We’ve Got A File On You: Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas on the National, Michael Stipe, his great new LP, & more
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Over the last decade, Mike Hadreas has steadily remade himself. Back in the beginning, with 2010’s Learning, there was no clear plan for his project Perfume Genius; Hadreas had only started writing songs recently, in his mid-20s, and didn’t exactly expect a long and stable music career. But he had something natural, something in his bloodstream. Those early Perfume Genius albums — sparse and soul-bearing, which only made his inherent talent more obvious — caught the ears of fans and other musicians alike. And then, over the next three albums, Perfume Genius grew and grew.
There were reasons to celebrate Hadreas’ music all along, but something in particular seemed to shift with 2014’s Too Bright, and then fully turned with 2017’s No Shape (one of the best albums of the 2010s, as it happens). His sound and ambition and storytelling expanded, sometimes leaping between albums. And, in turn, No Shape garnered him more acclaim and notoriety than ever before. All along, it felt as if he was making music completely on his own terms — even No Shape does not align with any of-the-moment trend in pop or in the indie world. Perfume Genius has just, over time, proven that his work is undeniable.
As a result, there have been few albums as anticipated in the first half of this year as Hadreas’ forthcoming followup, the great Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. In a way, it feels like everything from the past 10 years coalescing — Hadreas going bigger and bolder, continuing to transform and rethink his art, combining an ever-broader array of sounds and styles, but also perhaps reclaiming some of the quiet contemplation and remembrance of his earlier work rather than taking his rising profile as a charge to barrel headlong into the more blown-out romantic sweeps that dotted No Shape.
It’s yet another collection that reiterates that Hadreas is one of the finest songwriters of our time. You get the sense that it’s, naturally, the product of where he’s been and who he has grown into over these last 10 years of making music. But you also get the sense it’s directly related to opening up his own world; he’s already spoken about how collaborating with Kate Wallich on the dance performance The Sun Still Burns Here had a profound lasting effect on him as an artist. So on the occasion of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, we caught up with Hadreas to talk about his new album, as well as the loose ends and collaborations and mainstream crossovers that have begun to pop up more and more in his life.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
STEREOGUM: Obviously things changed a little bit with No Shape, in terms of you getting broader recognition. I don’t know how much you feel that in the moment, but as you were working on this album, did you have to sort through some of the experiences that immediately preceded it?
MIKE HADREAS: There’s definitely a pressure scale for me that I have to shake off. It’s a weird thing to navigate. But I’m not going to be listening to the music. It’s for other people. So I’m always thinking and carrying other people with me, but it takes me a while to bring the right ones, I guess.
You know, you have a lot of people in your ears telling you what you should be writing, and sometimes how, and all that stuff. Because it takes a lot of people to do this and to bring this out into the world. It’s not just me in my bedroom. It’s just thinking about that as fuel instead of something that can be paralyzing, because ultimately I feel like I need to be a baby worm writhing around in order for this information to come to me, but I also need to be an adult person. Like, a musician. [Laughs]
So it’s finding the balance between those two things, because it is sort of strange to have a job that requires you to be very open and emotional and pulling weird supernatural threads out from the air but then also package them in a coherent way. That ends up becoming very fun for me, and eventually kind of liberating. For me, it’s really good that they exist together. The people that bring an edge to it, or bring something different… even my songs that are just the worm, they almost fall flat. I like when they have something against them. It heightens it.
STEREOGUM: Has that always been like that for you, or is this a new dynamic you have had to work through as the project has grown?
HADREAS: Even in my first records I would just do that to myself. If I felt like something was too pretty I would just put something nasty underneath it. I would do it to myself. But now I have help! [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: The songs that did wind up beyond the worm stage and showed up on the album — how long ago do these date back? Were they around for a while or was it a concentrated burst after you finished touring No Shape?
HADREAS: Kinda both. There are songs that I had kinda came back to. But then also the bulk of the record, over half of the songs were written in a week. But I wouldn’t have been able to have that week without the month of me trying and making a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t end up on the record. I go into my room and I make something every day. Sometimes it’s just more fragmented or it’s more of an exercise. It doesn’t feel like the thing yet. But I need to have a bunch of those to get to that week. I think it was “Just A Touch” that felt very much like a classic song to me. A specific way of singing that was familiar to me, but kind of foreign for me to sing that way. But it felt very satisfying, like, “This is where I’m supposed to be coming from.”
STEREOGUM: When “Describe” came out, you mentioned it was originally a somber ballad, and that made the new arrangement that much more striking to me. I could imagine what this might’ve sounded like instead on an older Perfume Genius album.
HADREAS: Some of the demos were mock versions of how big and full I wanted them to be in the studio, and then some of those wind up being more minimal. But this one was very much — it was just me and piano and it was very slow and earnest and sad. I loved the song that way, but then when Blake [Mills] heard the guitar in that way, I felt like it lifted up that sadness. It magnified it. And then me keeping the vocals really gentle and sweet and sad against his guitar, that kind of heightened his guitar.
STEREOGUM: I was really pleasantly taken aback by that as a single. This swaggering distorted thing. You said it “lifted up” the sadness, to me it kind of burned it away.
HADREAS: I loved those two feelings being at the same time. We still kept — the outro is from my recording from home I initially brought to everybody. So we put it out because it had everything, it had so much of the magic from the studio and it had some of the stuff when it was just me by myself at home. It kind of had everything in it, and it was just an announcement too. Just from the first second that song comes on, it’s just an announcement.
STEREOGUM: Especially with you smoking a cigar into the camera, a new era of Perfume Genius. Another thing I liked about that announcement is you didn’t just have the normal press materials. You had an “impression” from Ocean Vuong. Were you acquaintances? How’d that come about?
HADREAS: We reached out to him. It was essentially a fan thing. The way that he wrote resonated with me so deeply. And then just technically, the rhythm of it, the math of the writing itself, combined with how soulful it is and the feeling. All those things at once, it’s so satisfying. I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on something with me, in whatever that way that was. This is part of it, hopefully there’s more parts.
STEREOGUM: I’m guessing if there are more parts you can’t actually tell me what they are.
HADREAS: Well, no, there aren’t more parts. [Laughs] I just didn’t want to put a stopper on it.
STEREOGUM: Like you mean the idea that he might provide lyrics or something?
HADREAS: I have no idea. I haven’t really thought about it practically. I just wanted to energetically keep it in there.
“Eye In The Wall” And The Sun Still Burns Here (2019)
STEREOGUM: Even though this isn’t on the new album, there feels like there’s some connective tissue between this song and the material for the album. This came out of you writing for your collaboration with Kate Wallich and the YC dance company for The Sun Still Burns Here, and you’ve already spoken about exploring dance further and how it could impact your work. But I’m curious about the longterm effect on your writing — like, were you functionally, literally thinking about rhythm more on the new album?
HADREAS: It filtered into my thinking, in general. Generally, I write music by myself and I come up with the whole baby version of the world — or whatever, it can be pretty maximal sometimes I guess. Then I take the song to the studio and piece by piece it grows and involves more people and we collaborate and it becomes the thing. But with the dance, all of it was made together from the beginning. Everything was there. It was 360 — the production, the design, the lighting and costume designers, the whole company — we were all in the room together before there was any dance or music or stage show.
It was just such a foreign way of working. I honestly just didn’t even know that was possible. It made me feel like, “Oh this thing I thought was very solitary and this dream world I can only access if I turn all the lights off and have nobody bug me for however long I feel like, I can do this with people.” And beyond that, that I could do it in a very physical, connected way. Because essentially what I’m doing in my room all the time is trying to go somewhere else but in a very internal way, with my thoughts. I’m trying to create some happy vibe and be transported somewhere else, or where I don’t feel like myself, or I feel like so much of myself in some outer space way. But I was getting all of that feeling with people, and in my actual body, not turning it into something else or thinking about it differently. With my actual arm, on someone else’s face — and I still felt some undercurrent of something really supernatural in this specific creative thing.
That’s really been the only constant thing in my life that I’ve always trusted and that I feel is unmoving, but it’s this thing I can’t find. Or, I never really had an understanding of mine with someone else, I could never really talk about it. I don’t know how to explain it. But I didn’t have to. I wasn’t talking anymore, we were just doing it. It just became this portal for me and it leaked into my daily life and I thought, maybe those things don’t have to be so separate. Maybe I can feel more of that creative energy in my daily life and bring more physical, real life things into my creative life, and they don’t have to cancel each other out.
STEREOGUM: I know this was for a specific endeavor, but this long, dancier song — is this a sound you could see yourself toying with further?
HADREAS: That song was born from an improvisation with me and my partner Alan and Blake in the studio together. It was a hard song for me to make. It was this 10-minute-long improvisation and it was like, “How do I write a melody over this thing that is moving when I’m not expecting it to.” It’s not a pop song where it’s in these quadrants. It’s still a jam song. I love that about it. It took a long time for me to get there. But there’s something cathartic — I didn’t want to make a 10-minute song that didn’t sound like a song, that was just textural or background-y. It’s very much braided in with the dance and I’m thinking about specific people and specific parts of the performance, but I wanted it to be able to exist on its own, too, as a song.
Maybe at some point I’ll make music that doesn’t feel poppy. Some durational thing. But I don’t know, I kinda just like pop music. So even if I make something that’s a half hour, I feel like I would want that half hour to be poppy. [Laughs] Even if it’s just grunting all the time, I need those grunts to have an arc.
Michael Stipe Covering “Hood” (2014)
STEREOGUM: Michael Stipe did this surprise performance, one of his rare live appearances since R.E.M. broke up, and he played your song “Hood.”
HADREAS: It’s weird, but then it’s not — it’s very confusing. I intellectually know: This is the person where I’ve listened to their album and been inspired by them, like they soundtracked parts of my life. But also, I’ve hung out with him. It’s so surreal and doesn’t really make sense that — it just doesn’t really make sense! But pretty early on we started talking, and he responded to the things I was making.
It’s still surreal, to have someone you respect — you know, I didn’t grow up writing music. I didn’t think I was going to do this, and I didn’t trust myself for a long time. Maybe even this record is the first time where I was like, “I’m a musician!” [Laughs] I was kind of figuring it out in front of everybody this whole time. To have someone, even in the beginning, find value in what I was doing, and this person I thought was just so technically gifted, too — it was really rewarding.
The National Covering “Learning” (2014)
STEREOGUM: In the same year, the National actually recorded a cover of another early Perfume Genius song, “Learning.”
HADREAS: We had kind of been in contact, in a light online-friendly way. Or when we could see each other at festivals. I find that cover really unsettling, in a really good way. That song in particular. I even feel fucked up for having written it. There’s a cheeriness to it, but it’s a pretty bleak song. And then I feel like, you know, they removed a little bit of the cheeriness and then upped the bleakness. [Laughs] And to have such a low voice singing it? Ugh! It rules, but it’s unsettling.
STEREOGUM: They covered this right around the point they were really becoming luminaries in the indie world, but those were still the years where you didn’t even necessarily think of yourself as a musician. But when something like this happens, does it bolster you at all, like realizing other people who are doing the same thing are into what you’re doing?
HADREAS: It’s surreal, for sure, but it also feels good. It makes me feel like I made something that is, in a real way, is getting somebody. The song itself. Like it exists, and someone else can use the song. But then at the same time, it almost makes it feel as if it exists outside of you, and that you’re detached from it.
Covering The Grateful Dead’s “To Lay Me Down” With Sharon Van Etten For The National’s Day Of The Dead Compilation (2016)
STEREOGUM: And then later you wound up on the Day Of The Dead. It felt like for two years everyone I interviewed was like, “Oh yeah I’m working on the National thing right now.” And then it turned out you and Sharon were on a song together. Were you a big Grateful Dead fan before this?
HADREAS: No, I wasn’t. And they asked me and I started listening to songs — I can’t remember if they suggested that song or if I found it. I think the version I responded to was the Jerry Garcia solo version. I don’t think it was with the band even. But that song, lyrically, vibe-wise, everything — it was like, “Oh, I’m going to do this song.”
To this day that’s one of the only recordings of myself that I would listen to. I know that sounds weird, but I don’t know, there’s just something magical about that, maybe because it sounds different from what I normally do, or maybe because there are so many other people involved in it, that barrier of just hearing my own shit is removed. And it’s not my song. I don’t know. I really love that recording.
“Slip Away” In Booksmart And The Eighth Grade Trailer (2019/2018), “Otherside” In The Goldfinch Trailer (2019)
STEREOGUM: No Shape feels like, if not a singular turning point, certainly a major breakthrough. Something that happened during that time was you started to hear Perfume Genius songs pop up a lot in different trailers and movies. “Slip Away” was featured in Booksmart and the Eighth Grade trailer, “Otherside” was in a few things including the Goldfinch trailer. There was this article written at the time —
HADREAS: Like, “Why Is Perfume Genius Always In These Teenage Things.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Well, the phrase was “teenage angst,” but yes. You had become the poet laureate for these coming-of-age movies. How involved are you in these syncs? Were you aware of this as it was happening?
HADREAS: I have criteria. If it gives me chills, then let’s put it out. The fucking “Otherside” trailer? They have that explosion happen like four times in a row and I’m like, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” [Laughs] In Booksmart, it’s just so perfectly… I don’t know, I’m going to be a soundtrack to a feeling. That song, with that scene, it was perfect to me. I’m not super sacred about anything other than it just has to make sense and feel good and feel like it helps. That there’s something natural about them together.
“Slip Away” On The Danish X Factor (2018) And “Slip Away” And “All Waters” On So You Think You Can Dance (2015/2017)
HADREAS: Wait, I might have seen this. It’s like a trio? They’re playing pots and pans or something?
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] No, it’s like two women and a guy playing guitar. One of my coworkers described it as a more Of Monsters And Men version of “Slip Away.”
HADREAS: I mean, go for it. I feel like the song can be whatever it needs to be for people. I would never put my song in a Charmin commercial. But I don’t know why I picked Charmin. [Laughs] I can hear a song in a completely different context and it doesn’t change my experience with it, it doesn’t sully it. But I know that is true for some people, and I need to think about that sometimes. I think the things that are the most emotional for me are when choirs sing my songs. Like a YouTube version. I cry every single time, it’s so overwhelming. They’ve done “Slip Away.” Maybe “Otherside.”
STEREOGUM: These same songs that have snuck into more of a mainstream consciousness.
HADREAS: Maybe part of the reason they have is they lend themselves to being interpreted, or to being in different things. They’re not so singular that only I could do it.
STEREOGUM: So the X Factor wasn’t actually the first time a Perfume Genius song appeared in a show like that. You actually have two moments on So You Think You Can Dance — are you aware of these?
HADREAS: Yeah, because I watch that show! Period! I’m always crying at that show. You know what I mean? Just those liberating jumps? They always have someone who will run and she will jump into somebody. She’s not thinking about how she will be caught she just knows that she will be. Somebody just catches her, and then I start crying. So, yeah, I was fucking amped about those.
STEREOGUM: Do they have to clear that with you before it happens?
HADREAS: They tell you. The thing about a lot of it is that it’s so far in advance and sometimes those things never happen. You’ll hear they want to use your song for this and you’ll say OK and then you’ll kind of forget about it because it won’t be until months later, or you’ll remember months later and be like, “Hey, did that ever happen?” because it didn’t.
STEREOGUM: We were talking about your interest in dance –
HADREAS: And that’s like American Idol for dance. And I love American Idol, too. I bet if you surveyed a bunch of musicians I don’t think they’d be as into it as me. [Laughs] But you know, that’s the trick version of dancing, but there’s still beauty and soul that leaks in. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s the same reason I watch American Idol. Even within all these parameters where they have to be wearing really heavy earrings and ridiculous shiny outfits, if they’re really good, they can’t help but have some real artistry come through. They’re doing all these runs and this trick version of singing, but then sometimes something real comes through, and that’s what I like.
STEREOGUM: Maybe this is a dumb thing to ask you since you’ve done some actual dance-oriented projects, but if you were on the “trick version” yourself, what songs would you dance to?
HADREAS: Yeah, I’ve thought about that with American Idol. I would do “Love On The Brain,” or I would do “Someone Like You” by Adele. That would be my audition song.
Covering “Can’t Help Falling In Love” For A Prada Commercial, “Normal Song” In A Toyota Commercial (2016)
STEREOGUM: You’ve had a couple commercials, there was this Elvis cover for — do you remember this?
HADREAS: Yeah. Do I remember? [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: You’d be surprised. Sometimes I do these and people are like, “I did that?”
HADREAS: That’s cool, I hope at some point I don’t remember.
STEREOGUM: It’s admittedly a shorter period of time for you. Sometimes… you know, I’ve done some of these with some… eccentric characters. Like, with Perry Farrell, I had to explain to him things he did 30 years ago.
HADREAS: He probably didn’t know he was doing them while he was doing them.
STEREOGUM: Well, now that we’ve established you remember Elvis. That’s like a high fashion collaboration, how does that kind of thing come about?
HADREAS: It’s fun and complicated, because you’re talking about music with a fashion brand. I’m talking about fashion, which is not something I fully know about, and they’re talking about music, which is not their world, and together you try to make this package of something that has everyone’s ideas in it. They wanted that song, but they wanted it dark and sexy. And I was like, “I can do that, for sure!” You know what I mean? I like dark and sexy. I like Elvis. And I like fashion.
STEREOGUM:The Prada thing, there’s a way those worlds intersect. But there’s also a Toyota commercial with “Normal Song” in it, which I found a bit more surprising.
HADREAS: I guess everybody will have a different opinion on it. My opinion is: I want to never stop doing this, and I need to sustain myself so I can keep making things. I also feel like I can brainwash people. That my song “Dark Parts” was in a Major League Baseball commercial? And maybe the lyrics weren’t in it but it doesn’t matter. During that commercial they are getting a song about sexual abuse. It is going into their brains. I love that part of it. But also, I don’t know, it’s OK. I certainly have boundaries. But I don’t know, I’m always crying during Hallmark commercials and if you’re going to make a really sad commercial with one of my songs that’s gonna make me cry, I’m gonna be like, “OK!”
John Legend – “Temporarily Painless” (2016)
STEREOGUM: Here’s another oddly mainstream moment.
HADREAS: [Laughs] Yeah, well Blake produced that record. He was working on it, kind of wrapping it up by the time we started working on No Shape together, and there was this one section that needed a wordless rhythmic chortle. A melodic chortle. And he thought of me! So I did it.
STEREOGUM: But you weren’t in the studio with John Legend right?
HADREAS: No, that would’ve been amazing. If the whole band and John Legend were there and I just came in and did this “Dyoo! Byoo! Dyoo! Byoo!” thing. It would’ve been incredible. I mean there’s some stuff that I’ve done — well, I don’t know if I can even talk about it. I pitched a song to a really well-known hip-hop musician. And my core of it was very … Bulgarian women’s choir. [Laughs] It was pretty full-on. And I was dead serious — I’m still dead serious about it, I think it was sick. But to think about it now, that that’s what I played for them, is so funny to me.
STEREOGUM: Well, you’re still holding yourself back from going too mainstream.
HADREAS: I don’t know, I thought No Shape was so slick. And then a week later I was like, “Oh, it is kind of weird.” I’m really proud of it, and I do think it’s pop music, but I do think it’s fucking weird.
STEREOGUM: I was going back and thinking about “Queen” after listening to the new album, as almost this origin story moment, and Too Bright as this turning point moment. You have these early sparse albums and then it’s like, you come into your own in a different way with this song.
HADREAS: That happened to me in the writing. Before I wrote “Queen” and some of the other songs on Too Bright in that world, I was trying to write the perfect versions of the songs that I had already written. I was trying to write perfect piano ballads, like could I make an even better one. And then I put some distortion on guitar and I was like, “Oh. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.” Then I had this week with this album where now everything’s coming out because I found what it’s supposed to be.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember feeling that in the moment, like writing this song and thinking you unlocked a different part of yourself?
HADREAS: I mean, I was just pissed off. I was really pissed off. I definitely come from that place as a person a lot. [Laughs] But I don’t know if I had come from that place as a musician yet. It felt cathartic but it also felt… purposeful. Not just for the sake of it. It was directed somewhere. It was cathartic that I could be angry and that could mean something, and that that could be helpful to other people.
STEREOGUM: How much do you relate to those early Perfume Genius albums in general now?
HADREAS: Especially with this record, I purposefully tried to think about writing and lyrics the way that I used to when I first started. I don’t know, that felt more what I needed right now. There are a lot of names and streets in those songs, nouns. It’s not just talking about ideas or abstract things. That wasn’t feeling satisfying to me. Just talking about ideas in an impressionistic way. I’m really proud of the lyrics on my first couple records, I really like them.
But also then I was writing about things that had already happened and that I had some distance from. And the more I make music now, the less interested I am in just going through my diary, and I don’t want to just write about my feelings. I wasn’t satisfied for me to just be emoting. It was more satisfying to make a more specific, physical thing for this feeling to live in.
The Sorting Hat (2017, 2020)
I'm the indie sorting hat send me your indie musicians and i will place them in their house #indie
— Perfume Genius (@perfumegenius) July 1, 2017
STEREOGUM: So you have had a couple collaborations we could talk about now… or I thought of a stupid thing we can do instead.
HADREAS: Go with your heart.
STEREOGUM: The last time I interviewed you was the same year you had done the Harry Potter Sorting Hat exercise. So I have this lightning round test…
HADREAS: Oh no… [Laughs] OK, I’m into it, I’m into it.
STEREOGUM: Michael Stipe.
STEREOGUM: Billie Eilish.
HADREAS: Her persona or her? That’s where it gets complicated. I’d say she’s public Slytherin, private Ravenclaw.
STEREOGUM: Maybe this is another persona/public. Charli XCX.
HADREAS: I think she’s Gryffindor.
STEREOGUM: Ocean Vuong.
HADREAS: Oooh. Gryffindor.
STEREOGUM: Yeah that makes sense. Timothée Chalamet.
HADREAS: Timothée Chalamet? Oh god. Fuck. I don’t know. I don’t get Timothée Chalamet. Everybody’s into him. He’s a good actor. He’s very much like himself. He’s very Timothée Chalamet-y. He’s very good at being himself, but I don’t know which wizarding house that’s a virtue of. Maybe that’s Gryffindor? That sounds like Gryffindor to me.
STEREOGUM: What about Laura Dern?
STEREOGUM: Kanye West.
HADREAS: Slytherin. I mean, he would not accept any other answer. He’d kill me if I didn’t say Slytherin.
STEREOGUM: Ariana Grande.
STEREOGUM: Joe Exotic.
HADREAS: Oh, that’s hard. He’s the hat. [Laughs]
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out 5/15 via Matador. Pre-order it here.