In town this week for shows Thursday in Evanston at SPACE and Friday in Rosemont at The Montrose Room, I spoke over the phone recently with Mike Doughty about his new book The Book of Drugs, new album Yes and Also Yes as well as his thoughts on his time as the frontman of Soul Coughing and a variety of subjects that ranged anywhere from the state of the record industry to Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx...
Q. So… the book is done. How does it feel to have put something so personal out there for everyone to read? Has it been different for you than the typical album release?
Mike Doughty: I mean, it’s different from an album release in that I can barely believe I wrote an actual book. I pick it up sometimes and look through it and I’m like “There’s actually words on all of these pages!” So, it’s extremely humbling.
In terms of it being personal? I’m an oversharer at heart so I don’t usually get embarrassed. It was weird though… I did the audio book and it kind of bugged me out to be reading the book out loud. There was stuff that I just didn’t even think about. It was super weird.
Furthermore, spending like two eight hour days in front of a microphone, in a booth by yourself, just reading the same stuff over and over again… Very bizarre.
Q. Early on in the book, you wrote that you feared losing both subjectivity and people you love. Now that the book is out, how has it gone over with people close to you?
MD: Well, I haven’t really talked to my family about it yet. I gave them a lot of warnings about how intense it would be. I don’t know… There’s some old friends that I’m worried about what they’re gonna think about how they were portrayed. You know, I gotta say, I’m less worried about things that are super embarrassing that I did. I’m fine with people knowing about that stuff. But really, I’m troubled by the possibility of people that I love being upset by stuff I said about them.
Q. Your thoughts on Soul Coughing are pretty well documented at this point in that they are days you’re understandably not terribly fond of rehashing. At one point in the book you said, “I’m full bore, bat shit crazy with regards to Soul Coughing.”
MD: That’s correct!
Q. Now that the book is out, has it been tough answering questions about that time of your life in what I can only imagine has been every single interview you’ve done in support of it or has that been kind of a forced catharsis?
MD: Well… There is kind of an element of people actually understanding where I’m at in a way that I guess I just didn’t make clear as I’ve been talking about it for the past eleven years that I haven’t been in that band. Certainly, I let it be known that I disliked the music and had a really terrible experience being in the band but I don’t think I really told the stories specifically. So there are some listeners coming back going “Oh, wow! Now we understand!”
Q. One thing I found interesting about the book was the ability to trace your progression as an artist who came up in the nineties (what we can now probably look back on as the major label system’s final act). You’ve continued into a solo career amidst an era of upheaval that has seen the internet become the dominant music distribution force. In The Book of Drugs, you were pretty candid about the workings of a major label. As a solo artist now, how do you feel about the internet? Do you miss the major label days?
MD: I am super happy because I have an audience. And the reason that I have an audience is that Warner Brothers paid for a van for a couple years. And it really, honestly breaks down to that: Like, a van and a sound guy and the Red Roof Inn. Basically, somebody financing that for a couple years is the reason that I’m making records and playing shows and making a living doing it. So the internet is great for me. I actually encourage people to pirate stuff. Like at my shows, I’ll be like “Hey, if you bought the album, please burn it for somebody else.”
But the flipside of that is new artists don’t have record companies that can invest in them. I mean, it’s hard to feel bad for them because they were just drowning in cash and were quite annoying about it. But the other side of that is they were paying for bands and new artists to get out on the road and really, as far as I know, even with amazing internet exposure, the only thing that really, really makes a career is playing a lot of shows.
Q. You tell the story in your book about the “Saul Mongolia” character at Warner Brothers ultimately being the person who legendarily dropped Wilco heading into the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album because he didn’t hear a single (and of course the album went on to sell half a million copies after the band put it online for free download). A lot of people argue that the internet has devalued actual, fully realized albums in favor of the single. You have a large web presence and still release albums. How do you feel about the role of the album?
MD: Well, I’m really a song guy more than an album guy. There’s just a few albums that I listen to beginning to end. I’m really the kind of person that finds a song that really affects me and I become obsessed with it and listen to it over and over and over again. So I’m into a single oriented climate. I mean, I still make albums but really that’s the function of just, it’s more affordable to record twelve songs all at once than one song every couple of months.
The thing that happened in the nineties that was really f---ed up was soooo many bands put out albums that had one good song on it. I mean, there was one song that was the radio single that sounded totally unlike everything else on the album. And the record labels didn’t care! They eliminated the single! So if you liked one song, you’d buy the album and you’d end up feeling ripped off. So I would say that they did as much to devalue the album as the internet did.
Q. Drugs are something you certainly address at length in the book…
MD: Oh yeah.
Q. You did that in what felt like a very open and honest way. As someone who has recorded both under the influence and sober, do you feel the drugs affected that creative process?
MD: Really, the drugs didn’t help me creatively. They helped to shut out a lot of self-hatred that kept me from being able to work, being able to write. I just felt so… I just hated myself so much that I couldn’t really finish anything. I got high and that would shut off just long enough for me to write a song. It’s totally better just being able to write a song and be humble about it and not need something to facilitate that.
Q. Well, in the book you mention that while you prefer where you’re currently at to where you once were, you also don’t discredit the drugs…
Q. I believe you said that without those experiences, you wouldn’t be where you are today…
MD: Yeah, absolutely.
Q. You’ve been sober for about twelve years now, is that correct?
MD: Eleven years. Going on twelve in May, God willing.
Q. That’s quite an accomplishment. How does that feel?
MD: Well, thank you for saying that. It’s funny but people who are in this thing, people who do twelve step programs, generally realize that the keystone to it is humility and surrender. So it’s very funny when somebody from the non-twelve step world says “Oh, congratulations!” because it doesn’t really feel like an accomplishment. It feels like you let go. And thank you for saying that but there’s just something very odd about that.
Q. Let’s talk a bit about the new album Yes and Also Yes. In the book, you mention an affinity for artists that some people might not expect like Dio, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Judas Priest, etc. In the liner notes for the new record, you credit writing of the album’s first track “Na Na Nothing” to Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson and yourself.
MD: AND, Matt Gerrard who wrote a lot of High School Musical! So it is like a surreally weird, diverse group of writers who contributed to that.
Q. I have this great mental image of the four of you guys in a room hammering out that song. How did that writing process go and how did it come about?
MD: Well actually, I wasn’t in the room with those guys. Dan Wilson was put together by Chrysallis the big music publishing company at this kind of millionaire summer camp that those sort of hard-core pop songwriters were all at and they wrote this song that was really actually pretty terrible. And Dan was like “Oh, I’m so embarrassed by this.” And I was like “You HAVE to play me the song you wrote with Nikki Sixx. YOU HAVE TO.” And so he did and I was like “You’re right. It’s terrible… but there’s one part I want to steal.” So if lightning strikes or I get hit by a meteor and I win a Grammy, I’ll be onstage with Nikki Sixx, so…
Q. Roseanne Cash sings with you on the beautifully simple “Holiday (What Do You Want?).” What was it like working with Roseanne?
MD: Oh, it was amazing. She said from the stage at a gig I did with her where I was like low on the bill and she was the headliner, she said “Mike Doughty is an amazing songwriter.” And my jaw hit the floor. So Dan Wilson and I wrote “Holiday” together. And there was basically a note that I couldn’t hit. My first idea was like, “Well, I’ll get a female backup singer and she’ll do the high note and I’ll do a low harmony to it.” Then I thought, just for the hell of it, utter shot in the dark, I have Roseanne’s email so I’m just gonna ask her if she wants to convert it into a full-on duet. And to my surprise, within fifteen minutes, she wrote me back and said, “Yes.”
Q. You’re going to be in the Chicagoland area in March for appearances in both Evanston and Rosemont. What can fans expect on this tour?
MD: This is gonna be solo acoustic. Like, full-on solo. I’m not bringing Scrap, my cello player. I’m just reading a little from the book, playing some songs and maybe answering some questions so I hope everyone comes to the shows.
(This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan).
The Book of Drugs: Reading, Concert and Q&A
7PM on Thursday, March 22, 2012
SPACE in Evanston
1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL 60202
$22-42, All Ages
Purchase tickets HERE
8:30PM on Friday, March 23, 2012
The Montrose Room in Rosemont
5300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, IL 60018
(At the Intercontinental O'Hare Hotel)
Purchase tickets HERE