When singer-songwriter Mike Doughty left his band Soul Coughing in 2000 after eight years and three albums, he didn’t think he’d ever look back. After a tumultuous early career that included irreconcilable relationships with his bandmates and a crippling heroin addiction, Doughty broke free, cleaned up, and moved on. Yet his days in Soul Coughing would always cloud his solo career a decade later, as requests from fans to play his old songs at each live show became more frequent. Last year, Doughty published a memoir, The Book of Drugs, which detailed, for the record, the experience of being a member of a band that produced more strife and emotional abuse than productive creativity.
After getting sober and revisiting the painful years of his early career for his book, Doughty began thinking more and more about the music he produced with Soul Coughing and how it never came out exactly right. Doughty did what most of his fans — and friends — didn’t think would ever happen: he started to rerecord and reinterpret a selection of Soul Coughing’s songs. After a successful campaign on PledgeMusic and an inspiring collaboration with hip-hop producer Good Goose, Doughty recorded 13 Soul Coughing songs for a new solo album. Simply titled 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 (a title that lists all of the songs on the album), Doughty’s reimagined journey through his early career will be released September 17, a month before he embarks on a 32-city tour during which he’ll only play Soul Coughing songs.
Yesterday, I sat down with Doughty to discuss the impact writing his memoir had on his career, the pop song as a living object, and what drove him to return to Soul Coughing.
Flavorwire: The last time I talked to you was right before your book came out. I remember you describing it as an explanation of sorts for why you backed away from Soul Coughing so publicly and refused to play the songs again. Did that get you a little bit more understanding from your fan base?
Mike Doughty: Oh, yeah. I got, like, emails of apology from people that had yelled out for “Screenwriter’s Blues” at shows. They had no idea. For some reason, I thought the trauma of the band was, like, radiating off of my skin and everyone knew it.
You were pretty open about the dealings with your former band mates. Did you get any response from them at all?
I really didn’t. Yeah, it was weird. I didn’t hear from them.
That’s kind of good.
It was super good.
To transition to this new album: What was inspired you to revisit these songs?
Well, the book was, like, just dread and horror and blackness, so after… I mean, it wasn’t like I sat down and I was like, “I need to redeem these,” but I guess I just wanted to know what I was thinking at the time, and I wanted to be able to turn back the clock to when I was just sitting in my apartment writing these songs and to think about who I was, what I was trying to say, who my girlfriend was at the time, where I was going… just really sort of separate from that dark story and figure out who I was. I started going to the songs and, first of all, whenever you write a song, you figure out what it’s about years later. Like Haughty Melodic, the whole record’s basically like, “Oh, drugs. I love you, drugs. Where are you, drugs?” And I thought I was writing straight-up love songs. I just like seeing what a dark headspace I was in and how little hope I had. It’s very odd to look back and have compassion for myself, because when I was writing those songs, I fucking hated myself. It’s not just like if you were to read a journal entry and be like, “Oh, man, you said this, and this is what happened, and I wish you knew this, and I wish you knew that,” to your old self. It’s different from when you’re singing a song and you’re inhabiting — not only saying the things that you were thinking at the time, but your muscle memory is somehow reaching back and rediscovering. You know, like the way to play certain guitar parts is just imprinted, so you just sort of go back and your hands kind of do all the work, so you’re kind of accessing the program and running the program, so you do get a certain kind of looking through the virtual reality glasses of who you were when you were 25.
I also think, in terms of a journal entry, you write it and it’s dead. It just sort of sits there. But a song, especially one you play over and over again, is like a living, breathing thing that you can alter to fit your current mood.
Little tiny things change every time you play a song. You say something just microscopically earlier or a guitar move changes in a millisecond’s difference, and you telescope that over 20 years and it’s an extremely different song. One of the lessons of the book was how different everybody’s memory was in terms of like, girlfriends and friends, and they would tell me stories that I was like, “That’s a great story. I have no memory of that.” They had no memory of the stuff that I was talking about, and then we’d go to a third person and they wouldn’t remember any of this stuff. The experience of singing the song and then listening to the recording and realizing that it’s just way different from what you imagined is just another extremely stark lesson in the trippiness of memory.
I just watched this documentary about Joni Mitchell, and she talks about when she transitioned into a touring artist and how weird it was, especially after Blue, to release all this personal material that meant something to other people. When she started touring with a full band, she loosened up and started performing a bit more. I imagine that working with different musicians and producers throughout the years, especially with these old songs, would kind of bring a new perspective to the material because someone else is having an input on it.
Indeed, and one of the interesting things is Good Goose, the producer, is a hip-hop producer, and that was really the language that I was thinking in in the ‘90s, but nobody else spoke the language on any level. There were things that were sort of genre moves in hip-hop music or house music that other people would be like, “What do you mean you want us to repeat that over and over again?” But [Good Goose] would just be like, “Oh, yeah, sure,” click, click. “There you go.”
It also seems like that sort of production has transitioned into pop music a lot more seamlessly lately. You hear it all the time now and don’t even think about how rare that sort of thing was in pop music 20 years ago.
Right. When I first started putting out records, you’d still meet people who’d be like, “Oh, I hate rap music. Oh, it’s just noise.”
But what is rock music but a different noise?
Exactly! You always have to watch out for, “You kids! In my day…” Shaking the finger, you know.
How did you go about finding people to work with on this project?
It was just me and Good Goose in terms of making the record, and then Catherine Popper, the bass player, is just somebody I’ve known for a bunch of years. I met her the day I got sober, actually. The day I got sober, I went to a bar — really dumb place to be— but she had an upright bass and she was like, “Oh, you’re that guy from the band that’s got an upright bass player!” She gave me her email address and then years later: “Well, it’s been about 13 years. Are you still free?” I mean, I’ve bumped into her since; it wasn’t out of the blue. But she’s the best there is on that instrument these days, so I thank god she’s a friend of mine and didn’t make me pay her a zillion dollars to be on the album.