As the leader of Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty made a name for himself as a songwriter with a penchant for jazz grooves and stream-of-consciousness poetry. Too bad feuding amongst Doughty and the rest of the band over songwriting credit and other issues brought an end to Soul Coughing after just three albums.
To make matters worse, Doughty developed a nasty drug habit that also helped derail the band and his early solo career. Luckily, he beat his demons and lived to tell his tale in a recently published memoir, The Book of Drugs. Speaking from his home in Brooklyn in anticipation of his musical and spoken-word performance tonight at the House of Blues, Doughty talked about his battle with addiction and how life doesn't end at 40.
Have you been surprised by the positive reaction your book has received? No, not surprised, but extremely grateful. I am proud of the book. People have really been digging it.
Do you see your book as a kind of warning to young people about the dangers of drug abuse? No, absolutely not. First of all, I would never warn a kid to not do drugs. A kid is going to do them. I would like to talk to a kid. I would say, "Look, the reason people don't want you to do drugs is because it feels amazing. It will fuck up your life if you do drugs consistently, but it's like plugging the holes in a dam." I am not trying to warn anybody. I don't really have a problem with people who want to get drugs.
There seems to have always been a connection between addiction and art. What do you think about the claim some have made that their best art was created while on drugs? Well, I certainly wouldn't say that's the cause. That would be giving Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain very little consideration for their talents. Was all of Jimi Hendrix's talent due to drugs? I don't think so.
What was the key to kicking your addiction? I would say that I haven't kicked the addiction because it is always there. It could always come back. It's evil looming. It's a teeny tiny voice now, but that voice will always be there, telling me to walk into that liquor store. Let's just say I found some amazing people; some smart, poetic, canny, awesome people. You could say I had a spiritual experience, but I have a very loose idea of what a higher power is. It works to say that I am not the biggest thing in this world and I cannot control anything.
You are a very prolific songwriter. How big is your backlog of songs? It's huge now, man. I am just fortunate that it's no longer Soul Coughing songs that they are yelling at me and that I'm not going to play. It's other songs from my solo catalog. That is, by definition, a luxury problem. I'd love to be able to do five-hour shows, but I don't think I have the stamina or the audience does either.
Should people know not to holler out Soul Coughing songs? I think people who have been hanging out for a while, in my scene, they probably know by now. But there are a lot of people who liked Soul Coughing. It's fine, but I just will say, if people yell out a title, I will tell them that I am not going to play "Super Bon Bon." I like to say that out loud into the mic. If somebody gets mad, well, that really sucks and I'm sorry.
Your music, both with Soul Coughing and solo, gets used in a lot of television shows and movies. What is it about your songs that make them go well on soundtracks? I don't know and what's funny is I never watch any of those shows that have my music in them, like Grey's Anatomy. They used a song in that Jack Black version of Gulliver's Travels and I haven't seen that either. I don't watch enough movies as it is.
Is that because you are such a big-time blogger? It's intoxicating to write whatever you want to write whenever you want to. You can write as much or as little as you want. You don't have to write headlines. You don't even have to like what you write. You can go off on tangents. I sort of have a reputation as a forward thinker in terms of music on the internet, but really it's just an addiction to sitting on my iPhone all day long.
Do you have children? No.
That's interesting because you've covered "Three Is a Magic Number" and "Casper the Friendly Ghost." Why did you decide to do that kind of material? It wasn't super planned. I was just sitting around the house playing those songs and I thought they sounded OK.
How important was Dave Matthews to your solo career? I opened for him a couple of times in the '90s and he's just always been around. I had been putting out my solo albums independently since 2000. I caught up with Dave at a show and he had heard a song of mine called "24 Jennifers," which he was impressed with apparently. He invited me on board and he was super good to me.
After Soul Coughing broke up, Warner Brothers rejected your first solo album. What was the reason they gave you? It was pretty easy to tell. They had invested heavily in the momentum of Soul Coughing and that sound. Unfortunately, it's a very simplistic choice. They knew me for one sound and they were suspicious of other ones. I think they thought if I had any success without Soul Coughing, then I would ditch them.
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Would you get involved in a band again? There's no doubt that the solo thing is better. Even when you're in a band where you like everybody, it can be hard. The guys in Soul Coughing fucking hated me. To be able to run in your own shop, to be able to make all the decisions, that's what makes it good. I am super collaborative, but the moment a choice has to be made, I want to be the person who makes it.
You turned 40 last year. I guess life doesn't end at 40. I got to tell you that it feels fucking great. I saw a picture of myself as a recovering addict and an alcoholic. I posted this picture about three months before I got clean and I look twenty years older than I do know. In my parade of shocking pictures, that was perhaps the saddest.
Mike Doughty performs tonight, February 15, at the House of Blues.