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Perf genius lead

The body keeps score

09 March 2021, 12:00

Mike Hadreas talks to Emma Madden about the importance of the physical to Perfume Genius' music.

When I zoom with Mike Hadreas (the artist known as Perfume Genius, who’s as much a connoisseur of cologne as The Paris Review is an assessor of Paris) he’s midway through a dance rehearsal, sweat beading on his forrid, skin slightly pinked.

It’s been four years since he released an album called No Shape, a decadent, Prince-inspired fantasy about a liquid existence without boundaries, borders, bodies, shapes. “Don't hold back, I want to break free / God is singing through your body,” he sang on "Slip Away", as he imagined a way to transcend the physical and intelligible, in hopes he might catch a glimpse of the holy. It was entirely abstract in its aspirations.

However, a couple of years later, he met with Kate Wallich, a dance choreographer, with whom he worked on a tour of live dance performances entitled "The Sun Still Burns Here", which amounted to an hour of “deterioration, catharsis and transcendence,” according to its programme notes. Those three words—deterioration, catharsis, transcendence—seem to be a throughline across five Perfume Genius albums. Through self-immolation, he strives to find a sense of healing. He’s the Marina Abramović of baroque pop.

The body—as a portal, as a concept, as an instrument of desire—has been a principal point of concern across his work, too. But not until 2020’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, which closely followed his work in "The Sun Still Burns Here" did he really embrace the limitations of the body through his music. Turning his aspirations outward, he rendered his abstract desires into something material and bound. “Give me your weight, I’m solid / Hold me up, I’m falling down,” he sang in the aptly titled "Your Body Changes Everything."

While plans to tour the album were thwarted by the pandemic, a remix album with takes on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’s thirteen tracks by the likes of Jenny Hval, Danny Harle, A.G. Cook is filling its gap. Ranging from happy hardcore and acid-rave throwbacks to spare electronica, the new album, entitled IMMEDIATELY Remixes, is another chance to dance.

BEST FIT: Because so much of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately was about you coming into your body or being more present, I’m wondering how lockdown has altered your relationship to your body?

MIKE HADREAS: Before lockdown even I was in kind of a mania with that idea. Once I found that portal to dancing and moving and truly being connected to my body, it heightened my connection to myself, it heightened my connection to outer spacey feelings too which I thought were only accessible through thinking or spiralling out. I didn’t realise I could get to some magical outer space place and be in this world too. So I got kind of manic, like all I wanted to do was pick people up and be picked up and roll around and then that was all taken away and a lot of the songs were sort of sourced from that thing. So it was kind of excruciating at first honestly. I was getting a little intense.

What does being present feel like to you?

I feel like I got a little bit of it last year, an extended period of a moment, where I felt in the moment. And before that not very many, and since then not a whole lot honestly. That’s why I’m doing this rehearsal for a dance thing. I’m going to eventually be dancing in front of a green screen so that my friend I’m collaborating with can make something with it, but I haven’t been dancing for so long I feel really disconnected from it. I was at a place before where I don’t know, I had an awareness of my body and where it was, and now I can do like an arm maybe. I can do an arm and a foot. Before I felt more 360 about it but it takes a lot of practice and a lot of attention and I don’t do either of those things very well.

And I’m not self motivated at all, that’s why I haven’t been doing it until I got this specific project to work on, because if I don’t have a deadline or something specific I just play video games and spiral.

Do you have much of a routine at home?

No I do not. For a while I did. I’m ready for breakfast, that’s about it, that’s it really as far as routines go. I’ve always been really bad at that. But if something’s in front of me like you have to do this, I will relentlessly apply myself, but if it’s up to me I’m not.

Do you tell yourself that you have to do certain things?

No, even in the beginning of lockdown people were reaching out to me for advice on how to do nothing. I have a reputation for being very content at just doing nothing, which is true. I do need to balance it out, but if there’s nothing I’m supposed to be doing, doing nothing doesn’t feel as fun to me. I don’t know, I don’t really have any routines beyond just certain ideas that I hold in my head and have to remind myself of when they spiral out but it’s more abstract.

No Shape was about the fantasy of leaving your body, transcending it, while Set My Heart On Fire was about inhabiting the body and accepting it, is that where you’re still at?

I’m sure I’ll be somewhere else for the next record. But there are things that I love about both of those ways of moving through. I do like that when I made both the records I felt anchored in the way I was thinking about stuff and thinking about myself. I don’t know if it’s necessarily true but a lot of times I really have no idea what I’m doing but then writing makes me feel like I do and I have this document that at some point, even if I was making it up, I have some clear ideas. Or I was able to sort out all this stuff happening into something that made sense or if it didn’t there’s a whole world made for it to not make sense, or there’s a room made somewhere. I don’t really have that in my daily life, like, when I’m walking around I don’t feel settled, but I think that’s why I make stuff up all the time and why I feel so different from year to year and about myself about my surroundings, and I’m not really fighting against that as much as I used to. I just kind of wait things out and if that kind of waywardness feels overwhelming it doesn’t feel like that as much just because I’m old and I’ve been feeling that way for a long time, so I just wait it out and eventually I’ll connect to something, even if it’s just an album I get out of at best.

I think the reason why the physical part felt revolutionary to me is because I was getting an album out of it, and something to make and share, but also I felt good, I personally felt good and I was performing and singing and I was personally enjoying it and I never really enjoyed it before.

This is the first time you enjoyed it?

Well a higher percentage. In the beginning I was proud of the shows but you can't get rid of how anxious I was, I was still in my body. And the last album when I was touring and performing and singing I was thrashing around and kind of not being very nice to myself, so I’d be proud of what kind of tour that made but I still kept that feeling that I was thrashing, and this feels a lot more intentional and kind, not that everything I’m singing or performing is sweet or anything but the way I’m communicating feels healthier or something.

Just because you are being more intentional and more physical?

I think so, I mean I haven’t toured it yet, that was the plan anyway and that’s how I felt when I was writing and listening to it anyway. All that music kind of brings back a good feeling in my body, I don’t know why it could’ve just been where I was when I made it cause I have older songs that were kind of sweet and heartwarming but they don’t conjure up that same feeling.

Did you have any kind of background in dance before you did this?

No, I wish I would have, I think I would really have loved it. I’d never taken a dance class or anything before.

Does it change how you relate to people when you’re made to be really aware of people’s space and how you interact with them in a choreographed way?

It does, especially if I’m really deep in the practice of it. When we were doing a bunch of rehearsals and I would go to a restaurant and the host would lean forward and I would instinctively lean back to complement her, or I just had these urges to pick people up, noticing the space between people, things like that. But all that tends to get sapped out. Where I’m at now is weird, because I was at my mom’s for a few months and before that we were just home, I haven’t seen anybody or been doing anything. I could’ve maintained some sort of practice, movement or whatever but I don’t feel that bad about it cause it was just a horrible year all around.

Totally—why would you want to practice being present when there’s no good reason to be present right now? Still, it almost seems tragic, all the positive conclusions you came to on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately that you aren’t able to put into practice...

I mean in a way I did feel like that in the beginning but it’s still there it’s all available. I remember my friend said one time that he hurt his hip and he took painkillers for it and even if they don’t heal anything it reminds your body that it can be without pain there and that’s good, it reminds your body that no pain is available as a state. So I just feel like it’s a vein that doesn’t deplete even if I’m not there or don't have all those things available they’re not gone, I just can’t use them right now. But I know that they’re there and that’s a new thing for me so it feels like part of a toolkit or something.

Would you say that Set My Heart on Fire Immediately was really an experiment in choreography and making everything intentional?

On No Shape I was very much writing about the abstract things I was thinking, and I had no tenderness towards making it a real life thing or turning it into a story or making it into something which I like that but if I had an abstract idea I wanted to make a scene for it or make some choreography for it to be shown instead of just explaining it or just saying where I’m at. And it felt like I kind of miss the way I used to write when I first started where it was more about saying names, street names and talking about flowers and specific things, there’s something more satisfying about containing everything, at least right now, in that kind of a story instead of just talking about stuff.

What encouraged you to go towards a more materialist approach?

I think it was a combination of the dance piece I was in and some rebelling against how I worked on the last record, ‘cause I’ve made a bunch of them now so I’m always trying to find some way of working this, different than before in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m trying too hard. I have to find the one that feels like I’m pushing but doesn’t feel like I’m pushing on purpose.

Do you think you can get closer to the divine or the sacred or whatever you’re reaching for through the body rather than through the abstract?

I think so, in a way that feels very healing too because a lot of those things are things that I avoided for a long time or have been scared of or felt like I let specific real life things in that I was overwhelmed or embarrassed about, ‘cause I feel like a little kid a lot when I’m doing all this movement stuff. I feel very little. It’s weird. The older I get I feel like I’m just trying to go back to how I was before I knew about anything.

Going back to Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, on ‘Borrowed’, the closing song, you seem to come to this conclusion that the spiritual and supernatural might not actually exist and everything's for nothing. How did you get there?

I’m not very emotional about my own music after it’s done, I kind of compartmentalise it and it’s almost like an exercise, but that song made me cry every time I listened to it for a long time. Just because that’s the flip side, like all the stuff that I’m talking about from the back of my head, I feel at the moment and everything is meaningless, all this magic is just because I’m pointing towards it. But at the same time, why isn’t that what magic is? When people say that love is just some chemical reaction, why is that not magic too? So I try to hold all those things at the same time but one usually wins out, I’m not usually that harmonious about it usually, and it can be like in ten minutes where nothing matters and then everything does.

At some moments that could be kind of comforting because it means that all that warmth and magic was created, which doesn’t have to be super sad because I made it or we made it or it’s available because it’s not some ephemeral thing it can just be cultivated. The other week I was thinking about dying a lot and I was thinking about what am I really scared about and I said really I’m scared about mourning my own death like how sad I’ll be when I die but I won’t, I’ll be dead. Well who knows maybe I’ll be sad but I don’t know, I don’t think I will be. I don’t know why I’m mentioning that.

When I was doing research for this, I found that “no family is safe when I sashay,” [from the 2014 single "Queen"] is still by far your most quoted lyric. I think that’s really interesting, people picking up on this fairly niche idea of family abolition even amongst a queer popular culture that’s becoming increasingly sanitised.

I’m proud of that lyric, I’m proud of that whole energy that I was tapping into. It’s so far from me now, like the older I get the less I care, I just do my own thing without being in people’s faces as much. I mean maybe I’m telling on myself a little bit with that. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that fully but I like remembering how mad I was but how I was channeling it then and how I was conducting it.

What do you mean by conducting it?

In that lyric and in that song, usually I’m just really reactive and just get upset, I don’t have any control over it I’m just saying and doing things, but I felt very patient when I was making that song, I felt like exactly what I was saying about that and exactly what I wanted to be heard instead of just flailing around and being angry. I mean angry’s a simple word for it.

For this remix album, was it all in your hands or did Matador curate a lot of it?

I mean most people were suggestions but some were friends some I hadn’t worked with before, some were new to me but after listening to what they made made me fans. Almost all of them I had known or had thought about.

Would you have released it if you were still touring?

Who knows? I have no idea what I would be doing if this wasn’t happening. I mean it was definitely a way to collaborate and to make things but not have to be in the room with people. I guess I could’ve made another record proper but just sent things back and forth or found some workaround but this felt more natural. Instead of trying to fit an old idea into this situation this felt like a way to use the situation and still make something that felt purposeful, worthwhile.

How does it feel hearing yourself in abstraction, hearing other people’s takes on you?

I mean I’ve never been sacred about any of it, I never thought I would be put off by the way people used my voice ever, but I still didn’t know if I’d like it, I might not enjoy it, even if I’m not off put. But I loved all of them and I know that they’re good, but also I hadn’t really felt creative in a while I’d been doing things and just hearing the remixes and the tenderness that people put on specific notes or specific ideas, some people just threw everything out and it’s like just a little bit of a coo, I’d just be cooing once or twice, which I love too.

And some people really focused in on the energy I was coming from in an eerily exact way. The Katie Day remix, the only one I was really sacred or scared about was the very last song and her remix was perfect to me. And we didn’t talk a lot before then, we’ve been friends online for a while and we’d talk back and forth but we didn’t talk about what this remix means or what’s it gonna be or anything like that, I feel like she honed in on exactly where I wanted her to.

It must be nice to have this thing coming out with your name on it that you didn’t even have to put much work into.

Mmmm it really is. When Boyharsher sent me the video [for "Your Body Changes Everything"] I was like holy shit they just built a whole—it’s some of my little ingredients and stuff—but they just built their whole own world. I’m involved and get to be a part of it but I just get to visit, I just get to show up and roll around which is what I’ve been craving for a long time. It was just really satisfying and beautiful.

There’s that song "Moonbend" on the album, in which you sing about sculpting a body and it living for you. I guess a remix album comes close to that concept.

Yeah it’s like a weird necromancy. It’s like conjuring and using certain specific parts and organizing them or removing them, you can make whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be the same dude if you have all the parts. It could just be like an arm and a head or something.

On Tiktok too, people just make memes out of your songs now and reinterpret it in their own way.

Tiktok I don’t know. For a while some people that I work with were trying to get me to get into Tiktok to connect with the children, but I’m not just gonna go on something I have no concept of. I’ve been watching now and I kind of understand it. I do love Tiktok but I don’t know if I really have a handle on what it is.

You just need to make a dance routine for the kids.

That’s what they wanted me to do, they wanted me to dance to songs and try to make some viral Tiktok thing. I mean there’s probably a really fun way to do it but I did not have the energy to figure out what that was. I tried to recruit a young person to do it, my friend Meg. She’s good at the Tiktok dances too, but not too good. Like good in her own way but doesn’t really care about it. Can’t practice too much or try too hard. Meg’s cool.

The IMMEDIATELY Remixes record is released on 12 March via Matador
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