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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.

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.

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