'We’re really good at fighting', and other relationship advice from Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas found fame with songs about his messy history with drugs, alcohol and sex abuse. Now he’s focusing less on darkness and more on beauty and magic in the world
Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius. “I just wanted to go crazy and be a little more open and free.” Photograph: Todd Heisler/The New York Times
This time around, Mike Hadreas thinks people will finally see the real Perfume Genius at work. This time, he says as he talks about his bright new album No Shape, the message will get through that Hadreas is not just some dude singing tortured songs full of deep, dark and troubling lyrics. There’s more to him than sad songs which say so much.
“You always think of yourself in a different way to how others see you,” says Hadreas. “Everyone does, even if they’re not a musician or artist. With me, the first couple of albums were quieter. Yes, they were brave and strong and powerful, but that’s not necessarily how people saw them.
“The last album Too Bright was more in your face and loud, and that was when everybody decided I was strong, which can be frustrating at times. What people describe as badass or strong usually has to do with volume. If the volume is up and loud, people think you’re a badass. I think the volume is up this time.”
The badass laughs. He’s at home in Tacoma, Washington (“it’s gloomy and overcast like every other day here”) where he’s set to explain just why No Shape may be the best thing he’s put his name to.
The trick, says Hadreas, was to write less about the past and more about the present. In the past, Hadreas wrote about his messy history with drugs, alcohol and sex abuse. These days, he lives in a much different set of circumstances with his longtime boyfriend and creative collaborator Alan Wyffels, and the songs have changed as a result.
“I wanted to write about the things which were actually around me and give them as much beauty and magic that I give to whatever fantasy world that I live in most of the time. Maybe I need to make the world around me more epic and exciting and glamorous. I need to connect them together somehow.”
Reality seems very alien and weird to me when I am forced to come out of my world
Connection is a very important theme for Hadreas, who says he now finds himself craving a different kind of high.
“I was never a very present person to begin with, never an in-the-moment person, even when there was nothing going on. I’ve had a lot going on in the last five years, so it was a lot easier for me to stay disconnected, but I craved connecting with the present more and more.
“Reality seems very alien and weird to me when I am forced to come out of my world. My actual life seems weird because I haven’t been paying attention and haven’t had time to catch up with what has been happening.”
This change in outlook has also had an impact on his live show.
“Performing for me used to be tied up with my anxieties and all of that stuff, and it didn’t feel particularly free. Now it feels like the moment when I am truly present and can shake everything off and feel a lot more connected. I’m not sure what I’m connected to, but I’m not just aimlessly buzzing around. You really get off on it, you really get into it.”
I was so confident with these songs that I knew they could hold up
It’s clear that his relationship with Wyffels is a huge factor in his life and work, with the song Alan on the new album a beautiful testament to his partner.
“There’s no ‘apart’ with us,” Hadreas says. “We’re around each other 24 hours a day, especially on tour. There are things you have to learn and figure out about something like that, whether it’s a romantic relationship or not.
“We’re really good at fighting, which is healthy and is probably why we’ve been together so long. It’s very underrated, fighting. When I hear couples say that they don’t fight, that worries me. Maybe they haven’t figured out how to fight yet.”
The new album was recorded in Los Angeles, Hadreas coming to producer Blake Mills with melodies, lyrics, structures but no sounds.
“I wanted the sound to be created in the studio and I didn’t want it to be based around the piano which was on all the demos,” he explains. “Everything was mapped out except for the sound. I had the lyrics and the melodies and the structures of the songs, but I wasn’t tied down to how all of that was communicated.
"There were some things I did with my voice when I was writing, when I made it sound like a different instrument – like a choir – that I wanted to keep. Other than that, I just wanted to go crazy and be a little more open and free and more wild than I had been before.”
Open to direction
It meant that Hadreas was open to direction – up to a point.
“I could tell when a song was veering too much for the mood or direction I was after, but if people had ideas, I listened, and went with it. If Blake had guitar parts in mind, I didn’t try to control it. Afterwards, we could huddle together and haggle and figure out if we should make it louder or quieter or less or more.”
Unlike previous album recording expeditions, this time Hadreas came armed with a firm sense of belief in his songs.
“I was so confident with these songs that I knew they could hold up. Even if they couldn’t, I knew I’ve been doing this long enough that I could edit them down to what I wanted.
“It also allowed other people feel a lot more invested in what was going on. There’s a lot more involved than just me. Everyone has put their energy in and it enhanced the songs hugely and it made everyone else feel they had a piece of it. It’s weird for the ego, but I don’t mind stepping back a bit more if it’s best for the songs.”
When Hadreas was asked a while back about why people listened to his music, he maintained it was “to feel less lonely”. What about his own motivation for making music and baring his soul in the manner that he does?
“Weirdly, I think I make music for the same reason. You make stuff to feel real and to mean something in the room. A lot of the time, I’m pouring out emotions and ideas and things that I’ve had to deal with in my everyday life that I can work out in a more gentle and thoughtful way through writing. Even if the words end up being disturbing and dark, I feel like I am in control and it’s less scary.”
- No Shape is out now on Matador. Perfume Genius plays the Electric Picnic in September