Perfume Genius 'Cuts Through the Bullshit'
Story by Rose Dommu / Photography by Oscar Ouk (Usng Zoom)
25 June 2020
Perfume Genius and I have both gotten the time wrong for our interview, a communication issue which I quickly blame on Mercury being in retrograde. Towards the end of our conversation, retrograde comes up again as I mention a discussion with another artist earlier in the week and their speculation on how retrograde might be contextualized as something positive, as our society struggles to dismantle oppressive systems. Perfume Genius, also known as Mike Hadreas, likes this take. He posits that queer people, who are used to being disrupters, are uniquely positioned to harness this chaotic energy.
This is about the time that I ask Hadreas to do a virtual tarot card reading. After guiding me through shuffling the deck over our Zoom call, I show him his card: the Eight of Cups. "When the Eight of Cups comes up, it means that something we have put a whole lot of ourselves into hasn't turned out as we hoped," Michelle Tea writes in Modern Tarot. Whatever that something is, "the situation is totally tragic and there's no way around it," she expands. "Time to go." The card is ruled by Cancer, and our interview is taking place on the first day of Cancer season. Hadreas and I, witchy queers at heart, are equally spooked.
The musician says he finds it difficult to walk away from things, but is always grateful that he has after the fact. "That doesn't mean that everything isn't shit, though," he confesses. "I'm optimistic that I will be able to find some warmth in the shit and I'll be able to be helpful or bring warmth to other people in the middle of how fucking terrible everything is. I have confidence that I'll be able to do that in some way." But even then, Hadreas will still find a way to hold onto his little hurts. "It's not like that has gone away, but I'm not dealing with that. I'm not talking about that anymore... but I really am. There's some little baby part of me just crying and rolling around in the background."
And, as his latest album proves, that's where the songwriting starts. On Set Me on Fire Immediately, which debuted to rave reviews in May, Perfume Genius is at the height of his powers, working some serious sonic alchemy to transform his inner life into a record that is startlingly vulnerable, emotive, sexy and immersive. It's an album you can alternately dance, work out, fuck or cry to. And isn't that what we all need?
I told my roommate that I was interviewing you and he freaked out.
In a positive way?
No, he was like, "Fuck them." Just kidding, he's very gay and was very excited and wanted me to say "Hi" for him.
Do you get that reaction a lot from queer people?
I get it sometimes. I'm trying to think of the last few people that approached me when I was out. I haven't been out for a long time. So I had to go back, but I feel like the last few people that have approached me have been straight, or at least straight presenting to me.
It's so weird to encounter straight people in the wild. I don't know any straight people.
I remember one time, I was carrying a 24-pack of Charmin Ultra Strong toilet paper and I got approached at the grocery store. All I had was just this huge multi-family size thing of toilet paper. They were like, "Hi," and I was like, "Hi."
Is it annoying when that happens or do you appreciate it?
No, I like it. It's good. I mean it makes me feel good. It's an ego boost, but also it reminds me that I'm doing something. Because I forget.
We follow each other on Twitter. You have a very funny, chaotic Twitter presence.
Yeah. I do as well, but you have a much larger platform.
I think mine is a little more unhinged.
How do you use social media as an outlet for that kind of chaos?
The same way as writing songs. Tiny little momentary ways for me to sort thoughts and feelings and energy into a way that's pleasing or that... I mean I'm old, so I didn't know what shitposting was. I heard about shitposting. I was like, "I think that's what I do. I think that's what I'm into," but there's something really satisfying about not making sense. There's something really satisfying about having an idea that's complicated or maybe comes from somewhere that's uncomfortable or hard to figure out and then just turning into something absurd and multi-tiered with aliens and lizards and whatever.
It's sort of impressionistic or like, digital Dadaism.
Yeah. Some people are experts. Some people are really good at Twitter.
That's true. I would say you're really good at Twitter. You have almost a million followers.
I don't know. I feel like most of those are bots. I don't know how that happened. It really is like once you get to a certain amount, then it just starts somehow... They're coming out of the woodwork, though. There's some fucking weird ass followers. I had some followers I didn't know about and I think a lot of them are bots and a lot of them are fucked up and need to stop following me.
Fucked up in what way?
I've been posting more political stuff and people are fucking racist and homophobic and transphobic and they're following me and I don't know if they're just following me or if they're listening to my music as well, but I need them to stop doing all of those things.
Yeah. It's kind of weird to think that if they are real people, how were they led to following you, what happened there?
What happened there? I want to know as well. It makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong. Maybe I need to put more into the rats. The rats need to have more in there when they're being tweeted about.
How are you feeling? The world is obviously a lot right now, between the pandemic and the movement to dismantle racism and police brutality. What's getting you through it?
I mean, I will get through it. It's more making sure to do some things that I take care of myself, but not get too comfortable and make sure that I'm in the shit, too. That's a hard battle, but I'm lucky that I... It's a lot easier for me to find that balance than a lot of other people. So I don't know. Everything is so foggy. It's hard to find a center at all.
Your album is amazing. I've been listening to it a lot. It's one of my favorite albums recently to work out and stretch to in the morning.
Stretching to. Which song are you stretching to? I need to start doing that. I'm not going to stretch to my own songs, but maybe I'll try to think of a complementary vibe.
What song have I been stretching to? I love "On the Floor," obviously. It makes sense. "Jason" is so sexy.
A sensual stretch. It's weird to be writing so much about sex and being in the world and being in your body and being with other people, and then that's just not something we're doing right now.
Have you been thinking about the way people are receiving this work differently than it might have been otherwise?
In a way. It was really nice to put the record out just because I haven't been outside. The music's been done for a while and I'm not going to be touring or anything, but it was just nice to have it out because I just felt the outside world more. I actually felt more connected to people. That's why I made it, essentially. They're all my stories, but I tried to carry all the people that are going to be comforted by it or if not comforted, then just feel a little less lonely for a second when they're listening to it. Some people have explicitly said that that's happened, but mostly it just feels nice to feel some sort of connection to everybody in that I made something that is helpful in some way, I hope. That's all I'm doing is really listening to music, if I'm doing anything consistently right now.
You're not a binge watcher?
Oh, yeah. I'm a binge watcher. I've been watching basically exclusively CW teen shows. If they're not that, if they're all gone, it needs to have a hint of that in some way.
I have found myself, as I've gotten older, less and less able to relate to fictional teenagers.
What is it about them that you love?
They will have some big fancy drama, but essentially, it is just a teen show if you strip it all down. It's just like: she's mad. Or he's sad. It's just like melodrama, anyway. So I like how it's just... The show where it's just like, "We're 40 teenagers and we're the only people on this earth." They're all done up. Everybody's got full makeup, full lashes, everything, but they're just crawling around on the ground, mad at each other.
Still finding time to get into threesomes and a lot of interpersonal drama.
100%. The teen shows, they're the ones bringing it out. They're the ones bringing out the threesomes. They're the ones bringing out that stuff to me. It's surprising to me. Like, "Oh." They're surprising me, the children.
Do you watch Riverdale?
Love Riverdale. It's complete nonsense. It kind of tried to hang on for a second, but I actually prefer it now that it's nonsense. Like suddenly the redhead was really good at archery and was a warrior. Then all of a sudden, they're hosting press conferences, but the teenage girl is saying, like, "He will not be taking questions at this time." Like what? She's not a judge or something. Why is she hosting a press conference? I love all of that.
Who do you identify the most with on Riverdale?
Maybe Betty. I like her because I love how she has this dark cam girl alter ego. I'm not like that, but maybe if I was trying to identify with one of them, I'd want to identify with her because she's the worst and the best at the same time.
Tell me about writing Set Me on Fire Immediately. Where were you when you started working on it?
I was here at home right now. I did a dance piece and I wrote the music for it and also performed in it. I was writing, but basically the bulk of it was all recorded... Not recorded, but made in a week I guess, just home in my room over there. It takes a lot of things not working or a lot of trying really hard and a lot of going into the room, trying to sing or trying to write for months or however long it takes me before that week happens.
I feel like it's all part of the same thing because I always start writing, thinking I'm not going to be able to do it. Then I always start again and it's all kind of shitty and trying too hard or I'm trying to make it something it doesn't want to be or I don't know. That's the shitty part of writing, but it takes all that to get to that week. Like, "Yeah, this is it. This is where I want to come from." Then you are on a roll, if you're lucky.
Do you know instinctively when you're riding that creative high and everything's coming right, and do you know when to step away? Do you know when something's done?
Yeah. It gets more complicated in the studio, but I know that when I'm writing for sure. I love writing. I have a harder time with everything after the writing part. To me, writing is just writing a vibe. I don't want to say vibe. It's like building just a heavy energy in a world, and I can tell when it's built or at least when there's a map, enough for the studio, because I write it but then in order for them to get out into the world, it takes a lot of other people playing on it. They change and they shift along the way from being in my room until I get to the studio and then afterwards, even though mixing and listening just five seconds over and over and over and then taking things out, putting them back in. It's this whole big process, but with writing, I know when I say what I'm supposed to say and when I should stop talking or when the world is built. I don't know how I know that.
By the time you actually release an album and you've been sitting with the music for so long, are you ready to let it go?
Yeah. I usually have been writing for a while. I like writing. I like making things. Even after I make a song, if I didn't have to share it with anybody, I would just make another one. Since I am sharing it and I'm not going to be listening to it, it's for other people, then I go back and I tidy it up and package it so that people can... Because I can hear a demo that's unfinished and I can immediately go where I was intending with the demo, but other people aren't... They don't have all that wiring and that specific nostalgia for whatever it was that I was thinking. So I have to build it and build it more so I can try to get people closer to how I felt or how I want them to feel. I don't really know how I do anything.
Do you feel like you're channeling something bigger than yourself?
Yeah. That's the way this starts. Then I bring math and bring stuff into it after.
What do you think that thing you're channeling is?
I have no idea. It could be completely made up. It could be complete bullshit to be honest. That doesn't necessarily bother me either, that idea. It's weird because it's simultaneously heartbreaking and I also don't fucking care because I get off on it and I feel some grace in some way when I'm writing and when I feel like I'm tapped into something. I have just made it up or that's the only way that I have found to get it. I'm going to take it. I don't feel like that very often in my life. There's been years and there's been things that you can do and ways that I have learned that I can have more of that in my dealings with myself in the world, but it's hard. For some reason, writing just feels really real to me. It does feel like I'm channeling something that's real and cuts through the bullshit that I carry around and that is put on me, too.
What's the bullshit you carry around?
Oh, it's endless. Stuff I tell myself about myself, about who I am and what I look like and I just have this warped idea of myself in a superficial way because I know intellectually that I'm not bad. I know intellectually, there's nothing wrong with me, but I just carry around this deep feeling that there is something wrong with me and that I... Fundamentally, there's something bad about me. I don't feel that when I'm writing.
Do you not feel that because you're transforming it in some alchemical way or because it's receding from whatever it is you're channeling?
I think both. There's times when I take that stuff that I've been feeling and thinking, and I find a way to point it at people or throw it at them or to forget about it or trash it. Then there's other times when it's just like... No. That's important to think about sometimes, but really, I just want to be in the real mud pit of energy and stuff where I don't have to think about that anymore and about who I am or where I am or anything. I want to just freely just worm around in the magic or whatever. The bundle of fucking shit that's underneath everything.
Perfume Genius was photographed by New York-based photographer Oscar Ouk using Zoom