Perfume Genius: ‘Fetishes are really beautiful things’

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Mike Hadreas talks new album 'No Shape', his fascination with fetishes, and why Lana Del Rey "has got to be a powerful witch"

 “Body horror Sade, Greek diner Kate Bush, Springsteen in a scrunchie.” Almost exactly a year ago this was how Perfume Genius was teasing fourth album ‘No Shape’ for his massive Twitter following, even before he’d entered the studio. A year on, the 35-year-old stands by the description: “I think it’s 100 percent true,” he says over FaceTime from his home in Tacoma, Washington. “That’s a lot of percent.”

Mike Hadreas’ first two albums poured out tales of drug abuse, violence and depression over hushed piano lines. His third, 2014’s ‘Too Bright’, found him railing against the micro and macro aspects of homophobia with the glam rock instant-classic ‘Queen’: “No family is safe when I sashay,” he snarled. But ‘No Shape’ finds him in an entirely different world: now eight years into his relationship with pianist Alan Wyffels, he’s made an album about love, with unprecedentedly broad and lush production to match. Scattered throughout are audible homages to big, brash artists: there’s Queen (“I want to break free”, he sings on ‘Slip Away’), Kate Bush (he’s “running up that hill” on ‘Wreath’) and Prince (“I would die 4 you“, he whispers on ‘Die 4 You’). 

Unlike Hadreas’ previous albums, recorded under grey British skies, ‘No Shape’ was made in L.A. with Blake Mills, the same man who produced Laura Marling’s similarly expansive sixth album ‘Semper Femina’. On album opener ‘Otherside’, Hadreas references his early music with a soft piano line that he then blows into a million awesome shards. You’ve never heard this Perfume Genius before.

You recorded your first few albums in the UK. Why did you choose to record this one in L.A.?

It’s where [producer] Blake [Mills] is based. I ended up really liking it there: it was very strange to make music when it was so nice out. Just being somewhere where it’s so nice out in general is weird. It’s constant. Seattle, where I’m from, is nice for like a month or two. Having a fever when it’s nice out, or being in a bad mood and then it’s nice out – it’s very weird.

This was your first time working with Blake Mills – what sound were you hoping for?

Blake is really good at having it sound rock’n’roll, but it’s always sort of twisted or fucked up. I always wanted a little bit of dissonance, and I knew he could take it there.”

You’ve explained that ‘Die 4 You’ is about erotic asphyxiation. What about that appealed to you as a metaphor?

If there’s a pure love song that’s 100 percent into sweetness, it becomes background music: you don’t remember it after. The idea of this song about giving everything to someone, in tandem with a fetishy asphyxiation vibe as a sort of metaphor… it’s provocative, but I think fetishes are really beautiful things. I wish I had something that was like so specific, like: ‘That’s what I like, 100 percent all into puppets’ or something. I just think it’s really a beautiful thing.

The openness involved, you mean?

I guess – and just that someone knows exactly what they want. That’s why I like a lot of fetish videos and stuff on YouTube. Not even the super sexual ones, just ones where people are wearing masks or something. You can just feel the joy in them because they’re doing the thing that makes them feel more like them: happier, or closer to what they want.

What other elements of conflict have you put into these love songs, then?

‘Slip Away’ is another love song, but in a defiant way – in the face of oppression, or your own brain telling you you don’t deserve it, or aren’t capable of love. Whatever voices are trying to fuck with you.

Perfume Genius

Your videos are always very striking – which is your favourite?

This last one, ‘Slip Away’. It’s just perfect to me, it has everything I wanted in it. I’m sort of astounded by it because of just how much work Andrew [Thomas Huang] put into it and how he just created a whole world. I don’t have the kind of budget to do that, and somehow he did it. It’s so beautiful and joyous, and there’s still this unsettling energy underneath – but neither of those things cancel it out. And that’s what I wanted.  

You were on the soundtrack of the Looking special/finale on HBO last year. That show got quite a lot of flak for being ‘boring‘: do you think it was deserved?

I think, you know, it’s the [only] gay show on TV. So it’s not going to please everyone. Everybody’s so desperately craving to see themselves and their stories, so every time one comes out it has to be everything to everyone. I understand why people would be frustrated, but it’s just like, if I just see two men kissing on TV, even if it’s really shitty, I just start crying – it doesn’t matter.

We have to sit through so many shitty-ass movies just because two gay dudes are going to kiss on it or hold hands or something from your experience that might be there – even if it’s really poorly acted and cheesy. It doesn’t matter, because you just crave it so much. I’m really into gay stuff getting funded: having it be on TV, and having a show. I enjoyed Looking. It wasn’t necessarily like me on a show, but…

On Twitter you seem big into witches. Did you know about Lana Del Rey’s anti-Trump spell?

I’m into it. I believe it. I mean, she’s got to be a powerful witch, for sure. Whether she knew it or not, maybe she’s sort of coming into it or maybe it’s always been there, I don’t know. Who knows if that was just like a hint at what she’s developing, or what she’s been all along…

One final question, also on your hilarious Twitter account: why do you keep tweeting about Tony Hawk?

I like when I tweet about Tony Hawk. A lot of times people think it’s true, like I’ve tweeted about having lunch with him a lot and people are like ‘Oh, how was he?’ or like ‘Do you have a pic?’ I don’t know how to explain it, he’s right at the level where people could almost believe it but it’s also a really weird pairing. I’ve developed almost these compulsive weird Twitter mythologies, and for some reason it’s Tony Hawk, clam chowder, and goblins. And blouses. Big blouses.

‘No Shape’ is out on Matador records now. Perfume Genius plays London’s Heaven (June 8), and End of the Road Festival (August 31-September 3).