[16 December 2008]
I asked Mike Doughty what he was drinking. “This is a caffeine-free Diet Pepsi,” he laughed, “about the wimpiest drink you can possibly imagine.” We were sitting in a cramped wooden booth at John & Peter’s, a bar in New Hope, Pennsylvania just a few yards from the lip of the Delaware River that stares at New Jersey.
New Hope, a hamlet of cafés, used book shops and antique stores, is a two-hour drive from Doughty’s home in Brooklyn. Still, John & Peter’s, with its clay candle holders, funky stained glass windows and tight quarters, could have passed for a dive in the East Village. Even better, people could smoke at John & Peters. No Mayor Bloomberg over your shoulder here.
Doughty and I had to make an effort to avoid awkward knee touches. So, I splayed my legs across the peeling black leather chock full of yellow foam scars. He had just finished soundcheck on-stage a few inches away, some sweat still dotting his broad forehead and light blond facial fuzz.
Although Doughty toured the world with Soul Coughing, the ‘90s alternative rock group he once fronted, and with an eponymous ensemble he utilized on recent tours and solo records like 2008’s Golden Delicious and 2005’s Haughty Melodic, tonight he was just a man with six-strings, some songs and a friend in the Philadelphia suburbs. Doughty brought along cellist Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, a frequent collaborator, to add some pizzicatos and spiccatos. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Livingston, but I did hear an earnest bartender ask him “how’s the pot?” Livingston smiled. Things seemed fine.
The bar was buzzing. Waitresses fretted over seating the 80 paying-guests milling outside. “We only do a seating chart for a national act,” one confided. Doughty was relaxed. “Just in the neighborhood,” he said. “We’ve just got some gigs around the northeast. We’ve been going out for the weekend… tonight we’re driving in then we’re driving back to Brooklyn.” When he plays shows in New York, Doughty can sell-out thousand-seat clubs. New Hope’s show wasn’t about rocking out, but looking into songs and unpacking them to their bare melodies and riffs.
Throughout his performance, Doughty would shush anyone who spoke above a whisper. At one point, he attempted to kick out an imbibed fan. Hardly surprising, since Doughty kicked out a couple fans at a show the previous week. “It messed me up that I kicked someone out,” Doughty told me before the New Hope concert. “I told him I didn’t do it for myself… There were 200 people in the room, I said, and you were the one guy talking.” Doughty’s easy inclination to kick out a fan was met with both cheers and raised eyebrows in New Hope. When Doughty sings, he crinkles his eyes and you sense that he’s almost having an out-of-body experience. The songs aren’t mere entertainment. This is melodic catharsis. Don’t plan on seeing the encore at a Mike Doughty show if you enjoy being a loud drunk. It’s about the art, man.
Nevertheless, “I love them,” Doughty said of these sporadic acoustic gigs. Some songs from his deep catalogue don’t make the cut for the pared-down sets. “‘Wednesday,’ which is my favorite song on (“Golden Delicious”), I can’t play because I need a delay pedal to do it and it just sounds weird in the context of an acoustic show,” said Doughty, “‘Navigating by the Stars at Night,’” another song off “Golden Delicious,” “sounds better acoustically then it does on the record,” he added. “It’s a mixed bag.”
I asked Doughty whether he changes his playing style when he unplugs. “Well, I’m not sure that I do necessarily,” he said. “Of course, (songs) evolve over time, but I’m just looking to feel it on-stage. I’ve kind of made a commitment to play things I want to play and to make sure I keep it fun for myself, which I think is a lot more interesting. Certainly, when I go see somebody play, I like them to be enjoying themselves.”
HOLED UP IN BROOKLYN
Doughty is currently recording his third solo studio effort for ATO Records, which is run by rocker Dave Matthews, Doughty’s good friend and one of his most vocal fans. Pat Dillett, who produced Doughty’s independent 2003 record Rockity Roll, is turning the knobs for Doughty on this still-untitled project, which will be his eighth solo release overall, including some independent discs and live EPs.
Compared to the eclectic and lush sound captured on recent studio efforts, Doughty aims for a looser, sparse structure for this next album. “It’s mellow,” he says of the current vibe in his New York City studio. After having Grammy-winner Dan Wilson (of Semisonic fame), produce Haughty Melodic and Golden Delicious, Doughty says the choice to return to Dillett wasn’t about giving his music a makeover. More like an incremental evolution. Dillett “was local and I wanted to kind of bang it out” he said. “It’s just a matter of personality,” Doughty adds about the producer change, calling the rationale “something that I couldn’t condense to a couple of sentences… They’re both incredibly fun to hang out with.”
Livingston has joined Doughty in the studio for the new album. “It’s just me and Scrap, actually,” said Doughty, “plus some programming that I did on it, some drums and keyboard and things. Mostly, it’s just acoustic.”
Doughty’s motivation to record an acoustic album is driven by the direction of his recent songwriting, much of which works well with just guitar and vocals dusted with some strings or snare hits. “I just enjoy it and wanted to document it,” said Doughty. “I felt like that’s where these songs wanted to go, They kind of live in this acoustic area. I usually set some parameters for myself before I start making a record and those are just the parameters that I set.”
How far along is Doughty? “Uh, I don’t know,” he laughed. “Sometimes I think I’m done and I listen to it and I’m like ‘Aw, this is terrible.’ Sometimes I think it’s terrible and I listen to it and I’m like ‘Oh my god, it’s done.’ So, I gotta give myself time to figure out where I’m at.”
SOUL STILL COUGHING
Soul Coughing, which broke up in 2000, was beloved by slackers in the ‘90s, with albums like 1994’s Ruby Vroom and 1998’s El Oso spawning minor hits such as “Circles” and “Screenwriter’s Blues”. Their sound revolved around Doughty’s elastic and gravelly vocals and Soul Coughing’s bouncing progressive jazz rhythms. When Doughty played “Circles” acoustically in New Hope, it felt like seeing Bill Clinton nowadays with his shock of white air. It’s familiar, but somehow of another time.
Gus Brandt, Soul Coughing’s tour manager from 1994 to 1996, stopped by John & Peter’s to see Doughty’s show. He hadn’t seen Doughty play live in nearly a decade. No wonder, since he’s currently busy as the Foo Fighters’ tour manager. Still, Brandt reflected on the Soul Coughing years as good times, though perhaps a project left unfinished. “If they had stayed together and gotten over themselves they could have become a cottage industry like other bands at the time such as Phish… without the crazy dancing,” he laughed. “(Soul Coughing) was great. They played Lollapalooza, with Jeff Buckley… It was tough, it was different. We were young,” recalled Brandt. “Things are better off now.”
Doughty concurred. “It was a terrible, terrible time,” he laughed. “My band was not nice to me, I was not nice to myself and I think a lot of those records were really wasted opportunities. I think they could have better. I think we could have been more than just a cult band. But I think my band mates didn’t want to be led where I wanted to lead them. As it unraveled, they didn’t want to be led at all. So, the records sort of just got consistently worse as time went by.”
Doughty has struggled with various drug problems in past years. That explains the caffeine-free Diet Pepsi. “I’ve been clean eight years,” he said, leaning back in the booth. I prodded, asking how his addictions have influenced his songs’ themes. “They draw on,” said Doughty, looking away for a few moments, “on pain.”
“I guess I draw on joy a little bit more in the past few years than I have in the past because there is actually some joy in my life now,” said Doughty. “I drive on everything that’s happened since 1970.” Doughty is 38 years old.
It took Doughty many years to become the stable, successful solo artist he is today, with avid fans and crowded shows. It’s “really gratifying,” said Doughty about the current stage of his solo career. “It was tough, tough, tough starting out. There were a lot of people that were really angry at me for quitting Soul Coughing… at lot of people just hated me being an acoustic guy.”
“I have an audience and I built it slowly but surely just driving a car around the United States and Canada playing everywhere,” said Doughty. “You know, I play John & Peters here and it’s like 80 people… I’ll play anywhere really. I just love doing it.”
Give Dave Matthews some credit. Matthews heard Doughty’s catchy “27 Jennifers” song a few years ago and quickly signed the wandering singer-songwriter, eventually releasing Haughty Melodic for Doughty. “We started out on Haughty and had no idea what we were doing,” recalls Doughty. “I had to scrounge up money every couple of months to go back and record. It just ended up really baroque, there were so many parts in there. Every time you hear one guitar, there are like like nine guitars behind it… I’m exaggerating,” mused Doughty.
“27 Jennifers” wasn’t put on Haughty but Doughty decided to make it the first single off Golden Delicious. “It’s the song Dave loved… everyone wanted to hear it on the radio” he reasons. I saw the video for “27 Jennifers”, with its night vision footage, before our interview. “We used 27 actual Jennifers in the video,” laughed Doughty. “It’s is a parody of a sex video, obviously. Everyone with the weird green eyes and green skin.” Like that infamous Paris Hilton tape? “Yeah, exactly,” he said.
Another recent track off Golden Delicious that’s gotten much buzz is “Fort Hood”, Doughty’s tune about the soldiers lost from the U.S. Army’s famous Texas post. It’s a moving track that has been unofficially adopted as an anthem by many military families. “I don’t really like political songs in particular,” said Doughty. “I only write them when I’m really moved to do so and invariably they come really fast.”
For his part, Doughty calls himself an “obsessive MSNBC watcher” but cautions that he’s “not looking for inspiration.” I asked him whether he thinks anyone on MSNBC enjoys his music. “I think Rachel Maddow does,” said Doughty, perking up. “I was invited on her radio show a couple of times in the past. Each time something real happened in the world she had to cancel me for. Something of actual political interest. You know when they’re booking a singer-songwriter on a political show that it’s a slow news week,” he laughed.
As the crowd began to build outside, I got in one last question. How long will he be on the road? “Always,” said Doughty. “I don’t know if I’ll be out every other month for a month, but certainly play for a week, play for a few days and then usually one big, gigantic tour a year. I’m trying to get something going in Germany and Japan so I can tour other places, too. I perversely really enjoy it. It can be arduous but it just suits me really well.”
“I just love what I’m doing now,” said Doughty, getting up from the booth, knees not grazed. “I love Scrap, he’s a great friend, a great musician. I love Dan (Wilson), I love Pat (Dillett). There’s just a lot of really good people around. I feel like I’m better, in my estimation—which probably doesn’t count as much as the public’s. I’m doing the best I’ve ever done with what I can do.”
* * *Robert Costa is a writer based in Cambridge, England. He has written features on rock music for PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal and the Bucks County Courier Times.