Michael C. Hall knows a thing or two about striking visual imagery. After a lifetime spent in front of a TV camera in award-winning series like Six Feet Under and the friendly neighborhood serial-killer saga Dexter—plus live-theater stints in Cabaret, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and David Bowie’s Lazarus— the North Carolina-born thespian has learned that every picture does, indeed, tell a story, so he put a great deal of thought and effort into finding the perfect photograph to adorn the cover of Thanks For Coming, the debut album from his new alt-rock outfit, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum. Reflecting the sonically lush, lyrically bleak songs inside—such as “Bombed Out Sites,” “Eat an Eraser,” a grim cover of Phantogram’s “Cruel World” and symphonic new single “Armageddon Suite”—the meticulously-selected shot features a windswept entrance to a once-bustling shopping center, now dark, ominous and foreboding. At first glance, it looks somewhat inviting. On second glance, the vibe is more like “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” a concept that pleases Hall thoroughly.
“It’s an actual abandoned mall, and I think it’s in Ohio, but it looks kind of like a museum, which I thought was appropriate, and it also kind of looks like a skull,” says Hall, who turns 50 this February 1, having survived a deadly diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma back in 2010.
Everyone in the trio—which includes Blondie keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and ex-Wallflowers/Morningwood drummer Peter Yanowitz, whom he first me when they were appearing in Hedwig on Broadway together in 2014—signed off on the picture.The idea occurred to the musicians when they were mixing the full-length Princess album (coming in February), which follows last year’s eponymous EP debut.
“Once we started talking about the cover, the notion of an old, decrepit, once-grand mall just seemed like a perfect metaphor, so we started looking online for images of abandoned malls.” Soon, Hall and crew settled on the creepy work of photographer Seph Lawless, who’d shot several decaying marketplaces, some with busted-out skylights, some with rusted escalators covered in snow. “But this exterior facade was the one that grabbed us, so we contacted him and he let us use it,” adds Hall, who sat down to discuss the genesis of Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, a name suggested by Katz-Bohen’s young daughter that also seemed perfectly apt. Katz-Bohen and Yanowitz sat in on the conference call, as well.
Paste: I have to start with this. Can we discuss the film “Gamer” and the positively surreal musical number, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” that you perform as the cyber-tech villain, dancing around captive protagonist Gerard Butler? Whose wild idea was that?
Michael C. Hall: Full disclosure? I was lip-synching. That was Sammy Davis, Jr. And as fas as why that was in the movie, I never got much of an answer from them. But that was the reason I did it. I read that scene and I was like, “Well, that’s weird. I guess I can do that.”
Paste: And Butler kind of blinked in stupefaction. He seems like a nice guy, a real good sport.
Hall: He’s a very nice guy. A really down-to-Earth, friendly guy. So we had fun, and we laughed. A lot. I mean, it was fun for me, before I got in the end, to beat up the guy from 300, and I did it by freezing him with my mind. They had this softshoe choreography, and I tried to make something out of it—the character was a puppetmaster, so I imagined that he was a sort of marionette.
Paste: So what, exactly, did you three bond over while appearing onstage in Hedwig?
Peter Yanowitz: It was an early simulation of actually getting a band together, and we kept hanging out together after, and one thing led to another. But we did get an experience of what it’s like to be onstage, and we had a lot of fun doing the show.
Matt Katz-Bohen: I’ve known Peter for years and years, and we’ve never been in a band together except for now and Hedwig, so—like he said—we got to bond onstage. We cried, we laughed, we shared bathrooms many times. All over the continental United States, actually. And the in-continental United States, if you know what I mean.
Paste: Michael, when did you recognize something special in these guys that could lead to extracurricular work like Princess?
Hall: I had a great time doing Hedwig for all the reasons you might imagine, not least of which was, it was the first chance I really had to front a band. So that happened, and it ended, and it led to Lazarus, in a way. But I became friends with Peter beyond that show, and I was hanging out with him some time after he’d gotten back from the tour, and he played me some instrumental tracks that he and Matt had recorded. And I just casually—without any sort of aspiration or idea that anything would come of it, beyond just having fun or messing around—said, “If you ever need anybody to sing on this stuff, I’d love to just mess around with you guys in the studio.” So I came in, and some lyrics came, and a couple of songs that were on our first EP—we did those first. So it just started happening without any of us making a decision to pursue it. It just sort of presented itself to us, to a point where we realized, “Wow! Maybe we should book a gig! Maybe we should come up with a name! It seems like we’re onto something here.” And we just kept it rolling.
Paste: John Cameron Mitchell was like the new Richard O’Brien. What do you learn from a visionary like that?
Hall: You know, it’s a strange thing playing Hedwig, given that it emerged from such a personal place, from such a singular person. But I certainly felt encouraged to play my version of her. And I think that’s true for anybody who takes it on. But what I learned from him was a sense of artistic adventurousness and integrity—he’s very uncompromising in terms of saying what he wants to say, and that’s a great example to follow, you know?
Paste: Matt, what did you learn from playing alongside a talent like Chris Stein in Blondie for so many years? He once told me about his huge collection of bladed weapons and Aleister Crowley artifacts, which his wife made him move to the basement after his kids were born.
Katz-Bohen: What don’t you learn? Chris is a character, as you know, and I’ve been to his basement, and it’s a terrifying place. But the crazy thing is, before he married Barbara and had the kids, he lived with all that ephemera—mummified hands and Aleister Crowley’s old eyebrow shavings, all that stuff. He’s just been a super-sweetheart, really, ever since I’ve known him, from the beginning. I started playing with Blondie in 2008, and they were incredibly humble—no bullshit at all. It was just like hanging out with old friends, straight from the get-go. And Chris actually took photos of us—there’s a Chris Stein/Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum photo shoot lurking out there somewhere.
Paste: And Debbie Harry even wound up onstage with you at the Mercury Lounge gig last year, right?
Hall: Yeah. She’s been to all but one, maybe two of our gigs. And her singing with us hasn’t come up, but I would welcome the opportunity.
Yanowitz: She’s actually more of a roadie. She helps us with our stuff back home, and she has this energy that gets us through.
Katz-Bohen: She takes a perverse thrill, I think, in being our roadie and trying to lug our instruments around and put them in her car—things like that.
Paste: Here’s more of an existential question for Michael. You got a hold button pushed on things, a cancer-remission reprieve. Do you feel like anything’s possible, creatively, right now? As in, “Fuck it! Why not form a band?”
Hall: Yeah. You know, I’d like to think that before all of that happened, I was living a life that wasn’t completely out of sync with the life I’d hoped to live. But certainly since going through that—the diagnosis, the treatment—it’s a confirmation that there’s really no reason to waste time doing things you don’t want to do. So there’s definitely not really a direct line, but I think maybe the dots do connect from having that experience to the experience of being in a band with these guys. That’s something that I always maybe imagined myself doing in some parallel universe, some other life. And then I came to a situation where I was lucky enough to hook up with these guy, and the parallel universe emerged as being concurrent—it’s happening here, and I’m very thankful for it.
Paste: Not only have you read the audiobook for Pet Sematery, you’re actually a big cat person, and your pets helped you through your lymphoma treatments.
Hall: Yes. But my cats are currently living with a woman that my wife and I consider to be their aunt, but I guess she’s really their other mother in Brooklyn. When I went to London to do Lazarus, and then stayed out that way in Manchester to do another job, she stayed with the cats and came to love them. So they’re actually with her, and I visit and babysit them often when I’m in New York. But I love cats. They’re the most beautiful movers. Uta Hagen, the acting teacher? I think that was a shorthand answer she gave to someone who asked, “How do I find out how to act?” And she said, “Watch cats.” And I don’t think she meant the musical. But I still have my little dog Salamander, but we call her Sal for short—when she was little she was very low to the ground, and very slinky, and well, very much like a salamander. So there you have it!
Paste: I’ve been fortunate enough to interview David Bowie three times. And the first time, we started out talking about Jean Cocteau and just got more amazingly arcane. They’re still my favorite interviews, ever. I’m sure Michael can relate.
Hall: I think the impression that he made on me that was as remarkable as any was his ability to—and this is kind of what Matt was talking about with Chris and Debbie—defuse whatever energy that a less generous person could have otherwise lord over you. I felt immediately at ease and taken in, and seen and considered by him. And I thought it was amazing. The first time I met him, when I look back on him coming in and leaving, I don’t really remember those moments. I feel like he sort of materialized in the room, just appeared in a puff of smoke. And he was a guy where there would be an alchemical shift when he’d enter a room, because, you know, he’s fucking David Bowie! But he had such an effortless kindness about him that was so genuine. He was a hero before I met him, and as they say, be careful about meeting your heroes. But in that case, there was no disenchantment or disillusionment involved when I did get the chance to spend time with him. So rather than being thunderstruck by the gravity of his presence, I marveled at how down-to-Earth he was. It was such an invisible skill, that he was so able to make people comfortable.
Paste: Michael, you even get into that deep Bowie vocal groove on some tracks.
Hall: It’s nothing that I ever really self-consciously did — or do. But I know that a friend of mine noted something to me—the guy I was living with when I was doing Cabaret on Broadway back in ’99 or something, we were listening to “The Passenger,” the Iggy Pop song, and Bowie sings those backing vocals, those “La-la’s,” and he heard it one day and said, “Dude — that sounds exactly like you as the emcee!” So that planted the seed. I was like, “Ohh, yeah! Sometimes without trying I sound like David Bowie singing backup vocals!” So that was exciting. But aside from, that I never really thought about it or tried to sound like him. I think there’s just something about the register or the timbre of our voices that’s similar. And certainly just being a fan of his music probably has an influence on the sensibility I’m presenting.
Paste: Another reference might be the creative genius of early Talking Heads albums. Which—as was made abundantly clear in David Byrne’s recent stage production—still holds up, to this day.
Hall: I saw that show live on Broadway, and I don’t think my mouth closed the whole time—my jaw dropped and just stayed dropped.
Paste: Obviously, judging by some live photos, mascara plays a role in your stage attire. How do you see the show progressing once venues reopen?
Hall: I don’t know. I think for all of us, playing live has just been a process of discovery. We’ve never really talked about how we wanted to go over or how we wanted to seem. We just sort of did what we felt needed doing. So I don’t know. I definitely want to continue to find ways to make it visually exciting, yet cohesive and discombobulated at the same time.
Paste: “Sweet and Low” is your one anomaly—it revolves around acoustic guitar, while everything else is synth- and keyboard-related.
Katz-Bohen: That’s actually Peter and I on guitar—he and I both kind of play everything, so we don’t really have any rules about what gets onto the finished song. We just throw it all on there and sort it out later. And live, we have a very sensitive acoustic guitar set, so that will come out later. And there’s a bunch of guitar stuff on the new album, so we’re really branching out there, too.
Paste: What—or who—is “The Eraser”?
Hall: Um, it’s not really for me to say. I don’t think it’s up to me to talk about what it means beyond what it says—it means whatever its interaction with whoever’s listening to it dictates, you know? “Eat an eraser”—that phrase just occurred to me. And the next line is “Dismiss your brain.” So it’s like, I dunno, eat something or take something or ingest something that allows you to forget or numb yourself, or anesthetize yourself to certain realities. Oh, see? Now I’m talking about it! But whether you blind yourself or numb yourself or check some conscious part of yourself out, the thing remains, you know?
Paste: Who is this “Angela Peacock” of whom you speak?
Hall: She’s my kindergarten girlfriend, and all that stuff is true. And her name actually was Angela Peacock, so I was like, “Well, you’ve gotta find a way to write about that.” It was in Kerry, North Carolina, at Henry Adams Elementary. The Alley Cats were our mascot. I think I still have a T-shirt, but it probably doesn’t fit me anymore. But I was there for kindergarten and first grade, and then we moved. And I walked away from Angela. Maybe we’re still together in some parallel universe.
Paste: When you’re finally checking into a hotel, post-pandemic, one room you don’t want is the “Armageddon Suite.”
Hall: Ha! That’s hilarious! “Now you know, we can actually upgrade you to our Armageddon Suite if you’re interested!” “Uh, no, I’ll just stay in the single room, thanks.”
Paste: Armageddon certainly figures into your recent time-travel flick, “In the Shadow of the Moon.”
Hall: It’s an amazing concept. And if only, right? But who knows? Maybe that technology does exists — we’re just not aware of the agents who are working on it in that way. But I think time, as far as we experience it, only moves in one direction.