The Substance and the Light

An Interview with Mike Doughty

by Jonathan Sanders

18 February 2013

Photo: Sarah Forbes Keogh 

Soul Coughing, Dan Wilson, and Doughty's thoughts on if someone covered his own songs ...

I know you don’t like talking about Soul Coughing, but I think sometimes it’s hard for your fans to understand the intense feelings you have about that time. Is it ever possible to divorce the songs themselves from those feelings?

In the abstract, from what a song is before you bring it to the band at a rehearsal or in the recording studio? That’s at least possible.

Right, because it seemed, from reading your book, you had interesting experiences coming up with the concepts you later brought to Soul Coughing. Was it purely the experience with the band which ruined the way you hear those songs?

Those guys had such tremendous resentment toward me on every level at absolutely every intersection of the creative process. They really were actively trying to fuck my shit up, I swear to God. So when I listen to those records, all I hear is how they fucked me up. I listen to them and there’s so much pain involved in the context of the memory, and it’s just that’s not what I wanted the music to be. If you say to a Soul Coughing fan that maybe wouldn’t have liked it if I’d actually made what I’d wanted to make, but somebody else almost certainly would have, I guess it’s a bit of a mind-fuck.

I saw an old YouTube clip from when you were in the Netherlands, and after reading the book it was awesome to have the context to see the video from your perspective. You see the drummer making his weird-assed faces all the time like he just doesn’t care, and the bass player is obsessing over every little detail. And it looks like the sampler player is off in his own little universe.

Well, they just straight-up did not give a fuck about me. [laughs] And they were largely under the impression that they were “saddled” with me as opposed to the other way around. Like “oh my God, we are so great and we have this asshole we can’t get rid of.”

They put such an inordinate value on education and theory when it came to their definition of what a musician should be. But what about experience? Paul McCartney had no formal training but as a songwriter he held his own with Lennon, so what really makes a musician an artist?

It’s something deeper than technique for sure. And I can totally understand that these guys were in their 30s. They were just not writing songs that anybody was moved by. So they meet this kid—they met me when I was 23, and the band ended before I turned 30. So they were extremely angry that I could write stuff on my own that people could be moved by.

In the end the focus of Book of Drugs seems to be control, whether within Soul Coughing, then as you descended into drug abuse and ultimately as you cleaned yourself up and took over your own musical destiny. Do you feel like you’ll ever really have control over how you view your accomplishments?

No. [laughs] It’s a constant struggle to just absolutely let go and realize that the universe is a lot bigger than me and I really don’t matter. And I mean that as the most freeing statement I could possibly make. Thank God I don’t matter and I don’t have to matter. It’s so funny when people get mad at me for saying “I hate those fucking Soul Coughing records.” Because to me it’s like the record is so much bigger than me. It’s got nothing to do with me, this thing is out in the world and if you love it, you bring yourself to it. The work is what nurtures, not the person behind the work.

I remember, though, a few months before the book came out—before I’d read any of the stuff you wrote about your experiences with Soul Coughing—I had a hard time with it too. There was that period around Thanksgiving last year when you were having your “Twitter rants,” going off on people. At one point you said it was like punching you in the stomach saying that we liked Soul Coughing songs. And it’s hard to understand that, as a fan, because once that song is out there you’ve given us your expression. Now we’re building our own experiences on top of that.

Right, and my complaint is simply why do you have to get me involved? Why don’t you just go listen to the fucking record? Why do I have to be a part of it?

Blame Twitter, because it used to be if you wanted to talk to your favorite musician you had to corner them after a show or stalk them outside their home.

What happens when I go off on the rants like that—and how deeply I regret them I can’t even begin to express—is that there’s people out there who will just say shit because they want to hurt me. And this is a very difficult concept to get across, but there are so many people who hate the guy who makes their favorite music, and they just want to say hurtful shit to them.

And now they have the Internet where they can be completely anonymous about whatever they want.

I have a friend who is like an obsessed Jack White fan. He’s obsessed with everything White has ever done, and went to see him when he was on his tour with both a male band and a female band, doing two shows. He was all “I was so glad when he played this song! And this song was so great! Fuck that guy, he’s such a dick, I fucking hate that guy.” I had to wonder: “Are you serious?” You go to the show, hating the man, and it’s just this very strange phenomenon. People don’t have a lot of sympathy for you, as an artist, and I can see why, but there are mean people out there.


Photo: Scrap

What advice would you have for someone who has a similar obsessive drive to become a musician?

In terms of practical advice, I just think you always have to do your best work. You have to be in this to make your favorite record, to get into a mindset where you can say “okay song, what do you want to be?” as opposed to ” I want you to be this.” I’m not saying that I don’t lose that battle constantly, trying to make the song do what I tell it to, but when that happens it often doesn’t turn out well.

What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do?

Dude, that’s the kind of question I’ll have a great answer for tomorrow. It’s like the question “what are you listening to?” and I forget the moment they ask. I love talking about the dumb stuff, like what other people are like. What kind of compressor does Dan Wilson use? Shit like that.

Have you written anything with Dan Wilson?

Oh yeah, a lot of stuff. “Holiday,” which is a song on Yes and also Yes, which I sang with Roseanne Cash, and a lot of what’s on Haughty Melodic, he participated in so deeply that it was almost as though we wrote the songs together.

He’s always surprised me with just what a variety of stuff he can write. From “Closing Time” to that song for the Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”, which got him the Grammy.

And that giant Adele hit [“Someone Like You”]. It’s a testament to his amazingness, he got a Grammy trailing these three beautiful rock stars onstage and the moment they get up there they hand him the mic. And he clearly hadn’t even thought that in the 45 seconds they get to speak he’d get to talk. “I’m just gonna stand here.” If you were a friend of his, it was really quite hilarious to watch.

Getting back to what makes a great cover song for just a moment, which of your songs do you wish someone would cover, and who do you think would be great doing your style of music?

Oh my God, I mean like I said earlier, I see the songs in extremely abstract terms. So when I think about that I don’t really think about somebody’s voice or their style as to who would be attracted to recording my music. I’ve heard a couple covers of mine, and it’s always fascinating and inspiring, enforcing this notion that I’m just the physical body the songs use to get out into the world. I heard Low, on a 14-year-old recording, singing a little bit of “St. Louise is Listening” at the top of a version of “Lazy”, a live recording from Denver in 1998 I think. And it was so fascinating that I heard so much in the melody that I’d never heard before, which impresses upon me: “That’s what’s happening. It’s not me, it’s that melody! That is the thing which has substance and light.”

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