When singer-songwriter Mike Doughty left his band Soul Coughing in 2000 after eight years and three albums, he didn’t think he’d ever look back. After a tumultuous early career that included irreconcilable relationships with his bandmates and a crippling heroin addiction, Doughty broke free, cleaned up, and moved on. Yet his days in Soul Coughing would always cloud his solo career a decade later, as requests from fans to play his old songs at each live show became more frequent. Last year, Doughty published a memoir, The Book of Drugs, which detailed, for the record, the experience of being a member of a band that produced more strife and emotional abuse than productive creativity.
After getting sober and revisiting the painful years of his early career for his book, Doughty began thinking more and more about the music he produced with Soul Coughing and how it never came out exactly right. Doughty did what most of his fans — and friends — didn’t think would ever happen: he started to rerecord and reinterpret a selection of Soul Coughing’s songs. After a successful campaign on PledgeMusic and an inspiring collaboration with hip-hop producer Good Goose, Doughty recorded 13 Soul Coughing songs for a new solo album. Simply titled Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless How Many Cans? True Dreams of Wichita Monster Man Mr. Bitterness Maybe I’ll Come Down St. Louise Is Listening I Miss the Girl Unmarked Helicopters The Idiot Kings So Far I Have Not Found the Science (a title that lists all of the songs on the album), Doughty’s reimagined journey through his early career will be released September 17, a month before he embarks on a 32-city tour during which he’ll only play Soul Coughing songs.
Yesterday, I sat down with Doughty to discuss the impact writing his memoir had on his career, the pop song as a living object, and what drove him to return to Soul Coughing.
Flavorwire: The last time I talked to you was right before your book came out. I remember you describing it as an explanation of sorts for why you backed away from Soul Coughing so publicly and refused to play the songs again. Did that get you a little bit more understanding from your fan base?
Mike Doughty: Oh, yeah. I got, like, emails of apology from people that had yelled out for “Screenwriter’s Blues” at shows. They had no idea. For some reason, I thought the trauma of the band was, like, radiating off of my skin and everyone knew it.
You were pretty open about the dealings with your former band mates. Did you get any response from them at all?
I really didn’t. Yeah, it was weird. I didn’t hear from them.
That’s kind of good.
It was super good.
To transition to this new album: What was inspired you to revisit these songs?
Well, the book was, like, just dread and horror and blackness, so after… I mean, it wasn’t like I sat down and I was like, “I need to redeem these,” but I guess I just wanted to know what I was thinking at the time, and I wanted to be able to turn back the clock to when I was just sitting in my apartment writing these songs and to think about who I was, what I was trying to say, who my girlfriend was at the time, where I was going… just really sort of separate from that dark story and figure out who I was. I started going to the songs and, first of all, whenever you write a song, you figure out what it’s about years later. Like Haughty Melodic, the whole record’s basically like, “Oh, drugs. I love you, drugs. Where are you, drugs?” And I thought I was writing straight-up love songs. I just like seeing what a dark headspace I was in and how little hope I had. It’s very odd to look back and have compassion for myself, because when I was writing those songs, I fucking hated myself. It’s not just like if you were to read a journal entry and be like, “Oh, man, you said this, and this is what happened, and I wish you knew this, and I wish you knew that,” to your old self. It’s different from when you’re singing a song and you’re inhabiting — not only saying the things that you were thinking at the time, but your muscle memory is somehow reaching back and rediscovering. You know, like the way to play certain guitar parts is just imprinted, so you just sort of go back and your hands kind of do all the work, so you’re kind of accessing the program and running the program, so you do get a certain kind of looking through the virtual reality glasses of who you were when you were 25.
I also think, in terms of a journal entry, you write it and it’s dead. It just sort of sits there. But a song, especially one you play over and over again, is like a living, breathing thing that you can alter to fit your current mood.
Little tiny things change every time you play a song. You say something just microscopically earlier or a guitar move changes in a millisecond’s difference, and you telescope that over 20 years and it’s an extremely different song. One of the lessons of the book was how different everybody’s memory was in terms of like, girlfriends and friends, and they would tell me stories that I was like, “That’s a great story. I have no memory of that.” They had no memory of the stuff that I was talking about, and then we’d go to a third person and they wouldn’t remember any of this stuff. The experience of singing the song and then listening to the recording and realizing that it’s just way different from what you imagined is just another extremely stark lesson in the trippiness of memory.
I just watched this documentary about Joni Mitchell, and she talks about when she transitioned into a touring artist and how weird it was, especially after Blue, to release all this personal material that meant something to other people. When she started touring with a full band, she loosened up and started performing a bit more. I imagine that working with different musicians and producers throughout the years, especially with these old songs, would kind of bring a new perspective to the material because someone else is having an input on it.
Indeed, and one of the interesting things is Good Goose, the producer, is a hip-hop producer, and that was really the language that I was thinking in in the ‘90s, but nobody else spoke the language on any level. There were things that were sort of genre moves in hip-hop music or house music that other people would be like, “What do you mean you want us to repeat that over and over again?” But [Good Goose] would just be like, “Oh, yeah, sure,” click, click. “There you go.”
It also seems like that sort of production has transitioned into pop music a lot more seamlessly lately. You hear it all the time now and don’t even think about how rare that sort of thing was in pop music 20 years ago.
Right. When I first started putting out records, you’d still meet people who’d be like, “Oh, I hate rap music. Oh, it’s just noise.”
But what is rock music but a different noise?
Exactly! You always have to watch out for, “You kids! In my day…” Shaking the finger, you know.
How did you go about finding people to work with on this project?
It was just me and Good Goose in terms of making the record, and then Catherine Popper, the bass player, is just somebody I’ve known for a bunch of years. I met her the day I got sober, actually. The day I got sober, I went to a bar — really dumb place to be— but she had an upright bass and she was like, “Oh, you’re that guy from the band that’s got an upright bass player!” She gave me her email address and then years later: “Well, it’s been about 13 years. Are you still free?” I mean, I’ve bumped into her since; it wasn’t out of the blue. But she’s the best there is on that instrument these days, so I thank god she’s a friend of mine and didn’t make me pay her a zillion dollars to be on the album.
How did you pick the songs you wanted to rerecord? Was it sort of like a “greatest hits” mindset?
Everything I do, I approach with a mindset of, “What am I passionate about? What moves me? What interests me?” There are some people that are happy to go see an artist — and I’m just speaking as a fan — they’re happy to go see an artist that just plays the hits they love, and then there are people who want to see process and passion and want to really see them engage with the thing. I saw the Rolling Stones when I was, like, 19 years old, and I was like, “Oh, you’re not into this at all, are you?” It was just like, “Muhhh… Brown sugar…”
Right, because they’re done moving forward.
Exactly. And maybe —and I’m saying this not with a sneer — maybe making all the money is kind of the art for them. And maybe moving of everybody with the memory, that’s what they want to feel as opposed to that internal process of — ugh, there’s no way to talk about this without sounding like a fucking hippie — just feeling it in you and then sort of presenting to people who then come to it in the show, and then you have that moment of connection in the show. I don’t know. I want to see an artist work it. So these were the songs that I liked, and these were the songs that I was interested in. I wanted to kind of correct what I had disliked when I had done them the first time around, because there were these two competing impulses when I was writing the songs. One was to be very pop, and the other was to be very dance music. And my bandmates weren’t pop people, so they did not get that. They were also very musicianly musicians. So you know, like, play this over and over again the exact same way, and the dynamics are created out of really small moves. In a house track, you start with, “mmb-mmb-mmb,” and then eight bars, you just get, “chk-chk-chk.” When the moves are that small, they’re just like, whoa, that’s huge! A little thing enters and it’s this massive gesture. But it’s really not very interesting if you’re a piano player and you’ve got to go, “ding ding, ding ding ding.”
I know you share the rights with the band mates, so was that a big struggle in terms of —
The legality of it?
Yeah, of getting that back.
No, it’s called a compulsory license, and you can cover any song in the universe as long as you pay. You pay the mechanical royalty to the rights organizations, who then distribute it to the other writers. You can’t license it for a commercial or for a TV show or something without getting everybody’s permission, but there’s no legal issue with just playing the song or recording the song.
Is that where the PledgeMusic thing came from, to get those royalties back?
In terms of paying the co-writers, the legal co-writers on the song, if you sell one album, you owe everybody two cents. With PledgeMusic, the guy from [the site] had been pursuing me for years and years and I was just like, “Crowd-funding is the lamest idea in the world, and who cares?” Finally, he talked me into it, and what was interesting was making it. PledgeMusic is different from Kickstarter in that, with Kickstarter, you’re really like, “I’m going to give you ten bucks and then when the record comes out, I get a record,” Whereas this is more like, “I give you ten bucks,” and then you see videos and you get these progress reports and [the backers] are really brought into the process of making the album, and that’s what was interesting to me. I got Meg Skaff, this video maker, to do sort of mini documentaries of literally every day in the studio, and I was going to do acoustic videos, and so the idea was more than just “Give me the money to make the album.” It’s like, “Subscribe to the Mike Doughty channel” or whatever it is.
And it seems like for this, you’re dealing with a fan base you already have. People who followed Soul Coughing want to see your journey of sort of changing Soul Coughing into just Mike Doughty.
It really is about joining a team when you do songwriting. It’s not just like, “I own this album.” It’s like, “I have joined the cadre and I’m carrying the banner,” which is amazing. It’s really trippy and weird.
The last time we spoke, we talked about this trend of ‘90s nostalgia and all these people touring with full albums. You said you weren’t into that at all, and that’s not surprising considering how Soul Coughing ended. But I can’t think of many people who have done what you’re doing, except when Kate Bush did Director’s Cut, an album where she redid a lot of her old songs. I haven’t heard of this happening as much as it was two or three years ago, but there was this really big thing where the nostalgia concept was so heavy. It was like a marketing ploy.
Yeah. Well, now you look in Time Out and every night there’s three shows that are some band playing whatever album it is in its entirety. And the cue I was taking was from jazz. I hate to be the guy like, “You know, I listen to a lot of jazz…” I’m trying not to be that guy. But there is a tradition of reinterpretation, so you can listen to ten different versions of “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane, and there are differences and the arrangement evolves. The performances evolve. And I just think it’s really interesting to hear songs as they’re revisited, because even for artists that are very specific about wanting to adhere to a template, there are, by nature, small changes that happen, and that, to me, is fascinating. Whereas, “We’re going to recreate every single detail of…” The thing is, so many things when you make an album are just completely off the cuff. They’re like, “Well, we need a guitar thing here because there’s a little space.” You just throw it in there, and then, through repetition, everyone has been listening to it for 20 years, it’s written in stone. It’s going to sound deliberate no matter what. You’re never going to be able to really recapture what it is about that part. You can’t reproduce off-the-cuffness
On your tour, you’re doing other Soul Coughing songs that didn’t make it on the album.
Yeah. It’s probably going to be, like, 20 songs for, like, an hour and a half show.
So you’re doing only Soul Coughing songs?
Only Soul Coughing songs. This whole business started out because I was running down projects in my head, stuff that I could do over the next two or three years. There were a lot of ideas, and one of them was, “Well, what if I did a show of these Soul Coughing shows that I had been sort of playing?” Listening to my own versions — when I say listening to, I mean listening to my inner self. I just wrote a thing to the lawyer that was like, “Can I do this? Can I do, like, ‘Mike Doughty plays Soul Coughing’?” And he wrote back, “No. You cannot do it because it says this and that and the other thing,” meaning in the dissolution agreement with my former band mates. So I went and I constructed the billing, which is this very specific way of billing it and of doing it that would be legally kosher, and I went back to them so many times. I was like, “OK, what about this? What if I adjust this? What if I adjust this?” And finally, they were like, “Fine, that’s legal.” At this point, I had been so deeply involved in the process that I was like, “Alright, I gotta do the fucking tour now.” And I went to my booking agent, and he said, “Could you put out an album of something, just so there’s like a flyer for the tour out there?” That got me thinking about the reinterpreting and adding the kind of beats that I’d wanted to add to them, and then came PledgeMusic and it turned into the mishegas that it currently is.
It’s awesome that it all came together like that. It all seems like it was so seamless.
Yeah. I mean, it really happened so fast. I started thinking about these tiny little legal adjustments to just the billing in a club ad in January, and now it’s like this juggernaut. I mean, juggernaut in terms of my life. This is the closest thing to a juggernaut I’ve ever experienced.