Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas Finds Resolution On ‘Ugly Season’

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Roughly halfway into my conversation with Mike Hadreas, one of my dogs throws up. Hadreas, who makes poignant indie rock under the name Perfume Genius, is gracious, funny, and empathetic toward the whole ordeal. He jokes about including the anecdote in this piece, and here I am realizing his vision. Hadreas also has a dog, a Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix named Wanda, so he’s understanding and lets me take a minute to clean up the mess. At the end of our Zoom session, he quips, “Maybe I’ll find out after this call that my dog threw up, too.”

Hadreas is the kind of artist who strikes a delicate balance between humorous levity and devastating pathos. He’s the kind of artist who names one of his records Put Your Back N 2 It and packs it with songs about healing, abuse, heartbreak, and addiction. On his sixth album, Ugly Season, Hadreas makes space for seemingly disparate feelings to coexist. Created for his collaborative dance piece with choreographer Kate Wallich, The Sun Still Burns Here, he was interested in Ugly Season “having room for all of those competing energies, like really formal and stuffy and really campy and low-brow.”

The result is some of his most amorphous, unconventional music to date, which he wrote alongside his longtime romantic and creative partner Alan Wyffels and the iconic indie producer Blake Mills. “It’s more experimental, but it’s still very much a record I would make,” he explains. “It’s not that far left. I still wanted it to be listened to as a record. I didn’t want it to be super ambient and textural. I wanted it to be more operatic and be songs.”

Hadreas took the time to discuss Ugly Season, working on an accompanying short film with visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite, how he envisions Ugly Season and 2020’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately as companion pieces, how he approached making music for a dance performance, and more.

How does it feel putting this album out into the world?

I feel good. It’s a little bit different from the things I’ve shared. We recorded it for a different reason. We recorded it in a different way than we usually do. I approached the music very differently with a lot of the same ingredients that I always bring. I’m basically just saying I wasn’t trying to make 12 pop songs to put on the record. I don’t know if I really ever do that, but I usually do at least three or four. This one maybe has only one or two.

There’s one literally called “Pop Song!

And I called it “Pop Song!” I knew I needed one at least to center the record. I feel like when we were thinking about the record and the show it’s attached to, we wanted to have a more traditional song at the center. But some of the songs that were born out of longer-form improvisations, afterward I tried to put a pop structure onto them. We had this ten-minute-long improvisation between me and Blake [Mills] and Alan [Wyffels], and then I tried to write a verse and a chorus on top of it, which was really hard because I wasn’t thinking about that while we were doing it. So it just shifted suddenly. It wasn’t in these compartmentalized little sections that made sense to put a verse and chorus on. But I figured out how to do it. It was really maddening, honestly. “Eye in the Wall” and “Hellbent” were probably the hardest songs I’ve ever made. I can talk casually about it now, but when I was in the studio, I was really upset trying to figure them out. But they’re my favorite songs on the record now.

This album feels a lot more experimental than your previous work. Was that intentional?

We had an energetic map of what we wanted the music to feel like. It was all very abstract, and we sent a lot of the images back and forth, and I had danced with all the dancers and talked with all of them, which is very different. Usually, it’s just me alone starting completely from scratch. It was letting all the stuff that I make usually but don’t put on the record be more of this record. I make a lot of music, but some of it doesn’t seem suitable sometimes for the record as it starts to take shape.

“Eye In The Wall” and “Pop Song” have finally found a home! Those came out all the way back in 2019.

The record was made in 2019! Those were all made at the same time. They belong on this album. I just released them very soon after they were finished. Originally, I wanted to release this record months after Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. We didn’t have a locked-in game plan, but I didn’t want to wait two years, for sure. These records were made one right after the other two years ago.

Do you think of them as sister albums in that regard?

Yeah, we did this record first, and then Set My Heart On Fire was a few weeks after. It was a response, in a way, at least process-wise. This record was really layered and labored over and also more experimental and improvised, just sort of open. Anything was possible. We could put anything on the songs. We could go as far as we wanted. And Set My Heart On Fire Immediately was more a band in a room and recording it live and trying to use the least amount of elements as possible to communicate something more structured.

Do you think the records complement each other, with one being more structured and one being more experimental?

I think they’re united in that I was completely in an unhinged place when I made both of them. I’m not that far from it now, but I’m a little more in control. Both of the records are born from the dance in a way. This record’s for the dance, and then Set My Heart On Fire is what happened to me as a result of the dance. Essentially, working with Kate [Wallich], me and Kate developed and still have a really intense relationship. I was getting more in my body, and I was around other bodies in this very strange dynamic, almost a cult-like thing. I might have been the only one who felt like I was in a cult, but I was really into it.

A whole cult of your own!

Well, Kate, too! Definitely me and the choreographer Kate were in the same cult.

How did you approach making music for a dance piece?

It was different. The dance world is a lot more formal. It’s kind of stuffy. We had meetings with museums before I had even written a single note or we had even danced together. I guess in order to get stuff made, you have to get money from rich people so you can make your dance thing. So that was very strange. We had some rehearsals before I had even made music. So I was holding people and carrying them and being lifted and talking about process in a whole group of people. Usually, I’m in a room by myself making songs. Eventually, I bring them to the studio, and I share them and finish them with other people. It becomes more collaborative, but not from the very start, generally, and not with so many voices. It still was me, Alan, and Blake making music, but it was informed by all the styling and set design before we even knew what we were gonna do. So it was interesting to build a world from the beginning and then put the music in it or put the music alongside it. It ended up being this thing that exists whether I’m there or not, which I think is different than usual. Usually, I feel like I have to be in the world for it to exist, but not the dance world because there are so many people involved in it. It was so multidimensional.

I also wanted to talk about the short film you did with Jacolby Satterwhite. What was that process like, and how did it differ from the dance piece?

When I saw his work, just everything he does really resonates with me. We’re the same age, and we have the same kinds of obsessions. I could tell that he’s thinking about a lot of the same things when he’s working. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. It was just resonating with me. There’s a lot of memory and body and these utopian visions and humor. I felt really connected to him, and it made sense — the things I was thinking about when I made the dance piece and what I was thinking about when I wrote the lyrics and was making the music, so I trusted him almost fully. We did a lot of back and forth just the same way Kate and I did. We talked a lot about process and why we make things and what this music is about. But then I essentially just fully trusted him to make something. We started talking about this during the beginning of the pandemic where it wasn’t possible to be with a group of people, but I knew he could simulate being in a group of people. He could animate and still have all the ingredients of the physical parts of the piece but not require us to physically be together, which was really exciting to me, especially during a time that felt like a void. The first couple years of COVID were just a dark hole for me. There was nothing really regenerative from it at all.

It probably felt nice to break down these walls and not feel limited or constrained in such a limiting, constraining time.

He just feels like a kindred spirit. So does Kate. I feel like I’ve met a lot of kindred spirits recently, creatively and also personally. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I wasn’t looking before, or if I was moving in a different direction. I love him. I love what he makes. I love what he’s made with my music. I just feel like I magically came into contact with exactly who I needed to come into contact with the last few years, which is wild considering how out-of-contact everything has felt.

How do you think Ugly Season, the dance piece, and the short film all complement one another and speak to one another?

I can attach a physical feeling to all of those things, and it’s the same physical feeling. I don’t know if that’s going to be communicated when you interact with all of these things. I’m sure everybody’s gonna process it differently, and they may process each one, but they’re all born from the same place, in the same dream. A lot of the dream is this defiant, utopian thing. And it’s a physical feeling of safety and love but kind of expansive and wild and gross sometimes. They’re all places where everything can exist, and there’s grace in it, but it’s still fun.

From a lyrical and thematic standpoint, what are some of the things that you’re exploring?

The song “Ugly Season,” I thought of it almost like my song “Queen,” where I flip hate or fear or feeling unsafe as an outsider, harnessing all that and throwing it back. People are using it as a source of power instead of something that can make you feel anxious. That’s what “Ugly Season” is. I imagine it as a kind of disgusting swamp witch, just really filthy but really feeling herself. It’s very Disney villain. I’m trying to explain it in a non-Disney-villain way, but you know: pimples, feeling herself, swamp witch.

But then there are some really sentimental songs on there, too, that are just pure sweetness. I even kind of had to fight for it, like the last song. It resolves into something that’s very sweet, and some people were like, “Maybe it should be more f*cked up.” I really fought for it to be purely sweet and romantic, even if it was sort of hokey. A lot of the time, I need it to resolve in a really pretty way. I don’t want it to be f*cked up.

How do you think Ugly Season pushed you as an artist?

I’ve been doing it for so long that I have a lot more rigid ideas of what my songs are supposed to be like, how I’m supposed to feel when I make them, what’s a good song of mine, what’s a bad one. I just become more self-aware. I have a lot more people in my ear telling me their opinion on everything, too, and it gets a lot harder to shake all that off and go with your gut. So many of my favorite things that I’ve made or other people make, they’re kind of stupid decisions! The things that they do that everybody thinks are really fresh and cool are kind of the dumbest or most wrong or off thing you could do. Everyone’s like, “Whoa, that’s so sick,” but he just did something so stupid! The older I get, and the more I do things, the harder it is to stay in that zone where you’re gonna break rules or do something outside of your comfort zone. But my favorite things are when I stay in that place, and I feel like I stayed in that place more during this record.

What is it about that place that excites you?

It truly feels like you can make something new. I love when I hear a song and when I make music that has ingredients from everything I’ve loved in it, and it feels like a real quilt of influences and memories. But I also like when it’s completely surprising, and you can’t really figure it out. The older I get, the harder it is to be surprised and make surprising stuff. Even when I’m watching movies or making music or reading things, I’m OK with something being bad if it was bad in a surprising way or a way that I’ve never experienced before. Not trying to say that the thing I made was stupid and bad because that’s what it sounds like!

Speaking of movies and music, was there anything you watched or listened to that shaped Ugly Season?

I’m sure a lot, but it’s hard to know. I’ve always been influenced by This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins. I thought a lot about soundtracking this dance piece, so I thought a lot about film scores. When you listen to certain songs from movies, you get that physical sensation of when you watched it or how creeped out you were when you saw it. I love that feeling of listening to pretty much any song that’s been in a David Lynch movie, and whenever you hear it, you just feel off and alien. I love that mix of campy and creepy, and formal and stupid. His movies have a lot of that competing thing. In the movie Dogtooth, I don’t remember what the score was in that movie, but the feeling of that movie, where anything can happen, sometimes it was funny, and sometimes it was disturbing. Those movies allow for a lot of competing things to exist at the same time, and I really like that.

It’s similar to how you mentioned that Ugly Season allows a lot of competing feelings to exist simultaneously.

That’s even how the dancing felt because I was getting physically strong, but I also felt very vulnerable and fragile, too, during parts of it. There were times when I was being lifted, and there were times when I was lifting other people, but it was really harmonious, going back and forth through all those things. I feel like in my daily life, I need to pick one and stick with it if I want to be understood. I think that’s freeing.

Ugly Season is out 6/17 via Matador. Pre-order it here.