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In 2020, his tenth year of releasing music, Perfume Genius, A.K.A. Los Angeles artist Mike Hadreas, released Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, his resplendent, triumphant fifth album. Featuring earthy, danceable pop music, as well as his closest skirmishes yet with more experimental ambient sounds, it was Hadreas's most embodied, most powerful piece of work yet.
This year saw the launch of the Perfume Genius Substack newsletter, an outlet for all of Hadreas' art that he hasn't shared over the past few years, from old demos to paintinings to Supernatural fan fiction. Last week he caught up with The FADER's Shaad D'Souza to discuss his Substack, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, and his music for the 2019 dance piece The Sun Still Burns Here.
The FADER: Perfume Genius, welcome to the FADER podcast.
Perfume Genius: Hi.
Thanks so much for being here. The reason I wanted to interview you is because you've started a Substack as, like, an outlet for other creative endeavors. Can you talk a little about why you started that and what you're using it for and that kind of thing?
I mean, for a bunch of different reasons, I guess essentially every time we make a record, there's a lot of things that are left behind. I write and record a lot, but very few of them end up making it to the album, but I still have a lot of songs and ideas that feel shareable, but don't really work in an album format. And I'm making videos for them still and thinking about them. And sometimes they're things that I even personally listen to a lot, which is very strange. I don't listen to my records at all. I think that'd be strange if I did. But I listened to some of my demos because they're so full to me and they capture like a specific energy so well, maybe I couldn't expand on it or maybe it doesn't make sense as a record track, but I still want to share them.
So, that was one of the ideas. And also I make videos for them. I want to be able to share those. And then I wanted it to be a place that I could talk about making things a little bit more, which ended up being a little more difficult than I thought. I think I make things because I don't know how to talk about it. So, that part isn't going as well, but I'm still going to push to try, because it's something that's really helpful to me. And then it's also a place for me to do stupid shit, which is the 90%, the rest of my brain it's just being stupid, but in a very intentional, intense way.
Yeah. And so far it's, as you said, it's not just been out there for writing, but for visual art and all this other stuff. How does non-musical art figure into your life and do you have quite a significant archive of work beyond the music you've released?
I wish I had a bigger archive. I don't really save a lot. I mean, this is a way for me to have a document of things, because I just do stuff on ... Like I'm right now, I'm recording this audio for this interview on a really old laptop that is probably going to die really soon. And I haven't backed anything up on it. It's probably all going to just go. And there's years worth of music that's happened to me multiple times. I don't know why I don't document. My mom laminates things. So, sometimes I'll send her stuff and she'll laminate them and keep them, but I'm not very good at it. But I did find some old paintings that I made that I liked. And I shared those recently on the Substack. Also, I just make things all the time and I like stuff. I mean, that's just how I get by, I guess. It's listening to music and watching movies and reading and it's where I get a lot.
Why is now the right time for you to be sharing this ephemeral, well, not ephemeral, but you know what I mean. This extra art and why Substack medium?
I mean some of it, I guess, by the nature of how we're talking about, it seems like it's extra, but it doesn't feel inconsequential or something. It's just more. I think everything's become more formal too. I will write a song and then I go to the studio and then we record it and then I wait like a year and then there's a big fuss around everything. And this is a way for me to share stuff without that. I mean, it's a little naughty, honestly, because it's gone okay so far. But I feel like some people are going to be mad at me about how easily I'm just putting stuff out. But I miss that, like in the beginning, when I was writing songs, I was just writing them. They are all one takes and then I'll make a video for it. And then I would just upload it and share it.
And it was very rewarding to me. And it felt like how it should be done. I like to make big ass music videos. And I like making the records that I do. And I couldn't without that format, without all my people that I collaborate with, none of those things would happen and they wouldn't be as magical as they are, but there's something I really miss about just sharing things to other people directly without having to go through any other channel. And it's a way to do that. I mean, Twitter is a way to do that with a thought. Everything else has its own identity. There's other ways to share things, but they're always framed by the platform and Substack just feels like a way, not like its own identity, really. I get to make it up and I get to share things directly.
You mentioned your Twitter and I guess anyone who follows that, it will almost not be surprising that you have a lot of personal writing or that you do write creatively, because I guess your Twitter is quite literary and quite interesting syntactically. This is maybe a stupid question, but do you consider tweeting to be an extension of your art or a writing art form?
Sometimes. Even like having a conversation with you, I'm never going to be able to tell you exactly what I mean. I'm not very good at it, but with framing like a song or some sort of container I'm able to do it much better. Whether I'm right or not, I at least feel like I am communicating what I meant. And it's containing a whole bunch of stuff that I wouldn't be able to articulate in another way. And so sometimes Twitter feels like that in a more, I don't know. I keep using the word stupid. Stupid is good. And also there's some really funny people on there and some really creative, strange, fun people. It's gotten worse and worse and worse and worse over the years, but there's still some people that are just weirdos and make me laugh and are wicked smart.
On the platform you have this Patricia Lockwood thing going on and it feels sometimes that your Twitter is so big. You have a million followers on Twitter and then like a 10th of that on Instagram, for example. Do you ever meet people who only know you from Twitter or do you feel like your Twitter is some separate entity?
I don't know, because I will post about my music and nobody's really interested in that, but then I'll post a thing about like alien queefs or something. And it'll go through the roof.
And then the other day, something random happened. You published this extremely funny and also extremely beautifully written Substack, I guess, Supernatural fan fiction about having sex with every character from Supernatural and all these Supernatural fans kind of came for you on Twitter.
Yeah, I mean, I knew that there was a community and I had known that fandoms are fucking crazy. I mean, I've never read any fan fiction. And I have seen the show, but I'm not super into it. It's just like I wrote the first sentence, like I've had sex with every ... It was just an idea. It was almost like a tweet. You know what I mean? Like I've had sex with every cast and crew member of the TV show, Supernatural. It just kept going. And that's how I always make things. I don't really know what I'm doing until I'm doing it. I just keep going where it wants me to go. But I also knew that I was trolling. I guess you could call it.
I don't even know what it is. It's shitposting. These are all terms that the children have taught me. And then the children, after I posted that story, they showed me all these new words for what kind of fan fiction it is. I had no idea. It's self-insert, which is where you put yourself in it. And then it's like, R something RPF. I think it's where you don't write about the character, but you write about the actor playing that character, which is also what I did. And then four, which is when you are ingested by someone, which is also what I wrote about.
Yeah. I was wondering, could you read a portion of that piece or any of your Substack pieces?
Yeah, I can read some. Well, I guess I'll give a little context for where we're going to start in this story. I don't know who's listening to this, but in the story I'm working at Zales, which is like a really popular jewelry restore in malls in America. And Jensen Ackles, who's the actor from Supernatural plays one of the model brother guys. Comes in, has a seizure and I go to comfort him. And then he starts to consume me. And I will start around that consuming, I guess.
"I was no longer in the middle of my shift at Zales. The entire mall seemed to vanish around us until just he and I remained. Jensen cuffed my stuck hands at his face and threw them closer. Slowly, but without any strain, he took every one of my fingers down his throat. I felt no pressure from his jaw. His mouth gave without effort and kept giving until he had taken me to the elbow on each side, the arrangement should have brought stress to my joints as well, but I felt no such thing. I seem to be pooling, my flesh arranging seamlessly as he gathered me deeper still. Slick, he sucked me up to the shoulders before widening until the crown of my head was too pulled in. Miraculously I could see. My eyes open, I saw each tender vein of his esophagus as I made my way further down. His teeth gently grazed my back as he swallowed, easy still until stopping at the belt of my jeans. This was the only point of tension. I felt him navigate the buckle with his tongue and bottom incisors until it unlatched. My denim fell away. Briefly I imagine it meaning my rag on the floor. And brought back to the moment lit as if by some divine headlamp, I continued to slide and watch as I entered Jensen's upper stomach." That was pretty good, right?
Yeah, it was really good. I would probably listen to like some broadcast where you read out the pieces as well. I think it adds something to it.
I love that, forever now, some people will just think I've truly meant all that and that I'm just a huge fan of Supernatural and that this is just something I cooked up in my brain, because it's really satisfying to my urges. And I mean, in a way it is, but it's just not as specific to that show. I mean, I definitely was therapeutic or something. I was getting something out of it to keep writing as much as they did. And then if I do it again, I'm just doubling down on that and just creating more potential people to just associate me truly with Supernatural fan fiction.
Did you feel a sense of 'when will these Supernatural fans chill out?' Did you get that sense of I wish people would just take the joke? Or do you kind of, I guess you described it as a like trollish gesture, do you just enjoy any reaction?
I'm not a very good troll. I just hope everybody is getting a kick out of it and thinking things are funny. And so if people are not, then sometimes I get a little sensitive, because I just want people to have fun. Also, I mean, I'm weirdly serious while I'm writing it too. I mean, I'm very intentional while I'm writing. I don't really know what the ingredients are to that or the ingredients that I'm using to cook up all this stuff. But I'm oddly serious about it. There's a lot going on, I guess. But in essence, I just think it's really funny.
You mentioned being a fan of the show and I was reading an interview with you from six or seven years ago where you were talking about being a fan of Gossip Girl and making gags about how you'd love a song placed in Gossip Girl. And then last week "Without You" was in the reboot. Did you watch? Was that a big moment for you?
I haven't seen that episode yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I love any teen drama. I don't know what the networks are across the globe, but the CW is like the main one here. They do Riverdale, which is fucking insane, because they're not playing games. There's a lot of shows, they try to act like they're not just mellow traumas because some old guy with a beard or something's in it, but they're doing the same as all the teen dramas, who's just boring as hell. And it's like in the Pentagon or something, it's still drama bitch.
Your music has moments of levity, but it's rarely "funny". Do you feel like there's a more humorous side of you that begs for an outlet?
I think so. Everything's coming from the same place. It's just different filters. It's essentially the same exact thing. I mean, I was just talking about this, there's some music like Xiu Xiu, who I love, where their songs are so intense and visceral and over the top that one day I'll listen to it and it'll be like really devastating to me and it'll make me really sad. And then the next day I'll listen to the exact same song and think it's really campy and funny. The song hasn't changed. It's just my reckoning with it has. And so I think I just have a lot going on, like everybody. And I just pick which thing feels the best way to process things at the moment. I would say 90% of the time, I'm just like laughing and then I'm really not.
You seem like someone who's interested in making art that's flexible in its use. I think for example of The Sun Still Burns Here, which was a dance piece that you composed with the choreographer Kate Wallich. How does something like that, that forces you to work across mediums change the perspective on the music you make?
Well, with each record I go in, I try to level up in some way or just push my capabilities, like push where my voice can go. What I can talk about, what's available to me. I just try to shake it up so that I take advantage of where I'm at now. Because every year I have met people and done more and I can use that when I write, I can keep that all in mind, but I can also dream up new potentials. But you still get in a routine. And the older I get, the more, it's harder to break yourself out of it. But then I chose to work on the dance, because I knew it forced me to, knowing I was going to be super uncomfortable, awkward, and it was going to be difficult. And it was all those things.
Almost immediately I was just rolling around on the ground with people to music. And it did exactly that. I started looking at all the dancers and seeing how much access they had to their bodies and how they thought about other bodies and how they thought about space and how it seemed like writing to me in the way that I feel when I'm writing music, but just with this whole other framing. And I wanted to do that. I'll never be able to do it the way they do, but I wanted to have as much access as possible. And so I tried really hard to get it. And I just hope I keep doing that with things. I hope I keep doing that with my music.
It's the same thing as we just said, like 90% of the time I'm laughing and then 10% I'm crying. I feel like 90% of the time I'm detached and anxious and paralyzed and then 10% of the time and just really riling against everything. I'm really pushing myself and really trying to break through my instincts, which are to just leave. So, I guess trying to find a way to stay and have that be enjoyable to me and kind to everybody else and fun.
Since working on The Sun Still Burns Here, have you been driven to, I guess, try and find other outlets like that, that force you out of your comfort zone and into a space that will encourage that reflection that it gave you?
I've been wanting to, but I haven't done that. I'd still have people that I dance with. It's been something that's fun, because it's like a creative practice that essentially it's just for me, just because of all this coming from it is I'm going to this place as somebody else. I mean, eventually we might make things into performances or whatever, but it's not really something to be shared, but it informs everything else. But other than that, especially like with COVID and last year I haven't been doing anything. I haven't made anything for a long time. I can feel myself starting to build in the background, but in order to follow through, I need to really be intentional and take care of myself more and work and blah, blah, blah. I just can't bring myself to do it. I'm still in this pandemic-y, paralyzed zone. I'm half in and out. Like I'm half back in the world, but I'm half still hiding. It's a weird place to be. But it's also technically where everyone is right now.
Out of interest. What happened to the music for The Sun Still Burns Here? Because you released a couple of songs and then ...
Its still there. And I wrote all that music to be a record. I wanted it to be an album so that people would want to listen to it on Spotify or whatever, not just this sort of audio accompaniment to the dance that is textural or something. I mean, there's songs on it that are 10 minutes long, which I've never done before, but I try to really jam pack those minutes and make them so that they could carry you if you're just on your headphones. Optimally, I would hope that everybody could be at the dance. Optimally, everybody would be in it with me, but I am going to release the music.
Yeah, like "Eye in the Wall," which is a 10 minutes song. It still feels so intensely different from everything else you've composed. And I wonder how did getting into that mode of having to make basically dance music? Like that's almost like a house track or something. How did you navigate that, I guess?
It was both things. It was like liberating to not have, like, a pop song structure to try to make something in, but it was also how do I make something without it? Honestly. Me and Kate, the choreographer made a map that was emotional and there's some movement in it, but it was more like an arc of feeling and a time. Like, we're going to be in the toilet for 13 minutes energetically. So, I'm like, okay, so what does the 13 minute toilet song sound like? I have no idea. And then I just, I guess, started vibing or something. And a lot of it was through improvisation at first with me and Blake Mills and Alan in the studio, some at home. And it was hard. I mean, some of the songs on the dance album were by far the hardest songs that I've ever made and the hardest in the studio where I was like crying and fighting. Even "Eye in the Wall" was really, really hard to make. And it's one of my favorite songs that I've ever made in the end.
So, it was a really strange combination of being really free, but also feeling technically very put upon. Like it had to be a certain time and it had to be captivating throughout. I couldn't just let a drone ring out or have it be some textural thing. I mean, I could, but I really didn't want to do that. In a way I just got to go to this made up world and stay there for a long time, which was very satisfying. But also the math was harder because it was, I don't know, I guess technical in a way that I wasn't used to working within. It's like the Supernatural thing. It's funny once, but it could go either way if I do it again, really could. And so some of my songs, they're really devastating at three minutes, but if I put like 30 more seconds on it, it'd be everybody when they go, 'Oh my God, shut up.' So, it's hard sometimes.
How has your approach to collaboration, or like the boundaries of who you collaborate with, changed over the years? Because on this most recent record, you have all these collaborators who you don't immediately think of when thinking about indie music, people like Sam Gendel and Jim Keltner, who, even in themselves, are two incredibly disparate figures in terms of what they're doing and who they are.
I just work with people that I like. And I work with people that the people I like, like. I love Blake. I love the way he thinks about music. I liked the way he plays and how respectful he is to me, even though we approach things very differently sometimes. We want the same things and I love seeing that in the studio too. How the way I feel about the song is usually very emotional, but very confusing. It's just this head space, this moment in time that I've conjured up, but everybody reckons with it differently. And I like seeing how people interpret it. But at the same time, they have to meet you somewhere energetically too. And it's a really hard combination to find where people can just technically go there, because they're good musicians, but then also energetically meet you somewhere without very much explanation.
So, it's beyond just sharing the song. I'm lucky to have those musicians because that's what they're pros at, all of those guys. Sam could hear what I was doing and how to do it and just make that happen so quickly. I mean, it's this really insane mix of technical capability and just being cool. Sam is just cool. He's just a really cool guy. Do you know what I mean? He's probably one of the coolest people I've ever met, like as a cool person, Sam Gendel, for sure. That's hard. Because usually cool people don't do anything. They don't have to, or they don't care enough to be good at something who cares. It's not cool to try hard at something stupid.
Is what you want to get out of your own art and, I guess by extension all art, different now to when you first started making music? Because I guess you're just over a decade in now in terms of commercially releasing music.
I mean, it doesn't feel like it is, but then I'll listen back and it's like, oh, she's mature. You know what I mean? Like my last record, I was like, oh, it's mature. Maturity. There is some moments that are so understated and sophisticated. Do you know what I mean? And it's not like I was trying to do that. I felt like I was coming from the same place I always do. And I always think that I'm like super angsty and all this, but some of the songs are cozy. I think it's the same. It's just selfishly motivated. I'm trying to conjure up an alternate world where I just feel like I can fucking relax for a minute. I mean, it's not always relaxed, but kind of. Sometimes relaxing to me is just letting everything be really shitty and not pushing against it anymore.
Just letting it be bad. That's really relieving. And so sometimes my songs go, if they're like darker, it's kind of ... What if instead of going to a dark place, making me really nervous, what if I got power out of it? What if it turned me on? What if ... I'm sorry that I said turn me on. But what if it riled me up, or I don't know. Kind of flipping things that feel itchy and either making it itch in a way that I like or removing it.
And finally you're about to turn 40.
Do milestone ages like that feel significant to you or more arbitrary and how are you feeling about it?
They don't. I think someone tweeted about how I'm almost 40 and then I like searched it and found like 50 tweets about how I'm 40 years old. And then it became almost like a meme from myself to myself. I don't know how to explain it. And so it is funny to me, but it also, like I am 40. I'm getting older. I just don't feel like it really. And even from far away, I look really young and then up close, they're like, oh, there's something going on. But I feel like that even about myself. I feel little. I'm tiny, too. I'm a tiny person. I've always looked very young and I've always looked confusing. Is it a man or a woman or the young or old, and nobody could ever tell. And I think that's still true, but from a distance. But up close it's changed.
And up close I think I've changed. As much as they say it's the same, I still feel older and I feel more balanced. I feel more mature and sophisticated in a lot of ways, but I'm just equally dumb in the exact same way for so long. I guess I just think of aging as a funny thing too, sometimes when I frame it like that sometimes to me. And then other times, the other 10%, it is sad just because I think when I was younger, I thought I was going to do it again. I don't know. I thought I was going to be young again. I thought I was going to be a kid again. And I still think that could happen, honestly.
I don't know if I'll keep an awareness, but I never thought about it before. Never thought about my body or getting old or getting sick or my parents getting older and blah, blah, blah, all this stuff that happens. It's weird. Especially when you do a job where you're kind of in an extended adolescence, which I would have held onto no matter what, even if I was still working at a department store, I'm sure I would still be a little bitch. But I've, like, extended this making music and the whole world around it. It's sort of, everybody's like a little kid still.
Cool. I think that's all for me. Thank you so much for taking the time to record an episode of the podcast.
Yeah. Nice talking to you.