On His Soul Coughing Music: 'I Think It's Really, Really Bad'
Mike Doughty's 2011 was not bad, not bad at all. The veteran singer/songwriter saw his latest collection of hypnotic, wistful, sometimes absurd acoustic-based missives, "Yes And Also Yes," land the single "Na Na Nothing" quality time on the radio this summer, goosing the considerable booty-shaking at his recently-wrapped fall tour. But 2012 is looking even more interesting for the New York-based musician; his aptly-titled memoir, "The Book Of Drugs," is due Jan. 10. In it he chronicles his treacherous, intoxicated years as frontman of Soul Coughing in the 90s, through his transition into a fruitful (sober) solo career, with plenty of self-deprecating humor, band squabbles, music biz debauchery, and notable cameos from Jeff Buckley, Dave Matthews and Ani DiFranco and along the way.
Doughty recently chatted with Billboard.com about the book, his album, how Jennifer Lopez and music-stealing fans saved his life, and the contentment that comes with being in charge of your own career.
What is the story behind getting Rosanne Cash for a duet on your current single, "Holiday"?
We were on the same bill at the WFUV Christmas show and she said, from the stage, "I'm a little bit nervous because Mike Doughty is here and he's an amazing songwriter." And my jaw hit the floor. It was amazing. I met her after the show and said thank you. I wrote the song with Dan Wilson. We wrote it as a Christmas song, and we wanted to be emotionally resonant and not write the lame, cynical Christmas sucks song. There was a note I couldn't hit, and I thought I'd get a female backup singer and fudge it that way, but first, as a shot in the dark, I'll send an email to Rosanne and see if she wants to do it. She said yes, utterly blowing my mind.
The response to the album seems to have been particularly evident on tour.
I have an unusually attentive crowd. People know all the words, buy my albums -- or listen to them. Every night, I've been saying to the audience, 'Would you please burn the album for somebody? Help them steal it.' Because it really is better for me that they hear it rather than go buy it.
How does that work as someone who self-releases his own album on his own label like you do?
For me, the good business follows people listening as opposed to the listening being the be-all, end-all of the economic thrust. If people listen to the albums, they will come to the shows. If four people steal the album, they're going to meet a fifth guy who buys it. And the frank answer to putting it out on your own label is that you make more money.
Your memoir, "The Book of Drugs," is the next big project coming from you. What made you finally write it now? It had to have been on your mind for years.
I had been writing prose for years, and it had been my empty promise for a decade, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to write a book one of these days.' Then I started working with my manager, and he really [has] an entrepreneurial spirit. He was the guy who was like, you are a writer, you should write a book. I also happened to know someone at Da Capo Press who was the bass player in my oldest friend's band once upon a time. I called him straight out of the blue and he wanted to do it. Not a lot of things happen that efficiently.
It definitely took balls to write some of that stuff. You certainly talk about dark days licking heroin wrappers. What was the hardest part to write?
The only part that was really hard to write was the part about my parents and family. Other than that, there was nothing that I hadn't told somebody other than my shrink before.
One of my goals for the book is that it would be devoid of bad-assery. It would be funny, it would be kinda weird and pathetic. Every drug narrative is all 'night of the gun!', and mine is, 'it took me a million years to get to the bank machine and it was hilarious and heartbreaking.' Oh f*ck yeah, it really took 90 minutes to go three blocks. It's true. And at the time I didn't realize I had a problem [laughs]. Certainly I knew, ok, people die doing this stuff. You do the math and think life without this is likely to be miserable, so if this is all I have, then I'll take the risk of death. I wasn't aware that you could actually not be in pain and have a good life once you got past this stuff. It just seemed impossible.
One of the key moments was seeing a Jennifer Lopez video [around 1999], right smack in the middle of it taking me 90 minutes to go to the bank machine and back. She's a year older than me and she's in this video and she's in the Bronx and going out clubbing and going to the beauty salon. I'd thought, well I'm 29, my life's over, I'm elderly. And I looked at her and thought, she's 30, how is she walking? Denial is incredible. Rather than robbing people and getting my nose broken in a fight in a crackhouse, the revelation came watching a Jennifer Lopez video. That is more my style of drug memoir.
You disguised some people's names, but many -- including your old Soul Coughing bandmates -- aren't that hard to figure out.
Part of it was for the casual reader. I don't want everybody to think ill of this individual as he walks through the world. It's fine when fans Google it. But I don't want just sucker punch the guy in life. But the other thing, quite honestly, was that me and the lawyers and my editor worked our asses off to vet it against libel.
It's clear from the book that you're frustrated with people who are only into Soul Coughing rather than just fans of your decade of solo work.
At this point, a lot of my audience are people who like Soul Coughing AND people who like the stuff I'm doing now. But it kinda baffles me, because I really dislike the Soul Coughing music. I listen to it and I can't pretend I think this is good. I think it's really really bad. It's very strange. I wonder if more artists feel like that than they necessarily want to admit. [Maybe] they don't have a total shit show that was the band, the level of trauma.
It can become a real burden to have to deal with your history every time you put out a new piece of work. It's this whole other mishegas that you have to deal with that people are coming to you with baggage. Ultimately all I can do is write and record the best music I can, and just keep my head down and get the work done.
The kids that found the first solo record that Warner Brothers wouldn't put out, "Skittish," those kids stealing it on Napster and listening to it and coming to those shows, they saved my life. If it wasn't for people passing that album around, I probably wouldn't be on a tour bus talking to Billboard.
Looking at my life from where I am now, there is nothing else I could want. I would love to be able to fly business class always, that is all I want. But other than that I've got everything [laughs].