Friends Michael C. Hall, Matt Katz-Bohen and Peter Yanowitz didn’t set out to record a record when they first started writing songs together for fun. Still, Golden-Globe-winning actor Hall (“Six Feet Under,” “Dexter”), drummer Yanowitz (The Wallflowers, Morningwood) and keyboardist Katz-Bohen (Blondie, Cyndi Lauper), found themselves recording an EP of genre-bending Avant-pop as trio Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum in a studio overlooking Union Square in Manhattan.
The body of work, set to release on April 2, which includes dirge-like meditations, psychedelic raves and stoically industrial freak-outs, is Princess Goes’ first but certainly not last. There are another 20 songs and, at least a day before the entire world went into lockdown, the band had a trip planned to record at Rancho de la Luna near Joshua Tree National Park.
“There are all kinds of sounds that you might hear that Matt creates where you might think, ‘How did you make that sound?’” Hall noted, when questioned about a siren-like sound on the EP’s second track, “Vicious,” even though no siren was consciously used.
“There’s a lot of sirens on your vocal mic because we record in a building over Union Square … and there’s always a siren there,” Yanowitz retorted to the vocalist.
It was Broadway that brought Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum together; specifically, “Hedwig And The Angry Inch.” Hall, whose stage credits include “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” starred in “Hedwig” on Broadway from 2014 to 2015, where he met his future bandmates. In the title role, he played a queer wanna-be rock star. Katz-Bohen was a music director and associate conductor of the production, and performed on both keys and guitar in Hedwig’s band, The Angry Inch. Yanowitz, the original drummer of The Wallflowers, and for Natalie Merchant on her first three solo albums (in addition to his work as principal songwriter, producer and bassist in Morningwood), played the role of the drummer in the faux-band.
When “Hedwig” went on tour (after Hall’s departure), Yanowitz and Katz-Bohen bonded and made a vow to write some songs together when they got off the road.
“I remember we would just walk around San Francisco actually because the tour spent about a month there,” Katz-Bohen said. “We would just talk about our musical influences, and were like, ‘When we get back to New York, we’ve got to hang out and jam.’ And that’s what we did in that order. We hung out and we jammed. And then we recorded some stuff.”
Hall visited one day and the two played him some of their songs—which were instrumentals. As the story goes, he wrote the words to midtempo tune “Love American Style” on the spot. Like a few of the tracks, it sounds like it’s influenced by the likes of Nick Cave, or, more so, late-period David Bowie. One one hand, it would make sense that Bowie would be an influence, as Hall worked with the icon when he starred in the Bowie-produced stage production, “Lazarus.”
The actor-musician said he learned a great deal from Bowie, to the point that he was able to make those songs his own when he was performing. But more than anything, he was impressed with David Bowie the person, who was genuinely kind and enthusiastic about the work.
“He didn’t like sit me down and give me any sort of explicit lessons, but I definitely was emboldened by the fact that he put his trust in me and the rest of us to execute that part of his final creative vision,” Hall said. “It was a heady time, being able to look into the eyes of someone who you’ve grown up with and someone who you know is one of the great artists of the last century. I kind of had to turn off a part of my brain sometimes to do it.”
Still, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum is not a continuation of “Lazarus,” “Hedwig” or any of the band’s specific influences. David Bowie is one of the band’s many influences, Hall explained, but the band had no intention to write or sound like anything or anyone.
“It was more about just being in the moment, seeing what we could make in real time—not premeditated, not thinking about it too much, not talking about it really at all,” Yanowitz said. “Just doing it, and it evolved into this thing.”
As for the band name—that came from Katz-Bohen’s daughter. The trio asked her for a theoretical idea—something she would consider using for her own band when she’s older—and she came back with a fully formed name. Katz-Bohen asked his daughter for permission to use the name and she obliged, saying she’d come up with something even better for herself.
“I think she’s actually very proud,” he said. “She takes pride in the fact that she had something to do with us, and she named us. So it’s pretty cool. It’s kind of like putting your kids’ art on the wall for everyone to see, but in a slightly different way.”
Up until music halls nationwide went dark, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum spent the past 14 months or so performing live in New York City. That, of all things, inspired the band’s wacky, glammy video for “Come Talk To Me,” starring two hand puppets.
The three were rehearsing to play their newer songs, when Hall chimed in that he wished he could perform while wearing a puppet on each hand. Yanowitz just happened to have two puppets laying around in his closet—as one does. Hall had so much fun wearing them at practice that he decided to continue the shtick at a show. Director Sam Scaffidi, a friend, happened to be at the show, and one thing led to another.
Following this week’s EP release, Michael C. Hall, Matt Katz-Bohen and Peter Yanowitz have their next batch of songs, which they’re in the process of mixing now. The goal was to release them in the summer, Katz-Bohen said, though that may now change.
“And then in the fall; we’re … going down to the desert, to Rancho de la Luna, to record some songs with [studio cofounder] Dave Catching, which will be its own separate release because it will be the first time that we’ve gotten out of our little clubhouse studio in New York,” he said. “Dave Catching is a real amazing inspiration to us.”
Though all three members remain busy with their other work, none considers Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum as a side project. Though they’ve only played in New York so far, expect an L.A. debut once the country’s shelter-in-place orders are lifted and gatherings are once again legal.
“I tour in Blondie and I did tour with Cyndi Lauper for a couple years now. But, you know, they all take a backseat to Princess,” Katz-Bohen said. Princess is where it’s at. If you guys don’t realize that, you’re just suckers.”
To Yanowitz, Princess Goes is a passion project; one that the three are working to build into a touring act.
“So we’re building a story,” he said. “We want to bring our music everywhere we can. … We would love to rock other places.”
Hall, the most recognizable face in the trio, joked that his talented bandmates legitimize his involvement. For him, his fame and celebrity is both a challenge for the band to overcome, and an advantage that will draw an audience that perhaps might not have otherwise been interested.
“If that gets them to listen to the music, that’s cool,” Hall said. “At the same time, maybe they’re thinking, ‘I wonder if the songs are about killing people or burying people,’ and they’re not really about either of those. It is what it is. I suppose there are advantages and disadvantages. But that’s true for most things.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.