interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by debbie


Wayne: With your new album, Smofe + Smang, you seem to strip everything down to the bare essentials. Was it hard to give the audience Mike Doughty without having to rely on being ďThe Ex-Soul Coughing GuyĒ?

Mike: No, itís a lot easier. Thereís an emotional core to the songs that is much easier to relay in an incredibly simple manner. When itís just one guitar, youíre looking to convey something very simple musically. The emotion is just much closer to the surface.

W: Do you still get people that show up waiting to hear ďSuper Bon BonĒ?

M: Not anymore. Iíve been doing it for two years now, and most people have figured out that Iím not doing it.

W: Have those people fallen away, or have they converted?

M: Oddly enough, there have been a lot of people that have been like, ďWow. I wish you would have done this sooner. I fucking hate Soul Coughing.Ē (laughs) Seriously, I was very surprised. With the first couple of tours it was mainly Soul Coughing fans, 50% of which wanted to hear some drums. But now, theyíre coming out of the woodwork.

W: Thatís got to be a relief.

M: Itís cool, but at the same time itís like, ďWell, fuck you then.Ē (laughs)

W: Of course. Because even though there were problems with Soul Coughing, you still must have been proud of it.

M: Yeah. Of course.

W: Was that aspect of it hard to let go?

M: Not at all. I was touring before the band even broke up. It was as easy as walking out of a door.

W: You recorded your first solo album, Skittish, in 1996, which would have been right in the middle of the Soul Coughing years. And there seems to be a clear path that went from that album to Smofe + Smang. Was creating music like that your intention the whole time, or was it just something that came about while you were in Soul Coughing?

M: Thatís kind of how I started out. My first New York gigs were playing in laundry rooms at the New School with Ani DiFranco and Jed Boyar. And I played Lachís scene, when he was over at The Chameleon in the East Village. So it was always something I was able to do.

W: You once stated that in the early Ď90s, when Soul Coughing started, that you didnít really care about music and the art behind it. But now youíve come to a realization that you are indeed an artist. What made you come to this realization?

M: Well, I was just really cynical in the Ď90s. I think it was a dark time for music in general.

W: With grunge being what it was then?

M: Well, that was obviously really dark music. But I mean on a deeper level. I would love to be able to describe it without sounding really cad about art versus commerce, or without saying, ďWow. Alice In Chains were a really dark band.Ē But itís deeper than that. There was just something really dark going on. On the New York side, I think the Beastie Boys scene was really dark. It was extremely fashion oriented, in the guise of art. And just being in New York at the time, there was this razor sharp distinction between what was happening and what was not happening; what was cool and what was uncool. And no one ever really knew what side of the line they were on, so everyone was really mean to each other. (laughs) They just figured that they didnít know where they stood, so they were just going to cut their losses. So everybody in New York that was in music was really snide to each other. I say the Beastie Boys scene, and thatís probably just as snide as Iím accusing everyone else of being. (laughs) But theyíre just exemplar of the meanness that was going on; of the snootiness.

W: So how is it that during such a dark period of music, such poppy and fun music came about?

M: Well, it was a specific reaction to that. It was the ultimate in a no-brainer New York fashion move. If everyone is being dark, then the thing to be is light.

W: So whatís New York like now?

M: I hear itís really nice. But Iíve become, more-or-less, a morning person. I donít really go out, but I know a lot of people that are involved in the electro clash scene, and theyíre just having fun. I think once rock and roll got the fuck out of Manhattan, it got a lot more productive and creative and human. Manhattan is just not an easy place to be a young musician. Itís nearly impossible. But these Brooklyn bands seem like theyíre much nicer to each other than we were.

W: In the past Iíve made a comparison between you and Jim Morrison of The Doors, because both of you write lyrics with a more poetic slant than straight-forward style, you were both lead singers for a popular band that essentially encompassed you, and you both have written collections of poetry. Is Morrison an influence for you, or not at all?

M: Not particularly. I think one distinction is that he was really fronting a band, whereas I was showing my band how to be the band. I think, initially, Soul Coughing was a very specific idea about how these four instruments would work together, and it had a lot to do with everyoneís style. I guess thatís the same way The Doors did it, but it wasnít really a jam session. It was more of me delineating roles, and then everyone kind of grew their bit from there.

W: I read that your next step is to put together a new band. Is it safe to say that it wonít be like Soul Coughing?

M: I think it probably will sound a little like Soul Coughing, without some of the noisier stuff. But thatís kind of my vibe; thatís how I like grooves. So thereís definitely gonna be similarities. But itís gonna be a little heavier in the guitar area.

W: Based off of what you learned from Soul Coughing, what will you do differently with a new group?

M: The business end of it. My life has changed so much that Iím just noticing that extension. If you become a different person, and youíre hanging around different people, you realize that your world reflects your interior. The real differences will be from the internal ones to the external.

W: Do you consider that the time you spent in Soul Coughing, you were doing it as a kid?

M: Yeah. Those guys were all ten years older than me. (laughs) Theyíre pretty heavy.

W: You write for some publications, and youíve been a playwright for the celebrity benefit 24-Hour Plays. What were your plays about?

M: Oneís about a band, and another is a nonsense story; kind of an Alice In Wonderland type of thing.

W: Kind of all over the place?

M: Yeah. I mean, youíve got ten hours to write them.

W: Do you like doing them?

M: I love it. Itís one of the most liberating processes Iíve ever been involved with. Thatís a book Iíd like to put out. If I do a few more plays, put out a book of 24-Hour Plays.

W: What are the length of the actual plays?

M: Theyíre all ten-minutes long. What happens is, the writers show up at 10PM, they meet the actors, take Polaroids, and cast their plays, which have yet to be written. Then they have until 7AM to write a ten-minute play. Then the directors show up and divide up the plays. Actors show up at 8AM, and they start learning their lines. The show goes up at 8PM, and itís over by 10PM.

W: So do you like working like that? Because even with Skittish, you recorded the entire album in one day. Do you like working under a constant push for a short amount of time?

M: Yeah. Thatís always been the way I work. The first couple of takes are always going to be the most interesting.

W: Do you feel that the work is more ďrealĒ with the first takes, and that multiple takes polishes it up too much?

M: No. Itís not a philosophical stance. Itís just something Iíve noticed. Often the second take is the best take. Itís not meant to be an aesthetic. Itís a very real way of looking at it. You can do 20 takes. But take two is always the best.

W: Youíre also composing music for an upcoming film, Joseph Piersonís Evenhand. Was that a totally new experience?

M: Yeah. Itís nice because youíre writing something to go with a picture. As an artist, Iím going to have a certain personality and move in a certain direction. But when I have a dramatic context to fill up space, I end up doing these things that I never would have done, had I been staring at a blank page. So I have these songs that are really out of leftfield, as far as Iím concerned, and theyíre very specific to the film. Some of them are quite literal. Some of the ones that got cut were too literal. (laughs) Like ďOh, thereís the guy / and the copís taking out his billy club / La-di-daĒ. (laughs)

W: Whenís that slated to come out?

M: It premieres at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles on the 14th of November at the Cinerama Dome, which is now a big fancy theatre. It used to be a great Ď60s-era piece of Hollywood modernism.

W: You maintain your own website--

M: Well, itís such an incredibly simple website. That kind of website was outdated in 1997. (laughs)

W: Yeah, but you are able to keep in touch with your fans there, and I think that is something that isnít typically done between artists and their fans. Does keeping in touch with your fans ground you in a sense?

M: I think you can choose to be famous, or to not be famous. Iím not that famous, but I know people that are much less famous than me, who choose to be famous. Iíve just chosen to not be famous. I really think it is a conscious choice. And I suppose it makes one feel more important, to be a little more closed off from your audience. But thatís not to say that Iím going out and having burgers with my fans.

W: (laughs) But you would.

M: Some of them. One of my best friends was actually a fan, and I just played at her wedding.

W: Do you see everything you create: music, lyrics, poetry, plays,.. as individual things, or as parts of a creative whole?

M: Neither. I canít see five feet in front of my face. I just kind of see the moment.

W: Explain to me your love of boy bands.

M: I donít think itís that happening anymore, but I think that the original 18 months of the TRL period was amazing. There were such great songs, and we were coming off of years of those horrible grunge songs, which was really just bad music. I think the songs written by Max Martin, who wrote the bulk of *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys hits and some of the Britney hits, are just genius.

W: Were you able to catch *NSYNC on TRL?

M: I only caught the mass hysteria outside. That is some shit, man. I mean, if youíre into noise, that is some noise. Really. I mean, in terms of great post-jazz experiences, thatís about the size of it right there.

W: Have you ever been able to catch any of them in concert?

M: No. Iíd like to see Justin Timberlake. I think heís got the shit.

W: Did you see him on the MTV Video Music Awards doing his Michael Jackson?

M: I did. And, hey, he should do it. Why not? Heís fuckiní great, man.

W: Heís better at being Michael Jackson than Michael Jackson is right now.

M: (laughs) Look, if I could do that, Iíd do it. (laughs) Thereís no bones about it.

W: What kind of stuff have you been listening to?

M: Mostly Iíve been listening to these tango balladeers from Argentina from the Ď20s. My favorite guys right now are Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini.

W: Do you get into much International music?

M: Not really. I mean, I like Celia Cruz records, and I love this tango shit, but--

W: Do you get into any afro-beat stuff like Fela or--

M: Oh, I love Fela.

W: Yeah. Fela is great. I was able to see Femi a couple years back. His show was so full of energy.

M: Thatís cool.

W: Okay, on to our staple question: do dogs have lips?

M: (pauses) I donít believe they have lips.

W: You donít?

M: I donít think they have lips.

W: Why is that?

M: (laughs) I donít know why! You think I know why? I donít know why they have no lips. They just donít.

W: You recently kicked a drug addiction and got out of a nasty long-term relationship with your former bandmates. Do you think the bad times are behind you?

M: Yeah. I really do. Nine times out of ten, when someone says that, it is the most stupid thing theyíve ever said. (laughs) There was so much more that I disliked about living at that time, and now there is so much more that I like. Like,.. (pauses) winter. I never used to like winter. But now, everything has changed. Literally, everything has changed. I guess Iím, at heart, the same guy. But itís a totally new world.