tim bishop

Mike Doughty Speaks: From the Handlebar, October 26 2014

Mike Doughty's come a long way since his days masterminding 90s art-jazz-beat-alt-rock outfit Soul Coughing. His catalogue has expanded nearly every year since Soul Coughing dissolved, he wrote a well-received memoir (The Book of Drugs), and he's jumped into the crowd-sourcing pool and upped the ante for rewarding early-funders of his current works.

He also lived in Pensacola for a time during the Soul Coughing days, and has played Pensacola several times, including the most recent DeLuna Festival in 2012 and a special date (arranged at his request) last month at the Handlebar. (Also in attendance, his parents, coming in from Gulf Shores.)

Mr. Doughty was kind enough to sit down for a brief conversation with me before that show, and I'm happy to share it with you now. We talk about fond memories, the pros and cons of his PledgeMusic campaigns, and what's next for him, musically.

Tim Bishop: So you're back in Pensacola...

Mike Doughty: Back in Pensacola. The homecoming! Pretty close to where I used to live on East Belmont, used to live with Nick (Flynn, co-owner of Sluggo's at the time).

I don't know if a lot of our listeners that are listening to this know that you actually lived here [in Pensacola, not the Handlebar] for about six months.

About 9 months, something like that.

And you told me earlier [via e-mail] that you just “wanted to play Pensacola”. What brought you back? Did you miss us?

Yeah, I just wanted to come back, take a look at it. I had a really good time here, [living] over on Belmont, rode my bike down to Sluggo's every night.

I remember. You were quite the local.

I was a total local!

So where do you live now?

I live in Brooklyn. Maybe not for long.

I mean it's getting to the point where it's, like, “...the fuck am I doing here?” People have been complaining about [Brooklyn] changing for as long as I've lived here, since 1989, and I've always been like, “what's the big deal? It's not that bad.”

I just feel like... I don't have a place there anymore. I mean, I have a million friends and all, and deep emotional connections to the place, but it's like “why the fuck don't I live in Nashville or someplace?” Y'know, someplace where I can have a house, where life is mellow. I've never had a problem with New York being not mellow, but it's become increasingly... I mean, [for example] my insurance just went up ridiculously because the insurance company went under. I was like, how much worse can you do this?

If you want to cut ties, and you can do your job literally anywhere...


You've been way, way prolific lately.

5 records in 4 years, including the electronic record [Dubious Luxury].

And I've noticed you've crowdfunded the last two [Circles Super Bon Bon and the Very Best of Soul Coughing and the latest, Stellar Motel] with PledgeMusic. You're an early adopter. I'm sure there's a lot of positives to it and there's a level of engagement [with your audience] that a lot of artists haven't tried yet. Have you gotten any unexpected bonuses from it?

We're sort of beyond the stage of just “help me make my record”; they get stuff. I hand-typed lyric sheets on this old IBM Selectric, there's private shows. I'll record songs on micro-cassettes [for pledges].

Like on answering machine tapes?

Yeah, on one of those little micro-recorders. You know, “Miss Jones, take a note” style. (laughs) That's becoming my specialty, that kind of art-prank stuff.

You seem to do a lot more of the pulling back of the curtain and showing the process.

Oh, yeah.

Any unexpected negatives? Where you go, “I don't know that this a cool part of this process”?

No. It is a lot of work when you have 100 lyrics [sheets] to type and you look up and wow... that's a shit-ton of work. But it's not THAT hard.

There's that stray, random complaint: “WHERE'S MY HAND TYPED LYRICS?”

I'm really stupid at getting the vinyl done on time, and this is the second time I've done it, where people have gotten the vinyl late.

Do they think you're sitting there in an apron, stirring a vat of chemicals and hand pouring it into an acetate or something? [Note-I have no idea how vinyl records are actually made.]

Yes, I am. (laughs) Artisanal vinyl.

Well, you do live in Brooklyn.

(laughs) Exactly. Pickles and vinyl. But yeah, I've fucked the vinyl up a couple of times. Other than than that, it's been really good.

The thing I was afraid of doing the private shows, was that I was gonna meet some super-freaky guy, but they've all been mellow. Doing a private show for somebody is more emotionally draining, more so than a regular show, but they've all been really satisfying.

How many of these have you done?

About 30, all together.

(surprised) Holy shit.

Yeah, but that's over a couple of years. Sometimes I go to them or [mostly] they come to my rehearsal studio.

There was this guy who surprised his wife for their 20th anniversary. Flew to New York for their anniversary weekend and drives her to some weird building (laughs), she's like “What the hell is going on?” She knocked on the door, and I opened it; she was totally freaked out that it was me.

I know your job requires a lot of travel and a lot of work, like you said before. Do you have time to seek out outside art and artists? Do you keep track or have time to do that?

Nah, but I haven't been the guy, ever, who thought, “I have to know everything that's new.” [But] stuff filters through to me, and I'm definitely listening because I have to. To write music you have to listen to music; you can't just live in a bubble.

It's like writing. To write, you have to read. Anything cutting through the haze of traveling?

Not really, mostly a lot of podcasts lately. But also, my shit is pop songs so [I hear] stuff like Ariana Grande, Rihanna. Or it's super avant-garde, like John Cage's prepared piano pieces, or some John Coltrane in the late sixties...

So your favorite record for 2014 winds up being something recorded in 1964 or whatever.

(laughs) Exactly.

You've been doing these shows with Andrew [Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, his longtime accompanist/accomplice] for quite a while now. Do you ever envision a time when you'll do a larger band [tour]?

I did one last year, for the Soul Coughing songs tour. I liked doing that, but it's expensive though, so I can only afford to do that every few years. I'm open to anything, and whenever I make a plan, artistically, it inevitably changes. I think I'm gonna do this record and this tour, and it changes.

So this isn't the evolutionary end-point of the Mike Doughty Live Experience, then.

Maybe not. And I'm writing... I hesitate to say this, but I'm writing a rock opera.

Don't hesitate!

Yeah, I've been trying to think of something else to call it, but yeah, it's a fuckin' rock opera.

Anything you'd try to call it other than “rock opera” would be way longer and come off more pretentious that just saying “rock opera”.

Right, what are you gonna do about it? It's a fuckin' rock opera. I'm writing it for a band and a chorus, and I going to try and put at least one production of it in New York in January, just do one or two shows.

So, it's near completion?

Yeah, as a whole, it's [nearly] ready. I'm doing the very specific harmonies, very specific piano parts.

You have musicians to play it?

Yeah. Scrap, he's going to be the musical director; he's going to play cello and bass. I think I know who the drummer's going to be and I have a couple of ideas for keyboard players.

The singers, though... the thing about it is it's gotta be written out and Scrap's transcribing it. You've got to be able to put a score in front of them and they just sing it. I know a million singers, but it's a question of finding someone who can sight-read [sheet music] but also isn't an opera singer.

So even in New York, hard to find. Maybe in Nashville...

Yeah! Maybe Nashville. There's definitely people. Scrap's looking and I know one or two. The production's going to be 2 actors and 2 singers. I'm going to be one of the actors. So an actor/singer and 2 singers, three-part harmonies... there will be a separate part for the female actor and the [female] singer, because finding a singer who doesn't sound like an opera singer, can sight-read, and can act? That's a lot.

Wow, this is very exciting, Mike Doughty!

It could be good! I need to get it done and make it good before it's exciting. It sounds exciting.

Thank you so much for doing this; I really appreciate it.

Thanks for having me. It's great to be back in Pensacola.


Feel free to "pop out" the player above to continue listening to Radio Free Pensacola uninterrupted while you browse.