Mike Doughty is the mastermind behind the 90s “slacker-jazz” cult band Soul Coughing, former poetry classmate of Ani Defranco, pseudonymous gossip columnist for the New York Press, surrogate Suicide Girl photographer and a successful solo artist out now with both a new album The Question Jar Show and his first memoir, The Book of Drugs.
The Book of Drugs reads like a late night conversation, Doughty’s candor charged by a quick wit and a merciless sense of humor that bring an electric edge to the stories within his story. Doughty’s accomplishments as one of the architects of the alternative revolution are offset by his battles with addiction (hence the title), which ultimately push him into a solo career fueled by a cross country drive armed only with an acoustic guitar and a whole lot of introspection. The Book of Drugs is much more than Doughty’s memoir, however–it is a a bare-knuckled take on the 90s and the cultural icons who informed that period, including DeFranco, hip hopper Redman and the late Jeff Buckley.
Can I read you a line from your own book?
“I went to the bathroom. When I returned the band was gone, the dancers were gone, R. Kelly’s ‘Step in the Name of Love‘ was playing, and the bar was filled with whores.”
Ha! That’s exactly the truth.
Yeah, but that’s a beat perfect beautiful passage, man. Your book is full of them. I gotta ask your influences.
Man, I don’t know…. When I was writing I read Steinbeck and the other great authors. I tried to consciously use just one adjective and not start a sentence with “and” or “but.”
I saw some Chandler in there.
Oh yeah. The Raymonds – Chandler and Carver.
You’ve written plays, songs, gossip columns, a bizarro world comic where Aquaman plays guitar at open mic night —
Yeah! I always thought Aquaman was such a lame character. He had to room with Green Arrow, this other B character so I wanted to cast him in a different light. He deserved better.
— so why did you wait so long to write a memoir?
Somebody finally called my bluff. Deadlines help.
Why call it The Book of Drugs?
It was a way of framing drugs as a relationship. So my people would see it.
There’s a quip towards the end where you’re describing a queen-sized truck-driving female fan who attends your shows, staring at the floor in “some distressing reverie” and I thought “Wow, that would have made a great title….”
There’s this line in “The Ballad of the Sad Café” that talks about “a sweetness keen as pain” and I thought, whoa, what a title. But if the book had been called that I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
I was reading I Want My MTV at the same time as your book. That one ends in ’92, kind of right where you pick up. I was talking with a buddy about this and he said “Why is it that debauchery seem so fun and awesome in the 80s and so joyless in the 90s?”
Ah, I’m sure some of those metal guys were miserable, too. But yeah, the mopiness of the 90s was such a drag. Everyone was so serious. Everybody wanted to be a rock star but you had to pretend that you didn’t. I just told the truth. My shit was scary and boring and bad. Largely a tale of woe.
You’re doing better now on your own than in the days of major labels, big name tours and MTV. Explain how that works.
Here’s one way to look at it. Back then, I always focused on the guy who had more that me. No joy. I lived way outside of my means. If I had two billion dollars I wouldn’t have been happy. Also, my bandmates took my songwriting. When I left the label and went out on my own it was like “OK, I’m like a small business now.” If you control your own stuff you will make more money.
So those guys still get a royalty check from the licensing of Super Bon Bon?
That was his bass line – so yeah. But I wrote the song. The drummer would swear that just because he played the hi-hat part he deserved a co-write. I fantasize sometimes that the day I got the record deal, I fired the band and called the Dust Brothers.
Where would you be now?
How did you feel about being on Beavis and Butthead?
Beavis loved it and Butthead didn’t and I’m a Beavis man so I was happy. Butthead said I sounded like Jimmy Swaggart and that just hit the nail on the head for what I was trying to do. Those TV preachers, they might have been sleazy, but they man, they were performers. Sometimes, when I’m in meetings, the dudes there won’t know Soul Coughing but someone will say “He was on Beavis and Butthead!” and it’s like “Holy Shit!”
Talk to me about the first time you heard Tone Loc.
Man, what a great riff! That Van Halen thing. I was into alternative but then I moved to New York in 1989 and it was just an explosion of hip hop. These jeeps would roll through blasting these incredible beats. My buddies were like “Let’s go see Dinosaur Jr.” and I’m like, “Are you crazy?”
Early in the book you mention wanting your record to sound like George Jones….
George Jones. That guy is a Jedi. There’s just so much drama in those records.
Why haven’t you made a country record?
I’ve been making country records for seventeen years! When I was a kid my Dad would play me Hank Williams and it was like “Oh yeah, I get it.”
How did the Roseanne Cash collaboration come about?
I played a show with four acts and she was the headliner. From the stage she said “I’m nervous about playing these new songs because Mike Doughty is here and he’s a great songwriter.” I just hit the floor. I had this challenge to write a Christmas song that wasn’t sappy. I wrote “Holiday” but couldn’t sing the high part. So I figured why not? I emailed Roseanne and she came down and did it. I was freaking out, she was in the studio and Hank Williams Jr. called her cell phone. I could see his number on her caller ID.
Dude, I’m a huge Hank Jr. fan.
I’m more of a Hank Sr. guy.
Well, I grew up in the South, riding around in pickup trucks, drinking Jim Beam and listening to Bocephus. But on that note, we do an either/or thing at the end of TNB Music interviews.
Biggie or Tupac?
Oh, Biggie. Tupac was a handsome guy and Biggie was like, the ugliest guy in the world.
Yeah, musically, he came from that ugly place.
Biggie just brought it. Plus, I was a Brooklyn guy.
Axl or Kurt?
Come on, man. Kurt.
Bon Scott or Brian Johnson?
This might be controversial but…. Brian Johnson. That guy is Samurai. His voice is such an instrument. Love Bon but I gotta go with Brian.
What’s your favorite AC/DC record?
For Those About to Rock.
I used to go to this youth center when I was a kid and I would pull a chair up to the jukebox and listen to that record over and over…. I got so many of my loops and grooves from that record.
I think Phil Rudd is the greatest timekeeper of all time.
That guy is amazing. He does that thing where you slow down a bit on the guitar solo and then coming out, you just drive it home. It’s subtle but just incredible when you get it right. And nobody gets it right more than that guy.
Marvel or DC?
Ah, Marvel, yeah….
… But you wrote for DC!
Well, when I was a kid I loved the Super Friends but then later a babysitter turned me on to all that emotional, angst-y stuff with the Hulk and Spiderman.
Biggie would be so Marvel.
Christianity or Buddhism?
Hmm. I have to go with… Christianity. The Dali Lama said, “Go back to the thing you grew up with.” Do you know that scripture, “In the beginning was the Word”?
I have that on one of my guitars, in German. Im Anfang war das Wort. Such an amazing sentence. That says it all.
Mike Doughty Selected Discography
“Holiday” (featuring Roseanne Cash)
“White Girl” (with Soul Coughing)
“Na Na Nothing”
“Busting Up a Starbucks”
“Powerful Medium / The Claw”