Mike Hadreas didn’t always have a natural stage presence. The 39-year-old singer-songwriter, known to his fans as Perfume Genius, started out his live performance career with some stage fright, an obstacle he’s worked to overcome ever since.
“When I first started playing shows, it was just me behind a piano, and I couldn’t even really look up at the audience,” he tells Billboard over the phone. “Every album, every tour, I kind of step out of my comfort zone, and by the end of it, that becomes the new ‘comfortable’ for me.”
That level of comfort is apparent — at his concerts, Perfume Genius can give fans anything from a blow-the-roof-off rock show to an experimental piece of dance performance art, while always maintaining the melodic integrity of his critically acclaimed music. “Now, I’m just screaming and writhing a lot more on the stage,” he says with a chuckle.
So when Hadreas announced his newest album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately back in February, the singer immediately began plotting out ideas for a tour. How many people were going to be on stage at once? Should the show include some dance segments? What kind of world should he build for a new show? But by the time Set My Heart finally arrived, Hadreas was living in a pandemic, and had to scrap his plans.
This weekend, however, Hadreas is unveiling a new vision for his live show; on Saturday, Sept. 19, the star is delivering a livestreamed concert unlike any we’ve seen in the time of COVID. Taking place at the empty Palace Theater in Los Angeles, Perfume Genius will perform a full set, including the songs of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, with a full six-piece band, a string quartet, and his supernatural stage presence.
Hadreas says that with his show, he wants to both simulate a live and in-person experience, while also acknowledging the eerie circumstances he’ll be performing in. “I wanted to play in a big, old theater to nobody, but also to everybody,” he says. “When I have gone to visit The Palace and no one’s there, it’s so eerie just being empty. [The performance] is not supposed to be an illusion, but more like creating a portal. Like, we’re still here and we’re still wilding out, playing these songs and going for it. I like the idea of those two things existing at the same time.”
Over the last few months, Perfume Genius has offered up a number of now-common at-home performances with his boyfriend Alan accompanying him. From late night shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter’s very own Pride Summit, Hadreas has given fans a taste of his brand new album, but in a laid-back, acoustic setting.
“There are things I really loved about that,” he explains of his stripped-down home sets. “When we first started touring, it was just me and Alan, so there was something really sweet about doing those isolation performances. But when we started rehearsing again with the band, and feeling that energy of actually singing and dancing and moving and having a shared experience with people again … I just guess I didn’t realize how vital that is to me.”
Over the course of his rehearsals for Saturday’s concert, Hadreas says that he’s glad he chose The Palace as the venue thanks to its unique structure as the oldest Orpheum theater in the U.S. “There’s not as many elements in play, so if the place we’re playing already has an energy about it, then it just adds to what we’re doing.”
The challenge at hand, Hadreas admits, has been letting go of his prior vision of what a Set My Heart on Fire Immediately live show would look like in favor of something new. “I think what has been difficult is having to quickly adapt to the actual situation, not trying to fit old ideas and what I thought was going to happen and trying to jam those into what’s actually happening,” he says. “You kind of are different every day; sometimes I feel like I’ve adapted and figured it out, and then it’s immediately the opposite.”
But for Saturday’s show, Hadreas is excited. In fact, he even adds that the possibilities for future shows like are endless, albeit different than what’s he starting off with. “I really want to keep doing things like this, but maybe it will be about keeping the things that we learned that are still going to work at the next one, and leave the things that were kind of special and specific for this show,” he says. “I’ve already started thinking about what would happen if we involved different elements — even like CGI! Just something fully and completely different. I think it will be something that we’ll do again.”
Presenting Set My Heart on Fire Immediately live for the first time needed to be a special occasion, according to Perfume Genius’s manager Bryan Ling. Prior to the pandemic, Hadreas was slated to open for Tame Impala on the road and have a full live band for the first time. When the time came to put together a livestream concert, the creative team knew they needed to incorporate the live musicians and deliver an experience worthy of both the album and fans.
“One thing that I knew that we didn’t want was to set up in a house. We didn’t want to set up in a studio,” says Ling, adding they spent months watching how other artists handled live streams since March. “Not that that’s bad… I just felt like the first time it is being presented live, let’s give it some more production value and have these songs sound fully realized and that means doing it at a venue.”
While the Sept. 19 show at The Palace Theatre in Los Angeles is a one-off, Ling says the rehearsals with the band and preparation for this performance will pay off in the long run. As Hadreas continues to promote the album, he’ll have a well-oiled band to take to other venues, late night shows and various other appearances without having to do stripped-down, acoustic sets.
The Perfume Genius team has spent months finding different ways to continue incorporating not just musicians, but other music industry players in their plans. Ling says attempting to do low-budget and low-personnel livestreams is “really shortsighted and also really greedy.” They reached out to Perfume Genius booking agent Trey Many with Paradigm, who helped them secure the over-a-century-old Palace Theatre, and worked with Joel and Benji Madden’s new livestreaming platform Veeps to offer ways for promoters and venues to get involved. Through an affiliate link, promoters and venues will get paid for every ticket they sell to Saturday’s livestream.
“It was more about, ‘How do we look at this as making sure that everyone who’s a part of the team is included and can be included if they’re able to be?’” says Ling. He says roughly 90% of the promoters and venues they asked to participate said “yes,” including some beyond North America. In addition, Ling says it has strengthened the team’s relationships with local promoters who tend to only speak with agents. “I like to make relationships with promoters, because we need all the help we can get these days in exposing things, and I think that the best promoters are the ones that I know by name.”
Ling adds: “My philosophy with this whole thing was, ‘Let’s build a coalition with the label, and let’s tie in things to incentivize people. With the label, they’re obviously incentivized to promote the album, so let’s sell the album through this so that they’re going to promote it even more and so on and so forth.”
Fans can purchase $15 tickets for the livestream or pay more to add the Set My Heart on Fire Immediately vinyl, t-shirts, exclusive signed posters or a limited edition art book featuring iconic portraits of Hardeas from celebrated French photographer Camille Vivier. The art book was in the works prior to COVID, and was intended as an exclusive item sold on tour. Instead, Perfume Genius will offer 150 limited edition hardcover copies for livestream fans. Fans unable to snag one of the hardcover books will have the option to purchase a soft-cover standard edition as well.
The art book, livestream and exclusive merchandise, according to Ling, are geared toward Perfume Genius’s loyal fanbase who have remained engaged and supportive of the artist throughout the pandemic. “You wanna always pay tribute to the base and pay attention to the base and give them the opportunity to have things first,” says Ling. “So that’s what we’re doing.”