Mike Hadreas decided to do his nails a coral red.
“They're always red,” he says. “Last time I got it done, it was a little too Santa red. Too Christmassy.” He flares out his fingers while chatting with the makeup artist and sipping a Diet Coke. Mike has a wicked sense of humor, but is most funny when he lets loose his pure, unfiltered thoughts.
“They didn’t do a great job this time,” he says. “I wish they did my cuticles. I like it when they really get in there.”
Let us give you the lowdown on Mr. Hadreas. Mike is Queen. Queen of a lot of things. He is Queen of shellac manicures, for one. Queen of greasy diner food, for another. He is Queen of Sad Boys on the Internet, art kid weirdos, and all the cult-classic horror films you’ve never heard of. And recently, Mike became Queen of gay music artists. You’ve met him just in time for his coronation.
Somewhere between the emergence of his first songs as “Perfume Genius” on a Myspace account in 2010 and the critical acclaim of his third album Too Bright, Mike Hadreas started gathering the hearts of broken boys who stumbled upon an mp3 of one of his tender piano ballads.
The “Perfume Genius Effect” is a phenomenon gaining traction, and fast. It starts with you finding his music through a recommendation, likely from a gay man, or a Pitchfork review. The first song you listen to might be “Hood,” a track from his second album that is 120 seconds long, and gives you tingles like a hot bath. You have to listen to it several more times because it’s so short, and subsequently, you’re forced to listen to the whole gutting album. You sit there next to your glowing computer screen, perhaps in a dark room, and maybe shed a tear or two because you appreciate the catharsis and indulgence of emotional music.
Mike makes emotional music. Because of this, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of Mike’s past and how Perfume Genius came to be. He was bullied to no end in adolescence, being the only out fifteen-year-old at school in his hometown Seattle suburb. Mike’s parents were in the middle of divorce when he dropped out of high school. After deciding art college wasn’t for him, he moved to New York City at 23 where his boyfriend was and pursued a life as a painter. But during his time there, he didn’t paint much. Instead, he fell into a cycle of partying and substance abuse that reached a point of intervention, where he had to return home to live with his mom, attend rehab, and get healthy. It was then that he starting writing songs and crooning into a microphone about how exactly he got to where he was, slowly releasing little bits of himself a song at a time and calling himself “Perfume Genius.”
At 32, Mike says he’s still working on his confidence. He’s often described in profiles as fragile or anxious, likely the consequence of his slight frame, his soft-spokenness, and also his very sad music. But when we meet Mr. Hadreas, he is assertive and unabashed, dressed in a long, silky overcoat, poking his head into the room with a smirk and a mawkish “haaAAaay!” Mike’s dry wit is effortless on set, making the crew laugh with every deadpan line he delivers. He’s recently quit smoking, and in the short breaks we have, he pulls from his bag a vaporizer that looks something like a large, goth-chic crayon which he fills with a flavored nicotine liquid.
“It’s an award-winning juice,” he says. “It's horrible! But I'm trying to make it cool.” He takes a puff, showing off his fresh shellac mani and blowing out a fruity vapor. “I think it's cool.”
With his new album, Too Bright, Perfume Genius has become less alone-in-your-dark-room and more I-own-this-room. These days, when people discover Mike’s music, the first track they hear might be “Queen,” a thrashy, guitar-driven bombardment of a song which, next to “Hood,” seems like a different artist entirely. It’s the same Mike, but his persona has metamorphosed. Growing internationally, he’s standing up from the piano to give you something loud, telling the story in a different way, and he has everybody’s ears. Right now, for Mike, there is no such thing as “too.”
You moved away from New York quite a while ago. What's your relationship with this city when you come back to it?
It's different now, you know? I have a lot of good and bad memories of New York, but when I got healthy, anywhere I went reminded me of just the bad, you know? Which for me are a lot more glaring. But now that I visit it, the city doesn't look like that anymore. I don't just see that. I would like to move back at some point!
I would! Yeah, I would. But only if I was, like, rich. And that hasn't happened yet. Especially now that I'm healthier, I would take advantage of all the shit that there is to do. Because some of the bad memories I have in New York–I really could have created them anywhere, you know? I didn't take advantage of the city when I lived there.
Given the personal and reparative quality of your work, you often have fans reaching out to you with letters and messages saying how your music has helped them in some way. What is that like?
A lot of the times, it's exactly why I'm making the kind of music I'm making. The reason I am so specific and explicit in my lyrics–I'm just kind of trying to be honest and not put shit out just to tone it down or something. The reason I'm so specific about my homosexuality and my experiences is because I know that would be helpful for me to hear if I was listening. And so when people write to me and were moved, or feel like my music was helpful in some way, I see [I’m] doing exactly what I'm supposed to. A lot of the times people just say "hi" or write something nice to me. But sometimes people want advice, and I'm not sure if I'm the most well-versed person to give advice, so…
How are you able to respond?
The only advice I have is: You're okay. People write–will tell me secrets, and they'll feel like their secrets are bad or somehow worse, or dirty or more shameful than everybody else's, and they're not. So, that's usually my advice. And a lot of times people credit music and things that they listen to while they got over something–somehow that made them get better? But people don't give themselves enough credit! I mean, I didn't do anything! [laughs] You know? I'm just cooing on the piano, and they're like "you saved my life!" I'm like, “I'm pretty sure you did that.” Maybe one of my sad songs was on during it… but it’s still sweet.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up? What kind of music did you look to in the same way people look to your music now?
Mostly female artists. I listen to a lot of music, but it's mostly women that helped me the most. Or felt the most like a companion, or quelled some loneliness, feelings. I didn't get that sort of catharsis from men. [laughs]
Any in particular?
Yeah, like Liz Phair. I got a Liz Phair album when I was thirteen. And, you know, it was really dirty and nasty and unapologetic. I had never heard someone talk about sucking dick or something. [laughs] I had never heard someone sing a song about it in a way that was shameless.
And PJ Harvey too.
Ah, PJ Harvey. So good.
And I'm still obsessed with her. Not that I'm not obsessed with Liz Phair, but I'm so obsessed with PJ Harvey, and especially in this last album too. I kind of called upon her a lot while I was writing. Because I thought my album could go either like full-on Adele or it could go PJ Harvey, and [it] was like a crossroads for me where I decided which way I was going to go.
We’re gonna list some favorite heroines, both yours and ours, and we’re wondering if you can share a sentence, memory, or opinion about them.
So, the first one is Joni Mitchell
Smoking. I've been trying to quit smoking for years and years, and when you're trying so hard, you always look to see if there's any amazing people that still smoke. [laughs] It's like really inspiring to you. And like, every interview talks about her relentless smoking, and I remember reading an interview with her where she had like a duffel bag with a Camel Cash. [laughs] But I've actually quit. I haven't smoked in about a month, but that's the first thing I thought of when you said her name.
She calls cigarettes the artist's drug–integral to her artistic integrity.
What raised your decision to stop?
I've been trying for so long. Thinking about quitting became incredibly frustrating. I cut down a lot–to like half a pack a day, for months, but it felt really torturous. Mainly I just want to quit for singing. I'm touring so much, and I've been having so many problems in throwing out my voice really early in the tour, or even during shows. It’s just another step in taking everything more seriously. I don't know, maybe I'll start working out eventually too. Maybe eat a salad. Stuff like that.
Ha! Baby steps. Alright, next name here from our heroines. We have Sade.
Oooo, Sade. I cover a Sade song sometimes. There's such a rich smoothness–smoothness that no one can even get close to the smoothness. And doesn’t she usually have like a really slick and tight pony tail? Isn't that her signature look? Did I make that up?
I think it’s one of her looks. And now Ariana Grande does it.
Does she? I don't really understand Ariana Grande. And I'm not being rude, because I don't dislike her, but I don't really know–she doesn't evoke anything in me. I'm not really certain what her whole thing is. Is her whole thing–doesn't she wear like a head thing with cat ears almost? Does that even qualify as a thing?
She's not on our list, so...
Yeah, ok. I don't think cat ears qualify anyway.
So the next name is Bonnie Raitt.
Fuck. Why are you doing this to me? I actually went to a Bonnie Raitt concert with my mother.
Yeah, and she pointed at my mom because my mom has the same hair as Bonnie Raitt–my mom's a red head. She isn't really doing it anymore, but she used to sport a white strip on the side just like Bonnie. But my mom and her shared a moment at the show. My mom would play her records all the time. I didn't always love all the music my mom played, but I really liked Bonnie Raitt. And a lot of it would be adult contemporary type music that I liked, like Annie Lennox's stuff. Not in an ironic way at all. You know what I mean? Like when I say I liked an Annie Lennox song, it's not in a jokey way at all. Like I'm fucking serious. I feel like that about Bonnie Raitt too.
So the next name is Cher.
[long pause] She's super good at Twitter
Yeah, she's so good at Twitter.
I don't have much to say about Cher to be honest, but she's got some really choice tweets.
Alright, the next one is: your mom.
Ok. My mom. Carmen. I'm living with her again now. Which was my boyfriend's idea–which is pretty awesome that my boyfriend wants to move in with my mother. I feel like that's kind of rare. But when you’re going on tour for most of this year, we thought it would be crazy to spend so much money on rent when we're hardly going to be there. I'm really close with my mom, and I always have been, and I always felt like it's me and her against everyone else a lot of the time growing up. I just really admire her. She's very strong. And she didn't always get credit for how strong she was, and all of the things that she overcame, you know? There weren't people clapping for her, congratulating her on that. She had to do all that on her own. I think that's just how it is too. You survive things, get over things. You are on your own, and that doesn't have to be a horrible thing. It makes people who they are. My mom taught me how to do that. And in a way, for as lonely as surviving can be, it never fully was, because mom was always there.
You’ve said that you somewhat wrote the song “Dark Parts” for her. What’s your mom’s reaction to your work even though it’s dark or explicit?
My whole life I've shown her my art. She's been very nice about things that had like, blood all over them. And I was always hanging things from the ceiling. I was like, "Mom! Check this out!" She was like, "Cool." [laughs] So she always wanted me to make something nice that didn't have, you know, blood or something really dark! She had always wanted me to make a ‘nice song.’ I guess that's kind of why I made “Dark Parts.” I wanted to write something about how I'm proud of her, and how, you know, I notice the special kind of strength she has. And she's generally inspirational to me. There's elements of darkness in the song, but essentially it's a sweet song, and I wanted to give her something like that.
And she’s in the video for it! You helped conceive the visuals for that, right?
I was involved with the ideas and stuff, and then the director kind of helped piece them together into more of a narrative–a combination of our ideas. But I knew I wanted my mom to be in it, and I wanted to do it at home. We had this idea of having a phantomy character that–if you look closely on some of the shots is kind of hidden– it was actually my brother in the video dressed up. My boyfriend was in it, and my stepdad was in it. Everybody was in it.
You’re a visual artist as well. Do you like getting to wear the art director’s hat?
I really like it. I originally went to school for painting, and always thought I was going to do something visual. So in a certain way, in music, that never really went away. The first songs I made, I would make music videos for them, right afterwards. And then I didn't have, like, you know, any kind of budget, or I didn't know anybody that could help me realize something. So I was making videos out of YouTube footage and porn and stuff. I never really stopped doing that, like when I write music, I'm always thinking about what the video is going to be like. When I wrote the song “Grid” I had the idea to have these pulsating dancers around me, and I have a visual mood in my head. I kinda feel like I'm soundtracking a lot when I'm writing.
Your boyfriend Alan was also in that video with you, and you're currently on tour with him. What is it like working and performing with him?
It’s great! He's played with me every show we've ever played. And everywhere I've ever gone in the world, he's been with me, essentially because I needed someone to tour with me. I originally asked him to play with me just because I knew he went to school for music–and had the brain for making arrangements and stuff. Then, it evolved into love. [laughs] He's right there too. He’s pretending like I'm not talking about him, drinking a Cam-boocha. Kombucha, whatever.
It's hard not to take someone for granted in a relationship, but I think it's even harder to be around each other twenty-four hours a day. They need to kind of figure out how to have alone time when there's someone next to you. And you really have to learn how to fight. You know? And you have to make your fights be like sparring, and kind of realize while you're fighting that you're both just tired or that it's not about what you're actually fighting about, it's about something else. So for all the wonderful things, we've also learned how to do the bad things and in a healthy way. I think it's a good combination.
Speaking of fighting, your new single “Queen" launched the whole album Too Bright and the tour, and people are referring to it as a ‘gay anthem.’ Do you personally see it that way or was it ever intended to be something like that?
Yeah! Sometimes my music is just gay because I'm gay, and I am writing about my experiences and stuff, but it was intentional with that song. I wanted it to be about gayness and part of it was rebellion, just because people have been telling me for a long time to go more of the Adele route–that's not shade to Adele because I'm obsessed with her as you know–but, just being more universal and use vague pronouns and blah blah blah. That I would play bigger venues and make more money and stuff like that. And, uh, I like the sound of that [laughs], but it just didn't feel right when I tried to write that way. It didn't feel like I was saying anything important to me. If that music would have felt right at the time, I would have gone in that direction but, it didn't. I originally wrote that song as a "fuck you" to everybody. But I guess I hadn't heard a song about that–what I'm talking about in that song–before. And I think that would have been helpful and useful for me when I was younger. And so I was like, “well then I'll fucking write it.”
Where people said your previous albums were a little more fragile, this is more like a party or maybe like a fighting record. If Too Bright were a party, what kind of a party would it be?
Oh man... Fuck. Have you ever seen The Descent?
The Descent? No... But please tell us more!
Well it’s this movie where all these women go spelunking into a cave, and see all these, like, creatures, like humanoid creatures that have evolved living in the dark, so they don't have hair, and they can't see, and they like, click a lot? The party would probably involve that. And probably the fucking cave as well. The cave spelunking women too. I'd probably just hang out down there. [laughs]
Perfect answer. We’ll have to have a Hello Mr. Descent viewing party.
So, not necessarily in regards to touring, but maybe just as you–what do you wear when you want to feel powerful?
I'm going to be real with you. I've been taking my nails off–I usually have a shellac shell manicure when I'm touring. And I wear sort of like a business woman's clothes on her day off, or on her day-on, you know? That really boosts up my confidence. I moved in with my mom, and she lives in Everett [WA] which isn't the most tolerant neighborhood, so I've been taking my nails off, and I've been feeling really guilty about it! Because [it’s like] I'm trying to hide or something. I feel like a spy when I have my nails off. The reasons I paint my nails is because no matter what I'm wearing, or what time, or what day it is, or whatever, every time I have to sign a receipt at the grocery store, people give me a look, or there's something anxiety-producing about it but also, it kind of gives me strength at the same time. In those moments. I guess that's not the question–I wear whatever the hell I want! I've spent too much time worried about how I look, and how I seem to other people. I think that's why I feel guilty when I have my nails off in Everett. Even though I might get less comments on the street, or I might feel a little more comfortable at STAPLES or whatever, I feel less like me.
You have a mantra you’ve mentioned in articles before about your life and your music: “You are not broken and never were.” Where does that mantra come from, and what does it mean to you?
I grew up thinking very much that I was on the outside, and that I had a lot of these hidden secrets about myself–ashamed about my body and things I’ve done and blah, blah, blah. I've been around long enough and met enough people to know that–I don’t know. I guess I felt poisoned a lot. Like somehow, I was a damaged person, that there's no recovery from that. And it's just not true, you know? You can be made up of so many different things. That stuff can maybe not go away completely, but that doesn't mean you can't be a badass at the same time. Just because you have weak moments doesn't mean that you're not also strong. It's taken me a long time to realize that. And I still have a hard time with that even on stage, because I'm not fully confident all the time on stage, but I am sometimes. And that's enough. I don't have to be.