Mike Doughty is enjoying a pinnacle moment in his two-decade career. The 40-something indie rock singer-songwriter who once fronted Soul Coughing (and who’d prefer you didn’t bring it up) parted ways with ATO last year to record under his own SNACK BAR Records imprint. This year, he celebrates the completion of two major projects, both released nationally last week.
The first, The Question in a Jar Show, is a two-disc live album culled from recordings of his 2009 tour of the same name with cellist sideman Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, during which they played songs and answered questions fans had written and left in a jar on the stage before each show. The discs provide illuminating insight into the lighter side of Doughty’s forthright nature and live style, with select Q&A’s from the tour scattered amid the live performances. Many are funny, some eliciting entertaining or enlightening anecdotes while others simply make statements or comments or jokes. “This was just a way of keepin’ it weird, keepin’ it interesting, keepin’ the ball bouncing,” Doughty told me in a recent phone interview.
The second project is a memoir, The Book of Drugs (Capo Press), this one revealing the darker side of Doughty via loosely linear vignettes taken from his life and delivered in Doughty’s rambling, dry-humored voice. At the risk of alienating fans who were turned on to him via Soul Coughing, he details his bleak and brutal perspective on the tumultuous eight-year ride with his former band, his relentless addictions, his relationships with fellow musicians like the late Jeff Buckley, his awkward fan encounters, and the sobriety that eventually brought him some serenity.
He’s currently on tour promoting both. Here’s some highlights from our conversation about his memoir.
CL: The Book of Drugs is a very candid, personal work and you admitted you might alienate some people when it came out. What made you decide to actually go through with writing it?
Mike Doughty: Basically, somebody called my bluff, ’cause I’ve been talking about writing a book for years. And finally, a guy was like, “Okay, we’ll give you money.” I had no choice…
I went into it thinking, I’m not trying to have any sort of overarching wisdom, I’m just gonna write good stories. So whatever particular story I was interested in [on] a particular day, I would write that; it could be two paragraphs or four pages, and I didn’t write chronologically or in a linear way.
Do you feel like the fans you’ve accumulated in your solo career will appreciate your honesty?
Yeah, I hope so. People seem to be really digging the book and tend to be shocked at just how shitty Soul Coughing was, which, you know, I thought was obvious to everybody, but apparently not until I told these specific tales.
Much of the book is about how you guys put out all these albums, but just never really gelled.
Basically, I don’t like them. We made all these albums that I just don’t like. I wrote these songs that, for the most part, just ended up half-baked, half-assed.
Does it give you any satisfaction at all to know that you are, for all intents and purposes, the only person anybody knows by name from that band?
Yeah, certainly. But the whole thing just looks like a nightmare to me. People come and talk to me about Soul Coughing, and I recoil like a beaten dog. I just have no positive relationship with it.
Do you think you’ll ever get to a point where you can look back at it and be like, “All right, I did this, even if I don’t like it, I can at least be a little bit proud of it?”
Proud of it? Right now, the notion of being proud of it, or even being neutral about it, is something I can’t comprehend. But who knows what the future will be like? Maybe it’ll get worse, maybe it’ll get better.
You mention that Soul Coughing suffered from “terminal uniqueness.” How is your current creative output and style influenced by this? Are you constantly trying to not be too “out there?”
It’s not about not being too out there, it’s about — when you make a choice artistically, are you making a choice because it’s a real choice or because you want to do something different? And certainly, I’m still me and there’s all kinds of weird stuff going on, on my albums. Vocally, lyrically, sonically — on all levels there’s weirdness. It’s just a different quality … there’s a difference between really listening to the song and what it wants to be, and saying, “no, you’re too normal, I’m gonna make you weirder.”
In Soul Coughing, my bandmates were all about what wasn’t cool, but couldn’t actually tell you what was cool.
You also mention meeting a guy in the program who was real weird but had been clean and sober for years, and that it was something you wanted to achieve. Do you think you’ve gotten to that place where you can embrace your weirdness and sobriety at the same time?
Oh yeah. Sobriety at this point is real. I don’t want to get fucked up, I don’t want to drink, I don’t want to use. That impulse, there’s still a trace of it, but it’s kind of laughable. But yeah, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be an artist, and I wouldn’t be able to be a weird person if I wasn’t getting fucked up. So when I met that dude, when I met lots of people in the rooms in New York, I was reassured.
Now that you’re deeper in your sobriety, what do you know now that you wished you would’ve known in the first few months of getting clean?
It’s a hard question, because I wish I knew everything back then. I was just a damaged person. I guess I have to have some respect for who that damaged person was. But all my receptors were burnt out, I was just wandering around the world utterly out of focus. I mean, I wish I could go back and buy myself a cup of coffee and be nice to me …