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Interview: Michael C. Hall, Matt Katz-Bohen and Peter Yanowitz of Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum

Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum
22 March 2021

Photo by Paul Storey

Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum – featuring vocalist Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under), keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen (Blondie) and drummer Peter Yanowitz (Wallflowers, Natalie Merchant, Morningwood) – played their last live show on March 12, 2020 at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. Little did they know, at the time, that it would be more than a year before they could even think about hitting a stage again. In the meantime, the trio introduced listeners to their David Bowie-influenced sound first via a self-titled EP released in April 2020 and then with a stunning, dark and complex full length, Thanks for Coming, which came out digitally in February 2021 and will receive a physical (vinyl) release in May.

All three members of the band were part of the Hedwig and the Angry Inch stage cast. Hall and Yanowitz met on the Broadway production, Yanowitz and Katz-Bohen reconnecting (the two have a past) on the touring version. The idea of creating music with Hedwig and Bowie (and Giorgio Moroder and Black Sabbath) influence was something Yanowitz and Katz-Bohen were interested in exploring and when it came time to add vocals, it was only natural that they asked Hall who had years of experience performing in musicals in addition to his acting work.

The trio recently joined a Zoom call to discuss their back story, talk about recording the album, and share what they’ve been doing as the world has been on pause.

You guys all were in Hedwig but were you all in Hedwig at the same time?

MICHAEL: Peter was in it with both of us, I was in it with Peter in New York and then Matt was with Peter on the tour.

Typically you form a band with your friends or by putting an ad in the paper and doing some auditions, but, Michael, you and Peter met on stage. People put you two together.

MICHAEL: Yeah, the band sort of found us as much as we found it.

Matt and Peter, you started writing and recording music together and then brought Michael in to add vocals, is that right?

MATT: We started jamming after the Hedwig tour got finished. We traveled around the country having a great time hanging out and eating Mexican food. We were playing other people’s songs that these other people wrote, and they are great songs, but we were like, “Let’s jam and do some of our own stuff,” which we did. At a certain point, we were like, “It might be cool to have some vocals on these songs.” Peter, I believe Michael heard them, you played him some stuff.

PETER: Mike and I got a sense of what it was like to be in a band even though it was playing Hedwig music. We had the sense of being on stage every night for three months, it was just incredible energy. And we did some hanging out as well, so we had a friendship going into the project. And Matt and I have known each other for years and got really close on the Hedwig tour. Pieces fell into place after that.

Matt and Peter, you’ve know each other, but have you played in bands together in the past?

MATT: We had different bands that played on the same night together, like on the same bills together. But, no, never played together actually.

PETER: My band, Morningwood, did a photo shoot for one of our album single’s artwork and we thought it would be a good idea not to be in the pictures ourselves, and so the lead singer of Morningwood, Chantal (Claret), picked Matt to be the guy in the shoot. Morningwood is a very dirty band, we wrote a lot of dirty songs, and we made Matt get into his underwear. We also had a beautiful young woman at the shoot and we made her get into her underwear too. It was shot by this incredible artist, Richard Kern, he’s kind of known in the music world for shooting a lot of Sonic Youth artwork. He’s a beautiful, and very perverted, photographer. I think he does it in a way that’s labeled as art. My band brought in Matt to get into his underwear so I saw this beautiful man in his underwear and I was like, “Jesus Christ. I want to get in a band with that guy.”

MATT: So that’s why you got me into my underwear that day, it all makes sense.

MICHAEL: I doubt you made Matt get into his underwear, you probably just subtly invited him and the next thing you know, he was in his underwear. It doesn’t take much.

MATT: There were some innuendos and some insinuations and I was like, “Okay, I see where this is going.”

PETER: I do have those pictures.

A name like Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum is a mouthful. What do you guys call the band?

MATT: That’s a good question. What do we call the band?

MICHAEL: I think the shorthand is Princess. But when we talk about our music, we talk about it existing in the museum.

Photo by Seph Lawless

What can you tell me about the Thanks for Coming album cover? It looks like an entrance to an abandoned mall.

MICHAEL: That’s exactly right.

PETER: In Ohio.

MICHAEL: I think when we were mixing, we were talking about cover art and the idea of images of an abandon mall came up as something that felt appropriate somehow. We were familiar with the fact that a number of photographs had projects that did that and we found this one guy’s … I think we found the image just randomly and then found the photographer. A lot of the stuff we were looking at were interiors, places where the skylights were out and there was snow on the escalator. You’ve seen these kinds of things, they are amazing. That fa├žade, it just looks sort of looks like a skull, it looks kind of like the columns at the entrance to a museum, it looked like what it actually is, an abandoned mall. We fell in love with it’s simplicity and symmetry and fortunately he was nice enough to let us use it.

As listeners, we sometimes take track sequencing for granted. We take what we’re given and don’t put a lot of thought into how the tracks are arranged. How did you guys come up with the sequencing?

PETER: That’s a great question.

MICHAEL: We had a sequence in mind, I don’t know if it was a more obvious sequence. It was more obvious to us. Without asking him to do so, Brandon Bost, our mixer, presented us with this sequence he’d come up with that was completely different. It’s what’s on the record, I think maybe there was one additional track that we fit into the sequence after that fact. For him, I think it was about the sonic journey more than thematic or lyrical. Thematically lyrically, I think the journey is a lot more interesting in his conception of it. He’s become somebody that we’ve become very attached to. He really has an intuitive sense of what we’re up to and really able to bring things out and shape things in ways that make him feel like another member.

The album opens with a song called “Intro”. Is that something you put on after the album was done as a way to kick it off or was it an instrumental track that you were trying to figure out what to do with?

PETER: That’s also Brandon. I think when we did some of the mixing at Electric Ladyland, where he works a lot, he was dialing up “Tomorrow’s Screams,” which is the last song on the record. He was just messing around it, I think he was adding a lot of reverbs and I was like, “This is really beautiful.” He was just pulling the track up and was exploring soloing stuff. I was like, “It would be amazing if you wanted to do a little remix of this.” We weren’t thinking for the record or anything. He was like, “Yeah, I’ll put something together.” “Intro” was sort of Brandon’s remix of “Tomorrow’s Screams.” I think we were calling it “Interlude” for a while. From our first EP, we had placed the song “Don’t” as the first song, which felt like a very introductory song to the band. This one really fit nicely as the intro.

For you, is there noticeable differences between the EP and the album in the way you wrote and/or recorded?

PETER: The EP felt like a combo platter, a little sampler of the band. As we’ve been writing the last few years, we’ve found we have a lot of sides and a lot of wings in the museum. So, the EP was a representation of what we felt we were capable of as a band. The full length feels like a continuation of that same sort of spirit of “Let’s show what we can do on a full length and try to tell a whole story.” We wanted to keep it as varied, and as cohesive, as the EP feels. Not saying we’ll do that on all of our records but it seemed to work really well on both of those.

MICHAEL: The majority of the songs on the full length are songs that we had been playing live, some more than other. Though there are songs that, maybe some of which we’ve since played, but there are songs on the full length that, because of the context in which it was made, have yet to be played in front of a live audience.

Peter and Matt, you both have been in bands before. Can you tell me about your songwriting backgrounds? Have you written songs or were you just musicians in bands that had songwriters?

MATT: I was the main musical writer in my band Daddy, which used to play all the time with Morningwood. That’s how I kind of knew Peter. I guess I had more of a tyrannical grip on the songwriting. “Do as I say!” (laughs) And then in Blondie, I’ve collaborated with them, which has been an amazing experience and, obviously, I can’t be a tyrant in that band, not that I would want to be. In Princess, it’s truly a partnership. We throw our ideas down and we all have musical ideas which get thrown into the mix. It’s wonderful, it’s a beautiful collaboration.

PETER: With Natalie Merchant, we lived together. We had a little studio guest house. I kind of learned how to write songs from her, which is funny because I wasn’t really a big fan of her music before I met her. We would just go write. That consisted of going out to the studio, having a glass of wine, and she would play the piano and I would play drums. We’d just jam and record our stuff into a handheld cassette recorder or DAT player. We’d listen in bed at night to what we did, this is how romantic we were. We would listen in bed and be like, “Oh shit, there’s a verse there. That’s a chorus.” And sometimes a little jam that came out would have a verse and chorus, she’s sing gibberish. I sort of connected in my head, “Oh shit, that’s how you write songs!” She was an incredible artistic spirit but also very, very organized with how she documented all these little ideas. I was just a kid, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do that.”

When that situation ended, I started Morningwood and I was like, “I think I can do this.” That consisted of meeting this amazing young woman in New York who was in film school and had never been in a band. It was really fun to just try my first songs with this fearless woman, Chantal. I was the main songwriter, like Matt in Daddy, I was the one songwriter and I found after our first record – which was sort of a magical record – I felt like it was all on me to generate this. Chantal is a great lyricist but she’s not coming at me with music ideas. I felt like I had to do a lot of the lifting there.

This band has been such a revelation for me, because I’ve got two creative people who are hustlers like me, they are hungry to create and make things. That stands out most for me as a writer, I’ve got two people who show up every day and challenge me and bring ideas that I would have never imagined. And then somehow the combination of us three is what you get. It’s really cool to be working with people that aren’t lazy about writing, they are really awake.

With everything you’ve done in the past, do you feel like Princess does the best job of representing who you really are?

PETER: This record, and this band, feels more me than a lot of the projects I’ve been in. This is who we want to be, we don’t spend a lot of time defining ourselves, it just is, which is kind of nice.

MATT: I would second that. I’ve been in bands or projects were it’s like, “We need to write a song like that song.” That’s a good exercise, I think. But, I like that we don’t really try to do that here too much.

MICHAEL: I think it’s the true us. I feel comfortable speaking for all of us saying that what we’re doing feels like it’s ours. We feel like ourselves individually, and what’s coming across, but we also recognize that it’s something that couldn’t happen without whatever alchemy happens with the three of us. It’s completely unanticipated and somewhat miraculous gift that this has emerged.

Michael, what’s it like going from people writing for you to writing your own lyrics?

MICHAEL: It’s amazing. I had a small part in a film, it was probably the first acting gig I had after the band had come to be, and I found myself on set waiting around to say somebody else’s words and it just felt so stupid. I’ve since had acting experiences that were more fulfilling and over which I had a greater sense of ownership and all that, but, yeah, putting your own material across, you eliminate the middle man. Or, not so much that but you are no longer the middle man. One thing that’s interesting, I’ve never had to work to remember the words to the songs that we make. It’s almost as if I discovered them and they’ve always been there. It’s not like memorizing someone else’s language which is an interesting thing. It’s been incredible, completely unanticipated, untelegraphed consciously. On the one hand, you feel more exposed maybe as you’re stimulating a different idea that belonged to someone else and saying someone else’s words, but, doing the music live, in a way, I feel more fortified by it. Maybe because it’s music and I’m not just standing at a podium saying the words that I wrote. It’s a mysterious thing but there’s a sense of agency as a creative artist that’s in a different place than it is when you’re speaking somebody else’s language.

The Phantogram cover is great and I think, spiritually, they are in the same ballpark as you are. So, what songs from your past, previous experiences, previous bands, would you like to apply the Princess sound to and cover?

PETER: That Phantogram song came by Matt sending it to Mike and me and saying, “I feel like these guys wrote one of our songs.” We say that in jest, we are huge fans, we love them. We’re influenced by so many different artists, it is a good question about what we’d like to Princessify.

I’m talking about songs from your past, like Morningwood or Natalie Merchant. Is that anything from past you’d like to revisit?

PETER: Oh (laughs). Fuck no. I’ll just say, straight up, no. Well, there is some Morningwood in the record, there’s some roots in there. But, no.

MICHAEL: I’d say there’s some of the musical DNA that’s in Hedwig. We all have some affinity and probably evidences itself in our music. I mean, Hedwig owes a real debt to Bowie and glam and that’s definitely part of the color wheel.

The word “glam” has popped up a lot in reviews of your music. My glam, which is ’80s hair metal, is probably different than your glam. Is glam to you the philosophy? Is it the look? Is it the sound?

PETER: People say Hedwig is glam and I’m sort of on the fence about that. I haven’t really spoken about this with Mike or Matt or to anyone. Yeah, there’s a couple glam songs in there but I also hear punk rock and songs like “Midnight Radio” which are just incredible rock songs. And then there’s straight up barroom kind of roc. I think glam is an ethos – makeup, a little volume.

MICHAEL: I think there’s just something unabashed.

MATT: It has it’s roots in queer culture and drag culture, which we’ve always been a part of and certainly have some roots in that. I’ve been playing with drag queens in New York City for years, they’ve been a huge supporter and I’ve tried to support them as well. The punk, drag, glam, whatever the downtown New York City ethos is.

My first taste of Princess was seeing the “Armageddon Suite” video. That song is different than the rest of the album. That’s what I really like about the album is that there is variety between songs. I think of somebody like Bowie who never stuck with the same sound. Prince also was an artist who you could always recognize but explored a lot of different sounds. Even the Bee Gees … they changed their sound quite a bit, starting as a folk/psychedelic band, then following the Beatles and becoming a pop band and then getting into disco.

MICHAEL: Have you seen that documentary? It’s amazing.

Based on my references, I’m a Bowie fan but not a fanatic, but I obviously heard some Bowie in your music but also some Gary Numan.

PETER: Nice, love him.

MATT: I love Gary Numan, I’ve gotten to see him live a couple of times, incredible. He’s a lot heavier than expected.

With the pandemic and the lockdowns, has there been anything in the last year that maybe you’ve learned about yourself or that you’ve learned to do? Maybe taken on a new hobby or finally got to work on something that you’ve been putting off?

MICHAEL: I’ve discovered that I like living in the middle of nowhere. I moved up to a little house in Ulster County with my wife and always thought that I’d go more stir crazy living in the woods basically. I’ve discovered that I really love it.

PETER: I have this old ’67 Ford Bronco that I’ve been lugging around since I was in the Wallflowers. I had it shipped out to New York when I got with Natalie Merchant and it’s just been this albatross in my life, kind of dilapidated. It’s as old as I am. I’ve just been really attached to the design of it. I got it restored after Hedwig because I had enough money to do that and then it just sat in storage upstate. So, one beautiful thing that happened last year is that I was like, “I’m going to get that truck out of storage and register it.” I just got it out last May or April and have had it out all year and take it out every week with my wife and go to the beach or go upstate and go hiking or go visit Mike. Just getting in touch with an old truck and driving has been meditative and also felt like I’ve been hanging on to this stupid truck, even though it’s beautiful, it’s expensive and a pain in the ass but it’s finally nice to be able to reconnect with it. Weirdly it came out in the pandemic.

MATT: I guess I would just say, it sounds a bit corny but, nothing has ever made me realize just how quickly everything can evaporate and vanish and trying to appreciate what I have and to let go what I don’t need. This band has been a lifeline in many ways making me connect to that which I do love and that which is nourishing to me.

PETER: I love that answer, Matt, by the way. I’m talking about a fucking truck and you actually got really beautiful with your answer. That’s kind of what I wanted to say but I felt like I talk enough about the band.

I know that, with your acting schedule, Michael, it might be tough, but do you hope to do some touring once that resumes?

MICHAEL; Yeah, definitely.

PETER: Hell yeah.