With the onset of the pandemic, the performance The Sun Still Burns Here, created by Perfume Genius and Kate Wallich, had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, in March 2022 he was releasing the second single from his previous record Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. The song, On the Floor, one of his best yet, came with an impressive music video in which Mike Hadreas could be seen dancing beautifully to the song's fantastic melody. From then onwards, even if we tried to keep dancing along with him, our world got very dark and his latest project, Ugly Season, got stuck in time. But time is wise and works in mysterious ways; now he’s relaunched this multidisciplinary art piece with some of the best music he’s ever made.
The new album, Ugly Season, was written as an accompaniment to the immersive dance piece created by Perfume Genius and choreographer Kate Wallich, The Sun Still Burns Here. The work was commissioned by Seattle Theatre Group and Mass MoCA and was performed through residencies in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York and Boston throughout 2019. Three years later we get to listen to the album that Perfume Genius produced alongside Grammy award-winning producer and long-time collaborator Blake Mills, and created in collaboration with Alan Wyffels, Hadreas' long-time partner.
The record starts with Just a room, a taste of what it’s to come, Mike’s voice makes beautiful utterances alongside a profound orchestration, marking the beginning of this journey, a score of things to come. This is a trip full of emotions in which Perfume Genius invites us to travel through brief hymns. The songs, despite being designed for the dance part of this project, are exquisite and capture the emotion of his singular style. It’s important to highlight the instrumental side of the album; they are not interludes. Especially Scherzo that maintains tautness and spills into Ugly Season (the track) with slippery, greasy lyrics, leaving room for the ambivalence of sensuality, divinity, and grotesque. Eye in the Wall brings warmth to this album and its percussion is a brilliant exercise in meter to maintain the suspense of a track.

Pop Song and Photograph are probably the two songs closest to the Perfume Genius work we’re more familiar with. They still have this halo of innovation that is experimental even for him. The ravey Hellbent sounds like a ritual in itself, there’s a trance-like experience almost like a climax that gives way to the outro of the record; Cenote. It’s the perfect song to listen to as if it were meditation at the end of a gym class but you should listen to it with headphones and holding hands with someone you love.

And there is more. As the dance piece couldn’t be performed during the pandemic, Hadreas offered the now-completed recordings up to Jacolby Satterwhite, known for his immersive multidisciplinary technique that fuses live video and 3-D animation.

“My visual narrative serendipitously mirrors the lyrical direction in his music; it’s a rare, like-minded bond. It’s a creation myth. How do you architecturally mould and render an idealised version of utopia? It’s about making something that you desire so beyond your scope that it’s hard to grapple into a concrete form.” explains Satterwhite.

Pygmalion’s Ugly Season is the result, and it is a Pixar-esque dystopian gay graphic adventure where black and white vintage holograms dance and merge into the projection of both artists’ visual imaginary. There are beautiful moments in which the artist dancing alongside Tate Justas takes Tom Galle’s VR Hug famous photography to a new level. The piece goes beyond the typical datamoshing and glitching our eyes are already accustomed to. The music blends entrancingly with the whole video, and what really ties both sides of the project together is the dancing. The work of the team of people involved in this extra sensorial project elevates it to museum display status.
Beyond its complexity, Ugly Season is a record about connection, and it succeeds when you listen to it. This album is taking the risk of being free and encapsulates some of the best work Perfume Genius has ever done. That sets the bar quite high, but also shows in a new way his immense ability to make art that touches the soul, that caresses the heart.

Somehow, the music of Perfume Genius is so unique that it is difficult to find references to locate it. And there’s no need to. But we could probably say that it’s like the lovechild of George Michael and Björk, when it comes to his creative realm, advanced for its time, revolutionary in the sense of his queernes. For many of us this is vital, as we’ve found a mirror in which to visualise that there is a way to create beautiful things when you are different, it is possible to belonging in our culture.

This is one step further on his game, a transmedia experience with dance as its axis. “I also just use dance as self-care and nourishment”, as he puts it. It’s deep, but the timing makes it make sense; we’ve been living through an ugly season lately in many mundane ways, and this seems to be the soundtrack to dance to and welcome something that lies at the core of this album: now is the time of the season for loving. We spoke to the artist himself about this new chapter and more.
Hello Mike, how are you? You have been performing these past few days in Australia. How does it feel to be back taking your live music worldwide? It was one the biggest struggles for musicians and bands during the pandemic, but after all now it seems like we’re back on track. Was it exciting to play live again in front of a crowd now that normality seems to be back? Did you feel safe?
Performing feels more vital than ever. I didn't know how much I needed it as an outlet until it was taken away. A lot has happened over the last couple of years, there is a lot to process. I am not very good at processing in my daily life. I know it is pretentious but making music and performing is how I get everything out that would be trapped otherwise. Touring post-pandemic feels a little unhinged and dystopian but it makes it more fun and charged energetically sometimes. We're just so happy to be there, even though everything is on fire.
Your music seems to have evolved as you have introduced more and more dancing to your performance. When both things are key to represent your work, how do you normally work? What comes first, music or dancing?
Writing a song is very physical, it is about conjuring a feeling to me. Conjuring a feeling and then building a world around it, giving it a story. I think it is best to bring the ideas and all the brain stuff later, after you find out what you need physically.
Ugly Season is a very particular project. Firstly, it’s the score for a contemporary dance piece titled The Sun Still Burns Here that was performed back in 2019 in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York and Boston, and it was choreographed along with Kate Wallich. After the pandemic hit, you decided to work with Jacolby Satterwhite for the visual side. Are you happy with the result of the album and the video? Do you think this may affect, positively, the way you approach the creation and songwriting of your next musical projects? It seems like the whole process reinforced the project and made it grow into something even more special.
The record was actually written and recorded by the time we did the performances of The Sun Still Burns Here. We performed Ugly Season in full at the cities you mentioned. It was a really inspiring and formative time, just before lockdown.
Working with Jacolby initially sprung from a mutual admiration that turned into some back-and-forth conversations during the height of covid. We are kindred spirits in a lot of ways. I loved that so much of his work had to do with the body, with memory and family, with projected utopias and looking to the future, with seriousness and camp in equal measure. All of these seemingly competing ideas living harmoniously. It felt like my experience of being alive. I wanted to work with him because of that connection and how deeply felt it was, like the origin of the music on Ugly Season.
Pop Song is unbelievably beautiful, and even if we had the chance to listen to it first three years ago, it now feels like a song that is hiding something more that only the live show and consequent visuals may reflect to contextualise within the album. It kind of sits along with some of the songs from No Shape (2017). Can you tell us a bit about how this song came about and how did it end up taking part on both The Sun Still Burns Here and Ugly Season?
I knew I wanted a pop song to anchor the record. Kate and I made a sort of energetic map for the dance performance, with a section in the middle that we thought of as a more accessible and formal performance moment. It is the most quote unquote choreographed part of the dance for me, there had been more improvisation physically up until that point. It is also when all the bodies come together for the first time and relationships are formed. I knew that going into writing. I wanted it to have a pop structure but still have elements sonically and energetically from what happened before and the spirit of what was to come.
Have you found something in contemporary dance that you didn’t find before in music, in terms of both expression and artistic freedom, but also personally?
A way to communicate. I am always trying to find a way to say something. I rarely ever get it right. All of my songs are attempts. I don't think you can ever really get your entire point across with one method. There is too much going on. I realised while dancing that I had a lot to say that wasn't language. It really rocked me. I'm dedicated to researching that now and it has become a more intentional and important part of my work. I also just use dance as self-care and nourishment. I'm so used to doing creative things now that are eventually packaged and shared, it’s nice to do something that is just for me.
This record was in the making as you were releasing the remarkable Set My Heart On Fire Immediately in 2020, the strangest year for performing and promoting a record. It is definitely one of your best albums and the videos of some of the songs (Describe and On The Floor) seem to have been inspired by the Ugly Season progression development. Was the fact that you were immersed in this project what influenced the contemporary dancing in these two videos?
The Describe video stars all the dancers from the dance piece. It is sort of my utopian vision for us, a ranch where fantasy and reality can blend. It was like a quilt of all my experiences and desires and influences while creating and performing the dance piece. I also just became sort of obsessed with exercise and pushing myself physically. On the Floor the video I did with my friend Tate was sort of an extension of all of those things. Using everything I had learnt and collaborating on something new.
Another one of the tracks we’ve already heard, Eye in the Wall, sounds like a tribal-western piece that is evolving for 9 minutes in a kind of meditative way. What is the story behind this song?
It was created after a long improvisation between Blake Mills, Alan Wyffels and me. There was no consistent structure to it after the jam session. It was a really difficult song to finish, I spent a lot of hours trying to put a verse and chorus over a bed of music that was constantly shifting with no rhyme or reason. I found the vibe and the melody in the end. I imagined a sort of peep show in space, like a sex club on a giant ship. Kind of Cronenbergian too with like black vinyl gloves and surgical sex.
For the rest of the album, for those haven’t had the chance to see The Sun Still Burns Here, what can people expect? What are the songs you’re most proud of in Ugly Season?
I almost tackled Matt Chamberlain when he recorded the drums on Hellbent. That song makes me insanely hyped up. The actual performance of it was really demanding and I routinely had bruises all over and felt like I was going to pass out. I looked forward to it every night.
“It’s about making something that you desire so beyond your scope that it’s hard to grapple into a concrete form” mentioned Jacolby Satterwhite about this collaboration. How was the experience of working together for an experimental film? Have you thought about the possibility of combining the three states of this project (the dance piece, he album and the short film) together for a show or another type of performance or artistic piece? And will your past work have room in the upcoming tours?
I was really inspired by the idea that pieces of this work could live in so many different places. A gallery wall, a theatre stage and a record player. With more avenues to come hopefully. I think it will inform how I approach my next record and all the content surrounding it, maybe making another longer form video or letting my more experimental leanings leak into my pop records. I'd love to work with everyone again in every incarnation.
You perform and work artistically with your partner, Alan. You must have got this question so many times and I apologise in advanced, but I wonder how do you two manage both work and personal life together, and if the pandemic affected you somehow in the way you relate to each other.
We have been together for 13 years. We have played every single show together, been together in the studio for every record. He is an integral part of the process and has begun to do more of his own writing on the songs as well. He also performed and did choreo in the dance piece. Working and living together can be difficult but we love each other and essentially, we just laugh all the time, which I think is the secret.
Lately, and fortunately, there are more and more gay and queer young musicians presenting themselves freely, and that not only reinforces the importance of identity for both the artist and their fans, but it also seems to be the proof that referential figures and all the work they’ve done before is key for the quote unquote freedom they perform with and act according to their queerness. For decades, people like George Michel, Freddy Mercury, Elton John or Michael Stapes were some of the legendary artists that following generations had to look up to. Now, singers like Years & Years, serpentwithfeet or Jonsi -but also writers such as Ocean Voung- look up to John Grant, Owen Pallet and you. How do you feel being a reference that has opened door for so many new musicians?
It is a real honour, I still hold all the music I listened to as a teenager so close to me. Those records got me through a lot, sometimes they were all I had in some ways. I kind of write for that teenage part of me, try to flesh out as much of my experience as possible to be a comfort and a companion. I'm glad to bring anyone with me and it is really heartwarming. I don't think about it a lot though, it is almost too much.
Hood, Slip Away, Queen, Die 4 U or Wreath are some of the songs that have influenced us in such a positive way not only because of their impressive quality but also due to the narrative many of us needed to grow up with feeling more joy and inclusivity. You’ve been releasing music since 2010. Now, when you look back, how do you feel about all your achievements?
I don't look back very often but I am very proud. I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to.
Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to dedicate your work towards music and dance? And how was the process from there to your first release?
After I made my first song and created a video for it I never stopped. It was very simple at first. It has become more complicated and involved, but the ingredients are still really elemental and spiritually the same. I am dedicated to finding more, growing, learning new ways to get where I want to and finding paths that can bring others along. It has also been scary and overwhelming, but it’s the first healthy thing I've ever done where my dedication and passion overrides my fear.
We got to see a cheeky and super fun character that you play in both the comeback video and new song of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ Spitting Off the Edge of the World. How did this collaboration come about?
The legend Karen O reached out to me. A dream come true, I’ve been a massive fan for years.
“I’m furious because he won’t take a picture of us sharing a kiss every day to fight homophobia and normalise same sex love.” This is the title of one of the newsletters you launched during the pandemic, one of the most hilarious, crazy fun things that seemed to be a commentary on some of the most gay-normative narratives that are always a matter of discussion (fight) on Twitter. How do you see LGTBQ+ issues developing in the USA, and how does the G articulate from within in that context, in your opinion?
Honestly the G needs to shut up sometimes. We need to get in the backseat and prop up and support the other letters in the front.
You have been very outspoken about some of your personal struggles and health issues. The pandemic hit most of our mental healths hard, but it was also a challenging time to approach life in a different kind of calmer way. How was it for you?
It was not a good time for me. I got physically really sick which sort of spiralled with depression into a pretty dark place. You asked! I'm coming out of it now; I feel much better. A lot of people wrote books or something during covid but I literally just sat there in the dark freaking out.
Perfume Genius Metalmagazine 2.jpg