Perfume Genius Wants to Blow Up the Whole World

In conversation with the musician Michael Alden Hadreas, who's watching horror films and reading books about psychosexuality.

Photo by Easton and Roso, styled by Sam Walker. Produced by Biel Parklee. Grooming by Linda Shalabi for Oribe at See Management. Fashion Assistant: Alex Pastore. Production Assistant: Alex Hodor-Lee.

Nearly two months ago, the musician Michael Alden Hadreas, known by his moniker Perfume Genius, had just released his critically acclaimed album “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” and was quarantined inside his Los Angeles home. Those were the main topics occupying his mind when we first spoke for this interview. But in late May, the protests against the death of George Floyd enraged and saddened Hadreas; a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement gave him hope. He, like many others, used his online platforms to be vocal about the movement and spread information and resources about anti-racism. “If you care more about property being defaced and looting than you do for Black lives, unfollow, and do not listen to my fucking music,” Hadreas posted on Instagram in early June. When we catch up over e-mail, the artist explains he has a compromised immune system, and has not been participating in person at demonstrations—but still, he watches from his screen. His friends on the ground tell him stories of peaceful rallies. He watched videos of 15,000 people gathered in Brooklyn for Black Trans Lives, in awe of the young people organizing. “Seeing their generosity and bravery and ability to advocate for people within and outside their own experience, it’s beautiful,” he said. “I’m just trying to listen and read and take action where I can, send money where I can, and send respect and gratitude to the activists who are truly dedicating themselves to making life better for other people. But there is no clarity, the systems in place are corrupt and beyond devastating in their scope and violence.”

Back in May, though, Hadreas was as calm as being cooped up in quarantine would allow him to be. The 38-year-old Washington native spoke softly, with a gentle lilt to his voice, about how good it felt to release music that people responded positively to, and how much he enjoyed living in Los Angeles, where he’d moved with his partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels just eight months before. But Hadreas has another side to him—a wild edge that makes him love gruesome horror films, novels about psychosexuality, and throwing his body around for fun. He is mellow and mild, untamed and tempestuous all at once. Here, he discusses the karaoke song he loves most, why dance transformed his view on performing, and inviting people to “fight in the woods.”

Are you in Los Angeles?

Yep. I’m home, I’m in my bed.

I know you moved from Tacoma, near Seattle, to Los Angeles in October 2019. Culturally speaking, those places couldn’t be more different, especially when it comes to the people. Plus, the weather—you could argue that it contributes to the culture.

Definitely. I always thought of Seattle as being a face city and LA as being a body city. In Seattle, you just show your face, the rest of you is covered. And then when I went to LA, even just to visit, I was like what the—what is happening? The bodies were out. And it was very menacing to me.

I thought that maybe it would happen to me, that I would move here and start eating salads or that I would change. And it totally did. I just feel more outward-facing because I’m actually outside more, doing things and seeing people. And then maybe I’ll have a light lunch, just so that I can carry on doing things later. But in Seattle, I was just inside the whole time. The lunch was heavy.

I wanted to ask you about The Sun Still Burns Here, your dance collaboration with Kate Wallich, because that project was the last time W magazine spoke with you. You’ve said before that dance “blew up so much” for you and made you start to crave community and be present in the real world. What did you mean by “blew up so much?”

I guess I thought of the creative part of me and my work, and then me and my daily life, as very separate for a while. I thought that was necessary; I felt very protective over that part of me and thought it was this solitary thing—at least the beginning of it, writing. It ends up being more collaborative when you bring it into the studio and have other people playing and everything, but essentially the creation of the core ideas is always alone. When it came to the dance and the music for the dance, we were talking about it and workshopping it, and I was rolling around with everybody before we had made the structure of the show. Something about the physical part of it, and being with people in a room and thinking about the room—which wasn’t a physical room, it was a room as an idea. It blurred this thing between being creative and the fantasy of that, the magic of it: my life and my body and people that I’m around. It just sort of shook me up a lot.

You’ve been on stage for so much of your life, but it sounds like it was the first time you performed in this particular way, when you did this project.

When I’m on at my shows, my band is there, but there’s some ingredient that I feel like I specifically have to communicate; it’s up to me. Every time I go on stage, I feel like I personally—we’re all doing it together, but there’s some ingredient that I have to share alone, somehow. Sometimes that’s fun, but it feels like I’m battling myself. Something about the dance felt like we were all sharing that ingredient. It felt like I could go off stage and come back and it would still be there. That was freeing to me.

I imagine it must have been difficult to pivot from having this community to being in quarantine.

Yeah, it’s weird. Especially since I’m craving it. I used to be like, “Hey, do you want to go to the woods and fight me?” And then I’d do that. But now I can’t.

Say more about this come to the woods and fight me thing.

I just like dancing, the blurriness of it. I also like doing it, but not for a reason, and just for whatever healing properties I’m getting from it. And I like how it’s physical and it’s intimate and it’s with another person, but it’s not necessarily sexual or a traditional relationship. But I still feel like I’m doing something therapeutic. Things are getting drawn out. I also feel like I’m helping other people do that. I mean, some people do not want to bring all that into it. But it’s fine, some people do.

This reminds me of something that you’ve said in the past, about how you tend to want to feel a rush, excitement. You’re always looking for some big feeling. And it sounds like dance, in a way, provided these big feelings for you. How are you navigating those emotions right now?

I don’t know if I am, honestly. I’ve been singing and playing songs just for me, singing a lot of covers. Even just looking up the chords and singing along, like karaoke. That has been nice. I don’t really feel this strong urge to make my own stuff or be creative, musically. Mostly, I avoid feeling. I’m sure it will come out at some point, but for now, it’s just a buzzing irritation. I’m either laughing and not taking anything seriously, rolling around, being goofy, or I’m just sort of irritated. Those are my two modes. That’s as much as I can actually access it. I’m just basically actively trying to detach right now.

I’d say most people are on that level right now. Sounds like you were that mood far before quarantine started.

Or I’m fuckin’ running my mouth about it. But that’s what I feel like my whole career is.

Speaking of, congratulations on the new album “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.” We’re a week or so out of the release. How do you feel?

I feel good. It has been a really healing thing for me. I haven’t left my house, but I feel some of the outside energy—people are writing to me and telling me they’re listening to the songs. I just feel the outside world more and I feel connected to something that I’m really proud of and that I wanted to get to people. So it feels really good.

I’m glad you’re not stressed out.

Well, it’s both. But ultimately, that’s the thing that overrides everything. And I’m really lucky that I have this music and I can share it right now. I am set up in a way where I can still share the thing I do and I don’t have to leave my house. I can do it in this situation, and in a lot of ways.

What time do you wake up in the morning and what’s the first thing you read?

Oh, god. Well, today I woke up at like 10 a.m., but I have been waking up at like 6 a.m., usually. Especially in quarantine, it’s been all over the place. I guess I tend to wake up around 9 in the morning. The first thing I read is the news, almost right away, when I wake up, which is probably not good. I have an app called Newsify that I use—you just put in a whole bunch of blogs, news websites, and things that you follow and it makes one big feed of everything.

What books are on your bedside table?

Let’s see. I actually can look. Is this question conceptual, or true?

It can be whatever you want it to be, but usually people interpret it as true.

“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin—that’s what I’m gonna try to start to read. Also, there’s a book of short stories called “You Are Not a Stranger Here” by Adam Haslett that I read when I was 19. It was really inspiring to me, but it’s been so long since I read them that I can’t even remember why they were inspiring to me. I’m gonna try to reread them.

I wonder what your interpretation is going to be this time around.

What I remember about those short stories is that there’s a lot of psychosexual ego, disturbing stuff. And that’s what I really latched on to, and I still do. That’s what I was digging around for when I was reading all the time: what works can I find with the most fucked up stuff?

Have you added any books to your reading list since the protests began?

I’ve been going through a lot of Longread articles and am glued to my phone, but no books. A failure.

What albums or playlists are you listening to right now?

I’ve been listening to the Cocteau Twins a lot, for a while now. When I’m looking, trying to decide what to listen to and I can’t figure it out, that’s what I always put on. Westerman, he’s a newer musician and he’s got a new record coming out. I’m listening to all the songs from that.

Did you get an advance copy?

No, but the children are putting out, like, eight songs before the record even comes out. That’s how the young people are doing it. So he’s got most of the record out. Maybe there are a bunch of songs on there.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

“Toxicity” by System of a Down.

I love that song.

It weirdly fits in my range. It’s low and high.

What’s the last account that you followed on social media?

Somebody has made a Twitter account for “Chromatica,” the Lady Gaga album—but it’s a country, and this account establishes all the laws for it. Like, Ellen Degeneres is not allowed at Chromatica. And the only people who can drive in Chromatica are lesbians and the gays have to either jog or ride scooters that have a speed limit on them. It’s incredible. I was really into it.

My mom sent me a video of a turtle gently caressing a fish with its fluttering hands. I didn’t know they had those. So I followed that animal account on Instagram.

What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?

I think I Googled “episodes of Star Trek that you can skip.” I’m trying to get into Star Trek, but there’s so much of it. Usually, I would power through—but I’m greedy, I want to be really into something right away. I don’t want a slow burn for a show. I want to be a full-on Star Trek nerd right now. So tell me exactly which episodes I need to watch that are going to make me that.

What’s the last movie you streamed?

We watched Hellraiser 2 last night. I liked it—it’s fucked up, but also really hokey. It’s disturbing, but also really bad special effects, so it’s more that the idea of what is happening is disturbing, and what you’re actually seeing isn’t.

Do you remember the last movie that you saw in theaters?

I think it was Little Women. It destroyed me. Alan and I had gotten in a big fight right before the movie, I don’t know why. And then when I was watching—I cried so hard, I almost threw up the entire movie. It wasn’t that I was crying because I was so crushed by the surprise of anything, I knew the story and what was going to happen. I thought it was so good.

Do you remember the last concert you went to?

I think it was my friend Sam, he played saxophone on my record, he also played with me during The Sun Still Burns Here on stage. At his show, he was playing a Japanese synth. It was a pretty wild show. One of the synths had this traffic noise on it, and I think it was the first time I had seen a show where the sound of a car rounding the bend was just repeating.

What’s the last piece of art that you bought or ogled?

When Alan and I first got together, I had a lot of cat and kitten stuff in the house. I kept some of it, but a lot of it, I packed up, just to not have our house together look so full-on, crochet afghans everywhere. My friend’s birthday was happening and I was thinking about what in the house I could give to her. I remembered I had kept this picture of these little sailor cats smoking cigarettes. Out of all my little framed photographs of cats that I had, that was the best one. But she deserved it.

What is the last thing that you do before you go to bed?

It depends. I try to season the house with some kind of energy. Sometimes I clean a little bit, just so that when we wake up, there’s more room, energetically. I basically do that every night. I kind of look around and turn off all the lights and tidy up.

That’s a good practice.

Yeah, it’s inconsequential, it’s just like putting a couple things away, even though the rest of this house is a fucking pigsty. But just those two or three little extra things, it’s like, okay, I’m done. I’m going to bed.

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