Nine Songs: Michael C. Hall
Michael C Hall has a band. And he knows what you’re thinking. “It's an inevitability that people will suppress an eye roll at the thought,” he laughs. “And we do encounter it.”
Even when he was little, the Golden Globe-winning performer, perhaps most known for portraying sweetheart serial killer Dexter Morgan, tended to keep his aspirations to himself. “I never announced any plans to be on a stage of any sort, because I didn't want to subject that information to people's scorn or scepticism. And as far as any aspirations to make music, I mean, obviously, those stayed underground for a long time.”
Indeed, Hall’s debut as a recording artist was unplanned. Whilst performing as the titular character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, he met keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and drummer Peter Yanowitz, who had pulled together some demos they described as “Giorgio Moroder meets Black Sabbath”. Hall asked if he could try adding some vocals, and Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum was born.
The fact that all three members met on the set of a rock opera makes a lot of sense. Even the band’s name has a kind of fragile grandeur; the melodrama of their songs tempered by throbbing electronics, driving bass and cavernous reverb. On the band’s debut album, Thanks For Coming, Hall’s voice is unmistakable: stage-crafted and tightly enunciated, but with an audible cynicism. “I think I might be inclined to characterise my voice in some way without really consciously thinking about it,” he admits. “To give whatever voice I'm singing in some sort of point of view. I love Bowie, who characterised his voice in different ways throughout his career, even in different ways over the course of a song.”
It’s clear that Hall’s fandom extends far beyond pop’s most visible veterans. He is a blur of excitable hands when talking about his love affair with Kyuss; impassioned in our brief divergence into The Loudness Wars and the power of hearing air on a record. Early on, he shows me a scribbled A4 pad full of notes on the songs he’s selected - “to stop me devolving into ribbons of sentences that don’t end”. Given his eloquence, it feels like an unnecessary insurance.
Hall’s Nine Songs choices, he explains, are designed to reflect the tastes of his band members as well as his own. Aside from their love of Sabbath and Moroder, they overlap quite a bit. “There's also a singer/songwriter appreciation that exists in all of us. And we're all people who came up in the ‘80s as well. So there's probably something in our unconscious, our shared musical DNA.”
Not being “a new person”, he says, joining a band hasn’t held the same terror as it might have 20 years ago (and without an already booming career in the arts). “But without some dose of trepidation, that ‘I want to slip off into oblivion’ feeling, it's not worth doing anyway,” Hall smiles. “And It is certainly a different experience to put over something that you have collectively created with other people, rather than embodying someone else's words, ideas, world. It’s been welcomed and invigorating.”
As for his expectations of rock stardom, Hall is characteristically modest. “I'm just like, hoping to play on the steps of the temple where some of these people reside.”
“This one is pretty list-worthy. It’s all gonna be downhill from here! The first time I encountered “Purple Rain” was probably around fifth grade, and I associate at least my initial memories of it with school dances.
“It was always a slow song so you would ask people to slow dance, but it's got something sort of unabashed about it. So if you ever were slow dancing to the song, there would be moments that felt a little more dangerous than your usual dance. I mean, I marvel that he walked among us, you know? He was an absolute wizard, as a songwriter and vocally and musically.
“But I think what maybe took my appreciation of him - and of this song - to the next level was when I was doing Dexter the first time around. If Prince was in Los Angeles on a night that he knew people were out, he would have some of his people call and invite people to his house to play impromptu concerts. And I was lucky enough to be invited to one of those one night. I mean, why wouldn't you do that if you were able to do that? I think he did it to keep his band tight. And I think he did it to blow people's minds.
“I happened to be with my three best friends and we got the call probably around two in the morning. I was about to go home and go to bed, because I had to be at work at 6:30 the next day. The next day I ended up actually falling asleep on camera, because I was so tired!
“We were driven to the address provided and got out at what looked to be this Tuscan Villa. We were ushered up the front steps, someone greeted us and said, ‘There's food in the kitchen if you'd like. And also, if you head down the stairs, Prince is playing.’ Obviously, I chose to go downstairs. I went down there and it was the size of a decent sized basement room, I would say maybe 25 by 25 feet, just ‘Wow’. Drums in one corner. bass guitar in one corner, keyboards in one corner. And then in the other corner and along the wall, was Prince himself.
“The sound was impeccable and he basically played an entire show, he never made a false move. He could have been onstage at Madison Square Garden and people would have gotten their money's worth. When I speak of it with those three friends, or I see other people who were there - there were probably like 15 to 20 people down in the basement - we check in and reconfirm that it really happened!
“As you can imagine, among the songs he played, he played “Purple Rain”. He was roaming around, but he almost had a force field around him… you didn't want to get too close to him in case it would extinguish the dream. But then it came to the guitar solo in “Purple Rain”, Prince was standing right in front of me and I involuntarily fell to my knees. And he played the solo into my face.
“It was crazy, and I'm still not convinced it really happened. Maybe when I heard those slow songs when I was in sixth grade, there was some part of me intuiting this future moment where Prince would play that guitar solo in my face, and that’s why I got so charged by it!
“The gig ended about 4am, and at that point he walked up the stairs which led directly to the stairs up to his chamber. And we just watched him; no one tried to touch him or talk to him. And then we all quietly left. It was like the end of the worship.”
“I discovered Tom Waits when I was in College and “That Feel” is the last track on Bone Machine, the first one that came out after I discovered him. So it was the first new Tom Waits for me, and I loved the jangly Keith Richards guitar and the hobo chorus. The sound of the whole record feels like it's emerged from a junkyard. And, as far as someone who characterises their voice, Tom Waits has a voice. It’s obviously genuine and authentic, but it's also its own kind of theatrical, he was an actor as well.
“This song reminds me of the first book of the Tao Te Ching - ‘The name that can be named is not the eternal name’. I feel like ‘that feel’ that he's talking to in this case is that ineffable, mysterious, essential part of the conscious experience that we can't quite name and we can't quite taste, but it's closer than our tongue. That thing that pervades everything that cannot be taken away, that can soothe us, that can torment us. The thing that allows me to have a memory of that kid at the slow dance, and in spite of the fact that cellularly I'm not the same piece of flesh, both he and I knew that we are... me.
“That’s a pretty profound aspiration lyrically, but his lyrics are also so totally playful at the same time. The profundity informs the playfulness, and the playfulness takes the edge off the profundity and just... Waits knows things, you know?”
“Well, I said I'm keeping the band in mind with most of these selections. Matt plays in Blondie now, and Debbie Harry has actually been to, let's say all but one of our shows in New York? We've played probably 15 shows. On occasion, she’s even allowed us to fit some of our equipment into her Jeep and drive it back to our studio after gigs. So yes, Debbie Harry is our roadie.
“And I know I'm not talking about the song yet. But we did a gig on my birthday on February 1, not this past one, but the one before everything shut down. She was there and she led the audience with “Happy birthday”! That's up there on the playlist of nine moments, along with Prince playing “Purple Rain” to my face.
“But for me, the first time I encountered Blondie I lived in this little town in Virginia for three years, from second to fourth grade. And I think this record came out around then. I had a lot of friends who had older brothers that had record collections, and this one was via Steven, whose two older brothers had all their records downstairs in a basement. I associate the song with the red, white and blue shag carpet of that basement. And this song being the sound of youthful exuberance and defiance at the same time. Or the exuberance of defiance. It's like lightning in a bottle, a coiled spring of a track that never quite gets released.
“And I find the vocal to be a nice counterpoint to the track. It's peaceful and romantic in its way. And also, she has this ability to lean back, but also shoot through the air like an arrow at the same time. I'm not quite sure how she does it.”
“What did I write for this? ‘Beneath the roots of the strongest tree runs a vein of honey, that sounds like Nina Simone's voice.’ She's one of my favourite singers. There's something about this live recording that you can almost hear the air of that room that she commanded. We were in the Belasco Theatre, which is on 44th Street and the Town Hall where this was recorded is on 43rd. So I would listen to it, almost imagining that it was echoing through the passageways and the alleyways between the buildings. It really put me in an invigorating, melancholy place that felt right for the show - or right for anything. I think it manages to be both those things at once.
“You can hear that hiss and you can hear the attention. And this is the first track; I mean, she came out on stage and did this. Talk about having people in the palm of your hand.”
“I think I love sad music because it makes me feel less bad, because it makes me feel less alone. For there to be undeniable beauty mined from the bleakness of this song's lyric suggests that there's beauty and bleakness you know?
“In Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, he came up with this logotherapy that basically is ‘If life is meaningful, all life is meaningful. So suffering is meaningful, my experience in this concentration camp is meaningful.’ I'm not saying that Thom Yorke is singing about being at a concentration camp, but he's singing about the bleakness of insignificant existence. And any maggot that emerges from being squashed. But that life isn't beautiful in spite of that, it’s beautiful because of that.
“And you know, Radiohead, have you heard of them? They're a pretty good band! [laughs] But it’s the perpetual blossoming of the sound of this song. It's like the sound of a time-lapsed, blossoming rose that somehow continues to blossom and grow other heads. It's just magic.
“OK Computer came into my life when I was just out of grad school. I was living in a sardine can with two other guys in New York, pounding the pavement and trying to make things happen. And anything that gave credence and legitimacy and beauty to my own little personal sense of struggle was the food I needed… and still need.”
“Shortly after I made a decision - at least to myself, without anyone else - that I wanted to be an actor, I got a summer gig at a theatre in Northern Vermont. I drove this little Toyota Celica, I had a tape deck and there was a cassette tape, and it was stuck. On one side was the album Astral Weeks, and on the other side was Blue Valentine by Tom Waits. And so this record played all summer, all the time, whenever I was driving, and I never got tired of it, and I still don't.
“I love that a lot of this was recorded improvisationally. And you can kind of hear that, that you're listening to something being discovered. You're listening to the moment of discovery, it's like a great jazz recording or something.
“Oh! And the lyrics [checks notes]. They’re a longing for transport, for transcendence, for deliverance. There's very specific images of a beloved, but also at times it sounds like a love song to God, to the mystical, to the beyond. And it’s also the sound of buzzing summer. It's so alive. It sounds like if you just took the stem of a summer garden, the flapping of Hummingbird wings. And his voice is like a muted trumpet. There's something kind of covered about it, but it's also just shooting through.”
“It's hard to fold Kyuss into just any old playlist, but I kind of love to. Kyuss is definitely a point of intersection for the band and me. And this song, there's no better undistilled, adrenaline-fuelled track that I can think of. If I make any list of songs, there has to be at least one that’s like that, that paints that colour.
“And let's see… they're the most kick ass band ever? The greatest exemplars of the Palm Desert, stoner rock thing. I’ve been listening to Kyuss since the ‘90s, and I still listen to them now. But it was when I was living in LA that I listened to them in probably the most concentrated amount, and I found that when I was driving around in LA traffic this was a good antidote to my potential road rage somehow. I don't know why. It seems like it might stoke the fires of it, but it kind of alchemises swirling chaos into this black diamond.
Best Fit: Is that what you wrote?!
“Yes! The incredible Nick Oliveri and Brant Bjork rhythm section of that band. And then Josh Homme’s singular guitar sounds. And John Garcia, their lead singer. He's like, if Satan were your friend... he's just that, he’s the devil. But there is something very quintessentially evil about the sounds he makes. In the best way. I also like that there's a sort of snarl to the lyric, but he's ultimately saying, ‘I'm going to lay waste to the Gods that would make us slaves to the green, so that we can just enjoy some fellowship, man.’”
“He has so much air coming through his voice that it's almost like he's singing alongside some whispering version of himself. It's just like... magic. And in the way maybe the Tom Waits song was atypical, this one is too.
“He's a guy who definitely struggled with self-acceptance, or lack of it, and who struggled with being a person in the day-to-day world. Generally, there's something about this lyric that it almost sounds like his version of positive self talk. Or the best positive self talk that he could muster.
“My friend had the Fruit Tree box set of those vinyl records. And this one is from Pink Moon of course. They're like an invitation to humility, but also courage in the face of people who might otherwise be shit talking or inspiring your envy. I think I heard this at a time when I was trying to figure out who and what I was about, and whether I was going to be able to make anything happen for myself, and there's something about his music generally, and this song, that it’s some more beautiful melancholy.
“Like all of the best music, hearing Nick Drake for the first time was like discovering some internal space that I had inside myself, it unlocked the key and lived inside this little stone chapel inside me, echoing. I think all the best songs give you the sense that you've discovered something that's been living inside you, and you were able to unlock the door and experience it.”
“I had to pick a Dylan song, and it's sort of like a fish in a barrel! But my wife and I recently discovered a tape version of the Andrew Scott Hamlet, that Robert Icke directed, as she happens to be studying that play at the moment. And the soundtrack of that play is all Dylan music. If anyone can stand up to The Bard himself, it's the living, breathing one. “Simple Twist of Fate” is not one of the songs that they use though; it's mostly late Dylan.
“He does this in so many songs, but it's like a collage of cliché’s that create a new singular image. The assuredness of his phrasing, of his delivery. The way he brings you to all these different places and lands you back at this ‘simple twist of fate’ refrain. The experience of it is so simple and effortless, but it's masterful.
“In this case, it's about the beauty of regret. Like sometimes if we're forsaken by love, or by a twist of fate, or we can replace the beloved with that regret, fetishise it and cultivate it and keep it afloat, and that's how we keep what we lost from disappearing. There’s a lot on Blood on the Tracks that’s about that kind of thing. There’s something earthbound and ordinary about the lyrics, and yet they name something otherwise unnameable.”