Sunday, December 28, 2014

INTERVIEW: Mike Doughty (October 2013)


One of the more bizarre and esoteric acts to bag a major-label deal during the 90s alternative boom, Soul Coughing boasted a sound quite unlike any other. Packing equal parts beat poetry, hip-hop, “deep slacker jazz”, drum‘n’bass, rock and indie, the quartet gained a strong cult following reputation across three varied albums, even managing to score minor hits with what became their signature tunes, Super Bon Bon and Circles.

Their frontman, Mike Doughty, was - and to my mind, remains - one of the most instantly-recognisable voices in music today. His detached hipster drawl and sideways turns of phrase have served his subsequent career well, with acclaimed solo albums like Haughty Melodic and Golden Delicious showcasing a distinctive brand of acoustic hip-hop that’s gained him a whole new following - one for whom his previous band may be a happy discovery rather than a given starting-point.

Of course, Soul Coughing themselves disintegrated in a messy haze of ill-feeling and addiction in the late-90s (as candidly recounted in Doughty’s 2012 memoir, The Book of Drugs) - so much so, in fact, that Doughty subsequently refused to play any of the band’s songs live and even uttered a quote that I suspect would have followed him to his grave if he hadn’t later redressed the balance: “I’m full-bore bat-shit crazy with regards to Soul Coughing. If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear fuck you.” It therefore came as a surprise to many when Doughty announced his intention last year to release Circles Super Bon Bon..., on which he re-imagined and reinvented thirteen tracks from the Soul Coughing back-catalogue. 

Truth be told, as a long-term admirer of those recordings, it wasn’t always entirely successful - for every track which benefited from a cleaner or simpler arrangement, there was often another which was arguably better served in its original incarnation. Nevertheless, it made for fascinating listening, providing a neat insight into the artist’s true intentions for each song and helping to reconcile Doughty’s fractured relationship with his own career path to date. Perhaps more representative was the superb Live at Ken’s House LP from earlier this year, a snappy live session recorded on the back of the album’s tour cycle which restored a greater sense of body, force and elasticity to the studio versions’ often slightly clinical rendering. Either way, both albums proved excellent showcases for the early songwriting efforts of this unique and talented artist. 

With five releases in the past few years alone, Doughty maintains a prodigious work schedule - since this interview, he’s put out a brand new studio album, Stellar Motel (bagging another minor radio hit Stateside with its banjo-led lead single, Light Will Keep Your Heart Beating In the Future) , as well as completing work on an improbable rock-opera based on the Book of Revelation. I caught up with him via Skype last year to discuss this unexpected reappraisal of his early work.

Reading your book, it seems like revisiting your time in Soul Coughing is akin to opening up an old wound! You’ve put quite a lot of distance between your own solo work and that with the band, and in that respect your own success has been fairly hard-won. So I guess the question is: why now? What made you want to go back to these songs after all this time?

I have been trying to come up with, like, a succinct, easy-to-articulate line for all the interviews I’ve been doing... [laughs] And I got nothin’. I got nothin’! It’s like... I started picking around with these songs, and I met Good Goose, the producer, and suddenly things started rolling - and before I knew it, it was an album and a tour. And I swear to God, I have no insight into why it was psychologically timely!

So it wasn’t the case that you wanted to be able to ‘reclaim’ the songs and perhaps align them more with your overall body of work for posterity’s sake?

Sure - I mean, I definitely would love to be able to relate to the songs as something that I wrote, and sort of have an insight into who I was when I wrote ’em, and what I meant when I wrote ’em... but why now? I couldn’t tell ya.

What was the selection process for the tracks on this record? Did you pick the ones that were your favourites originally, or did you go for the ones which you felt weren’t best-served in their original versions with the band?

Well, I thought there were sort of two competing impulses that were frustrated in Soul Coughing. One was more ‘pop’, and the other was to make club bangers. I mean, I was listening to house music, I was sort of halfway living in London in, like, ’96-’97, I was going to The Blue Note for Goldie’s night, hearing Grooverider and Doc Scott and Krust... and you know, it was all about drum‘n’bass; never got to make the drum‘n’bass records I wanted to make. So, it was like: halfway more-palatable, halfway less-palatable.

Soul Coughing was always quite a frustrating band in terms of the way the songs (and particularly the albums) came out - it seemed at times like there was an almost deliberate complication of what could have been quite straightforward arrangements. I get the impression from reading The Book of Drugs that this was more down to the band trying to pull it in different directions.

Yeah - it was a very ‘musicianly’ band, you know. You have to... you know, if the band’s a cooperative, you definitely have to cater to that. But I’m not the only guy in a band that wanted to be more pop, or more weird, or... I’m not the only guy who had his impulses kind of ‘curtailed’ by the band.

I read one review of your book which wondered why, if your time in the band was so traumatic, you actually stuck it out - but it seems to me like you were almost aware at the time of being cursed with having an amazing band who were absolutely lousy bandmates. Is that an accurate description?

Uh, in the sense that yeah, I think we had a lot of muscle - I think if the band had been what I wanted it to be, it could’ve been amazing, you know? But why I stayed in the band...? I think that there was just something about being in a fucked-up relationship that was, you know, where my consciousness was at. I don’t think... if miraculously I’d made it out of the band, I’d think that being who I was at the time I’d have immediately jumped into perhaps an even more fucked-up relationship.

Obviously it’s your own account, but you seem to be the only one in the book who didn’t seem to step up and say, “This is how I want it to be” - whereas the others picked apart the songs ad nauseum. Do you think if it was five years down the line, you would’ve asserted your personality a bit more? Do you think it was because you were the youngest in the band?

Yeah, I think it was because I was the youngest in the band, and they didn’t want... they didn’t like the idea of this 23-year-old kid that was on a trajectory that they weren’t on.

But you were the person who brought in the songs, and of course originally it was called ‘M. Doughty’s Soul Coughing’ - do you think they were just sick of playing back-up to  other people and wanted the band to be a cooperative?

I don’t know, it’s... I have very little insight into their mindsets. There’s a lot of... it’s funny, they were all in their thirties, but a lot of these problems happen when somebody’s in their first band that makes a record - except that most I know that it’s happened to were in their early twenties, and they got over it. Uh, and for some reason... it was just a fuckin’ sick, dark relationship, you know? Like, I got nothin’ - if I had a rational explanation, maybe I could’ve made things better while the band was still in existence.

Do you think that in a way the masochism partway fuelled the songs? Particularly on the last album [El Oso], things went quite dark and there were a handful of clear ‘drug songs’ - obviously your personal circumstances came into it, but do you think you were masochistically thriving on it at the time?

Sure... absolutely.

...And that’s that!

[Laughs] Well, I mean, it’s... you know, how to elaborate on that... ?! I mean, the whole eight-year existence of the band was pure masochism in and of itself, in that I didn’t show ’em the door, you know?! So to some degree, the questions about “What were the causes?”...I get asked a lot what would I have done differently, but it’s like asking what travel to Spain would be like if the ocean wasn’t there! Like, what I could’ve done differently was be in a different band - starting in 1992...

This is perhaps a bit of a personal one, but given what an obvious heartache that period was for you and the effect it had on you personally, were you not worried that by delving back into that past it might act as a trigger for your various addictions?

No. At all - totally not. I feel pretty solid in my non-using life. It’s funny - if you read something, if I read a poem that I wrote twenty years ago, you’re standing outside it. But if you play a song, you’re looking out from inside the song - it’s like putting a suit on or something. So it’s both more self-conscious and less self-conscious than examining other kinds of art that you may have made years ago.

Was the process cathartic? It almost feels like this record isn’t so much for the audience as much as it is for you, in a way...

No, I mean, I definitely, like... there was a crowdfunding campaign, so I was very aware that it was for an audience, because they had paid for it. In advance!

Was it therapeutic in any way, though?

I don’t think so, you know - I mean, therapy is therapeutic. Making records is art.

I’ve always thought that you’re one of those writers whose individual perspective or personality always comes out in the work somehow. Like, if you’re not addressing a subject directly, you’re able to talk your way around it - True Dreams of Wichita being a great example. Are you able to almost ‘disconnect’ yourself, in that respect?

Disconnect myself...? Um... lyrics that seem extremely enigmatic to the listener, I look at as if they were a straight narrative, because they come from such specific events and places, mentally. [Thinks] ...Yeah. [Laughs] Sorry, man!

As someone who’s a Soul Coughing fan, this is possibly a bit of a loaded question, but I’m interested to hear your take on it. Although they were your songs to begin with, once the band put its stamp on them, they actually physically become something else - so that that version of it actually is the song. I know that in the liner-notes to Lust in Phaze you express quite an affection for some of those original recordings - particularly The Idiot Kings.

Yeah.

Do you ever feel that the band added to those songs in any way, or was it the case that you simply couldn’t get past what they’d done to your original intentions?

Well you know, it’s funny - I did the NPR [National Public Radio] network in America, one of their bigger shows: Weekend Edition. And I was dreading it because they were gonna, like, ‘A-B’ Soul Coughing songs with the new versions. And it was like, oh God - on NPR, of all places! And one of the ones they chose was The Idiot Kings - I was like, “Oh, great, and they’ve chosen one of the tiny handful of Soul Coughing songs I like the recording of!” [Laughs] And basically it’s a song that I did not because I wanted to improve it, but because I dug it and I wanted to play it, you know? I wanted to hang out with the song. Um... and I liked mine better! [Laughs]

It feels to me like that’s the one which is the most different of the new recordings - it sounds almost a different chord sequence on the new version.

No, no, it’s the same chords - the chords are just obscured [on the original]. I mean, it seems defiant, but... really, I just wanted to make the record I wanted to make. I just wanted to have that shot, you know?

Are these songs now as you want them, then, or as you wanted them originally? Are they the ‘Director’s Cut’, so to speak?

Yeah, you could say that. I mean, of course it’s... there is an intervening two decades, so I don’t really know what I would’ve made of them if I had had a chance. I wish I’d just straight up made records with DJ Premier from Gang Starr!

You did that absolutely fantastic collaboration with BT [Never Gonna Come Back Down] - is there anyone else who you’d have on a wishlist to work with?

Ah... I don’t know, I think [that] had I a wishlist, I would’ve gone after some people, you know? I’m definitely not a shy guy... I guess I had always coveted a real hip-hop producer; somebody that really spoke that language. And I guess I just never felt comfortable calling somebody up out of the blue, and then I met Goose and he was improbably a huge Haughty Melodic fan. He was asking, like, what compressors did we use, how did we tune the drums, and all these kind of weird technical questions that I just have no idea or no memory of what we did, whenever it was  - 7 or 8 years ago. So he just sort of presented himself, and that’s how I found the guy I’d always been looking for!

I always thought you’d do a killer collaboration with DJ Shadow. Was that ever something you’d considered...?

I mean, he’s awesome - for damn sure, he’s awesome! Yeah, I mean, like, there’s a million guys... Q-Tip. Oh gosh, you know... The Dust Brothers. [Laughs] The Chemical Brothers. All the brothers!

You were around with the band while the UK drum‘n’bass scene was coming up, so you mingled with the likes of Goldie and Roni Size. You must’ve had your pick of that lot to work with, because it was a bit of a two-way relationship in terms of mutual respect, wasn’t it?

Yeah, I don’t think they really, uh... I think we were a little bit too weird for them...? Of course, we did some stuff with Roni and DJ Die and with Krust but, uh... Actually, we were talking about making a record with them - and then they won the Mercury Prize like a month later. So it was like: “Alright! There goes that!”

Were there any tracks that you wanted to do on this new album but couldn’t figure out how to? I was quite surprised to see Monster Man and I Miss the Girl on here - I would’ve thought that they were perhaps a bit too esoteric or ‘weird’ to translate into a solo version.

How do you mean, ‘too weird’? Like, too weird for -

Well, they’re so driven by the drums in the original versions - another one I would’ve thought would be near-impossible is a song like Rolling, for example, because it’s so structured around the beat pattern.

Well indeed, they were written to an SR-10 sampler and a couple of beats copped from Doc Scott records - so I would, like, play the loop and then sing to it. And then eventually, by the time I got to those songs, I just went in the studio, put the loop down on tape, sang to the loop and then split - then, you know, did my best not to care what came out the other end! Yeah, but I feel like Monster Man, Miss the Girl and [particularly] How Many Cans? is something I’m extremely proud of, because they’re the actual drum‘n’bass club bangers I wanted them to be - whereas before they were sort of a live band’s version of what they thought a drum‘n’bass record sounded like.

I have to say, I was playing How Man Cans? to my girlfriend the other day and told her to pay particular attention to that fabulous lyric: “Is you am a dog? / Is you got a dog?”

[Laughs]

I just think that’s stupendous. How did you come up with that?

Oh - no idea, man! I mean, I’m always keeping a notebook, I’m always writing, but I sort of look at the stuff I’ve accumulated after a couple of years when I sit down to assemble them into songs, and with very few exceptions I’m like: “Where the hell did this come from?!” I’ve overheard it, or it’s a newspaper line, or I’ve paraphrased something I heard on the radio... you know, there’s a lot of misheard lyrics that I write down - it comes from all over the place; it’s just being in the world and paying attention.

So you’re not a stream-of-consciousness writer but more of a ‘scrapbooker’, maybe - you just pick things out of the air and note them down?

Yeah, it’s all, like, phrases nicked from the world. I mean, I definitely do some journaling, it’s very stream-of-consciousness, and I will go through with a razorblade, so to speak, and find sentences, phrases, cut ’em out and then put them in the notebooks. But in general I’m not like an A-to-Z, start-with-the-first-lyrics-and-work-through-to-the-bridge-into-the-chorus kind of songwriter.

Here’s the one I’m really interested to know: have you heard anything about this record from the other members of the band?!

I have not! I mean, you know, it’s... I don’t know. I mean... uh... I don’t know!

Presumably you just don’t have any contact with them whatsoever.

Yeah, I mean... yeah. The band wasn’t a friendship.

I was surprised from reading your book that you don’t even mention them by name in there - was there no fallout from writing that (or, if there was, have you again just not heard about it)?

No, I mean, there’s legal things that happen every once in a while - we got a lawyer; I tell the lawyer essentially what I’m looking for out of any particular business deal, but I don’t communicate with anybody but him, you know? The pseudonyms - or the lack of pseudonyms for my bandmates in the book - is because of the fact that I just came up with shitty pseudonyms! Everyone else’s pseudonyms were pretty good, but when it came to the band members, they were just sort of too-elemental figures in the story for me to come up with some kind of half-assed fake name; it just felt better to identify them by their instrument names.

I don’t know if you ever considered this, but because you refer to them as ‘The Bass Player’, ‘The Drummer’ etc, it’s almost as if you’re taking charge of the band retroactively and stamping your authority on it - do you think that was something of a psychological underpinning, or am I reading too much into it?

Oh, I mean... I think that for however I feel about the band, I certainly think that every musician then was integral to the way the records sounded. I don’t like the records - but I’m certainly going to acknowledge the contribution of my bandmates.

In the book, you mention having a relationship with a girl from a “minor-league British guitar band” in the 90s - I wrote her name and Googled it but nothing came up, so I figured it was a pseudonym.

Oh, it’s a total pseudonym. Total pseudonym.

Would you reveal who it was...?

...I would not! [Laughs] I would not. [Chuckling] Ohhhh, my gosh...!

I did do another bit of digging though - the guy you said you were on the energy-drink tour with in the late-90s who you reckoned had replaced his various chemical addictions with women: was that Art Alexakis from Everclear?

[Whimsically] Oh, well... aw, there’s birds over there! I’m lookin’ at those birds. Wow! What lovely birds. I’m thinkin’ about lunch. What am I gonna have for lunch? I’m sorry, was there a question...?!

One of my favourite lyrics of yours is when you say that you feel like you’re “Looking at the world from the bottom of a well”.

[Laughs] ...Yeah!

It seems to me the most perfect encapsulation of your worldview - is that a perspective that gets easier to adjust to as time goes on, or do you think you’ll always view things in a kind of offbeat way?

That image comes from a Haruki Murakami novel, actually - and when I had just gotten clean, I was hanging out with David Johansen a lot from the New York Dolls. And he asked me how I was doing and I said, “I feel like I’m looking at the world from the bottom of a well” - just mentioning the image from the book just out of the blue, and he’s like: “Ohhh, that’s gooood, you should write that down!”

That’s a really good impression of him...!

[Laughs] Yeah, I do a good David Johansen. Don’t tell him! ...You know, I’m a pretty positive guy; I mean - the real lesson of... okay, Haughty Melodic is basically about stopping doing drugs for the most part, but I think at its heart it’s a positive album. It’s a hopeful album. And listening to, singing these Soul Coughing songs,  I was one bleak motherfucker back then, I gotta tell you! [Laughs] I had no idea just how darkly I viewed the universe!

Even on Mr. Bitterness? Did that not give you a bit of a clue...?!

[Laughs] Yeah, well, you know what, the obvious is sometimes not so obvious!

So, last one: what are your five favourite songs that you’ve written, or which are the five you’d best like to be remembered for?

Uh... White Lexus... Janine... True Dreams of Wichita... 27 Jennifers... uh... buh-buh-buh... I Keep On Rising Up.

That’s a good five. I’ve got to tell you - no messing here, True Dreams of Wichita is one of my favourite songs of all-time.

[Laughs] Thank you so much! I wish the best to the UK - I wish there were more dudes in the UK who felt that way, because I wanna come over there and I don’t do it often enough.

Are you planning on coming back over anytime soon? I presume the current tour is just going to be limited to the US at the moment.

Yeah, I mean, once a year... ‘once a year’! Once every two years, I go and play basically London, Berlin and somewhere in Belgium or the Netherlands - and I can draw, like, a hundred people in each place. It’s basically a pleasure cruise rather than a tour, but I do it when I can. So I’m hopin’ so - I’m hoping sometime in 2014.


Circles Super Bon Bon... and Live at Ken’s House are available now on Snack Bar/Megaforce Records.

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