Photos by Matthew Leifheit
If Cat Power and Liza Minnelli's gay dad gave birth to an emotional, pale sex god, he would probably look and sound like Perfume Genius, a.k.a. Mike Hadreas. The Seattle-born singer plays sad piano ballads and stars in music videos with drag queens and dudes wearing tacky jumpsuits. Unlike gay performers such as Sam Smith, who will sing melancholy songs about monogamous relationships and then criticize his peers for finding anonymous sex on Grindr, Hadreas is unafraid to wear glitter and then tell reporters that he hopes his drag-queen-filled video for "Queen" scares heterosexuals. Most important, when he covers Sade's "By Your Side" without the chorus, he can make you come and cry at the same time.
I made plans to hang out with Hadreas before his concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, but he had to cancel last minute. He gave me a rain check, promising to eat greasy food with me next time he was in town (gay men love bad food as much as they love bad pop music). Since the Cheesecake Factory has yet to open in Brooklyn, I met Hadreas at a diner a few weeks later to discuss Madonna and why he loves scaring boring breeders.
VICE: How did you start playing sad songs for boys?
Mike Hadreas: I took piano lessons, and I would always make things up. They weren't really songs—more fragments. I didn't start writing words or official songs until five years ago. I'm untrained. I always wanted to sing, but I didn't like the way it sounded. I didn't think I was a good singer until recently. I feel like good singing and sex should be easy, but for me it's, like, ugh.
How did you come up with the idea for the song "Queen"?
I was mad—walking around guarded and self-conscious, internalizing things people said to me. I felt bad and embarrassed at myself for still carrying around stuff from when I was a kid. There are times on tour when I'm in a gas station and I have my nails done and I'm in a dress or whatever, and people are kind of backing up out of fear. Now, I'm like, "Fuck you—back up! I want some Nerds [candies]. Let me through." If you're gonna be scared, do that, 'cause if anything I'm gonna be even more gay later and even worse and more disgusting and scary than you ever thought.
Where did you work before you sang professionally?
I worked at a department store that was like Walmart but nicer. I made keys and mixed paint.
Do you like America?
I like America because there are malls and chain restaurants open 24 hours. It's frustrating in Europe because you can only buy cigarettes at the cigarette store, and it closes at seven. You should be able to get a blanket, cigarettes, dinner, and a gun all at the same place. What's your favorite chain restaurant?
I'm really into the Cheesecake Factory. The menu's like a book. People ask me, "Where should I eat in Seattle?" And I usually recommend the Olive Garden.
Why do you love what straight people would call "bad food?"
It tastes good, man. I don't know. I like fancy food too; I like richness in food. I don't like little flavors.
You cover artists like Madonna and Sade. Why do you cut the refrains when you sing their songs?
That's what I do. I cover the Madonna song "Oh Father" from Like a Prayer and just take all the saddest, quietest, and weirdest lyrics. Does being labeled a "gay singer" bother you?
Yeah, and I am a gay singer, so I can't get too mad at it. And I'm pretty explicit in my lyrics and I mean it. I feel very purposeful about it, but I think sometimes people talk about that more than the music. Still, that's what I signed up for. But I don't know—there's a duty to it. I don't mind that responsibility, no matter how small it is.
What's the biggest misconception about you?
I guess that people always think of me as wounded and frazzled because there's a lot of vulnerability in my music. But talking about those things, to me, is very strong and brave. I don't mind saying that about myself. Someone wrote, "He makes music with the flair of the head of a drama camp." Like, shoot me. If Jack White gets emotional, people aren't like, "He seems so dramatic." Fuck you! Of course there's drama to it, but anybody who makes music needs a certain amount of drama to think [they're] good enough.