Actor, singer, and all-around shapeshifter Michael C. Hall is speaking with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about his experimental indie/electro-glam trio Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, which he organically and almost accidentally formed with ex-Wallflowers/Morningwood drummer Peter Yanowitz and Blondie multi-instrumentalist Matt Katz-Bohen after they met while working together on Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Fans of the Dexter/Six Feet Under TV star’s stage work, be it in Hedwig, Chicago, Cabaret, or especially Lazarus, the musical co-written by ultimate rock ‘n’ roll shapeshifter David Bowie, won’t be surprised to hear Hall fronting such a daring (and credible) musical project. And the conversation of course soon turns to Bowie, since the 2016 London production of Lazarus was live-streamed for the first time last month to mark the fifth anniversary of Bowie’s death.
Interestingly, Hall confesses he never noticed the “inherent similarity” between his voice and Bowie’s until relatively recently. “A really good friend of mine pointed out to me that the backing vocals that Bowie sings on ‘The Passenger,’ an Iggy Pop song, the ‘la-la-la’s’… he was like, ‘That sounds like you as the emcee in Cabaret,’” says Hall. “Both the register and the timber of my voice just happen to [sound that way]. But that was the first and maybe only time I've really thought about it.”
Hall’s Bowie-esque vocal qualities were enough to attract the interest of Lazarus director Ivo van Hove, with whom Hall shared an agent. “I had a general meeting with him and caught wind of this top-secret project, of this Bowie musical. I didn't know anything about it, but I did say to him, ‘I want to be in that. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to be in that, because, you know, I’m not an idiot,’” Hall chuckles. “And luckily I was doing Hedwig at the time, so [Ivan] was able to come see that. It was like a very, very well-produced audition! … But even though, I guess, I had the job, I didn't feel like I really officially had it until I met Bowie and sang through his stuff with him in this little East Village apartment.”
Hall describes that final audition as “a peak moment of my life,” when he performed “Where Are We Now?” from Bowie’s 2013 comeback album The Next Day in front of Bowie himself. “When I got to the end, I was very focused on the music director who was playing his piano and sitting in this corner, and Bowie was over there… and I heard these ‘oohs’ and I looked over, and he had his eyes closed and he was singing the backing vocal that he had included for the stage production. And I was like, ‘It’d be OK if I got struck down in this moment.’ It was just so incredible.”
Lazarus was initially staged for a limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Bowie's last public appearance was at its opening night on Dec. 7, 2015. He died just a one month and three days later, and Hall says no one in the cast had been aware that the rock legend had been secretly battling cancer. “I didn't know that he gravely ill. When I found out, I had an experience of somehow being totally shocked but not, at the same time,” Hall muses. “I think it was clear, looking back, that maybe he was frail in a way, or was struggling. But he had such a life force and so much energy and so much enthusiasm and excitement about the work we were doing, that that kind of preceded anything that might've or was going on with him physically.”
Hall and his Lazarus castmates were understandably in a daze right after Bowie’s passing, but they had to soldier on. “[He died] late on a Sunday, early on Monday, and we happened to be going in that Monday to record the cast album,” he recalls. “It was kind of a blessing, because we were able to go in together and do something, and that was amazing. But doing the show that Tuesday night, the first time we'd done it after he died, we were performing but we were hearing it in this new context, and it was pretty, pretty heavy. It was very difficult. But I think we were also really grateful that we were able to filter all that emotion and energy into something that was an ongoing tribute.”
Hall now realizes that the Lazarus experience helped put him on the path that led to Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum: “Collaborating and being a part of executing something that was a part of [Bowie’s] final creative flourish definitely gave me a sense of license, or a sense of an appetite, to do something like this — that I didn't even maybe consciously know was there.” But while the band’s heady and kaleidoscopic debut album Thanks for Coming, out Feb. 12, incorporates elements of Bowie’s ambient Berlin era, the sonic “imaginary museum in our minds” features a swirl of influences ranging from sleek French techno to the sludge of Black Sabbath and desert rockers Kyuss, from Giorgio Moroder disco to ‘80s synthpop. (Katz-Bohen, who’s also played with Boy George and Cyndi Lauper, has been known to rock a keytar.) “There's nothing sort of consciously that we're thinking about going for; it just emerges as it emerges, based on what we've heard all our lives,” explains Hall. “Things as divergent as Palestrina masses from the Tallis Scholars and medieval a cappella harmonies and stuff like that. It’s kind of all over the place.”
Hall concedes that there are certain fans who will always see him as the repressed and closeted David Fisher from Six Feet Under, or especially as the psychopathic Dexter Morgan; he even jokes that he expects some Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum concertgoers to heckle him with shouts of “When are you going to kill someone?” But for most the part, his band has been well-received, rather than wrongly dismissed as some actor’s vanity side-project. Among PGTBM’s most famous fans is Katz-Bohen’s Blondie colleague Debbie Harry, who has helped them carry their musical equipment and sang “Happy Birthday” to Hall onstage last February, as seen in the video below. (“That was another highlight of my life,” Hall marvels.)
And Hall so completely transforms onstage, in fact, that after one Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum gig, another one of Katz-Bohen’s friends came up and said, “Great show… hey, by the way, did you see that Michael C. Hall is here?” Says Hall of audience reactions to Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum’s theatrical live concerts, “People are often like, ‘I didn't know what to expect — but it wasn't that.’”
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The above interview is taken from Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum’s appearance on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation will air Feb. 10.