Perfume Genius: “I’ve been ‘Fuck you’ my whole life, but I’ve found a new way to do it”

Mike Hadreas’ stunning fifth album takes traditional rock’n’roll sounds and queers them up, continuing of his lifelong love of going against the grain

“This one smells like a French racoon wearing a smart hat,” Mike Hadreas announces grandly, waving around a brown vial of potion. Talking to NME over video from his home in LA, the artist is busy conducting a whistle-stop tour of all his favourite perfumes. To say that he owns ‘quite a few’ is a vast understatement, and each scent comes with its own amusing – and strangely evocative – description. No smell-o-vision needed.

“That one is very much ‘cupcakes and church’ – sort of christmassy and cosy” he continues, gesturing towards a different bottle. ”I even wear it to bed sometimes. I hate clean smells. I like it when it’s powdery and clean, with something disgusting underneath. I have some perfumes where it’s like, ‘This has a fecal note’.” He smirks. “‘Ooo, I’ll try that one!’ I like it when it just smells really strange, and there are all these notes that should fight, but they harmonise.”

The Seattle-born 38-year-old, whose fifth album, ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’, is released today (May 15), may as well be describing the music he makes as Perfume Genius. A tug-of-war has jostled at the centre of his work since his 2010 debut ‘Learning’; disgust and beauty often nestle next to each other and gripping melodies smuggle in dark, troublesome lyrics. The sparking piano ballad ‘Mr Peterson’, from that debut, relays a troubled and complicated relationship with an older teacher. “The ugly and the beautiful enhance each other,” he says today. “Those two things are always existing at the same time. I feel that within myself as well.”

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Hadreas’ brushstrokes have become grander with each record. And 2017’s ‘No Shape’ was his most decadent yet, summoning violently jarring and ornate arrangements. His synthy, alt-pop breakthrough hit ‘Queen’ (from 2014’s ‘Too Bright’) saw him depict  an inadequate body “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease.” ‘No Shape’ pursued formlessness instead. “Burn off every trace I wanna hover with no shape,” he sang on the pulsating ‘Wreath’, longing to wrench out of his own body.

“I’m very spiritual about writing, and I think about it as a very magical thing”

“My mission always is to get out of myself,” Hadreas tells NME. “Out of my body, out of my head, just be floating around in this ether.”

Album five is grounded, thematically, in bodily strength. Hadreas has spoken before about the debilitating effects that Crohn’s disease has had on his body, and has explained that escaping it has been a recurring theme in his music. Where that last album saw him run from the limitations of his physical form, this one explores the idea that bodies can shift and change playfully from one moment to the next.

Your body changes everything / You are anchoring,” he sings on ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ atop sharp, synthetic strings and a stuttering undercurrent, “until you fit beneath me / And you’re breaking like a wave.” On ‘Moonbend’ – a tender, falsetto ballad that flutters on its toes like a ballet dancer – he summons images of ribcages turning into folds of material, while sadness turns into a floaty, ghost-like jacket: “I’ll just tear it down / And I’ll wear it like a ribbon.”

This shift is rooted partly in last year’s ‘The Sun Still Burns Here’, a collaborative dance project between Hadreas, the Seattle dance troupe The YC Dance Company and choreographer Kate Wallich. In the future, Perfume Genius plans to release his compositions for the dance as a stand-alone album, and says that working in a group warped his perception of music as an “alien, isolated” entity.

Perfume Genius' new album 'Set My Heart on Fire Immediately'
Credit: Press

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“Usually when I make music it starts from a very solitary place,” Hadreas says. “With [‘The Sun Still Burns Here’] we just started dancing. It blew up my container for what I thought creation was. I’m very spiritual about writing, and I think about it as a very magical thing, and something I could only access if I aligned myself right in a very isolated way.”

The collaboration, he says, was a huge influence on ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’: “I can find inspiration and some sort of spirituality in things that are around me. I don’t have to just be searching for it in some dreamscape.“

“My mission always is to get out of myself”

His new record often draws on a campy interpretation of masculinity, borrowing from the textbook and then skewing it. Sonically, the collection references classic, straight, old-timey sounds – swaggering rock’n’roll with thumbs cockily stuck into jean pockets, ‘50s crooners suavely nursing a velvety broken heart – and then queers them up.

In the video for buzzing, guitar-driven ‘Describe’, Hadreas puffs on a cigar and tears around the desert on a quad-bike, before joining an interpretive dance cult. On the album cover, he’s grease-covered and defiant, staring down the camera with an expression that’s half wary, half furious. It’s a playful kind of masculinity that both embraces and pokes fun at stereotypical tropes, and dabbles in homoeroticism.

“I grew up with and carried a lot of those [old rock’n’roll songs] with me my whole life,” Hadreas says “but I’ve not always not felt fully included in them. I loved inhabiting that and using that. I’ve always been fascinated by these people who have ownership over these spaces and the world,” he says. “Some people have this cockiness that feels really whole and inside of them.”

With ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ Hadreas set out to “effect some of that command. I love this idea of just being like: ‘Listen to me. I’m speaking to you.’ I loved inhabiting that without changing pronouns or anything about the core of what I do. I learned really early on to be self-aware about how I’m acting and how I seem, because it could get me into trouble if I stick out too much, or take up too much space. [There was a fear that] someone’s gonna notice there’s something ‘off’ about me.”

Besides, he laughs, “it’s fun to just be like, ‘Fuck you.’ I’ve been ‘fuck you’ my whole life, but this is a new way to do it.”

Perfume Genius' new album 'Set My Heart on Fire Immediately'
Credit: Press/Camille Vivier

Hadreas was born in Iowa, but moved to suburban Seattle when he was six. He says that the city was overcast and grey “90% of the time,” but was “very green.” As a kid he ran around getting up “to occulty, witchy stuff”, of which he says with a grin: “I would always get in trouble with my mom for having some antique cup, and leaving it outside with my spit and hair in it.”

What was he trying to conjure up? “I don’t know what I thought I was doing!” he laughs. “But I was always doing shit like that – making pastes with flowers and anointing myself with them. I scared some babysitters. They would pop in to check on me, and I’d be in some sand-circle, sitting there like this” –  he performs a theatrical flourish – “doing some gesture. It’s weird to be so young, and looking for that [spirituality]. I think it’s because the younger you are, the closer you are to where you came from before. I think you miss it.”

The artist has previously spoken about the death threats he received as a teenager; Hadreas was the only openly gay kid at his school, and it was a tough time. But he says today that “there was a lot of love and support.” He adds: “I had a good childhood. [People often] write that it was bad.”

“Music is a way for me to articulate the things that I can’t say otherwise”

Hadread was spurred on by glimpses of a kinder world that embraced and celebrated difference instead. He can recall clearly the day that his algebra teacher spotted the Liz Phair album covers pasted across the front of his binder. The American musician has an unparalleled talent for sexually liberated and razor-sharp lyrics – and his teacher was also a fan. “I thought that was super cool,” he says. “It reminded me: ‘I’m not going to be stuck here. I’m gonna get older and be around people who understand this weird music that I like, who value the things that I like’. Because those were the things I was getting rained on relentlessly for, by other kids.”

The harassment grew so bad that Hadreas dropped out of school completely in his senior year (the equivalent of year 13 in the UK). Two years later a homophobic attack put him in hospital. And so he moved to Williamsburg, New York. He intended to paint and write, but ended up working odd jobs and partying.  “I certainly wasn’t doing anything creative,” he says. “I had zero ambition. I was out for a long time freely being really irresponsible and reckless, doing drugs and drinking.”

Perfume Genius' new album 'Set My Heart on Fire Immediately'
Credit: Press/Camille Vivier

When he was 25, Hadreas moved back to Seattle to enter rehab and get clean. “And one day I felt like I had something to say,“ he remembers. “I realised that music is a way for me to articulate the things that I can’t say otherwise.”

Many of Perfume Genius’ releases make sense of unsettling experiences, and feelings that are otherwise difficult to put into words. ‘Dark Parts’ (from 2012’s ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’) takes the shame his mother felt after being sexually abused and holds it tenderly: the song instead celebrates her resilience and love. Bizarrely, the song ended up soundtracking an American baseball advert: a jarring contrast he enjoys. “I loved the idea!” Hadreas says. “That song is about some pretty heavy shit!” Singing these songs, he adds, isn’t painful: “They were about things that were sad to me a long time ago, and memories that were distant.”

‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ differs in that Hadreas still finds certain moments to be particularly exposing. Pondering spirituality atop spare, minimal chimes, “‘Borrowed Light’, is “just deeply really sad to me,” he says. “It’s sad to me right now.” The song returns to the spirituality that has fascinated Hadreas since his childhood, then dismisses it, imagining a life with no secret purpose. “What if all of the magic, all this beautiful, dramatic, spiritual stuff that I think is swimming around everywhere, that I’m pulling from,” he ventures, “what if it’s all bullshit? Empty. What if I made it all up? What if there’s no rhyme or reason to doing anything, and it just happened, you know?”

“What if there’s no rhyme or reason to doing anything, and it just happened?”

Having a connection to spirituality, Hadreas says, allows him to “cut through,” the darker moments, which in turn made the light moments all the more sweet. “I have to have both at the same time,” he says. “I think they inform each other, and I think they can heighten each other.”

And Hadreas knows a thing or two about duality – when he’s not making beautiful music that will stand the test of time, he’s knee-deep in the ephemera of Twitter. He’s one of the best – and funniest musicians – on there, largely due to his more surreal posts (he recently shared a picture of Yoda dabbing in the Oval Office). In recent months, he’s been pondering the role that humour plays in a time of huge crisis.

Often viewed as an intense, serious artist, Perfume Genius is also very funny  – even at his darkest.  And on ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’ that sharp humour peeks through more than ever – from the melodrama found in the title, to the huge, swooning and campy arrangements that he crafts.

“It’s a way to make [crises] feel solvable or survivable,” Hadreas concludes. “I think you can make light of something and take it seriously at the same time. I’ve done the same thing my whole life. You need what you need to get through it.“

Perfume Genius’ new album ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’ is out now

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