Indie icon Perfume Genius performs at Vivid Sydney and releases new album Ugly Season
Less than five minutes into our conversation, Perfume Genius encountered an obstacle. The Seattle-based, Los Angeles-based musician tries to describe how his performance style has changed over the years — and, more specifically, how it’s changed since he started playing shows again in late 2021, after two years of live music events are canceled or delayed — but he can’t find a way to verbalize the sentiment that’s particularly sure to imprint: “I keep thinking of naughty ways to say what I’m saying!” »
It’s not uncommon throughout our conversation for Perfume Genius, real name Mike Hadreas, to get stuck at a time like this. Often when he tries to articulate some kind of delightful musical experience, he falters, trying to find a metaphor for his process that isn’t tied to the profane or the carnal. Eventually, he finds a way to explain what he means, without resorting to anything particularly blue.
“Each album cycle, each tour, I feel a little more settled in [performing], and I can kind of be more present and stay in the zone,” he explains. “Sometimes at first it was that if I was more present I was completely thrown into an anxious place – so I had to act like I wasn’t playing much. And now I don’t have to at all. to pretend.
As we speak at the end of April, Hadreas is between tours, at his home in Los Angeles – he’s just finished a jaunt to the United States and is preparing to tour Australia for VIVID and Dark Mofo. Dressed in a plain black shirt and occasionally interrupted by his chihuahua Wanda, Hadreas looks pretty much like he’s done for most of his career – boyish for 40 and effusive, slipping freely between arch-isms in line and moments of deep and curious seriousness.
“It was very overwhelming for me. When I’m on stage dancing and screaming and thrashing, I [always] I felt like I was the only one doing this.
At this point, Hadreas has been releasing music as Perfume Genius for nearly 15 years, during which time he has become one of the most revered and acclaimed figures in modern indie rock. Over the past decade and a half, the scope of his music has expanded dramatically, from the sparse lo-fi folk of the 2010s Learning eventually giving way to slick, metallic electronic music experiments on the 2014 breakthrough too brightbaroque pop nominated for the 2017 Grammy Awards no shapeand 2020s americana-tinged supple art rock Set my heart on fire immediately. The trajectory of Hadreas’ music, from achingly intimate island folksong to avant-garde spectral pop, seems to reflect the transformation he identifies within himself – an almost paralyzing anxiety giving way to a powerful embrace. of physicality.
Now Hadreas is getting ready to go out ugly season – an album very different from anything he’s done before. The score of a contemporary dance piece entitled The sun still burns herein which Hadreas and his romantic and musical partner Alan Wyffels starred with Seattle choreographer Kate Wallich in 2019, ugly season is amorphous and strange, a long-running songwriting project that forced Hadreas to completely reframe his way of making music.
“Collaborating is a hard thing for me to do – like I can meet someone halfway, and bring them something and then we finish it together, or they bring me something and I add some stuff,” he said. “But starting something from scratch with someone else is really difficult for me because it takes a lot of communication and you have to kind of try to explain things that are very difficult to explain.”
So the natural solution was to find an entirely new vernacular to collaborate with. From the design of The sun still burns hereHadreas, Wyffels, Wallich, and Wallich’s company, The YC, would engage in intensive improvisational dance sessions together, moments of extreme intimacy that gave Hadreas a new sense of physical and tactile performance.
“I don’t really have a reference for [contemporary dance], so it was really a crazy thing to do. One of the first rehearsals we ever did — and that’s even before we knew what we were doing, just us all meeting — was, like, an improvised move,” he recalls. “I had never danced with anyone else, and then suddenly I find myself in a pile of eight people rolling around, rocking that I later realized it was Laura, but that I didn’t know at the time – before I hadn’t even really talked to her, I was like I was rocking her.
For Hadreas – who, even when surrounded by a band on stage, often seems caught up in an intensely personal state of rapture – this represented entirely new territory. “It was very overwhelming for me. When I’m on stage dancing and screaming and thrashing, I [always] I felt like I was the only one doing this,” he says. “I never had anyone touch me on stage. I never had anyone say anything – I felt like I was always the one to say everything. So that was crazy to be on stage and playing where everyone is saying something in equal measure.
“Also, just being held and lifted and lifting other people – I got really strong and it was very physical. I lost my mind, I lost my mind completely,” says Hadreas: The Physical Character of the Rehearsals and Performances of The sun still burns here marked him, greatly influencing the immediate and rhythmic feeling of Set my heart on fire immediately.
Where Perfume Genius’ music saw Hadreas struggle with his own body, whether in the form of his anxiety or his struggle with Crohn’s disease, ugly season and Set my heart on fire immediately are tactile, embodied, powerful. Even the song titles on Set my heart on fire immediately – On the floor, Just a touch, Your body changes everything – seem to indicate the new point of view of Hadreas.
Despite the impact The sun still burns here had on him, however, writing the score for the play, Hadreas says, was one of the most difficult projects he had ever undertaken. After laying out the general structure of the piece with Wallich and the YC, he, Wyffels and his longtime producer Blake Mills decamped to a studio to flesh out the sound of the music. Resolved that he didn’t want to record a purely ambient track (“I didn’t want you to feel like you were missing something while listening to ugly season alone,” he says), Hadreas decided to create a long-running sequel that still had structure and vibrancy.
“Me, Blake and Alan specifically did improv stuff together, which is new to me in the studio. It was kind of exciting not having to do pop music – it’s not like that was crazy experimental, but it’s less about trying to fit it into a three-and-a-half-minute structure with a verse and a chorus and all that,” Hadreas says. “But I also like that a lot too, so we were doing these 10 minute jams and then I would try to force a verse and chorus over it which was infuriating I’ve never had more trouble in the studio [than] try to do that, because everything was improvised.
The result is an album that features all the hallmarks of a Perfume Genius record – Hadreas’ voice, a supple, rubbery instrument liable to turn into a glassy falsetto at any moment; sultry, sultry basslines that seem to be passed down from the Black Lodge in twin peaks; lyrics that draw lines between the spiritual, the surreal and the profane – and twist them into new shapes, lengthen and mattify them, turning them into veritable dance floors and angular, arrhythmic walls of sound.
It’s a record that clearly changed the way Hadreas operates as a writer and performer. “By doing the dance, meeting Kate and working with the dancers, I have more of an idea of where I want to go on stage, and how I want to feel on stage, and also what I could feeling good on stage – I never really thought about that,” he says. “It was such a powerful experience – it’s never really going to leave me.”
Perfume Genius will perform at the Melbourne Recital Center on June 9-10; Carriageworks as part of Vivid Sydney on June 11 and Dark Mofo Festival in Hobart on June 17.
ugly season will be released via Matador/Remote Control on June 17th.
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