Music

Michael C. Hall on Dexter, Bowie, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum ahead of Belfast show

Michael C. Hall is well known for his TV role as Dexter, 'everyone's serial killer', but music is another love and next week his art-rock trio Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum visits Belfast. He explains to Richard Purden how David Bowie and the character they share inspired the band

Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum play in Belfast next week. Picture by Paul Storey
Richard Purden

MICHAEL C. Hall had already established himself, winning acclaim for popular television roles in Six Feet Under and Dexter while treading the boards on Broadway during a run of the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, before taking on the lead in the musical Lazarus, written by David Bowie and Irish playwright Enda Walsh.

The main character, Thomas Jerome Newton, created by Walter Tevis for his 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, was first played by Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film version.

When Bowie decided to return the character, Hall was handpicked for the role.

"It gave me some sense of licence to embark on this journey with these guys," says Hall, referring to Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum, the New York art-rock band he fronts alongside drummer Peter Yanowitz and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen who will perform in Belfast next week (December 7).

"Not that I knew we were going to do this," he adds joining the rest of the band on Zoom, "it just sort of happened to us as much as anything.

"The man (Bowie) had a sort alchemical power and I got the benefit of absorbing or ingesting some of that. I think along with being reverential, as far as iconic status, I was also very much affected by the fact that he didn't lead with that in his interpersonal life.

"As an artist, he was not of this earth but as a person, he was very down to earth and I was struck by how natural he was. Maybe he made some decision not to hold his status over people, he would diffuse that and look you in the eye with his genuine kindness and enthusiasm for collaborating with other artists."

It would appear the displaced character of Newton, as much as Bowie, has acted as a catalyst. Stills of Bowie as Newton graced the artwork of his albums Station to Station and Low.

The later long-player's shift away from rock towards synthesisers has been a particular influence on the band.

"It's fair to say that Low, Bowie in general and Eno are huge for us," explains Katz-Bohen, who is also a member of Blondie. The band's debut album Thanks For Coming, released earlier this year, quickly won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

"It's gratifying," admits Hall of the overwhelmingly positive reviews, "but we're not getting ahead of ourselves, we put the music first and are glad people are responding."

A shift from one practice to another can have mixed results in the arts, while Hall suggests, "these are my first shows outside New York, I'm a newbie", the band have been together for almost four years.

His theatrical work and some memorable performances alongside various Bowie alumni in his home city have provided notable succour, particularly with saxophonist Donny McCaslin from the Blackstar band: "I love Donny, we've done some tribute concerts where I was three feet away from him when he played the sax solo on Lazarus, it's a transformative experience; he's brilliant."

Peter Yanowitz, who has previously worked with Yoko Ono, adds: "We all stayed friends and kept the conversation going after being part of the Broadway show Hedwig and the Angry Inch, eventually we started making some music."

Hall adds: "I offered to sing and that was the beginning, we started making a whole bunch of songs and one thing led to another."

Unlike the characters he often portrays, the experience of writing lyrics has allowed Hall to draw upon personal experience and ideas.

"What I do (in acting) is maybe predestined, where I'm coming from (lyrically) is not pretending to be someone else, these songs come from an unconscious place. Angela Peacock is about my first kindergarten girlfriend," he says.

For Nevertheless, Hall drew upon "alien abduction" and "being injected with some kind of serum"; it's a refreshing and compelling listen.

Yanowitz suggests their theatrical live performances in New York have also been a boon to the writing: "I think the characters in the writing process come from the three of us and the performance aspect of the shows, there's a little bit of character performance from all of us. I like to step into character on stage and do things I wouldn't do in everyday life, the characters come alive in the set."

Katz-Bohen, a graduate of the LaGuardia performing arts school suggests: "We like to dress up with a bit of make-up, we appreciate a bit of glamour and wildness. Bowie is a great example of how he changed his image, we like to play with that and also in the way we write which is all evolving all the time. The fact we're from a theatrical background lends itself well to the experience."

Some late additions to the album were written when the world went into quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. During that time Hall finished lyrics while considering the reprisal of another significant role in Dexter: New Blood.

"There were many things that came together that created a circumstance where it made sense to go back. I was thinking about it while living with my wife and our dog in the middle of the woods, considering Dexter and what his life might be like," says Hall.

"It was easy to absorb it from the setting I was in with him in mind, living an isolated and monastic existence, and more so at the height of the pandemic when I was putting the record together; it was all grist for the mill."

The character was reintroduced running through the woods chasing a white stag to the soundtrack of Iggy Pop's Passenger from another Berlin album, Lust For Life.

"One of the writers was interested in not just using score music and Passenger was suggested, it's a bit of a tongue in cheek nod to Dexter's Dark Passenger, the song is whimsical, laid-back and badass like anything Iggy Pop does.

"It cuts just at the la-la-la- chorus Bowie sings on, it was fun that his voice worked its way in."

Hall gravitates towards the shared themes of "self-imposed exile" that manifest through both Dexter and Newton.

"It's a phenomenal coincidence, there's something about Thomas Jerome Newton and Dexter but maybe there's no such thing as a coincidence. I'm fascinated with someone who has the impulse to impose that on themselves and whatever frailty or trauma inspired such a choice, also the strength that goes with executing such a choice, all those things are interesting to me."

When not playing an alcoholic alien in his time away from the vigilante serial killer, Hall voiced the role of Batman in Justice League: Gods and Monsters; was it a pleasurable distraction to play a less morally ambiguous character?

"Dexter could be interpreted by some as Batman," suggests Hall, "but he's not interested in fighting the good fight; it's more about managing his Dark Passenger," he says.

"The Batman I voiced was in a different universe rather than the customary one but yes, it was a little less heavy with him."

Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum will play Ulster Sports Club, Belfast on Tuesday December 7.

Dexter: New Blood continues on Sky Atlantic.

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