How Perfume Genius Learned to Live in the Moment

After touring his essential fourth album No Shape for a month, Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) talks to PopMatters about why this project is his most immediate and everything that implies.

Perfume Genius

No Shape

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2017-05-05
UK Release Date: 2017-05-05

Mike Hadreas has the flu. It is a tough state to find yourself in -- in bed, recently back from a month of touring the country, probably slightly irked that you are talking to the press instead of resting -- but it is a state Hadreas embraces. “I feel wild and unwild at the same time,” he tells me. It is a confusing mindset, but he is used to it. “I always get sick when I get back from tour. When I’m on tour, I power through it, but once my body starts getting some rest it just fucking…” he pauses, as if the words are on the tip of his tongue “...gets sick.”

A 15-date trek through North America is bound to be exhausting, especially in support of an album as theatrical and emotionally potent as this year’s excellent No Shape, Hadreas’ recently released fourth record as Perfume Genius. Hadreas has had his fair share of experience with touring, but playing these songs live has been a much stranger commitment. “It’s wild but not so demonic,” he explains. “For some reason, if the mood is really dark it’s easy for me to go there. I can go there quick. But if it’s a little more mysterious... that’s a pretty heavy mood.” A song like No Shape’s “Die 4 You”, for example, is a falsetto-drenched track where he needs to sustain a mood for three minutes without distraction, resisting the urge to snap out of it. However, he is not complaining. “I think that’s what makes it so fun,” he says. “I’m proud I get to go for it every night.”

No Shape has garnered a good amount of attention for being an album that showcases a huge amount of progression while keeping a firm grip on the outlandish charisma that has made Perfume Genius’ music so alluring in the first place. However, for Hadreas, this is not something he needs to force. He needs it to feel new on purpose because he only likes the art he makes if he feels like he was uncomfortable while making it. For him, the primary conceptual shift on No Shape was one towards immediacy. “There aren’t so many story songs about my past. There are fewer nouns and stuff,” he laughs. That being said, the immediacy goes beyond shaping themes and topics and comes to define the entire writing process. “There’s warmth in the songs, but there’s also something dissonant in almost all of them. It makes it clear that there is something fleeting.”

Surface-level psychoanalysis might suggest that this urge to write about the “now” has a very succinct cause. A large part of the narrative surrounding this album has been that it is Hadreas’ first record looking back on his struggles with addiction, his first written and recorded within the confines of sobriety. It is easy to look at sobriety and think that it must automatically bring clarity, but a certain conflict comes with it as well; after all, sobering up is little more than constantly suppressing everyday instincts. When asked how he deals with it, he tells me that even though he doesn’t drink or do drugs, he still “acts like a drug addict a lot", explaining “I definitely am still really into excess, but there are a lot more ways to go about that than doing cocaine or whatever. Using gave me this weird peace that made me feel like I was in the moment, but it was fake. So now I’ll get that same kind of connection but it will be really quick, or I will have to work hard to get it.”

It all ties back to this idea of “living in the moment”, or being “present” for everything that happens. Now, if something bad happens, he notices, a development that has granted him with positive changes to not only his sense of motivation but his outlook on life. “It has made me realize that I’m a lot more capable than I thought I was. I had this idea in my head growing up of who I was going to be or what I could do, and I keep changing that all the time. I never really wait to feel different. I just act differently. You know what I mean? I don’t wait to not be afraid anymore; I just do things even though I’m scared. I don’t think I did that for a long time.”

If “living in the moment” is nothing more than an eye-roll-inducing cliché, Hadreas understands. “Because of how corny that sounds, I’ve avoided it for so long. It’s such a basic idea, “living in the moment,” but I’m pretty into it for the two minutes a day that it happens.” It is easy for anyone to initially cringe at trite Hallmark-worthy bullshit before admitting that there tends to be at least a smudge of truth in each motivational cliché. Coming to terms with that has been important for Hadreas. “It’s like when you go to therapy, and they wanna talk about your parents,” he explains. “That’s for basic people; I don’t wanna talk about that. I used to think my problems were way cooler, way more complicated. But that’s just not true. All those things exist for a reason.”

This perspective shift towards living for the “now” manifested itself in his songwriting quite tangibly. Hadreas didn’t write lyrics for any of the songs on No Shape until a few weeks after they were completed. Each song was a mood, and he would just sing in gibberish and insert lyrics after the fact. “It was all very immediate in that way too. I was just going for it, working myself up into a fervor.”

Considering that, it is very clear that writing this album was a catharsis for Hadreas, but that does not mean his songwriting is only concerned with his own emotions. Especially now, he treats his music as a vehicle with which he can connect with people in similar positions. “Maybe my first album was very much for me, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore,” he says. However, it is important that he strikes a balance between writing songs based on authentic, personal feeling and threading in friends, family, and fans. “I know if I try to make it too universal, somehow it becomes less. If it ever ends up preachy or just about a message, it never connects.”

Hadreas even feels actively inspired by institutions that fundamentally reject him as a queer person, like religion. He loves the drama of it all, which has led him to crave spirituality. “I’ve always really loved hymns, and I’ve always wanted to feel closer to spiritual things,” he says, but he has never felt like it has been a two-way street. “Anyone I met that was connected wanted me to leave,” he continues. If anything, he writes music that reflects this conflict.

It is not only the theatrics of religion that he finds beautiful but also the fulfillment and comfort it brings people. “So much of religion is about men and women and having babies and shit, and obviously, it would be hard for me” -- he pauses, but swiftly smirks-- "well, I can do that I guess.” However, for him, the sense of purpose is something greater. “I just sometimes want to find the ancient reason for why I am the way that I am. Even if it’s a bunch of bullshit, everyone else at least has a bunch of old books that tell them why they’re here. I guess I have to write my own reasons, find my own deeper, ancient justification for being how I am.”

One thing Hadreas says hits me off-guard, but for the wrong reasons. “I’m weirdly conservative, in a lot of ways,” he chuckles. Half-expecting him to come out in support of Trump’s fiscal policy or something, I ask him to expand. “I don’t know, I’m kinda shy,” he laughs. Oh word, silly me. He goes on to explain that his public persona would suggest an unhinged free-spirit that he does not quite channel in real life. “I have some friends that are really fuckin free about a lot of things, and sometimes I feel like my music is a lot more free, optimistic and put together than I am. But that’s why I do it, you know? It helps me get closer to [that ideal].”

That being said, he has still never been able to relate to the modern construct of “being normal”. “I’ve been on the outside so much that I’ve shaped my identity around that and found that there’s so much magic in being on the outside. When the world is not really made for you, you kind of get to make your own world.” It is a beautiful thought that has allowed him to find comfort in the face of oppression, understandably developing a sense of disgust in association with who he is “supposed to be”. “That’s given me a deep-seeded fear of being basic.” It all ties back to why hackneyed ideals like “being happy” or, of course, “living in the moment” are such sickeningly “basic” things to him. It’s troublesome to conform to the ideals of the system that has ostracized you your whole life, especially once you have found sanctity on the outside.

He is also in love. Alan Wyffels, his long-term partner, is the subject of much of No Shape and an integral part of understanding the world in which Hadreas exists, contextualizing the sky-scraping love songs that pop up in every crevice of the album. “Die 4 You”, for example, almost romanticizes the notion of executing the titular action, pushing yourself all the way for someone. “It’s not something I do in practice,” he jokes. Instead, he sees it as something spiritual. “What if you gave everything to someone else? There’s some kind of transcendence in that.” It’s hard for him to identify the source of attraction in the ideas he is attracted to. “Part of it is a mood, part of it is drama, part of it is taste; that kind of shit is thrilling to me.”

I ask him about a particular lyric from the song “Braid” where he sings “every harm is lovingly,” inquiring whether he thinks love grows stronger when put to the test. “Oh wow,” he mutters, as if to say “how the fuck would I know the answer to that, you goober?” But he expands. “I don’t think there’s a rule to it. I think love changes a lot. It looks differently over the years, it can go full circle. It can all of the sudden feel exactly as it did ten years ago, or it can be different. I think people think it needs to sustain the exact same thing the whole time, and it doesn’t. The energy shifts. It goes in waves.”

He applies this to a particular rough patch in his relationship with Alan. “There was a whole year where I was a total asshole, I don’t know how it happened. I was just a dick for a year. So that wave was definitely not super fun for Alan. There’s just some weird thing, you just know, when you’ve been together long enough. We’re in a completely different place now than we were five years ago, but at the same time we knew we would be together in five years. It’s this weird combination of security and letting it be free all the time, not being so hyperfocused on managing it or trying to change the other person or shift it. I’ve changed a lot I guess, but probably not in the ways that he would want and vice versa. And that’s fine.”

When your music is this personal, it can be hard to let other people into its creation, but No Shape is actually the first Perfume Genius album with a credited vocal feature. The song “Sides” features California chamber-pop songstress Weyes Blood singing a duet with Hadreas where he writes from the perspective of Alan and she writes from the other perspective, which, in theory, would be Hadreas’. “It’s very Lynchian,” he laughs. When asked if he found that their experiences aligned, he tells me he didn’t. “The relationship that I have, Natalie didn’t. It was almost fictional. I think that’s what made the song so great.” In terms of the actual concept of doing a duet and his potential past reluctance to do so, he always felt that a duet would have to be written with that in mind but, in this case, “it happened a lot more naturally.” He suggests that the positive experience with this collaboration could lead to more duets in the future, which is an exciting prospect considering how clear of a climax “Sides” is on No Shape.

Musically, Hadreas views No Shape as home to his most traditionally structured songs, but was very adamant on ensuring that the end result was far from traditional. “I wanted them to have the familiarity of a rock and roll song but also something subversive. I wanted to fill the album with all these unexpected moments.” That would explain the sudden burst of orchestration that jolts its way into “Otherside” or the grating violins that dominate “Choir”, both of which can be accurately described as “alarming”. “I wanted it all to be fucked up.” Speaking of orchestration, there was a very tangible shift from the electronic influence of 2014’s Too Bright to the classical, organic instruments that weave their way through No Shape. The shift was conscious, but Hadreas was wary of having it define the album. “I think in the beginning I was just worried about this album being the first two but with strings.” That’s why it was important for Hadreas to ensure that the strings were a supplement to the grandiose atmosphere, not the source of the grandiosity; not “the thing that made it bigger” but “part of the bigness.”

Minimalism can be appealing because it is very likely that music will become bloated the more you add to it, but No Shape is the first album where Hadreas’ fully gained the confidence to embrace full-blown maximalism. It comes with practice, believing that the songs could hold up to whatever he threw on them and if they didn’t he would know. “I used to be very tentative about adding things and very cautious with each thing I put on the song. This was the opposite. I threw everything on there and we would whittle it down if we needed to or leave it all there. I just feel like I’m good enough to do that now.”

Throughout our conversation, it became evident that No Shape was the album in his career so far where he felt the most comfortable, aware, confident, and lucid during the creative process. That’s not to say that everything is fine and dandy; it’s just that everything seemed to make more sense for him, acceptance seemed like a more appealing idea. Whether it be with love, everyday life, his art, his performances, there was once a nagging restraint. “I was holding myself back a little bit,” he puts it, and whether or not his new attitude is a product of that “living in the moment bullshit,” he does not necessarily feel like he is holding himself back anymore.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.