Perfume Genius on his art-pop: 'I wonder why I’m into such bleak stuff'
Spend five minutes searching YouTube for Mötley Crüe or Chris Brown videos and you'll see more lascivious sexuality than what's in the promotional video for Perfume Genius' new album, "Put Your Back N 2 It." The difference is that in the Perfume Genius clip, the thin-boned singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas is wrapped in the shirtless, hirsute embrace of Arpad Miklos, a popular star in gay porn.
They definitely make a striking on-screen couple. But even though the shot, compared to pretty much anything promoting top-40 radio today, is entirely PG, guess which one got banned from YouTube for being ostensibly un-family friendly? “I still don’t understand why that happened,” Hadreas said. “I think it was all the chest hair.”
Gay marriage may be finding increasing support in America, but mainstream culture still flinches at artistic images of gay sexuality that, if the couple were straight, could play on prime-time TV. And that's the deep tension -- the idea that your attractions are distasteful -- that drives much of the 30-year-old Hadreas' songwriting as Perfume Genius. "Put Your Back N 2 It" is an emotional dystopia where love and comfort are inseparable from feeling debased and ugly. But it’s also a really lovely art-pop record laced with sly humor that’s ultimately hopeful.
The Seattle-based Hadreas, who plays the Bootleg Bar tonight, first won praise for his 2010 debut, “Learning.” It’s a gauzy, piano-driven album with a centerpiece single, “Mr. Peterson,” about an affair with a male high school teacher who killed himself (and Hadreas has alluded that it’s at least partly factual). Its couplets are spare and devastating: “My work came back from class / With notes attached / Of a place and time / Or how my body kept him up at night.”
But that debut album’s rivulets of pain and self-consciousness weren’t an act. Perfume Genius played only a handful of shows supporting it, due to Hadreas’ perfectionism and lacerating stage fright. This tour is his first extended run of consecutive dates, and befits the growing ambition and confidence of the follow-up record. “No Tear” and “Take Me Home” come right to the edge of being straight soul ballads, alebit tweaked by down-pitched vocal samples and bleary, dragging drum parts. “All Waters” has the warm-bath synthesizers of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets,” but puts his bare falsetto at the top of the track.
“I was always nervous that if I ever let go and got into it, if I failed, it’d be so embarassing because I took it so seriously,” he said. “But people liked that it was vulnerable, and now I’m trying to tell myself to [screw] those fears.”
The album’s title track takes a phrase found in pretty much every stripper-ode rap song and rips out all the cash-flashing bonhomie to leave a raw wound of pure desperation. But “AWOL Marine” will elicit the most uncomfortable shivers. It’s inspired by the B-roll of some amateur online gay porn that Hadreas saw, where one male star admits he’s only performing to pay for his wife’s medicine, and the director promises to edit out his face but obviously never did.
“I didn’t watch that video to get off or anything. I’d watch it, like, while I was eating,” he said. “I always wonder why I’m into such bleak stuff. I always just thought I was gross. When I was younger, I thought soullessness itself was beautiful, but now I always try to find the soul in stuff stuff like that.”
It’s bleak material, indeed, but Hadreas is often brutally funny and self aware in conversation. He knows his songwriting has created a kind of too-fragile-to-survive persona that isn’t entirely accurate as to who he is, and he admits not knowing how best to respond when fans send emails documenting their own tragedies and struggles. Hadreas is also completely frank about his current drug and alcohol use, which he says was occasionally debilitating in the past and remains as a kind of manageable attraction to the dark side. “I’ve been doing good so far, even though there’s been a lot more ‘hip’ opportunities to go out and take drugs and party. But I always hated only having two drinks,” he said. “When I do go out, I want it to be big time, like a week-long session.”
But for the ransacked self-loathing of Perfume Genius' albums and his destructive instincts, his live shows are growing evidence that Hadreas has come around the bend as a performer. His boyfriend, Alan Wyffels, is his lone touring band mate, and they perform with an intimacy that’s inseparable from their extra-musical relationship. “I can be kind of a [brat] about music, I just know exactly what I want and how to get it,” he said. "But Alan went to music school, and most of the time we just get it and don’t really need to say anything.”
That kind of chemistry might get you banned from YouTube. But it makes for a great show.
Perfume Genius plays the Bootleg Bar at 9 tonight. 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. $12. foldsilverlake.com
-- August Brown
Photo: Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius. Credit: Angel Ceballos.