Interview by Wayne Chinsang
Photograph by Justin Shady



Mike Doughty: (flipping through the "Best Of" issue of TLC) You guys have great art.

Wayne Chinsang: Thanks.

MD: Who did the illustration of me last time?

WC: My roommate Debbie. Heís in Buffalo right now. He wanted to be here for the show tonight, but heís taking an Amtrak back.

MD: Thatís the nature of Buffalo, I suppose.

WC: Yeah. (laughs)

MD: It was a great illustration. It was so cool. Except, for some reason, I didnít have blonde hair. I had brown hair in it. It was very strange.

WC: Yeah. So, youíve seen the color version of it.

MD: Yeah. I have brown hair. Itís peculiar.

WC: Well, you know... Debbie.

MD: Yeah... Debbie. I know him well.

WC: (laughs) If you did know Debbie, it would make sense.

MD: He just prefers brunettes.

WC: (laughs) Okay, letís start this. The first thing I want to ask is, why do you insist on making more music for people to listen to? Do you have to?

MD: (laughs) Do I make too much music?

WC: No, no. Iím just giving you shit.

MD: Do I put too many records out? My manager thinks I put too many records out. He always gets mad when I make a new thing.

WC: Really? Why is that?

MD: Because the "smart thing" to do-- "...quote, unquote," says Mike while making the quotes with his hands, for the benefit of our listeners--

WC: (laughs)

MD: --is to release something every two years, and be very occasional about it. But I found out I canít really do that. I did that in Soul Coughing for years, and it just fucking drove me crazy. And Soul Coughing drove me crazy anyway, because I couldnít play all the songs I wrote. It was just shitty in general. What with a two year release schedule, and then trying to get those guys to fucking play my music. So now Iím just like, "Fuck you. Iím putting another record out this year." (laughs)

WC: Itís like youíre free. You just got out of prison.

MD: Yeah. I just really wanna put music out.

WC: So, with your new band, what does it feel like having a band again? Is it a sense of dťjŗ vu?

MD: Well, itís interesting, because Soul Coughing was just such a bad relationship. I look at all the bad relationships in my life, and the common factor is always the same, and that would be me.

WC: (laughs) Wow. Me, too.

MD: (laughs) Yeah. It was sort of a eureka moment for me. So there are moments with these guys where some of those old feelings come up. On stage at Bonnaroo, Shahzad [Ismaily], the drummer, started playing the floor tom in a really wild way. Now, there was a part that he had done for this particular section where he had done a floor tom part before, and I was like, "You know what? Iím not crazy about the floor tom part. Just do the thing where you do the four on the four." And he was like, "Great." So, all of a sudden, here we are on the stage at Bonnaroo, and his kick drum pedal breaks in the middle of a song, so he just starts doing the floor tom thing. I look over to him, and Iím shaking my head at him, and heís just looking at me. And Iím thinking, "What the fuck is going on? Heís openly refusing!" And he just keeps playing in a wilder and wilder way. So, finally, at the end of the song, I went over and was like, "What are you doing?!?" And he just lifts up his pedal.

WC: (laughs)

MD: But in Soul Coughing, all the time, weíd write songs, or... well, I would write songs. But weíd arrange the songs, and people would basically just tell me to fuck off on the stage all the time. (laughs) So that was a total flashback moment for me, and it was very scary.

WC: How would you deal with shit like that?

MD: In Soul Coughing?

WC: Yeah. Was it like nobody talked to anybody?

MD: Well, everybody in that band really disliked me. The first record [Ruby Vroom] is me pretty much getting everybody to do what they did. You know, "Play it like this. Play it slow." Making this choice, making that choice. And then after that, they just, for some reason, decided that I was just some kid-- I was ten years younger than they were-- and that I didnít know what the fuck I was doing, and that they were much better than me. They just had this real open disgust for me. And it was really difficult because I was writing the songs, and trying to run the band; trying to run the management stuff, and deal with the label. And then when I got into the rehearsal room, the place where most people go back and find some solace, and the art is something you can take refuge in, it was even worse than it was on the outside.

WC: Shit. I remember seeing you guys afterwards a few times, and the hanging out all together thing just didnít happen. Youíd meet with people, but it was more like one person would come out and meet with people, go back in, and then another person would come out.

MD: Yeah. We were really bad. It was just a fucked-up relationship, from soup to nuts.

WC: So, with the new band, how did it come about? I know you had been looking for musicians to work with, but Iím sure that the Soul Coughing situation beforehand probably jaded you against working with people again.

MD: Sure. It did, but, essentially, Iíve just always found really great guys that I really like the way they play. And I trust them to do what they do. But then I also try and get in their heads and get them to do what I need them to do.

WC: Manipulate.

MD: Yeah, because thereís a way of getting someone to play what you need them to play, and getting them to be in your aesthetic, without saying, "Listen, I always need you to put this on the two and the four, and never do that kind of chord, and always do this kind of chord...." Thereís a way of just coaxing someone into doing it. But I donít like working with someone that I have to tell them what to do. I like someone thatís just going to do what I need them to do without a lot of prompting. And then, in terms of their shaping, I can do that more ambiguously. Basically, I just found this guy Thomas [Bartlett], the piano player, and I just loved him. I thought he was fucking great. The sound that I had been really interested in putting everywhere in my music is that Wurlitzer piano sound, and thatís the instrument he was playing. So it was just really fortuitous. He was just the right guy. I did some shows with the guys who worked on the record, and they were okay, but they werenít great. The record is great. I love what they do on the record, but I think we needed Dan [Wilson, Semisonic] there, the producer. Essentially, what happened on the record is that Dan was playing those guys, and thatís what made it so great. While I was on the road with them, I learned that it just wasnít the same. Iíd have to tell them what to do, and I was more of a taskmaster than I like to be. So that didnít quite work out for me. And I realized at some point that Thomas had this bass keyboard, and what I really needed was someone to hold down the roots of the chords. I wasnít looking for a really ostentatious bass player. So we just jammed with Shahzad, and it was like, "Thatís what I was looking for." And itís great. Itís compact; itís only three guys. Tonight will be our eighth gig. At our Indianapolis gig, it was like, "There it is." There was a little bit of a push and pull, like, "Where do we find our common ground?" And we had planned the arrangements before, but it really took a couple gigs to make it work fully.

WC: So, you guys are in a groove, but has the feedback been good from the audience?

MD: Honestly, I donít pay attention to the audience anymore.

Both: (laugh)

MD: I used to read message boards a lot, but now itís like, somebodyís gonna like it, somebodyís not gonna like it, somebodyís gonna walk in and tell me itís the greatest show of their life, somebody else is gonna be like, "I wish he was doing the stuff he was doing two years ago." Thatís just the way it is with music. In general, people are always liking what I did two years ago. You know, I was doing the acoustic thing for years, and people were like, "I wish heíd have a band." Now I have a band, and people are like, "I wish heíd do the acoustic thing."

WC: Youíre living two years in the future, man.

MD: I know. I wish I was living ten years in the future. (laughs)

WC: (laughs) We might not be here in ten years.

MD: (laughs) Right.

WC: So, whatís interesting about your sound to me is that it seems to go in shifts. There is the Soul Coughing stuff, which obviously has outside influences in it, and then youíve got the exact opposite, your acoustic stuff, which is just you. Is this new band somewhere in between those two?

MD: Yeah. The idea was for a bigger guitar, a bigger rhythm, and just a little bit of color in it with the piano. As opposed to Soul Coughing, which was a shitload of color. Too much color.

WC: Is everything created orchestrated by you, or is there give-and-take?

MD: There is give-and-take. I get a great player, and I trust them. I just figure that theyíll come up with something that is interesting; more interesting than I could come up with if I directed them. With that said, I was really specific with Shahzad about his kit, and I donít think most band leaders would be so specific about, like, "Use this snare drum, not this snare drum. Donít use this tom, use the floor tom. Get this bass drum, donít use this bass drum." So there are very specific things. But that comes from me doing drum programming and having all those colors at my fingertips. Iím just used to having a lot more control over that.

WC: Right. So, thereís a new album in the works.

MD: Yeah. There are odds and ends to be finished, a beat or two that I want to switch out, a vocal I want to redo--

WC: Is there a tentative release date?

MD: No. Thereís not even a label.

WC: Youíve basically gone from one extreme to the other. You had Warner Brothers Records promoting the shit out of Soul Coughing, and theyíd put you on a tour bus. But now youíre at the other extreme, which is selling CDs from your site. And Iím sure you control everything more that way, so are you cautious about going to a label?

MD: Well, itís much humbler now than it was when I was on a major label. I had a road crew with two buses and all that. But itís actually more profitable now. (laughs) At the end of the day, I have more money, despite the fact that on the road I have less glory. So Iím thinking there is some sort of equity of money and glory. And the reason Iím taking so long to fucking do this shit is because I donít want to do it wrong. I want the right people, and I want to continue the financial success I have now, while having a little bit of what I had in the Soul Coughing days. Itís just super-delicate.

WC: Is anyone you work with pushing for a label? I mean, they obviously want it to be beneficial to them, as well.

MD: Yeah. There are differing opinions. One of my managers is a guy named Marty Diamond, who is a booking agent for Coldplay, David Gray, and Avril Lavigne, and another one of my managers does Dan Wilson and Five For Fighting. And I think Iíve really opened their eyes, because they see the checks come in, and theyíre like, "Hey. (laughs) This guy is actually making money."

WC: (laughs)

MD: Where, initially, when I signed with them, they were like, "Weíre gonna get you on a major label." But now they see that there is another way of doing it. There is a value to owning my own masters, and... (pauses) what was the question?

WC: (laughs) Are people pushing you?

MD: Yeah. At the end of the day, we want the push, but we still want to own the masters. We want a company that is going to do some serious promotion, and also let you go on our own.

WC: Where does the Soul Coughing stuff stand?

MD: Itís all owned by Warner Brothers.

WC: You got nothing in it?

MD: Yeah. I got nothing in it. I donít even own my own songs anymore.

WC: So, if thatís true, can you technically be performing those songs?

MD: Yeah, actually. Once you record a song, anyone can play it. Thereís some automatic license that gets issued or something. Maybe I owe myself money. (laughs)

WC: (laughs) Well, Iím glad you told me that, because next week Iím getting ready to release an album called Mike Doughtyís Songs.

MD: (laughs) Oh, really? Well, as long as you pay me.... Yeah, I have a cover of a Stephen Merritt song on the next record, and I was wondering if I could actually put it out. I believe I could put it out without having to ask him. And that seems kind of wrong, but I imagine heís going to be disagreeable. I know the music writer for Salon, and he interviewed Merritt, and, apparently, he doesnít like anything that has been written in the past ten years. (laughs) So, Iím thinking that unless, by some miracle, Iím that one thing that he goes, "Hey, you know what? This guy is great!"--

WC: (laughs)

MD: --which I highly doubt, I think heís not going to appreciate the cover.

WC: Have people done covers of your songs?

MD: For some reason, people do them all the time. Dave Matthews did it.

WC: No shit?

MD: Yeah. Dave Matthews is bizarrely this big fan of mine. We just did Bonnaroo together, and I watched as he and Trey Anastasio played to 80,000 people. And then I walked backstage-- I hadnít seen him yet, but I had seen his wife-- so I walk backstage by the buses, and I ran into him, and I was like, "Hey, Dave. Whatís going on?" And he runs up and was like, "Oh my God! Itís you!" And he hugged me. And heís like, "Youíre a genius! I heard '27 Jennifers', and I wish I could do something like that!" I just kept thinking, "This is interesting."

WC: Thatís awesome. I met him once at a sushi bar, and he was the nicest guy.

MD: He really goes out of his way to be warm and nice to people.

WC: So, as far as smaller venues go, on the live album [Smofe + Smang] there is a lot of interaction between you and the audience. And I know that in Soul Coughing you did it a little bit, too, and, obviously, itís harder to do it in a bigger venue, and you werenít the happiest person, so you were probably less likely to do it--

MD: And my band actually got angry at me when I did things like that.

WC: Really?

MD: Yeah. Like, Iím telling you, man, it was fucked-up.

Both: (laugh)

MD: They got mad when I talked too much; they really got mad when I said onstage that I wrote songs. Because the whole myth of Soul Coughing was that we wrote songs together. You know, I signed all my rights away to them, which was just... the dumbest thing I ever did in my life. And sometimes Iím playing "Janine"... I mean, there are songs that people contributed to in Soul Coughing. There are songs that people really contributed to. Never like a melody or a lyric, but something really integral. But the bulk of the songs, I wrote. And sometimes Iím playing "Janine" or "True Dreams..." or "St. Louise...", and Iím like, "Man, I donít fucking own this thing anymore. (laughs) I signed it to some drummer that doesnít write a damn thing." So, yeah, it was real bad.

WC: So, when you started doing smaller venues, did you start doing more audience interaction because thatís who you inherently are? Or was it more the anti-Soul Coughing vibe?

MD: Not really. I just started doing it. Iíve been watching a lot of comedians for a number of years: Mark Maron, Todd Barry, Louis CK, guys like that, that are alternative New York guys. So I had a real interest in that. But there was one key thing about writing jokes for the stage. I did it, partially, so I wasnít thinking about the song while I was playing it. When youíre alone on a stage, there is nothing to think about, in terms of the music, other than what youíre playing on guitar and what youíre singing. And itís already a delicate balance to sing and play at the same time. But with a band, you can think about, like, "Oh, the drummer is doing something really interesting," or, "Thatís a really interesting piano line." But in order to play really well as a solo guy, I had to think about other stuff while I was playing and try and remain detached. So that was one thing I did; I wrote jokes while I was playing songs. So, with a lot of them, I was just orchestrating this entertainment vibe while I was playing music so I could play better. And another part of it was just that people were heckling, so I just decided to play along with it.

WC: It works really well. I think it is something that not enough people do. During Soul Coughing, youíd maybe make fun of someone for crowd surfing, but that would be about it. And I think that that interaction, especially in smaller venues, is so cool.

MD: I think one thing that people really want is to hear the voice out of context. They want to hear you as a natural speaker, rather than a singer. Because, otherwise, it could be exactly like listening to a record.

WC: Right. So, youíve done the smaller venues with your acoustic work, and youíve done the medium-sized venues with Soul Coughing. But when is your arena rock tour gonna kick off?

MD: Iíd do it in a heartbeat, man. I was pretty close to it opening for John Mayer.

WC: Whatís the biggest crowd youíve ever played in front of?

MD: The biggest crowd I ever played was when I did a couple songs with Dave Matthews at Madison Square Garden.

WC: Jesus Christ.

MD: That was pretty hip. I mean, I was high out of my mind on drugs at the time, so itís a very bittersweet memory for me. Iíve heard tapes of it, and itís like, "Oh my God. What was I doing?" Talk about shitting the bed. It was really bad. (laughs) But my memory of being on that stage, and it being completely packed at Madison Square Garden... you know. It was amazing.

WC: So, looking back on the old you, if this you could go back and tell that you something, what would you say to yourself?

MD: I donít think I could tell myself shit. I really just had to go through what I went through. And I have a good friend, bizarrely enough, in David Johansen. And he always said that everybody gets dicked over when theyíre a kid. And my misfortune was I got dicked over by my band, as opposed to by a record company. In terms of the drugs, there is no way I could have stopped myself from doing that. It would have happened no matter what. Basically, what happened to me was that I was a real bad marijuana addict, and then I had a heroin binge that almost ended my life that lasted less than a year, although, I had been using it periodically throughout the Nineties. And then, after I kicked dope, I just started drinking in the morning. Literally, like, waking up and drinking, and being drunk pretty much 24 hours a day; really shitty drunk. And I could sort of tolerate being a heroin addict, but I couldnít really tolerate being a drunk. (laughs) You know, being a junkie, itís like, "Itís okay." But being a drunk? Thatís not cool.

Both: (laugh)

MD: Honestly, thatís how my brain worked at the time. But I couldnít have told myself anything. Like, the worst thing that happened to me as a drug addict was that I ODíed at Thanksgiving dinner, literally, with my parents. (laughs) My lungs started closing... at Thanksgiving dinner.

WC: Fuck.

MD: My brother drove me to the hospital, and they gave me a bunch of shots, and they put this thing in my mouth so that I could breathe. And then I got home and I took more dope. (laughs) So it really was like... you know, if I were to tell myself something, it would have been like, "Youíre going to die if you keep doing this." But, I mean, honestly, I think there is a level of enlightenment that I got from that. It was a real gift. And Iím so thankful for heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, and bourbon for almost killing me. Because I absolutely would not be who I am today if it wasnít for who I was then.

WC: And it makes everything sweeter now.

MD: Yeah. Iím glad to be alive, you know? For years, I was just kind of alive. Now I actually have a life, and I can appreciate it.

WC: Not so much as far as the drugs go, but are you able to at least drink occasionally?

MD: Nothing. I donít do nothing.

WC: Thatís good.

MD: A shitload of coffee, my friend. (laughs)