Perfume Genius and Boy Harsher Believe in Sexy Ghosts

Perfume Genius and Boy Harsher Believe in Sexy Ghosts

One of our favorite albums of 2020 was Perfume Genius' Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, which made news of an upcoming remix album all the more sweet. Appropriately titled Immediately Remixes, Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas enlisted the help of sonic innovators from every musical sphere for the record — including A.G. Cook, Nídia, Danny L Harle and Jenny Hval — with the impeccable first remix coming from Massachusetts-based darkwave darlings Boy Harsher.

On its own, the original version of "Your Body Changes Everything" is already incredibly layered and complex, its cinematic production opulent and authoritative as Hadreas sings about shifting sexual dynamics freed from the onus of preconceived rules and binaries. However, with the addition of sharp percussives, vivid '80s-influenced synths and plenty of extra reverb, Boy Harsher's Gus Muller transforms the track into an oddly bright yet deliciously haunting dance number that still manages to be just as powerful as its predecessor. And further bolstering this bold reimagining of "Your Body Changes Everything" is the remix's dream-like visual, which was directed by Boy Harsher's Jae Matthews and Caitlin Driscoll.

Starring model Teddy Quinlivan as a seductive alien succubus, the video pays ample homage to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist and David Cronenberg's Videodrome, two early-'80s horror classics that famously feature television screens. A reference that feels especially timely amid a pandemic that's forced all of our interactions online, the concept also serves as an apt metaphor for this particular collaboration, which exclusively took place online.

But in honor of Immediately Remixes's imminent release on March 12, Hadreas, Muller and Matthews sat down to meet over Zoom for the very first time, and allowed PAPER to listen in on their conversation about everything from digital intimacy to overly dramatic vocal deliveries to using art to transport yourself — and, of course, sexy ghosts.

Let's kick off this conversation with the basics: How you all got acquainted with each other and how this remix came to be.

Gus Muller: Emma from Matador [Records] did some matchmaking. She just thought we'd be a nice match and then offered us to take a swing at one of the songs on the album, and we were delighted to.

Mike Hadreas: And that specific song to me makes a lot of sense for a pairing.

Gus: Yeah, that one really stood out to me. I mean, I loved the whole album, but I'm a big bassline guy. I felt like there was a good, chugging bassline in there that made me think, Okay, that's the common ground.

Mike: I want to know more about the video though. I feel like it was just given to me. It just arrived and it was perfect. How did that even come about?

Jae Matthews: I was hearing the remix so often through the walls while Gus was working on it, so I really fell in love with the remix. The whole time, I was listening to it and just coming up with these weird ideas.

I also was really trying to find an excuse to shoot something again. Projects have been weirdly on hold for this last year, but [co-director Caitlin Driscoll knew Teddy through modeling] and she really wanted to be in some content. So knowing that I could work with her, I just started coming up with this idea. It's kind of amazing how it happened though. I feel very lucky.

Mike: Just making anything right now, that feels very far from me in a lot of ways. I mean, there's little things happening, but making a whole video seems wild to me. You can feel that muse energy in the video though. There's charisma. [Teddy's] got some charisma.

Jae: When developing the concept of the video, [the phrase] "can you feel my love" was something I kept on thinking about. It's an important refrain. So I had this fun idea about the television scene from Videodrome by Cronenberg — who's a huge influence — and I thought there was this really relevant quality to that type of intimacy, especially right now. So I thought it would be kind of sexy if someone was kissing a TV.

In earlier concepts, we really wanted the country boy to get in it. Like in Videodrome, there are these amazing parts where it's Debbie Harry's lips on the screen, and the screen is bulbous and the characters just disappear in the mouth. But we didn't really have that ability, so we did what we could that could represent the same feeling. And, of course, Poltergeist. My sister was watching Poltergeist a lot last summer for some reason, so that kept on coming up. Just that feeling of being haunted by the static and by technology, and how you don't have access to humanity.

The concept definitely feels timely. Rewinding a little bit, what was it about the original version of "Your Body Changes Everything" that drew you both to the song in particular?

Gus: It's got this repetitive, chugging bassline rhythm to it that I was like, "Yeah, this seems like it could be a Boy Harsher song or remix." I was also excited because it's got a really insane time signature groove to it, and I thought I was going to be keen enough to recreate that, but — sorry, Mike — I couldn't get that down.

Mike: It's kind of a weird one.

Gus: That whole album, I love it, but it makes me feel like I'm incompetent as a musician. It's so dynamic and full-sounding.

Mike: I'll take that. I have no idea what I'm doing now, but I will accept that.

Gus: Do you feel like that album is more like a recording project? Or do you feel like it's more of a live album?

"I try not to be super sacred about anything." –Mike Hadreas

Mike: I think it was the first time I thought more intentionally about [wanting it to be more live] while I was making something. The last record, it was very much a recording thing. It was all done in layers and everything was thrown at it, and we would whittle away at it or just leave it. With this one, I wanted it to communicate everything while [keeping it] as live as possible in the studio, which we hadn't done for a couple of records.

We were all playing together. I was singing for the majority of it, and then adding a few things here and there. It made the process of the recording feel more like writing to me, because those usually feel really separate. Making things — like making my demos and stuff — feels very magical or spiritual. But during the recording part, it feels like I have to really fight to keep that intact in the recording. It feels kind of clinical. But I mean, I'm not going to listen to it. I try not to be super sacred about anything. [For this though], I felt like I could feel the magic in the studio that was closer to the magic of writing. That was really fun and powerful to me.

Gus: That's cool. I thought you would say the opposite though, because when I think of recording a project, I do think of layers and I think of lots of different forms. There are all of these Easter Eggs. It's like a film, not like a theater. It feels very constructed.

Jae: But with this song, my impression was that it maintained some integrity of the initial idea. When I listened to "Your Body Changes Everything" for the first time, it felt very authentic, which is a thing that I think you lose in the recording process a lot of the time.

Mike: Well, that song has a lot of my demo. Like, the drum machine and the synth horn sound are from my demo, and then a machine with live drums.

Gus: That's your vocal demo?

Mike: Not the lead vocal, but the drum machine and then some of the synth-like stabs that sound like horns. Then we doubled those with saxophone and doubled the drum machine with drones. I think I was trying to [make it sound] like I was performing it live, or like I was alone, instead of this weird in-between thing that the studio can feel like sometimes.

Jae: Yeah, totally. I think that's often the question: "What were you thinking when you wrote that song?" But by the time you're recording it, or by the time you've played it out thousands of times, the intent has changed drastically.

I had a question though. I'm in this class that I really love, and it's called "Write Death." But one of the students said that a question she asks on the first date is, "Do you believe in ghosts?" I assumed everyone kinda to a certain degree believe in ghosts. But do you believe in ghosts? Or do you believe in aliens to have it be a little more [pertinent] to this conversation?

Mike: I believe in both of those things. I mean, one could be the other, I suppose. Or one could be both. I definitely believe in ghosts, I don't see why not.

Perfume Genius (Photo courtesy of Camille Vivier)

I mean, it's definitely a choice, but I choose to believe in ghosts. And when I can feel people really making the decision not to believe in them, it's off-putting. I find that that's a red flag for me. It's like when people say they "don't like food" or "just don't like eating." That's fucked up.

Jae: Yeah, I agree. But surprisingly this peer doesn't believe, so she asked in order to gauge the opposite [side], which I was shocked by.

Mike: Not to put them on blast, but my guitar player Tom doesn't believe in ghosts and I was off-put, so I started sending him pictures I found online of sexy ghosts. Maybe try that in your class. Maybe if they're sexier, it might turn them.

Jae: I feel like if you believe in memory, you already believe in ghosts, right? So to the most strict, pragmatic jerk out there, you have memory and that is haunting. So you would need to allow that ghost.

Mike: Yeah, even if it's all in some internal thing that you created, who's to say that's not magic? Or that's not supernatural? Even if it's just weird reflections of energy that you've carried around from years ago, or somebody else's reflection or something.

I think that's similar to making songs. I have to feel like I'm channeling something, but I very well could not be. It could be all bullshit that I'm making up, but that doesn't bother me.

Jae: I think that channeling is real, because when you play those shows, you can feel the transference. It's something that must be real.

Mike: Speaking of channeling, in a lot of your music and videos, it feels like making yourself available to something supernatural. Like nasty, but the sexy-nasty, sexy-haunted combo, which I'm super into. Is it deliberate? Or is it just natural? Or do you even think about it like that? Like, it sort of reminds me of when I know that a situation could potentially get really fucked up, but I'm kind of into it and into that sort of dark possibility. I don't know if that even resonates with you at all.

Jae: It resonates for sure. I think we play with that area that is, as you described, the dangerous zone. I can speak for my vocals and my vocal delivery: That area of desperation and loss can also exist in the same place as anger and grief, but all of it is loaded. Like that loaded feeling when you're at the bar, and you've had maybe three too many and you're just kind of feeling invincible, but you're also failing at the same time. That is kind of where I like to go when I channel my Boy Harsher entity.

Mike: I feel like people don't naturally make room for all that competing stuff, but it feels really satisfying when the music gives you permission to feel all those things at the same time. Or a movie that can feel really uncanny, but really serious, really silly, really fucked up, or really violent, but really sexual. In these four minutes or in this movie, it's like a portal to something, but you don't have to completely stay there.

Jae: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. I think that's why I've always been drawn to film. You're able to participate in places you don't want to live forever, and emotions you don't want to always be in. You can just watch Videodrome and just have this incredibly anxious James Caan experience, where you fall in love with Blondie and she's maybe in a weird bondage TV station situation. I love how we can really be manipulated into being a cipher for another narrative.

I think the music though is also accessing this. I mean, Gus, do you think any of the sounds you make kind of allows one to lose themselves a little bit?

Gus: That's why I make music. I want to make music that makes me feel good, makes me feel something, or reminds me of something. Honestly, I make music selfishly. I just make something that invokes some feeling in me, and then other people have that feeling as well.

I had a question though, Mike. I was wondering if you had any influences from the Walker Brothers on your record, particularly on "Your Body Changes Everything."

Mike: Definitely in the vocal delivery, I think about Scott Walker. I don't know if I deliberately was thinking about him in that song — maybe unintentionally — but that sort of really overly dramatic delivery.

It was also really satisfying for me to sing really low too, because traditionally I sing outside of my range. I'll make these songs and I'll have to tour them, and I realize they're way above where I can comfortably sing. So there was something satisfying about the ease of it, but that was also unexpected for me. Like, everybody thinks I'm going to come out with a bow on and just lay down and chirp or something, so there's something really satisfying about singing low and also singing in a very dude-ly way. Because Scott Walker sounds very... male.

"I want to make music that makes me feel good, makes me feel something, or reminds me of something. Honestly, I make music selfishly." –Gus Muller

Jae: Girthy. [Laughs]

Gus: I was thinking more of just the sounds. But there's also this classical sound that's kind of perverted too, which is why there's that string sound in the remix. I just heard that sound and made that connection like, "Oh, there's this Walker Brothers thing going on here."

Mike: I wish I was cool enough to have that be an influence, but I was just thinking a lot about Kate Bush when I was making that song.

Jae: Do you ever find that people who've only listened to your music and haven't seen an image of you are surprised when they meet you? Do you think your physicality matches your vocal voice?

Mike: I don't know. I mean, it's all over the place from song to song and record to record... Yeah, I have no idea. I try not to think about it.

Gus: [Laughs] People aren't always just hanging out by the merch table like, "So you're traveling with the band or something?"

Mike: Well, I feel like people aren't surprised by your Instagram, all of your videos and all the music, because it's a very cohesive aesthetic thing. I mean it has all these different incarnations, but the world is always attached. But my world is all over the place. Like, my music is dead serious and I'm very unserious in person, and I think that's confusing to people. Do you feel locked into a way of presenting and being? Do you think about creating a really cohesive thing?

Jae: I think we always end up just creating things that we want, so they always wind up being similar. It seems almost as though we're still trying to work through themes that probably came about when we hit puberty. We're just still processing that trauma and we're going to have very similar content for forever.

The voice stuff though... People still ask if the vocals in Boy Harsher are male or if I'm a dude, but I just love singing super low. It's funny, because when you sing low, it's a little more assertive or powerful. People really assume it's male-oriented.

Mike: For sure, and then they listen more. The louder you are and the lower your voice, people are like, "What is that? Let me listen to that." It's messed up.

Jae: It's helpful though that my name is Jae. So I think a lot of times when I'm sending emails, people are like, "Yeah man, don't worry. We'll handle this."

[Speaking about getting recognized], when we were shooting the video in downstate New York... I called a bunch of places to get food and people knew you. Which I'm not surprised by, but it was like, "Oh, Mike? Yeah, I know Mike. Is Mike gonna be there?" And I was like, "No, I'm making a music video and he's not gonna be there." That happened multiple times.

Mike: That's wild. I don't feel that energy. Well, I don't feel that at my mom's house for sure. They know me here. I live in LA now and I would get recognized sometimes, but not very often. One time I got recognized carrying a huge economy 24-pack of toilet paper — the ultra-strong kind — and that's all I had.

I love the whole video though, I really do. And I love the remix. I'm so happy because I feel so far from making things, or seeing people and collaborating. We had no communication in a lot of ways, beyond the things we were making, [but we were] harmonizing in an almost-supernatural way. So it just made me feel good to be some part of something that I liked so much, especially right now when I'm not really making anything... I appreciated and loved that.

Boy Harsher (Photo courtesy of Caroline Bonarde)

Stream Boy Harsher's remix of "Your Body Changes Everything" by Perfume Genius, below.