Though they’re unfortunate in the first place, calamitous life experiences can in rare cases provide the motivation for what become some of the most remarkable forms of artistic expression.
Michael Alden Hadreas is one of the many gay people in America who, as an adolescent and then even more so as a teenager, suffered deplorable treatment from cruel peers who were part of a nation struggling, and still to this day, with its own homophobia.
Death threats, routine harassment at his Seattle area high school, and a different world of heartache at home with his parents divorcing — it’s understandable that a young Hadreas walked away from it all, dropping out as a senior. After getting jumped in his own neighborhood, Mike — who has Crohn’s disease — moved to New York, an important time in his life that included a gig working the door at a nightclub.
Turning to music, and leaning on the piano skills he acquired through lessons as a child, Mike published his first tracks to MySpace back in 2008, using the artist name Perfume Genius.
More than a decade later, Hadreas has turned Perfume Genius into a redemptive, extricating vehicle, working with a variety of esteemed producers over the course of five albums to build a large, devout following and, through collaborations and contributions to disparate recording projects and key appearances at high-profile festivals, international recognition.
Stream Perfume Genius’ 2020 studio album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately via Spotify:
While Mike’s daring, uncommon baroque pop has found a broad appeal to listeners far and wide with its superabundant passion and its unpredictable, visceral sound, Perfume Genius has unquestionably become an important leading artist proudly represents the gay community and Mike’s increasingly used his prominence and amplified his voice as brave opponent to the unjust treatment of anyone from the LGTBQUIA communities.
Hadreas owned the 9:30 Club stage the night of March 25 with his presence alone during a sensational visit to the nation’s capital, part of a tour crossing the country from West Coast to East Coast.
Performing underneath saturated lighting or in the shadows it created, as fluorescent reds and pinks, deep blues and purples illustrated the subject matter, Hadreas would move and entice the venue packed with his lovingly supportive fans, looking like a man consumed by his drive to defy all the collective nonsense that weighed on him and others with similar experiences that could very well persist today.
And he wasn’t alone — rather he was accompanied by a team out talented musicians, including dynamic in-demand guitarist Meg Duffy, who opened the show as Hand Habits, as well as Hadreas’ longtime creative/romantic partner Alan Wyffels was on keys/synths. Greg Uhlmann handled additional guitar responsibilities; on bass, Pat Kelly, and on drums, Tim Carr.
A riveting take on “Your Body Changes Everything” gave the room its first taste of Hadreas’ enrapturing brand of chamber pop, followed by “Without You,” a sprightly, healthful realization that snapped the audience quickly to life as Michael finished this one and peeled off his jacket.
Watch Perfume Genius’ late 2021 Live on KEXP performance via YouTube:
Keeping on his acclaimed 2020 studio release Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Michael led his band into what would be a grand, rejuvenative pop rock creation with an eye-watering slide guitar twist, and this song grew to a monstrously exonerating sound, with a longing that rode atop heavy waves charged with desire:
“His love, it felt like ribbons / an echo in the canyon / Can you just find him for me? / Can you describe them for me? / Can you just find him for me?”
Most of Mike’s engagement with the crowd was hard to hear as he made his way around the stage — lean, limber, and his emotions revealed for all to see. At times, he looked to be holding back tears or not holding them back at all; at others, he appeared so devilish it was clear that many of his lyrics have been born out of deep revolt.
But as the night went on, the range of his talents and his showmanship became undeniable. He would move back to the keys, seating himself right by Alan and pointing out to the crowd that the two have been sharing in performing the next song — the title track from his first album — for more than a decade, and the piano duet “Learning” floated as delicate and pristine to the many ears intently listening from all parts of the venue.
Perfume Genius moved from song to song with a purpose, serving up rich, amplified favorites like a groovy edition of “On The Floor” and the explosive “Slip Away,” from the album No Shape, H first featuring Blake Mills as producer.
Stream Perfume Genius’ 2017 studio album, No Shape, via Spotify:
Ultimately making use of the heap of what appeared to be nylon tulle fabric, Hadreas would wind it around himself during an ambient, sinister jam toward the end of the set, pulling it on top of him as he sat in a chair. Then, twisting it around himself, he went to the floor and flailed in slow motion as he grappled with the weightless material and red lights flew above what became a startling and revealing view into dread and discharge.
Dosing the crowd with mind-bending sludge sounds to close the set, Mike and his crew offered up “My Body,” throwing back to the 2014 album Too Bright with this thunderous, unsettling number.
It set up an encore pulling two songs from the same album — first, “Grid,” a chanting, chugging piece that showed off more of Mike’s character through his voice, and then, the pop rock masterpiece, “Queen,” which was one of the first of his songs to garner him award nominations for his music writing. At 9:30 Club, this song echoed like an anthem, as Hadreas was confident and energized and elated by the many folks cheering him on even as he walked off the stage to end the evening.
By using his music as a redeeming force, and by making his story so familiar to his following, Mike’s made himself that much more accessible to them as an artist, songwriter and performer. And so even after the shock and awe of his flamboyant, expressive behavior on stage abates, what’s left in his fans on any given night is what’s been attracting them to his music all along — a feeling of intimacy.
Your Body Changes Everything
On The Floor
Nothing at All
Here are images of Perfume Genius along with the night’s opener, Hand Habits (Meg Duffy, who is performing as part of Perfume Genius on the tour as well), performing at 9:30 Club on March 25, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.