The Passion of Perfume Genius
The Passion of Perfume Genius
One Friday last month, Mike Hadreas fell asleep in a “Cruel Intentions” T-shirt and got up later that morning for a Zoom interview. He’d been up late, in his Los Angeles home, so he took the call in bed. Not something he’d normally do. The Zoom, the wee hours.
“Before I was like a normal person. I don’t know. Everything’s kind of blurry,” he said, sitting up in bed, the shirt doubling as something of a gown on him. “I don’t really have a grip on how I feel. I have no center.”
Hadreas was talking about life in our current Covid era. But he entered it that way, off kilter. In two hourlong chats, both from his bed, he was ruminative and entertainingly tart and, at the moment, OK with being, at 38, under construction.
Hadreas writes music that he performs as Perfume Genius, and when he began releasing albums a decade ago, the songs were ghostly wisps that rarely exceeded three minutes. Maybe you’d call some of them ballads. Nothing else about their sound has been that straightforward, familiar or stable — it’s gothic, romanticist, fraught, melodramatic, smart, kinky; there are rockabilly gestures, tapestried synths, gale-force desert-scapes. It’s knowing, reaching, daring. Alive.
Steadily, the albums — “Learning” in 2010, “Put Your Back N 2 It” in 2012, “Too Bright” in 2014 — got meatier, more sideways. “Fool,” on “Too Bright,” is ’60s girl-group R&B with fantastic chord progressions. “Queen,” a single from the same record, is tricked out with some rugby-scrum grunts (“Hooo!”) and features the highly quotable, expertly turned line, “No family is safe when I sashay.” By “No Shape” in 2017, the bars of piano that start each album had become the prelude to an explosion.
Now there’s a new Perfume Genius album that feels like a leap beyond where Hadreas was even three years ago. It’s got a title that grabs you by the shoulders and plants one: “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.” It’s due on May 15 and contains some of the song-iest songs Hadreas has written. If the early albums were coming-of-age records, this is Perfume Genius, of age. The music isn’t any one thing. It’s everything, occasionally at once, playing with the ideas of hard and soft, innocence and danger, chaos and control, vastness and intimacy, leather and lace. The characteristic — thrilling — strangeness remains, particularly when Hadreas indulges the deeper registers of his singing voice.
He’s got an evocative falsetto (best exemplified, on the new album, by the hookup ballad “Jason,” which sounds as if its filling in the blanks of Air’s “Playground Love,” from the “Virgin Suicides” soundtrack with “Monster”-era R.E.M.). The decision to sing in his more natural, lower range struck Hadreas as defiant. “Like, ‘oh, you think I sing high, I can sing low’,” he said. “There’s somewhere new that I haven’t gone.”
There’s a bravado to the arrangements and swagger in the singing, which Hadreas credits to being this close to the microphone, “chest-up,” invoking himself in pop spaces where he didn’t hear himself. A song like “Whole Life” conjures Roy Orbison and his descendants (chiefly, Chris Isaak and k.d. lang); “Without You” and “Nothing at All” swagger like Springsteen and are as vulnerably aglow. (“He’s kind of relentless,” Hadreas said of the Boss. “Super emotional.”)
The melancholy, mischief, harmonies and tales of rough sex from Hadreas’s previous albums haven’t gone anywhere. But no shape has given way to new contour. There are honest-to-God pop songs, like the album’s second single, “On the Floor.” Hadreas said he was “thinking about Cyndi Lauper, and Robyn, and these songs that are emotional and bittersweet, but you’re dancing.”
In short, Hadreas turned a corner making this album. He just can’t identify where the turn has landed him. Wherever that place is, it’s made him a good kind of uncomfortable. “I feel very rootless right now,” he said. “I don’t know. I can feel a shift in my thinking, in what I want, and who I think I am.” This sort of conversation feels obnoxious to him — talking about growth instead of growing. “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is what he’s grown.
Nonetheless, he is thinking about what has changed. Hadreas is a recovering addict and was bullied in his adolescence. He withstood a lot of difficulty by filing it away. Making music was where he’d reattach, open up all the doors he keeps closed. But the compartmentalization skills that enabled him for so long have suddenly abandoned him. Before, he would “make a container for all of those things to happen in,” he said. Now “I just feel lots of feelings coming up, stuff that is really confusing to me.”
It started, he suspects, with a decision more than a year ago to team up with the choreographer Kate Wallich for a tour of live dance performances. “I think that shook me up so much, creatively and in my life,” Hadreas said. They called the dance, “The Sun Still Burns Here,” an hour of “deterioration, catharsis and transcendence,” according to the program notes, with some singing by Hadreas.
The show affected Hadreas, “in ways that I’m still sorting through.” His disorientation makes a kind of sense. He hadn’t been looking for Wallich. Her dance group had received a commission for a live music-dance project and found him. On Instagram.
“I came across a photo of Mike on my explore tab doing, like, a crazy backbend,” Wallich said, on the phone from Seattle. She had never heard of Perfume Genius, but the way Hadreas used his body spoke to her. “Mike would send me a photo of something, and he’d be talking about a sound, but he’d be able to send me, like, a photo of trash, and he’d be like, ‘You know: like this,’ and I instantly understood that.” And Hadreas understood her: “I was just like, ‘oh, this is someone I’m supposed to talk to and work with.’” Still, the process of total collaboration is part of what drove Hadreas to commit to the process. He was hoping to be creatively destabilized by working so closely with a virtual stranger.
“Before I had even written any music and there had been any movement we were talking about what is this going to be, which is bizarre to me,” he said. The music always originates with him, alone, then he shares with his collaborators, which include his boyfriend of more than a decade, the musician Alan Wyffels. “I write all this music by myself generally, like in a very isolated way. But this was creating something in a room full of people from the very start, and in a very physical way.”
When the show opened at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, Gia Kourlas, the dance critic of The New York Times, wrote that, “aside from some bursts of spirited unison choreography for Ms. Wallich and her group, the action is too limited, too labored.”
Hadreas was and wasn’t ready for the process. Building a dance depends on group ideation. It entails rehearsal, which he admits is not his favorite element of art-making process: “I hate doing the same thing over and over.” And yet: “If you want to be a musician you need to rehearse your songs so that you can play them,” Hadreas said, fully aware of his own absurdity. Working with Wallich, what he found was a medium place, between “rolling around to drone and verbalizing and making noises” and the discipline of an eight-hour rehearsal.
He loved the experience enough to incorporate Wallich and her company into the video he directed for “Describe.” The crunching, downbeat alt-rock guitar powering the song lays the groundwork for a rather ingenious tribute to scenes from Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” and Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail,” two homoerotic masterworks that, in Hadreas’s imagination, can be made one. It’s set in around a barn on a commune with plenty of fruit, honey and omnisexual tension. He’s not the androgyne of performances past. In “Describe,” Hadreas plays macho farm daddy, puffing on a cigar, wielding a leaf blower, tussling with a knife, dragging a long ax alongside the dancers as they complete some gentle hoe-downing in unison.
“The world I’m trying to make for myself is very close to that video,” he said, “and that’s not the kind of world I thought I wanted a few years ago.” What he thought he wanted was domestic calm, basic-ness. But one day, a regular trip to Costco felt off to him. He thought, “I don’t like Costco anymore. This isn’t doing it for me. It’s like this isn’t giving me what I want right now, energetically.” He realized what he wanted was the community that Wallich’s dance group offered. Working in isolation was no longer appealing.
Hadreas wanted “new rules.” He wanted to change the way he’s thought of himself “since I was 8 and somebody told me, ‘You’re like this,’” and “30 years later, I still believe that.” He wanted to shed the pressure of external expectations. “I had been doing that with those dancers and that company in all kinds of absurd and real ways for a year.” The video was a way to prolong the connection. (The feeling remains mutual: “I feel like Mike and Alan are still part of the dance company,” Wallich said. “Everybody in the company feels like that, too.”)
“Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” and “The Sun Still Burns Here” were made almost in conjunction. The infernal titles, which Hadreas chalks up to a penchant for drama, speak to that. So does the deep breath that opens the album. It’s both the sigh of a person letting something go perhaps in order to be ready to embrace some new thing, a release and a steeling. “Half of my whole life is gone,” he then sings, crooningly. The song is a funeral and, in its way, a celebration of self-reconciliation.
“I have this feeling that I’m turning in any direction and I want to kind of shed everything, like almost everything. But I want to keep the good stuff,” he said. “Or if it was bad, put it to rest in a warm way and send it off, you know what I mean?”