Mike Haedreas, also known as Perfume Genius, discusses self evolution through dance, music, and health.

Perfume Genius or Mike Haedreas on Too Bright
Perfume Genius or Mike Haedreas, by Luke Gilford

In high school, Mike Hadreas was severely bullied for being gay. With the pressure of being told to walk or talk a certain way, Haedreas developed a sense of self that wasn’t true to who he really was.

“I told myself who I was when I was 12 and then it didn't really change,” he says. “I had this idea of who I was and what I was capable of. I think I use music and the way I perform to shake all of those ideas away.” Haedreas performs as Perfume Genius, and he’ll open for The XX October 19 at Bold Sphere Music at Champions Square.

After high school, Hadreas moved to New York and spent most of the next four years partying and getting wasted. When he realized his lifestyle was becoming a problem, Hadreas moved home with his mother and checked into rehab. It was then that he began to write. Making music was a struggle for Haedreaus when he was using alcohol and drugs. Going to rehab launched Hadreas’ plight as a rock star in reverse

Hadreas released his debut album Learning in 2010 under the name Perfume Genius. The emotionally fraught and intimate album immediately received praise from critics. Low-fi albums have a tendency to be angsty, but Hadreas maintained a sense of intimacy in his album. He openly discusses his struggle with addiction, sexual abuse, and infatuation with death. His raw vocals connected with listeners from a broad spectrum although the topics of the songs would seem to attract a small niche. His second release, Put Your back N 2 It, was similarly based in the past, but it offered flickers of hope in the darkness. 

Hadreas felt like it was time to look forward when he released his 2014 album, Too Bright. “When I first started writing music, it was all very quiet and about things that had already happened,” he says. “A lot of things coming up whether I liked it or not. But with Too Bright, I had to dig around and look for stuff, and I didn’t want to dig around in the past.” On this year’s No Shape, Hadreas discusses life as an adult in a loving relationship, where life doesn’t become perfect simply by being sober. Growing up doesn’t stop at a certain age, and self-discovery is a continuous process. 

The change in perspective in writing No Shape is reflected in the way in which the songs were written and recorded. “The music changed when I started screaming or making weird noises,” Hadreas says, then giggles nervously. “When I’m alone, I start wordlessly chanting or singing in voice or screaming or screeching but it ends up feeling like a seance or something but its just me alone.”

On the podcast Song Exploder, Hadreas describes the seance-like writing process of the song “Slip Away.” The track which was recorded using a guitar-shaped mbira and a mannequin head with microphones attached to it to replicate the way that people take in sounds. Writing, recording, and mixing this track among others on the album was a calculated process coming from a near religious experience for Hadreas. Creating the songs was cathartic and formless, and that experience is echoed in the lyrics.  

“I sing about things as if I’m unafraid when I actually am afraid or dance in a way that's more proud than I actually am. It’s not a phoniness. It’s still me. Eventually you realize that it’s not a faking or something you’re putting on. The other person was more of the lie.”

Hadreas empowers his audience to be fearless by forcing himself to do the same. On the song "Queen" for instance, Hadreas belts lyrics mocking societal conceptions of gay people. Being a poster child for gay rights is no easy task, and although he wants to be free and formless, singing songs like this one can still make Hadreas afraid. 

“Its not like people are done killing gay people. I’m not done being nervous about being in the world,” Hadreas says. “But I’m always going to keep pushing myself to be unafraid even when I have reason to be.” It is this venerable expression of facing his fears that inspires his audience. 

Hadreas has the unique ability to draw people from various walks of life. Whether they connect with him based on the shared experience of growing up gay in a society that does not accept them, have had that lingering thought of death in their minds, or find solace in the echoing synths, Hadreas has a sincere quality to his sound and lyrics. He’s transparent with his listeners without being self-absorbed. Making music is a catharsis for him and his audience alike. To make the music video for his song "Wreath" for instance, Hadreas tapped into this communal cleansing by asking his fans to submit videos of them dancing to the song, then compiling them into a full length music video. 

Dancing is an integral mode of expression for Hadreas. Acting like he’s having an exorcism, Hadreas thrashes around stage. “I’ve never been super into my body or really connected to it, or taken care of it or anything. So to try to fully be into it. There’s something thrilling about it. To show it off, almost as a ‘fuck you.’” He lets out a nervous giggle. “I like extremes I guess. I just want to deeply feel something, I don’t even care if its worse than before, just as long as it’s intense.” 

Hadreas is infatuated with feeling something new and different all the time. This can come off as depressed or verging on suicidal at times, but it’s clear that he’s searching for that feeling of something new in healthier ways. He’s currently on a diet to help his pain from Crohn's Disease and thinks that this will help him creatively as well. “Maybe if I start eating well and getting healthy I’ll unlock more brain power,” he says.