Talent Borrows, (Perfume) Genius Remixes
Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, made one of the best albums of 2020. Now he’s let loose a bunch of producers – including A.G. Cook and Jenny Hval – on a reboot of every track. It’s out with the deliciously grimy art-rock and in with… what exactly?
Like most people, Mike Hadreas has spent lockdown chasing the temporary glow of nostalgia.
A few weeks ago the artist known as Perfume Genius posted a brief cover of Alanis Morissette’s windswept 1998 curio Uninvited on his Instagram, while early lockdown saw him obsess over Green Day’s 1994 punk-pop opus, Dookie.
“That was very strange,” he says via – you guessed it! — Zoom in-between gulps of Diet Dr Pepper. “But I’ve been listening to music that reminds me of a different time. Almost like emotional VR.”
This teenage regression has coincided with a temporary move from his home in Los Angeles to Seattle, with Hadreas quarantining at his mother’s house with long-term boyfriend Alan Wyffels. It’s from here that he’s overseen IMMEDIATELY, a head-spinning remix project that completely re-contextualises last year’s critically-lauded Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, with Hadreas personally hand-selecting a gaggle of forward-thinking producers including Boy Harsher, A.G. Cook, Jenny Hval and Actress.
Sat on the bed in the spare room under an original piece of his mother’s art (“kind of like a Madonna and child, but in hyper colour”), the musician, a youthful 39, is a mix of zen-like stillness – he favours a cross-legged posture – and fizzing, bottled up energy. He’ll often lunge toward the camera when he’s making a joke, which he does often, or sway absent-mindedly from side to side.
He’s dressed down (by his standards) in a white T‑shirt and jogging bottoms, his hair slicked back around his ears. “I haven’t showered today – I got my hair wet, that’s it,” he laughs. “Dunked my head in the sink for you.”
It’s a tacit acknowledgement of how much things have changed. Last May, Hadreas released Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, his fifth album as Perfume Genius. Typically, he says, he has to work up the energy to promote and tour a record, adopting a new persona “as someone who is going to be able to do all this stuff for a year and a half. Before, when I was doing interviews, I’d be all dressed up and it would be like: ‘OK, here we go.’ Now I’m in my mum’s house in my sweat pants and all those things are blurring together.”
It can feel like Hadreas is constantly undergoing some sort of metamorphosis. As with 2017’s emotionally decadent No Shape, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a robust, deliciously grimy art-rock record that explodes the early perceptions of Hadreas, in the light of 2010’s debut Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N To It, as a haunted balladeer. Those were threadbare albums that detailed abusive relationships, sex and suicide over sparse piano.
But inspired by the physicality of The Sun Still Burns Here, his 2019 dance collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich and the YC Dance Company, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’s aesthetic leans into vintage ideals of masculinity, with Hadreas cutting a lean, muscular figure often holding large hammers or sporting dirty, Bruce Willis-esque vests. Doubling down on that vibe, on IMMEDIATELY Hadreas appears on the cover astride a motorbike looking like a sweaty Athena poster model.
A regular topic addressed both in Hadreas’s music and interviews is his relationship to his body. Growing up in Seattle he was bullied mercilessly for being gay, resulting in him being taken out of school at the age of 15. Three years prior he’d been prescribed antidepressants, while most of his teenage years were spent in and out of hospital with Crohn’s disease.
The idea of transcending a body that was failing him, while also confessing his secrets, soon rooted itself in the music he started making in his mid-20s. Those early songs, created back at his mum’s house in Seattle, touched on his drug-ravaged years as an art student in Brooklyn, and started to fully flow once he began to thaw out emotionally following a stint in rehab. It was around that time he met Wyffels, his boyfriend of 11 years, a classically trained musician who also plays in his band.
Singing creaking ballads in a soft, choirboy voice, Hadreas seemed to accentuate his physical fragility early in his career. For example, in the video for Hood, a single from Put Your Back N 2 It, he appears cradled and baby-like in the big, bear‑y arms of late porn actor Arpad Miklos.
This emotional purity is why Perfume Genius’ music has become a sort of shorthand for teenage angst, soundtracking a host of shows and films that feature kids on the precipice of some sort of metamorphosis of their own. See: 13 Reasons Why, Eighth Grade, The Society.
“I love to come of age,” he smiles. “I remember watching Twilight. I was, like, 30 – and this is horrible to have documented – but when Edward asked Bella to prom, I got teary. I was like: ‘This vampire is going to ask her to prom.’ And he did and I cried. I love those moments.
“I remember how full and weighty everything was when I was younger. When I was in love it was huge, and when I was sad it was huge. I don’t ever want to lose that.”
Does he see his songs as “angsty”?
“Yeah. Part of it is embarrassing because I know I haven’t figured out a lot of stuff. I’m still reckoning with, and using, the same defences I used when I was 12.”
While 2014’s Too Bright album upped the musical physicality, it was around Set My Heart on Fire Immediately that Hadreas really leaned into his latest incarnation.
As Hadreas got stronger (“I was lifting a lot of weights”), his newfound strength also started to change his mindset. No matter what he thought about himself, there was no denying that his body was thriving.
“During the performances [of The Sun Still Burns Here] all I wanted to do was pick people up and throw them across the room.” In fact, it became a bit of an obsession, slowly creeping into his everyday life. “People would be talking and I’d be like: ‘Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, can I pick you up?’” he relates with a laugh.
While he hasn’t been able to keep up with similar levels of training during the pandemic, he’s found a new hobby. “I’ve been running a lot. It’s very unlike me to be doing any of this stuff, which is partly why I’m doing it to be like: ‘Fuck you.’”
Set Fire My Heart on Fire Immediately, more strident than his previous work, feels imbued with this swagger. Those textures are manipulated and mutated on IMMEDIATELY – which retains the original running order – with artists as varied as Westerman and Planningtorock given free rein to do their weirdest. For Hadreas, who had grand plans for the parent album’s tour and only recently started writing sketches of new songs in lockdown, it was “very therapeutic in a lot of ways. It made me have a new relationship with my record.”
While some of the re-worked songs are still in spitting distance of the Perfume Genius sound, others are beamed in from starkly different realms.
Norwegian musician Jenny Hval’s postmodernist re-working of nightmare-ish ballad Leave shuffles that horror like a deck of cards, with Hval herself breaking the fourth wall to talk Hadreas through her production decisions.
Perhaps the album’s best moments, however, are when the BPM rises, Hadreas’ elastic voice layered over Planningtorock’s springy synths on their version of Jason, or obliterated completely on Danny L Harle’s barnstorming hyperpop remix of Just a Touch.
For Hadreas, that’s perhaps a sign of where he could go next. “I’m into picking people up and throwing them now, but six months from now I could want to be a bug or something,” he laughs again. “So listening to something I did in that new way is like: ‘Oh, maybe I want to go over there.’”
On A.G. Cook’s grungy, drum ‘n’bass-adjacent re-working of Describe, Hadreas’ voice becomes just another instrument, a technique he relished.
“People used to ask me to sing on their songs and I’d get really amped. Then I’d get the song and be like: ‘Oh, it’s a really sad warble and I’m going to sound like I’m gonna die.’ Because that’s what they want! But to hear my voice used very clinically is really fun. It’s a way for me not to be me.”
Talk of Cook and the sonic traits of his PC Music label leads us to SOPHIE, whose death a few days before our interview caused Hadreas to delay the release of the remix album out of respect.
“We’d never met but I had reached out before,” he says. “I don’t want to insert myself in anything, but I had been a fan. You and I were talking earlier about looking back, but [SOPHIE’s music] did not feel like looking back at all. That was about completely destroying everything that had happened, and forging and clawing at new stuff, even if it wasn’t there. That is really inspiring to me. If there were other, older [musical elements] in there, they were just completely ripped apart. Audibly.”
At the heart of IMMEDIATELY is Initial Talk’s DayGlo version of On The Floor. It takes the song’s soft, springy pop heart and sprays it neon, backcombs its hair and forces it into ’80s leg warmers. It’s yet another frustrating lockdown dancefloor banger made in club-less times. Has Hadreas got used to dancing being confined to the kitchen tiles? He wrinkles his face.
“I will tell you I’m ready to go out. I don’t drink or anything but somehow I’m going to get fucked up.” He lets out a giggle. “I really think after this there’s going to be a whole mass of cult‑y, Matrix-like cave-rave things. I hope anyway.”
An idea he’s been mulling over for a while is a sort of commune, where him, Wyffels, and their dancer friends can just “roll around… I was into the idea of getting a big ol’ gay ranch,” he smiles. “I think I’m going to carry that ranch energy with me now.”
IMMEDIATELY Remixes (Matador) is released on 12th March