Second act soundtrack

Michael C Hall has made the move into music with more credibility than most. But the Six Feet Under and Dexter star’s switch shouldn’t come as a surprise

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The list of actors-turned-musicians is long and far from an illustrious one. For every commercial or critical success like Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum or Jared Leto, there are dozens of
Steven Seagals, Keanu Reeves and Kevin Costners littering the dustbin of rock and pop history.

“If it was something that I had consciously decided to do, I wouldn’t have decided to do it.”

Enter Michael C Hall, the 50-year-old star of American TV drama series Dexter and Six Feet Under, and latest thespian to swap reciting lines for singing. He claims that a music career “was never something that I imagined would happen or had any attachment to happening” and says he has given little thought about how his efforts will be judged.

“A brave leap? A fool’s errand? I don’t know,” ponders the award-winning actor over Zoom from his New York home. “But I think if it was something that I had consciously decided to do, I wouldn’t have decided to do it. I don’t think any of us planned for this to be a band.”

The bandmates he’s referring to are drummer Peter Yanowitz and guitarist-keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen, who, together with Hall on vocals, make up the expectation-defying electronic group Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum. They came together several years ago after the three musicians met working on Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which starred Hall in the title role. At the beginning, it was just long-time friends Yanowitz and Katz-Bohen making instrumental tracks together. Then one day Hall popped by the studio and started singing.

“I was like: ‘Oh, shit,” recalls Yanowitz on the same Zoom call. “There was an amazing spontaneous creative spirit. I immediately felt that this is somebody you just put in front of a mic and ideas just start coming out.”

“One thing led to another,” adds Hall. “I felt empowered by Peter and Matt to start writing lyrics and start presenting song ideas. It’s almost like the universe played a trick on me and I found myself in this band. I didn’t plant a flag saying the next thing I do will be this.”

If you’re only familiar with Michael C Hall (the C stands for Carlyle) from his roles as uptight funeral director David Fisher in Six Feet Under or droll forensics expert/vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan from the hit TV series Dexter, then the idea of him fronting an electronic music group may seem a little strange. A closer look at his CV reveals it’s not as out of character as it first appears.

Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Hall developed his love of music and performing as a child, first singing in a boys’ choir and later by taking prominent parts in high school musical productions of The Sound of Music and Oklahoma. After graduating from New York University, he began his acting career off Broadway before getting his big break when Sam Mendes cast him as the flamboyant Emcee in a revival of Cabaret.

“Everything opened up for me,” he said in 2004, crediting the show’s Broadway success with kickstarting his TV career. Cabaret also led to starring roles in Chicago and Hedwig and The Angry Inch, the cult queer glam-rock musical about a German punk singer living in Kansas following botched gender reassignment surgery.

In 2015, he played the lead in the acclaimed David Bowie musical Lazarus, co-written and featuring songs by Bowie, who died from cancer shortly after the play’s debut in New York. The actor met Bowie multiple times during Lazarus’s development and describes the encounters as being like a dream.

“It was a thrill. It was humbling. He is indeed a titan, but the fact of that made what a down to earth and kind person he was all the more remarkable.”

Hall says Lazarus gave him the chance to do the “kind of singing I always wanted to do”. It also fuelled his buried desire to one day make music of his own, even if he didn’t acknowledge it at the time.

“It’s only in hindsight does it all make sense. I never saw any one step along the way as something that showed me what was going to happen next. But it’s definitely a fundamental part of the progression to this point.”

Bowie’s chameleonic influence runs through Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s debut album, Thanks For Coming, recorded in New York under the dark cloud of the pandemic and released earlier this year to glowing reviews. Combining elements of edgy 1980s synth pop, noir-ish electro soul and pounding dance rock, it’s a daring, constantly surprising record that carries echoes of everyone from French dance act Justice to industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails and alternative singer-songwriter John Grant.

“Most people who come to see us say: ‘I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t that,” proudly states Hall, who wrote all the lyrics on the album and shares many vocal tics with the one-time Thin White Duke. Dominant themes include existential angst, mortality and the end of the world, possibly born of the actor’s past brushes with death (he lost his dad to cancer when he was 11 and his older sister died in infancy before he was born. Hall himself successfully underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma while shooting Dexter).

“We were writing pandemic songs before the pandemic even happened,” jokes Yanowitz, who began his career playing drums in Jakob “son of Bob” Dylan’s band The Wallflowers. Katz-Bohen spent the last decade touring and recording with Blondie. He calls Thanks For Coming “a very personal album for all of us… We tried to provide that experience of transcendence for people that they weren’t expecting beforehand.”

“We don’t really talk about what we want to say or how we want to say it either lyrically or musically. We just try to get out of the way and let it happen,” elaborates Hall. “It’s sometimes kind of dark or complex, but I think there are a good number of cracks in that dark wall where light shines through.”

The actor says he found the process of writing song lyrics a satisfying change from a lifetime of performing other people’s words.

“You’re not embodying your sense of someone else’s idea. You’re embodying your own impulses.” Looking back to last year when large parts of the record were made remotely during the height of the pandemic, he says the group became a “life raft for all of us. It allowed us to feel connected and productive in ways that we might not have otherwise.”

So far, Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum have only played shows in New York, but audiences in the UK will get a chance to see them live and close up when they embark on their first European tour this winter. The trio promise an intimate theatrical spectacle with a touch of make-up and glitter.

“It’s like a road trip, an adventure. There’s no worries, just more excitement,” enthuses Yanowitz, the most exuberant and outgoing of the three musicians during our interview. Katz-Bohen says the least, perhaps recognising that journalists and the band’s fans are most interested in what Hall has to say. For his part, the actor – who can currently be seen on TV reviving his most famous role in Dexter: New Blood – is a friendly and humble interviewee, keen to play down his fame and the idea that many people coming to see the band will be there just to see him.

“I don’t really get the impression when we’re performing that there’s a huge percentage of people that are there purely because of that,” he politely dismisses. “But if they are, hopefully the sounds they hear blows that away and they just pay attention to what’s happening in the room. I try not to be preoccupied with stuff that I can’t control anyway and that’s definitely in that category.”

A second Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum album is planned for next year, along with more live shows. Hall has no plans to give up acting and pursue music full time but says he finds the process “totally absorbing” and is happy to see where it takes him. “I mean, I don’t even write down my appointments, let alone have a plan for what the future holds,” he laughs.

“This is one of those bands that just came out of thin air and every day it lasts is an unexpected blessing,” beams Yanowitz. “It’s got that special feeling that other projects that I’ve been involved in lacked. And it’s ours. It’s just us three and our energies.”

“It’s singular in my experience: the sense of ownership; the sense of spontaneity and surprise that it’s even happening,” agrees Hall, looking intently down the camera. “It’s up there in terms of the most enjoyable and gratifying things that I’ve ever had a chance to be
a part of, for sure.”

Thanks For Coming is out now on Morpho Music 

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