Mike Doughty’s got some staying power. The singer-songwriter first hit the radar with Soul Coughing, that mid-’90s indie-band-with-stand-up-bass responsible for lodging “Super Bon Bon” in the deepest recesses of your subconscious. (It’s an experience that he now describes by talking about having his eyes stabbed out, using phrases like “the devil’s asshole.”) After going solo, “M.” morphed into “Mike,” but kept his talent for funked-up wordplay and impossibly sticky turns of phrase. He consorted with some strange bedfellows–opening gigs for Dave Matthews Band were involved–but is now in the middle of a ‘Question Jar’ tour for his latest album, Sad Man Happy Man. (Fans scribble personal or just plain weird queries on scraps of papers; Doughty answers them on stage.) He’s also writing a memoir about addiction, pondering a musical with his ex-girlfriend, and Tweeting eagerly all the while.
Doughty–who plays (le) Poisson Rouge this Saturday, October 31, and again on November 28th–lives in a Brooklyn apartment on the edge of Prospect Park, spacious digs decorated with art by Ray Johnson and Steve “I’m Gonna Paint A Million Paintings” Keene. We recently caught up with him there to discuss making electro-house at Yaddo, why Dave Matthews deserves a bit of respect, and why the world can withstand another memoir about drugs.
On the last album, people didn’t like the direction you’d taken.
So many of my hardcore people hated Golden Delicious. The vitriol in the e-mails was just too much for me to take.
After shows they’d come up to you?
Not that many people had the balls to walk up to me and go, “Yes, this really sucks. I paid for the show, but fuck you, you’re terrible.” I feel kind of neglected by the smart people for the past few years.
Smart people, meaning…
I’m trying to find a less pejorative euphemism for hipsters, I guess.
Would you say any of that’s to do with some of the people you’ve toured with? Barenaked Ladies, Dave Matthews…
I get a lot of dap about being with Dave Matthews, which I’ll defend. I think Dave is one of those guys that, 20 or 30 years from now, your kids are gonna be like, “You liked music and you never went to see him? Like, never? Really? You never went to see DAVE MATTHEWS? He was around and you never went to see him?”
As far as Sad Man Happy Man goes–is it an either/or thing? Are you either the sad guy or the happy guy?
Well, I am bi-polar. Which just occurred to me, dropping off my prescriptions at the pharmacy–I was like, “Hey wait a minute, now the title makes sense.” I have no idea whether a song I’m writing is sad or happy when I’m writing it. No idea. I have very little perspective on what I’m doing. I can tell you where I’m at in the moment, in terms of what I want the end of the line to sound like. But in terms of overarching themes, it takes me a few years of playing the songs to be–like “Oh, that’s what this song is about.”
About Twitter–you’ve said that writing in that 140-character format has changed your writing process. How would you compare writing Tweets to lyric writing?
I just dig having those constraints–I’m all about parameters. When I work, I try and set up parameters to work within just as a game to play with myself. A friend of mine says that Twitter is the CB radio of our time, and I totally agree. I don’t know if it’s gonna survive, because most people aren’t that good at it.
There are a lot of memoirs about addition. Why another one?
I think that the story of addiction and recovery is kind of an invention of a new basic story. You got your rags-to-riches, boy-meets-girl, the prodigal son–there’s maybe 20 stories. We suddenly have this 21st [century] story, which is: drugs, descent, and then Phoenix-like rise. I think it’s kind of like saying, “Why write another love story?” There’re infinite variations within the form. I think recovery narratives can be really great if they’re written right, if they’re written honestly. I think maybe James Frey wrote a great novel that was then marketed as a memoir. I wonder if they really knew it was lies…
I wish we lived in a time when there wasn’t such a premium put on things being real. It’s a pretty new phenomena. Fucking John F. Kennedy got a Pulitzer for a book he didn’t write. The thing that I need to underline about my story–James Frey’s story is that of a bad-ass. Mine is the story of a suburban fuck-up stumbling his way into these weird situations.
Want to talk about Daniel Johnston a bit? You covered “Casper the Friendly Ghost” on this album. It’s a really touching, weird song…
It’s very weird. “You can’t buy no respect like the librarian said, but everybody respects the dead.” What is that, where’s that coming from?
I always think of Wesley Willis a little bit. Do you feel like there’s some exploitation going on?
He’s [Johnston’s] actually not taken his meds before a tour so he can be freakier. So he’s exploiting himself to a certain degree. That’s a really fascinating level of self awareness: ‘My insanity is my calling card…’
The “How To Fuck A Republican” song [on Sad Man Happy Man]. It’s a fantasy?
It’s not a real story. I just think normal girls are hot, that’s the whole story. Like everybody I hang out with is an arty, groovy person–again, euphemism for hipster–and yeah, you just walk up Sixth Avenue around 1pm when they’re all out eatin’ lunch in May or something, those beautiful women in their business suits.
If you met someone that was a Republican…
I don’t know, man. I’ve been wondering about that. There was a Facebook application that will give you the stats of everybody on your profile. I’ve got like 1000 friends. Two percent are Republican. Why don’t I know more Republicans? I grew up at West Point, goddamnit!
As far as turn of phrase goes, or a lyric, what makes a combination of words jump out at you?
Hank Williams never wrote anything down. He’s like, “If I don’t remember it, it’s not very good.” I do write things down so I’m not adhering to the pure Hank Williams method. I do sort of wait for things to catch me, rather than for me to go and craft something that’s catchy. I think that’s probably true of all catchy writers. Boy, what a terrible thing to be. “Oh, he’s catchy!” It’s one of those things, those non-compliment compliments. “You’re songs are really…catchy!” That’s just what I do. Who else does it? Rappers do it. That’s about it. I’ve just been listening to hip-hop since I was a kid. That just always seemed the most interesting music, verbally.
I wanted to ask you about poetry. For most people their experience with poetry in the past five years would be watching the Obama inauguration, that woman reading that terrible robot poem.
Robot poem is right.
It’s a thing people don’t have an experience with.
I disagree. I think poetry is a lot healthier and closer to the mainstream than it was when I was like 18 and doing that stuff. It’s kind of like a young person’s game. I wouldn’t feel comfortable stepping into that arena. As you get older your poems get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. I would be on stage with a little thing and every one else is like whoa! Exploding all over the place!
It always seemed, in reference to your lyrics, maybe more so with Soul Coughing–you couldn’t escape without this annoying way of describing it, always ‘Beat-inspired.’
The Beatnik tag, I really don’t like it. Sure, I read that stuff–but there’s no beret, I promise you. Although I did show up at a poetry slam once with a bongo player. Bob Holman made fun of me for about five years. “You actually brought a bongo player? You were that guy?” Yeah, I was that guy. It was a djembe by the way, not a bongo. Very, very different.
You went to [the Saratoga Springs artist community] Yaddo recently. Did you go as a writer/poet, or a musician?
I was working on a musical with a theater artist named Young Jean Lee. We went as collaborators. Really we got very little done on that, but I got a ton of work done on everything else. My electronic music thing, Dubious Luxury–I practically finished the record.
Are you allowed to make noise during the day?
They put me in the cabin out in the woods. I mean, I don’t know if anyone was making electro-house music like I was. It was pretty cool to be able to wake up at five in the morning and just be like, BOOMBOOMBOOM.
As far as the musical?
We were dating. We’ve broken up. I think it’s going to be maybe a year before we can pick up the threads again. I hope I can work with her again, I think she’s a genius.
On Twitter you were talking about Pavement’s reunion and saying you were having nightmares about a Soul Coughing reunion.
I get more and more afraid that a reunion is going to be forced upon me at knifepoint. I don’t need money that bad. I swear to God. To become a billionaire…okay. If they poked out one my eyes, I would reform Soul Coughing so they didn’t poke out the other one. Oh, man.
Do you wish that band had never happened? That it would have happened in a solo context from the beginning?
I was very dumb hanging out with those guys, because they just didn’t like me from the jump. They really were very cruel to me in a lot of ways, put me down in a big way, and I believed them. I was 23 when I started the band, and they were in their 30s. I thought they must be smarter than I am, they must be right, the whole reason this is taking off is because of them. We found all these terrible people we worked with that were essentially like those guys. Soul Coughing was this weird universe–sort of a Dante’s Inferno, where I was the devil’s asshole, and there was the band, the management, the record company, and everybody hated me.
I wish I had just been like, “Well you guys don’t like me, I think I’m going to go make a record with the Dust Brothers.” Everything I did in that band I had to trick them into doing. They believed they wrote the songs. Just imagine people with a completely screwed up view of reality. Imagine the art director believing he wrote your article because, he’s like, “I laid it out…so I wrote it, right?…It was just a bunch of words.”
The song–“Lord Lord Help Me Just To Rock Rock On”–you compared it to “Walk On The Wild Side.” Is there a danger, in talking about addiction–you’re not celebrating it, but…
Maybe to some degree I am celebrating it. I certainly am not endorsing drugs. [But] I don’t regret that part of my life. I don’t regret doing drugs, anyway. There was a moment when they worked for me. The medicinal element–at one point if I didn’t have drugs, I really would’ve killed myself, it was too painful to live.
There’s the other point: I think people need to do psychedelics. There’s something about living that you will learn from taking a psychedelic drug. A friend of mine who’s a doctor said, “That’s fine, but when you get the message, you have to hang up the phone.” Not just “Oh wow,” stay on there for forever. I was one of those people.
I don’t think it’s a celebration of drugs, I think it’s a very fucked up and paranoid song. But yeah, I’m not shaking my finger in anybody’s face telling them not to do drugs. If you’re going to drugs, you should do drugs. From my perspective–if you want to stop, that’s also possible. But if that’s you want to stop. If you don’t want to stop, have at it.
The people that really worry me are the potheads. Of all the drug addicts in the world, it’s the serious potheads that worry me, because they don’t think they have a drug problem. I know so many people that lead the most mediocre lives, who don’t do a damn thing, it’s because they’re wake ‘n bakers. People say, weed’s not addictive–except for these guys that are waking up every day and ruining their lives! I think it’s a travesty that weed isn’t legal in this country, just like alcohol, but you have to take a look at what it does to people, for real.
All those Dave Matthews fans..
I think they’re mostly an alcohol crowd.
What’s your favorite year you’ve lived in New York?
2000, right when I got clean, was a great year. I moved here in ’89. Gradually I became a number and sadder person and I stopped noticing the amazingness, the beauty that is everywhere in the city–the strange juxtapositions, the oddness and the grittiness. I got clean and the world became much more psychedelic to me.
The way you’re doing things now, you’re making more money than you would be on a major label.
I feel bad for new artists. When I was new, basically, Warner Brothers gave me enough money for a van, to support my band, have a tour manager, a sound guy. Soul Coughing never made money, really. When I worked at the New York Press, it was like my day job. I wrote under a pseudonym. I couldn’t afford to live in New York. I wrote a column called ‘Dirty Sanchez,’ a mean column about music. It was a dark time in my life. I wrote about local musicians and what assholes they were, for the most part. I was just a tool at the time. It got kind of a following, as mean, nasty people will in New York.
We had a video on MTV, I was selling 350,000 records a year, and I wasn’t making half the money I’m making now. Now I sell between 40 and 80000 records, which is chump change compared to back then, playing smaller houses, and yet I’m really making a living. Part of it is just that I’m smarter.
What happened to me with Soul Coughing–[I thought] “Let’s share everything! Yeah! I’m 23!” Everyone was like, “Yeaaah sure, we’ll share everything.” It was a bit evil. That’s the song of all bands. I remember I met with this guy Terry Ellis, sort of a big music business figure, when Soul Coughing was just looking for a record label. He called me up to his office alone. He said, “Drop the band, and just be you.” I was like, “No way man! Fuck you man! All for one, one for all!”
He was right. The big scary record man was right.
Mike Doughty plays at (le) Poisson Rouge on October 31st, and again on November 28th.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 29, 2009