Interviews Music

Mike Doughty: Let’s get down to business now

A lot’s changed for Mike Doughty in the 20 years since he lived in London. He split Soul Coughing, the “deep slacker jazz” band that brought him success and anguish. He quit the drugs that helped him cope. He went solo. He wrote a memoir. He wrote a rock opera. And he started taking selfies with various food products.

But what’s not changed are his feelings towards the city he called home for most of 1996.

“I’ve got a ton of good London memories,” he shares in the dressing room of Camden’s Electric Ballroom. “I used to go to the Blue Note when it was on Hoxton Square and Goldie had a night every Sunday where all the newest records would get spun before they were anywhere else. It was incredible.”

He’s as excited to be back, this time supporting Wheatus on a nationwide tour before playing a few solo shows.

“I just really like it here,” he explains. “I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it.”

“It”, apart from playing stonking gigs, involves exploring his surroundings (“I wander. I just want to see the streets and how people live, and get a good cup of coffee.”) and writing a new song every day.

“It’s super fun,” he says of the music he then records and instantly releases online. “It’s an incredible way of forcing yourself to write and forcing yourself to make decisions. You can’t put in placeholder lyrics or leave a gap to fill in later. You’ve just got to get it done because it’s coming out. There’s no two ways about it.”

Some of these songs will probably end up on future albums, although Doughty admits he’s perhaps not the best judge of quality or future success.

“When you finish anything, you have to convince yourself it’s the best thing you’ve ever done or else I’d just go into a spiral of self doubt,” the writer of hits like ‘Super Bon Bon’ and ‘27 Jennifers’, offers. “And I usually can’t tell when something’s going to be popular.” Like telling everyone who’d listen that ‘Light Will Keep Your Heart Beating In The Future’ from 2015’s ‘Stellar Motel’ wasn’t a single. It spent four weeks at number one.

“There you go,” he shrugs.

At least he’s prolific. He wasn’t always: in the immediate aftermath of Soul Coughing’s collapse, Doughty’s songwriting turned to shit. “Those songs were terrible,” he says, looking back to 1999 and 2000.

“That was a particularly hard time in my life. I’d really burned out my receptors and I couldn’t just get it together. I needed some kind of impulse to start me over again.”

That turned out to be the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

“I had an ex-girlfriend who worked near there, but I wasn’t in touch with her so it took me a while to figure out if she was alive,” he recalls. “There was just something about that emotionally that just started me writing stuff that was kind of worthwhile again.

“Now I’m writing all the time — I don’t really have a problem. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s never as bad as it was then.”

Since “then” he’s released a total of 17 studio albums, live albums, and EPs, combining hip-hop influences with a troubadour-and-his-acoustic-guitar vibe.  

“I’d always loved acoustic music,” explains Doughty of his solo output. “A huge influence of mine is Billy Bragg; I love the stuff John Lee Hooker does with just a guitar and his foot stomping; I went to school with Ani DiFranco, so I’d stolen all these guitar techniques from her.

“So there’s definitely a basis in that, but really when I saw Elliott Smith play in 1997, I think it was, that just changed my life. I thought: ‘That’s eventually what I’m going to go for’.”

Along the way he’s also found the time to write ‘The Book Of Drugs’ (“I just had a bunch of stories I told people over dinner and it happened to be a book’s worth”), compose and stage the Biblical ‘Revelation’ in New York (for drums, cello, keyboards, trumpet, and chorus), and play tours of people’s living rooms (“There were no axe murderers. That I consider a victory.”).

He’s even revisited Soul Coughing’s back catalogue, reinterpreting and reclaiming songs that, as recently as 2012, made his skin crawl.

“I just hadn’t played them for a long time and I thought it would be interesting to do a show that would be all revisiting those songs,” he says, simply. “It was so great.”

But right now Doughty is looking forward, not back.

“I just try to be open to whatever ideas come and, whatever I come up with, I just try and finish it. That’s 90% of the work.”

  • This article originally appeared on Graffiti.Punctuated.

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