feel like a strange time to be promoting or releasing anything’
Mike Hadreas’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately isn’t out yet but it’s already gathering heat
Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius. Due to release his much-anticipated fifth album later this month, the closest he comes to destructive indulgence these days is sugar-free Coca-Cola. Photograph: Camille Vivier
Diet Coke and Donald Trump are part of the rich tapestry of life under lockdown for Mike Hadreas. “In LA we went into quarantine a long time ago,” says Hadreas, who, as Perfume Genius, conjures gorgeous, tormented art-pop. “I’ve been in the house a long time and have not left.”
Social distancing has afforded lots of opportunities for his favourite vice. In his 20s, Hadreas battled alcoholism and ended up in rehab. Now, aged 38 and shortly to release his much-anticipated fifth album, the closest he comes to destructive indulgence is sugar-free Coca-Cola. This he chugs as though the world were about to end.
“Oh God, I’ve been googling the maximum amount ] that is possible,” he says. “I’m making sure I am within the legal limits. It’s very worrisome. If anyone should be worried about me right now, that’s one of the reasons.”
He sits there, drinking Cola, watching Trump on television. From across the Atlantic, the commander-in-chief’s nightly press conferences can seem to veer between horror movie and satire. As an American citizen the Trump Show must be even weirder to process.
“It’s not amusing. But it’s definitely surreal that someone so incomprehensibly idiotic and f**king insane could be in a position of power,” says Hadreas of the president.
“The feeling is just bleak. It’s heartbreaking. He’s such a piece of s**t. And also, knowing he has a huge base of awful racist people literally rallying. It’s not like I didn’t know those people existed. My whole life, I’ve known that. But to see them so emboldened and so brazen – it’s horrible.”
Given the circumstances, he deliberated over whether it was appropriate to put out an LP. But he’s made the right decision. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the best thing Hadreas has ever done. The record burns incandescently even as it fuses his twin passions of dreamy pop and propulsive alternative rock. Above all, the record has the potential to be a refuge in difficult times.
Hadreas adores music that offers a passport to another world. Lately he’s gone back to his adolescence by deep diving into, among other things, Tori Amos’s Under the Pink (the first record he ever bought was Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands soundtrack). Set My Heart on Fire Immediately blazes with the same escapist fervour. You slap it on and it cradles you, carries you away.
“It makes me feel good that you say that,” he nods. “It does feel like a strange time to be promoting or releasing anything. If I’m making something that will be helpful to people… it feels okay to do that.”
The dread Hadreas experiences when he sees Trump at a podium or flag-waving extremists protesting the lockdown is intensely personal. He knows these people. They’re the ones who made his life a misery growing up in Seattle.
Hadreas realised early in his adolescence that he was gay. So did many of his school mates. At 15 he was the only student at his high school to be out of the closest. He was mocked. There were death threats. One afternoon he was beaten up by a mob of football players. To this day, Hadreas recognises a bully when he sees one.
“It’s hard for me not to want to run away and make up a better world,” he says. “At the same time, a lot of people are unable to do that. You have to stay to make it better. That was my intention with the album.”
His parents divorced when he was a teenager. His mother, a special education teacher, had her own battles with addiction issues, as she later told the New York Times. So when Hadreas was enduring the worst of high school homophobia she was somewhat absent: “I was drinking, and there were times when he needed support, and I wasn’t there.”
Upon turning 21, Hadreas left Washington state as quickly as he could. In New York he got together with a boyfriend he’d met on Makeoutclub, a now defunct online dating portal.
Hadreas ended up back in Seattle at age 25, a shadow of the person who had left
The relationship didn’t last, but the big city gave him the chance to become the heightened version of the person he’d always wanted to be. He worked in bars in Brooklyn and as a doorman at a nightclub in the East Village. And he kept drinking, until it spiralled out of control and then spiralled some more.
Hadreas ended up back in Seattle at age 25, a shadow of the person who had left. A few days after he showed up on the doorstep of his mother, she drove him to rehab. He stayed three weeks. He hasn’t touched alcohol since.
“It’s confusing,” he says. “I think about myself of 15 years ago – and I’m almost a completely different person. And I know I will look back 15 years from now and think about myself in the same way. Just because I quit drinking doesn’t mean the reasons I drank or the things I was brought up with left. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
“I’ve realised that the way I think about the world – how old that is. It was shaped when I was 12. That was a long time ago. To think about myself and the world that way now – it doesn’t work. It’s an old way of looking at things. I’m different, the whole world is different. And yet it’s so hard to shake yourself out of that.”
He was cripplingly introverted when he put out Learning, his first record as Perfume Genius, in 2010. The following May he played Dublin’s 350-capacity Sugar Club. With Barack Obama visiting around the same time, the city was in lockdown. There was eerie atmosphere around town (heightened further by the fact the Europa League final was on at the Aviva Stadium).
Even allowing for the slightly weird circumstances Hadreas was nonetheless devastating. As he continues to do to this day, he performed with his musical and romantic partner Alan Wyffels (they share their home in East LA with a chihuahua named Wanda). Seated side by side behind a keyboard, neither appeared comfortable. Yet the intensity of their awkwardness had its own intoxicating impact.
“When I was playing that first tour… just getting on stage and singing and playing and leaving….that felt insanely brave to me,” says Hadreas.
He has since blossomed and is now a burgeoning superstar. Queen, one of the outstanding pop singles of 2014, was a forceful rejection of homophobia. “No family is safe, when I sashay,” he sang, deploying his fabulousness as if it were a superpower.
Two years later his coronation was confirmed with the album No Shape. NPR praised it as “a record that reckons with the painful, frightening – and, eventually, delicate and simple – aspects of long-term queer intimacy”. Rolling Stone approved of its “pop and rock tropes queered into dreamlike scenarios”.
His fans, for their part, were beginning to look on Hadreas as more than a pop star. He was a friend and role model. He would be inundated with moving stories from people who had taken heart from Perfume Genius’s lyrics and come out to friends and family. What he represented to them was bigger than music.
He’s been thinking a great deal about the past lately. And about his family in particular. Washington state and Seattle were ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States in February. For Hadreas, this really was too close to home.
“The specific suburb where it all started – that’s where my dad lives. And the majority of cases were in this one retirement community. My grandma was actually there for a while. She’s not with us any more [having passed away prior to the outbreak].” He draws a breath. “Yeah, it’s been pretty wild.”
One of the songs Hadreas performed in the Sugar Club was Mr Peterson. Even by his usual fraught standards, it contained multitudes. It was about a teacher who enters into a predatory relationship with a student. A decade on the lyrics still bring on a chill.
The only thing I’m always embarrassed about is the narrative that I thought my life was worse than other peoples’
“He made me a tape of Joy Division,” Hadreas croons. “He told there was a part of him missing/When I was sixteen he jumped off a building.”
The question he fielded over and over was whether Mr Peterson was based on fact. The answer is that it was and it wasn’t and that there was a great deal of fiction woven through. Looking back, does he have regrets over Mr Peterson and its frankness? And the fact that for years he couldn’t escape it?
“I don’t think I would change anything,” he says. “The only thing I’m always embarrassed about is the narrative that I thought my life was worse than other peoples’. Or that I had such a hard time or something. I was just documenting things. I ‘storified’ my memories. When someone pays a hyper amount of attention to any experience – it becomes more interesting.
“But I felt the narrative for a long time was that I had a horrible childhood. Which isn’t true. I had a good childhood. I had s**t going on in my life. And I was struggling. It wasn’t any better or any worse than anyone else’s. And that sort of embarrassed me. Maybe I played into it a little at the beginning because I felt that’s what people were connecting to – this wounded thing.”
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is released on May 15th