Turning Pain Into Power with Perfume Genius

The Singer on Praying to Rihanna and the Difference Between Sadness and Depression

  • Interview: Sanja Grozdanic
  • Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Pop stars have the power to engender intimacy from a distance. Outside Heaven, a legendary London gay club on Charing Cross, the phenomenon is on full display. The crowd is here to see Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, perform songs from his fourth album, No Shape.

In the line-up and security check, teenage girls are talking about Hadreas in a manner typically reserved for discussing friends or lovers. They feel that they know him. Or perhaps more importantly, that he knows them. Theorist Fredric Jameson observed that the postmodern era is marked by a “waning of affect,” that sincerity and authenticity have been toppled by irony and distance. But there is tenderness, community, and camaraderie in this crowd.

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This is a sold-out show, the club filled with young girls, young boys, and a few older men who are uniquely endearing. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they stumbled into Heaven by accident, until they begin yelling out Hadreas’ name. They’re here for him, too. When he steps out, it is in a billowing blouse and a pinstriped, corset jumpsuit. Glamour like his is infectious and empowering.

“No family is safe when I sashay,” he sings, tipping his head back to the delight of the audience. Glamour is defiant, too. Most profiles of Hadreas begin by citing his past adversities, his struggles with addiction. I understand; it makes for a good story, albeit an incomplete one. Hadreas is so much more than his past—just ask the crowd at Heaven. In exploring his own pain, he helps absolve the shame we associate with our own. Amongst the desire and loss, there is grandeur and triumph.


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Sanja Grozdanic

Mike Hadreas

Can you tell me the space you were in when you were creating No Shape?

It came in waves, to be honest. I’m never really certain why I do things at first, but I could tell when I was writing it that what was most important to me was to write about how I feel in a more immediate way. I wasn’t telling stories about things that have already happened. It was a little more complicated, because the things I was writing about were more open-ended and multi-tiered. There were warm moments and darker moments, sometimes in parallel with each other, within a few hours. That was confusing at first, and almost a little more scary to share because there’s no ending. It felt more like a challenge for me to make something warm about trying to find connection, or some kind of spiritual contentment, or something. I never really get there, but the album is essentially me trying to.

I was listening to an interview with Jessa Crispin recently, and she said that examining our mediocrities is just as important as examining our triumphs.

It’s also more fun. I like drama. I like extremes. I think that’s what's unsettling to me about being present in the moment. It feels small. It’s not! It’s just the way that I’ve trained my brain to think. And that’s why I’m always so stuck in my head, because I’m always chasing some big moment. Writing and making music is a way for me to dramatize the tiny moments in my life. I can realize or teach myself how sacred and special they can be.

In your artist bio you say that your music will always be in protest. There’s a Carl Schurz quote that has meant a lot to me recently: “We have come to a point where it is loyalty to resist, and treason to submit.” Do you feel like we’re at that point?

I mean, that’s really deep! [Laughs] I don’t know, man. It’s such a mess over here [in America]. I tune in and out. You know, I don’t have any hope. There’s no light at the end of it. But how do you exist during that? Some people can’t! Physically. And it feels almost silly sometimes. “Oh, I’m writing music about my feelings.” [Laughs] It’s weird to find a balance of being clued in, and aware of what’s happening, and ready to fight and act, but also trying to find some joy and steal some moment for yourself to just be.

I don’t have any hope. There’s no light at the end of it.

You did the reverse of most musicians—getting sober and making music. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Melissa Broder, or @SoSadToday—she said that being sober makes her more creative because she has to rely on her imagination. To quote: “I rely on creativity because I don’t have anything else to take the edge off life.” Is this true for you?

100%. It very much feels like a replacement sometimes. We were talking about how I want everything to be a big event—that’s the drug and drinking mix. That’s how it makes you feel. I’m in someone’s basement for four days straight, but I feel like something really epic has gone down. And I haven’t even moved, or I’ve just been vacuuming for 36 hours. Music is a less immediate way sometimes—or it’s more thoughtful and patient —because it’s real. But I gotta find some way to cope. I’m not the kind of person that can just be without some sort of outlet. Drugs and all that—they work! They really do work. They’re the best thing I’ve found, for sure. Music is a close second, I guess.

Well, there’s more labor involved! It’s like when you take hallucinogens and you think it’s so profound. Until it isn’t.

[Laughs] It feels profound! There are moments when I connect now and they feel intimately more real, but they’re just fewer. That’s a lot more lasting, in the long run. And I’m going to be around to have that, so…

You’re on tour at the moment, which I imagine would be so physically draining, having to be in character. How do you handle that physically and emotionally?

It’s weird. I feel very purposeful, and I haven’t felt a sense of purpose for most of my life—I didn’t have a helpful direction for all my energies. They were all essentially destructive. I can ride that for a long time. Sometimes I just think about Rihanna, how busy she must be, and she’s always on point. So I just pray to Rihanna.

So I just pray to Rihanna.

Saint Rihanna.

And I enjoy it. I like the routine of touring. I like that I have very specific things to be anxious about. It isn’t just general, free-roaming anxiety. I even have a list, a schedule that I can obsess over instead of just frantically pacing around. [Laughs]

Does archiving your pain make living easier?

Yeah. I think so. Everyone always asks me how it feels to perform what they consider to be depressing music all the time. It never feels depressing to me. It feels very free and cathartic. It feels like I’m letting those things go over and over. It feels much more like a shared experience now, too, and that helps. It drags me out of myself a little bit. Even though the music is still my person, it feels like I’m finally detaching from my grip of what I consider to be my problems. [Laughs] And it’s a way to be kinder to myself, you know? Even though the songs are sad, those extremes don’t feel as patient or as kind when they’re happening as they do when I’m writing about them. So, I kind of get to change it, recreate it into something a little more cozy. The music has gotten less minimal, too. The sound itself is a little more wild. That’s very freeing. If I can really lose myself on stage, if I can connect to the thing that I was writing, it feels almost like a spiritual thing. And I feel good at it too, which is good for the ego.

How do you find dealing with your level of fame? Has it changed your day-to-day?

No. I mean, it does feel weird when I’m cleaning up my dog’s shit and then I talk to some magazine 10 minutes later and I have to be all fancy. It’s not like I’m on some grand scale or anything, but it’s definitely shifted. I used to go on stage in the same clothes I was wearing off-stage. The whole Perfume Genius thing feels like I have to change into a different person—it’s still me, but I have to turn something on more than before. In a good way. It’s made the music better, it’s made performing better.
Before the album came out this time I tried to think about how I was going to talk about it, and I used to think that I had to be 100% candid or else it wouldn’t be real. But then I would end up not giving the right answers, or I’d be nervous. Now I can tell the truth about the album, because I’ve thought about it more. I’m thinking more about every little aspect, and that’s kind of draining. But I don’t know. I don’t have any idea how I do any of it. I feel like I’m winging it all the time.

  • Interview: Sanja Grozdanic
  • Photography: Inez & Vinoodh