Perfume Genius Is Still Figuring Out How To Be In Love

May 9, 2017

A rock star makes it big, gets hooked on substances and lands in rehab. The rest of the artist's career is viewed as a comeback. Recognize this pattern? Well, Mike Hadreas, the heart of the band Perfume Genius, is a rock star in reverse — because his career started in rehab.

Hadreas' first three albums explored the dark places that led him to addiction. But his new album, No Shape, is about life after recovery. He makes that quite literal on the opening track, "Otherside." Soft piano plays and Hadreas' voice quivers almost unintelligibly, a reference to his earlier albums. Then the piano fades, and he reaches the line "rocking you to sleep from the other side." Suddenly the music bursts into shimmering waves of synthetic chimes. It's the first sign that Hadreas has found a new voice.

Eight years ago, Hadreas moved back in with his mother, started going to AA, and made friends with other 20-nothings in recovery. One them was Alan Wyffels. Hadreas and Wyffels tell NPR's Rachel Martin that they were immediately charmed by each other, but neither was willing to make a move. Instead, they made music.

Wyffels, who is a classically trained musician, swears that Hadreas was "trying to seduce" him by inviting him over to workshop songs. Hadreas doesn't deny it. He just laughs. But soon the masks came off, and the two found themselves holding hands in a screening of The White Ribbon and sharing a kiss over ham sandwiches at a Quality Food Center. Now, almost a decade later, Wyffels still performs alongside Hadreas as the only other original member of Perfume Genius.

No Shape centers around Hadreas' relationship with Wyffels now. There are moments where Hadreas has evidently found liberation in their relationship. "Die 4 You," a song that hearkens to early Sade, uses erotic asphyxiation as a metaphor for feeling safe. (The irony is palpable.) Other times, the past creeps up on him. In the song "Valley" he ponders, "How long must we live right before we don't even have to try?"

For Hadreas, the past is always collapsing on the present — but the new music makes clear that he's coping with that differently now. Where once it led him to make morose music, he's found a newly lighter, brighter sound, and he says that's intentional.

"It seems like things are better," he says. "And I guess I feel bratty that I don't always feel that way a lot of the time. And so I wanted a lot of the songs to be more gentle and kind, and try to connect."

Nowhere is that clearer than on the album's lead single, "Slip Away," perhaps the most defiant rock anthem in recent memory. On the hook, Hadreas' voice grounds the swirling guitars and pounding drums as he sings, "Don't look back / I want to break free / If you never see them coming / You never have to hide."

The song, he says, is about "stealing the warmth and goodness regardless of what's going on outside or in your own head, just taking it anyway." For someone whose previous work focused on struggles with depression and body image, it's liberating to hear him find a way to, at least for a moment, cast those troubles aside.

Central to Hadreas' music is the fact that, unlike many other gay artists over the years, he writes explicitly about being in love with someone of the same sex. Where Sam Smith or Troye Sivan write genderless lyrics, Hadreas makes it known he loves a man. He's become a beacon for young queer kids, and Wyffels says he watches them come up to Hadreas after shows and say so.

"I just feel like they are hearing someone sing about the things that they have felt their whole life and never heard anybody else say," Wyffels says. "I feel like one of [Hadreas'] goals as a musician is to kind of be the artist that he wished he could have had as a young gay man."

No Shape closes with "Alan," a love song with a twist. Over a bed of reverberating piano and echoing strings, reminiscent of a hymn, Hadreas sings, "Did you notice we sleep through the night / Did you notice, babe, everything's all right / You need me, rest easy / I'm here, how weird." With that, Hadreas invites listeners into the intimate moments of queer love rarely portrayed in pop culture. And eight years into his relationship, he says, he's still figuring out how to be in love.

"When Alan is asleep, and my dog is asleep, looking at them pulls me into it for a second, being grateful," Hadreas says. "It still doesn't feel intuitive. It always feels sort of strange and almost mystical." Until now, queer music has been largely about the struggle of finding that sort of security. Hadreas' music represents a new challenge, in which two men must now map out how to live within that security.

In the end, it comes as no surprise that a queer rock star might upend the addiction-to-recovery narrative we've come to know about rock musicians. No Shape revels in discovering how to love oneself and another. From the sound of it, there's no substance that can replace that kind of euphoria.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an old, old story line. Rock star makes it big, gets hooked on a substance, lands in rehab. The rest of the career is the comeback. Our own Rachel Martin met a musician, though, who did things differently.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mike Hadreas is the heart of the band Perfume Genius. He is a rock star in reverse because his career started in rehab. He was bullied in school for being gay, and he started to drink.

MIKE HADREAS: I'd felt like I was on the outside growing up. And then I moved to the city and I met other people that were also on the outside but it was, like, a magical, fun, creative way, you know? And that kind of got tied in with drinking. It was just social. And it just got progressively more dangerous, and I just didn't care until you wake up the next day and you're like, how could I be at a point where I didn't care if I, like, lived or died?

MARTIN: Mike Hadreas moved back home. He went to AA and made a new group of friends, who were also in recovery. And that's where he met his boyfriend, Alan Wyffels. Together, the two have made three albums that explore the dark places that led both of them to addiction. Their new album, though, is noticeably lighter. It's called "No Shape," and it celebrates what it means to build a life after addiction or as he calls it on the opening track, the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OTHERSIDE")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) Rocking you to sleep from the other side.

MARTIN: So, Alan, when you met Mike, what was your vibe on him?

ALAN WYFFELS: So I was immediately charmed by him but kind of trying not to be just because I didn't want to be, like, a creeper, you know what I mean? I didn't want to be like, oh, who's this fresh, sober meat, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

WYFFELS: I do think a little bit though that Mike kind of used music as, like, a way to seduce me, I believe.

MARTIN: Whoa.

HADREAS: Well, no. I was obsessed...

MARTIN: Oh, you were too?

HADREAS: ...For sure. Like, I would just sort of be, like, rocking back and forth (laughter), like, thinking of him in general, you know?

MARTIN: How come? What was it about him?

HADREAS: Well, he's really hot.

WYFFELS: (Laughter).

HADREAS: That's part of it. And he was, like, very goofy and strange and silly but then oddly very serious and, like, contained.

WYFFELS: For, like, the first six months, like, we were both obsessed with each other and not talking about it. And then we let the cat out of the bag and we were both like, we're obsessed with each other. And we like...

MARTIN: Wait, can I just indulge myself for a minute? Like, where were you? Where was that moment? What happened?

HADREAS: We went to QFC and I got, like, a ham sandwich or something.

WYFFELS: (Laughter).

HADREAS: And then I kissed you outside of QFC. And then we moved in together, like, a week later.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST LIKE LOVE")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) Just like love, love. Just like love. Just like love.

MARTIN: Your first three albums were pretty heavy. And, Alan, what was it like to hear him when you were sitting in your apartment or your living room and just listening to him go to these dark places?

WYFFELS: At first, it was really confusing and kind of scary for me 'cause, you know, I'd go to work and I would go do that and come home. And Mike would have wrote this, like, really intense, like, essentially suicide letter song. And I'd be like, are you OK? Like, do I need to, like, take you to the hospital or - you know what I mean (laughter)?

MARTIN: Yeah.

WYFFELS: Like, is everything OK?

MARTIN: You know what he's talking about, Mike?

HADREAS: Yeah, I do.

MARTIN: So this album, "No Shape," is lighter. It's brighter. That's intentional, I imagine?

HADREAS: Yeah. It seems like things are better. And I know that they are. And I guess I feel sort of very bratty that I don't feel that way a lot. And so I wanted a lot of the songs to be more gentle and kind and try to connect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIP AWAY")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) Don't look back. I want to break free. If you never see them coming, you'll never have to hide. Take my hand. Take my everything. If we only got a moment, give it to me now.

MARTIN: Do you understand what people see in you as a gay man making music and telling a story about his relationship?

HADREAS: Yeah, I do. And I actually don't mind that responsibility at all.

MARTIN: People in the crowd who come up to you and talk to you, Mike, what are they saying?

HADREAS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: He doesn't want to talk about it because it's about how amazing he is. So, Alan, what do those people say to him when they come up to him and talk?

WYFFELS: Well, I just feel like they are hearing someone sing about the things that they have felt their whole life and never heard anybody else say, you know? And that's kind of, like, Mike's, I feel like, one of his goals as a musician is to kind of be the artist that he wished he could have had as a young gay man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIP AWAY")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) Baby, let all them voices slip away.

MARTIN: The two of you are from a younger, new generation of gay men. And a lot of gay art that people are familiar with is about the struggle of finding a relationship. This album, though, is about what happens when you're in the relationship and the hard parts of that.

WYFFELS: You know, we live together. A lot of our work is together. You know, we go on tour together where you're just - we're together a lot, 24 hours a day. And I think we've kind of sometimes feel like we're, like, the same person. You know, like, Mike has said before if he's making a reservation somewhere, he'll forget to count me 'cause he's just - like, I'm just a part of him, which I don't know if that's healthy or not but...

HADREAS: (Laughter) I don't know if that is either. And I think that's why I made the album and sang about it in the way I did is because it is a very beautiful, epic thing and it feels so, like, easy in how it is.

MARTIN: You close the album with a song called "Alan," which is pretty clearly a love song. There's a little twist in there, though, because you sing...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALAN")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) Did you notice?

MARTIN: Did you notice we sleep through the night? Did you notice, babe, everything's all right? You need me. Rest easy, I'm here. How weird. It sounds kind of perfect. Why is that weird for you?

HADREAS: Well, it's been eight years, but, I don't know, I've been around for much longer than that. So it still feels sort of new to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALAN")

PERFUME GENIUS: (Singing) I'm here. How weird.

HADREAS: When Alan's asleep and my dog is asleep and looking at them kind of makes me - pulls me into it for a second, being grateful (laughter) or whatever. It still doesn't feel, like, intuitive. It always feels sort of strange and almost mystical.

MARTIN: Mike Hadreas and Alan Wyffels, together they are Perfume Genius. Their new album is called "No Shape." You guys, thanks so much for talking with us.

HADREAS: Thank you.

WYFFELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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