Perfume Genius: The body electric
It’s Valentine’s Day morning at a café by the East LA River, and Seattle native Mike Hadreas shows up looking every inch the rugged heartthrob. His jeans are a vintage wash, his tank top is soft against his chest, his hair peppered with grey. He struts in leather boots with piercing blue eyes like a Hollywood pin-up. As alternative pop star Perfume Genius, Hadreas performs in many guises: shiny oversized suits with stilettos; costumes that flash David Bowie by way of a Victorian workhouse; marriages of lipstick, manicures and skin-tight metallic vests. Today he abandons androgyny. He is 39 years old, and also somehow a boy.
“It’s very confusing,” he says, contemplating his gender presentation. His fifth album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, due in May, feels like an extension of this playful new chapter. Not least because the artwork for lead single Describe features Hadreas wielding a sledgehammer, while the LP’s gatefold image sees him draped over a motorcycle in an image reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s 1969 art film Scorpio Rising, a meditation on homoeroticism, bikers and 60s pop. “I wanted to be covered in dirt, that’s how I feel right now,” he shrugs when questioned. “I don’t know what the ingredients are, or what’s seasoning it. I actually like being a man. I don’t know why! I feel like one – a man.”
© Charlotte Patmore
For Hadreas, gender is continually in flux, and something he occasionally talks about with frustration, as if reaching for a language that’s always being rewritten. “I’m figuring it all out as I go. I’m figuring it out in front of people,” he says. His last record, 2017’s shimmering and baroque No Shape, was worlds away from the emotionally raw, trauma-steeped records with which he made his name. Instead, it gloried in the love for his partner Alan Wyffels, elevating romance to decadent heights. But the way he presented then doesn’t feel like him anymore. “It feels weird to be so specific about clothes and presentation, it’s a tender thing.” Perhaps it’s easier to say that he simply finds a strange satisfaction in exploring and subverting, well, whatever it is. “I just want to carry a sledgehammer around now, I want to fight people,” he laughs, before qualifying, “that’s not purely a masculine thing but I’ve been taught that it is.”
Self-exploration has always been a core element of the Perfume Genius project, with its earliest roots in recovery. Hadreas began recording music in 2005, after spending 20 days in a Seattle rehab centre for drug addiction, following a four-year stint living in New York City. He set tales of his troubled youth – abuse, suicide, ill mental health – to piano and posted them to MySpace. These emotionally spare tracks would become his debut album Learning and, listening to them now, feel like a form of therapy. Accordingly, follow-up Put Your Back N 2 It radiated with warmth and a profound hopefulness, while Too Bright, released in 2014, and No Shape, out three years later, captured an artist coming into his own. On defiant single Queen he even weaponised his queerness to exact revenge on heteronormative society: “No family is safe/ When I sashay”.
Hadreas spent most of the 2010s in Tacoma, Washington, building a home with Wyffels, a classically trained musician who often plays in Hadreas’ live band. This newfound domesticity suited their sobriety but it soon began to feel claustrophobic when they came off the road. “There wasn’t a lot of good food there, I don’t want to be too shady,” he quips. The couple moved to Los Angeles two years ago where they have friends and more excuses to leave the house. Then, last winter, Hadreas returned to New York City for one of his most ambitious projects yet.
© Charlotte Patmore
Vest: Jean Paul Gaultier Vintage
Cage Vest: Artifact New York
Trousers: Wales Bonner
The Sun Still Burns Here is a collaboration between Hadreas and choreographer Kate Wallich. Running in Chelsea’s Joyce Theatre across one week in November last year, the performance piece was described by Wallich as an “opera Janet Jackson musical ballet” and featured music exclusively composed by Hadreas, including the dramatic nine-minute opus Eye in the Wall. He even performed in it, alongside Wyffels and Wallich’s dance company The YC. Hadreas had never danced professionally before – he and Wyffels learned together. It was embarrassing, he admits. “We’re not super young anymore! It shook a lot of stuff out of us. For me I’ve always had a weird relationship with my body because I was sick growing up. I’m still sick.” He’s referring to Crohn’s disease, which he has suffered from since he was a child.
A few years ago, for the first time in his adult life, he was in remission. Dance allowed his relationship with his body to change. Hadreas demanded more from it. In class he would cry from elation, he admits. Sat across the table from me, he starts extending his arm like a ballerina and folding it in front of his face to explain. “I’d look at my arm, consider my arm, and start crying, ‘I’ve never been present with my arm!’” He scoffs at how ridiculous it sounds. “Like – be nice to your arm.”
The show inspired a physical intimacy between Hadreas and other people. He developed a passion for weight transference; lifting, being lifted. “I liked carrying people,” he smiles. “It’s healing. It’s a nonsensical bizarre thing to crave but when people get close to me now, I just want to pick them up!” He revelled in being responsible for the physicality of others, the harmony of it. New song Your Body Changes Everything on the album is about just that: “And now you’re right above me and your shadow suffocates,” he sings.
© Charlotte Patmore
Corset, Leather Belt & Boots: Vintage
Jacket: Helmut Lang AW 1999
Silk Organza Moto Jacket: Artifact New York
Shorts: Desiree Klein
“I'M READY FOR A BIG FEELING. IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT IT IS. AS LONG AS IT HAPPENS. RIGHT AWAY!”
“I was truly in remission in a way I hadn’t been – and that’s over now.” He sighs, momentarily tearful that the illness returned just as he was exploring his own physicality. “I was getting off on how much control I felt I had over [my body]. I learned when I was young that your body just does stuff. You have no control. You’re almost riding it, you know? If I exercise things will grow. Just because I am sick again, in my body and spirit, I know that I have access. That will make it easier to go back.”
Throughout our conversation I sense a defiance to Hadreas’ spirit. His demeanour is intense and fragile, but strong. He experiences moments of connection and joy, making small talk about inconsequential things: the size of the table, the weather, a small dog that comes over to greet us. He isn’t trying to be opaque when discussing some topics – like gender, or his health – he just seems incapable of articulating them fully. Maybe the music speaks for him, and maybe that’s always been the case. We reminisce about a time we met previously, at Latitude Festival in 2012. It was in a caravan that a music blog had set up for sessions with performers and Hadreas had come to perform Madonna’s Oh Father on his keyboard. I’ve never forgotten it, the most nervous performance I’ve ever witnessed. He shook throughout, working through whatever was affecting him that day with that song. Today he is less nervous than he was then. Yet, in spite of his willing company, his radiance, his talk of sledgehammers and physicality, a shade of self doubt lingers. He seems conflicted. He scratches his hands. “I’m not very confident talking about how I feel right now. I don’t have a handle on it,” he says, eyes darting. “It’s not fun. But it’s thrilling.”
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately sees Hadreas reuniting with producer Blake Mills for an album that leans into moments of swooning Americana – a conscious decision, he explains. The opening track Whole Life sets the tone, sounding a little like an update of Unchained Melody, and there are nods to 50s American pop circa the Everly Brothers, Elvis and Buddy Holly throughout. Crucially, the nostalgic charge is subverted by the subject matter – paeans to queer desire written in classic melodies. “There’s something about me doing that,” he smiles. “I’ve listened to those songs my whole life but don’t feel included in them.” He was inspired by swaggering cowboys who were vulnerable and unafraid to share, writing himself into the history he was raised on. On reflection, Hadreas himself admits that No Shape was written from a place of restraint aspiring to freedom. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the response: full-bodied, unsuppressed.
© Charlotte Patmore
Mask: Nick Rademacher
Shirt: Desiree Klein
Trousers: Helmut Lang SS 2004
Mummy Trousers: Artifact New York
“I WANTED TO FEEL EVERYTHING AND YOU CAN'T. I WAS SCARED TO LET ANY OF THAT BACK IN BECAUSE YOU BECOME INSATIABLE – I FEEL THAT FEELING RIGHT NOW. I FEEL DANGER, BUT I ALSO FEEL JOY”
Of the tracks on the album, Jason is his most direct and confessional. Hadreas documents a sexual encounter aged 23 with a man called Jason. It was Jason’s first time. “Jason there’s no rush/ I know a lot comes up letting in some love/ Where there always should have been some”. In the morning as he left, Hadreas took $20 from Jason’s jean pocket. Reflecting on it now, he felt he had performed a service. “What was needed from me was a kindness to someone who was figuring something out. I felt like I was able to do that, even if just for 30 seconds,” he says. “That relationship was brief, but I think about all my relationships, even if it was just a night. I’m hungry for all of it right now.”
This potent sexuality courses through the album. On Describe, Hadreas talks about his stomach rumbling for someone (“Can you just find him for me?”); the cinematic, strings-adorned Leave sees the singer, “begging like a dog, ignore me”; Just a Touch makes mention of a “secret” lover. It all sounds forbidden. Within this context, the album’s title becomes a demand – a call to burn down everything and start over. “I’m ready for a big feeling,” he says, by way of explanation. “It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it happens. Right away!” Hadreas cackles. When I ask him what it is he craves, he moves his arms up and down trying to reach for something above him. He’s worried that the emotion he chases is the longing itself, and despite his declarations of being satisfied, he’s finding that maybe he’s not satisfied at all. “It’s never enough,” Hadreas says, of life. “The anticipation of trying to be adjacent to some big thing. That’s the reason I did drugs, I wanted to feel everything and you can’t. I was scared to let any of that back in because you become insatiable – I feel that feeling right now. I feel danger, but I also feel joy.”
As Perfume Genius, Hadreas has become a symbol of radical queer survival, turning his lived experiences into something liberating, transcendent. It saw him writing candidly about loving another man before queer culture went fully mainstream. “That’s always going to sit heavy with me,” he says. “‘Cause I still need it. When I watch a TV show and two men kiss I still cry. The show could be horrible, I could hate them both, but I’m like, ‘Ah it’s happening!’”
© Charlotte Patmore
Corset & Leather Belt: Vintage
These small victories mean a lot when you grow up the only visibly gay student in high school, the target of bullying so severe you’re forced to eventually drop out. “Surviving anything is something you carry by yourself. We carry it together too, but it feels very lonely.” His extroverted, candid character onstage has afforded him a strength that has started to seep into everyday life and has helped to heal old wounds. “I used to be nervous to order at a restaurant. Sometimes I order for everybody now. Maybe I’ve gone too far!” he laughs.
Indeed, it’s been ten years since he first began uploading songs to MySpace. Hadreas is proud of his ability to keep showing up, over and over. “I feel relentless,” he says. “I’m always trying to get better in my own way. That wasn’t always an interest of mine. I keep holding onto the good things that I’m learning, to the love that I’m given,” he pauses. “Even though I’m feeling really unhinged right now.” He tells me that, in this state, he finds comfort in poetry, Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Gossip Girl (“I had never seen it!”). And, of course, writing songs, which “does something that I can’t figure out how to say or do.”
Then, he tells me how, the other night he decided to get out of the bath and walk to the living room, then back to the bath, and back to the living room, for 45 minutes. “It was the most satisfying thing I’d done all week.” We giggle over the absurdity of it. “I don’t know why! Something’s rewiring.” It must have been a shock to the body, getting in and out of the water, I say. “Oh, I didn’t get in. I went towards the bathtub,” he smirks. “I acknowledged where I’d been. Then I returned again.”
Photography: Charlotte Patmore
Styling: Jessica Worrell
Makeup: Lilly Keys
Hair: Fitch Lunar
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is released 15 May via Matador