Seattle's Perfume Genius isn't afraid to write songs about his unhealthy past. Admittedly, Mike Hadreas, as he's known by his real name, is an oversharer. He's liable to let people know a little too much. His past has been one of addiction and pain. He's done things he regrets but he is sober now. He's turned his life around. His second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, out on Matador Records, is a somber collection of emotive, piano-based admissions and revelations. Hadreas is a brave balladeer, and he lets you know you're not alone in fighting your demons.
In a controversial move that stirred REM's Michael Stipe to take action, YouTube banned a video advertising Put Your Back N 2 It from running across the Google Display Network. The 16-second clip from the video for "Hood" showed Hadreas embracing gay porn star Arpad Miklos. YouTube took the ad down, saying it "promot[ed] mature sexual themes" and wasn't "family safe." Stipe responded by saying YouTube's move showed "dumbheaded discrimination." Hadreas spoke from the basement of Schubas in Chicago before his show there.
Do you make a conscious choice to write about heavy-hitting things?
For the first album, writing about addiction and abuse was therapy. I'm sure there are other ways to have therapy besides writing songs, but for me, it's how it comes out. With this second album, I was thinking more how it could be helpful to other people. And I think I'm kinda good at helping. It's weird. I do wonder why I'm so obsessed with figuring out specific icky things. If something bugs me, I want to go back and put some soul into it somehow.
When you perform, do you get thrown back into the emotion that caused you to write the songs?
Sometimes. I mean, I'm aware that I'm performing and aware that people are watching, and I'm a bit self-conscious. But there's a place I can get to where I'm honest about it. Last night, I sort of choked up on the last song, then immediately pulled back. Not to get too hippie about it, but when a show is going really well, it feels like a communal thing, as opposed to me going back to the feeling that I had when I wrote the song.
"AWOL Marine" came from porn you were watching where the actor is caught on tape saying the reason he's doing porn is to provide his wife with medicine. It's a compelling quandary. What made you choose to write a song about it?
It's a strange hobby, I suppose. I'm really into this certain group of videos. I'll watch them to get off, but I feel weirded out afterward, which I like [laughs]. Porn works for me if I think it's real. I like low-budget, crappy lighting, and actors with backne. There's the sex, then there's the before and after with the camera on where you see them having a cigarette or a beer. It reminds me of when I felt humiliated by things, when I was willing to do things that were against my morals to get something. I don't want to walk around with some big shame about watching it or being into it, so I figured I'd write a pretty song about it.
Your video for "Hood" with Arpad Miklos has caused some lively back and forth. Arpad is an absolute Hungarian stud. How did you choose him to be in the video?
My idea was to have a bodybuilder. Or just some really stereotypically buff dude. But we couldn't find any bodybuilders who wanted to hold me or put makeup on me. So we started looking into alternative ways of finding someone, and someone suggested Arpad. He's a porn actor, and my video would be pretty light fare for him.
Is he a bear? How did he smell?
I think he's more of a daddy. A leather daddy. He smelled very good: baby oil and natural musk.
His stare makes the video.
I know. I didn't know his stare was going to be so intense. I was just focused on singing and not slipping off of him because he was all greased up. Then in the playback, I saw his intense gaze, and I thought it worked really well. I'm proud of it.
In the song you sing, "I'm scared... that I can't keep it up for long." What are you scared of?
I don't have a lot of experience being healthy, or being grateful, and not taking things for granted. I lived a different way a lot longer. And no matter how healthy I am now, or how sober I am, sometimes I feel like I can't shake that previous, dark version of myself.
How long have you been sober?
Two years. Dead sober! Except for all the aspirin and anything else I can do that's allowed. I've actually managed to do every show that I've ever done sober.
What's the hardest part of your sobriety? You toured with Beirut. You meet people. I'm sure temptations present themselves.
I think the hardest part is the social thing. I still haven't figured it out, exactly. What do you do? Do you say, "Hey, do you want to get a glass of milk and sit down and look at each other for 20 minutes?" Or what? [Laughs] Really, the secret is you just hang out and talk. I don't know. No matter how many Diet Cokes I have after a show, I just kind of want to go back to the hotel room and watch my Netflix and eat something weird.
How much longer will you be out on the road?
I have a little book that tells me. [Laughs] I don't know exactly, to tell you the truth. The Seattle date is the last date. I've never really toured like this, where I play a show every night where it's legitimate and musiciany. It's crazy. All the days blur together. You kind of just have one long emotion because you don't have time to process everything.
How is your voice holding up?
It was good to start, then got better in the middle. Now I've got some sort of sore throat thing going on, so I'm obsessively applying all these remedies. I think I'm overdoing it a little bit. I'm gargling with hydrogen peroxide and have all these sprays and teas, and oil of oregano...
Watch out with the oil of oregano. You may need to put down the oil of oregano and pick up the cocaine.
[Laughs] I put the cocaine down two years ago. Now I'm into droppers and spices. That's the thing, I love taking anything. I'm a true drug addict in that way. I love anything that could potentially make me feel any different, even if it's a little worse. I read that oil of oregano changes you inside. So I add like eight extra drops. I go all in.
Don't OD. What happens if you take too much oregano? You probably start peeing laser beams.
Or peeing out pizza sauce. That would be cool.