The Substance and the Light: An Interview with Mike Doughty

Mike Doughty
The Flip Is Another Honey

For those not in the know, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: the Mike Doughty interviewed herein expects abundant distance to be kept between his current work and that which was done with his erstwhile band Soul Coughing [hereforth to be referenced as That Band Which Shall Not Be Named.] For the fans who have stuck by him through his decade-and-a-half sojourn as a neo-folk troubadour, this is an understanding we’ve made our peace with, though at times it becomes difficult not to rhapsodize about where we were when first hearing “True Dreams of Wichita” or perhaps “Super Bon Bon.”

Just don’t tell Mike. Seriously!

I’m full-bore bat-shit crazy with regards to Soul Coughing. If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear “fuck you.” Somebody yells out for a Soul Coughing song during a show, it means “fuck you.” If I play a Soul Coughing song, and somebody whoops — just one guy — I hear “fuck you.” People email my own lyrics at me — “Let the man go through!” or “You are listening!” — oddly often (how weird is that, to blurt somebody’s own lyric at them!), and I type back, “Don’t you put that on me, I’m not that guy anymore, that guy’s dead.” (Book of Drugs, p. 195)

The wild thing is, once that’s out of the way, he’s one of the strongest lyrical voices you’ll ever have a conversation with, even if just as a listener with an mp3 player and some headphones. It’s an argument laid bare point by point by his Book of Drugs, a biography so searing in its honesty you’ll be hard-pressed to find another rock bio ready to go toe to toe with it in the “let me lay it all on the line” ring.

Doughty is bipolar, part of a family steeped in the blurred world of mental illness we often try to push under the rug, pretend it doesn’t exist, throw more drugs at it then press “ignore.” With that on the table, he often finds himself trapped in a world where he can’t escape his past, even when he himself proves to be his worst enemy. Whether tilting against his own fans in legendary Twitter rants or battling his former band-mates, who he argues never felt he was a musician in the first place due to his lack of “professional training,” the best thing his book did was blurt it all out and say: “This is who I am. Take it or leave it, I’m not changing for any of you motherfuckers.”

When you strip past the walls he’s built over fifteen years to keep fans of That Band Which Shall Not Be Named separated from those who respect him for his work as a solo songwriter, the best thing about Mike Doughty is that brutal honesty. Even when it isn’t always in his best interest, he’ll tell you the straight story. He’s seen the world of music shift over the past two decades from being a landscape of label whores and fan-zine sycophants desperate to find the next “big alternative thing,” to today’s internet-fueled global marketplace where no gatekeeper matters and everything’s up for grabs.

All that matters is you’ve got to be willing to speak to him on his terms. To focus on the music itself and not on the nostalgia you’ve built around the music over the years. He wrote the songs and now they’re yours. Rather than having them thrown back at him as useless baggage, he’d rather get to work writing new ones, even as he admits he sometimes feels he’s written the same four songs over and over again, an issue he somewhat tackle on his latest album — The Flip is Another Honey, featuring all covers and adaptations.

“People would say ‘you keep writing the same song over and over,’ and I’d get in a huff about it. Then I realized that I am!” he laughs. “Well, if you love that song, then I’m your guy!”

* * *

The Flip Is Another Honey showcases your ability to take something we’ve heard a thousand times before, like John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, and make it into something completely different. What went into your song selection for this album?

It’s basically just stuff that I’ve been playing in dressing rooms before shows, or stuff I’d looked up on some tab site and figured out just to mess around with. These were the songs which happened to sound good. They’re obviously songs that I love, but I realized at some point that I had at least 12 of these. And “Country Roads” I learned because my girlfriend’s from West Virginia, so I’m still shocked that it sounds good when I sing it because it’s basically one of the greatest songs of all time. I got lucky.

Was it hard to pare down selections, or were these pretty much the songs you wanted to have on the album?

These are pretty much the songs I wanted to have on the album.

I ask because I really liked what you did with “God’s Song”, which you turned into “Mankind”. That didn’t seem like a song most people would include on a covers album, but you owned it. Why that particular Randy Newman song?

I just think it’s gorgeous and so sad. It’s interesting, because there’s a guy who believes in God. That’s not an atheist song. That’s somebody who’s angry at the God he wonders if he really believes in, which I think is just a fascinating position to be in philosophically.

As far as the selection goes on the album, you gave Cheap Trick and John Denver each two covers.

I know, which is against the rules of cover albums.

I thought that was interesting, because they’re both from opposite ends of the pop spectrum, but the songs seem to work with each other. Were you going for something special, bringing those songs together?

What happens when you’re a songwriter is that increasingly songs become abstract. So you hear something and you don’t really hear the style as much as you hear what the chord choices are and the way the melody sits in it. So it’s not until somebody points it out to me that “you know you’re doing Red House Painters and Thin Lizzy on the same album.” To them it’s a bit weird, but for me they’re just songs.

I noticed in Slant magazine’s review of The Flip Is Another Honey, they seemed honestly shocked by your “surprising sincerity” as a solo artist. What makes this so shocking to people? Are they still hung up on the “slacker” label you had with Soul Coughing?

I guess, because I was a much more cynical person during the 90s. I was fucking high all the time, and I was in this band through which I was just hating life. It’s funny, but there’s definitely a demarcation line of sincerity in terms of the people who followed me from Soul Coughing to this new stuff and the people who just couldn’t hack it. And then there’s a whole bunch of people who are like “Gosh, you sounded like such a dick in the 90s, but now I find I like your voice and your songs!”

I went back and forth between those camps. I grew up hearing those songs from Soul Coughing, but never made a deep connection to them until Napster came out and I found Skittish. So I latched onto the singer-songwriter stuff first and then went back to your earlier material. And then reading your book I went back to hear “Screenwriter’s Blues”, which I think was one of the songs you said you can still stand to hear.

No! That’s not true! [laughs]

Well, “300$” was one at least.

Yeah, “300$” I love, “Soundtrack to Mary”, “Fully Retractable”, “St. Louise Is Listening”. There’s a bunch of them — “Janine” is still good. But a lot of them I listen and it’s like “Man I wish those sounded like real hip-hop” as opposed to this weird kind of neither-nor kind of monster.

I forget which Rolling Stone writer it was who was looking back at different people in the 90s for their Record Guide, but he was talking about how whenever the industry lacks a trend to hook onto, that’s when the novelty groups thrive. He lumped Soul Coughing and Cake into this theme, something of a “we don’t know what we want to hit, so we’re going to make this a hit” angle.

Yeah, I mean I’d be even more specific than that. When Nirvana happened there was nobody at any record company who understood a thing about punk-rock music or anything underground. So they would sign up all these bands they just did not understand, saying “there’s got to be something here, we just don’t know what it is. So here’s some money, go make a record!” And a lot of us owe our living to that moment of extreme confusion.

It’s funny you mention that, because I read Jacob Slichter’s book. He was the drummer for Semisonic.

And a friend of mine.

He talked so much about that time when everyone got signed up and it seemed nobody knew quite what to do development-wise. They just had to make sure that each big label got their big signing.

Yeah, and there was so much money in the music industry because they were making shitty albums with one good song on them and you couldn’t buy the single! So you didn’t know that the one song on the Smash Mouth album that sounded like “Walking on the Sun” didn’t sound anything like the other songs on the album. So it became very cynical, they were rich, and they could afford to sign bands for incredible sums of money which then went nowhere.

And they mismanaged them too, because they didn’t understand what a “hit” was. They’d tell somebody “this isn’t a hit, you need a hit on this album.”

Well, the older people on the labels definitely knew what a hit was, at least on some intuitive level. If you talked to a Clive Davis, he’d know what a hit is no matter what genre. But the one thing these companies were doing was signing up younger people who had never worked in the industry — they wrote zines and stuff. And the labels would say “these people sort of understand what’s going on!” But those people had no idea what the radio was like, or even that radio was important. It wasn’t just from a fan point of view, but from a completely different perspective business-wise from what the rest of the record industry understood.

What shocked me was when they put out the Millennium Collection album from Semisonic, I’d been a huge fan of Feeling Strangely Fine, but I had no idea at the time that there even was a first album, or even that they’d made a follow-up after “Closing Time”. Because radio wouldn’t play it, those of us living in the middle of nowhere only knew what stations did play or that Wal-Mart would stock. So when you recorded Skittish, and then the record label didn’t know what to do with it and wouldn’t let you put it out, do you think it would have been different if you’d been able to release that album when people like Elliott Smith were pioneering that acoustic singer-songwriter alternative sound?

Definitely, I think one thing that’s unfortunate about music is if you make a really good record with an entirely different sound than the one you had previously been doing, people will be almost affronted by it. If they had not known who the hell I was, that I was just some guy who washed up off the street with this acoustic album, one which I think is really good, I think they would have taken it and it would have done well. But simply because they had invested all this money and time in Soul Coughing, they were confused by it.

Considering the effect Napster had on proving Skittish could really work, I’m interested in what you thought of the piece David Lowery wrote a few months ago.

The one criticizing the NPR blogger?

Right, and it seemed his message was that people who download music are thieves destroying the ability for musicians to make a living.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that read on it, because it’s totally stealing. There’s no two ways about it. But I think digital music has enriched our lives as listeners. It is true though that people on the fringes are going broke. And when he brought up Vic Chesnutt’s suicide, you cannot pretend that didn’t have something to do with the fact that he was broke.

Do you worry about how your fans find your music, or that they’re listening in the first place?

Oh the latter, definitely. I made my audience off Warner Brothers’ dime in the 90s, they paid for my van. Nobody’s paying anybody’s bill for a van anymore. So young artists are often fucked. But I have a roof over my head, playing songs I love for a living. And not incidentally, I’m happy that I don’t simply have to go out and play Soul Coughing songs and pretend that I like them. I’m grateful everyday that I’m doing what I’m doing.

Has downloading, and the mp3, created a democracy for music listeners that can serve artists like you who have to build a reputation without help from radio?

No, not at all. Really, still a lot of what’s going on with me comes from radio, from non-commercial AAA stations. I get enough play from those stations that people get curious and go listen to it. I find it hard to complain about that kind of stuff because I make use of it all the time. People are bummed out that you put out a 15-song album and they just want to pay 99 cents for two songs, but I’m totally that guy. I just want these two songs!

I’d talked to the band Hanson a couple years ago and Isaac kept going back to how much he’d hated buying that album in the 90s for $20 and you felt you’d been bilked.

Yeah,and you know the thing is whenever somebody from a record company whines about the changing times — and I say “whines” because it’s 12 years later, dude, adapt or just do something else for a living — I say “you were there when somebody said ‘this album sucks, but the single will clearly do well. And people will pay for the whole album because of it.'” From a business point of view, they devalued their product, so people went out and said “this is a piece of shit, why should I have to pay so much for it?” Don’t come crying to me. You could have put out singles, or made damned sure every album that came out was just as good as the best song on it. If you were putting out something of quality, maybe we would be in less of a predicament now.

Neil Young, bipolar disorder, and the four songs that everybody always writes …

You’d mentioned in your book there’d be one song written by the bass player, and nobody’s job was to say “hey guys, why don’t we take another six months so the bass player can write more songs like that one.” In your eyes is that what killed the music industry?

Exactly. I mean, a lot of stuff killed the industry. A big part of it is just that they’d held the listener in utter contempt. “We have one great song which doesn’t sound anything like these other songs, but we’re going to make people pay full price for it.” If you treat your customers like that, eventually you’re gonna be fucked. And that’s just one example. Basically we were the only industry in history that was like “we have so much money and it will never stop.” There’s a reckoning coming.

What do you think of Neil Young’s new music format Pono, which he claims will change how we hear digital music by replacing the mp3 with hi-fi sound?

There are some people who think that there’s so much emphasis in visual media on high definition and clarity. That’s a real status object. And if the music industry could really become about crafting an incredibly pristine, beautiful-sounding recording, people would suddenly become interested in that. But all things considered, I’m just not interested in that.

I wondered, would you even be able to hear differences in the recording, or should you just get better headphones?

Yeah, that’s a very good point. Just get a decent pair of speakers. When I work with someone who is mixing an album, they’ll send me some lossless-audio file that’s 100 MB per song, and they’ll want me to hear some super-pristine version, and I’m like “just send it to me in mp3 or AAC format, so I can listen to it on my laptop speakers,” because that’s how I listen to everything else. I mean, I could never hear the difference in the first place! A lot of the time, coming out of underground music, the shitty recording usually sounded better to me than the pristine ones.

People have said you write four kinds of songs, and you responded in your book that you like that at least they’re your four favorite songs.

I fought that for a long time. People would say “you keep writing the same song over and over,” and I’d get in a huff about it. Then I realized that I am!

Is there something to be said for consistency?

Well, if you love that song, then I’m your guy! There’s all kinds of artists I love: Toots and the Maytalls, the Magnetic Fields, Low. And the songs they write are all cut from a very similar cloth. So I’ve got no problem with that. I think the only way to make compelling art is to love what you’re doing. I don’t think people can make things that they themselves don’t love, and expect other people to be interested in them. I’m just trying to make myself happy, and that’s my only chance to ever make a listener happy.

Photo: Tex Jernigan

Do you ever wish you could just turn all the outside distractions off and just not give a shit what gets said about you? Or does that fuel your creativity?

What fuels the creativity is that feeling in the room when you’re playing a song. When you’re in a show and you feel everybody’s attention and there’s this communal mind-thing happening, you’re all just “with” the song. I’m with the song, witnessing it as much as I am creating it. That is the feeling I’m working for. In terms of what somebody tweets about it, like everybody else I pay way too much attention to it. But I do know that’s not what matters as much as the listening experience.

You wrote that self loathing freed you up to be weird. Do our idiosyncrasies make us who we are?

It certainly made me who I am. Acknowledging my differentness freed me to make something that was totally unique and of myself.

I’m interested in the theme of music as obsession. You’ve said you grew up with an obsession toward music, and you also have a way with words. Do you find pleasure in using that to express this obsession to your fans?

Yeah, I mean I find pleasure in the language and the music, that junction where the music and the language meet. I feel like I’m a thrillseeker and I’m just looking for something that makes me feel good. I feel a lot more like I’m working for the music and I’m helping it move from somewhere else rather than that I’m creating it.

Stephen Kellogg wrote on “Lonely in Columbus” that “somedays I wish I didn’t have a tongue.” Do you get to the point where you’re like “I’ve said everything I want to say?

[laughs] Sadly, no. Perhaps it speaks to my ego that I’ve never gotten that sick of myself.

The aspect of your book which really dragged me in was when you talked about your family, how you, your mother and your brother suffered from bipolar disorder.

Yeah, I mean I’m diagnosing them from my armchair, but I definitely think so.

You said the one thing you had that your brother didn’t was the obsession with music which helped you direct that. What would you say the difference is between someone who merely loves music and someone who is obsessed with it? How do you take on that challenge?

You can’t really think about it. If you’re talking about other people and connecting with them, you’re never going to be able to figure out how another person thinks. I can tell you that it was just absolutely all-consuming for me 24 hours a day — music was the only thing I had interest in.

It’s bothered me that in pop culture it’s impossible to have an honest, open conversation about mental health. But it plays into everything.

I see what you’re getting at. It’s so shameful to say you even dare talk to a therapist, whereas I’m wary of people who are not in therapy.

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.”