Though it might seem so at first, Mike Doughty isn’t trying to reinvent himself. However, the former frontman of quirky cult favorites Soul Coughing is trying to establish himself as a viable solo artist and winning over a new audience in the process.
Seeing Doughty play live, accompanied by only his guitar and a keyboard, it’s hard to imagine the nerdy beatnik fronting an avant-garde rock outfit and redefining the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll.
Soul Coughing, one of the truly unique bands of the post-grunge era, dragged rock music kicking and screaming to places it hadn’t gone before. Fusing jazz samples, hip-hop beats and electro production with Doughty’s abstract slam-poet-style lyrics and delivery, Soul Coughing managed to remain a rock band while veering dangerously close to the sun.
There was always a palpable tension present; Doughty’s voice was always in competition with the experimental sensibilities of his band mates, and the music was always on the verge of imploding. The tension made the music more tangible and exciting but fueled by Doughty’s heroin addiction, it eventually destroyed the band.
“I didn’t have a heroin problem, I had a problem with myself. I had something in me that I really needed to kill, that I needed to shut up.” Doughty said recently.
After leaving the band in 2000, Doughty began touring as a solo artist and quickly found that a handful of unreleased songs he had recorded four years earlier had made their way around the internet and into the hands of fans. “I got out of Soul Coughing and I had an audience. If it wasn’t for [the internet] I’d be washing dishes,” he said.
In college Doughty studied with Ani Difranco’s poetry guru, Sekou Sundiata, at New York City’s New School University. “I guess I’m essentially a poet. But I don’t deal much with the medium anymore, everything I write I put into a song,” he said.
Doughty self-released the songs through his website as Skittish, a beautiful, stripped-down album that highlights the singer’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics and rhythmic phrasing. Accompanied largely by only a guitar, Skittish seemed like a 180-degree turn from his previous work. But Doughty’s live shows hinted at the deeply rooted connection between his projects. Having a fairly small repertoire of solo material, Doughty largely played Soul Coughing songs.
“My songwriting process has stayed the same as long as I’ve been making music,” Doughty said, explaining that beneath the layers of experimentation and avant-guard ornamentation, Soul Coughing’s songs were essentially the same quirky singer/songwriter tunes that he still pens.
After Skittish, Doughty self-released an EP, Rockity Roll. But where Skittish is stripped down and processes a simple beauty, Rockity Roll is confused and muddled with synthesizers and a drum machine. Instead of accenting Doughty’s vocals and lyrics, the layers of instruments become barriers that convolute them.
Doughty continued to utilize the internet, developing a comprehensive website, starting a blog and frequenting peer networking services like Friendster and MySpace.
“I really like being accessible, I like being porous. I’m not really a guy who sees any value in being like a famous person. I find some really great artists [online],” Doughty said.
After building a solid fan base through live shows and the internet, Doughty signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records and began working on Haughty Melodic – a process that took an entire year – flying to Minneapolis for a few days at a time to work with his friend and collaborator, Dan Wilson.
“It’s a difficult way on a personal level to work on an album, it’s frustrating, but I really dig the album and it’s because I had so much time away from it,” he said.
But the distance away from the album didn’t provide perspective and clarity. Instead Haughty Melodic suffers from the same problem that haunted Rockity Roll. This time backed by a full band that often sounds like Dave Matthews’ own band, Doughty’s quirky pop songs sink below the weight of an adult-contemporary aesthetic.
Live, Doughty avoids the problems that have plagued his latest work. Many of the songs off of his last two releases have been around since Skittish hit Napster, and in the intimacy of the Doug Fir they were as engaging and simple as the best tunes on Skittish. Doughty treats his guitar like a percussion instrument, beating out rhythms from the quivering strings and letting his voice drive the song.
He doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs much any more. “I want to serve the new songs more than the old songs,” he said.
On stage, under the heat of the lights and with minimal accompaniment, Doughty thrives. Maybe Dave Matthews should only let him release live albums.
Visit Doughty via the information superhighway at www.superspecialquestions.com