In Conversation: Michael C. Hall and Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum Take Us on a Journey
Hall, Peter Yanowitz, and Matt Katz-Bohen on their new electronic art-rock noise record Thanks for Coming.
When actor Michael C. Hall isn’t busying himself with his return to serial television (a Dexter revival at Showtime where the forensic killer gets a new finale), he’s one-third of the twitchily odd and boldly existential Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, a noisy, electronic-based art rock trio with multi-instrumentalist Matt Katz-Bohen (of Daddy, Boy George, and Blondie fame) and drummer Peter Yanowitz, an original Wallflower with sessions for Natalie Merchant and Allen Ginsberg under his belt.
Anyone curious as to how the warbling-voiced Hall—famed as the singing lead in David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s dark Lazarus musical, first staged off-Broadway in 2015 before Bowie’s death—got to Katz-Bohen and Yanowitz, and came to such dramatic vocal prowess and twisted socio-cultural lyrics as those that fill the LCD Soundsystem-ish “Eat an Eraser” and the fluty “Cruel World,” can point to each members’ tenure during the Broadway run of Hedwig & the Angry Inch.
Far from the flourish of glam, yet no less possessed of its manic theatricality, PGTTBM’s debut album Thanks for Coming is remarkably subtle, sly, and sexy avant-pop, something each member is keen to acknowledge. We caught up with the trio while on Hall’s break from a date with Dexter.
How did you get to the occasion of Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum in the first place?
Peter Yanowitz: I met Mike when he was the third Hedwig on Broadway, and I was his drummer on stage. We actually had the chance to be a band every night, on stage, playing someone else’s songs. We had a lot of fun doing that, then Matt joined the show band, and then he and I did the Hedwig road show together, where we hung out and did our own music after shows. We were just friends, getting together—the music just came as an afterthought. And the idea for a real band came as a surprise to all of us. I mean, it started with a Broadway musical, a concept I always thought was cheesy, jazz-hands stuff until I did it nightly. Then again, we were in one of the coolest Broadway shows ever, about being a rock band on stage.
Would you agree that, at one point, Broadway musicals had a cornball factor, Michael, especially considering how serious an actor you are?
Michael C. Hall: My day job has forever been on stage. Musical theater, as opposed to non-musical drama or comedy, has long been associated with showiness or cheesiness. As I was embarking on my career as an actor, I avoided musicals, only to turn around and star in Hedwig, Cabaret, and Chicago on Broadway, and Lazarus, off-Broadway. Certainly these are atypical musicals. And yes, the Broadway musical stage is not the usual place where you would go to start a rock band. It’s just how things revealed themselves to us.
“We were just friends, getting together—the music just came as an afterthought. And the idea for a real band came as a surprise to all of us.” —Peter Yanowitz
Matt Katz-Bohen: I certainly didn’t gravitate to that world. I’m pretty sure none of the musicians in our run at Hedwig had ever played on Broadway before that. They were all just rock musicians in bands we knew—and Hedwig was a reaction against the South Pacific-ness of it all. The Hedwig sound was raw, glam, live, and with a lot of energy. Hedwig was the first time, too, that I had played with Peter on stage, even though we were friends for years, and he had a band called Morningwood, whose album I was supposed to be the cover model for. I think it was Walmart that deemed the cover too risqué.
Yanowitz: He was in his underwear and the cover was just too sexy.
Katz-Bohen: There’s been a lot of therapy since then.
What was the first song the three of you wrote that was indicative of what additional Princess material would sound like, lyrically and musically?
Hall: That’s tough to answer inasmuch as our sound and songs are pretty eclectic. The first track that I responded to of theirs, one night after Peter and I were hanging out, was “Vicious,” which is on our EP. There were no vocals on it, and for fun, I just gave it a shot and threw some lyrics [on it]. It was on the subway ride down, and in the studio, that the lyrics came. Even though it was the first thing we made collectively, I think that “Vicious” sets a tone for what we do: dystopian, but sexy.
That eclectic sound is very old school art rock and proto-electro punk—Wire, Joy Division, Berlin-period Bowie. Certainly, the three of you have diverse backgrounds. Peter, your roots are with Jakob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg…
Yanowitz: I met Jakob fresh out of high school in Hollywood. I was dating a waitress from a coffee shop Jakob used to go in, and she told me that he was looking for a drummer. I was living in Salt Lake City, and had to drive to LA for this audition she set up. I met The Wallflowers at the right time, and that first unit had so much potential. We were a little more grungy to start, early ’90, before the Americana thing. I was inspired by Nirvana and SST label stuff. I found myself wanting to rock more as his Americana direction progressed. I left, moved to New York, and hooked up with Natalie Merchant, who wasn’t exactly Kurt Cobain, but she had a talent all her own, and wound up in a group even mellower than The Wallflowers.
Princess has the rock DNA I’ve been craving for some time….and Allen? I became the house drummer for Philip Glass’ annual Tibetan benefit through Natalie and met Allen there. I didn’t have an apartment in New York so he let me stay on his couch. Meeting him was mind-blowing. I mean, I had a band in high school named Howl after him. He was my first meditation teacher, too, and accompanied him on drums when he did poetry readings. He changed my life.
Matt, you not only formed Daddy—a duo that oddly makes theatrical, noisy art rock sounds not unlike Princess—but you have forever been a part of Blondie; so much so that you’re a co-writer on several of the band’s latter-day tracks.
“Even though it was the first thing we made collectively, I think that ‘Vicious’ sets a tone for what we do: dystopian, but sexy.” —Michael C. Hall
Katz-Bohen: There’s definitely a noisiness shared between Daddy and Princess in that art rock way, a lot of Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and no wave/No New York/Lydia Lunch in both of my bands’ DNA just from walking around the city. As for being in Blondie, it’s been incredible. It’s funny, but when I was in Daddy, we were totally influenced by early Blondie records, so to actually be in Blondie, and write for Blondie, has been amazing. It’s been a Master’s Degree in rock ’n’ roll. I should hang that sentiment on my wall.
Michael, you and I spoke several weeks ago for the Celebrate Bowie event where you mentioned how doing Lazarus and meeting Bowie was a catalyst to make your own music. Is this really your first band?
Hall: It is my first, yeah. I mean, the first taste that I ever had of fronting a band was on stage during Hedwig. I’ve done a lot of singing, mind you—like, I was the first soprano in my boys choir, but I just never found myself doing a lead singer’s work. Executing, however, what turned out to be the final flourish of David Bowie’s creative output was invigorating and humbling. And maybe affirming in a way, feeling perhaps like if I could do something to his satisfaction gave me some sort of license to take this leap, a leap that also has the good fortune of timing and hooking up with these two.
You were talking about hearing the track to “Vicious” and coming up with lyrics on the spot. For Princess, are spontaneity and free verse your calling cards, or are you working from notes and written out lyrics you’ve sketched out beforehand?
Hall: I’ve written notes for myself in preparation of acting jobs, but the lyrics for this, they weren’t stored anywhere. They just emerged when we started writing music and revealed themselves further as the music went along. It all was kind of a surprise, not unlike how we got together in the first place.
What is your band’s aesthetic?
Yanowitz: What stands out for me is that this is the first band I’ve been in without electric guitars. I don’t know if that’s conscious or unconscious. We wanted to keep it synth-based, which is a nice touch for me. Mostly because it’s what me and Matt have lying around our studios. Plus, nobody can play a keytar or a synthesizer like Matt and have it sound like a guitar. The aspect of having that wizardry has meant everything to our music.
Hall: I don’t think it’s anything that we’ve discussed. It’s what emerged. Because the sounds are predominantly electronic, I do feel as if I am inclined to fold myself into that sound, to be part of it, inside of it, rather than singing over it. That probably informs how I sing.
Michael, do you feel as if you avoid or remove actorly tics when making music?
Hall: Yes, it is liberating as much as anything else, to allow my voice to emerge lyrically and melodically in conjunction with Peter and Matt to say something more authentic, something coming from me, and not someone else’s words or doing someone else’s bidding.
“When I was in Daddy, we were totally influenced by early Blondie records, so to actually be in Blondie, and write for Blondie, has been amazing. It’s been a Master’s Degree in rock ’n’ roll. I should hang that sentiment on my wall.” —Matt Katz-Bohen
What about any lingering theatrical edge?
Hall: I think that I’m always going to be inclined to approach things from a place with a point of view, or a character, or whoever is the voice behind the lyric. That said, they’re my words—sometimes veiled within the broad context of this particular musical landscape, but my words. It’s also a more revealed vision, our own world.
One thing I noticed about your songs: They’re societal, communal—apocalyptic, but sexy. With that, however, there’s nothing political about your lyrical landscapes. At least not obviously.
Hall: I’m happy to hear that, because the world we live in is so comprehensively and corrosively politicized. The record is a snapshot of the moment we’re still in, but we’re not bound to any one sound. We’re allowing the Museum…if we need another wing, we’ll knock down a wall and build it.
Speaking of museums, what’s with the name of the band?
Hall: It’s weird. It’s a safe word—a very long safe word—from a relationship that I was in. A very colorful relationship. I tried to employ it on several occasions, but could never get it out in time for it to take effect. That was it. Now, this is a chance to put an end to what that safe word was meant to put an end to.
Yanowitz: Seize the moment. FL