Perfume Genius on Ugly Season, "Unfolding" and Finding Harmony in the Body

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Perfume Genius on <i>Ugly Season</i>, "Unfolding" and Finding Harmony in the Body

Mike Hadreas pours his heart into every word that leaves his mouth. This is true of his music released under the name Perfume Genius, where pop albums such as Set My Heart On Fire Immediately and Too Bright are thoroughly laced with passionate feeling, Hadreas’ distinct voice and vision seeping into every measure. But all this is also true of how he speaks about his art, his approach to performance, and what he wants to make people feel.

This much is clear during our conversation about his latest album Ugly Season, a record first debuted as part of a dance show Hadreas created with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC (as well as his partner Alan Wyffels) that toured in late 2019 and early 2020. The record is perhaps Hadreas’ most conceptual and eclectic to date, veering from evocative piano instrumentals to moody, lyric-driven passages and disco-influenced stretches. Ugly Season won’t just arrive as an album, however, as the record is also accompanied by Pygmalion’s Ugly Season, a short film by visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite—out today, June 15—that continues the project’s multimedia origins.

Before embarking on tour, Hadreas talked with us about how this new album came into being. In every answer, he speaks with conviction, often taking a few seconds to consider his responses before speaking with devotion about each facet of his art. Even as his speaking becomes more energetic and he occasionally breaks into laughter, it’s evident that he sincerely believes in everything he says and the power his work holds. Below, read Paste’s chat with Perfume Genius about Ugly Season, its ties to Hadreas’ lyrical fascination with the body, how it shares a kindred energy with the film Titane, capturing the intense feeling of dance on the record and more.

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Paste: At what point in working on these songs for The Sun Still Burns Here did you know you wanted to release them on their own?

Mike Hadreas: Before I even started recording them—I always intended to make an album and have it be something you can listen to. The dance is really important to the genesis of it, and I think you can at least get closer to how I physically felt making it and why I was making it through the dance piece. But I wanted it to be a record. I didn’t want it to be like an ambient, textural accompaniment to the dance thing, and I didn’t want the dance thing to have me just playing music with dancers on the side. I wanted it to be fully integrated—more operatic.

Paste: Did working to translate these songs from the dance piece into the recording studio present any challenges? Or did you feel like it presented new opportunities with how to approach these songs?

Hadreas: I usually go into the studio with pretty fully formed demos of the whole structure of a song and the lyrics. The way it sounds can drastically change once you get there, but I come in with a pretty sturdy map. With this [album], a lot of the demos I brought were longer-form improvisations—they were like a bed of feeling and sounds and melodies to start from. But it was more like a beginning point, and then a lot of it was created together in the studio with me and [producer] Blake [Mills] and Alan, and the other musicians that played on it with us. So I came in with some pretty distinct ideas, especially energy-wise and in how we wanted things to feel. There was an arc to the show emotionally [that we wanted to capture]. It’s important to have some boundaries—when I don’t have any, then I don’t really do anything. I need something to rebel against or push up against. It was hard. Some of these songs are the hardest I’ve ever worked on a song. And I hate working, so it was very challenging. For me, if anything feels difficult, then it must be bad.

Paste: What changed, if anything, to help that arc come across for a listener who might not have been able to see the dance show?

Hadreas: I guess the most important thing to me is that it feels really charged the whole time—really charged with energy, whether there’s tons happening or very little happening. Dance is the same; someone could just be sitting still, but still be very charged and intense if they’re emanating something. So it’s trying to find out what that ingredient is [for someone who’s] just listening that keeps the feeling alive, regardless of how varied it is and what different directions I go with the sounds and volume. More than any record I’ve made, this record has a physical feeling attached to it—a way I want it to feel. And hopefully that’s portable and I can share it [beyond the dance]. And also I was completely unhinged when I was doing the dance and very psycho-obsessed with it, and could not stop thinking about dancing and the relationships I was forming with the ground and people and my body and Kate. So I feel a little bit removed from it, but not that much. Like, this weekend, I’m going to be dancing with Kate. We’re still doing it as a creative and performance metric, but also because I need to do it now.

Paste: This album is especially varied even compared to some of your previous records—it has some of your most experimental and frenzied and spacey songs to date, but also very direct tracks like “Pop Song.” How did you work to strike this balance to make the record cohere as a whole?

Hadreas: I just thought about it a lot. A lot of it was based off of feeling and instinct and gut. And the choreography [in the dance piece] was translating things that feel inexplicable into language in the body, and I tried to think about that with the record [too]. I knew I wanted a pop song in the middle of it, and so I wrote “Pop Song.” I knew I didn’t ever want to tip too far in any direction—I wanted there to be tension. I wanted it to be kind of campy sometimes, but also very formal and very serious and pretentious, too. I like all those things existing at the same time. I love that about the dance world. It’s very formal, and there’s a bunch of rich people you have to court to give you money to make things, and it’s fairly arty, and I kind of liked that. But also, it’s very clear that me and Kate are … not appropriate. [Laughs] So I liked that. I liked that we bonded over how we’re kind of boundaryless in a place where you’re supposed to be very boundaried.

Paste: There’s something very subversive about sneaking that into what’s considered a formal setting, especially when it comes to camp.

Hadreas: Yeah, for sure.

Paste: You’ve been mentioning physical expression a lot and the body has been a very prominent element in your work well before this project, especially in your live performances and music videos. What significance does physicality and the physical expression that accompanies your music hold for you?

Hadreas: I say “body” a million times on every album I’ve ever made. I just have a complicated relationship with it. And I guess what I’m obsessed with is getting out of my body, or transcending it, or figuring it out. I don’t really even know what the question I’m asking is a lot of the time—I just know that there is one and it’s not answered. A lot of times, my portal out of that is thinking and expanding my thinking in my brain and my ideas about things, and that’s a big part of it. But then that can make me feel disconnected, too—it feels more like I’m not embodied anymore, like I’m wandering somewhere else. There’s a power to that, but through the dance, I was being very present and very much in my actual body as it is—not my imagined version of it. Just being really present and checking in with myself. And that felt really supernatural to me, maybe just because I’m not used to it. But that felt wild. I felt like I was the alien version of myself that I had been thinking myself towards—I actually felt like it.

And I also didn’t care anymore. I think I get tired of trying to puzzle things out sometimes, when really I just want to be and not have to think about it anymore, and be allowed to be a million competing things at once and a lot of things that don’t make sense. Because I know there’s harmony there—I can tell there’s harmony and grace—but it’s out of my reach sometimes. The dance let me have it, or let me give it to myself.

Paste: All of that deeply resonates with me as someone with a very complicated relationship to my own body. I feel like there’s never really a singular answer no matter how much we try to think about it, so the moments where you can just be are powerful because they can open you up.

Hadreas: And, for me, sometimes there are like five answers at once. Normally, I’m pressured to pick one. [But with this, I could] just have it be that all [those answers] exist. That’s why I love dancing with Kate: I would feel one way, and then a second later, she was that and I was her. I don’t know, I’ve either never really felt safe enough or allowed, or maybe I need the camera on in order to get somewhere. I don’t know what it is, but it made me think. A lot of the things I’ve been thinking about for the last two years, I don’t think I’m even ready to share them out loud yet. But I’ve been thinking and feeling.

Paste: With the short film that Jacolby Satterwhite made using these recordings as inspiration, what was it like to have these songs initially conceptualized for one visual medium reconceptualized in a completely different one?

Hadreas: Before we had spoken at all, when I watched and engaged with the things he made, I felt really connected to it, and [started] thinking what his motivations might be and where he’s trying to go and what he’s thinking about. There’s a lot of utopian landscapes [in his work], but there’s still humor and family and memory, but futuristic. And it’s very physical—he dances a lot. I just felt really connected to him—we’re similar in age and have a lot of the same tastes and obsessions. So I felt really confident in giving him these songs and knowing he was going to make something that was a new translation, but had the spirit of the piece and the music. And, like what we’ve been talking about, I love that this music can now live in multiple different places and in different incarnations. He’s going to play the video at a gallery and I’m going to do the songs at my show, [just like how] if we ever do the dance with Kate and her company again, it would be onstage in a theater. I just really trusted him. I kind of just gave the songs to him. [Laughs] We talked a lot and we danced together and we filmed some things together, but a lot of the worldbuilding seeds that I’ve usually got a heavy hand in, I let him be the initial visionary behind them.

Paste: One of the songs that really stands out is “Hellbent.” It feels more chaotic than anything you’ve released before, almost like it’s unraveling as you’re listening to it. How did the process of conceptualizing that song differ compared to how you approach traditional pop or rock structures?

Hadreas: That was one of the harder songs I’ve ever made. It was just a long improvisation between me and Blake—I was playing a keyboard synth and he was playing guitar. We had this whole bed of music, and then I went home and tried to write a song on top of it. It was just moving suddenly, changing, shifting. It’s not like an ABABC structure, but I wanted it to feel like my song. I wanted to have a verse and chorus, somehow. But it was really hard to put that math on top of something that’s mathless. And it’s such a visceral-feeling song that I wanted to back it up with lyrics that felt like they were going to the same place. And [with] a verse and chorus, I thought of it as a way to bring people into it. Not that people can’t just listen to it—I [just] like singing and I like lyrics and I like pop music. [Laughs] So I like trying to make things as much of a portal as they can [be]. I don’t need to—I could just go where the recording [originated]. But I’m not going to. This is something I’m giving to other people to listen to, not me.

I love that song. And when Matt Chamberlain played drums on it, I got so hyped up. I’ve never been that hyped up in the studio. I almost had to leave. I wanted to run in and tackle him. I was just so excited. It was so intense and crazy. I love when things just suddenly happen. Like, did you see the movie Titane?

Paste: Yeah.

Hadreas: I loved that movie so much. Things just kept happening and they weren’t explaining themselves. People would just show up, feelings would just show up, and when it would pivot, then they were just pivoting. That’s kind of how I thought about a lot of these songs—just trying to instinctually go and follow the thing. Even inside the dance, we called it “unfolding”—this way of improv that’s essentially tripling and quadrupling down on your instincts. Just letting a current take you somewhere.

Paste: The song itself feels a lot like that, like a culmination of everything that’s been building up on the album, unloosing itself as the penultimate track. And I felt that way when it was performed in the dance, too.

Hadreas: For sure. I don’t think I’ve ever done something as physically demanding or violent as doing that song. We got complaints. I don’t know which show you saw, but we had to redo it because I didn’t want people to be upset. I want people to feel intensely, but not upset. Kate was slamming my face into her pelvis over and over and over. And, like … I like it, she likes it. I thought it was clear from the performance that we were really liking this, but we had to make it more clear.

Paste: Something else of note about “Hellbent” are references to someone named Jason, which is a name that also appears on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Since it seems like the dance show and that album were worked on in such close proximity, how did the writing for those two feed into each other?

Hadreas: They were recorded one right after the other and written pretty close to each other, too. I’m not sure why Jason was the name [I came back to]. I have another song, too, that didn’t make either record that’s not called “Jason,” because I already named the [Set My Heart On Fire Immediately] song “Jason,” but Jason is in it and he’s not the same Jason as these two other ones. I don’t know why Jason is the name [I repeat] or why it’s some sort of device I’m using by calling them all the same name, because they’re very different. Two of them are real and one’s fake—the one on this dance record is an old drug dealer, and the one on [Set My Heart] is just a guy. [Laughs] I guess, in some ways, my interactions with them aren’t the same, but they felt choreographed or something, like it was a movie scene. Maybe I couldn’t fully connect to either of them, but we were having these intense experiences with each other. Maybe that’s why.

Paste: On “Herem,” there’s a number of Greek names interspersed throughout. How did those come to be and what role do they serve?

Hadreas: I like to do a lot of weird Wikipedia research-y stuff when I’m writing lyrics, and one of the things I kept reading about was Sparagmos, which is when these women would rip apart a bull during a bacchanal—a Greek orgy. And they did it so often that they have a whole name for that activity. I thought about that image a lot [because] I’m half-Greek, and I thought a lot about opera and formal theatery dance stuff when I was writing the music and thinking about the theaters we were performing in. So that’s how the Greek stuff got there. Also, I thought of the second song [on the album] as sort of an introduction to all the people in the world, and so saying the names was like me envisioning this utopian place and introducing all the people that live there with me and a little bit about what they’re doing. It’s not super literal, but that’s how I was thinking about it—like introducing the dancers, but in an energetic way.

Paste: To wrap this up, since this album is comprised of music that was written for and initially heard as part of a dance show, if you could take any of your earlier albums and create a dance show out of it, which would you choose?

Hadreas: I think the third one, Too Bright. That was such a shift for me in the way I thought about music and performance. And there’s almost like a little pinhole from the old way I used to work and write and think about a lot of things beyond just performance into a newer way. If anything, I feel like I’m regressing and craving going back to how I used to write and think about things, which I guess is probably a normal thing for old people to do. [Laughs] Also, that album has a very physical feel—I can remember how it felt. The fourth album [No Shape] was a lot more about dreams and ideas, and it wasn’t so much [about] feeling. I mean, it was emotional, but I guess Too Bright was a little more physical. So I think there’d be a good arc there.

Paste: It’s kind of where the physicality of the project really formed.

Hadreas: And negotiating with it a lot, because even during that tour, I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wanted to move, because before I was just sitting behind the piano the whole show and singing. And with that tour, I just had a microphone. I didn’t know where to go onstage. I didn’t know what to do. It took a while for me to figure it out—which is choreography. I was choreographing.

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Ugly Season is out on June 17 on Matador Records.


Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Little White Lies and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.