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Interview: Musician Mike Doughty on Yes and Also Yes

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My appreciation of Mike Doughty‘s music started much later than most fans, as I first became aware of his work with his 2005 album, Haughty Melodic. When I found he had a new album, Yes and Also Yes, set for release on August 30, I immediately set up an email interview to find out what was in store for fans of his work.

If you’ve never seen Doughty live, take a spin around YouTube for a bit and you quickly will realize that you should see him live as soon as possible. To best frame the album in proper context, I quote Doughty himself: “I recorded it in a studio in Koreatown, Manhattan, from July ’10 to April ’11.

“Produced by Pat Dillett. Notable musicians included my trusty factotum Andrew ‘Scrap’ Livingston on bass, and the pianist Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a. Doveman, who basically plays with everybody who’s groovy (Justin Bond, Antony and the Johnsons, Glen Hansard, The National, David Byrne, Yoko Ono). I’m releasing it on my own label, Snack Bar, through Megaforce. I split with Dave Matthews’ label ATO so I could run my own shop and have more control, business-wise.”

I had a chance to listen to the album in preparation for this interview, and I was pleased to find there’s not a bad cut among any of the 14 songs. One song that I hope will garner a lot of attention is “Holiday”, a Christmas duet with singer/songwriter great Rosanne Cash. About Cash, Doughty said: ” I did a show with her, and she said, onstage, ‘I feel nervous playing my new songs, because Mike Doughty is here, and he’s such a great songwriter.’ That blew my mind.” Honestly, to borrow a phrase from Doughty, their duet blows my mind. I am the kind of person that hates hearing Christmas music anytime other than December. But this song has such an amazing hook (as most of Doughty’s songs do), I ended up playing it seven times in a row the first time I heard it.

The whole album pulled me in just as much and it was a pleasure to interview Doughty. We also got to discuss another recent Doughty musical project, Dubious Luxury, released earlier this month. My thanks to Doughty for his time and thoughts, as well as Rob Moore for facilitating the interview. 

You’re an artist who clearly loves to play live. In developing Yes and Also Yes, how much did you play some of these songs before an audience prior to entering the studio? And did any of the cuts change drastically from how it was initially conceived compared to the final version?

I’ve been playing a lot of comedy shows, around Brooklyn and Manhattan, as a musical guest, and I played “Na Na Nothing”, and “Day By Day By” at nearly every one of them, plus, maybe, “27 Jennifers”. If I play something a lot, before or after recording it, the phrasing will change ever so slightly, so there’ll be a cumulative evolution that I barely notice, unless I listen to a five-year-old version, and then it’s kind of startling. So, I don’t really know.

Are you feeling more or less pressure to succeed, now that you run your own label again?

“Succeed” is a tricky word. I live on music, and I don’t have to work another job, so that’s success to me. I’ve had richer and poorer years, relatively, since I started making solo albums. But I have to say, as a solo guy I’ve made a lot more money than I did in Soul Coughing, though that band sold a lot more records. My only extravagance is flying business class, which I’d probably do even if it was straining my finances, because flying is so wretched. That said, there’s more pressure to generate cash from the album, because, since it’s my label, I did it all on my dime.

Now that you’ve done a song in German (“Makelloser Mann”), any desire to musically explore through other foreign languages?

Well, “Makelloser Man” is a bunch of random, peculiar phrases. I hope to write a real song in German some day. Always wanted to learn Spanish, to read Borges, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda in the original.

Given that you answer only to yourself (owning your own record company) was it less problematic to arrange to have Rosanne Cash (who last I checked was still with Manhattan Records)?

It wasn’t problematic in the least. I don’t think anybody on the planet has the brass to tell Rosanne what not to do.

What are the common elements that prompted you to create two “Telegenic Exes” cuts (as opposed to a song called “Hapless Dance” and another called “Astoria”)?

I wrote them separately, and afterwards realized they were based on the same riff. There’s a slender narrative connection, too. The connection isn’t accidental, but it is pretty mysterious.

How did it happen that you are releasing two new projects close together, given that Dubious Luxury is also coming out in August?

I just wanted to get Dubious Luxury out, and fast. It’s an all-electronic record, cut-up samples and sound effects over large, weird beats. I don’t sing on it–I got vocals from Todd Colby, Joanne Kyger, Young Jean Lee, and some other people, and sliced and diced them. Rachel Benbow Murdy’s also on there–she’s the ghostly voice on Soul Coughing’s “Janine”.

When you write a piece about music like this (in response to a New Yorker piece) are you hoping to inform, foster discussion, or merely looking to voice your displeasure (or none of the above)? Have you talked to Sasha Frere-Jones since writing your response?

I just want to be a part of the public discourse about music. I know Sasha from way back, was a fan of his band Ui. In fact, his bandmate Wilbo Wright played bass in Soul Coughing for a minute. I’m sure Sasha rolls his eyes at my screeds.

Is “The Huffer and The Cutter” a song about addiction on some level, or am I misinterpreting the meaning of the song title?

It’s about a dude who gets high by sniffing glue loving a girl who compulsively slices her skin with a razor blade. A huffer and a cutter. I wouldn’t say it’s about addiction, because that kind of implies I’m making a moral judgment on the characters’ drug use. I’m an addict, totally, it’s in my bones. But, addict-hood is a condition of being, not necessarily a consequence of getting high.

Which came first (in your head) on the song “Vegetable”, the rhythm or the title? (I love both is why I ask)

I’m not sure if you mean the groove of the tune, or the groove of the word “vegetable”. The latter came first, the word had the rhythm buried inside it.

How did the album benefit by being produced by Pat Dillett?

Excellent sounds, incisive opinions about arrangements, cogent in terms of who to record, and how. And a smart and interesting guy.

Is it safe to say you are the first person to use an antidepressant as a musical instrument? What prompted you to give that a try?

I take crazy pills to stay level. I was about to pop a duloxtine, which is marketed as Cymbalta, and I noticed that the tiny particles in it made a shck-shck-shck sound inside the capsule. I held it up to my ear and shook it, and it was a pretty great shaker sound. So, we put up an extremely sensitive microphone, I shook the capsule in rhythm, and presto, a percussion instrument.

How much has social media made the job of marketing your work more manageable?

I don’t know that it has. It’s really just something I like doing, tweeting and tumblr-ing and that stuff. I think I have an audience that digs reading stuff like that, so in that sense it’s been good for me. I definitely tweet about gigs and new albums and stuff, so it’s not like I don’t use it to mack my music out there, but I suspect that, despite the hype, being all over social media isn’t a superhuge boon. Like I said, I dig doing it, and, as far as I’ve seen my audience digs reading it.

Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

I have a memoir called The Book of Drugs coming out in January 2012. About drugs, music, debauchery, redemption. You know, one of those books that there’s already ten thousand of. But, I think it’s pretty alright.

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About Tim O'Shea

  • Julie

    Sorry, but this is most disappointing. I was the hugest fan of Mike and Soul Coughing. I bought every release, but this is just the end for me. We’ll see this on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy or some other lame show. Do your thing and good for you, but you were poised to be an eternal musical force and now you release these things? Ugh.