Perfume Genius returns to sensation
Alone in the desert, three men, dressed only in flip-flops, evolve into a cat-cow lying on a blanket for nearly two minutes. The touring cities, including Detroit, are played back in a low tone that, as the vintage video progresses, becomes weirder and creepier, the rhythm of the voices in time with their dancing bodies.
“The tour is only in a few weeks” Mike Hadreas40, better known by his stage name Perfume Genius, writes in the caption under the video on his instagram page. If this clip looks completely random, that’s because it is. This is how Hadreas prefers to operate creatively, he tells me from his home in Los Angeles during a recent Zoom interview. This is perhaps why the singer-songwriter has been able to evolve artistically at a fairly rapid pace, never being satisfied with what is expected of him (yet, he admits, he is not reluctant not to respond to the pressure of the tastes of his audience) but above all for what he expects of himself. Hadréas’ wandering artistic mind has produced works as sonically disparate as “Put Your Back N 2 It”, his 2012 intimately produced second album, a powerfully subdued work, and more recently, “Set My Heart on 2020’s Fire Immediately”, which, like his 2017 album “No Shape”, doesn’t just walk around, but glides and struts.
His new album, officially announced a few weeks after our conversation, is titled “ugly season“, music written to accompany the immersive dance piece by Perfume Genius and choreographer Kate Wallich, “The sun still burns here.” Longtime musical and romantic partner of Hadréas Alan Wyffels participated in the creation of the music, which Pitchfork describes as “the sound of dancefloor euphoria”.
As for the tour, “things are going to happen,” Hadreas says. He refers to his emotions, which he expects to beat to the max on this tour, given that it’s his first big hike since before the pandemic.
I’ve reflected on what music has meant to me for the past couple of years, and ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’, which came out just months into the pandemic, felt like such a gift during a really tough time. . Back then, I was listening to a lot of the music I used to listen to as a kid because nostalgic media of all kinds was so comforting – even the nostalgic media I consumed during some of my worst years as a gay teenager.
I listened to the Alice Boman record that came out early. His music is so understated. I don’t want to dismiss it because it’s really beautiful and powerful, but it’s underrated. And he’s not trying to do anything to you. It’s just… it exists, and it’s really beautiful. I think maybe she and I grew up listening to the same music and being inspired by the same music. I hear a lot of 50s ballads in the things she does.
What you’re talking about reminded me of listening to Cat Power, and when I was listening to Cat Power when I was 15 or 16, I was in a dark place. Like, very dark. [Laughs.] But I like to remember it because I’ve had a million different incarnations of myself since then. And when I was depressed and a teenager, it was so permanent. He felt [like] always. It was like the worst thing that ever happened to someone. I don’t feel like that anymore. Maybe I feel a little closer to that in the past two years than I have since, but it’s heartwarming to think back to those times and listen to the music that comforted me then and allowed me to indulge in some way.
How does it feel when people tell you that it’s your music that brings them that same kind of comfort?
I mean, that’s why I do it. I try to do the kind of music that I had a relationship with that way. But I’m also pushing them through things. I don’t do anything, really. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] I’m just kind of a companion while they’re doing whatever they’re doing. So sometimes it can get twisted in your head and sometimes it kinda feels like…
Like there’s a pressure to make music for a particular type of person rather than yourself?
That does not bother me. I like this pressure. I like having that as a rule. I just try to make things start out as things that help me, but then I’m like, “How do I frame this, or how do I get other people to understand how I feel. or what it puts me through?”
I love the weird and sexy trailer you posted on Instagram recently. It reminded me how much I love how you connect with queer culture to develop your own artistic personality. So what about that clip of those men in thongs that was what you wanted to do with that tour?
I mean, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I was just doing what I love. I was just gaming, watching YouTube videos with the audio muted, and then I saw this video and thought, “If I slowed down or put loud music on it, it would become something more disturbing.”
So I started looking for this recording in the field and I found all kinds of weird sounds and stuff like that, and then it started adding to it. Sometimes that’s my favorite way of doing things — when I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. [Laughs.]
Has this always been your approach? And is that your approach to making music?
It’s this weird mix of being really hyper-analytical and really hyper-research. I’m very researcher when I write lyrics or when I create things. I just collect a bunch of footage and images and read a lot of Wikipedia pages; there will be very simple lyrics, just like three words which are very normal, but i have been researching a strange ancient rite [to get there]. Which is pretentious, but it’s fun. Then the other side is just trying to clear your brain, clear everything out to see what pops up. These combinations of these two things are how I do everything.
Do you think you’ll write at all while you’re on the road?
No, I’ve never really done that. Maybe if I played guitar, I could; I bet people are very happy that I don’t do that. But I can say that I am preparing to write. I can just feel like I’m ready to do something. I felt a kind of emptiness there for a while and I don’t feel it anymore.
In anticipation of your show, I’ve been thinking about how, because of the pandemic, I’ve really missed concerts but, more so, I’ve missed sharing space and moving bodies with a bunch of queers.
Oh yes. We’ve done a few gigs, a few little tours over the past few months, and it’s completely different for me. I don’t know if it’s something in the air, or if it’s just that my relationship with everything has changed, or maybe I feel a lot more vulnerable and maybe more present than before. So everything feels more emotional. Even just… not the gigs, but just touring with the band and everything, it feels like summer camp. It’s very utopian. [Laughs.]
And then the shows: I did rehearsals for them and I have to hold back during rehearsals because I’m going all out – destroying the set and stuff like that. But we build it. I shouldn’t destroy it. [Laughs.] I don’t want to, like, destroy my voice by going so hard in rehearsals. But I guess I really need it. The gate is still wide open.
What do you think puts you in this emotional place?
Honestly, I really need it right now. I haven’t really found a way, fully, to get what writing and creating music and performing and all of that does for me. I couldn’t find any other way to do it. I mean, I’m not sure there is [other] way. The thing that is very important to me is that it’s the feeling. It’s a really physical feeling for me. And I have it when I write. It’s like a load all around me, and it’s physical.
I miss it, not just as an idea, but my body misses it and I miss the feeling. And when I did the dance performance that I did with choreographer Kate Wallich’s dance company, I had a lot of that feeling in a very sustained way. And so I can do it. If I make a habit of it, I can put some music on and conjure up something in my body that feels very… not the same, but something. [Laughs.]
For some reason, for the past two years, I haven’t written. I didn’t take care of myself, really. It should be really heavy in my head. But I do not know. But I guess taking care of myself, I’ve done enough because I’m like here.
Do you like being on the road?
Me, especially lately. Maybe it’s just because every record we play, [we] sort of a bit more. I’m on tour with a lighting designer, which I’ve never done before, and it makes the show feel a lot more cinematic, and I feel like it can stay in the dream longer.
What’s hard about touring is that it’s hard. [Laughs.] You are tired and hungry, and you need to eat at the gas station. I found a way to do it. It feels a bit more durable now, so I don’t feel like I have to push myself so hard to get into the space. And the shows used to feel like I was going on stage, and there’s lights on me, and I just have to start banging my head against the wall until a bunch of feelings come. You know? But now I walk out and a light comes on and I’m like, “OK, bitch.”