Mike Hadreas is looking to move beyond his body.
“I don’t know where I want to go,” Hadreas tells SBS Sexuality over the phone, speaking from Tacoma, Washington, where he lives with partner Alan Wyffel. “I was just reading today about uploading your brain. I think I’d be down to transcend in a very specifically technological way, not just in such a magical dream way. I’d be uploaded, I don’t care.”
At first, that might surprise: as Perfume Genius, Hadreas is a presence, a four-album crescendo of confidence which, for now, culminates with last year’s No Shape.
But he is perhaps best known for “Queen”, the lead single from 2014’s Too Bright. Partially inspired by ‘gay panic’ laws, “Queen” sees Hadreas embrace the effeminacy he’s been chastised for since he was a child growing up outside Seattle. In the chorus, he leans into the pearl-clutching panic his street presence can inspire, declaring that “No family is safe/While I sashay”.
That pointed anger is less present on No Shape. So too has disappeared the piano-led confessions of substance abuse and trauma featured on 2010 debut Learnings and its follow up, Put Your Back N 2 It. Now sober for several years and in a long-term, committed relationship with Wyffel since 2010, Hadreas’s life has shifted. As Wyffel - a trained musician who tours with Hadreas - told The Fader last year, No Shape is an album about being “on the other side” of trauma. It asks: what do you look like when the dust settles?
“I mean, my whole life is based around how other people saw me or what they expected of me or what I thought they thought of me, you know what I mean?” explains Hadreas. “I wanted to get closer to truly not caring, to make a world that was mine that exists outside of that.”
If No Shape is a world, it is one that glistens on the edge of utopia. At times, the album explodes with an infectious optimism - take lead single “Slip Away”, Hadreas’ self-described “Springsteen moment”. Here, Hadreas bypasses the anger of “Queen” and aims to move beyond judgemental stares, singing, “Love, they’ll never break the shape we take / Baby, let all them voices slip away.” This, of course, is easy to hear and harder to do. But while listening, it feels possible.
“I want to sing songs for people who are already on my side and that I’m already cool with,” Hadreas shares. “Not to sing songs to convince people to get on my side, or not to yell at them. It’s just for us.”
You can see this idea in action in the music video for “Wreath”, where Hadreas edited together crowd-sourced clips of fans dancing.
Some are carefully choreographed groups complete with flower crowns and face paint; others remain bedroom lip-syncers wearing gold and glittery couture à la Hadreas’ stage attire; all are feeling themselves fierce.
“[On stage], I weirdly feel very divine and magical,” says Hadreas. “It’s an ecstatic thing that transcends all this at the same time - and that’s like the video with all the people dancing and you can just feel that.”
“That’s what I wanted [the music video] to be. That everything’s okay, in some way. That it’s more than okay,” he continues. “It’s just very free and joyous and still real and about real shit and all those people dancing have that. It was hard to do the video, because pretty much every person who submitted at least has a second in there, or a moment. At the end, I had to pick my favourites - and it felt very counterintuitive to what I was trying to do.”
Throughout our conversation, we keep circling back to the power of representation: not merely box-ticking diversity, but the very sense of being seen and, more importantly, seeing yourself. As the name suggests, No Shape wasn’t born out of some precise social commentary, but rather that hard-to-define feeling of joy, frustration, and sadness.
Album closer “Alan” is clearest in intent, detailing Hadreas’ continual surprise to find himself waking up each morning sober and next to Wyffel. It’s a cautious celebration of both Hadreas’s stability and LGBTIQ+ progress in a country where same-sex marriage is legal but a man who believes in gay conversion therapy can become Vice President. It’s also an audience favourite at shows.
“[With] the last song, “Alan”, I know that the people in the crowd know exactly what I’m talking about,” says Hadreas. “It’s like a story, it’s a more traditional song, like that I used to write: it’s about someone and something.”
Comparing “Alan” to his other songs, Hadreas explains that he writes about a lot of topics that he hasn’t “figured out” yet, describing the experience as “more of a spiritual thing”
“A lot of it is just me,” he ventures. “Like I don’t know how to talk about that stuff, which is why I made the song about it. And then when I have to go back and talk about it, I can’t really articulate it and I don’t feel as capable as when I’m writing, so I feel like I’m doing a disservice to it.”
I ask if it’s scary to perform something that you’re still trying to process and define.
“Honestly, everything is kind of scary,” says Hadreas. “I just do it anyway.”
Perfume Genius is performing throughout Australia from Feb 28 To March 11. For more information click here.
Photographs supplied by Mistletone.