Mike Hadreas’ music, released under the name Perfume Genius, doesn’t so much wear its heart on its sleeve as scrawl every raw emotion across its chest. “I’m really glad you like the album,” he says with a crooked smile. “I’m kind of nervous about it…” He needn’t be: Put Your Back N 2 It, his second album of frank and fragile songs, is a staggeringly beautiful piece of work. The curious title came about as a riposte to Ice Cube circa 1999. “I wanted to reinterpret ‘Put Your Back Into It’ as something more tender,” Hadreas explains. “I like the ambiguity that people can interpret the name either to be nasty and sexual or to mean putting effort into something. My music is so serious that I like to get any kind of winking humour into it – even the spelling is a Sinead O’Connor-covering-Prince kind of thing!” It’s perhaps unsurprising that Hadreas wants to lighten the tone – most of his interviews so far have focused on how he began songwriting while living with his mother after quitting drink and drugs. Sipping a Diet Coke in the bar of Shoreditch House, the Seattle-based 27-year-old opens up about how he lost his last job, being more cheerful than people expect and why he’d rather play churches and cemeteries than bars.
GQ.com: Which lyric are you proudest of writing?
Perfume Genius: There’s a song on the new album, “Dark Parts”, which I wrote for my Mom. [Sample lyric: “He’ll never break you, baby”]. If I get kind of hippy-ish about having a purpose in making music, then my purpose would be to take something that was originally shameful, secret and made you feel gross about yourself and to inject some kind of tenderness and healing into it.
What’s the worst thing a critic has ever said about you?
As long as it’s about my music I don’t really care, especially if it’s written really well! It only really upsets me if it’s ever personal. I think what I hate is that people think there’s some kind of weakness to what I do because it’s sensitive. I’m not saying I’m super brave or anything but I feel that there’s more bravery in making yourself vulnerable than in making party music or some Odd Future bullshit. That’s just teenage shit but everyone tells them they’re being innovative. Being emotional might not be innovative, but it’s definitely not wimpy.
Have you ever been fired from a job?
I was fired from the last job I had, which was mixing paint at a department store. It was weird, because when I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs I never got fired. I’d come in super strung-out, having been up for a couple of days, smelling like vinegar, running into things and weeping but I still managed to keep my job. When I got sober, I got fired after two weeks because I didn’t show up. When I was drinking I’d always show up, even if I was seven hours late, but when I got sober I was so proud of myself I felt like I shouldn’t have to do anything else. I quit drinking and nobody else in the world cared, except for maybe my Mom. Everyone else was just like: “Big deal! You quit doing something that made you a horrible person for the last ten years!”
Can you recommend a good book?
The last really good book I read was Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. She’s really funny but there’s some devastating things in there as well. I like how it balances both – her book of short stories Jenny And The Jaws Of Life is really good as well. I also read a lot of short stories – Raymond Carver’s Cathedral is probably my favourite [collection] and Alice Munro, who is a Canadian writer, is really good as well.
What’s the most important thing on your rider?
Diet Coke. That’s all I really want. It’s my big treat after the show, but I drink it all day too. I think riders are kind of goofy – if it’s too big, that’s kind of presumptuous.
What do people get wrong about you?
Sometimes people want me to not be personable. They think that in order for the music to stay important I have to maintain a character the whole time, but to me being funny comes from the same place. I don’t feel like moping through my day, but I think when I’m onstage people can be put off if I’m giggling.
What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
I get a lot of heartfelt letters, which are pretty intense. Those aren’t really strange, but I feel under pressure to write them a good response. People do drawings and paintings of me from pictures in magazines, which is really sweet because I remember drawing people like Courtney Love and PJ Harvey in my art class. To think of people taking the time to draw my weird little face is awesome.
Have you ever fired a gun?
Nope, but I’ve held a bunch of them – that was a weird night! My friend was showing me all his guns, so I felt the weight of all of them.
When was the last time you were starstruck?
Anyone who is vaguely famous makes me nervous. When I saw Robyn in Seattle I got really excited.
Have you ever stolen anything?
When I was little I went through a phase of stealing things and I did some even riskier things for rent money when I was older. When I was eleven I remember stealing a magazine from a store and then, after I’d read it outside, I felt so guilty I just leaned it up against the door! I was still a good little kid then.
What’s your favourite film of all time?
Probably Thelma & Louise. There are movies that have been more powerful to me, but that one I’ve seen the most and it’s always good. I always thought [Lars Von Triers’] Breaking The Waves was my favourite film but I watched it recently and it didn’t do the same thing. Thelma & Louise puts me in the same spot every time – it’s not too good but it’s not bad either. It can be the same with records. Your favourites aren’t always the most progressive things. It’s the simpler, more straight-forward things that you can always go back to.
What’s the strangest venue you’ve ever played?
We played at the Hollywood Forever cemetery once. The grounds were really gaudy, but it was a cool venue for us. Sometimes our music doesn’t go over very well in a bar, even if people are coming to see me, there’s just something about that room. I’d like to play some churches when I tour the UK in the Spring.
Which albums are you looking forward to in 2012?
When I first heard Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” I was really into it, but then because everybody else started liking it so I hate it now! It’s the classic thing! Even though I hate it, I’m still listening to every new thing that she’s doing so I’m sure I’ll get the album when it comes out. She’s just some girl doing her thing, but people are now analysing everything she releases as if it’s some big statement.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Every year you look back and you realise how ridiculous what you thought your problems were. Things feel so real and inescapable in the moment, but within ten minutes or a year it goes away. My advice would be to just let things come up and leave, not to hold on so tight to everything. I think I’m a little bit more self-aware about that now, but I still take myself way too seriously most of the time.
PERFUME GENIUS ON PERFUME
“My name comes from what my friend kept shouting when we were watching the movie Perfume,” explains elegiac balladeer Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius. “She was trashing the movie, and kept making fun of the ‘perfume genius’. When I first started using the name I wasn’t sure it would stick, but now I like it!” As he prepares to release Put Your Back N 2 It, the gorgeous follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Learning, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter took time out to guide GQ.com through his favourite scents, the smells that take him back to high school and making his friends gag…
Men should smell masculine
“I don’t know how cool my scent choice is, but I’ve been wearing Bang by Marc Jacobs. It’s the one with the crazy bottle. I like things that smell like leather or tobacco: really masculine, musky stuff. A lot of people like things like cucumber, but I’m not such a fan of that. I prefer things that are a bit nasty.”
Sometimes a smell can take you back in time
“Hugo Boss smells to me like high school. All the guys I had a crush on smelled the same. It’s the same with Old Spice. It’s hard to distinguish, because instinctively I like those smells even though they can be overpowering, but it makes me think of being a teenager just from those leftover memories. I used to pour that shit on me! Everybody makes fun of Axe, or Lynx over here, but when I smell it I think it smells good.”
Caffeine isn’t just for coffee
“I don’t know if I have a grooming routine. I used to read the goofy little tips in my mom’s magazines when I was growing up and there was lots of advice about looking after your skin. I don’t know if I follow it now – I smoke a shit-load but I guess I do what I can. I’ve got a caffeine eye-roller. I don’t know if it does anything but it makes me feel better before I leave the house.”
He doesn’t mind smelling of blood, sweat and tears
“I have one perfume that is supposed to smell like blood and semen. It actually smells awful. I don’t know why I like it, it smells kind of like spit! It’s called Sécrétions Magnifiques. My friend got it as a joke but then I liked it. One of my friends gagged when they smelt it, so of course that made me want to douse myself in it!”