The return of Mike Doughty
by Sally McGraw
When Mike Doughty first started playing solo shows, many fans of his primary musical project —the celebrated and genre-defying Soul Coughing—felt confused. How could someone who penned edgy, elusive lyrics about tiny lawnmowers that mow him down and worries that follow him like dinosaurs, someone whose Soul Coughing material was anchored by big, meaty basslines and layered with slightly sinister samples … be a closet folkie? Because when Doughty hauled out the acoustic and unleashed a group of deeply confessional songs on unsuspecting audiences, the raw emotion woven into those lucid lyrics spoke of folk. And for a while, listeners balked.
Doughty managed to win his doubters over in three simple moves. First, he allowed
the acoustic roots of his highly mechanized Soul Coughing work to show through
in tunes such as “Janine” and “So Far I Have Not Found the
Science;” attentive fans didn’t have to work hard to connect the
dots from the old to the new. Second, he cashed in on the inexplicable overlap
among folk fans and electronica fans. Third, he used his deep shadowy voice,
charmingly idiosyncratic delivery and relentlessly poetic lyrics to draw the
stragglers across the line and into his bright, new musical territory.
But this transformative and freeing solo career was a long time coming. In 1996,
after Soul Coughing had finished Irresistible Bliss, Doughty took 12
songs that his bandmates had rejected to revered Low producer Kramer and cut
Skittish. This bare-bones acoustic album languished unreleased for years
while Doughty battled with substance abuse issues and a hostile band environment.
In 2000, with both sets of demons behind him, he took those songs out for a
spin and was astonished to find that audience members were singing along. Although
many mourned the loss of Soul Coughing and failed to connect with Doughty’s
new material, others had discovered Skittish tracks that had been leaked
online and were hungry for more.
And more is what they got. During a 2001 tour to support Skittish, Doughty
made a stop in our fair city. He packed ‘em in at the Woman’s Club
and played a varied set drawn mainly from Skittish and Soul Coughing
material, but also incorporating as-yet-unheard solo songs. He indulged his
inner comedian—something his former bandmates had discouraged—bantering
jauntily about robots, buckets of shoes, and MTV-envy. He recorded this happy
mess and released it as Smofe + Smang: Live in Minneapolis in 2002. And,
again, the eternally loyal and the recently converted ate it up.
Through mutual manager Jim Grant, he hooked up with local legend Dan Wilson
and decided he’d found the man to produce his first full-band solo studio
album. He presented his entire solo catalog, and Wilson selected his top 12—a
group of songs with which the producer felt a personal affinity. Over the course
of the next two years, Doughty flew out to Minnesota whenever Wilson had a window
of free time. In fits and starts, they created the album together.
the full-band project was slowly taking shape in Wilson’s home studio,
Doughty took the surplus songs to They Might Be Giants producer Pat Dillett,
and created Rockity Roll. (The man certainly knows how to make use of
his leftovers.) This lo-fi EP utilizes kitschy synth and programmed drums to
support Doughty’s percussive guitar and insistent, rumbling vocals. The
result is a poppy gem that forms the perfect bridge between the unadorned acoustic
folk of Skittish and Smofe and the elaborate, polished folk-rock
of the recently released Haughty Melodic.
A collection of songs whose melodies err on the side of celebratory, but whose
lyrics dip into Doughty’s seemingly endless reservoir of melancholy, Haughty
Melodic is a very complete-feeling album. The ever-present syncopated thrumming
of Doughty’s acoustic guitar—his signature sound—is made new
through Wilson’s skillful and innovative arrangements. The initial disappointment
of the album’s songlist—which includes tunes Doughty released on
Smofe and others he’s been performing live for nearly 3 years—is
alleviated by the unquestionable merit of the recording. Beautifully unobtrusive
accents—including a cheeky banjo, subtle female harmony vocals, quirky
drum fills and ethereal glockenspiel —round out the carefully layered
sound that Doughty and Wilson slaved to create. The result is a collection of
songs that feel nurtured without seeming forced.
A songwriter with a poet’s heart, Doughty pens some of modern music’s
most evocative lyrics. In many songs, he plays narrator to a cast of colorful
characters who verge on Tom Waitsian—sensual Cuban women, tattooed bartenders
and KFC servers cowering behind bulletproof glass—and observes their lives
with the tender irony of the nearly-damned. In others, such as the bleak lament
“White Lexus” and the astonished tribute “Unsingable Name,”
he lays his soul bare in heart-rending humility.
That mixture of emotional detachment and outright confession is augmented by
Doughty’s unparalleled skill as a wordsmith. He fearlessly pairs fun and
accessible phrases (“Easy, Cowboy, what’s the rush, now?”)
with undreamt-of images (“She may cleave me like a snowplow”)—drawing
you into his world only to unceremoniously dump the contents of his brain onto
your surprised lap. Shadows of the more obscure Soul Coughing lyrics crop up
occasionally (“Does the man who make the shoes own you, clown? / You can’t
even pry the nameplate off, now can you?”), as do glib grammar mutations
(“You snooze you lose / well I have snozzed and lost”).
Doughty’s vocals can verge on a growly drone, but this collection of songs
has him moving gracefully through his range. With virtually vibrato-free delivery,
his low baritone is intense, frank and clean … but can feel a bit sparse
at times. Producer Wilson wisely layers on harmony vocals and buoys Doughty’s
voice with soaring pedal steel and diffuse Wurlitzer. The album also features
a duet with Dave Matthews on “Tremendous Brunettes.” (Haughty
Melodic is on ATO Records, a major label susbsidiary that Matthews co-owns,
and the two musicians have been friends for years.) Bizarrely, Matthews sounds
like a crotchety old man soloing on this track, but he blends seamlessly with
Doughty on the harmonies.
Unusual and varied instrumentation, tight production and mind-bending lyrics
make this album a satisfying helping of high-quality folk-pop goodness. Die-hard
Doughty fans and newbies alike will find Haughty Melodic an adventurous
and worthwhile listen.
I was lucky enough to corner Doughty via cell phone a few weeks before he launched
his current tour to support the new album. He filled me in on the details of
the album’s conception and birth; life after Soul Coughing; and why he
can’t help exposing his soul to the masses time after time.
PULSE: How and when did you first hook up with Dan Wilson?
MIKE DOUGHTY: Well, my manager, Jim, is also his manager. I had a bunch
of songs without bridges, and Jim suggested that I just go out and work with
Dan and have a “bridge workshop.” So, basically, that’s what
happened. Also, I had a couple of songs that were half done, “American
Car” was kinda half done. Dan helped me re-jigger it, and also helped
me write a couple of bridges. Then we did a couple of demos and they just sounded
so great that I thought, “This ought to be my dude.” So that started
the long and arduous process of flying back and forth from Minnesota for a week’s
worth of work, or a month’s, or three days, or basically whatever he had
PULSE: So you recorded Haughty Melodic based on Wilson’s
MD: Yeah, basically.
PULSE: On the songs you two co-wrote did Wilson mainly help with arrangements,
or did he contribute lyrics and musical ideas?
MD: He basically helped me write stuff. I would say, “Well, I’m
thinking about going to this chord.” And he would say, “Hm, why
don’t you try this chord?” It wasn’t like he was really co-writing,
necessarily—he was mainly acting as a catalyst. Although there are certain
decisions he made, things he shifted around. He acted as songwriter-as-zen-master,
in a way. You know, shifting the weight around within the yogic structure of
PULSE: A handful of the album’s songs skip bass guitar in favor
of other low-end sounds. Did you just want to mix it up, or is there something
more specific behind that choice?
MD: Well, I really dislike the bass guitar. I love the upright bass,
I love the tuba, I love the low end on a piano, I love the low end on an electric
piano or a synthesizer. But, in general, I think an electric bass adds this
weird foam. It fills up certain frequencies and sort of blocks everything out.
So I was looking for instruments that had different overtones. There are a couple
of songs on the album with electric bass on them, just to have something in
that area, living in bassland … but most of them include upright bass
or piano. Different, more unique ways of dealing with that frequency level.
PULSE: I read that you wanted to put Magnetic Fields’ “Book
of Love” on Haughty Melodic. Why didn’t that work out?
We recorded it, actually. I had this idea of ending the album with a cover.
We covered that song, and we covered Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”
But then we had this other song called “Your Misfortune” that we
had written together. It was actually a close co-write for me and Dan. And I
don’t know what happened, I think we just forgot about it. We recorded
it in the fall, during our very first demo session, and we uncovered it as we
were just finishing up and saying, “What are the dregs of this project?”
And we just thought it was so nice, and had that record-ending sound to it.
So we put that in there instead.
PULSE: Do you ever compose on instruments besides guitar?
MD: Yeah, whenever I can. I’ll use keyboards. I have this weird
Chinese lute I got in Shanghai that’s great to mess around on. And a little
Roland MC 305 groove box. Anything to get outside of the guitar-head. That’s
a very well-worn geography for me. I tend to think fresher if I can get out
PULSE: This album contains songs you have released on previous recordings,
and have also been performing for some time now. How do you keep these songs
fresh in performance?
MD: You mean how do they differ from performance?
PULSE: How do you keep yourself from getting bored with them?
MD: Oooh. Really the only way to do that is to write songs that you
really dig. I would love it if there was some zen technique or something …
but no. You just have to write stuff that you really like! [Laughs] Songs that
you won’t get sick of.
PULSE: Do you ever change up the arrangements in performance?
MD: A little bit. The phrasing tends to change little by little. Two
years on, I’ll listen to an old recording and it’s completely removed
from what I’m singing now. But it’s really a matter of trying to
keep yourself interested. And when I do start feeling weird about a song, sometimes
I have to put it in the stable for a while. Put it back in the bag. It takes
a certain amount of resolve to do that, though. Especially if it’s a song
that people really love, or gets a great reaction during a show and you may
need that reaction to complete the arc of a setlist. But I really try to be
disciplined about just playing stuff I like, just trying to enjoy what I’m
doing. That’s the most compelling way to do it for an audience, I think.
PULSE: Much of your solo material is deeply personal, verging on confessional.
You’ve said you feel like it’s your job to be brutally honest in
your songs. Do you find that kind of honesty freeing? Frightening? Both?
MD: Both. It’s horrible to play something and think, “I
don’t really want to tell the world about this. [Laughs.] I just prefer
to sing about chicks and cars, bling and bootyshakin’, or whatever …”
PULSE: So what drives you, then, to expose your emotions to the world?
MD: Not to be corny about it, but I get into a real trance-y head when
I’m writing. I try to pick subjects that feel really honest and compelling,
and that make a certain kind of poetic sense—which is not necessarily
a literal sense. I don’t know. You just sort of plug ‘em in there,
and it begins to form a story. But later I’m like, “Fuckin’
A, what the hell am I doing? More songs about chicks and cars, please!”
PULSE: It seems like there’s always been a lot of love between
you and Minneapolis, dating back to the Soul Coughing/REV 105 days. Any guesses
as to why the Twin Cities have always responded so strongly to your music?
I have no idea. No idea at all.
PULSE: Do the Twin Cities feel like a second home?
MD: It never really did until I started making this record with Dan,
actually. Before this record, I’d come into town and stay at the Crown
Plaza or something. So really, going to the Borders in Uptown on a weekend is
a new experience for me. Or going to … I can’t remember if it’s
French Meadow or French Market?
PULSE: French Meadow, awww, best pancakes in the universe.
MD: Yeah, and that tempeh rueben.
PULSE: What did you learn from the experience of going completely independent
and self-releasing albums in the wake of Soul Coughing’s break-up?
MD: What did I learn … well, in Soul Coughing, I’d been
on a bus, and there were roadies and that whole apparatus. And, basically, I
quit Soul Coughing and I had all these huge changes in my life. Then I found
myself alone in a rental car, which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to go
around and be alone. But what did I learn? I learned that it felt great, and
at the same time that it was enormously humbling to be completely without any
means of support other than my own willpower.
PULSE: How do you think ATO is different from other major label subsidiaries?
The label calls itself “artist friendly”—what does that mean
MD: They definitely are artist friendly. They’re not messing around
with what I’m trying to do. In fact, I tend to welcome more collaboration
than they’re comfortable with! [Laughs.] I’ll be like, “So
what do you think?” And they’ll say, “Oh you know, whatever
you want.” And I’ll go, “No no no, what do you THINK?!”
[Laughs.] So they’ll feel obliged to say something like, “Yeah,
yeah I think that’s the right idea.” But then they’ll get
super-embarrassed and say, “But you should do whatever you want!”
So they’re really great. I haven’t got a bad thing to say about
PULSE: That must be a huge relief.
MD: Yeah, but to be honest, I’ve always had good experience with
labels. Warner Brothers was really nice to Soul Coughing. They were golden,
man. They were great.
PULSE: You manage to get political while avoiding being preachy. How
important is it for your music to have a larger message?
MD: Not really important at all. You’re talking about “Move
MD: Well, I woke up one night in August and I just couldn’t sleep.
So I just rolled out of bed and the song came out really quickly, which almost
never happens. I’m
always going back to the notebooks and getting stuff out and plugging it in.
Songs will remain partially done for a long time. But with this one, I actually
had extra verses that I didn’t use, which never happens. It was all done,
right there at 4 or 5 in the morning. It was so eerie. It really blew my mind.
PULSE: You must’ve been channeling the muse.
MD: I don’t know. It might’ve been that I just really knew
what I wanted to say. I really knew what I felt about this. But I think you’re
right, it’s super important to avoid being preachy, to speak from a position
of your own experience and your own feelings rather than jabbing your finger
at whoever. ||
Mike Doughty performs on Sat. May 14 at the Cedar Cultural Center with Kelly
Buchanan. 8 p.m. All Ages. $18 adv/ $20 door. SOLD OUT. 416 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls.
612-338-2674. Doughty will also be performing a free in-store at 4 p.m. on Sat.
May 14 at the Electric Fetus. 2000 4th Ave S., Mpls. 612-870-9300.
Find out more about Mike Doughty on his official website