Just as I’m wrapping up lunch with Perfume Genius, the musical moniker for 35-year-old Mike Hadreas, he goes silent. The recorder is off and he quickly shifts his gaze to the empty can of Diet Coke resting on our small corner table and asks me if I think it’s okay if he—so he doesn’t have to order another—takes a Diet Coke out of his bag.
It’s surprising and strange and almost charming—representative of Hadreas’s presence. There’s power in all of his endeavors, whether he’s singing gentle melodies over a sleepy piano about addiction, sexual abuse, and a gay identity, or when he’s more bombastic, shouting brazen lyrics like “No family is safe/When I sashay.” What distinguishes No Shape, his fourth and latest album, and what ends up being the focal point of our conversation, is a lightness, an understanding that even when we’re feeling good, when we’ve worked so hard for happiness, there are moments when we still are not okay. And that’s okay, I’m reassured.
No Shape is a pop record that looks at the aftermath, at what stability feels like, and while sometimes I am at a loss for words, unable to articulate the abundance of emotions the record forces to the surface, that feels fitting. There’s so much we feel at once.
Complex: My favorite song is on the new album is “Die 4 You.” I wanted to ask you: Why do I like “Die 4 You” so much?
Perfume Genius: Why you like it? [Laughs.]
It feels different.
It has a lot of ingredients of things I listened to growing up that I loved that were sexy and smooth in a way that I’ve felt but didn’t put in the music before.
It’s very sexy.
I think so. On purpose. But there’s still this sort of dark—it’s like a goth Sade…. The songs just jump around. I think it all fits together very nicely though. Some people like certain songs more than others. It depends on their tastes. I think it’s because there’s so many different genres touched upon. My dad hates certain songs and loves other ones.
Does that make you like those songs more?
No. I’m kind of over that. I am very rebellious though. But anything that sounds like the stuff he liked growing up, more like that. He’ll like that song. If it’s further away he just hates it. There’s more opportunity for that to happen on this album because it’s not one overarching thing. I think some people can really like some of it and not get some it.
I was trying to come up with a thesis statement for the album, but putting a single word or descriptor on it doesn’t seem be fair. You’ve talked about self-care and the record, but it goes a step further for me. When you’re doing all of that self-care and you still feel like shit—that’s really interesting.
[Laughs.] Well, I’m glad that’s interesting. It feels bratty to have that feeling so I’m just trying to figure out a way to figure things out, maybe? To make it stop? Maybe feel a little less guilty about it so that I actually do something or make something out of it.
About feeling good?
Yeah, and about your problems and that those specific ones are your problems.
A thought loop!
It’s also very chemical sometimes. It’s a weird thing to figure out. You can’t really shake it, but from doing stuff for long enough I can tell when my mood is shitty.
Do you have a thing you do to get out of that?
Just waiting until it’s over. [Laughs.] Not really. I’m sure there are many things you can do to make it better but I don’t do many of those things.
Did you go into writing the album with anything in mind?
No. All of the songs I sang in gibberish. Before, I used to write the lyrics out before the music. I start a song with music and lyric together, or in gibberish or something. I’d finish up the lyrics and then I’d go and finish up the music. With this, I did all the music, all the melodies, and then spent like two weeks writing the lyrics.
Is there a major difference in approaching in that way?
The reason I didn't want to worry about the lyrics as much is because I wanted everything to feel really immediate so I could experiment a little bit more with things. I was free in how I was singing. I wanted the lyrics to keep all the spirit of the songs and it felt better to be more immediate, how I’m feeling while I’m writing instead of just putting a memory, make it about something that had already happened.
You keep gathering and putting things on. You forget what the goal is.
Yeah. Some of the songs are about memories but most of those were memories formed closer together. It felt more emotional than anything I had ever written in a lot of ways. I was talking about how I was actually feeling. Not writing how I felt before or what had happened. It wasn’t a story. It’s kind of embarrassing. It feels a lot riskier.
Is this the biggest risk in your work you have taken thus far?
In certain ways, yeah. I feel like I’m going for it some ways that I hadn’t before. That means if people don’t like it there’s more to lose…. I enjoy that. [Laughs.] In a weird way. That’s what I want to listen to and see in other people, people really going for it.
It does feel very visceral. It kind of feels like something a poetry teacher told me once. It’s more difficult to write a happy poem. You won’t find many good poems about being happy.
I feel that. I’m into that. It felt like a challenge to do that and try to be as dramatic or as impactful.
But I wouldn’t call No Shape a happy album.
No. I wouldn’t. It’s more happy in a supernatural way, where everything is good and bad and wrapped up together. That’s better than just good or bad. It seems more real. I like that idea. It’s more freeing. You can feel good or bad at the same time instead of constantly trying how to feel permanently good. That used to be my main goal.
I never feel perfectly at ease. I’m constantly just soothing and then adding more things on. I’ll do something and it’ll make it a little better. You keep gathering and putting things on. You forget what the goal is.
What are some of the things you do to soothe yourself?
[Laughs.] I eat food, I think. I used to drink. I used to do drugs. I didn’t quit smoking. I have a lot of blankets. We have lots of blankets.
I’m really into weighted blankets and the Temple Grandin Squease Machine.
I remember seeing her with all those cushions. I could see that being very soothing. I’m going to check that out. Weighted blankets. I like anything like that. My mom’s the same way. I think it’s inherited…. I have all of this anxiety but I’m not necessarily really stressed out all of the time. I am lately. My answer to all of that, usually, is completely checking out and avoiding. I’m kinda seemingly very chill a lot. [Laughs.] I can do that with my brain, completely shut it off and avoid. I just haven’t figured out how to do both. Now that the music stuff is starting again I don’t know how to be ambitious and do everything I need to do, be really thoughtful about it and also be able to hang out and chill out. I don’t know how to do those at the same time.
Also, you can feel better and worse. You can do a really good job half the day. You feel ok. Then you can have a shitty night. They cancel each other out. That used to be really confusing to me. I felt like I was doing something wrong. A lot of the time the songs are just me magnifying and blowing up things that I don’t necessarily carry with me all the time. They are just seasoning that’s underneath.
I’m scared that if I talk about all of this stuff people are going to think that I’m freaking out all the time. [Laughs.]
Does big pop production, for a live show, for instance, appeal to you?
Yes. I would at least like to have the option to do whatever was in my head. Just to be able to do all my ideas. I’ve always wanted to descend, to descend onto the stage.
I went to a show in high school that Rihanna headlined. Lady Gaga was one of the openers. She had “Just Dance.”
[Laughs.] Pop music at that level is so weird. They come out and do one song or something? When I see that I can’t tell if that’s something I’m really into or not. There’s only like seven people there but they’re doing a full dance routine. Actually, I think I’m really into it. It’s kind of badass to go for it when there’s eight people there. Like you have your wig and sunglasses.
Cheesy. You should wear a pop star mic.
I’ve already looked into those. I thought about it but I kind of like having this thing. It’s like when you have a bag and you walk around with it and you feel less nervous because you have something to hold onto. Even a cigarette used to do that for me too. If I did have one of those my hands would be free. What would I do about them?
We were going to do an album release party and they were going to have me descend. I said that I wanted to descend, just say hi to everybody, and then go back. Only show up for a minute. Like, “Hi. Thank you so much for coming.” Then go right back up. [Laughs.] I was so excited for it, but no. I always think about things like that. I was going to ride one of those Barbie cars on stage but then that girl did it already. That girl already went viral on her Barbie car.
I laugh cried at this lyric in the song “Valley”: “How much longer must we live right before we don’t even have to try?” It’s not funny but it’s so not funny. It’s so miserable. Do you think of yourself as a trickster in some ways? It’s cheeky.
Yeah, but at the same time I really would deeply cry and think about that lyric too.
Fuck. I’m sorry.
No. It’s both. It depends.
I’m very nervous and very insecure about a lot of things, but not about the actual music.
You have several upbeat songs. There’s “Wreath,” which is uptempo. But it’s about death. I don’t know. It just feels like childishly devilish. Not in a bad way.
Yeah. I do like that kind of thing. I like tricking people. Some of it is just how comes it comes out but I think it’s more intentional with some of the songs. Hook them with something warm and inviting. Have it actually have more dissonance than you thought. Have a song slowly blooming that’s a little nasty or have the lyrics be much darker if you really pay attention. It’s just a taste thing that keeps it going too far either way. I like stuff that does that. It’s never full blown beautiful or full blown dark and disturbing. It’s a push and pull between both of those things.
I feel good listening to it though.
Good. I want it to make you feel okay when you’re not. Not feel so guilty or that you frantically need to feel more comfortable or better immediately. Just be able to sit with whatever is going on.
I can’t articulate what I was trying to do sometimes with the songs. That’s why I wrote them and made them. I can’t really figure out how to say them in any other way. After I make them, when I have to talk about them, I can’t really figure out how to unpack them. Then I’ll read a review of something, or someone will talk about it, and it will make me feel really good.
Do you read all of your reviews?
In the beginning. I read all the press in the beginning.
Even the bad?
I just read one earlier.
When someone gives you a negative review because they didn’t get it is it ok to just ignore it?
That’s the thing. I’m very nervous and very insecure about a lot of things, but not about the actual music. I really tried really hard. Regardless of whether or not it actually is good or bad, I really tried to push myself. I made something beyond what I had thought I was going to make when I set out. I feel really proud of it. Like, if you can’t relate to the stuff on it I can’t see why you would like it that much. Then you’re just listening to the sounds and they’re kind of weird. That’s what the reviewer was saying. She was saying the sounds were really annoying. She started the review saying she was hungover when she was listening to it. Like Vice. I don’t know, maybe how Vice used to be.
She just wasn’t into it. I’ve read some really well written bad reviews too. I agree with it sometimes too. But what are you going to do? I just feel good that I did something. I spent a lot of time not committing, not making decisions, or doing anything. That’s rad to me to have something to show, a lot of things now.
Do you ever worry about offending people?
Yeah. I think in a good way. I just want to make sure I don’t make anyone uncomfortable. I’m older and making music. I want to be successful and in your head, your whole life you have it in your head that the only way you can really make it is that you have to convince all of these straight people to give it a shot or like it. You have to break into their thing. I don't feel like doing that anymore
But you’ve never really done it.
No. But I feel like everyone is essentially doing it. That’s how the world is set up. It’s a task. It’s sort of thrilling to subvert it, go around it, and have success anyways. I wouldn’t mind doing what I do in the album. Tricking them. Getting all these people in. Like, give me some money. Then after they give me the money, after they really listen to it, then it’s too late and I keep the check.