PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL MPAGI SEPUYA
Michael Alden Hadreas has been writing, producing, and performing music under his nom de plume Perfume Genius since his debut album, Learning, was released in 2010. Since then he has released four more albums, with the most recent coming out mere days before the world shut down in February 2020. His newest album, titled Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is a haunting creation filled with beautiful melodies and, in the words of Pitchfork writer Madison Bloom, “grimy, guttural dissonance” (the publication gave it a rare 9.0 score). Other reviews piled on similar praise.
I chatted with Hadreas from the Los Angeles home he shares with his boyfriend of 12 years, who’s also a frequent collaborator, Alan Wyffels. In 2020, not only were Hadreas’ tour plans derailed but he also fell prey to a “really bad Crohn’s flare up.” This thrust the musician into a dark place that he has since been working his way out of. I found Hadreas to be open, intelligent, and witty. It was a pleasure getting to know him.
Where are you now based and where were you last year during the pandemic? Me and my partner, Alan, we moved to Los Angeles from Seattle three years ago. It feels more recent than that, but I guess it was three years ago. So that’s where we were when the pandemic started and we moved in the middle of it, just because our house was cave-like and pretty dark. I liked our neighborhood, but we were not in the neighborhood, we were in our house. So we moved to a different place in L.A. that has more outdoor space. It’s brighter and just a better place to camp out.
What do you like and dislike most about L.A.? I like how L.A.-y L.A. is. I like all of the salads and the wellnessy potions, but then I don’t like the flip side of that fakery sometimes, you know? I like buying into it enough to feel like I’m really vital. One day I took like three different wellness shots. I’d been feeling sad, but also taking them, that feels really empty and bullshit too. I like those two things living alongside each other. I liked L.A. after I visited enough to realize that it was actually really weird and haunted and creepy.
Do you find that you’re as creative in L.A. as you were in Seattle? The thing I miss about Seattle is that I had a house and I had a very isolated place to work where I didn’t share walls with anybody and I could really wild out and nobody could hear me. I don’t feel like I can [do that] here — it’s just so bright that even if no one’s around, I feel like I could be seen because it’s bright. It’s harder for me to let go, but I feel more collaborative here. I feel like I’ve been working on things with people more, you know?
Would you consider yourself an introvert? Yeah, but I’ve almost made a career out of pretending like I’m not. Socially, some people would think I’m very extroverted. I think I’m riding the line. I think I’m kind of in the middle. I get energy being alone. I need people and I love being drained.
What amount of time was taken up by touring for you before pandemic? The routine of my life has been that I make a record, make all the arts surrounding it like the videos, and then I tour for a year and a half. Then I make another one and then I tour for a year and a half, it’s this cycle, you know? So that was just completely taken away this last year. I mean the whole year was upsetting.
SKIRT BY THOM BROWNE.
Did you take the opportunity to create more music? My health wasn’t good. I had a really bad Crohn’s flare up. I haven’t really talked about this. I just had a bad Crohn’s flare up and it was the most sick I’ve been in my adult life. And that was hard to navigate when I couldn’t go to the doctor. It was really difficult. And then it paralleled my mental health, I just felt like I hit a bottom, um, very deeply and in a way that I wasn’t able to before, because I needed to maintain, you know? I mean, I’ve been sick on tour and I just played the shows anyways. I could be overwhelmed or tired and I just did things anyway because I had something important in front of me that I needed to do. But it was easy when I was just alone to spiral. Maybe I could have found some self-care routine, that I could have meditated, but I didn’t. In a way I feel like I’m still crawling out of the hole that I was in.
Health conditions can obviously affect your mental health. There’s a level of work you have to do on two levels. You’re taking care of your body, but then also taking care of your mind. I didn’t really realize how much those things are connected — some of the years that I thought I was really depressed. Back when I was pretty sick, it was just hard to be happy when I felt the way did, you know? Then around when I did this dance performance, I started to feel really physically in charge and connected to my body in a way that I hadn’t been before. Along with that came a lot of really spiritually freeing feelings. I didn’t realize that being healthy and feeling good in my body made more room in me for being happier and more content. That’s why it was so crushing when it went away, especially because I felt like I was really taking care of myself and really trying to align myself with health and then just to have your body just get sick anyway, I was really angry.
What is your relationship like with your fans, for lack of a better term — the people who connect with your music? I love them. The core group, the most vocal group, is very deranged and wild and really funny and smart. I don’t know how much other musicians interact. I know some of them really respond to everybody. That’s cool. I used to respond a lot more when I first started and I’d read all the messages. But it just became more overwhelming. Overwhelmingly good.
Does it feed into your ego too much to only hear praise and adulation? No. I prefer that. I even tell the people that I work with, I do not want to be judged. I don’t want to be scolded. I don’t like it. I’m very self-conscious and there’s room for that later, but at least in the beginning stages when I’m making things, everything needs to be all praise and positive. We all love each other. We’re making something amazing. Then when it’s like 75% done, then we can bring math and criticism and stuff into it. But you need that 75% first.
I mean, you have overwhelmingly positive reviews, especially for the last album it was really critically adored, so that must work out well then for you. Well, I have read some negative reviews that have been illuminating to me. I don’t mind if I feel like they got it, but they still don’t like it. But if I feel like it’s really superficial, like “He’s ugly” or “I hate it,” that upsets me. But if they really tried to get into it and they couldn’t, then criticism actually is helpful because it shows me where I was trying to connect and didn’t. But that criticism has to be come way after the fact. None of that can be even close at the beginning of making things. My boyfriend’s very different. He approaches everything like What is the problem? What could go wrong here? That’s how he builds creative energies. And I’m more of a hippie. All the people I work with don’t really work the way that I do. They’re almost opposite, but that’s how the finished project ends up good I think. I care about the process sometimes more than the result. I want the process to feel good. I need people around me to be like, no, let’s really hone in and focus on the details. And they need my more free way of doing things to help them relax. So when those two things harmonize, I think the song is better and we each couldn’t have done it on our own.
Have you ever written for other people? Do you think you could ever do that? If Lady Gaga asks you to write a song. I’ve written songs before that I liked, but they didn’t feel like my songs, but maybe somebody could sing it and it would become theirs. I’ve written like 30 Sade songs, which I know if I sing it, it’s just going to sound like me doing a Sade song. But if I give it to somebody else, maybe they could hold it better.
Or just give them to Sade? Can you imagine.
Are there any artists that you would like to work with? I would like to write a song for Adele. There’s a lot of directors I want to work with, like Dave Lynch for sure. I feel like moving here to L.A. makes me feel more open to trying new things, you know, not just working in the same way I’ve been working for years.
Are you uncomfortable around celebrity and fame or do you move easily in those worlds? If I met Rihanna I would be really nervous. I’ve been in situations where I felt really out of place where everybody’s super fancy and I feel like a little gremlin, but it just doesn’t phase me anymore cause everybody’s stupid. Like truly everybody is fucking stupid, including me.
With age you start to realize everybody is just making it up as they go along. Music used to feel like this magical otherworldly thing to me, but then making music and playing shows myself it removed the magic of both of those things. Not in a bad way, but a little bit. So when I saw Adele and she came out onto the stage from underground, I know she probably had to walk through some weird ass tunnel with a bunch of buckets and dirty rags around. I still love it when she did it, but I knew that there were some dirty rags under there.
Yeah, totally. I’m more amused by celebrity and fame and the whole process of it now than anything, because once you do see the work that people have to put into any kind of career like that, 99% of it isn’t any glamour. It is just like hard work, and hopefully talent. That’s why I don’t want to meet Rihanna. I know that I would love her as a person. I know that she’s in a lot of ways, just like a regular nice person, but I don’t have that. I still think of Rihanna as a mythology and I still buy into the mythology of it. And I’m really rewarded by it.
I feel the same way a little bit about, I feel more that way about Beyoncé because I think she is so self-mythologized. Well, Beyoncé is not even in the picture for me. Like she’s beyond, you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s even possible to meet her or be in the same room.
It would be intimidating to do a songwriting session with Beyoncé. I can’t even fathom that, like that doesn’t, I’m sure that that happens. Like people write songs for Beyonce, but I can’t even imagine it.
We’ve interviewed Frank Ocean and he’s written for Beyoncé, but he carries himself in such a way that like, I think Beyoncé is probably even a little intimidated by him. He carries himself in a very empowered way. I like that!
Have you had any unexpected fans of your music that you know, who are well-known musicians? Yeah. I’ve kind of had new interactions or had messages or met people that like I grew up really admiring and were idols of mine and loving, and then never imagining that I would ever meet them or anything. So that’s pretty surreal, you know?
Where are you happiest? I like being at home at like 10:00 PM and everybody’s asleep.
MICHAEL AND PAUL BOTH WEAR SKIRTS BY THOM BROWNE.
Grooming for Perfume Genius by Phoebe Seligman.