Sitting beneath a vivid spring sky on the rooftop of a Manhattan hotel, the recording artist Perfume Genius has been swapping notes with Michael Stipe, formerly of REM, for almost an hour when he drops a conversation-stopper. It's not about the decade he lost to drink and drugs or even his recent tangle with YouTube over a promotional video of his that they refused to put up. It is about what comes first when he writes: the music or the words.
That the two are friends at all is curious. Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, a Seattle-based balladeer whose main appeal may be the touching sadness in his mien and his music, is 30 but doesn't look it and, more to the point, has barely made his mark with only two albums released so far. With grizzled stubble, Stipe is a recording industry colossus who retired last year after agreeing with his band-mates that REM was done.
Yet, here they are happy in discussion with The New Review as moderator (and chronicler), on all topics begging, including the mysteries of songwriting, just so long as they don't err into the private – and to some extent even the professional – life of Mr Stipe. "This has to be about Mike, not me," he says sternly as we settle by a hanky-sized pool, a waist-high barrier of glass separating us from a free-fall to the streets of Tribeca far below. This may not be a symptom of fatigue with the media, but rather generosity. Stipe likes Hadreas. He likes his music – Hadreas's spell-binding second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, came out in February – and he likes his story. Mostly, as we explore, they share things even if 20 years separate them: their homosexuality, but more pertinently their interest in giving something to others who have fled to society's edge.
Part of their conversation is reminiscence. On the recommendation of a friend in the industry, Stipe went along to hear Hadreas play at Moma PS1 in Queens three years ago. It was Hadreas's first New York gig and he recalls the horror of having to go on stage, which might have been worse had he known Stipe was in the audience.
"You were a wreck," Stipe recalls affectionately and Hadreas nods. "A full hour before I was pacing and praying and pressing my face into walls," he reveals, his legs tucked under him now, his fingers nervously scraping at the remains of coloured polish on his nails.
When it was over, Stipe went backstage. "It was one of the most amazing nights. I was blown away. I came up to him and presented myself; we were both very shy." Shyness, nervousness, uncertainty and paranoia about self are themes that are to repeat themselves as we talk.
Their next encounter was happenstance. Stipe, 52, was in Berlin to celebrate his boyfriend's mother's birthday. They were in a restaurant with live music going on in the basement. It turned out the band playing was Perfume Genius and he introduced himself again when the gig was completed, and thereafter the two have stayed in touch.
What brings them together today is the kerfuffle that erupted when YouTube recently rejected a promotional video made by Perfume Genius for his new album. Set to one of its more mesmerising tracks, "Hood", it features Hadreas in a spooky, mildly surreal, intimate dance with a gay porn star, Arpad Miklos, who is as extravagantly macho as Hadreas is physically fragile. It's erotic and mildly daring – Hadreas is at one point in a wig and a gown and Arpad slathers him with lipstick and mascara – and they are bare-chested. But pornographic it surely is not. Stipe was enraged by what he saw as the timidity of YouTube and vented about it on his blog. He is quick to air his irritation again now.
"YouTube was born of the 21st century, act like it," he rails. "This is something I am accustomed to seeing from the more conservative or right-wing politicians or from people who are stuck in some cartoon idea of what the midcentury American dream represents, about how men should act, how women should act and how the underground should act – like, stay out of my face. It's just tired and old and boring. It's 2012, for fuck's sake, let's get on with it.
"I was really frankly just disgusted," he goes on. "For the queer community the 21st century represents this very different take on who we are and who we can be. So for YouTube, this thing created in the 21st century, to take this kind of arch, weird, nebulous, censorial role just seemed very backward."
he journey taken by Hadreas to the cusp of what, at least to Stipe's way of reckoning, will be a top-billing career, has been one of coming to terms with past pain, beginning with coming out aged 15 at high school in Seattle. "It was not a good time for me for a lot of reasons. I was the only person in my year who was openly gay. And I had other things that singled me out: I was small, really weird and gay. ["And pale," Stipe adds.] I got pushed around." After school he moved east to Brooklyn and a bohemian gay circle in the Williamsburg neighbourhood, where he took refuge in drink and drugs. That lasted for 10 years until Hadreas moved back in with his mother in Seattle and retook control of his life. Part of the treatment he prescribed for himself was writing songs.
"I was just trying to show up," says Hadreas, who looks about ready to cry through most of our conversation, though he never does. He seems embarrassed that self-therapy was the motivation at first for songwriting. "It's not the hippest motivation, I know." He explains further: "A lot of things came up that I had put on hold, which the drink and drugs had just smoothed over and I let them sit down there for 10 years. When I stopped and moved into my mum's house, I had to process what really had happened and figure out who I was."
At first he imagined he was writing just for himself, but eventually he took the step of creating a page on MySpace and posting some of what he had written. He did it after going with a friend to see the film Perfume; she hadn't liked it and began blurting "perfume genius" in frustration at the screen. He isn't sure now that he really likes the name but that's what he decided to call himself that day on MySpace and it has stuck.
Since then, he has made one discovery after another, about finding his self-confidence – Stipe repeatedly suggests he has turned "badass" – what his fans respond to and the process of writing. The remark that stops Stipe in his tracks concerns his habit of honing the lyrics first and turning to the music second. Stipe, it seems, was accustomed to doing things the other way around. "Wow, that is intense, that is intense," Stipe responds in wonderment. Hadreas: "It just feels weird to me to try to match the words to the music. I write the music to the words." He adds: "I am just more obsessed with the words than the music, I enjoy them more."
Success offers the chance of confidence. It surely doesn't hurt that he has Stipe as his number-one fan. (Stipe notes that the day we meet is the 32nd anniversary of the founding of REM in Athens, Georgia, and that he had received emails from his former bandmates that morning.) Hadreas reveals that his following seems strongest in Britain and is "pumped" by news that he may be invited by the National, another band, to play at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival at a Butlins camp in Minehead in December. But asked by Stipe if he is ready to collaborate with other artists, he says not yet. "I'm not certain I have it all figured out yet; if I am going to collaborate I want to be more solid and not be a pushover. That's what happens; I have all these insecurities."
That same hesitancy surfaces when Stipe enquires about what other contemporary music Hadreas listens to. He doesn't – or at least not when he is writing. He limits himself to the old stuff like soul, Otis Redding or perhaps Dylan. "When I'm writing, I'm very scared of listening to new music. I don't want to be too influenced by newer things. When I was writing the album, everything was very simple and straightforward and then I'd listen to Bon Iver [an American folk band] and just in the first track there is just a lot there, it's just intimidating I suppose, the grandness of it was intimidating. I don't want to second-guess my simplicity."
Still, the badass compliments may not be entirely misplaced judging by something that happened a few days before we meet. Hadreas was heckled by a fan during a set in Atlanta, Georgia, asking for his money back. In another moment of unexpected catharsis, he faced him down.
"It was kind of three years of high school added up. But I'm not in high school any more, so if anything vaguely reminiscent of bullying or anything like that then like aargh... just venom comes out. I cussed him out and asked him to come up on stage and fight. I had it all mapped out, I had this acoustic guitar next to me, because I didn't think I could land a fist. But I knew I could land an acoustic guitar." The man in the crowd – it was a bit sparse, the Deep South perhaps not quite ready for Hadreas – declined the invitation.
Returning for a second to the YouTube video, Hadreas says that at first he was not as bothered by its rejection as perhaps he should have been. "I think I should have been offended, but I am just used to that. It was on a bigger level than usual, but it is not super-surprising." Actually he hadn't even liked the video that much. "I had made a creepier one that probably would have gone through just because there weren't four men's nipples in it and the men weren't too close... it's very inappropriate for families apparently to have two shirtless men close."
But just like the episode with the man in Atlanta, the video also now seems to have been part of Hadreas busting out of his shell. "After I made it, I kind of realised that all these things I had been ashamed of my whole life, k like putting on a wig, were things I would do in a room by myself. They are all things I'd be terrified to show anyone else. Or I would carry myself differently so people wouldn't know that about me. Now all of a sudden I've made a video with all of those things in it and showed it to a bunch of people. I think that is badass."
An interesting question comes up, one that allows us to wind back just a little into Stipe's experience when he was Hadreas's age. As he becomes stronger – more badass – does it bother Hadreas that his appeal remains firmly fixed in a persona that is about pain and vulnerability and not a lot else? Apparently it did Stipe. "People get a wrong idea from your music, that's something that I got a lot," Stipe offers. "People got the wrong idea of who I was; that gets tiresome doesn't it? Like you are this sensitive, super-depressed-all-the-time guy?"
Actually, Hadreas doesn't mind. "I understand that people, they need the context of that so they are sensitive to it and respond to the music. I think if they suddenly see me as a badass I don't think they can get into it." This might be an American thing, he suggests. If his fans expect pain from him, as they might from a film or a painting, then he must be consistent. "You have to hit them over the head with it. If I giggle between the sad songs people are going to be like, 'Wait, if he's giggling, can I still buy the sadness of the song afterwards?'"
Hadreas, in other words, knows where his niche is, and while being gay is part of the narrative, he denies it is his brand. "I just am. I am a gay person who makes music." He pauses. "It's complicated because it's a big deal and it's not a big deal. It's not that I want to a make a non-issue of it, because I am proud of whatever tiny thing I can do that's helpful." He means that young gay people who are lost might find their bearings in his songs.
Here Stipe jumps in. We should not come away from this thinking that Perfume Genius's music is only for struggling gay people or even just gay people. "For anyone who has felt alienation, there is something there for them," he says, before trying to explain further. "I think simply by being who we are as public figures, by simple existing, we are making some contribution to anyone who feels alienated, whoever they are, through the work that we do, but also by being these public figures and being simply ourselves."
How far Stipe succeeded in the "being ourselves" department – he recoiled from all discussion of his sexuality in the earlier years of REM – is for another time (those are the rules today) but asked if he sees his younger self in Hadreas, he replies, "Of course." It may be that Hadreas, perhaps because we are in a new time – a time when YouTube might have been expected to behave differently – has been able to get to that point of honesty and give voice to it in his music a little more easily. "I feel like I am trying to tell the truth about myself a lot," he says.
Truth and honesty have become our dual theme. "We all have our dumb pop stuff that is just fun," says Stipe, "and there is music that actually resonates deep inside of you, where you hope for something that speaks to you on a grand level. I will use an example that may not be popular, but there are people who manage to do both of those things, who manage to be wildly pop and wildly successful and at the same time to be incredibly true to herself, and I am speaking of Lady Gaga."
If Stipe is not quite saying that Perfume Genius will be the next Gaga, he does compare him to Patti Smith. "They are cut from the same cloth: they each have the ability as writers and performers to take a very simple, almost everyday turn of phrase and put it in a context where it comes absolutely devastating." It's a strong word. He looks over to Hadreas. "I don't think he minds me saying that."
"No, not at all," replies Hadreas. "That's just fine with me." For a second he looks happy.
The new single from Perfume Genius, 'Put Your Back N 2 It', is out on 4 June. His UK tour begins on Tuesday. For details, visit facebook.com/perfumegeniusofficial
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