‘Don’t do anything that you dislike’ An interview with Mike Doughty
Since leaving Soul Coughing in 2000, Mike Doughty has released a couple of EPs, a half dozen records, toured in a few configurations and played here at KDHX (twice!). This year he’s got two albums out, “Dubious Luxury” and “Yes and Also Yes.” He was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the new albums, music and other odds and ends.
Nick Cowan: So how’s life treating you, everything cool?
Mike Doughty: Doing pretty good, I just put this band together for the fall tour and I’m super stoked about them. I’ve got the right drummer, Scrap’s gonna play electric bass, and Dan Chen, who I played with a bunch of years ago. He decided to not play on the road anymore but called me up and wanted to be part of it. So, I’m really excited.
So who’s the new drummer in your band on this tour?
His name is Pete Wilhoit. He played in Fiction Plane, and Dan Chen knew a guy who knew a guy and came up with Pete.
Why a full band this time? Last time it was you and [bassist] Andrew “Scrap” Livingston.
Basically, I wanted to do it. The album is a very bandy type of album and I want to have that fully expressed on the tour. But a lot of it was that I just wanted to do it to switch it up.
You’ve got two albums out right now, both of which are very different, “Yes and Also Yes” and “Dubious Luxury.” What was the spark that made you think, “Man, I’m gonna do these two records right now?
Well, “Dubious Luxury” I had been tinkering with for years and was in shape to be released two years ago, but I never found the right moment to do it, so I just put it out before “Yes and Also Yes ” came out. And of course, “Yes and Also Yes ” is the meat of what I do as a singer-songwriter.
I think a lot of folks know you as a singer-songwriter with other vibes going along with it.
Yeah, I totally tried to make sure everybody knew “Dubious Luxury” wasn’t a singer-songwriter record. Hopefully people listened to the snippets before they spent their money. It’s way different. I don’t sing on it for one thing.
It’s mostly found voices, right? And a couple of other folks that sing on it, the gal who sang on [Soul Coughing song] “Janine”?
Yeah, basically for most of it I just sat friends of mine in front of a microphone and got them to record a whole bunch of phrases. One of them was Rachel Benbow who sang on “Janine,” the answering machine vocal. She’s on a couple of other songs — one with a fake Ukrainian accent, one without.
Do you think your audience is more adventurous than your average listener of, say, more commercial stuff.
I. Don’t. Know. Jeez Louise. I’m just glad people keep showing up, I’m glad they’re listening. My tastes are pretty bizarre. I listen to a lot of sublime frequencies like radio collages and stuff like that. I always listen to WFMU [independent radio station around NYC], they play bizarre stuff. I’m really about songwriting, though. I can really get into, like, a Katy Perry song for the level of the craft.
Just for the good hook that goes along with such a tune.
Yeah, pretty much.
Is your use of frequencies and stuff like that influenced at all by your days as doorman at the Knitting Factory?
That was a really interesting time for me, musically. On one hand, there was this amazing world going on with hip hop in NY. All these incredible records with incredible MCs. A huge part of that music is atonality and noise and it’s, you know, sampled music. A pretty experimental musical form.
You’re talking about Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad stuff, right?
Yeah, at the same time I got that gig at the door at the Knitting Factory. I saw John Zorn and Marc Ribot and Tom Cora and such great avant garde jazz and classical and noise artists. I’d never really listened to that stuff before. It really galvanized me.
Going back to “Yes and Also Yes ” you worked with Dan Wilson again. You guys seem like you have a really simple and easy relationship.
We do, indeed. But this time he was a co-writer, Pat Dillett co-produced the record. But yeah, Dan is really, really smart, an awesome guy to hang out with.
I get a feel for that from his music, solo and with Semisonic.
A rather slept-on band. A lot of people didn’t give [Feeling Strangely Fine] enough credit.
That happened to a lot of bands in the ’90s, sadly called one-hit wonders.
Speaking of that, with a ’90s nostalgia kind of thing starting to ramp up, are you getting calls asking about a Soul Coughing reunion?
Just the idea of stepping back into that band literally makes me nauseous. There’s not a check big enough on this earth.
I was curious to find out if anyone is trying to reunite you. Did you ever think in a million years, both when you were with Soul Coughing and had songs on the radio, and a couple years after that when you were in a car doing solo acoustic gigs, did you foresee this in any way?
I foresaw myself working. I didn’t know where I was gonna be in terms of having a hit record and being a gazillionaire, or [if] I’d have the audience I do now, I’d still be working. I’m reasonably confident that as long as my throat and hands are operational I’ll be doing this job. It’s a great job, a job that I love.
Even before Twitter and Facebook, you’ve always been active and taken great advantage of the Internet. How has that changed over the past 10 years now that half the universe is on some sort of social network?
I think it’s a happy coincidence that I’m really into killing time online. It’s not based in any kind of…it doesn’t take a lot effort. I don’t have to make myself sit down and blog, I’m always on a laptop. Basically addicted to the Internet.
At least you can admit it!
But I’m lucky to have an audience that likes to read that stuff.
Your lyrics, just by themselves, are pretty damn literate. “Day By Day” is just one example, it reads like poetry.
You’re too kind.
I’m trying to control my fanboyness. How do you write your lyrics? Does it start as a poem, a lyric, etc?
I keep notebooks; just always listening to stuff in the world, write down interesting words and phrases; things I’ll hear or that will come to mind. Just a wealth of fragments — linguistic fragments. Then I sit down with a guitar and start working on melodies and draw from that and try and stitch it together into the verses.
Kind of like a Burroughs-esque cut up way but with your own stuff.
Yeah, but there’s not the element of randomness. Burroughs’ thing was by chance. I’m meticulous about it but it’s akin to that.
When you decide to write, do you sit down and think, “I’m going to write an album now,” or just collect songs?
I don’t really know. I think at some point, I have enough stuff that I know I can make an album, even if I don’t have 12 songs, but have enough that puts me in the mindset to where I’m going to write the rest of them, and schedule studio time. That’s a good question. I don’t really know. Making “Haughty Melodic” with Dan Wilson was this super arduous process. Flying to Minneapolis, a week here, a week there. Extremely painstaking recording process. Had all these different guys and block by block made the album. But since then, just when I have the songs, well, I don’t know.
Maybe this next one is unanswerable: When you write the record, and figure there’s enough songs, do you find that you’ve written too many songs?
Yeah, usually I have a bunch of outtakes, red-headed step children. Gosh, I have four or five tunes that didn’t make it onto “Yes and Also Yes,” and two or three more that didn’t make it onto “Dubious Luxury.”
Will those be released at some point?
I don’t know. A lot of them are just not very good. If they were good I’d definitely put them out. Also there will be something that’s not quite good enough, but there’s a “thing” there that just sits, like it’s gonna be something someday. And then two years down the line you take a piece of it or add a piece to it, just do something where it becomes a good song.
You talked about how you have notebooks with different phrases in it. It sounds like once you put those together you might revisit that thought process to finish off a song?
Yeah, absolutely. Some people might suggest a change to the chorus or something, and all of a sudden…a lot of songs came in with the first batch with this album ["Yes and Also Yes"]. There were a couple of things where I didn’t know about the song but the bridge was great, and another song needed a bridge, so I was able to put them together.
Or Nikki Sixx just shows up and fills in the blank.
No, he was not in the house. The song “Na Na Nothing” came from a song he wrote with Dan Wilson and Dan Gerard, who actually wrote a lot of “High School Musical.” Dan [Wilson] played it for me and one part was really nice and I took it.
I saw Nikki Sixx in the liner notes and wondered how it worked. There’s no way two people spell that name exactly the same way.
Well I never talked to the guy; I think my manager talked to his lawyer or something like that. But technically speaking, Nikki Sixx and the guy who wrote “High School Musical” and I wrote a song together.
We’ll add that to whatever six degrees of separation is out there for music. By comparison, Rosanne Cash seems a little more conventional.
Yeah, “Holiday” was the song I wrote with Dan [Wilson] and the mission of the song was to write a Christmas song that wasn’t sarcastic, that was genuinely emotional, was not corny, and didn’t draw on the emotional experience of what Christmas is for some people. There’s a note in there I couldn’t sing, just this one high note, and I thought, “Well, if I turn this into a duet, and get a female singer, she can do that note and I’ll do a little harmony and it will be fine.” I went for broke and asked for Rosanne. Absolutely didn’t think it was going to happen, and she said yes.
You have a book of poetry out called “Slanky.”
Yeah, it’s pretty old though, I wrote it in 1996 or 1997.
You went to the New School University, I’m sure that had a huge influence on your writing.
Oh, yeah, I had a great poetry teacher named Sekou Sundiata, and Susan Worth Parks was an awesome, amazing playwriting teacher. And then from there I played in bars, going to open mic nights, dragging acoustic guitars around town.
Was that the sort of thing where you had to do cover versions of stuff, or were you able to get up and do your own material.
I played my own material, “Nights of the Chameleon” and stuff. I’d play two or three of my own songs and gradually pushed my way into full sets and kept struggling.
Going back and talking about your writing, are there songs that you think, “This is my ‘Like a Rolling Stone’” and is there one that’s your “She’s My Cherry Pie”?
I don’t have grandiose ideas about “this is my ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’” Since I’ve been a solo artist I’ve made records that I’d want to listen to. There’s a simple criteria that makes for better art: Don’t do anything that you dislike. So, I’m proud of pretty much of everything. There might be a couple of songs off “Golden Delicious” I don’t really like but other than that… .
What sparked you to write your autobiography “The Book Of Drugs”?
Basically, somebody asked me to. I had a bunch of really good stories. I wouldn’t really call it an autobiography; I think it inflates it a bit for my purposes. A memoir is what I’m technically supposed to call it. I just had a bunch of good stories that I’d been telling people and Da Capo Press just kinda called my bluff, and I wrote the book. Pretty stoked about it.
You started your own label, Snack Bar records, three or four years ago. What made you start that up?
Well, you want control. It’s great to have absolutely everything up to you, and honestly, the other thing is you get the money. The hard thing is that you have to put all the money up. So when it’s time to make a record you scrounge up the dough, beg favors from people, so in that sense it’s challenging, and there’s a lot more work and anxiety involved. One of the valuable aspects of being on a label is that they do a lot of work for you. I’m stoked about it. It’s cool when you look at, I don’t know, AAA radio songs and its Capitol, XL and Snack Bar. It’s cool to see that in there.
I missed you when you were here in October 2009. But I got to hear the show because you recorded it at the board and sold it immediately after show. It was awesome. Are you doing that again?
I hope so. One of things that made that work was I had an awesome person doing the merch. She was super organized. It’s a pretty hefty operation to record the show, and make a disc, and copy it. You need some pretty competent people doing it. If I find the right person I would love to.
You really benefitted from Napster, and might be the one person to benefit from the collapse of the record industry as we knew it.
Well, I mean, the real tragedy of that is it takes so much from new artists — the money that labels used to have to invest in touring. There are a bunch of songwriters I know that will not have the same opportunities that I had. Now, if Soul Coughing were on a label today there’s no way they’d spend the money (that was considered a pittance at the time) to pay for basically, a band, a sound guy and flights. And even the most commercially promising artist barely gets that anymore. There just isn’t that same kind of money to be invested in artists who are a little left of center and it’s a shame. People who are career artists gotta have a good two to three years behind them playing bars. There’s no other way to build an audience.
“Gotta pay your dues,” as many folks have said.
I don’t really like that phrase. You never stop paying, basically; it’s always work. If you’re a proper artist, it’s not like you get to this point where you’re super famous, and its easy street. You’ve always got to be working hard.
And just in terms of making the art, if you’re not sweating it’s probably not worthwhile.
Mike Doughty and His Band Fantastic perform at the Old Rock House on October 29. It’s an all-ages show, so bring the kids.