“I don’t smoke anymore,” says Mike Hadreas — a.k.a. Perfume Genius — as he blows out steam, the top of his head poking out of a sweatshirt in which he’s haphazardly draped his upper half to cover his vapor-spewing face. “When really well-dressed people pull out this awful machine, it’s like ‘yes!'” He emerges, gesturing towards the vape. “I haven’t had it in any pictures, I haven’t mentioned it, but today I’m coming out with it.”
I suggest that his new album, No Shape, has an etherial vibe, and the idea of vapor emanating from him is kind of perfect. He wore a BDSM harness on Letterman; an object like the much-maligned vape could be just as subversive.
“And it should have one of those helmets made out of those beer cans, with little tubes, but it should be just vape juice,” he annunciates and grins, boyish attractiveness paired with goblin glee. “Just constant clouds of vapor. Like the way people play the didgeridoo, breathing in and out.”
No Shape, out today, via Matador, finds mystery, glamour, and occasionally a sense of paradise along the cragged surface of everyday contentment, of wavering okay-ness. Hadreas’s jocular rhapsodizing about a clunky cigarette-substitute is just the type of reasoning that shapes the glittering gossamer fabric of No Shape. The album is a fantastically queer, darkly eroticized musical equivalent of the Fairy Godmother bibbidy bobbidy boo-ing pumpkins into carriages and mice into stallions.
In the past, Perfume Genius, 35, has made music evoking torments and traumas, from uprooting his life to escape homophobic bullying and beating; to drug addiction and alcoholism; to grappling with living in the confines of a body that naturally self-antagonizes (Hadreas suffers from Crohn’s disease). But if his previous album, Too Bright, was a lush horror story of being stuck in — and learning to love the grotesquerie of — any given body, on No Shape, Hadreas looks out at the intimate pleasures of the healing life around him, and even ponders bodily transcendence.
In the unexpectedly trip-hop infused “Die 4 You,” Hadreas equates long term devotion (he’s been with his boyfriend, Alan Wyffels, who performs with him, and is sitting on the couch with him when I walk into the room in the basement of the Matador offices, for 8 years) with erotic asphyxiation. “It’s a metaphor for giving all of yourself to someone else. You can push it so far that I might even die and that would be OK,” he told The Fader.
Through restless, baroque arrangements, in collaboration with producer Blake Mills, Hadreas expresses the mystification and fear — for someone who’s been told their whole life that their narrative would always be one of trauma or struggle — in feeling, at least momentarily, fine. On the album’s last track, “Alan,” he finds himself on another night, in bed next to his boyfriend. “I’m here/How weird,” his voice sings into an echoey vastness, stretching itself comfortably through time.
“Slip Away” is a pretty bold first track to release. I tend to have an aversion to dictatorial empowerment anthems — don’t tell me when to be uplifted! How did you strike the balance between pop-y uplift and a more uncertain edge?
I was writing about how I felt, twisted into something that maybe could be helpful, or that other people will like. But I still wanted it to be kind of real, and the realness means that I maybe really only feel empowered for ten minutes. I’m awake for a lot longer than that! Maybe I feel shitty for two hours, but then two hours after that I feel good, and neither of those things have to cancel each other out. If the most upfront thing was warmth, I wanted it to have something dissonant underneath. If it was dark, I wanted it to have some humor. I thought what I was talking about would be more impactful and lasting and real if I kept a grey area.
The idea of counterbalancing any given mood really separates the album from Too Bright, which was brooding throughout. But here you’re lyricizing and dramatizing smaller moments, small anxieties, small contentments, small victories. How do you make banality beautiful?
I feel so checked out a lot — and I’m very avoidant — but I also get to keep myself in an alternate timeline or world where I get to make the rules up. I wanted to keep some of the magic of that — this sense of being outside your own life, but feeling a bit more connected or grateful. All the basic-ass things you don’t normally want to do. Going to therapy sucks because you realize all your problems are super basic, and you’re basic. I’m trying to find a way to “connect” and be “in the moment” and be more grateful, but have that be witchy, and magical, and dramatic. That’s more to my taste.
It’s hard to aestheticize happiness in a way that’s not annoying.
Part of it is, I just didn’t know that’s what I’m doing. I was talking about, “It’s about my boyfriend, or my dog, or my house.” I realized I was writing more immediately about how I felt. But you don’t know what the themes are until you’re done.
You use more vocal effects than you have before here. On certain songs, like “Valley,” it sounds like your voice is stuck inside the listener’s head, and then in “Choir,” you sound isolated somewhere else. Did you have these different locations of your voice — and how that texture might impact meaning and mood — in mind when you were writing the songs and lyrics?
On “Choir,” that vocal effect I did at home. I write by recording — sometimes I’ll come up with that tone first before the song even happens. Some of the songs were the opposite, where they were a little more traditionally prepared, and then they turn into something in the studio and it’s different. Some of the vocal effects are unsettling to me, just because I wouldn’t want to hear my own self so close to my skull. But we used this bi-neural way of recording, with a mannequin’s head, and then two microphones right where the ears are. So I’d be holding this mannequin head and I could sing into each ear, or in the middle, so it sounds like I’m in the center of your head. It’s a very weird thing. It’s not intuitive for me to enjoy listening to, but I feel like it helped the energy of the songs. And it helped create a balance where there’s something really lush and distant, and then you have the vocal real close.
When did you come up with the broad instrumental pallet of the album?
A lot of it was collaboratively with Blake Mills, who’s just an incredible guitar player. All of the songs I wrote could have been very traditional rock anthems. The whole Band Aid thing. I wanted a little bit of that — I wanted it to feel weirdly American and guitars, but I wanted it to be a bit twisted and fucked up. That’s how [Mills’s] music sounds. And he’s super enthusiastic, which is the core thing I look for. I like people who aren’t afraid of showing effort and being excited.
You appear in all the videos for Too Bright and in the first one for No Shape. Too Bright sounds very corporeal — squelches and rumblings and an almost anatomical sound. But here, on “Wreath,” there’s the line about longing to have “no shape.” How might that push towards transcendence impact the visual life of the album?
I have a video coming for a song called “Die 4 You.” The video is a lot darker than the “Slip Away” video. My mark at one point was a dead rat. “Mike, could you please start walking from that dead rat?” So it has more of…that? It’s a lot darker — and I like that. With the press I’ve been doing, the photoshoots, there are some where I’ve been in very traditional, stereotypically masculine suiting. And then others, I’m in tulle. I’m so happy about that — I don’t like being locked into one way, so I’m happy this video is coming out. It’s still me, but it’s a darker version. It’s not just Victorian triumph ruffles. I think there is a peplum, though!
When you’re starting out as a musician, I assume there’s an awareness that everything you put out will affect the vocabulary with which people talk about your work. This is your fourth album. Do you feel like you can do whatever you want now?
You never have full control. Everything I’m doing is just making decisions and committing. If I worry about that stuff — that’s essentially why I didn’t do anything for 25 years. Because I was so scared about what everyone would think, or what does this mean about me, or is this good enough, or whatever. I just fucking do it now. The only hippie “self care” thing I truly believe is just doing stuff. Not waiting until you think it’s good enough, not waiting until you feel capable, or less afraid. Just doing it.
You made two albums prior to Too Bright, but “Queen,” from that album, was your first song to really get mainstream attention.
The first couple of albums I felt were very strong, but [critics wrote] about how they were very fragile. And I was like, “Okay, I guess bravery to America is if I yell at them.” It’s almost snotty, like, “Fine, I’ll make a loud, mad song and they’ll get it.” And they did!
Do you notice a generational gap with young queer fans in the ways identity, love, and sensuality are expressed?
I think so. I don’t know if I’m in touch with enough of them to know how different it is. I didn’t grow up thinking that love between two men was a lasting thing — it was more a brief, hidden secret thing. I didn’t grow up thinking I was ever going to get married, but that’s probably because I knew I couldn’t. I’m sure the idea that you could — whether you want to or not, just that knowledge that you can — must change some things. Even the way that I’m always saying “gay” instead of queer is because I fought to come out as “gay.” I had to fucking fight to say, “I’m a man.”
The last song on the album is called “Alan,” your boyfriend’s name. When did you introduce that song to him? How did he receive it?
When I played him the song, I didn’t tell him I was going to name it after him. We were in the studio for two weeks, and then I had a week off. And during that week I decided to write a final song, the last one on the album, and that’s what I wrote. It morphed into something a little more dramatic, but it’s still essentially three chords. We played every show together, so it’s not as romantic as just giving someone a song and they cry. It’s a bit about me, too, even though I named it after him, and that makes it less precious. I’ve always made heavy-duty emotional music, so he’s not phased by it in general. Or he’s a little more critical, and he feels that’s what his job is. So that’s what he did initially. And then cried later when I was asleep.
Love songs in general are weird and refreshing right now, for a lot of reasons. The way romance happens these days has been, well, somewhat de-romanticized. It doesn’t have the same immediacy, and I don’t want to sound technophobic, but it doesn’t have the same —
All of the options make any given “one” less important.
It’s like Netflix.
What is it like to write love songs in a time where it can feel like those rapturous, over-the-top emotions are fading around you?
It’s a weird thing. My way’s weirdly kind of traditional, ’cause I still grew up with a lot of people who did not do it the way I was doing it. A lot of people were more open minded, more progressive, and I’ve essentially always been with someone. I’m pretty bad at being single. Alan and I got together before all the apps and everything. I sometimes wonder if we broke up, what we would do. Because we’d be like, 50, logging on for the first time? I’d probably have a lot of really tasteful surgeries.
So many of the songs I listen to are about new love, and the beginning of love. I like to write songs that are just as sacred and dramatic and epic as our relationship that’s been going on for a while. And no offense to Alan, but it’s not like I think that way constantly. But I should more than I do. I get so used to being with someone. It’s partly why I [wrote these songs] — I need more of that.