Exclusive: Perfume Genius Isn't Here For Gender Conformity

You don’t expect to interview one of your musical idols while a half-open condom wrapper lies next to your foot but sometimes these things happen. Numbers are pressed and the phone begins to ring as the smell of gourmet grilled cheese wafts over to a desolate park that’s become the new hot spot for interviewing groundbreaking musicians. Halfway across the country in Seattle, Mike Hadreas answers from his tomb of blankets he’s encased himself in as he unwinds from months of touring under his stage name—Perfume Genius. He’s fresh off an electrifying Pitchfork Music Festival set that had the Internet buzzing and it’s clear that, right now, Perfume Genius is having a moment.

It was only seven years ago that Hadreas set up a Myspace page under that name and began releasing cathartic bedroom recordings that unpacked years worth of emotions. It was the best outlet he could find after moving from New York back into his mother’s home in suburban Washington for an emergency trip to rehab. Since 2008, Hadreas has gone from bedroom recordings to international tours and festival circuits. His meteoric rise from addiction to one of the biggest queer artists in music should come as no surprise, though. Perfume Genius has become known for being an artist who continuously breaks down expectations within and beyond his music. With a headlining set planned for September’s Basilica Soundscape Festival in Hudson, NY, Hadreas looks poised to continue breaking down stereotypes while strutting around with painted nails and his signature lipstick. During the interim between relaxation and prep for the festival, Milk‘s Chris Thomas called him to discuss gender deconstructions, Diet Coke addictions, Rihanna, and dirty Snapchats.

Next month you’ll be playing Basilica in Hudson. Are you going to incorporate the reclaimed 19th century factory it’s taking place in into your performance?

The cool thing about that festival is that all the performances are collaborative and have some visual element to them so I’m really excited to play it. I’m in the beginning stages of figuring out the set but it’s top secret. Well, actually I don’t know if it is but I rarely get the opportunity to have something that’s top secret so I’m pretending like it is. I’m excited to go just as much as I’m excited to perform—that doesn’t happen a lot to be honest.

It’s going to be a great show. Now, you and your boyfriend/keyboardist for the band met in rehab and have been sober for a few years. Is sobriety still a challenge?

I don’t think I have any self-control but somehow through all the work I did miraculously it’s not as hard anymore. My thoughts don’t consume me as much but it took a lot of work to get there. Drinking was a way for me to process without processing and making music allows me to actually process.

Do you have any guilty pleasures you’ve developed since establishing your sobriety?

I drink a lot of Diet Coke because I drink it instead of coffee. I have a Diet Coke in the morning, which is kind of embarrassing. I’ll be at the airport at 5:30AM and be chugging a 20 oz., but that’s how I get my life together in the morning. It can’t be good to drink as much as I do. I think it’s embalming me. People think I look young and I guess I kind of do but I think I’ve been halted. I’ve been embalmed in my current state by all the Diet Coke.

Your music is very cathartic and personal to your own story but sonically you’ve progressed into bigger and more grandiose sounds. Is your next album going to maintain this progression?

I really don’t know. Before I went into writing my last album I thought it was going to be very much like the last two albums and it is in some ways. I didn’t predict that direction and I’m trying not to do that this time either because I’m always wrong. The things I’ve been writing and singing lately are a lot… less. They’re really minimal and quiet. My original intention was a dark-sided Patti Smith.

Do you have any dream collabs with other artists or have you been asked to collaborate or provide guest vocals on any tracks?

Sometimes, but when people ask me to collaborate I’m hoping they send me the song where I can be like Rihanna, but usually they send me their saddest song about a child dying.

You’ve developed a reputation for having a hilarious Instagram and Twitter feed. Have you tried out Snapchat?

Snapchat is the one I don’t understand. Originally a secret naughty part of me thought I was going to get a bunch of nudes but nobody sent me naked pictures. A couple of girls weirdly sent me pictures of them taking a shit on the toilet, which I guess is close.

In your videos and performances you’ve become known for wearing dresses and lipstick. Do you see that as armor or as self-expression?

It’s confusing to be honest. Part of the reason I do that is because I feel free to wear and do whatever I want whereas before I was way more self-conscious. Like, the reason I painted my nails originally was because it’s pretty but then it become political to leave it on when I leave the house. It becomes more of a protest. The whole thing can be confusing because sometimes I don’t know what is influencing what. I mean, when I get home and take my nails off I know I’m essentially doing it because I get way less shit.

Do you think the nails are more controversial than dresses and lipstick?

For some reason the nails throw it over the edge. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing or if I’m prancing around. It doesn’t matter to people but if I have my nails painted that’s it. I think what it is… it’s confusing to people. If I was full-on one direction or the other it might make them uncomfortable but at least they can understand what’s going on. If there’s a mix of everything people don’t know what to do when, really, they don’t have to do anything. They can just check me out at the grocery store and not have a moment where they process.

People seem to panic when they can’t put someone into these predefined gender boxes. When you don’t fit, it flips a switch and they can’t process. They need those gender cues.

It’s been confusing for me because I’m so new to figuring out what I like when all the bullshit is out of my brain. It’s not ever fully cleared out either so there’s a barrier and I’ll probably never figure out who I am or whatever. When I was little I thought I was going to be a woman. I didn’t know how it was going to work but it felt normal to me that I was going to be a girl eventually. Then that didn’t happen so I thought ‘well, I guess I’m a guy.’ That didn’t really feel right either, so it’s been a long confusing thing. I don’t think… maybe I’m not supposed to figure it out and it doesn’t fucking matter.

Photos courtesy of Luke Gilford.

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