Swinging Modern Sounds #32: An Interview with Mike Doughty


Mike Doughty is a singer-songwriter of a particularly urban sort, whose compositions, though guitar-based and often not terribly far from the ideal of the busker, are, nonetheless, cross-pollinated by just about everything audible in New York City—punk, jazz, pop, hip hop, soul, experimental music, electronica. He’s also a first-rate lyricist, one who could easily be mistaken for a poet with a capital P, and in whom one can see the contours of much that has happened in the last fifteen years at, for example, the Bowery Poetry Club.

It was not exactly a surprise for me, then—as someone who has followed Doughty’s work since the 1990s, since the ascendency of his band Soul Coughing, a hip-hop inflected jazz-funk outfit that served as an alternative to everything grunge—to learn that Doughty has composed a memoir of his time in the limelight thus far, entitled, appropriately, The Book of Drugs, coming to you in winter 2012 from Da Capo. Doughty’s life, as chronicled in these pages, is not so much a revelation for its narrative arc (kid makes the big time, starts in with the dope, the band breaks up, kid is redeemed), as it is for the astonishingly vital, energized, and natural voice contained in its pages, one which never once had a ghost writer presiding over it, likewise its acerbic and sometimes lacerating honesty. If that weren’t enough, if a volume of genuine autobiography weren’t enough, Doughty also has a new album out, one that finds him heading back in the direction of a band, albeit with lots of strange electronic noise adorning its lovely rock and roll surface. The new album is called Yes And Also Yes, which title Doughty came up with while trying to write a profile for himself on an online dating site, and is released on his own label, Snack Bar/ Megaforce. Available just about everywhere.

Our interview occurred in early September at Mike Doughty’s apartment, which is on the other side of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and which has a great many guitars in it.


The Rumpus: I want to start by talking about the memoir. What was the impulse? At what point did the impulse arise?

Mike Doughty: I just felt I had a lot of stories. It wasn’t like I had an idea for a book. I had all these stories and I kind of wanted to do something with them. And I guess I wrote a book because I’ve always sort of been threatening to write a book (laughs), and finally somebody called me on it. Also, there’s an economic impulse, which is that there’s not a lot of money in making music anymore. Once you’ve been putting out records for a long time, even people who are super-positive about it are like, Oh, look, it’s that guy. Oh, there he goes, he’s putting something out! Great! He’s doing it! And nobody pays attention to it.

Rumpus: Does that mean that Da Capo came to you and said, Hey, we’ll put out a memoir if you write one?

Doughty: No, I started working with Jamie Kitman who manages They Might Be Giants and who also is an acclaimed automotive reporter. He said, Why do we try to do some other stuff? Why don’t you try to write a book? And I said, Oh, that’s a lovely idea. He was just running by names of publishers, and I was like, Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, who are they? And then I was like, Oh, yeah! I know Ben Shaeffer at Da Capo—he was the bass player in my best friend’s band. I just called him up.

Rumpus: Once you had interest from Da Capo then you began organizing the material? Or was some of it already written down?

Doughty:  As soon as I was signed I asked: How long does it need to be? And when do you want it? And Ben said, Oh, just do whatever you want, you know, take as long as you want. I said, Great. I’ll call you in two years. Or rather, you’ll call me in two years and say, Hey, we gave you a bunch of money, did you write the book yet? Then I’ll write it. Eighteen months later, he called and started breathing down my neck, so then I wrote it. Took me four months.

Rumpus: Describe the work process, if you are able.

Doughty: I tried to be nonlinear. I just tried to write what I was interested in that day. And then I compiled what I had. And then there were a few connective-tissue type things I had to write. But mostly it was just like, you know, I’ll write the story of the meeting with the band where they took away the publishing money, I’ll write the story of the Cop and Go on Delancey Street, I’ll write the story of robbing a store when I was twelve. And then I kind of put them in order.

Rumpus: Is it true what Keith Richards said, that one would rather make five more albums than write a memoir?

Doughty: Actually, I really dug it! It was really great. I mean, I read Pnin, Nabokov, while I was writing it, and then, at some point, I was like, hmmm, how much better is this guy than me. You know. And then I decided I really could not think like that.

Rumpus: You picked an intimidating example.

Doughty: But I really loved doing it. In fact, once I turned it in I kept thinking of other stuff I wanted to put in there. And, you know, Ben said, You’ll be doing this for the rest of your life—that’s what everybody does who writes a memoir.

Rumpus: How many hours were you putting in a day?

Doughty: Oh, four or five hours.

Rumpus: So it was like: I’ll do the book in the morning, and maybe I’ll work on something else, or go to the studio or to a gig in the evening?

Doughty: It was really hard to sit down and, like, start. Just every day, I’d be like, Well, you know, I should read the Times, and I should do this one thing, and I should call this guy, and then, sort of late in the day, I’d finally be like, All right. Not late in the day, but maybe, 1 p.m.. You know, not the, I’m going to get up and make the coffee and eat a hard-boiled egg and start creating litera-chuh.

Rumpus: Would you write another book? What about fiction?

Doughty: I mean, I’ve thought about fiction, but I don’t know the first thing about it. I have an excuse for not being an amazing memoirist. It’s a thing you can start at forty and not be the greatest in the world, but, with fiction you got to put in a good twenty years before you’re super-great at it. Now if I had an idea…

Rumpus: Tell me about the title¸ The Book of Drugs. Did you come up with the title before beginning?

Doughty: I just wanted something with drugs in it. You know (laughs), basically, I just wanted something so that people would walk into the store (although nobody’s going to walk into the store anymore) and go, Drugs! I like drugs!

Rumpus: So when you began the project, then, you weren’t thinking of it necessarily as being the before-and-after drug book?

Doughty: Oh, no, I was totally thinking of it being the before-and-after drug book. The only thing was—speaking of a second book—I was like, well, I’ll write one that is just about drugs, and then, if that works, I’ll write one that is about music. And then I was just asking different friends of mine, like, What should I tell? What are the good stories? They were all saying music stories. So it became an omnibus. But yeah, initially I was trying to write the drug book, the drug narrative.

Rumpus: And did you have in mind particular rock-and-roll memoirs or rock-and-roll books that served as precursors?

Doughty: I don’t read a lot of rock books. I’m not like—a lot of times, I just get really mad reading rock books. I don’t like rock-ism: I hate to use some stupid term that Robert Christgau came up with in 1980, but, you know. There are the tropes that I don’t like. Oh, you know what’s great? The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones. Do you know that book? I think it’s Stanley Booth? Story of the 1969 tour, from the death of Brian Jones through Altamont. Amazing book! And really, it’s just his memoir of being in the entourage. But it’s so great.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about the differences between songwriting and prose writing that might be illuminating for us? I was wondering about how you work, in general?

Doughty: Well, um, I sort of, I came up with the way I write songs now kind of when I got sober. Because I couldn’t really write for a while. I was writing really terrible things.

Rumpus: Ten years ago, now?

Doughty: Eleven years ago, 2000. I took the spiritual part of the 12-step thing very seriously, so I’d write prayers. Because I couldn’t pray. So I would just sort of write, you know, sometimes extremely sincere, sometimes super sarcastic prayers. And then, eventually as I started to write guitar parts, I went back to the notebook and started plucking things out. In general, though, guitar parts suggest something melodic, the melody’s got a few words to it, you know, and then I’ll grab the notebook—and I’m talking about phrases. Or, you know, a couple of words. And they suggest something, and you sort of throw them all together. Then, when you need a record, you really kind of focus on making all these pieces into something. That’s what I’ve been doing for, like. eleven years.

Rumpus: And how does this compare to the agony of prose writing?

Doughty: It’s harder to begin, with the prose. Because the music, you can just, like, pick up a guitar and think about something else, and then ten minutes later, you’re writing something without even noticing it. But with prose, sitting down and thinking in a linear fashion . . . You know what? This is a very weird question. How is prose writing different from songwriting? What’s the difference between swimming and climbing Mount Everest? It was really scary writing the prose, very scary.

Rumpus: I’ve done both, too. And, yes, they are very different exercises for me, as well. I’m just always curious to see how other people manage their creativity.

Doughty: You have to try not to make a song about something. You have to kind of write it, and then not think about what you want it to be. Let it be what it wants to be. Which is super New Age-y, but you know, you work for the song, as opposed to trying to get it to do what you want. I always get into this situation where I write something way too vulnerable. Then, you know, I try and throw it away and unfortunately (laughs) it just has to be there: it is there. It belongs to the song.

Rumpus: Can you talk a bit, if you’re willing to, about the effect of sobriety on writing? Is it the case, for example, that the memoir had to come in a period of sobriety, as opposed to something you might have written back when you were still using?

Doughty: Oh, yeah! I mean… the obvious answer is that I didn’t have a story back then. I mean, the story is a clichéd rise and fall, and then the story of the band. If I was still getting high and I had a story, could I write it? Probably not. I mean, just ability-wise. The thing that makes me so angry about the songs that I wrote when I was high is that they’re not done. There are like lines in there that are fudged. There’s some words in there, and I’ll figure it out later. But then I never figured it out, and it ended up on the record.

Rumpus: Are you willing to give an example of such a thing?

Doughty: Um, I’m not. Well… there’s a song called “Fully Retractable,” which is almost such a good song! But then, like, one line of every verse is just like, And muuhs mum muh muh… you know, just mumbled.

Rumpus: So what’s been the effect of increased sobriety on the composition of songs?

Doughty: They’re better. I like everything that I write. Pretty much everything I’ve made since I got sober, I listen to, or I look at, and that’s what I meant to say, that is done. It is perfect for what it is, you know? It’s not like, Oh, why did I do that? And, you know. Part of it was just that there was so much compromise being in Soul Coughing, so much compromise that I was just like, Man, this is not a good idea, a lot of the time. So I have no idea what that music would’ve been like, if I had made it what I wanted it to be. So it might just be coincidence that I started liking what I was writing better sober than wasted.

Rumpus: Can we talk a little about how Soul Coughing’s depicted in the book?

Doughty: Absolutely.

Rumpus: I admire your solo work without reservation, but I knew you first as a member of Soul Coughing. And to this day, I like Soul Coughing. So I’m interested in how you approach writing about that period? I mean, it’s sort of a kind of jostling awake for a Soul Coughing fan to read this book—.

Doughty: Like you didn’t suspect any of this stuff?

Rumpus: Call me naïve.

Doughty: Who would suspect any of this stuff?

Rumpus: I mean, the rabid fan of a band has delusional partial ownership of the band—.

Doughty: Yes! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rumpus: And what happens in that process of delusional partial ownership is the projection of ideas onto the material, and onto the narrative of the band.

Doughty: This thing happened to me the other day. I saw Bill Cunningham (fashion photographer) running around, which just thrilled me, because I loved that movie (Bill Cunningham, New York), and he’s so awesome. I saw him, like, making a beeline somewhere with his blue coat on, and I was like, I’m going to get my picture with Bill Cunningham! It was just like (snaps finger) the mission, so I headed straight over to him, and I was like, “Hey, Bill, can I take a picture with you?” And he was like, “I’m working.” And I just realized, like, fuck, I just did what everybody does to me. Which is like, you’re not a person. And here’s another example: I was at a rest stop on tour, just like standing outside or something, and this guy comes up to me and says, “You know, I bumped into you at the same rest stop ten years ago, it’s really weird.” And then he just walked away. I mean, it was just like he was talking to a Coke machine.

Rumpus: All right. I was totally naïve about the band, as an outside observer, and that’s totally natural. And in a way it shouldn’t be revelatory that there was internal tension and a lot of struggle in Soul Coughing. There always is.

Doughty: Yeah.

Rumpus: I mean, look at Keith Richards’s book. Even two guys who’ve been playing together for fifty years, and who have accomplished a great many things, it’s possible that even they kind of hate each other.

Doughty: But there is something about Soul Coughing which is unique. All the guys were like ten years older than me. I was like twenty-three, and I had a bunch of ideas, and they took part in it because they had nothing better to do, and maybe it’s another thirty bucks a week, or whatever it was. And suddenly, we got a record deal. So there’s one level on which they’re getting to that point where they’re like, I may not be able to be an artist for a living. Like in your early thirties, when you’re worried something’s not going to happen. So there was a lot of pride involved in it for them. I mean, can you imagine being with a twenty-three-year-old kid who is more talented than you—.

Rumpus: And who is the source of all the song ideas.

Doughty: Exactly! Right. And, sidebar, through recovery and therapy and all this stuff, eventually I would say to people, like, “You know, it has really occurred to me that I actually wrote those songs.” And they’re like, “Yes. You did.” And it really was a revelation to me, because, like, basically the band told me, People aren’t really into you, they’re into us. Or: you’re really lucky to have found us. And they believed this to a great extent. If it were a con, it’d be easier to take. For example, I got a communication from one of my old bandmates recently, who is maybe poking around for a reunion, I don’t fucking know. I certainly wouldn’t do such a thing: there’s no money in it, and even if there was, I don’t want the money. But he was like, I really want to talk to you again, you know, you’re okay. You can be a part of this. I thought, well, perhaps not. They don’t see me as being particularly gifted or interesting. At one point, they actually wanted to fire me and start auditioning singers. We had an extremely wimpy manager at this point, really just a pushover. It was just terrible working with this guy. But this was his one moment of having a spine—when they went to him with that plan—and he was just like, You can’t do that. You really, really can’t do that. You need to stay with Doughty, that’s what it’s all about.

Rumpus: This was all painful to read. That’s the thing that I feel honor-bound to tell you, as a person who’s followed your work for a long time.

Doughty: You mean the fact that he really doesn’t like this?

Rumpus: No, I don’t begrudge you that at all. What’s painful to read is that a band that you actually cared about could have been that dysfunctional and hideous to one another.

Doughty: It was hideous.

Rumpus: And that someone should suffer as much as you apparently suffered as a result.

Doughty: It was horrible! And again, like I’ve known lots of bands that don’t get along, and their trip is usually like, We met in high school, we met in college, and at one point we were equals on some level. Once we were, you know, Mick Jagger talking to Keith Richards about a Lightning Hopkins record he was carrying on the Tube. But this was a different case. It was people from a different universes colliding.

Rumpus: And then you were stuck with them for five years.

Doughty: Yeah, I was stuck with them for five years. Sometimes I’d think, What if I just fired them and made a record with the Dust Brothers? Because it could have happened. I mean, one thing that’s got to be said is that I always chose the most fucked up person to work with. The most fucked up situation to be in. And I look back on it, and it’s not like I mistakenly went that direction, it’s like: Healthy, healthy, healthy, fucked up. And I always chose fucked up.

Rumpus: Because of addictive illness?

Doughty: Recently I heard a guy define addiction as the most fucked up possibility ringing true. Like, guy hasn’t called me back, his phone’s broken, he’s busy, uh, you know, he got killed in a car accident, or he hates me, and it’s like, Oh, he hates me. And you just look at those possibilities, and you don’t even put any rational thought into it. The one guy who was great, back then, was my booking agent, who an abusive manager hired—without asking me—but who turned out to be an amazing guy. Frank Riley, the guy who was nice to me when I broke up the band. He was like, Oh well. Do other stuff.

Rumpus: Maybe I don’t have a proper question here. Or maybe the question is: do you think that the process of making the book helps in some way to bury the Soul Coughing issue once and for all?

Doughty: No. Because those guys weren’t, if they didn’t believe I was basically—I don’t want to say worthless . . . I don’t know. If I, myself, contacted a bandmate about maybe getting together again, I’d say something like, “I’ve been listening to what you’ve been doing, and it’s really interesting.” And that’s not what happens.

Rumpus: But you must have to work with them occasionally—

Doughty: What I tell everybody—managers, and so on—is: if there’s a license for a TV show or something, I don’t want to know. Do not want to know. Get me the best deal possible. Tell me three months later that the song is going to be in an episode of House. And even that might be too much to know. Because the level of viciousness and disregard is just monstrous.

Rumpus: I want to talk a little more briefly about the new album, because the book doesn’t come out until January?

Doughty: January or February.

Rumpus: But the new album is now. So is there any way that the composition of these newer songs is related to the memoir-writing experience?

Doughty: I don’t think so. Well, but the thing is that I don’t really know what the songs are about until a couple of years later, after I’ve been playing them for a while. Because it’s just about the sonics of the words, at first. There’s a story going on, and there’s a silhouette to the song, but that doesn’t always mean that I know what I’m writing about. So maybe, on that first song (“Na Na Nothing”), there’s a very specific, go to hell ex-girlfriend theme, but that might not even be what it’s about.

Rumpus: Can you tell the story about how that song involves Nikki Sixx?

Doughty: Oh! So, Dan Wilson, who is the guy who wrote “Closing Time” (by Semisonic)—.

Rumpus: Love that song.

Doughty: Yes! Thank you for saying that. (Laughs.) That album is an amazing album!  Anyway, Chrysalis Music Publishing put together, like, a camp. Sort of like a shmancy Yaddo (the well-known and highly regarded artist’s retreat) for their top-shelf writers, their top pop guys and country guys and R&B guys, every genre. And they put them in fancy cabins, around, like, Lake Tahoe or something, and then they just rotated them around every day. And Dan ended up for a day with Nikki Sixx and Matt Gerard (who wrote much of High School Musical). And Nikki Sixx wanted to write a song called “The Blind Date From Hell,” which is a horrible title. But apparently Nikki Sixx is one of those guys who’s like, Oh, the kids are into this. You know, he’s very sort of sheister’y in his song ideas. Which I respect tremendously, by the way. But they ended up writing this song that’s really terrible on which Nikki Sixx raps.

Rumpus: What’s with Mötley Crüe? They all want to rap.

Doughty: Yeah, Tommy Lee! Yeah, yeah!  So, anyway, they wrote the song and Nikki Sixx rhymes “smell” with “Taco Bell.” And “shady” with “Warren Beatty.” And it’s just a horrible song, you just listen to it, and you’re like, I cannot believe . . . and Nikki Sixx had this line—I think it was Nikki Sixx who had this line, like, “You’re like a bad joke that I delete from my spam folder every day.” This is what the kids are talking about! And so I said to Dan: You wrote a song with Nikki Sixx? I need to hear it. And he was like, I’m not going to play it for you, and I was like, No, you don’t understand, you’re going to play this for me. The first line was like, “Nah, nah, nah, you get nothin’, la, la, la, la, la, lucky,” and the lyric was really not happening. It wasn’t very good. But I took it, nonetheless, and I turned it into my song—with Dan’s permission, and swearing to him that I would never, ever, ever play the demo of the song they wrote for anybody. So if it’s on the internet, it’s not from me. At all. And I’m not going to play it for you.

Rumpus: I understand.

Doughty: Because Dan said, Nobody. Nobody, nobody, nobody.

Rumpus: So you had to cut in Nikki Sixx for the publishing?

Doughty: I actually got a pretty good deal. They gave me sixty percent of the song. Which wasn’t bad. I thought it was going to be like that Allen Klein/“Bittersweet Symphony” situation where the Stones got all the money, you know. This one is too good not to perform, so if I had to give away all the money, that would have been fine. But they were really nice to me.

Rumpus: This album seems to be more of a return to the band ideal.

Doughty: The idea was to be more of a rock record. There are three songs in the middle: “Have At It,” “Strike The Motion,” and “Makelloser Man.” That was what the album was supposed to sound like. And Marty Beller played drums, and it was going to be a marked departure. But that’s not how it worked out. I’ve been writing a lot more stuff electronically, just because I became able to. I can use the computer now. So I just started putting sounds on there, and so some of the songs changed as a result. They became hybrids.

Rumpus: Wasn’t the Roseanne Cash duet (“Holiday (What Do You Want)”) later, in the process, because I seem to remember that you gave me a couple of the songs before. And she wasn’t on there yet.

Doughty: Yeah, yeah, that was pretty late.

Rumpus: What’s the story there?

Doughty: I wrote the song with Dan Wilson. I went out to LA—he moved to LA, or his wife made him move to LA, because she’s from Guam. And she’s like, Minneapolis for twenty-five years? No thanks! We’re moving to some place with better weather. Anyway, I wanted to write a Christmas song. The idea was to not write this Christmas-is-shitty-and-this-is-our-Christmas song. But to sort of be, to be genuinely emotional but not corny. To write something that’s resonant and real, and which also has sleigh bells on it, because that’s the indication of the genre. And so we wrote this thing. I thought it was great. But it had a note that I couldn’t sing. And so I was, like, I’ll do it as a harmony. I’ll get a female singer. And I though why not go for the gold? So I was just like, Hey, Roseanne, you want to sing this song? And she said yes.

Rumpus: You didn’t know her?

Doughty: I met her at a show. Actually, she said from the stage, “I’m a little nervous because Mike Doughty’s here and he’s such a great songwriter.” She’s very conscious of her iconic qualities. So I think she thought: I’m going to freak Mike Doughty out by saying this thing from the stage.

Rumpus: One last topic. Can you talk about your recent Yaddo experience a bit?

Doughty: Yaddo is a great place for listening to records. I’m usually a subway-iPod-on-shuffle kind of guy. And so I spent a lot of time just sitting in this super awesome cabin they gave me with the fire going, listening to Sublime Frequencies radio collages. Which are amazing. I did a lot of listening. And obviously I did a bunch of writing. I wrote twenty-one songs. I looked up and I had written twenty-one songs! And I thought I’d written like five.

Rumpus: And what about being around all those serious writers?

Doughty: The heartbreaking experience for me was the first day home from Yaddo, and you wake up, and it’s like, Oh, I’m going to make myself cereal and sit in my living room alone (laughs). There’s not a bunch of people talking about really interesting shit. There’s no air of gravitas. It’s kind of embarrassing to say that I’m into that, but I guess I’m into that, I guess everybody’s into that. No more having people from every discipline talking about stuff that’s super-interesting. I met one woman there who did an animated video for me. And I just had this amazing time talking to this Russian composer. We’re just sitting at dinner one night, and one of the writers is like, Oh, yeah, I really like listening to Andrea Bocelli, and the composer goes (Russian accent): Excuse me, excuse me: to me, this is not a singer. He just went off.  He was living at that stone tower (on the Yaddo grounds), so later he threw a party in the space, and I made a mixtape, and we were dancing, and he was like, I don’t know how to dance. And I said, Just clap on the two and the four. He said, What’s the two and the four?

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →