For a long time, Mike Hadreas worried that the devil was after him. As a child, he saw a documentary or 20/20-style TV show about a woman who claimed to be possessed, and the viewing did a serious number on his psyche. “I just felt completely fucked up. I was really close to the devil. Something was going to happen,” he says. “Any kind of cross or Jesus stuff would make me cry, or I would just feel deeply, deeply ashamed whenever any Jesus/church-type things were around me. But I was also kind of into it at the same time.”
Taking after a scene in one of the Ghoulies movies—a mid-’80s to early ‘90s horror/comedy series chock full of demons and Satanic worshipers—he once drew a pentacle in the sand during a visit to the beach. His babysitter caught him in the act and “got really freaked out.”
Hadreas, the pianist/vocalist better known as Perfume Genius, hasn’t explicitly penned a song about his old enemy yet (“Oh, I’m sure all of them [are] in a way,” he quips), but his willingness to make that bizarre, traumatic saga public—and then discuss it in detail—speaks to what makes this project so compelling. The Seattle-based 28-year-old tends to both talk and write with heart-on-his-sleeve abandon, and that openness turns his somber, spare chamber-pop into something rare and mesmerizing. The spirit of the late Elliott Smith’s confessionals are alive and well.
A brief tour of Hadreas’ lean discography uncovers a few of his shadiest subjects. In a press release promoting February’s Put Your Back N 2 It, his second album and first on pivotal indie rock label Matador Records, Hadreas called “17” “basically a gay suicide letter,” deemed “Take Me Home” “a pop song about hookerism,” and said that “Floating Spit” is “about overdosing and going to the other side.” “Dirge” draws from an especially melancholic, mournful Edna St. Vincent Millay poem.
The title track of his 2010 debut Learning deals with rape and murder: “No one will answer your prayers/Until you take off that dress/No one will hear all your crying/Until you take your last breath.” Then there’s the creepily jovial “Mr. Peterson” off that same record—easily the most unsettling portrait Hadreas has committed to record. Peterson (a high school teacher) and the narrator (his student) have sex, smoke pot and share Joy Division songs. Then, after the narrator mentions the hole in Peterson’s soul, he offers the succinct, sharp visual of the guy jumping off a building: “Mr. Peterson/I know you were ready to go/I hope there’s room for you up above or down below,” Hadreas sings in his frail, mortally wounded voice. In an interview with Huh magazine, he talked about the track being based on a teacher he had in his freshman year of high school. “I hadn’t thought about what went down for a while. I hadn’t thought about a fucking actual thing in a while,” he said then. “But I got flooded [and] that song came out.”
Going deeper into Hadreas’ traits, quirks and experiences only make the layer cake of his persona more tantalizing. (For example, he started making this music on a headset and his mom’s piano post-rehab.) In conversation, the man is a mixture of quiet, self-deprecating, good-natured and uninhibited. He cracks a joke when his thoughts start to trail off, discusses being heckled by audience members when opening for Beirut, and says that contextualizing his songs adds “more weight to every little thing” in light of Perfume Genius’ musical simplicity. He’s upfront about his attachment to lyrics that spill into and pull from such deeply intimate terrain. “I’ve always made things. They’ve always kind of been like this—very personal and everything—and they weren’t always good,” he says. “They were pretty awful for a really long time, and then I just figured out a way to do [the music]. I felt like it’s something I was really good at, so I’m just going to keep doing it. If I use up all my weird shit, maybe I’ll make something different later.”
Perfume Genius performs next Thurs., Oct. 11, 8pm. $15. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. johnnybrendas.com.