I was driving to work back in 1994 when I first heard "Screenwriter's Blues." I still remember stopping on the way in to talk to friend about this song I heard and he said, "Screenwriter's Blues? I heard it too." It was amazing that he knew, as soon as I walked over, exactly what song I had heard. It was just that striking. We caught Soul Coughing on their next trip through Baltimore. Mike Doughty opened the show by reading a downright disparaging review of Ruby Vroom
from the local City Paper. At the same time, with their first album newly released, the band already enjoyed a small, but rabid fan base, fans who called out for "Janine" and sang along with "Casiotone Nation."
Now, fifteen years later, Soul Coughing is long gone, but band leader Mike Doughty is on his third "official" solo album with the recent release of Sad Man Happy Man
and, while he's changed i some ways, he's still enjoying both the fickleness and enthusiasm of fans and critics. I recently had the chance to talk to him about the new album, his musical direction, the Question Jar shows and how his many projects fit together. Musically, you've made both big and subtle changes over the years. Each time, it seems that fans and critics react strongly. Is that frustrating or encouraging or a little of both?
Generally what I find is that people like what I was doing two years ago. So right about the time I put out Golden Delicious
, everybody was into Haughty Melodic
and right about the time I put out Haughty Melodic, everyone was really into Skittish
. So it takes people a minute to catch up and unfortunately, I often react to them without being smart enough to realize that it's gonna take a minute for people to come around to whatever is new. I did this record mostly acoustic, because I think that's what my audience was looking for. I think they wanted more like the Skittish
type vibe and I hope that I don't put it out to a lot of handwringing that I should've made another Golden Delicious.Despite the musical changes over the years, your work is almost always easily identifiable. What do you think is the common thread to everything you've done over the years?
I don't really know. I'm way too close to it to be able to ascertain what my real personality sounds like from the outside. I guess I'm constantly making reference to city names, which I'm not sure I'm doing as much on this record. I mention [one] on "How to Fuck a Republican" and...there's a bunch of them. Bangkok is mentioned twice. The city names thing is definitely my schtick. Other than that, you'd have to ask somebody else.Your first instrument was bass and your music has always been rhythmically interesting. Do you think that comes from approaching things as a bassist or is it just the natural direction of your musical ideas?
That's a good conclusion to draw, but I was a lousy bass player. I was one of those bass players that wants to be a guitar player. I dunno. I guess at some point, I wanted everything to sound like a break beat off of a hip-hop record, including the way I was strumming an acoustic guitar. When I was 19 or 20 years old, I was obsessed with making everything funky. Whether they're funky or not is another question, but certainly rhythm is a huge focus for me.I always liked how Soul Coughing kind of mixed the old and new with elements of acoustic jazz alongside samples, etc. You've continued that as a solo artists also, but you also seem to mix the clever, hipster, more aloof stuff with a more intimate approach.
I definitely am focused on being emotional in my writing. I try to dig up the emotional truths in things, whereas Soul Coughing was all surface. Glittery, shiny, wonderful surface, I hope, but all surface. Do you feel like your music has a more personal side that we hear, for instance, on songs like "Rising Up," "Diane" and "Year of the Dog"?
Evermore as I get older. As I've been getting older, I'm getting more detached...Like "Diane" is basically a song about my mom. Now I can do that kind of thing, whereas at one point in my life that might have been kind of scary to me. I get older and I get braver.You also manage to get in social and political commentary as on "Pleasure on Credit". How do find that the more public commentary works with the more intimate songs? How do they feed off of or enhance each other?
It's a difficult thing for me to hash out, because I'm just kinda writing the stuff. It's just sort of all bubbling out of my unconscious and I'm just sort of writing it down. So I don't really go into it with a conscious attitude of "I'm going to write 20% political and 80% personal observation or what have you." So, it's a mystery to me.You chose David Kahne to produce "Doubly Gratified," the album's first single, because he can produce something that is both radio-friendly and experimental. That's a tough line to walk.
Absolutely. I don't know anybody else that walks it. He's a very particular kind of genius. I'm just a huge fan of his. How do you feel about accessibility versus experimentation? Does one take precedence over the other? Does one lead the other?
I think he just basically looks for emotional drops in the song, sort of moments of resolution or moments when it lifts a little bit. He's just open to any way of solving that musical problem, so if it's some cheesy harmony that solves the problem, he'll do that, or if it's a completely whacked out bizarre sound, he'll do that. He's always about serving the music as opposed to thinking about, "Is this gonna fit? Is this gonna not fit? Will this be cool enough or uncool?" He's all about the song. Solving the song. Do you think his approach is more on a song by song basis?
Yeah, absolutely. He doesn't have a dogma that he works from. It seems like that suits what you do well, because you move around musically and lyrically.
Well, I should point out that the rest of the album was produced by Pat Dillett who is of a similar mindset. He's a guy who will pretty much endorse anything as long as it gets the song to the place it needs to be. He's not an arranger like David is. That's the difference.Recording and touring is now a two man show for you. How did the time you spent in Soul Coughing, in a band setting, influence your decision to work this way? What are the ups and downs of each?
When I had a band last year on the Golden Delicious
tour, it was similar to Soul Coughing in that, as a band leader, I really lean heavily on the musical personalities of the people that I'm working with. I'm not looking to impose my will on what anybody's doing, I'm looking to coax something out of them that's very individual and very unique. Even when I'm just touring with one guy, with Scrap, I'm doing the same thing. I'm really trying to get him to the point where he's just playing out of his subconscious rather that second-guessing what I'm gonna like or not like.You've said that you see yourself sticking to this acoustic duo approach to touring for a long time. Do you think that will lead your music to continue in a more personal direction?
Gosh, you know, you never know. I bet if I made a prediction right now, it would be, by natural law, completely overridden in like a month, completely reversed. Anytime I verbalize something, I tend to then immediately do a reversal, so I have to be careful what I predict. So the big picture is anything's open at this point?
Yeah, pretty much. Hopefully that's life on every level, not just musically.Joe Jackson once said that you should play what you want, because if you're excited about playing it, the audience will be excited too. Your Question Jar shows are kind of the opposite of that, taking requests yelled out from the audience and candidly answering questions they drop in the jar.
Oh no, no, no. People will put requests in the jar, but I'll only play them if I feel like it. The jar is mostly for questions. People definitely will put requests in there, but it's not the reason for the jar. So, you still come out with a set list?
No. Actually, we call it as we go. I figure out what I'm starting with and generally have an idea of how long I'm playing. You know, I have a clock on stage and when it gets to be about an hour and a half, we start wrapping it up. But anything between is just whatever I feel like playing at the moment...and sometimes requests. So you really do subscribe to what Joe Jackson said?
Well, not totally. All the songs from my solo career that have been on the radio, I'll play and I'll play "Circles," one of two Soul Coughing songs out of whatever 20 songs or so. So, I'm definitely sensitive to what the audience wants to hear. I'm just not going to play anything that I'm really not psyched about playing. Whether or not people get to hear the song they want to hear, it's a drag to watch and listen to someone go through the motions, so I just try to play things that I'm excited about while also paying attention to what the audience wants. In addition to setting the vibe for your live show, how does the Question Jar and the no-set-list approach feed you as a songwriter?
I don't think it really does, because writing is just completely its own thing. I mean, it's a similar strategy in that I really sit down and try to figure out what the song wants to be as opposed to saying, "Well, I'm gonna do this song that does X, Y and Z," because I think you just get better songs if don't really try to impose your will on them, as odd as that sounds. I guess it's kinda the same in terms of a show. You have to kind of let them turn into what they want to turn into.In addition to Sad Man Happy Man, you also have an electronic album in the works, a memoir and a photo book as well as your blog. Do you find that all of these projects fit together or do you work on them in isolation?
They relate to each other in different ways, but it's not like I sit down and say, "I'm gonna do a blog that's a reaction to this song," or "I have an idea and it's gonna be a blog or a piece of prose." I just sort of generate everything as it is and it sort of coheres in my life somehow in a mysterious way that I can't really fathom. Say you're working on your memoir. Does a memory brought up by that trigger perhaps a song or something like that?
Yeah, there's stuff that happens like that where you'll write down an idea while you're working on something else. It actually can be a great way to write songs, just to be doing something else. Song ideas tend to be like really sort of little gem-like ideas that you expand on, so that can work really, really well.
------------- So far, his approach has worked out great and that should make his many projects as interesting as all that he's done thus far. Mike's new album came out October 6th, so pick it up and catch him on tour this Fall.