Perfume Genius Presents the Joys of Thrashing in Dirt
Mike Hadreas on feeling present in his body and keeping socially distant around his most physical record yet, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.
Mike Hadreas is deep into the press cycle for his new album as Perfume Genius, but don’t expect him to have an answer on how to navigate being an artist in a pandemic.
“I just kinda want to roll around with a bunch of people right now and have a fog machine,” he says matter-of-factly. “The other day, I told Alan [Wyffels, Hadreas’ longtime boyfriend] that I want to create a ten-hour long movie where we can all move very slow. He said that’s not something we can do right now…maybe that’s something I should do, period.” He jokingly compromises, saying he’ll either wait until stay-at-home orders lift or give in to filming a solo performance rolling around his living room. If we’re being honest though, Hadreas is going to have a hard time keeping anything around this record socially distant.
True to its audacious title, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is an album that pummels with a passionate need for contact, whether emotionally, sexually, or in the aforementioned rolling-on-the-floor-in-a-group sense. Following the sonic expanse of 2017’s No Shape, Set My Heart somehow draws Perfume Genius further out into genre fluidity, letting shoegaze flow into sauntering country, ambient, and soulful pop as Hadreas’s focus shifts from Shape’s monogamous ruminations to a near-unquenchable need for human connection. It’s a need that unfortunately took a more universal relevance than Hadreas could’ve imagined when he announced the record months ago.
“I don’t know if I’ve accepted it, but I’ve committed to it,” he says about keeping the release date mid-pandemic. “It does feel strange to write and be releasing a record very much about being out in the world, and now I’m not out in the world. I wrote all those songs to kind of soothe myself, or at least get to an understanding of that feeling, even if it doesn’t go away.”
The narrative around Mike Hadreas as a quietly beloved writer of lo-fi piano confessionals that jarringly turned into one of a soundtrack-worthy torch bearer for art rock needs adjusting. The stark vulnerability of Perfume Genius’s first two records, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, is undoubtedly worlds apart from the widescreen scope of his last three, but an ability to capture unflinching stories on physicality isn’t new to Hadreas’s wheelhouse. Perfume Genius’ earliest fan favorite, “Mr. Peterson,” is a visceral, semi-fictional unpacking of a predatorial high school teacher that lured a teenaged Hadreas to his truck with weed before later committing suicide.
Put Your Back N 2 It, which served as a fuller introduction to Hadreas as a creative force, featured videos of him sauntering through an industrial park like it was a catwalk and being tenderly held by late porn actor Arpad Miklos. The latter received a misguided temporary ban from YouTube for adult image violations, but Hadreas had found a balance between documenting queer trauma and self-acceptance in his music alongside videos that smirkingly took up all the space they wanted to. It was a period which, Hadreas admits, he wanted to revisit in some capacity.
“I didn’t really feel like writing the way I had been writing the last couple years, which talked more about the ideas themselves and talked about the feelings,” Hadreas says. “I’ve always loved the lyrics of the first couple records. When I first started writing songs, there were a lot more names and streets. I’m not, like, not proud of what I’ve made, but it felt more satisfying to write in that way.”
“I’ve been dancing on stage for the last couple of records, but it’s all been really just thrashing, writhing, or throwing my body around. It was just a way for me to get the music or message out almost because I felt like the music wasn’t enough.”
As he began fleshing out the many “hyper-present, super physical stories” contained within Set My Heart, Hadreas got a message from Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich. Wallich found Perfume Genius from photos of Hadreas dancing on stage, messaging him without having heard a single song. “I’ve been dancing on stage for the last couple of records, but it’s all been really just thrashing, writhing, or throwing my body around,” he says. “It was just a way for me to get the music or message out almost because I felt like the music wasn’t enough. Especially on stage, I felt I needed to share harder.”
The two began brainstorming a stage performance, premiering last year as The Sun Still Burns Here, that found Hadreas fully committing to a multi-hyphenate role as singer, composer, and dancer. Joined by Wyffels and Wallich’s The YC dance group, Sun featured ten new songs by Hadreas around a performance that intersected the joys of thrashing with some technical tightening. After a decade engaged in the solitude of making records, Hadreas literally threw himself into the communal creative process.
“The dance made being in a body feel like actually [being] in my body,” he says about the show. “It wasn’t like an experiment; I was literally thinking about my hand on the floor, or how to hold myself. I’ve built a career out of this sort of internal world that feels solitary and dreamlike and not tangible, but then to be with a bunch of people—and be really present in my body with them, but have all that magic still be there—really shook me up.”
The creative whiplash is evident on “Describe,” Set My Heart’s lead single. Re-enlisting The YC for the video as members of a post-apocalyptic desert cult, Hadreas is chomping on cigars, knife-fighting, and leading dust bowl jigs over sludging guitars and lap steel twangs. As quickly as it arrives, the shoegazing gives way to two and a half minutes of ambient wandering, sending the lover Hadreas is trying to describe back into a hazy outline.
Set My Heart governs itself in these extremes of searing physical want and reflection, its genre-agnosticism only adding to the push and pull. “On the Floor,” the most clear-eyed pop song Perfume Genius has released thus far, struggles with theatrical flair over an undeniable attraction. One song earlier, Hadreas is jarringly close to the mic on “Leave,” murmuring over sparse arpeggiating harps to be ignored like a begging dog. In one of Set My Heart’s most vivid chapters, “Jason” finds Hadreas stretching into falsetto as he recalls being “warm and mothering” during a sexual encounter years ago with a man tearfully reckoning with his sexuality. The song closes on Hadreas taking $20 out of the man’s jeans the following morning. “I think if I’m respectful to the blurriness of it, that it was a bunch of competing energies at once, and I sort through them enough to describe each of them—I leave it all there,” he says. “I don’t pick just one and have that be the moral of the story.”
“I just hope we can feel each other eventually. I made this record for people; I’m not going to be listening to it!”
More than just a record on lust, Set My Heart is a warm reflection on Hadreas’s own bodily acceptance and the people around him that helped realize this inner strength. “Without You” gallops in like a great romantic country standard, only to subtly reveal halfway through that the love interest is Hadreas finding satisfaction in the mirror for the first time in a while. “Your Body Changes Everything,” one of the album’s most triumphant peaks, is spiritually guided by Kate Bush in urgent synth stabs, but it’s uniquely Perfume Genius in its ability to make a simple act like hoisting a body in dance so emotionally potent. More than anything, it’s these moments that feel hard to visualize within the live-streamed reality that Hadreas and every other performer has to operate in.
“I just hope everybody likes it, and I hope I can feel that,” he says somewhat mournfully of the record release. “I just hope we can feel each other eventually. I made this record for people; I’m not going to be listening to it! It helps me. That circle, I just want that circle.”
As he’s answering whether a Perfume Genius live stream show is in the cards (eventually, he says, once he finds a way to represent the new album right), he remembers another idea for a performance: referencing his dust-caked video for “On the Floor,” Hadreas says he’s been looking into how to fill a room in his house with dirt and seal it off with plastic sheeting “to keep it sort of tidy-ish.” Like the ten-hour film, it sounds like a surreal fantasy from an artist going on a decade experimenting with finding joy in the darkest of places. At this stage of his career, though, the surreal is entirely attainable.
“The fifty feet of plastic sheeting I ordered at 3 a.m. after ending up on a prepper website has ARRIVED,” he tweets, caps lock intended, a few days later. FL