I met Mike Doughty through a friend over the summer; he actually walked into a party while one of his songs was playing over the speakers. It was a surreal New York moment, and I recognized him immediately as being the lead singer of the now-defunct Soul Coughing, a band that I had listened to in college (even though they broke up a year before my freshman year). Our mutual friend had told me that Mike wasn’t a Soul Coughing fan. "You should read his book when it comes out," she told me, "and you’ll understand why."
After seeing him at another party toward the end of last year, I asked Mike for a copy of The Book of Drugs. He obliged, and I tore through it in a matter of days. It’s a refreshingly genuine rock ‘n’ roll memoir, with the typical rise and fall of a rock star you might find as the plot of a musical biopic (complete with the requisite cameos from other musicians — in this case Jeff Buckley, Ani DiFranco, and, surprisingly, Redman). But it’s also a poetic look at the music industry in the late ’90s, a seemingly mythical time before the rise of .mp3s and iPods. It’s also impossible not to cheer for Doughty, who was outnumbered by a group of older, antagonistic musicians who all but took over the band that he created. I was very excited to sit down with him at Birch Coffee and chat about his memoir, life after Soul Coughing, and the stigma of being a singer-songwriter.
How long did you work on the book?
I think in total just about six months. It really wasn’t that long. I wrote about 50 to 75 pages and asked my editor about a deadline and he said, “Eh, take your time!” Then I more or less consciously decided not to work until he called and started yelling at me. After that happened I sat down and polished it off in a few months.
Were you approached about writing a memoir or did you pitch the idea?
Every year and half or so, I’d go, “I want to write a book!” Finally someone said, “Oh, cool! Let’s get you to write a book!” I have a manager who’s really good at doing stuff with musicians that isn’t necessarily musical. It was pretty much his idea; he really made it happen. My editor was the bass player in my oldest friend’s band, so we went straight to him. There was an agent who had been following me around. She told me to write a blueprint for a book, but I basically didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know what I was doing! Long-form prose — that’s crazy!
There does seem to be a natural progression in this book, though. It wasn’t split into chapters, but it flows nicely.
The thing about that is that I didn’t know what to do! I just turned it in without [chapters], and my editor thought it was a cool idea.
It sort of works in the context. You jump back and forth in time, but because it’s billed as a memoir it’s sort of less formal.
Right, because no one’s life works episodically. I sort of justified to to myself – writing a memoir without having a lot of perspective on my life – that there were a lot of good stories. These are stories I’ve told people. I knew that rather than following a linear path, which would be incredibly daunting, I said, “Well, I can write this story today, and this one tomorrow.”
Were you nervous at all about the content?
I was nervous talking about my family. And there are a couple of girlfriends in there where, like, really brutal things were going down. I didn’t realize until I wrote it, like, “Wow, what an asshole I was!”
Sometimes you have to look at yourself critically that way to discover that sort of thing about yourself.
Yeah! I also had all of these stories about debauchery and bad behavior and I realized I have to be totally harsh about myself.
How about the other members of Soul Coughing? You’re pretty brutally honest about how you feel about them.
It was a brutal experience. It’s funny, now that I’ve given the book to people who were my friends at the time who just did not understand why I was so unhappy. Suddenly when they looked at it on paper, they said, “Oh my God, this was terrible.”
You make it sound less like what it’s like to be in a band than just working with terrible co-workers.
My shrink told me I was in an abusive marriage. My dream in life was to be a rock star, and to be in that situation and have it be so soul-killing and awful – I just wasn’t strong enough and didn’t believe in myself enough to say, “I don’t need this. I don’t need this abuse all the time.”
You have to deal with a lot of Soul Coughing fans. I’m sort of fascinated with the concept of music fandom and the expectation that an artist or musician is doing something for another group of people.
Well, it’s funny. You make your first record and there’s a group of people who fall in love with it. And suddenly they become not an audience but a constituency. I was thinking about Neil Young’s rockabilly record, and how everyone got mad about how Neil Young made a non-Neil Young record. I thought, “Maybe rockabilly fans would like it!” If Martin Scorsese makes a children’s movie, no one gets mad at him for not making Raging Bull again. It’s not for this constituency; it’s for the people who respond to [my music] and love it. But you have to serve the people who liked your first album as much as you have to serve the people who would like something else.
So how long have you been touring solo? Are you still getting people in the audience at your shows who want you to play Soul Coughing songs?
I think the majority of those people are trying to make me feel bad or try to get a reaction from me. I’m gradually wising up to that, realizing that you don’t feed the trolls.
How long did you go between quitting the band and sobering up?
It was less than two months. I couldn’t have gotten sober if I was still in that band. I’m very grateful that the band wasn’t more successful because it would have been more difficult to leave. I always managed my drug use relatively efficiently until one point, probably in 1998, where I was like, “You know what? It’s just gone to shit, nothing’s going to be good. There are plenty of musicians who are just pushed out on stage when it’s time to sing, and I can be that guy.”
That’s sort of the expectation that people have of musicians, that it’s part of the lifestyle. You have a bit in the book about how people say they’re better drivers when they’re high. I can’t even play an instrument so I can’t imagine doing so while on drugs.
Well, you’re stoned because you need it, not because there’s some practical purpose for it. Other than to not feel bad about yourself.
Do you think it was anxiety-based? Were you self-medicating?
You know, there was a minute when I first started getting high that it just made me feel smart enough. I could write something and not feel like an idiot. Of course, the next day I’d look at it and go, “Oh, God, I’m an idiot,” and get high again. A couple of interesting tales: I was once in a band that did a festival — just a local band, never put out of a record — and during a rainstorm we ended up in a band with Cypress Hill. I’m, like, 21, and so immediately I’m rolling a joint and handing it to B-Real, and he was so weary and was like, “No, man, no.” You figure if you’re that guy everybody’s trying to get you high all day. The other thing is if you go to twelve-step meetings, especially in North Brooklyn, there are so many young people. It’s ridiculous. There was this girl who had a birthday, and I made some joke, like, “What’s it feel like to be 21?” And she said, “Well, I’m 23.” I thought, you’re not, like, 32? She didn’t look 32, but she speaks with maturity and self-awareness. Nowadays [the meetings] are full of awesome, groovy, arty kids who get better at their art and have real friendships. It’s really changing.
It sounds like you need to have that self-awareness and maturity to be successful in that sort of program.
Well, anyone who goes through it won’t see it as an accomplishment. They see it as, “Basically, I let go, I found people that I liked, and I just kinda did the shit.” So, like, I’ve got ten years and people say, “Oh, what an accomplishment!” It’s, like, what to do you mean? People who are not alcoholics or addicts have a very different idea about why you do it. The thing that startles people is that it’s really about control. A lot of people have such control issues, and it’s often not a mistake as much as it’s not being able to deal with a feeling. And it can be a good feeling. I have a crush on somebody, which hasn’t happened in a zillion years, it’s really kind of perplexing. But I’m like, this feeling sucks! I want to have no feeling. It’s just wanting to control the universe and your internal universe. The ability to go, "Gulp! My feeling is changed."
For the last couple of years there’s been a huge wave of ‘90s nostalgia. Has that hit you in any way? Would you ever consider re-recording things?
I gotta tell you: I’ve had recurring dreams that I forgot to quit Soul Coughing. I’ll be headed to a [solo] show and someone will say, “No, you’ve gotta go to the Soul Coughing show!” And as more and more bands to the reunion thing… I mean, the Pavement reunion was surprising to me, and the Pixies reunion was incredibly surprising to me. But I can’t imagine I’d want to step back into that situation again. I can’t imagine the sum that would be worth it.
You’ve told me before how you dislike the trend of playing entire albums at shows.
Yeah! I have a really bad case of terminal uniqueness. If everybody else is doing it, I don’t want to do it. But it’s also… when you record an album, you’re very focused on the arc of the songs and how to put it together, but after it comes out you never think about it again. Things like phrasing change rapidly. You add parts, you take away parts. When I hear the recordings again, I’m sort of taken aback at how different it is. A melody will change, you’ll hit a note a little bit later, and suddenly you’re doing things completely different.
That’s sort of why people go to see live music — there’s something unexpected and ephemeral about it.
Now that I think about it, it’d be an interesting technical feat to do every single bit of an album perfectly [on stage], but that could call for ten guitar players on stage! But the audience is much more involved in what an album is than the artists are. There are people who just want to go and hear their favorite songs and sing along with them. But a chef’s gotta eat his own soup, so I have to do the show that I want to see. I want to see creativity and involvement, not just a rote version of what the tunes are.
You fit into this singer-songwriter category now. I don’t think that term is an insult, but when you look at popular music criticism these days, it’s not something that’s highly regarded.
We’re on the wane, to be sure. It’s such a shitty term. I really hope somebody says something better that catches on. Some incredibly pretentious 22-year-old comes up with some term.
Something with “wave” or “gaze” at the end of it.
Acousticwave? I don’t know, I’m not good at this! I definitely wish I didn’t sign away the rights to the name Soul Coughing over to my band mates. I wish I had a band name rather than my name. At least then I wouldn’t have to say I’m a singer-songwriter. And also it looks better on a shirt.
But Soul Coughing is so different than what you’re doing now. It was very layered, sometimes overproduced, and you can sort of tell that you were a young man in band.
I look at us, and we had the muscle to give the Beastie Boys and Beck a run for their money. We were this weird band. But I couldn’t get my band mates to do something that was more locked-in. “Super Bon Bon” was an odd song that a lot of people liked, but it could have been a monster hit if we had done some things differently. Now that I look back on it, I wonder if my band mates thought, “We are seriously turning down a lot of success by not letting this guy do what he wants to do.”
You mention at the end of the book that they come up from time to time. Do you ever run into them?
Oh, gosh no. A documentarian approached me and wanted to do a documentary based on the book, and she wrote down a list of all the people she wanted to interview, and it included my ex-band mates, ex-mangers… people like that. I told her, very respectfully, I absolutely cannot do it. Make your film without me! Use found footage! I’m totally cool with that. Every now and then there’s business with Soul Coughing — there’ll be a song licensed for a commercial — and I’ve told every manager I’ve ever had, “Listen, just cut the deal, get as much money as you can, and I’ll find out about it when that episode of House airs."