By Michael Lello
Leave it to Mike Doughty to name his new album “Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless How Many Cans? True Dreams of Wichita Monster Man Mr. Bitterness Maybe I’ll Come Down St. Louise Is Listening I Miss the Girl Unmarked Helicopters The Idiot Kings So Far I Have Not Found the Science.”
But fans of Doughty’s work will easily detect what’s going on here: Those are all songs by Soul Coughing, the avant-garde group the singer, songwriter and guitarist broke up in 2000 and whose songs he has refused to play since.
So what’s changed? Why, after establishing yourself as a solo artist independent of past successes, revamp and re-record the very history you’ve been avoiding?
Your answer is good as Doughty’s.
“Ya know, I’ve been trying to come up with like a good, succinct answer for interviews, but honestly I kinda got nothing,” Doughty said. “I don’t really know why now, honestly. It just kinda happened.”
We recently reached Doughty as his Greenpoint, Brooklyn rehearsal space, where he was preparing for his all-Soul-Coughing-songs tour, which kicks off Wednesday, Oct. 16 in Teaneck, N.J., and hits Union Transfer in Philadelphia on Thursday, Oct. 17. Doughty chatted with us about his long avoidance of Soul Coughing songs, how he used Kickstarter to fund “Circles Super Bon Bon . . .” and whom he pissed off with his brutally honest 2012 memoirs “The Book Of Drugs.”
H81R: Why did you avoid playing the Soul Coughing songs live for so long?
MD: Well ya know, I want to remain a vital artist creating real, vital work. There is a danger of ending up on a nostalgia train by default, especially if you had some hits in a different decade. So I just was really dedicated to the stuff that I was writing, and I felt that if I wasn’t really obstinate about sticking with that stuff, I wouldn’t have the chance to really progress as an artist.
H81R: What was it like to re-record these songs? Did it bring you back to your 20s when you originally made them?
MD: Not really. I was really absorbed in the songs as songs, and the process of making the record was me and (producer) Good Goose and Catherine Popper (Ryan Adams, Grace Potter, Willie Nelson) playing bass. Day by day, it was focusing on the recordings. At its best, music brings you into the present.
MD: I’m just trying to make them sound good, man. I’m working my ass of trying to put a show together.
H81R: Will you be just playing songs from “Circles Super Bon Bon …”?
MD: I’m working it out right now. It’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 25 songs. It’s going to be all Soul Coughing songs, but there are definitely going to be songs that aren’t on the album.
H81R: In the ’90s, a band like Soul Coughing that was artistically different could be successful. What was going on then, and what changed?
MD: Well, we don’t necessarily know that they wouldn’t (be successful) today if the music industry still existed, basically. The sort of upper echelons of the music industry will always remain, because you’ll always have your One Directions and your Keith Urbans and your mass consciousness artists, but who’s to say? There was money then, that much we know.
H81R: I’m about halfway finished reading “The Book Of Drugs.” It seems like you did not enjoy anything about Soul Coughing’s success, but maybe I didn’t get to that part yet. So did you enjoy anything at all about that period?
MD: No, not really.
H81R: Were you expecting for that type of success to make you happy?
MD: Sure, sure I expected it.
H81R: The new album was 100 percent funded via your Kickstarter campaign. You’ve said your opinion of crowd funding has changed. How has it worked for you, and do you see it as a necessity for an artist that is not in the “upper echelon,” as you call it?
MD: It’s super great. You’re funded directly by the people that want to hear stuff. People feel like they’re joining the team. There’s a participation factor. It’s amazing. The thing is, it’s simply not gonna work for an artist that doesn’t already have an audience, but if you have an audience, it’s amazing.
H81R: How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
MD: I’m extremely grateful that I have a crowd that is engaged in the work I’ve been doing in this century.
H81R: What would you advise a new artist to do if they don’t already have an audience? What options do they have?
MD: I think for one thing, you have to work cheap. You have to tour as a duo or a solo artist. You also have to sound amazing that way. The only way to gain an audience is to play shows. Really, I could whip out a spreadsheet and go through the data for you; the fact of the matter is if you want to make a living, you gotta have a live audience. The unfortunate thing is the real loss of the labels is the loss of tour support. So you gotta get out on the road and you gotta work a lot harder; well, I don’t know if you have to work harder, but you gotta work rougher than I ever had to. You gotta just circle the country time after time after time for years until you have an audience you can live on.
H81R: Why did you write the book?
MD: Really I just had a bunch of good stories. I had been kind of jawboning about how I had a book in me, and eventually somebody called me on it and gave me and advance, and suddenly I had to write it.
H81R: You didn’t pull any punches, especially when it came to your ex-bandmates. Did you get any flak from anyone?
MD: It’s funny. The people that I heard from are people that aren’t sort of major characters in this book. There was a woman that I described as extremely tall who rode me, and she appears for like two sentences. And she wrote me and said, “I’m not really that tall.” Like, was kind of offended. I was like, I’m sorry. There was another guy that wrote who said, “Look, you said I had some training as an EMT, but in fact I worked as an EMT for five years before I met you, and I’m bummed that you misrepresented me.” And I was like, Oh gosh, I’m sorry about that. Other than that I hadn’t heard from anybody.
H81R: Would you entertain the idea of doing a book again?
MD: Yeah, pending a great idea, I would totally do it. The great idea part is the difficulty.
H81R: Besides touring, do you have anything else in the works to promote the album?
MD: I’m always writing songs, for one thing. Like, daily writing songs, like really with some discipline. But whenever I plan to do something, and start talking about my plans, inevitably it falls to ruin, so all I can say is I’m trying to keep my head down and work and not have too many expectations and sort of deal with it as it comes.