Perfume Genius on Video Games, Social Media, and Returning to the Stage in the Pandemic Age

Perfume Genius on Video Games, Social Media, and Returning to the Stage in the Pandemic Age
Mike Hadreas courtesy of Camille Vivier

As the pandemic stretches on with no conceivable end in sight, artists are finding ways to perform for fans in a way that doesn’t involve associating oneself with Kevin Spacey-affiliated tech companies or just basically trying to get a bunch of people killed. Phoebe Bridgers played Red Rocks recently, and Perfume Genius mastermind Mike Hadreas is returning to the stage tomorrow afternoon for a full-band performance at Los Angeles’ Palace Theater.

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The performance is sure to feature plenty of material from his latest album, this year’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately—a companion book of which, Immediately, is also set for release for this winter and will be loaded with photography taken by noted lenser Camille Vivier. “Me and Camille made a whole world. She took a lot of pictures of things in the world—not just me with my shirt off, which was 75% of it,” he laughs while talking over the phone from his Los Angeles abode. “It’s almost like pieces of lore in a video game. It felt like a nice way to memorialize all of it, and to share more parts of it.”

I’ve been an early champion of Hadreas’ music as Perfume Genius since his incredible 2010 debut Learning, and it’s been a joy to watch him evolve as an artist over the last decade. I’ve interviewed him frequently over the years too, and he’s someone that I always enjoy having a good conversation with. Talking to him (gestures in the air) in these times was nourishing for me, in that it just feels really good to talk to people these days. Who are we without interpersonal connection?

Tell me about how this performance came about.

There’s a lot going into it, which feels weird to conjure up the energy for “a lot” right now. But me and the band have been rehearsing off and on for a couple of months now. It’s definitely the most rehearsals I’ve ever done. We’ll be able to utilize all of this later for something similar, or a tour, if it ever happens again. But the whole thing is strange—getting tested multiple times, being in a room with other people again. But it’s all in parallel with how much I miss singing, dancing, and being around with people. It’s pretty miraculous.

This is my fifth record, so I can play all the hits—or, my version of that. [Laughs] It’s pretty fun to be able to pick all the songs we enjoy playing and that we know people are going to like. I can still pick a few that I enjoy more than everyone else—at least, that’s my idea of them. There’s enough before and after that to lift.

How do you see your evolution as a live performer?

It’s been deliberate the whole way. Each tour I’ve thought about where I want to be that’s terrifying to me. In the beginning, it was just standing up. [Laughs] The second tour, it was, “What if I were just singing and holding a microphone?” Then I added some tentative movements, and over the years I kept adding things that I wanted to try but was afraid to. Do I scream? Do I like flailing around and writhing? It turns out I do, but I also like just sitting there and singing too.

It’s not like the anxiety that kept me from even looking up in the beginning has gone away, but it’s in parallel now. And that’s what I still feel strange about sometimes: how I phase in and out of all that. I’ll be dancing, and I’ll slam into something, and I’ll be taken out of it for a second and feel very self-conscious. And then I’ll go back.

I’ve been talking to artists a lot about what they miss about touring and live performance, but I’d like to hear about something you don’t like.

At festivals, sometimes I’m thrown up there and there’s not a lot of context. It’s daylight, you can’t really hear yourself. Sometimes I feel like I’m such a hippie about everything that it’s harder to conjure, magically, what needs to be conjured. But if the theater’s beautiful, and there’s a hush, and I can hear myself really well, I’m able to play within it, and then I can add or subtract to it.

I don’t want to talk shit about festivals, because that’s how you make your money [Laughs]—but they’re demoralizing sometimes, and they really magnify that thing where a bunch of people are watching me do this thing for an hour. Sometimes I forget about that, especially when it feels magical and creative. But when it feels clinical, it can be really weird for your ego. Not just because I’m wondering whether people like it or not, but because I don’t know whether I’ve done what I’m trying to do.

What have the safety precautions been like for this performance on Saturday?

We have this core group—me and the band—and everything else is calling people and planning things out that are going to physically happen, but only when they absolutely need to. We’re trying to iron out whatever needs to be ironed out before we get there so everyone can set up and stay away from each other, essentially. It’s a weird thing to navigate on top of just trying to do it as if [the pandemic] is not happening. But no one’s going to be there, and that already feels weird. But if I could use that to heighten everything, I’m gonna do that too.

Doesn’t it just feel awful to talk about this stuff sometimes?

Yeah. I have a very different opinion on it from my boyfriend even. We’ve all read different things and we all have different ideas about what’s acceptable, and what’s not. There’s just facts and things that are true, but there’s ways to interpret things that are different. The whole thing is strange. I don’t know. I haven’t been dealing with it well, to be honest.

Now that we’re deep in the pandemic, I’ve started thinking about the moment in which I realized everything was changing forever. Memory is getting so wild that I’m having trouble locating even that these days. Do you remember that moment for you?

I feel like there’s a whole arc to that—multiple ingredients. I mean, I put a record out. [Laughs] That feels so long ago, but it wasn’t. In the beginning, I was almost apocalyptic about it. I bought plastic sheeting, in case we needed to tape up the windows. I ended up using it for something else, and we have enough if we still need it for some other global event. I bought straws for drinking your own piss. [Laughs] I got two of them. I got a knife. [Laughs] All three of those things were not helpful, really.

I was really quarantining hard. I was really hyper vigilant, which is strange because I’m out in the world now. But it’s worse now than it was! Back when I was really intense about it. Not that I regret that, but the way I think about it, I was pretty freaked out. Also, I’m on medications where it wouldn’t be great if I got corona. The longer I was holed up, the more nuts I went. My brain doesn’t really do well if it’s on its own. It’s really made a difference to be with the band, talking to people, singing. It feels worth it, even if it’s riskier than taping up my windows. [Laughs]

Have you established any routines to attempt a sense of normalcy?

I wish. If anything, that’s all I’m thinking about—all the stuff I’ve been doing to not feel like this. Instead, I’m playing video games and eating. Which are both good things, but I feel very compulsive and avoidant right now. It makes me feel better, but it lets everything else snowball too. I’ve been trying this weird therapy meditation-y dance in the mornings where it’s just me rolling around really slow. It makes me feel more present in my body and it stops the spiral in my head in a real way—not like a treat does. [Laughs] I appreciate and respect treats, but sometimes I just have to stop my loop for a second. So it’s been three days that I’ve been doing that. [Laughs]

I don’t know. It’s hard. You think, “I can get all this energy up to feel better,” but for what? To just sit here? I was talking to my therapist about it, and he said that for some people, feeling better is the motivation. That’s the reward. I was like, “Why doesn’t that feel like a treat to me?”

What video games have you been playing?

I played this Skyrim Overhaul mod that was a 150-hour campaign, and it was better to me than Skyrim. I was really into that. The story was better, there was romance, it was more soulful. But maybe I’d just played a lot of Skyrim. That’s the best game I’ve played, or at least the one I gave a lot of my time to. There’s some I don’t want to mention. [Laughs]

I put in 130 hours on Borderlands 3 since June. Last week I finally stopped because I realized, “Oh, I’m doing this because I’m depressed.” I’ve been playing Spider-Man right now, which is very pure and nourishing.

It has a good flow to it. I don’t know why I couldn’t get into Spider-Man. The movement and the fighting felt very free. I tried playing Borderlands because I want that loot. I love dungeons, and grinding. That does that thing for my brain, especially if I’m depressed. It gives me something. I can tell that I’m using it as something to take the place of something that might actually feel better. I could enjoy playing video games for 15 hours a day if there’s this other ingredient that I’m avoiding.

I feel like a lot of people who, pre-pandemic, were like “Video games are a waste of time” are now like, “Okay, well, now it’s time to play some video games.”

I try to convert my boyfriend and show him things that are really beautiful and emotional. He thinks they’re all like Super Mario Bros.—just puzzles and jumping. I’m like, “Look at this creek! This bubbling brook!” There have been some games that have just made me weep. I was weeping at the end of the Skyrim mod.

What’s your perspective on social media these days?

I do like to post. I get a thrill out of posting something viciously dumb—something that’s almost embarrassing for me? I get off on it. So many people follow me now that I’ll post something where I’ll be like, “That’s so cringe-y.” Maybe it’s sadistic, or masochistic. I don’t know which one it is. [Laughs]

With this record, I really wanted to have a lot of beautiful things to share—not that I’d ever stop posting about rat arthritis, but I’m really proud of the videos and the record. But sometimes it’s hard for me to balance those things. I’ll post something promotional, and then I’ll be like, “What’s something really stupid I’m thinking about?” And I’ll double down.

You seem to have this almost feral stan-dom in your mentions. How does that feel?

I love “Mom and dad, adopt me,” or the more violent ones. I love all of that stuff. Sometimes, I feel like they’re doing it to me in a half-joking way, and I still love that. But the thing about that is you meet those young fans in real life, and they act like they hate you. Didn’t you just tweet at me that you wanted me to adopt you? Why are you acting that you hate me? But I’m kind of into that too.

Have you been reading at all in quarantine? I say “at all” because I’ve managed to only read one book, the new Ottessa Moshfegh.

What is that one?

Death in Her Hands.

I’ve only read Eileen, which I hated, and loved. I was like, “I hate this book,” but I was really into hating it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

That’s why I love her. She’s like Todd Solondz to me—she provokes different reactions in people. I’m drawn to that kind of art.

Me too. I could watch one of his movies twice in two different weeks and have completely different experiences. I haven’t really been reading though. I was reading this strange Russian fantasy book Vita Nostra, but I fell off of it.

Your debut album Learning came out a decade ago. How have you changed since?

I only think about that when I decide to, or when I’m asked—or when I’m trying to be grateful to make myself feel better. [Laughs] But I need to be doing that all the time instead of freaking out. This last record, when I was writing it—I’m not surprised when I write a song anymore, but I’m surprised that I can write better songs than when I started.

I’ve been practicing, I guess, but it’s still always really surprising that I can do it, and in a way that I can feel proud of. There’s a lot of pressure from record to record to try to make something better than the one before. I keep feeling like I did that. Not in every single way, but in enough ways that make me feel really proud. I’m sure there’s more things I could be proud of, but I’m really proud of that.

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Jamie Larson