Talking with the artist behind Perfume Genius about listener interpretations.
Talking with the artist behind Perfume Genius about listener interpretations.
Luke Gilford

Decoding Perfume Genius

Mike Hadreas hasn’t watched an episode of David Lynch’s Showtime series Twin Peaks: The Return. And for good reason: The musician known as Perfume Genius was touring Europe in support of his masterpiece of an album, this year’s stunning No Shape.

Hadreas’ familiarity with the filmmaker’s avant-garde work is apparent. Hadreas says he’s fearless in this age of spoilers lurking in the feeds of even the most cautious social-media navigators.

“I know it’s going to be so fucked up, but I can’t imagine there is a true spoiler,” he says, his voice betraying his jet lag.

Hadreas is correct. Viewers watched the revival of the hit ’90s drama from week to week and dissected every detail only to have the rug swept out from under them during the show’s finale. Some were disappointed. Others appreciated the experience of seeing art so puzzling, yet personal and true, from a masterful creator.

The same could be said about Hadreas’ music.

Written and released under his nom de plume, Hadreas has examined his personal dealings with sexuality, abuse, homophobia, and Crohn’s disease. “Queen,” the confrontational single from Perfume Genius’ 2014 album Too Bright, hits these subjects head on. Hadreas croons about being “riddled with disease” on his way to the dark refrain: “No family is safe / When I sashay.”

It explains everything about the author of those powerful lyrics — and nothing at all.

Much like Lynch, who threw shade at those clamoring for answers after the credits rolled at the end of Twin Peaks, the artist behind Perfume Genius does not feel the need to explain his distinctive art to fans. But unlike Lynch, he’s game to do so if asked. He knows it is part of his job to expound upon some of the meanings.

“I think I throw in a lot of things, and sometimes it is contradictory,” he says. “I purposely leave that in there because it feels real to me, but then it becomes really complicated to talk about. Something can be dark and light at the same time. Depending on my mood, maybe I want to emphasize one side more than the other.”

That assures an array of interpretations — and sometimes ones that are totally off-base.

For instance, contestants Robert Green and Jasmine Harper on the hit Fox reality show So You Think You Can Dance attempted to interpret “Otherside,” the lead single from No Shape. The track begins with a serene piano playing underneath the tremble of Hadreas’ voice before exploding into an anthem that could fill an arena. The lyrics describe the singer’s complicated relationship with his spirituality.

“I think I found a way to get that spirituality I was craving and alleviate [my craving for it], but I never got it from religions that [currently exist],” Hadreas explains.

The dance contestants seemed to have missed that point. They portrayed two guests in a seedy motel leaping across the stage and acting out what might be a one-night stand. Viewers enjoyed the duo’s compelling rendition, but the show’s judges didn’t get it. It comes with the territory of making compelling and confusing art, but they eliminated Green anyway.

Hadreas hasn’t seen the routine, but says it’s “super-rad” that his music has been used twice in the show’s 14 seasons. He finds it beautiful that people can put their own meaning on the song. He writes music because he cannot figure out how to explain himself in any other way.

“Even if I sat down with someone and said what was exactly in my head, it would still end up different,” Hadreas says. “A week later, I probably would have a different idea.”

Perfume Genius is scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 30, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $19 to $21 via Valley Bar's website.

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