Perfume Genius Wants To Be Your Gay Icon

By
Share:

When Mike Hadreas was seven, he drew a pentacle in the sand while vacationing with his family. He was emulating something out of a movie, but when the babysitter caught him chanting and reacted with horror, he became convinced that the devil was in him or soon would be. “I kind of displaced all my shame straight up to the source,” he says. “A lot of who I was felt forbidden.”

A still from Perfume Genius’s “Grid” video.

The following year, after Hadreas watched a Dateline documentary about a woman possessed by Satan, he felt sure of his differentness. He saw The Omen and began checking his scalp for birthmarks. This irrational fear and secret hope lasted until he was 12. Simultaneously, Hadreas became “obsessed” with magic and the occult, and began performing rituals that included raising a steak knife in the air and setting up altars on the coffee table. His father, a wrestling coach, thought he was “very dark-sided.” At some point the music of PJ Harvey got involved, specifically the album where she sang about “laying with the devil” (1995’s To Bring You My Love), and Hadreas felt a little less alone. Turns out wicked urges can hide in unassuming packages.

“People don’t realize that I can still kill you,” says Hadreas, now 32. “I’m little and wearing a silken robe, and I can still kill you! Realize that about me! I don’t need to be super muscly or take on a bunch of masculine traits to be fucking dangerous.

On this particular Sunday afternoon in August, Hadreas is playing with masculinity and femininity in his appearance, much as he does in his music under the pseudonym Perfume Genius. His style is resort-wear meets business casual: a cream button-down, loose grey slacks, black loafers, and a cherry red shellac manicure that’s starting to peel at the cuticles. “I ate a burger before I went on stage once after not letting my nails dry, and I got actual grizzle stuck in the nail,” Hadreas says. “So now I do shellac manicures.”

Over a fig and ricotta sandwich on the back patio of the Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — not far from where the Seattle native and current resident lived nearly a decade ago — Hadreas is trying to exude confidence. It’s sort of a new thing for him.

“I’m sick of not feeling part of everything,” Hadreas says. “I’m sick of always feeling timid and apologetic of who I am. A lot of this new album is me trying to thump my chest and decide that I’m fine, and that everybody should deal with it. Demand it from people.”

Perfume Genius’s first two albums — 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It — were filled with grippingly fragile tales of drug and alcohol abuse (Hadreas has been quite forthright about his current path to sobriety), suicide, living through sexual trauma, and walking through the world as an outsider. At first it seemed that Hadreas was using his music to cope with these personal and secondhand experiences, as if the only thing that made sense was putting his voice and his piano to tape, alone in a house somewhere.

“The first few times I saw him play, he was really walking on a thin blade,” says Chris Lombardi, the founder of Matador Records, who signed Hadreas before he’d even played his first show. “It was voyeuristic, because you saw someone up there who was holding on by a thread to get through the song, either because of the subject matter and what it meant to him, or just technically speaking. It was like holding your breath to watch him get through those shows, like he might just break down and weep. But they were beautiful, and you wanted to cheer him on.”

The longer he’s gone on, the less Hadreas has seemed like a victim. But it wasn’t until Too Bright, out September 23 on Matador, that he conjured almost terrifying strength and riskiness from vulnerability, both lyrically and musically. The album’s closing lines say a lot: “I don’t need your love, I don’t need you to understand, I need you to listen,” Hadreas declares. He rages against modern society instead of lamenting its shackles, but more that that, Hadreas offers up one of 2014’s most stunning reaffirmations that the personal is political. “It’s not just really a good record, it’s kind of a really important record,” Lombardi surmises. And to think it all started — at least as far as the public is concerned — with a studded tank top.

“Too Bright” cover.

“He certainly looks like a gay icon on the album cover,” Lombardi jokes. But it’s no accident that Too Bright finds Hadreas dressed in the sort of thing you’d see shimmy by at a Fire Island dance club. Hadreas has deftly experimented enough with androgynous visuals to know the power of this image, which debuted alongside the album’s announcement and first single, “Queen,” in July. There’s this idea in the gay community that even after the initial acceptance of one’s sexuality, “coming out” is a lifelong process that happens again and again, whether it’s to new friends and co-workers, or as an answer to our heteronormative society as a whole. The Too Bright cover, particularly paired with a song mocking gay panic, was another “coming out” moment as far as Hadreas’ persona was concerned.

“I had very specific amounts of femininity and masculinity in mind, so that took some sorting out,” Hadreas says. “Originally I didn’t want to be on the album cover because I thought people would think, ‘Who does he think he is?! It’s too much!’ But then I thought about a lot of my favorite musicians who are on every single cover; I never thought twice about it. It’s more that I can do this now — I can take myself seriously.”

This wardrobe choice re-emerges in Hadreas’ “Queen” video, a campy romp set largely in the preferred cavorting locale of so-called oversexed gays across our bigoted nation: a men’s room. In the SSION-directed clip, Hadreas propositions a one-legged Elvis impersonator and fantasizes about morphing into his trash-glamor female doppelganger, seemingly as a pregame ritual for his next act of seduction: erotic dancing in a woman’s pantsuit for a boardroom full of male CEOs. I’ve never seen anyone turn a No. 2 pencil into a sexual plaything quite the way Hadreas does, all while singing lines like, “No family is safe when I sashay past.” A guitar line flashes on and off like a siren warning of trouble strutting nearer.

“Queen” walks the fine line between specificity and cultural critique, achieving the kind of balance that makes for a great anthem. But Hadreas “didn’t know if people would understand where [he] was coming from.” After all, it’s not exactly “Born This Way,” nor is he your typical mainstream “gay music” star (i.e., a female pop diva). When I ask him about the idea of being a queer cult hero, he responds with a catch-22 that seems so frustrating, it’s a wonder he’s gotten as far as he has: “Whenever anything ‘gay’ comes out, it has to be everything to everybody. And it’s never the case. It’s either too gay or not gay enough, usually. I definitely knew while I was making ‘Queen’ that it had the potential to be that to some people. Maybe someone would say, ‘Why is he still going on about this?’ or ‘Why is he wearing heels?’ I knew that that would happen. So it was sort of defiant of that at the same time. There’s a culture of gay men who don’t believe in or understand Pride, or don’t go to gay bars. That’s fine, but I do. So.”

“Mike wants to make people feel uncomfortable, and he wants people to still care about the fight,” says Jason Lamphier, the senior editor in charge of entertainment coverage at Out Magazine, which named Hadreas to their coveted Out100 list in 2012. “There are still rights that we should be chasing after in the LGBT community. Trans rights are the next frontier, and I think he’s giving a nod to that with the androgynous artwork and videos for Too Bright. In general, Mike’s not going to sit down and just be happy about the progress made. I think he wants to push the conversation deeper, to a queer theory zone where it’s not just about, ‘Oh, let gays get married because they look cute in their tuxes and they’re fun on TV.’ He wants to get us actually thinking about the fluidity of identity.

“There’s this one new song in particular, ‘Fool,’ that deals with his own identity struggles because he’s seen as a ‘pocket gay’ — and he plays into that, he performs [in society] as a fashionable, funny, adorable, small gay man,” Lamphier continues. “‘Pocket gay’ is a stereotype almost resembling a cute woodland creature or a cartoon, but it’s so reductive. Mike’s very much fighting against that kind of perception. That’s the current wave of LGBT acceptance, and I think he’s trying to get us to the next wave.”

(photo by Luke Gilford)

The caveat here is that, as time has gone on, Hadreas has made increasingly “difficult” music that’s moved further and further away from traditional “gay pop” and songs that qualify him for those ill-fitting Rufus Wainwright comparisons. Rather, Hadreas channels Suicide, Nick Cave, and Kate Bush (yes, I recognize how different these artists are) with Too Bright. This is all the more shocking when one considers how the album began: with the Adele-esque piano ballads that Hadreas thought listeners would want to hear from him. Unable to stomach them himself, Hadreas abandoned that path, instead exploring his darkest musical ground to date alongside co-producers Adrian Utley (of Portishead) and Ali Chant, as well as Hadreas’ boyfriend and band member Alan Wyffels.

Recording once again in Bristol, England, Hadreas traded his stripped-down piano for layers of synths, drum machines, keyboards, guitars, even children’s screams. The effect is varied but unified by a dedication to unnerving musical eeriness, which finally matches the mood of Hadreas’ poetry. At times he even dabbles with sci-fi — a fitting move for someone who possesses a great deal of admiration for St. Vincent’s recent, robotic career moves. (Lombardi describes his work as “David Lynch-ian.”)

“I was imagining a future in which women didn’t really need men to procreate anymore,” Hadreas says of tribal-futurism track “Longpig,” which he somehow calls “the most fun song [he’s] ever written.” In this future, “Men [are] just used as meat for a big tree that was in the middle of the village. The chorus [is] the women manning the guard around the village, changing their posts and cycling their duties.”

There is, however, still work to be done. Lombardi describes Too Bright as the culmination of a journey that began in an almost hidden, word-of-mouth way with listeners (“I think for a long time people were trying to figure him out”). But Hadreas has no plans to stop, barreling forward now with more aggressive deliberation than ever. He describes music as all he’s got: “I was working at Fred Meyer department store before this, in the home department making keys — that’s it!”

Moreover, he feels a “sense of duty.” He explains, “I remember being young and looking to music to empower me before I knew enough [about my sexuality] or was brave enough to meet other people. A woman talking about her sexuality without apology [like Liz Phair or PJ Harvey] was the closest I had to identify with in a lot of ways. So if we had more options of gay male icons, that’d be great.”