Perfume Genius is the project of Seattle's Mike Hadreas, who specializes in stark naked confessionals set to spartan piano chords and eerie synths. Hadreas made an impressive debut in 2010 with the debut Perfume Genius LP, Learning. He returned two years later with Put Your Back N 2 It, which refined the Perfume Genius sound into something slyly epic and emotionally intense, making one of the best albums of 2012. Hadreas backed into controversy when a promo video for the LP was rejected by YouTube on grounds of being "non-family safe," a seemingly homophobic response to the sight of Hadreas and gay porn-star Arpad Miklos in a chaste embrace.
Interview: 8 March 2012
So is Everett, Washington really the hometown of you, Zac Pennington, and Laura Palmer's house?
"I didn't grow up in Everett; I grew up in Seattle, in different suburbs. My mom moved up there when I was living in New York, then when I moved back home I lived with her there. That's where I got healthy; that's where I went to rehab, that's where I wrote the first album. But I don't know if that's where Laura Palmer's house is; I know, for sure, that wasn't the Twin Peaks town."
Those Twin Peaks Badalamenti synths seem like a huge influence on you.
"Oh, big time. That's a reference I know that I'm doing while doing it. Sometimes you don't really realise until afterwards that you're pulling from different things. But when I use those synthy strings, and that whole mood, I'm aware that I'm doing it; I guess that's a sign of when something's a big inspiration, I guess."
Why is that such a strong influence?
"I saw Lost Highway when I was pretty young, in the theatre. My dad told me to cover my eyes during most of it; I have no idea why he took me if he wasn't going to let me watch it. But I kept my eyes open the whole time. I'd never felt something that creepy and dark yet also warm and smoky and beautiful at the same time. And the music, whenever I hear that specific synth sound, it just makes me immediately feel like that again."
Is that a quality you'd like your music to have: creepy yet warmly reassuring?
"Yeah. There can be dark elements to be dark elements to things that still feel warm. I feel like that'd be a good review if someone said that about my music."
How much intention do you have when writing songs? Do you really set out with subjects in mind?
"On some of them. Usually I'll just write one line in my head, and then I'll obsessively try to write around that one line. Or, I'll just have a specific feeling that I'm trying to find. It’s always kind of a manic marathon thing; just working at things over and over. Usually the words is what I spend the most time on. I'm not sure if that explains things very well."
Were there qualities or themes that united the songs on Put Your Back N 2 It?
"Absolutely. I wanted to make sure that whatever I was talking about would have some kind of strength, or hope, to it. I thought a lot about messages and things I wish I would've heard when I was younger. It's kind of a cheesy thing, but I wanted to try and make it not cheesy."
What kind of messages?
"Just that, I guess, that I'm okay. That I don't need to be fixed. That I could fully show up exactly as I am and be okay. That I don't need to cover things up, to change things, to fix things about myself to be okay, but that I was okay exactly as I was. I don't know if that exactly comes through in the music, but thinking about it now, that's exactly what I wish I heard when I was younger, something that I wish I would've known then."
Was that how you felt as an adolescent, that you needed to be fixed?
"Hell yeah. It was part thinking you really need to be fixed, then part being really pissed off that people don't accept you exactly as you are. It was this weird back-and-forth between those two things: feeling really sorry for yourself, then being really pissed off. I still feel like that sometimes."
When did those feelings start to lessen? Both the discomfort and the anger?
"When I moved to the city to go to art school, where I went for about a year. That's when I started drinking, and making a bunch of friends that were gay or weird or creative. I just felt like a part of something again. And all the things that I got made fun of for when growing up became things that people liked me for. Or appreciated. And that was a big thing. But I spiralled down, because I couldn't learn to be social or feel good about myself without drinking. I just kept going and going until I eventually lost all of that. But then getting sober was a similar experience: learning to feel good about myself again."
So you created a positive association with drinking to the point that it came to define you?
"Yeah, because I felt so shy and weird and awkward, but because of it I was able to hang out, and always think that I was being very funny and handsome and cool, and I'd wake up the next morning and wouldn't feel that way at all. So I'd think: 'wait, I felt like that when I drank, let's just do that again!' It just smoothed over everything that I was scared of or hadn't dealt with in my life. But I think some people just don't have a switch in their brain where they can stop drinking if they get started. And, it’s unfortunate, but I just don't have that."
How has writing songs and performing them played a part in confronting those fears? It strikes me that, if you're shy, writing personal songs and then performing them in front of people must've been, at the beginning, like a kind of nightmare.
"[laughs] The first show that we ever played I kind of blacked out. All I was drinking was Diet Coke. But I was just so nervous it's like I just couldn't handle it. For the first few shows all I could think about was just trying to survive, to just get through this without freaking out. That's lessened, now, and I can actually be a bit more present. I'm still nervous, and it's still scary, but it feels a lot more purposeful. I just feel very purposeful, now; I want to be there, even if I’m scared."
With your 'controversial' promotional video, were you trying to be provocative? Or have you been surprised by the controversy?
"With the actual video [for 'Hood'], I wasn't trying to make something controversial or provocative at all. But as we were getting closer to filming, I started thinking that it might make people uncomfortable. That didn't stop me from doing what I wanted to do, at all. But that short, ten-second one on YouTube, I don't understand that at all; I still don't get why they were so offended by it. That seems really tame to me. It all seems a bit tame to me; I wanted the whole thing to be way creepier."
It's pretty easy to understand: it's just homophobia, the simple fact that it's two men. The embrace is exactly the same as the Lana del Rey 'Born to Die' single, which sure hasn't been banned anywhere. Was that a deliberate reference?
"Yeah, one of my friends showed me that picture of her, so I've seen it. But that wasn't intentional. It's pretty amazing: in that picture, you can totally see like her side-boob, and apparently that's acceptable because it's male and female nipples touching. But our nipples aren't even touching! They're close to touching, but they're not. I guess four dude nipples in close proximity are absolutely unacceptable."
There's considerable irony in the fact that it's soundtracked by "All Waters," this song about how queer cultural acceptance can seem both so close and yet so far away.
"That's what's so interesting about it, that 'All Waters' is the song playing in it. It's such an amazing coincidence."
Was that one of the 'message' songs you were talking about, earlier?
"Yeah. But it's also just healing for me, too, to talk about things like that. The idea that anyone else would need to, in any way, hear any part of that is —and this is very selfish-sounding— very comforting to me. It just makes me feel more helpful than I ever did before. I don't know how I compare to other people making music, but I certainly wasn't expecting the amount of people that wrote to me after the first album, telling me how much their music had meant to them. I think I was thinking a lot about that when I started writing again, too. Knowing that those kind of kids were looking up to me, and that there'd probably be more who'd hear the second one, too."
Was it hard to wear that responsibility?
"Oh yeah. It kind of made me freeze up, at first. Trying to feel like what I was doing was earnest and genuine and stuff, but still knowing that I would have to show this to other people who'd be expecting something from me. I'd never had to think about that before. Before this I'd only ever just been doing this for myself. In some ways I felt stuck between. I kind of had to negotiate with myself about doing things just for myself and doing things for other people; I guess just wanting to be honest whilst knowing that, this time, people were definitely going to hear it."