Living Inside the Song: An Interview with Mike Doughty
He didn't play his old band's songs for years. Now, with CIRCLES SUPER BON BON, Doughty tackles the ghosts of his past and tells PopMatters all about it (and guitar pornography).
"When music is at its best, whether you're listening to it or making it, you are in the moment. Like, in the cosmic sense," Mike Doughty tells me. "I did want to go and figure out who I was and what I was thinking and examine this person, but really when you start playing the song, it's just about a song. You're living inside a song."
CIRCLES SUPER BON BON SLEEPLESS HOW MANY CANS? TRUE DREAMS OF WICHITA MONSTER MAN MR. BITTERNESS MAYBE I'LL COME DOWN ST LOUISE IS LISTENING I MISS THE GIRL UNMARKED HELICOPTERS THE IDIOT KINGS SO FAR I HAVE NOT FOUND THE SCIENCE, Doughty's newest album, is made up entirely of something many of the singer's fans thought they'd never hear him do again: Soul Coughing songs. The singer's break with the band in 2000 also meant a breakup with the music he'd recorded with his bandmates. He's said so himself, even becoming angry with fans who requested Soul Coughing song at his solo shows.
In his autobiographical The Book of Drugs, Doughty wrote about his sometimes-contentious relationship with these songs that he'd written and loved. Fights with his band about how the songs should sound and tense recording sessions turned many of these beloved tunes into products Doughty barely recognized. With his new album, he's revisiting these songs and presenting them to the public as he had imagined them so long ago.
As I listened to the album, I wondered what the singer thought of this new work. What exactly are these songs that simultaneously seem so familiar and entirely new? When I asked Doughty if he conceived of CIRCLES SUPER BON BON... as a covers album, he explained that "I consider it something else entirely. It's very odd to hear it referred to that way because a lot of these songs, this is what I meant them to be in the first place. This is really the realer version than the real version to me."
Authenticity for Doughty might be something different than what it is for diehard Soul Coughing fans, and that's fine with the singer. When I asked if he cared what his former band's fans thought of the new versions of the songs, he said that he cared "but it's not what's interesting to me about a listening audience. I'm interested in what people are hearing in the moment as opposed to the first time they took LSD sophomore year. I hear a lot of those stories. I now very graciously and politely tell people that I've heard a lot of stories, let's just enjoy this moment together, no story."
Music is, after all, something that we experience on a visceral level. What moves us about a certain song or genre might be inexplicable, but it's always possible to find big meanings in the songs we listen to and sing. Knowing that Doughty's outlook has changed so much since his Soul Coughing days, I asked if he'd uncovered new meaning in his old songs.
"It certainly is clear that I was a pretty dark motherfucker back then. I was lacking in hope and did not really see much of a way out in life," he said. "Other than that, I haven't really made any specific discoveries." Perhaps these discoveries are more subliminal, something that the listener can hear in the music as a slight shift from one mood to another. There's real tenderness and vulnerability on CIRCLES SUPER BON BON... that allows these songs to break the tethers to their alter egos.
Whether or not all of Doughty's fans, especially from the Soul Coughing days, will appreciate this change is another question. When I asked the singer if he paid much attention to comments on the album he said, "You gotta stay away. I subscribe to a Twitter feed called Don't Read The Comments. Every two hours, it tweets 'Don't read the comments.' It's the great lesson of the modern age for anybody, recording artist or not. Don't read the comments." That doesn't mean that the singer entirely avoids reviews, though:
"I have done something which is super fun. I had a surreal review contest. First I did it for iTunes and it was so great that I did it for Amazon. It was 'Write an extremely surreal review and the weirdest gets free tickets.' So, if you read the iTunes review, they're just bananas with the surrealism. A couple of them have absolutely nothing to do with the album. Those I read. I had to pick a winner, so I read them. In terms of more prestigious outlets, it is best not to pay attention."
Doughty's interaction with fans extends beyond surreal review contests. He used PledgeMusic to fund the new album and shares that "it was a gangbuster success, it was literally 13 hours for the thing to get 100 percent funded." When I asked about the driving idea behind the campaign, he told me that "the idea was, if you want the record, you get the whole process of making the record. It's the great thing about PledgeMusic as opposed to other crowdfunding outlets. You're in on the ground floor. It's not like 'Give me 10 bucks and then you'll get a record,' it's 'You are in the process.' It was really wonderful."
Letting his fans in on the process of creation proved vital for Doughty. After all, what the singer has worked so hard to achieve in his solo career isn't building an audience based upon his past success, but reaching out to a new audience and building relationships there. "If I hadn't spent the last seven years, you know, doing my best to play new material and remain a vital artist instead of a nostalgist, I don't think the audience for the record would be interested. I think they knew that I was going to do something weird. They've been very supportive of my weirdness in the past," he says of his fans.
Nostalgia, though, is a topic that won't escape the attention of some fans who sit down with a copy of the new album. Doughty wrote in The Book of Drugs about his desire to use hip-hop hooks in ways people simply weren't using them in alternative rock in the '90s. On the new album, these elements have been seamlessly incorporated in a way that doesn't even sound out of the ordinary today.
The singer didn't spend too much time thinking about how the beats he's using today related to those he imaged in the past, though. "I don't know that I really necessarily thought about that. Certainly my producer Good Goose is -- with the trap beats and the bounce beats -- he's a samurai. On the very specific level of making music you think about that, but you're just going to get lost in your own intestines if you start thinking about the way people perceive your relationship to a genre that's influencing you."
We talked about how relationships to genre and style work in music today. Doughty, who finds great freedom in making music on a laptop, talked about how a new generation of musicians is approaching gear. He also shared his thoughts about whether or not the music business has capitalized on sound quality as a selling point:
"It's curious to me that nobody in the music business is really trying to sell ultra-high-fidelity the way you can buy the most incredible LCD screen and it's all about the quality of the image and stuff that's frankly not very important to me, but people get into that kind of technical perfection on the consumer level. It's surprising me that no one's really tried to exploit that, but for me, an example is I know this friend of a friend's kid, a hip-hop producer guy, who's making music with gear that we hated in the '90s. Like an ASR 10 and a Sonic Sampler and all this old gear that we used to think, 'This stuff sucks! We can't wait until they invent something better!' And then there's somebody who was a child at the time who's really going back and using that equipment and trying to generate some kind of magic out of it as a talisman of the past. So, what's interesting technically to people is usually not the latest greatest, but the oldest/strangest, the most evocative. I mean, there's a cassette revival now for gods' sake!"
I wondered if this newfound interest in old equipment had something to do with making music more tactile for a younger generation. Perhaps it works that way, but Doughty feels a strong draw towards making music in new-fangled ways. "I make everything on a laptop and I love making music on a laptop! I love being able to go to a coffee shop with a pair of headphones and write a beat that you're actually going to put on an album. It's amazing. It's like you have the freedom that a prose writer has to just write anywhere. Like, you write on a plane or anywhere you are, you can come up with something real as opposed to having to drag around a 50-pound bulky device that really can't do that much stuff."
That doesn't mean that Doughty has gone entirely digital. Though he embraces the benefits of making music digitally, he admits that he's put himself on a gear fast. "Generally anything that I get fascinated with device wise will end up in me writing something. You're sort of tinkering around with something and you accidentally write something whether it's just a riff or a whole song. That being said, it's a very expensive source of inspiration ... you might end up with something amazing owning it for a week, but then you never play it again. I'm trying to moderate in that department."
The Book of Drugs was so compelling that I wondered if moderation in music gear meant that Doughty might have time to craft another book. He says that he has "inclinations both in fiction and non-fiction," but to talk about them too much would be jinxing the future work. He was willing to share his current reading list, which includes Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens and Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fiction, which he's been reading continually for two years. But don't let the serious fiction reading and all the talk about the role of nostalgia in music fool you. Despite its sometimes-serious tone, CIRCLES SUPER BON BON... is also an album full of joy. It's a mixed package with something different to discover on every listen, not unlike what you might discover if you take a peek at Doughty's burgeoning magazine collection:
"When you read the New York Review of Books or London Review of Books, you get to feel like you've read a lot of books you haven't really read. That's pretty great. And then the rest is, like the music magazines, there are little bits of gear that are basically pornographic if you're a guitar player. And then, other than that, if you read Esquire, you learn a lot about ties and suit jackets, which is not a bad thing to know about. I like reading about a nice suit."