In the run-up to the February 12th release of their debut full-length Thanks For Coming, Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum talked with QRO (over Zoom). In the conversation, singer Michael C. Hall (Dexter), keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen (Blondie), and drummer Peter Yanowitz (The Wallflowers) discussed the new album, making it mostly during the pandemic (but writing more “pandemic-y” songs before the shutdown), using iPhone-recorded demos, how it’s compared to their previous work like together the Broadway musical Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Hall ascending from “crude acting,” playing in New York literally the night before everything closed, singing or not singing in videos, keytar, unimpressed NYC subway riders, and more…
QRO: How are all of you holding up, during all of this?
Matt Katz-Bohen: I think we’re all better, knowing that we have an album coming out soon. I think that’s helping our mood considerably.
QRO: Are you all quarantining in New York City?
Peter Yanowitz: Yeah. I’m in Greenwich Village, Matt’s out in Bushwick, Mike is in Massachusetts right now. But we’re all from New York City.
QRO: Have you been here since the early days of the pandemic in March?
PY: Yeah. Weird times, right? That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced. Walking around the Village without a single person, or being in Washington Square Park and being the only person in the park that day. That was kinda weird.
I’ll never forget those first few months.
Strangely, I think some of our pre-pandemic songs seem the most ‘pandemic-y’, you know?…
QRO: You made some of new album Thanks For Coming during the pandemic?
PY: I’d say most of it.
We’ve been recording pretty much non-stop since we formed three years ago, so we have tons of music recorded. We dove in, and took a few of our ideas from that, and also just a lot of creativity came out this year, because that was our instinct, was just to keep making stuff, so we did create a lot of new material, specifically the last eight months.
QRO: How much was your writing/recording affected by the crisis? Did you end up dividing between pre-pandemic & pandemic songs, or did you try not to?
Michael C. Hall: Strangely, I think some of our pre-pandemic songs seem the most ‘pandemic-y’, you know?… [laughs]
There are some songs we wrote before the pandemic started that seemed to have it in mind. I don’t think we set out to write songs about the pandemic, but inevitably, you know, it seeps in to your experience of the world, and certainly seeps into whatever you might be inclined to express.
But we don’t think of it as a ‘pandemic record.’
QRO: How did you get yourselves to not just cancel the studio sessions, to just put it all off until ‘things get back to normal’?
MKB: I think recording was something we all had to look forward to, and collaborating remotely was a lifesaver, in many respects, for us, to be able to have a shared goal. It was an incredible thing to be able to have that during this bizarre lockdown experience, quarantine experience, whatever you want to call it.
QRO: Did you record all at one place, or did you do it individually?
PY: All of the above.
A lot of it was recorded near Union Square, some of it in each of our own studios.
Mike was upstate for part of the year, and would send us vocals that he had sung into his iPhone, and just send them to us. And some of those vocals actually ended up on the record, which was kind of fun. Just because they sounded really good; iPhone has a great little microphone on it.
QRO: But those weren’t intended to be the final?
MCH: Yeah, that just sometimes happens, the demo, you can’t beat it. There’s some sort of quality to it that you can’t quite recapture, so we just kept it.
MKB: Like Nebraska, the Springsteen album. It’s kind of that vibe. Sometimes the demo is just better than…
Or it just has that vibe, and you don’t want to mess with it.
[Recording] was an incredible thing to be able to have that during this bizarre lockdown experience
QRO: While you’ve all been doing music for years, have you felt any extra pressure with this record, as it’s the first full-length for Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum?
MKB: I think there’s always some degree of pressure.
Yeah, I don’t know – what do you think, Peter?…
PY: I think the only pressure maybe came after we had recorded a lot of songs, was just figuring out the sequence, and which songs, and which songs to leave out.
That’s always the toughest part, I think, is finding out what completes the picture, or the statement.
But in general, no, I don’t think we felt any pressure. I think we felt mostly release, of getting these ideas out.
And finally, of all things, we found management this year, which we didn’t really expect. We work with Linda [Carbone, Press Here Publicity], which is amazing – we’ve been working with Linda since before the pandemic.
We found our people that are helping us get our music to the world. We created our own record company called Morpho Music, which will put out all our records. We signed a distribution deal with Redeye [Distribution].
It’s been kind of the opposite of pressure. Just more all these opportunities have started coming our way.
And a lot of that had to do with the fact that we had made this record, and people really responded well to it. So, it’s just been a great experience for us.
QRO: Why did you decide to have your cover of Phantogram’s “Cruel World” (QRO review) as a bonus track?
PY: I don’t think we wanted it on the record, cause it’s not our song, but we’re big fans of that band.
Matt sent us a text, and was like, “Hey, we should cover this song. It seems like a Princess song that they stole from us six years ago, and wrote it…”
No, we’re just fans of the band, and it seemed to fit with our aesthetic, so we recorded it, and it ended up being a bonus track.
A musician descends down to the crude acting art form, that’s acceptable, but an actor sort of aspiring to be a musician? I get it.
QRO: Other than the pandemic, how has making music for Princess compared to your previous works?
PY: This collaboration is one of those gifts from the universe.
Matt & I have been in a lot of bands, and Mike has done a ton of collaborating with people. And speaking for myself, this collaboration is one of those gifts that just comes easily.
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s three of us, maybe it’s the fact that we’re at a certain point in our life, but there’s a real openness I share with these two guys that I find very, very rare.
There’s an ease to it, and not a lot of preconceived ideas or thoughts. It’s all just responding real time to each other, to each other’s ideas with very much open hearts and open ears.
So, it’s been a real beautiful blessing.
QRO: I was wondering, Matt, do you get to use the keytar more?…
PY: Fuck yeah… [laughs]
MKB: Yeah, I pretty much can use it whenever I want, which is great. There’s no restrictions placed on it. There’s only encouragement for the keytar.
QRO: You all had met as part of Hedwig & The Angry Inch. Were you at all worried about comparisons to it?
MCH: Not really, no. I mean, no. No, no, I mean, no… [laughs]
MKB: That show is so what it is. It’s a glam band who’s fronted by a person who’s gone through a very particular life story.
We’re not really a glam band, we don’t really have guitars in the band. It’s kind of all keyboards – well, there’s some guitars on the record. Live, it’s just been keyboards, Peter on the drums, and Michael up front.
I don’t think we were worried anyone would mistake us for Hedwig, necessarily – although it could be cool if they did…
PY: Hedwig did give us the sense of what it’s like to be in a band together, before we were Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum. So, it was just a nice project to be involved in.
Something to build on, more than be intimidated by it.
Most New Yorkers on the subway just kind of ignored us…
QRO: Michael, did you worry about the general ‘Oh, it’s an actor trying to be a musician…’? It’s a stereotype, like when musicians try acting…
MCH: I think musicians becoming actors is generally more sort of acceptable to people, you know?
I didn’t worry about it. I mean, I was certainly aware of the stigma, but nothing to be done, you know?…
I guess it makes sense. Acting is, on the tier of artistic expression, I think a bit of a cruder art form.
Music is something that, at its best, is more… divine; it’s closer to the gods. A musician descends down to the crude acting art form, that’s acceptable, but an actor sort of aspiring to be a musician? I get it.
But, you know, what are you gonna do?… [laughs]
QRO: I just saw the David Bowie musical Lazarus livestream (QRO livestream review) for Bowie’s birthday (January 8th) – which is also my birthday…
MCH: Oh, cool.
QRO: Except they had the press preview, which was in the afternoon two days before – which was when they had the storming of the capitol…
MCH: Oh, yeah…
QRO: Kind of the worst time – and it was live, so I couldn’t pause it…
MCH: Right, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, there’s something going on over here…’ [laughs]
QRO: I know you said you’re not a glam band, but definitely felt a Bowie feel to Princess.
MCH: Yeah, definitely.
QRO: But you could say that about a lot of musicians…
MCH: Yeah, his reach is wide.
QRO: Are you bummed that you can’t immediately tour behind Thanks?
MKB: I think it’s safe to say we’re pretty bummed that live playing isn’t an option right now. That’s something we’ve always wanted to do.
We had some shows booked in California right when lockdown hit, which we had to cancel.
So, yeah, we can’t wait to just play everywhere.
QRO: QRO had a photographer at your Mercury Lounge (QRO venue review) show in New York on March 12th, that last thing before everything shut down…
MKB: Yeah, that was a bizarre & surreal experience for all us. And for everyone there, too.
We had no idea what was coming. We just didn’t know…
When we got there to load in, we found out that Mercury was gonna close its doors, I guess, indefinitely. So, we just kind of looked at each other like, ‘Oh, this is weird. So, this is the last show that Mercury’s gonna have for a while. I guess we gotta make it a good one…’
QRO: Had you thought at all of delaying the release until you can tour?
PY: Our EP came out in April, and we didn’t hesitate at all.
I think our idea is to get as much music out as possible, whenever we can.
We’ve been a band for three years, and now we’re finally releasing our first full-length. We can’t get it out fast enough.
The pandemic – what are we waiting for? There’s nothing to wait for. The world needs music.
QRO: Yeah. Do you think you’re at all maybe more impatient to release stuff now, than when you were young? When you’re in your twenties, it takes time, but when you’re already established musicians…
MCH: We might be dead in three years… [laughs]
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s livestream for Paste Magazine:
QRO: Have you thought of doing a livestream or something to celebrate/promote the release on release day?
MKB: We did a livestream for Paste Magazine, which is on their YouTube and all that stuff.
And I think we’re doing a live Twitter Q&A session on the album release day, February 12th. So, people can listen along with us, and we’ll all share our thoughts, all at the same time.
QRO: For at least some of the songs on Thanks, I suppose that you’ve never done them in front of a live audience?
MCH: Some of them, yeah.
There’s a good number of them we’ve done, but yeah, I don’t know how exactly it pans out, but maybe like half of them are just ‘laboratory experiments…’
QRO: Are you at all nervous about whenever you get to play them live?
MCH: No – excited…
PY: There’s a little bit of nervousness for me, whenever I play live. I think that’s part of the live thing.
I think the excitement way outweighs any trepidation we have about playing our songs.
QRO: Do you still have the face paint from the Mercury Show?
MCH: Yeah, that just, I don’t know… It occurred. It just seemed to be what was supposed to happen for the first gig. It just kind of evolved, the whole face paint thing.
It’s just fun. It makes it feel more like a… ritual, or something.
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s video for “Armageddon Suite”:
QRO: You’ve also been making some great videos during the pandemic. Has that somewhat been because you can’t do other stuff to promote the record?
MCH: I think we would have wanted to make them anyway, but we definitely cherished the fact that we had a chance to do something. Along with recording the record, making the videos was a lot of fun. It was a chance to run around in the woods…
QRO: Where did you go to make the video for “Armageddon Suite”?
MCH: Upstate New York, in Ulster County. I have a place in that part of the world, and we did it in that part of the world.
And that was Peter’s Bronco…
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s video for “Vicious”:
QRO: I also liked the video for “Vicious” (QRO review) that was done on the NYC subway. Were you singing, or were you just lip-synching?
MCH: I was singing into a little portable microphone, and Peter had this tabla beats machine that he was playing, and Matt was playing the Casio. It wasn’t like ‘blaring’ when we were playing on the subway.
We didn’t know what we were gonna do. We just went onto the subway and filmed it, and that’s kind of what came of it.
One thing that we kind of expected, and proved to be the case, is how most New Yorkers on the subway just kind of ignored us… [laughs]
QRO: Completely – I loved the non-plussed reactions of the subway riders!
But it came out in May, when I wasn’t going to be on the subway…
MCH: Yeah, that was a bit of a time capsule, too. It was right before everything went…
MKB: We shot it in March, early March. COVID, I guess, was maybe in the city, but nobody was worried about it.
QRO: I’ve really liked your videos, like your 3D image capture for “Eat An Eraser” (QRO review).
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s video for “Eat At Eraser”:
And the one for “Cruel World”, was that done in the same place you did “Armageddon Suite”?
MCH: Yeah, more or less.
PY: Two-for-one, upstate…
QRO: Did you notice that the “Cruel” video never actually shows Michael singing, just holding the mic?…
MCH: Yeah, we made a decision…
MKB: Those bastards, wait, they didn’t put that in there?!? Dammit!… [laughs]
MCH: We did that on purpose.
We just thought, ‘Let’s not do a cheesy, straight-up [mimes holding a microphone seriously] lip-synching thing…’
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum’s video for their cover of Phantogram’s “Cruel World”:
-header photo: Paul Storey
-Mercury Lounge live photos: Howard Shiau