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The Substance and the Light: An Interview with Mike Doughty

Photo: Sarah Forbes Keogh

In this sprawling, revealing interview with former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, PopMatters learns from the alt-hero-turned-troubadour what makes a good cover song, how it's like growing up in a bipolar household, and the details of the collapse of the music industry straight from the inside of it.

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.

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