Mike Hadreas writes songs that you can feel hitting your skin and spreading through your body, the twinned feelings of euphoria and pain hard to untangle from one another. His most recent Perfume Genius album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, was released at a time of global weirdness in May 2020, the tracks perfectly aligned with a moment of emotional contemplation and hyperawareness of our bodies. “The whole record is very physical and about being with people and out in the world," he tells me over Zoom. “It’s weird to have all the music be about that and then have that be illegal in many ways.”
The American singer has looked at different reflections of the body through his five albums, from chronicling his experience of Crohn's disease to looking at the physical longings of love and addiction. In Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, which made numerous top ten lists – including Esquire's – Hadreas makes a musical Rorschach test in which shimmering bliss is punctuated by sorrow, or the other way around, depending on which way you see it. Now he releases Immediately, a remix album which features tweaks and total do-overs of the songs, courtesy of artists like Jenny Hval, Boy Harsher, AG Cook and more.
Releasing Set My Heart on Fire Immediately during the pandemic, without any opportunity to perform it to a live crowd, has been a challenge, but the remix album has provided Hadreas with a different way to turn it into a communal experience. “I’ve had a hard time letting go of ideas I had about the songs and how I wanted to present them live, or what kind of videos I would have made in different circumstances,” he says. “This kind of rid me of all of those. Even if the song is completely annihilated and there’s just one little chirpy lyric left, it inspired me to conjure up some new energy instead of trying to jam old ideas into this situation.”
When the pandemic struck, Hadreas went back to the Seattle suburbs where he grew up to see his mother. He ended up staying for three months, burrowing away from his life in Los Angeles and writing music that he could never quite turn into anything real. Some friends of his were fuelled by the feeling that the world was turning on its head, but he was too freaked out. “I think I’m rebellious, I only want to be alone if I’m not supposed to or in response to being around people too much,” he says. “I’m sure there’s a million things you can do to maintain some warm connection to your body, but I was not doing them. I became like a little blob again and I was just thinking and spiralling. I could have been anywhere or anything.”
As the somatic title of his most recent album suggests, Hadreas's music looks to our insides, both physically and emotionally. This makes reading reviews which translate his feelings, when even he isn't sure of them, a strange experience for him. “I think with things like desire and people and the world, I just feel very separate sometimes and I can kind of fetishise that sometimes,” he says. “It’s not until after it comes out and I read about what everybody is saying I think, 'Oh I’m on one about 'dessiiire'. It’s embarrassing, almost, to read what kind of issues I’m working on.”
Deciphering what exactly Perfume Genius's music is trying to say is like looking into a distorted mirror: often the darkest sounding songs hide the most joy, while bouncy pop moments like 'On the Floor' are a playful mask over lyrics which talk about violence, or fights which 'rip me all up inside'.
In Immediately, the emotions of each track are clouded further as the remixes breathe new life into each song. In Jenny Hval's remix of ‘Leave’ she interrupts the song with an audio recording where she addresses Hadreas, then the listener, bringing these separate people into a communal experience. Some of the remixes, like Actress's version of ‘One more Try’, feel spiritually very similar to the original, like riddles you have to spot the difference in. “It’s sort of unsettling that remix, and really satisfying in a harmonious way,” he says. “He dug into one little portal in the song and really elegantly elongated it.”
A Perfume Genius performance is like a one man wrestling match, with Hadreas's body contorting across the stage before suddenly freezing in stillness. Now he is back in Los Angeles he is working on a dance version of the album, using animation and both real and simulated bodies, and is also back to dancing again himself. In dance there is a looseness and vagueness he can inhabit which feels like a less fraught kind of expression for him. “For dancers there is language,” he says. “But I don’t have it, and that’s what's freeing to me. I have no idea if what I’m doing is good or bad, so I feel unburdened by that a little bit.”
Hadreas used to feel stage fright in the early years of his career, not because he was embarrassed to share his secrets but because of the physical presence of so many people looking at him. Now he's able to use those nerves to fuel him; to accept that whether he performs perfectly or falls over, some of the faces looking at him will be disappointed and others enraptured. “I feel like if somebody had a weird burrito before they came they’ll have a different experience,” he says. “I try not to get too mad if people don’t like it because it just didn’t fit for them or whatever they ate.”
With so much material that hasn't been brought to life on stage, is he excited to get back to performing as soon as he can? “I will throw myself back into it,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll panic and there’ll be some fallout but not until after. I think the beginning will just feel really wild and unhinged, you know?”
'Immediately Remixes’ is released 12 March on Matador Records
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