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.
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.