How Perfume Genius Learned to Wield What Makes Him Different as ‘A Source of Power’

How Perfume Genius Learned to Wield What Makes Him Different as ‘A Source of Power’

Getting back into his natural rhythm didn’t take Mike Hadreas very long. Speaking to Billboard via Zoom from Sydney, Australia, the mutli-hyphenate behind pop project Perfume Genius says that while he was initially concerned that going back on a headlining solo tour following the pandemic would feel odd, he can’t help but feel like he’s home.

I had no idea what it was going to feel like — if it was going to feel familiar and easy to settle back into, or if it was going to feel really challenging,” he says, coming off of a string of dates in New Zealand. “I think I just need to perform.” 

It’s certainly a good thing, then, that Hadreas has a reason to head out on an international tour — on Friday (June 17), Perfume Genius will drop Ugly Season (via Matador Records), Hadreas’ sixth studio album under the moniker. Repurposing the original compositions from his interpretive dance collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich, The Sun Still Burns Here, the new album sees Hadreas once again wading into new, experimental waters when it comes to his evolutionary pop sound.

Ahead of the remainder of the rest of his world tour, Hadreas caught up with Billboard, chatting about everything from working with Karen O, to finding new ways to explore his creative output, to the evolution of their LGBTQ anthem “Queen.”

How are you doing, how’s the tour been going?

I’m doing good, I’m in Syndey right now, in Australia. The dates have been going really good, I’m very happy. 

Love that! Well there’s so much happening right now, with the album coming out on Friday, your tour — how are you feeling with the current state of things?

I feel good! I feel good, I really love touring right now. Don’t get me wrong, it feels insane and wild and post-apocalyptic in a lot of ways, but I … I don’t know, I just really enjoy live performing way more than I ever have. I love my band, I love the crowds. Maybe I just need it more now than I did before? I’m not sure.

I was going to ask, has the transition back to performing live been at all strange for you?

Honestly? No. Not for me. [Laughs.] I feel like sometimes I thought there would be a disconnect. Because everything right now feels like weird competing energies, you know? Things feel weirdly familiar, but also alien and off, because we haven’t done them for a long time. But, I think I just need to perform — and I don’t think I knew that until this tour. I haven’t had that much time away from it as I did over the last two years, so I never really realized how much I need my outlets. 

I’m not very good at talking about my feelings, I’m not very good at processing things in a regular, everyday way. So, performing and writing are my outlets for processing everything around me. Well, it’s also how I’m social, it’s how I leave the house — honestly, everything is attached to it. 

Totally get that. Well, we should talk about Ugly Season, which is such a cool album — all of this music comes from your dance project The Sun Still Burns Here. What made you decide to turn the music of that project into an album?

Yeah, I always intended to make it into an album. When I started writing out the music for it, I was immediately like, “Oh, this should be its own record, too. I want to make an album and make it something that people can listen to outside of the theater, and detached from the dance.” But also, with the short film that I made with all of this, it’s just… I wanted this thing to be something that can live in different places, you know? Like, it can be an album, a dance piece, a short film, all of it. 

But the music was made with Blake [Mills] and Alan [Wyffels], and I’ve been making all of my records with them for a long time, so that felt really nice and familiar. But it was also really open-ended in terms of what we could do and how we could do it. So we kind of went a little crazy, and thought more about the scope of energy — instead of trying to say street names and tell a story from my journal, if that makes sense.

Ugly Season is such an evocative title, what made you select that particular lyric as the album title?

S–t, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I guess … it’s weird, because with a lot of the songs, what happens is I will write the whole song in gibberish, but then one or two lines will be actual words. And I think “B–ch, it’s ugly season,” was the only lyric in that whole song, where I eventually wrote around it. I don’t know how or why that came out fully formed like it did, but I genuinely love it. I like the way the words look, I love what they represent as words, I love how the song has this energy … it kind of reminds me of my song “Queen,” which is kind of about retooling, repointing energies that are pointed at you. It’s about using ugliness or feeling gross, or like a swamp thing, and using it as a source of power. 

You mentioned the visual aspect of this album, which is a short film you co-created with Jacolby Satterwhite — what made you want to work with him on this?

I think, as we were talking about me having a hard time processing… I think it’s because, like everybody and everything, I feel like I have 80 things going on at once, and I have a hard time picking one thing. Or I just pick nothing, because it’s too hard to pay attention to all of it. But making things, and making music and videos is a way for all of that competing energy to be really graceful and be really beautiful and elegant, and have these fantastical, campy, high-brow, low-brow energies all at once.

That’s what his work does for me — it’s everything all at once. We’re both kind of the same age, and we have the same tastes, and I think it just all connected. It helped me trust what he was going to do when he sent out the music. 

I’ve always appreciated that you bring this fascinating visual side to everything — the livestreams and videos around Set My Heart on Fire, this visual component to Ugly Season, etc. What’s a medium you haven’t gotten to tackle yet that you’re excited about trying?

Oh, I want to make a narrative film. Like, a proper movie. I really want to be in it, because I want to do all of things I’m dreaming of the movie being about. I mean, I’ve always said that I won’t write a book unless I’m 100% certain that it won’t be about me — well, it will be about me, but it won’t directly be about me. 

Let me be clear — it would be about me, but it would be body-horror, and like a weird setting. I don’t know, “sex with buildings” energy. I’m not kidding, either!

I also wanted to congratulate you on your song with Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” how did that collaboration happen?

Karen O just wrote to me, it was crazy! Our friend Cody [Critcheloe], who directed the video, introduced us. I was… I’ve been a fan for such a long time, and so before I even heard the song I was immediately on board. But then I heard the song and it was everything you would ever want from them, it was so much their sound. I’m so happy that I got to be a part of it; it’s such a good song, the video is so sick, the whole thing is just incredible. 

That’s a good lesson in life — if Karen O asks you to do something, you say “yes.” 

For sure, literally no hesitation. 

With it being Pride Month, and with the state of things for the LGBTQ community being not great, I’ve been thinking a lot about your song “Queen,” and how it has become a triumphant protest anthem for the LGBTQ community. What has your experience been like with that song, and watching become this iconic Pride song?

Well, I remember when I put it out, everyone around me was asking, “Why? Why are you doing this? Everything seems to be going well, why are you being so political?” And then, a few years later, the question immediately became, “Why aren’t you being more political?” It’s a very weird thing to see happen — everything is in an up-and-down wave of conversation. S–t is always bad and happening, I guess. 

I love that song, I’ve played that song every show since I made it, and it always feels important, you know what I mean? Like, even if people feel shy or it’s a quiet show, I can always really feel everybody in the crowd as soon as I start playing “Queen.” I’m so proud of that song to this day. 

How Perfume Genius Learned to Wield What Makes Him Different as ‘A Source of Power’ Getting back into his natural rhythm didn’t take Mike Hadreas very long. Speaking to Billboard via Zoom from Sydney, Australia, the mutli-hyphenate behind pop project Perfume Genius says that while he was initially concerned that going back on a headlining solo tour…