Until recently, Mike Hadreas was not a particularly emotional person. That may come as a surprise to fans of Perfume Genius, the name under which he releases gorgeous, theatrical, emotionally raw music. “I think for a while my main emotions were either laughing, or just sort of irritated. The two modes, for years really,” he says.
But all of that has changed. He has moved cities, grown older, and learned how to dance. “Even though I feel kind of unhinged and confused, it’s where I need to be right now, and it’s part of me going somewhere else, somewhere better. For however long it is.” His new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is about this arrival of big feelings, and a hunger for human connection, but for now human connection is on hold.
We were supposed to meet in London at the beginning of March, but, with the global crisis growing, that was scrapped and now we’re talking over FaceTime. “I kind of had a little mini-panic this morning,” he admits. “It’s hard not to just go on your phone and just refresh everything to see what’s happening.”
It is early morning in Los Angeles, where Hadreas now lives. He is 38, but looks younger; on the screen, he cuts a gentle wary figure, softly spoken, though he grows more wry as the conversation unfolds.
Hadreas’s last album, 2017’s No Shape, turned him into one of alternative music’s biggest stars. Its grand, melodramatic songs popped up on blockbuster movie trailers, while his witty, arty tweets have amassed him almost a million followers.
Two years ago, he moved from Tacoma, Washington, a short drive from where he grew up in Seattle, to LA, with his long-term boyfriend and collaborator Alan Wyffels. (Hadreas has been with Wyffels, a classically trained musician, for 11 years; they are in each other’s company “24 hours a day”, and they have played every Perfume Genius show together.) Then, last summer, Hadreas collaborated with the choreographer Kate Wallich and the YC Dance Company on a dance piece called The Sun Still Burns Here, which they performed in New York. It made him realise he was looking for connection, that making music did not have to be so solitary. “Dance blew up so much for me,” he says. “[I started] really craving community, and being able to be present in the real world.”
Hence the title of the record he wrote shortly after it. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a demanding, grabby statement. “Because I get greedy,” he laughs. “I get a little of this good feeling and I’m like, well, I want to constantly be in that state.” For someone who has been used to having just two feelings, this is a confusing shift. “It feels really unhinged. If I don’t get it, I’m pissed! I’m constantly waiting and searching for and demanding a big feeling.”
When the new record was sent out to critics, it came with an essay written by the author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, in which he notes that in Hadreas’s most recent work, “the body (queer, healing, troubled, wounded, possible and gorgeous) sings itself into its future”. Hadreas has often sung about his body, but says that now, he feels more in control of it, more inside it. “I’m always obsessed with this idea of leaving, and changing and shifting, and just blowing everything up and going. Before, I felt like I couldn’t be in my body and do that, but I’m starting to realise that I can.”
Has he always had a tendency to want to blow things up and leave? “Oh yeah,” he says. “I figured out when I was pretty young that drinking and going out and doing drugs and stuff will just give you a really full, 360-degree feeling. It is ultimately empty, but at least there is enough in the effect that you feel quiet and satiated for a long time. It comes with its own set of really horrible shit, too. It’s kind of a death wish, in a way.”
Hadreas only started writing songs when he got clean in his mid-20s, after he dropped out of art school and eventually moved home, and has been sober ever since. Until recently, he says, he would hide from the world when he wasn’t working, and nest at home with Wyffels, stop feeling so “wild”. “I stopped looking for big ‘feeling’,” he says. “But now I’m starting to realise that maybe there’s another way. I can have more, and keep everything.” Is that liberating? “I feel free, but I also feel that I have no idea what’s going on. Internally, externally. It doesn’t help that the whole world doesn’t, either. It’s in the air, too.”
On the sleeve of the new album, Hadreas is topless and muscular, covered in dirt. On previous albums, he has been androgynous, feminine, in makeup and heels; in the videos released so far, he embraces an ultra-macho look. “I wanted the cover [of Set Fire…] and the video to have that same thing, where it’s warm and nostalgic, but something’s not quite right. It’s hyper-masculine, but there’s something off about it.
“My presentation, and what I wear, there’s definitely a performative element to it and I love that. But also, at the core of it, is that it’s just what I feel like doing, and where I am at the moment.” This matches the music, which dips in and out of 50s ballads, 80s pop and theatrical, lilting Americana.
Hadreas has always sung about sex, and has never been one for coyness. A new song, Jason, recalls an encounter with a man who doesn’t bother taking his clothes off (“That’s one of the only songs that is really just a memory that I mined, and I told the story”). On one of his best-known songs, Queen, he sings about sexuality as a menace to straight society: “No family is safe, when I sashay.”
“[Sex] is an easy place to funnel a lot of things that I can’t explain into something that’s very physical,” he says. “And it’s much easier to put a beat on a song if it’s about sex. Even when I dance, it all comes from a low place,” he laughs, and gestures down. “I think that’s just the funnel.”
When he was a teenager in the 1990s, Hadreas loved female musicians who sang about sex frankly. “Liz Phair was just straight up saying some nasty shit to me, that was so empowering. When I first heard it, I was like...” He puts his hand to his mouth in mock fright. “I didn’t know you could say that.” He loved Alanis Morissette, whom he considers the mainstream version of Phair. “It had a little bit of that underneath. My mom listened to it. And I was like, but mom, she’s nasty! That’s what I liked, this angsty nastiness.”
That angsty nastiness continued to inspire him. “I think it is part of the reason I’m obsessed with sex as an idea,” he says. “When you’re a queer person, [sex] is what everyone says is the disgusting part of how you’re feeling. The wrong part, the dirty part. And I was 12. I hadn’t had sex with anyone, but I was told there’s something wrong with me, because of who I would want to have sex with eventually. It becomes such a loneliness and such a source of shame, and you start developing all these feelings around it before you’re even allowed to find out what it truly is!
“To hear people sing about sex, and women specifically singing about sex in an unapologetic way, where the dynamic was that they were on top, that was really revolutionary to me.”
I wonder how Hadreas feels about queerness becoming more mainstream in the entertainment world, even to the point of it becoming a commodity. “I mean, I try not to be bitter,” he smiles. “But if there is a gay award, I want it. If there’s a gay cheque, then write it to me! That’s how I feel.” He says this lightly. “I feel like queer voices are being heard more, because you can just speak out, and put it up online. I also feel like the gates are still closed, in a lot of ways, unless it’s beneficial to everybody to channel some specific, non-threatening version of queerness. But we need that, too. It’s a weird combination of things. People love queerness when it’s just adjacent to it. When someone’s playing with the idea, and not fully inhabiting it. I think it’s too threatening, when people are...” He reaches for a word, but only one will do. “Queer.”
As Perfume Genius, Hadreas fully inhabits all of it. Is he making the music that he would have liked to have listened to, when he was a teenager? “Yes,” he says, smiling. “I love that. I mean, that’s it, for me.”
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is out on Matador on 15 May