It’s Thanksgiving eve, 2021, and a youngish (20s to 30s) crowd of reasonably hipster music lovers at The Sultan Room, in Bushwick, appear to be, well, thankful to be mingling cheek-by-jowl in front of the low-slung stage. The circular room’s space-age, mid-century mien is bathed in blue light, there’s a line at the bar, and about 10% of the convivial patrons are masked. Bouncers check IDs and proof of vax on the sidewalk right outside the front door.
They’re awaiting a New York trio with eclectic talent, a so-far smallish local and national profile … and an arguably world-famous singer beloved mostly for his work onscreen. That said, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum vocalist Michael C. Hall met his band compatriots on Broadway, when the three were in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hall stunning vocally and visually as the titular bewigged genderqueer East German singer.
Multi-instrumentalist Matt Katz-Bohen, whose young daughter suggested the band’s mouthful of a moniker (which doesn’t fare much better as PGTTBM, though “Princess Goes” seems to be the preferred shorthand), is a current member of Blondie; drummer Peter Yanowitz has logged time with The Wallflowers and Morningwood, among others. Hall, known to most through his multi-layered portrayals of TV’s Dexter and funeral director David Fisher on Six Feet Under, is a somewhat enigmatic lead singer, which suits Princess Goes’ art-rockish, dancey, moody, New Wave leanings. There also seems a debt owed to Lazarus– and Blackstar-era David Bowie. (Hall starred in the New York production of the off-Broadway play Lazarus, with the Star Man’s personal blessing.)
The trio could as easily gig with Euro glam-rock upstarts Maneskin, or, had they been a band in the 70s, could have traveled in the same circles as German-born East Village icon Klaus Nomi. Diversity and defying easy categorization can be an artistic boon, though not necessarily for radio or easy commercial success. But Katz-Bohen offers, deadpan, that Princess Goes might get airtime “wherever Taylor Swift is played, I guess. WFUV is a great station. Even New Sounds on NPR.”
Onstage in a button-down black shirt and sooty smudged eye makeup, with angular streaks on his cheeks, Hall emotes with a restrained focus and passion not unlike his TV characters. For this show, Yanowitz shines in a glitter headband, while keytar-keyboard-Thunderbird-bass-playing Katz-Bohen sports an asymmetrical haircut and multi-tasks seamlessly between keyboards and strings.
The group vibe matches the music. At The Sultan Room, they play songs from their 2021 full-length debut, Thanks For Coming, plus older tunes and some new songs slated for the next LP. Many of Princess Goes’ songs feature space-age, cinematic, semi-orchestral post-rock musical elements (think soundtracks to the late-’70s films Coma or Logan’s Run). There’s the creepily haunting, futuristic yet irresistibly danceable “Nevertheless,” which seems thematically akin to “Ketamine,” a song off their 2019 EP that also appears in the first season of Dexter revival New Blood. The lyrics were inspired by Hall’s own guided ketamine journey, which he described in a previous interview as “the phenomenon of having the experience of parallel and in some ways contradictory trips with someone and how that mirrors the challenge of maybe being in a relationship.”
Post-Thanksgiving, Princess Goes headed to the U.K. for their first-ever tour there. After their initial shows, the trio appears on a Zoom screen, smushed together on a sofa backstage at the 200-capacity Esquires club, in Bedford, England. Soundcheck completed, the band talked to the Voice about their full-circle journey during the pandemic.
“We played at the Mercury Lounge on March 12, 2020, the night before New York City shut down. And then the first time we played again was back there, on October 30, 2021,” says Yanowitz. “So it was kind of like finishing what we started.” Of the October return gig, Hall says, “It was like everything had been just a really long, detailed, boring dream. So it was really celebratory. I think people were just really excited to be out and seeing live music in a room full of three-dimensional human bodies.”
When the group started out, several years ago, the lyrics to “Love American Style” were the first Hall wrote for the band. That tune’s still in their set; asked to elucidate on his growth since then, the frontman offers, “I don’t really know. With these guys, I have such license to just try whatever emerges and try to make it work musically. In some cases, the lyrics or a melody comes first, but I think because this is sort of a new thing for me, I try not to spend too much time analyzing how it’s happening or what’s working and just keep going.”
During the 2020 lockdown, Princess Goes completed Thanks For Coming, which they say was not particularly influenced by the pandemic. The grinding, almost headbanging heaviness of “Vicious” segues into a lovely delicate section, the unexpected dynamics perfect. Another sublime live entry is the almost childlike feel of “Tomorrow’s Screams,” Thanks for Coming’s 13th track. On the record and live, the dark drama is compelling and cerebral, boosted to the more primal rock side when Katz-Bohen picks up a bass.
The album-cover image is a photo of a black and white building with four columns under an ominous sky. It’s not a museum, per se. And definitely no butterflies. “It’s a facade of an abandoned mall in Ohio,” Hall explains. “We were interested in the idea of some photograph of an abandoned mall just because it seems to encapsulate something essential about the current vibe in the country. We found that exterior photo, [which] also looked kind of like the entrance to a museum. And it looked kind of like a skull as well. It just resonated with all of us. So we went with it.”
The Sultan Room, site of Princess Goes’ last gig before heading overseas, is a creatively and carefully rendered 300-capacity venue (with a companion restaurant, Turk’s Inn). It is also the first NYC venture for co-owner Varun Kataria. The live room debuted in June 2019, before the pandemic struck. “We took off like a rocket ship upon opening. We were surprised by it,” Kataria recalls. “We presented the music we believed in and people showed up for it in droves. Alicia Keys played a secret show a little over a month after we opened, a jam session with Gary Clark Jr., Kamasi Washington, and Leikeli47, among others. We could barely believe what was happening.” Kataria says that he views The Sultan Room as having “something of a Vegas by way of Istanbul, futuristic mid-century lounge vibe” but with a “Midwestern spirit of warm hospitality, not typical of New York club culture,” and Princess Goes definitely fits that aesthetic bill.
So, is music back in New York City? The answer, from nearly everyone, seems to be “Yes and no.”
Kataria literally says, “Yes and no,” explaining, “On one hand, I’ve had plenty of nights of dancing and seeing shows and thinking ‘this feels normal,’ while on the other, we’ve seen a number of cancellations due to COVID, and international performers getting stymied by COVID regulations or backlogs in bureaucracy.” His experience is that show-going habits are ever-changing. “Some shows have felt surprisingly exuberant, the audience zealously drinking and dancing, while others that we expected to perform well turned out to be duds, beyond any explanation other than something that feels like generalized anxiety about going out.” Says Katz-Bohen, “There’s so much going on and so many shows. We saw Idles play two nights in a row at Terminal 5. Amazing. No social distancing. They were like, sharing spit with everyone in the audience. And gloriously so.”
One might hope that the spitters are triple-vaxxed, as the Omicron variant had just become headline news the night of the Princess Goes Brooklyn show. On the threesome’s U.K. tour, which ended on December 9, in Toxteth, in Liverpool, the band was jazzed to be playing their first-ever gigs out of New York. In our Zoom, four shows into that tour—which would include stops in Dublin and Belfast—the band members offer their take on playing in the U.K.: “Here it feels like nobody’s wearing a mask, and it just feels like people are excited about going to shows and feels kind of normal actually,” observes Yanowitz, “in the sense that a lot of people are turning up for the shows and they’re ready to rock. They were loud and enthusiastic. And they have been for all four shows that we played so far. They’ve been really engaged. They know the music.” However, a few shows after that Zoom chat, one of the band’s too-packed U.K. gigs had to be divided into two performances, due to just-launched capacity restrictions. But bands and audiences both appear eager to cooperate and make concessions if the end result is in-person live music and togetherness.
Kataria observes, “While it does feel good to be back in the swing and presenting events that are generally well attended, it doesn’t really feel like the time to breathe a sigh of relief.” Bushwick, one of New York’s younger, busier later-night scenes, often appears the same as it was in the “before times.” “Shows are happening all over Bushwick,” says Kataria. “But there is a gravity to it, an appreciation that I feel now, and I get a sense that others are feeling it too, that being in dark rooms together and listening to loud music with cool lights and assorted beverages is something we really like to do, and we miss it tremendously when we can’t do it.”
The Princess Goes’ Sultan Room show was packed when the band took the stage. “I’m sure Michael C. Hall’s profile helped with attendance, but in all other ways it was a real rock show, with exuberant performances by the artists and authentic enjoyment in the crowd,” recalls Kataria. There’s a history of actors-turned-musicians, including David Duchovny, Kevin Bacon, and more, and some who go the other way, like Alana Haim and Jared Leto. It’s reductive to dwell on, but also impossible to ignore. “I mean, probably there’s a certain percentage of fans who check out the music because they know me [from TV], you know, and that’s, that’s cool,” says Hall. “You know, hopefully, once they listen to the music, they’re either into it or not. And that’s what it’s about after that, you know, but, yeah, it’s definitely a part of what gets people curious initially.”
Despite their bona fides, like most any new band, Princess Goes’ started at the bottom: small clubs in New York where the band walks through the crowd to get onstage, tiny dressing rooms, and finding time between family and other gigs to create together. They do have what they term the “clubhouse,” their own studio and practice space in Union Square. But the struggle to get a leg up as a band is as real for them as it is for any new lineup. Hall, who is 50 but looks much younger, was in a short-lived band in college, but this is his first shot at the real thing. Each member brings different musical influences to the group, and, as Yanowitz explains, they share “the DNA of playing in Hedwig. It’s not just a glam musical or pop music, it’s a little bit all over. It’s got ballads. So in that sense, we like to keep a palette of all those kinds of music in our writing.”
Katz-Bohen went to NYC’s La Guardia (the high school that 1980’s Fame was based on), Yankowitz grew up with a pianist-composer and sometime-painter dad, but Hall had a more suburban musical experience in North Carolina and Vienna, Virginia. “I was friends with this kid who had three older brothers and we would go down to their basement—red, white, and blue shag carpet—and play their records,” Hall recalled in a previous chat. “I remember getting Queen’s The Game and Styx’s Cornerstone for like my second- or third-grade birthday party. I would listen to them both every day when I got home from school. I remember memorizing the words to “Babe” [Styx] because I wanted to sing it to this girl that I liked after school.”
Reviews of the U.K. dates mention, but don’t dwell on, the fame of the band’s frontman. Writer Natalie Owen saw the Rescue Rooms gig in Nottingham and cited “the charmingly beautiful electronic rock music … where each song has its own identity.” A write-up from the Thekla party-boat show in Birmingham did note that “some members of the audience kept making non-intrusive heckles inquiring ‘what happened to Dexter?’” But Hall? The reviewer writes, “The performer extraordinaire responded to the inquiries with quick wit and the signature smile.”
Although Thanks For Coming came out in 2021, its follow-up is already essentially completed, and the musicians are eager to tour as much as possible. But Princess Goes is also getting its business house in order. “One thing that came out of the pandemic, we were able to find management. We didn’t think that was even something that could happen, especially during a pandemic,” Yanowitz says over Zoom, back at the Esquires club. “We found this amazing group of people [Linda Carbone and In De Goot Entertainment], and they helped us find an international and a U.S. booking agent. Slowly, we’re just inquiring out to people that are into what we’re doing.”
More pandemic bummers, though, haven’t dampened the band’s enthusiasm: “We’re already going to come back over here because we had to postpone our shows in Germany and Ukraine. We’re going to be having fun and exploring what this band can do live, which is this world that is new to us because we’re only really used to playing one show [at a time] in New York, and then waiting. So this is crazy,” Yanowitz tells me, looking around their backstage area, rife with graffiti. “Like, we’re doing shows every night, so every night is different. Energy is different. Our energy is different. We just try to be in the moment and like, see what we can bring to the night, you know?” The band’s attention is pulled away from the Zoom conversation as Katz-Bohen looks to the side, where a club employee is apparently gesturing to Princess Goes that it’s showtime. It’s a bit after 8 p.m. in England.
As for next year, COVID willing? As Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum prepares for their debut show on the Esquires stage—which has also held Muse, Coldplay, and Royal Blood—Yanowitz enthuses: “More rocking in 2022!” ❖