perfume genius is the queer singer turning his fetishes into pop
Ahead of his sold out London show at Heaven, i-D caught up with Mike Hadreas to talk about new album "No Shape," calling on spirits and running away from "evil Trump babies."
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
"I purposely tried to write pop — big pop songs," Mike Hadreas says about No Shape, his fourth album as Perfume Genius. Before listening to the record, it's not what you might have expected from the creator of 2014's furious and strange Too Bright. From the strutting glam rock of queer anthem "Queen," to the layered screams and whip-cracking synths of "Grid," and the ghostly, fractured vocals of "I'm A Mother," it was a defiant "fuck you" to the oppressive mainstream, its surrealist videos tripping decadently through New York's extravagant and deranged underbelly.
From the moment 2017 follow-up No Shape was announced, it was clear that it would be a very different beast. Utilizing the melodic verses and euphoric choruses of chart pop, the first single, "Slip Away," arrived with a playful video set in a rose-tinted fantasy world. Dressed in frills and gorging on proverbial forbidden fruit, Mike frolics in the countryside with a partner, evading a pair of grotesque trolls ("Evil Trump babies," he clarifies, grinning).
"I thought about how some [artists] just give music to people and everybody freaks out," Mike says, explaining his conscious attempt to make pop music with a big, studio-crafted sound, adopting the singing styles and confident poses of artists like Elvis and Bruce Springsteen. "It's mostly dudes; dudes make these big albums and they're like, 'Check it out, here's this big album!' or whatever, it's like, 'Oh my god what a genius, this is so amazing!' They're not asking them about laundry and shit — 'what's this mean,' or 'where's it come from'." Not that he resents talking about those things, he says, he just wondered, "What If I made a big album like that?" He elaborates with, "Almost as a way to allow myself to feel more capable, or more subversive about it."
The album is frequently driven by a highly-produced pop sound, but it is no less queer than his earlier work. Standout track "Die 4 You," for example, is a love song about completely giving yourself over to someone, being willing to die for them — a classic pop trope, but expressed through the metaphor of erotic asphyxiation (being suffocated for sexual pleasure). "I really love fetishes," he beams. "I like that someone knows exactly what they want, and that they can have such hyper-specific desires; it's just so beautiful to me. I wish I had more."
The album was described in notes by The Awl's Choire Sicha as "church music the same way Prince's Black Album is — too dirty". The Black Album, also known as The Funk Bible, is amusingly explicit — at one point he propositions supermodel 'Cindy C' with the lyric "Your furry melting thing awaits me". (When the record first went into production, Prince immediately ordered its recall and destruction after he became convinced it was "evil," but bootlegs abounded, and years later it was officially released.)
It may be worshipping at a different altar, but parts of No Shape actually do sound like being in a traditional church: for first track "Otherside," the recording studio was set up with a "congregation" of singers (including friends and producer Blake Mills) in pews behind a dummy head microphone, and Mike singing in front. "So that I sounded like I was giving a sermon," he says.
Unlike Prince, Mike says he isn't religious. "More like witchy and spiritual." He looks a little witchy during the interview, wearing a frayed-hem cream hemp top and matching trousers, and curled up in a dark Shoreditch hotel room (not by preference, I later discover, he just forgot to put the room key in the electric). When his new-age-y parents did occasionally take him to church (Greek Orthodox, because his dad is Greek), he enjoyed the incense and chanting. "I think I've just always been obsessed with church choirs and hymns and stuff, but never felt fully indulged in it or that those songs were really for me," he says."But I really responded to the feeling of other people singing together. So I think I sometimes try to make music that has that feeling, but includes me and other people".
I feel like a witch sometimes when I'm writing.
If Too Bright was a "fuck you" directed at the forces of oppression — "I was like wagging my finger, singing in someone's face," he says — No Shape is "for the people that are on the other side of it. It's with and for them." The album was written before Trump was elected, but his odious views obviously aren't new. "I knew that America, a big portion of it, was racist and homophobic and fucked up — I've known that for a long time," Mike says. In fact, one reason he is considering moving to L.A. (where the album was recorded), is a desire to surround himself with "other people that are on the opposite side of that, of him, and oppression".
A key theme of the album is about finding peace and happiness in this period of political and social turmoil. "To pay attention and be aware, and ready to fight and show up and stuff, but also, just go about your daily life at the same time without just spiraling with anger," he says. It's protest music, but the kind that recognizes the radical power of joy, as well as anger. " "Slip Away" is about stealing love or keeping love, even when the world tells you that it's not right or the way that you love is wrong," he says. "I feel like its defiant to do it anyway". The final track, "Alan," he wrote for his partner of eight years, the pianist Alan Wyffels. "Did you notice / We sleep through the night / Did you notice babe / Everything is alright," he sings, marvelling at the stability of their situation following a shared history of struggle and addiction in their twenties (Mike is now 35).
Not that everything is completely rosy. The album title is a reflection of Mike's persistent body image anxieties. "I've always been kind of small, and strange, and what people consider to be feminine, and those things didn't always go over very well," he says. It's an understatement: he was once hospitalized in a homophobic attack. The album title developed from an fixation on transcending the limits of the body. "Like spiritually transcending… going to the next level of things," he says. It's not just an idea, but an energy he experiences both when he's writing and on stage. "I feel like a witch sometimes when I'm writing," he says, earnestly. "Even though it's a drama that I'm creating, it feels like I'm receiving weird information. I don't even know where it comes from."
At live shows in the past, Mike says his main aim was just to get through it. He couldn't even look at the audience, let alone dance, but now he feels more in control of the situation. "When the energy is circling in the venue, I think I'm able to amp it up, or like, move it around," he says. "And if it's not there, then I can work myself up into a fervor on my own… like calling on spirits," he says. "Or to think that's what I'm doing when I'm writing and performing," he qualifies, before correcting himself: "I don't know why I can't just say that and own up to it. That's what I'm doing." It's fitting then that he will play to a sold out crowd at Heaven in London tonight. Fans are surely ready, on yet another emotional election day, for the promises of queer pop transcendence.
Text Charlotte Gush