Perfume Genius on “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Perfume Genius on “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”

Your Body Changes Everything

Mar 05, 2021 Issue #67 - Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney Photography by Koury Angelo (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

In his self-directed music video for “Describe,” the lead single taken off his fifth studio album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) invites audiences into a uniquely personal vision of the end-times, where an isolated commune goes about their dust-encrusted existence as a singular, choregraphed entity—dancing, living, fighting, seducing, and comforting one another without care or consequence. Soundtracking it all of course is the song itself, a work of slow burning, grisly guitar distortion and lyrics of longing that eventually dissipate in a swirl of whispers and balming synths.

“Mike had such a strong vision for the video and it was so amazing to see it come out so close to that vision,” says Alan Wyffels, Hadreas’ longtime romantic partner and musical collaborator. “It was just uncanny to me because I remember that video when it was just a seed of an idea and I got to see it go from a treatment and mood boards to this final product when Mike kind of just took control of everything. To me that video is the most Mike thing he’s ever made. It really is. It’s so him in every way.”

Across the span of his 11 years writing and recording under his Perfume Genius guise, Hadreas has developed an increasing appreciation and flare for the visual accompaniment of his music. Before “Describe,” taking even a brief review of his archive of music videos is a journey into an intensifying use of color palettes, costuming, makeup, and choreography. His live performances onstage have become just as visually captivating, with Hadreas’ sinewy frame becoming less and less like a man with a microphone and more like a vessel of undulating movement and catharsis.

This progression in visualization, performance, and physicality reached a true turning point however, when Hadreas was approached by Seattle-based artistic director and choreographer Kate Wallich to collaborate together. Their resulting 2019 production, The Sun Still Burns Here, featured Wallich’s dance company The YC, performing alongside new original music by Hadreas and Wyffels. Not content to simply compose the music, Hadreas additionally co-directed with Wallich, and performed onstage as both dancer and musician (Wallich and her company all feature in Hadreas’ “Describe” video).

“[Wallich] just saw that I was in my body in a way that felt like there was somewhere to go with it,” says Hadreas. “And I felt like there was somewhere to go with it musically. We wanted it to be a harmony. I wanted to write music and be in the dance. I didn’t want them to be separate. I didn’t want to play with my band and then have dancers on the other side of the stage dancing. We wanted to find some way to break it all. That was how the initial conversation started. How do we do that? How do we marry those ideas?”

Developing and working on The Sun Still Burns Here had an undeniable impact on Hadreas. “It was strange,” he says. “There were times where I was holding people and dancing with them and I had never spoken to them, and they were also dancing to music that no one else had heard. [The demos] were just things that I had made in my room, and suddenly, they’re all inside of it. And then watching them move to the songs, when I went to go finish them, I had them in mind. I’ve always written visually, but not with specific people or a specific place in mind.”

Even Wyffels, whose own joint role as musician and dancer for the production managed to fulfill an abandoned childhood aspiration, witnessed an incredible transformation in Hadreas. “I think there’s something about dance or movement in general, that the physicality of it unlocks something in you,” he confesses. “I don’t know. Especially with Mike, I feel like it fundamentally changed him as a person. I feel like he is a different person after doing that, in a way that nothing else has changed him in my experience with him in the last 10 years. It was really profound.”

Wyffels adds that a certain kind of mental and physical harmony took place for Hadreas, who has long suffered from the effects of Crohn’s disease. “Throughout every [Perfume Genius] record, the body has been a big topic,” says Wyffels. “And I think Mike didn’t really trust his body or have a good relationship with his body before because of this illness he’s had to deal with his whole life. Mike never really exercised. I mean he would dance on stage every night but he’d never been somebody that has been into fitness. The dance really grounded him in his body in a way that I don’t think he’s ever experienced before and he really changed his relationship with his body. I think he felt he had control over it for the first time in his life. And that also just changed him in a lot of ways, and it had an effect on the music as well.”

In the midst of working on The Sun Still Burns Here Hadreas invariably turned his attention back to Perfume Genius, and the influence of the stage production slid itself into the new songs. Whereas Perfume Genius’ previous album, 2017’s No Shape, with its standout tracks “Otherside” and “Slip Away,” felt like a Big Bang of emotional liberation, Hadreas’ new collection of songs feels like galaxies actually spiraling into existence. Throughout the new album Hadreas navigates through the songs like movements of a ballet, his signature vocal quiver and emotional fragility hanging over everything from longing orchestral strings (“Whole Life”), cascading plucked harp (“Leave”), and dance funk synthesizers (“On the Floor”) to catalog just a few of the leaps in his aesthetic multiverse. “There’s no shortage of feelings with me,” he admits. “I have no shortage of things I have a hard time articulating, that I’m going through, and I feel like with the last record I said that. I feel like with this record I created little mini worlds and containers for those feelings to be more physical and more like something you could hold or look at.”

While the songs themselves exemplified an immense state of change for Hadreas, how they were made drove the point home even further. Even just a short time ago, Hadreas believed that everything he ever created could only be done so in a vacuum. “It’s always been a very isolated thing for him,” says Wyffels. “He would really hermit up and have this really intense isolation where he’d write music.” His work on The Sun Still Burns Here and the real-time collaborative back-and-forth that had to be utilized for the show carried over into the process of making Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. “It just felt really satisfying to me to come from a very physical place with the way I was thinking about preparing music,” says Hadreas. “Music is a feeling and an abstract idea but I made it more real. I made it about something. I wanted the music to have performance in it and I wanted the recording to feel like a performance. I wanted you to be able to hear the room, like there was a specific thing, a specific moment, in a more organic way, I guess. In the records before this, especially with No Shape, there were a lot more of layers, and this record was more or less the same group of musicians in the same room trying to, within this live performance of the song, capture as much as we could without putting things on after the fact. I mean, I wasn’t super sacred to the idea. I’m willing to go wherever the song needs it to go, but that felt like the right place to start.”

Ultimately Hadreas hopes listeners of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately find some satisfaction in the album’s sense of movement, in its restless traversal of emotions, because from his point of view, such restlessness is reflective of real life. It gets loud and quiet and happy and sad and frustrating and fulfilling and it can be difficult to process what to do with it or what to make of it. But there’s a breadth to it that can’t be denied, and that means everything to Hadreas. “I think my life has just gotten more full, and what I want from my life has changed because of it. I want that fullness to stay.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 67 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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