Perfume Genius: Q&A

Perfume Genius (photo by Camille Vivier, PR)
by Kara Manning | 07/09/2020 | 12:00am

Perfume Genius (photo by Camille Vivier, PR)

Mike Hadreas, who records as Perfume Genius, released an absolutely stunning album this spring all about movement—emotional and physical—just when the world shut down. Yet Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, with its waves of sensuality, euphoric dance tracks, and caustic bolts, works in this upside-down world where travel is only possible in the imagination, activity is restricted, and desires are temporarily on hold.

Hadreas wrote and recorded the album without a clue of how miserably 2020 would turn out, which makes this arresting and lovely fifth album even more of a transcendent escape from reality. He also cleverly rounded up a team of fantastic musicians and collaborators to join him on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, including his longtime boyfriend Alan Wyffels and producer Blake Mills. Long fascinated by Roy Orbison, Hadreas also connected with a man who famously worked with the late rock 'n' roll crooner, the legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. Other musicians included Pino Palladino (who has played bass for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Harry Styles), drummer Matt Chamberlain, Phoebe Bridgers, Ethan Gruska, and saxophonist Sam Gendel.

FUV caught up with Hadreas in June, in the midst of a pandemic-era Pride month and as protests for racial justice, following the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, dominated everyone's conversations. We took it from there:

How are you processing all that is happening now, as a witness to this unprecedented time in history?

I'm just trying to take care of myself and the people around me the best I can. Making sure I am grateful, trying to get some distance from where my mind wants to spiral during isolation, so I can truly show up for myself and others in a real way, with any actual healing I can muster.

As people protest in the streets, making their voices heard, it must resonate powerfully with you.

It's heartening to see so many people come together, but what it took to bring people to the streets is devastating. I am immensely thankful for everyone protesting, resisting and speaking up against the violent and racist systems in place in America. I think many within the LGBTQ community, specifically white cis gay men, have historically used their queerness as a free pass for misogyny and racism and appropriation. We need to hold each other accountable, we need to talk about that. Black women and our Black LGBTQ family have been on the forefront of every movement towards equality, for racial justice, for LGBTQ equal rights—we need to protect, respect, advocate for and uplift their voices always.

Your own voice is of singular beauty and has always been. But on your new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, you push yourself even further. When recording with Blake Mills, what were you seeking vocally in songs like "Moonbend" or "On the Floor?"

Both songs are very different, but equally visceral. I sometimes think in a grander way, but generally I approach each song as a separate world. I don't worry too much about cohesion; they are all coming from me, from around the same time, from the bundle of whatever I'm feeling, so the songs will always be sisters whether I'm singing in falsetto or in a deep whisper. Honestly, I just vibe. I don't know another way to describe it. I don't think about it until further down the line, I don't bring math in until I'm nearly there already energetically. It's always such a mix of feelings, of influences, and something I like to think is kind of supernatural. I don't want to lose it by overthinking.

You can hear your affection for Roy Orbison too, in "One More Try" or "Whole Life." What did you admire about Orbison? Did Jim Keltner share any details about working with Orbison that surprised you?

He didn't. He was wearing sunglasses the whole time though, which is legendary behavior. I've carried Roy's music around with me for a long time. Haunting and strange ... almost absurd sometimes in its drama. There are lots of insane little choices in performance and melody throughout lots of his songs, but still with this classic warmth and accessibility.

For this album, you reached out to Phoebe Bridgers, Ethan Gruska, Matt Chamberlain and Pino Palladino, and Jim Keltner. And of course, your partner Alan! Can you choose a descriptive word (or phrase) for each of them—and what they brought to your record?

Oh JEEZ! I feel like Phoebe always brings balance, a warmth, and intelligence. Alan has a remarkable ability to think very technically, to have perspective over the song intellectually but he still bring an emotional tenderness and passion. Matt Chamberlain is just f**king insane; I almost had to leave the room while he was doing one take because I was overwhelmed by how good it was.

I admire Pino because, effortless or not, he always brings something legendary like it was the easiest thing in the world. Ethan is gentle and kind but you can tell in his playing that he is ferocious and dedicated. Jim has a long career, but still seemed exploratory and curious, seemingly tapping in to his experience and new energies at the same time.

You've described your experience working with choreographer Kate Wallich on "The Sun Still Burns Here" as being transformative, feeding directly into these new songs. Was that epiphany more about your connection with movement or a new kind of collaboration?

It really changed my relationship with my body. Physically and as an idea. It helped me feel infinitely more present but somehow still retaining the magic I feel when writing or singing. That has always felt otherworldly and just out of reach, very internal and like a dream. It somehow merged that dreamscape and the actual world. It made me rethink what I want, what I'm capable of, patterns I was in that weren't working and were just habit, other connections I wasn't tending properly. Lots of things came up.

Your album, especially tracks like "Nothing at All" or "Borrowed Light" shares a transcendent quality that reminded me of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. Like Mark Hollis, you have a powerful awareness of silence, space, and spirituality. Do you describe yourself as a spiritual person or is that too vague for you?

I do. I think of making things in that way. I'm very serious about it. I'm very into the idea of channeling. I'm much smarter when I'm writing somehow, I don't know where it comes from. Sometimes it's full bodied too and I feel like someone else entirely, like I'm tapping into something truly beyond me. I'm fully aware it could all be high drama and made up; I just don't care. Magic is more fun, real or not. I loved how Mark Hollis would get out of the way of the magic happening sometimes, his voice would fade in and out and move like one of the instruments. Or he wouldn't sing at all for long pauses. If I can conjure any of that, I hope to.

As a musician promoting a new album but unable to tour, what has been the most challenging (or worrying) about that part of that equation?

I like the routine of touring; I like what's required of me because I'm forced to be uncomfortable and get out of myself a little bit. And I feel more helpful singing for other people. It gives me direction. Writing is the same. But anything in between I can kind of disappear, it can get dark and really self involved. I just don't want to fall in to a familiar but ultimately icky place.

This year has been defined by so many dramatic twists and turns, from Covid-19 to the protests for racial justice to an election ahead. Are you hopeful about what lies ahead? Given the dreamy nature of this album, how do you dream the world will be different on the other side of this storm?

I really don't know. It will be different, though. I hope I can find something inside of the s**t; I hope I can help other people find something inside of the s**t that is warm and full of love. That's all I'm really hopeful for.

- Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius
June 25, 2020

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