Interview: Mike Doughty on The Hell That Was Soul Coughing, The Benefits of Psychedelics, and Fictionally Screwing a Republican
"I get more and more afraid that a Soul Coughing reunion is going to be forced upon me at knifepoint. I don't need money that bad. I swear to God."
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.