Interview and article by Aline Giordano
As soon as the sound check is finished, Mike Hadreas, AKA Perfume Genius, very kindly comes to greet me in the foyer of the Chapel Arts Centre. I find his punctuality refreshing, especially given that my interview has not been pre-booked. There are two things that Mike has to do first before we settle down: smoke a cigarette outside and pick up a can of diet Coke. His drug addiction days are behind him and nowadays it’s water and fizzy caffeinated drink on the rider.
Mike sits on the sofa next to me; he opens his can; we’re ready to roll; so I ask my first question.
When reading interviews or reviews about Perfume Genius the same words come over and over again. On the one hand ‘tenderness’, ‘intimate’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘beautiful’; and on the other hand ‘self-destruction’, ‘darkness’, ‘drug addiction’. It’s sober or f*cked up, black or white, all or nothing? Does it feel this way?
Hadreas is composed and relaxed. He considers the question then says.
‘In the beginning when I got healthy it felt that way. I thought it was black or white; I was good or bad. I had been bad for a long time and now I had to be good. It’s helpful to think that way. You need to think it’s a life or death thing. Your addiction never goes away but you can start healing your problems and that’s not a black and white thing. It’s more confusing in a lot of ways. It goes up and down a lot. Addiction smoothed over a lot of things for a long time and now I have to feel the feelings that I had put on hold for a long time, which you have to feel before they can go away. It’s not always fun, although sometimes it is’.
He stops, smiles and says: ‘Sorry I’m not making much sense…’
Actually he is making a lot of sense to me. I open up to him with a similar frankness and fragility that he himself has just shown. I tell him how I tap into my feelings to try and make sense out of the darkness inside me. As I talk he listens intently. Then we start exchanging experiences. It’s now my turn to stop and apologise. I tell Hadreas that it feels we are counselling each other, in a way! He replies: ‘I like talking like that! And now we’re both on the couch and nobody gets paid or is paying anyone!’
I’m not so sure who is asking questions now or who is counselling whom, but we carry on and we’re on the subject of not fitting in.
‘Never fitting in, that’s the core. Before I figured out why I never fitted, I felt that way very early and I kept adding on reasons why I didn’t fit in, like I was small and weird and gay and creative and all kinds of things you can convince yourself that you are different from anyone else! And, you end up kind of being proud of that. But in order for me to get healthy I had to give up the false feeling that I was really unique’.
In an attempt to regain control of this interview I ask a straightforward question: you receive a fair amount of mail from your fans who have experienced similar darkness in their lives. Do you feel a sense of responsibility toward them, perhaps a responsibility you’d rather not have?
‘When I’m touring I get to see people and I remember that people listen to the music in their house and, like, on the bus. But when I’m home I don’t think about the scope of it. So if I’m going to have a responsibility, it’s a good one to have. I haven’t really been purposeful in my life so, I don’t mind taking that on. The second album, I wrote it a lot more thinking that it could be helpful to others’.
While on the subject of music and catharsis, I ask Hadreas if there had ever been any artists he found particularly helpful to him.
‘A lot of them! I’d be obsessive with somebody for a year and then move on. Elliott Smith for sure and P J Harvey. P J Harvey, the lyrical content wasn’t specific to experiences but she was so scary. I was terrified with dark and devil stuff for a while and she would talk about the devil in her songs. She’d say she’d slept with the devil and that she’d hung out with him. I remember listening to that in my room and being so scared, yet it was really pretty.’
I read a book by Ruth Behar and this quote stuck with me: ‘To write vulnerably is to open a Pandora’s box’. Have you felt that you start writing and…
…‘it won’t stop!’ He says jokingly ‘You’ve unleashed something’. Then he pauses for a small while and offers a timid ‘I guess. I worry a little bit about this. I follow this poet and performance artist on Twitter and once she tweeted “don’t give away too much information about yourself” and she thinks like that, “keep your thoughts to yourself”. But then I don’t understand what you’re going to write about then.
I ask Hadreas if being a performing artist is about claiming external validation.
‘Oh yeah’ he replies. ‘You know acting out, I used to do that in front of my dad before I started making music. Over-doing everything, over-explaining myself, like trying to convince myself that I was ok. He didn’t understand me at all so I’d do a bunch of things that were kind of impossible to understand in his face all the time and I feel like the music is a bit like that. I’m going to sing about this thing that I felt misunderstood about. It’s strange I guess and kind of dangerous because all these things I was embarrassed about and ashamed of, now I’m being praised for. Such a weird shift…’
But a positive shift, I add.
‘Yes, really positive but a lot of that comes from me being self-obsessed, not always in a nice way. I’m constantly thinking about my problems, getting my pictures taken and stuff like that. I’m glad for it but I think it could be a little dangerous’.
I admit to Hadreas that it’d be wrong of me to comment on this, but I share with him that in my mind, all the acting out is a sort of self-protection because emotionally not much stacks up. He seems to agree and adds: ‘If you felt you didn’t fit in very early you’re kind of forced to think about yourself all the time, about how you care for yourself. You become self aware like you say as self-defence’.
We look at each other and smile. We agree that we have far too many issues that can’t be resolved in a twenty-minute interview, so we decide to call it a day! Mike Hadreas has been very generous with his time and he needs to call his mum. It’s mother’s day in the US today and he’s keen to phone home.
For more details, visit… Perfume Genius’ page on Matador.
© Aline Giordano 2012