Michael C. Hall hit the big-time playing vigilante serial killer Dexter but he also has a long pedigree in musical theatre with roles in Cabaret, Chicago and as David Bowie’s alter ego in Lazarus. He’s now putting that to good use with his new band Princess Goes to The Butterfly Factory.
The idea for the three piece came when he was the lead in Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch, featuring his future bandmates drummer Peter Yanowitz and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen who played in the onstage house band.
The trio are New York residents and during the show’s run found they had shared musical tastes, so decided to become a group who about to release their debut album, Thanks For Coming.
Paul Clarke caught up with Michael via Zoom to find more about this project, what it was like working with Bowie and the comeback of Dexter to our screens.
As well as singing you write all the words. Has that come easy?
I think that’s a tough one. I’ve always, not always, but maybe periodically over the course of my life I’ve written mostly for myself, if I ever had an aim in mind, it usually had to do with investigating an acting role or something. But I do think I’ve always been a fan of lyricists and poetry. Just the rhythm of verse, even if in prose, has always been something that’s turned me on. So I think I think a lot of the inspiration originates with a just a sense of a rhythm of a line and, and something maybe will come out spontaneously, or even unconsciously.
There are some light moments on the album, but quite a lot darkness too, are you reflecting the strange times we live in?
I can’t pretend that there isn’t some sort of dystopian sensibility that runs through a lot of what is on this record. And I think that has something to do with that there’s something to me not just dark or dire about that sensibility, but something invigorating about it. Naming things for what they are, dusting off the sugar coating.
Your bandmates say they were surprised that as well fronting the band you came armed with the lyrics.
It’s been a mysterious development being called upon, or invited, to write words, and is something that has been a real gift, I’m just trying to roll with it. But, oftentimes, a lot of the words on the record are lyrics that accompanied tunes that ended up being discarded, and the lyrics are found on Sideways, for example.
You came to the public’s attention as David on Six Feet Under written by Oscar winner Alan Ball and Dexter has top notch writers too. Has working with really talented screenwriters helped you write your lyrics?
I don’t know if I consider it consciously, or think of it as a conscious understanding. But I think spending time with and absorbing the rhythms of good writing does something to kind of calibrate your internal instrument and sensibility. So yeah, I think that’s definitely valuable.
Have you have enjoyed the recording process which is new to you?
I am sort of a baby when it comes to this way of creating and making things, but it’s been amazing. Even though I’m inexperienced, I still can appreciate that and we are in a pretty unique situation in terms of the logistical ease with which we can go into Peter’s studio, and make things happen. The ease with which we’re able to sort of communicate when it comes to our musical ideas and impulses.
And a different process from acting?
Peter’s has an ability to collaborate in a recording session with me to find the find the way melodies might stay in and emerge. But I love it, I’ve been executing other people’s ideas and words, and in a way that feels more like an like a craftsperson’s sort of thing or an artisan. I suppose making music is its own kind of craft, but it does feel more artistic and in much as it’s coming from me. It feels like a genuinely collaborative, alchemical sort of thing.
How important was working with Bowie on Lazarus in deciding to take the leap into being in a band?
It wasn’t anything I thought about consciously, but looking back I think having the chance to just work with Bowie was unconsciously some sort of unofficial licence to engage in my own thing in this way. It wasn’t anything that he said explicitly to me, or anything I even thought about. When this opportunity emerged, I think the fact of having worked with David certainly did more to encourage me to grab a hold of it, seize it and move forward with it than not.
Lazarus was based on Bowie’s movie The Man Who Fell To Earth so it seems an obvious thing to say but it must have been a bit daunting to working with him?
I’ve described my initial encounters with David as ones in which I had to turn off part of my brain. The part that was aware of who I was in the room with, and the notion of feeling the sense of entitlement to even sing those songs. And then being charged with the task of both honouring them and making them your own was a tough one.
Bowie did have a reputation of being both a generous collaborator and a decent man.
The first thing he said to me when I met him was say thank you so much for doing this, and I said you’re welcome. That feels absurd. We would do run throughs or sing through the stuff, and he’d give us all hugs. He was he was just, like, genuinely thank you for helping to execute this dream I’ve had for a long time of seeing a theatrical production come to the stage that employed my music, and he really meant it. And he had such an enthusiasm, humility and by extension he just gifted you this sense of agency as a creative person.
And I suspect the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him?
The first time I sang through all this stuff he was in the room and as the opening bars to the Where Are We Now? started he actually cut through and said: ‘Yes, now sing my songs to me’. He named the absurdity of the moment, it was a very sort of generous and empathic thing for him to say, because he named this sort of absurd predicament I was wrestling with internally, This is ridiculous – David Bowie is in this little East Village apartment sitting on a couch and I’m about to sing him his songs.
One of the things that is really interesting about the album is how many different styles you incorporate from disco to metal. One of the singles Airhead sounds like it was influenced by the big stadium power ballads you probably all grew up with.
It’s the water we swam in but it’s not like we thought we should do a song like ‘blank’ band. When that chorus comes down I think it always felt Bostony to me and that falsetto vocal emerged, but I don’t think I was leaning into like ‘okay, now we’ll sound like Boston’. It just sort of happened, but yeah undeniable, and I am happy to lean into those influences.
You were onset late night filming the new season of Dexter? Were you surprised that it came back?
I was pleasantly surprised that a story emerged that felt worth telling. I wasn’t surprised that it came back in that there’s been an appetite for it, both from some fans, but also from the network. Oh, he didn’t die, let’s do more, let’s find out what happened to him. But I think the surprise was that a story emerged that felt worth telling.
And can you tell us anything at all about what may be going on with Dexter?
As far as what I can reveal about the new show is, I don’t want to say much, other than as you can imagine given where we left him his life is completely recontextualised. He’s in a different place leading a different life surrounded by different people. And the fact that it’s February and I’m talking to you from Concord, Massachusetts suggests that it’s not all going to be sun and sand.
Thanks For Coming is out on May 17 2021.
Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.