Get Physical: Perfume Genius Interviewed

Perfume Genius' new album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is his best yet. He speaks to Patrick Clarke about physicality, connection, and embodying the swagger of Elvis and Roy Orbison. Photos by Camille Vivier

On the cover of his fifth album as Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas stands topless, his toned and rugged physique bathed in dramatic monochrome. In other takes from the shoot he’s splayed over a Harley Davidson, or wielding a thick, heavy sledgehammer or a hunting knife, his face muddied with the dirt of hard, manly graft. Speaking to tQ via Skype, he laughs gently when asked to unpack its comments on masculinity and the human form. “A big part of it is just because I felt like it!

“That specific presentation just feels closest to how I’m presenting as a person at the moment. I sometimes think people expect me to be wearing a ruff, or a full clown collar. Part of it is rebellious,” he concedes. “There is a campness to being hyper-masculine to me. But it’s serious at the same time, and that’s sort of how I’m always feeling, and how the record is too. A lot of the things I cry about, the next day I’ll hysterically laugh about.”

The album’s predecessor No Shape was a landmark in Hadreas’ career when it was released in 2017. Not just because it received mainstream acclaim, but because of the way it altered him personally. He wrote the record from his home in the smallish city of Tacoma, near Seattle, where he lived in relative isolation with his boyfriend and long-term bandmate Alan Wyffels, but they recorded it in Los Angeles and enjoyed their time in the city so much they ended up moving there.

“I think more than anything that record pushed us out into being more social,” he says. “It made me think about things in a bigger way than just hiding out in my room making music, then going on tour, then just going back to hiding. I wanted to expand things with that album, but I was thinking of that more internally. I wanted my thoughts to get bigger and my feelings to change, but I didn’t want to physically have to do very much. No Shape was about how I was wanting that but I wasn’t doing it. It was kind of aspirational.”

With Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas is doing a lot. It is a gorgeous and lavish album, ambitious, multi-faceted and as loftily passionate as that title suggests. Adorned with hefty rushes of guitar, thick and dreamy strings, elegant harps and harpsichords, it paints with Perfume Genius’ most colourful emotional palette to date, swinging spiritedly from the gritty, driving swoon of ‘Describe’ to the warm and divine funk of ‘On The Floor’. Hadreas remains a deeply personal songwriter, crafting every song around a raw and vulnerable core, but on his new album he amplifies that emotion to create a big, bold melodrama of a record that, for all its sensuousness, feels corporeal and tactile.

Much of the raw physicality and extroversion of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately has its roots in The Sun Still Burns Here, a 2019 modern dance piece Hadreas created in collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich which was soundtracked by ten brand new Perfume Genius songs. Hadreas performed it himself, alongside Wyffels and dancers from Wallich’s YC dance company. The physical challenge was daunting and alien, but before long “I found I was getting that same, almost divine feeling that something is coming out, something I haven’t been able to name,” he says. “Usually I did that through music, but I was describing it energetically, with people or with a chair, in this really physical and hyper-present way.

“It freaked me out,” he continues. “I had thought I had to go fully into some mental spiral in order to find stuff, and this performance said, ‘No, you can just be here as you are now, you don’t have to feel like you’re someone else.’ It really shook me up, and it also made that creative magic and energy leak into my daily life, showed me that I could have some of that as a person, I didn’t have to reserve it just for making stuff.” It was in that shimmering afterglow of The Sun Still Burns Here rehearsals that Set My Heart was written, and it was recorded in the gaps between rehearsals and performances. They are two distinct and separate entities, but the former has certainly influenced the latter. Take that cover for example, or the video for the new record’s lead single ‘Describe’, a mercurially choreographed piece, set in a timeless but distinctly American rural setting that blends ruggedness and sensuality, and explores those liminal spaces in-between.

The Sun Still Burns Here inspired a change in Hadreas’ everyday life, on a practical level – he is in staggering shape – and on a philosophical level too. “I just want to be around a bunch of people dancing and fighting and singing!” he laughs. “It made me want to be around people, not just working, but to be around people and have that be an important part of my life and for that to be something that I plan for and think about consciously. It made me think about how I haven’t been doing that, and the connections that I’d been fostering that were taken for granted. I think this record is me thinking about all of that, thinking about connections that I’ve let go of, or connections I should have held on to, or ones that still resonate or ones that I want."

“The [new] record is very much about connection, and being present,” he continues. “Just being physical as a way to reckon with and deal with abstract ideas or feelings that are confusing or complicated instead of just talking about those ideas. I tried to funnel them into people and places, or something really physical and real world.”

Take ‘Jason’, for example, a slow and tender song that serves as the album’s trembling and fragile baroque centrepiece, and for which Hadreas draws from a charged encounter in his early 20s. “I bought a bunch of beer at a mini-mart and there was this guy outside,” he recalls. "I’d never met him before, but I knew who he was because he worked at a thrift store. I knew he was straight, but he asked me if I wanted to go home with him and I did.

"I brought the beer to his house; we talked a lot about feelings but it was also sort of fake. It was a strange night because it was sexual, but it was also like a therapy session; it required me to be someone he needed but someone that wasn’t me, and it required me to be more patient and kind than I was used to in that sort of set up. Looking back on it now it was good and bad, it was sweet and empty, it was like, it was very emotional and romantic, but it was just such a fleeting thing. He just wanted a salve over his spirit in a way that you don’t usually ask someone for, but it was also very cheap. It was impersonal, almost, because we were wasted and…”. He falters for a moment.

“Well I guess I don’t know how to explain it. The song is how I explain it.”

Hadreas’ music has always embraced the contradictions, clashes and confusions of human experience, yet in day to day life he says he doesn’t feel that close to his own feelings. “Music is a way for me to do that because it’s considered and safe,” he says. The difference this time around is a newfound confidence in how he approaches that process, thanks in large part to The Sun Still Burns Here. “I had thought that in order to sort through all my feelings I had to just sit somewhere, lay down and like, fully feel them, and then through this dance piece we did, among other things, I realised I can just throw someone. It’s like a movie where some guys having a hard time and they give him a bat and make him break a bunch of plates or something.”

The emotional glow of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is one that Hadreas heightens and amplifies even further by blending the lines between fantasy and reality, creating a melodramatic mise en scène in which the songs’ passion and pain can become even more glorious. “It felt satisfying not to try and name the feelings on the record, but just to give them a place to be, and to come out,” he says. “Even if the core thing that I was feeling was conquered, I didn’t want to write in this dreamy way about it, I tried to make a story for it to live in and either dissipate or be heightened.” The method allows him to toy with exaggeration and embellishment; he won’t reveal whether he really stole $20 from Jason’s blue jeans the morning after, as the song’s lyrics recount.

That broadening also lends the music a universality, and in turn a relatability. In order to embrace the mounting pressures of sustained success, Hadreas has been “writing for the people who have already been listening to it, and just trying to give them something they’ll like, or connect to again in a new way,” he says. When his audience comes to his mind he thinks of them “as me when I was a teenager, and what I wanted. I wanted to connect, to feel soothed or comforted or less alone in my problems. Even if the music didn’t make me feel better I wanted to feel like I had a companion during that. Some [of my songs] are very personal, but I still bring [fans] with me and package things so that they can stay there with me. I need it too, but after I write and sing it and perform it, it’s ultimately for other people.”

It’s the third time he’s recorded with Blake Mills, if you include The Sun Still Burns Here, and to whom much of his last studio album No Shape’s newfound sonic boldness can be attributed. It’s also the first time he wrote with the producer directly in mind. “I made room for him in the music,” Hadreas says. “I knew I was going to bring all of these songs to him, and I knew I was going to be in the studio, which I’ve known for the last few records, but it took a long time for me to bring all of that into writing and not have it be overwhelming. It used to compete with this place I needed to go internally that’s open and free and not bothered by real life, but I feel like now I can bring those kinds of ideas in more and use them a fuel to actually enhance them.”

Throughout Mike Hadreas’ life, the musicians of the 1950s and 1960s – specifically those of transcendent cultural status like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison – have been a part of his DNA. “And not like, they’ve soundtracked a summer or one of my years in high school. I’ve carried them around my whole life.” It was their mix of vulnerability and swagger that drew him in, he says, yet he simultaneously felt “kind of separate from that music. Even though I loved it, and connected to it and it resonated so much, and my own music has been influenced by that time period this whole time, I’ve not felt included or heard myself in it.” Part of that exclusion was of course that music’s overt straightness. “It’s the same reason I have a weird relationship with church music and hymns,” he says. “When I was little I was almost scared of them, because I knew there was something about me that was not accepted at church. The songs they sang felt like spells to me, they felt occult.”

There was more than queerness that those 50s and 60s icons excluded, however. “If there was ever any remotely scandalous idea it was always between the lines. Anything sexual had to just feel like sex, it couldn’t be about it. But I loved that limitation at the same time too, it heightened it.” On Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius dives headfirst into that space between the lines. “There’s something really satisfying about thinking about the stories that I want to tell, and what those old songs I’ve listened to my whole life would sound like if they were prepared with some of those ideas.” The answer is Perfume Genius’ fifth and finest record to date, an album on which he takes that same mix of swagger and vulnerability portrayed by Orbison and Elvis and makes it his own. He inhabits that same cementing his role as their vibrant, raw, dramatic, tender and brilliant successor.

Perfume Genius’ Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is released on May 15 via Matador

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