Mike Doughty Annuls The 'Dark Marriage' Of His Former Band

Sep 15, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 7:50 am

Mike Doughty spent the 1990s as the gravel-voiced frontman for Soul Coughing. Fusing elements of pop, jazz, hip-hop and house music, the band had a sound all its own — but Doughty says he was never satisfied with it.

"I was a 22-year-old kid in New York, who had sort of grown up in indie rock, and had kind of arrived at this tremendous flowering of hip-hop music and house music and the very beginning of drum-and-bass music," Doughty says. "At the same time, I was working at an avant-garde jazz club ... and so I made a connection between the two and put this band together, that I thought would be the ultra hip-hop, house-music weird band. And it was, to a certain extent. But it became a very musicianly band in a way that I was not crazy about."

Today, Doughty likens Soul Coughing to a "dark marriage," saying he felt deeply unhappy with the group but unable to leave. Since the band's breakup in 2000, he has kept it in his rear-view mirror, touring and recording extensively as a solo artist. But now, he's revisiting the old days — sort of.

For his new album, Doughty has reworked a selection of old Soul Coughing songs, making them sound the way he says they would have sounded back then if he'd been calling the creative shots for the band.

"I guess I was trying to sort of divorce them from the experience," he says, "and try and go back to whoever that kid was — the 22-year-old kid in a bedroom, picking out these songs clumsily on an acoustic guitar."

The new record's title is just a list of those tracks — all 13 of them — but for brevity's sake, it's known as Circles Super Bon Bon. Doughty recently discussed it with NPR's Rachel Martin; click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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Mike Doughty was the gravely voiced front man for Soul Coughing, a 1990s band that fused elements of pop, jazz, hip-hop and house music into a sound all of its own. In the years since the band imploded, he's put those days firmly in the rearview mirror. He's toured and recorded extensively as a solo artist. Now, Doughty is revisiting those old days, sort of.


MIKE DOUGHTY: (Singing) When you were languishing in rooms I built to foul you in, and when the wind set down in funnel form and pulled you in. I don't need to walk around in circles, walk around in circles, walk around in circles, walk around in...

MARTIN: For his new album, Mike Doughty has reworked a selection of old Soul Coughing songs, making them sound the way he thinks they should have sounded back then, if he had been calling the creative shots for the band. The new record's title is just a list of those tracks - all 13 of them. But for brevity's sake, it is known as "Circles Super Bon Bon."

Mike Doughty joins us from our studios in New York. Mike, thanks so much for being with us.

DOUGHTY: Well, you're so welcome. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Doing well, thank you.

DOUGHTY: Awesome.

MARTIN: So for those who don't know the history of your experience with Soul Coughing, let's lay a little bit of groundwork. I know it is a long story, but could you crystallize your experience with Soul Coughing for us? What was it like for you?

DOUGHTY: The way I felt about Soul Coughing is, we had a lot of muscle and we had great songs, and I think people liked my voice. And I think we could have been like, backer of the Beasties Boys. We could have been a big band. And we were kind of this kind of weird, little band, and I was always dissatisfied with it.

MARTIN: So you left; you went solo. And I understand when you would play, fans would kind of clamor for Soul Coughing songs. They expected it from you.

DOUGHTY: Oh, yeah. Well, of course they did. Like, I was one guy, one acoustic guitar; which is how I started out, so it was perfectly natural to me. And when I wrote the Soul Coughing songs, this was their natural habitat - like, they were written in a bedroom on an acoustic guitar. So I just felt perfectly natural doing it. But I guess about two-thirds of the crowds that came out to see me at first were just like, who are you?


DOUGHTY: Like, what is this that we have paid money to hear?


DOUGHTY: (Speaking lyrics) There is a bar they call The Bitter Sea, and she sits and drinks a velvet crush...

MARTIN: Why revisit these songs, especially when you had so much - kind of baggage associated with them?

DOUGHTY: I don't know. You know, I guess I was trying to sort of divorce them from the experience, and try and go back to whoever that kid was; like, the 22-year-old kid in a bedroom, picking out these songs, trying to sound like - you know - a Tribe Called Quest on a Yamaha acoustic guitar. You know, and I just tried to re-inhabit them.

MARTIN: So the song "The Idiot Kings" originally appeared on the Soul Coughing album "Irresistible Bliss." You have redone that song. Let's first listen to the Soul Coughing version, and then we'll listen to the new version.


MARTIN: So when you hear that, what don't you like about that version?

DOUGHTY: You know, everybody is susceptible to this thing of like, "but it's more complicated, so it's better." So the way that that horn part, that sampler part is, makes the chords a little different. You know, there's like - there's sort of like a richness to it that I was, frankly, afraid to say listen, drop that. Keep it simple; make it just big and dumb.


MARTIN: Let's take a listen to your version.


MARTIN: It also does sound like a more optimistic version, in some ways.

DOUGHTY: Yeah. Indeed, it is. I mean, it has more space in it, really because it's so large and just that simple, like: Oomph, oomph, oomph - like disco house beat behind it all. It just - it gets you get this kind of largeness that complexity can obscure.


MARTIN: Is that, overall, what you thought was missing? Does the new album - does seem to have a much more kind of house beat me to it.

DOUGHTY: Oh yeah, house and hip-hop beats. Yeah. I mean, there was a beat in the '90s that was on every hip-hop record, that went: boom-kahp-boo-boo-boom-kahp. Almost every song I wrote between '94 and '99, I begged the drummer to put in this beat.


DOUGHTY: And it just wasn't complicated enough for him. So I mean, you know, and more power to him. That's his vibe, as a player.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think, though, that there was any positive, net positive, from your time with Soul Coughing. I mean, did the tension - was that a positive creative force, in any way?

DOUGHTY: Not for me. I guess in the sense that it drove me to my bedroom, to write songs - you know, the net positive is my life today. I would not be here, if I wasn't there.

MARTIN: And you can connect that to Soul Coughing.

DOUGHTY: Yes, I mean...

MARTIN: It's not just negative, when you look back on...

DOUGHTY: Well, I mean, I - basically, that I had the negativity led to the zillion tiny epiphanies that make my life now.

MARTIN: You have written pretty extensively, and openly, about your drug history.

DOUGHTY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: How has getting on the other side of that shaped how you look at your Soul Coughing experience, and perhaps made peace with it?

DOUGHTY: If I can live in the song, I'm OK. You know? And that's what I'm really trying to do - is just feel the songs. And I mean, there's an extent to which I think anybody looks at themselves at an earlier part of their life, and it's difficult to have sympathy. You know, you sort of look at yourself as a disapproving parent. So from the point of view where I'm like, why did you do that? You dumb so and so - I have to shut that guy off and really, kind of approach this 22-year-old self, and really engage him and kind of empathize with them.

MARTIN: Mike Doughty, - he joined us from our studios in New York. His new album is called "Circles Super Bon Bon." It comes out Tuesday. Hey, Mike, thanks so much.

DOUGHTY: Oh, thanks for having me.


DOUGHTY: (Singing) I've seen the rains of the real world slink forward on the Plain... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.