Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Interview with Mike Doughty

By George A. Paul

(This article originally appeared in North County Times)

Doughty and his band perform at the Belly Up in Solana Beach on May 1.

Some musicians are content to release an album, tour and then lay low until the muse strikes again.

Not Mike Doughty. When self-described “deep slacker jazz” band Soul Coughing broke up in 2000 after nearly a decade and some unique alt-rock hits (“Soundtrack to Mary,” “Super Bon Bon,” “Circles”), the singer/guitarist immediately embarked on a solo career and ventured outside music for extra work.

He put out the poetry book “Slanky,” wrote an Aquaman story for DC Comics’ “Bizarro World,” dabbled in theatre for The 24-Hour Plays and shot travel and erotic photography for Web sites.

“I’m always trying to stay busy and do more creative stuff,” said Doughty, 37, from a tour stop in Dallas.

Those inspired activities extend to live gigs. Last year, he busked at a New York City subway stop and recorded the proceedings. Fans who purchased new disc “Golden Delicious” at indie retailers got it as a bonus EP.

“I didn’t tell the record company or anything. We just went ahead and made it.” Doughty collected $3.10 in donations and was only recognized when “a couple old friends of mine passed by. They didn’t give me money.”

Next was the Question Jar Tour. “I just wanted a way to interact with the audience during the show. I thought it would spice it up and make it interesting…There were a lot of weird, funny and philosophical questions. Not so many personal, probing [ones].”

The Aquaman assignment was a result of Doughty’s stint as a music contributor at alternative newsweekly New York Press.

“‘Bizarro World’ is where they get people who normally aren’t involved in comics to write stuff. I just got a call from them. The editor didn’t really know my music; he just read me in the New York Press and asked me to write something. I [did] it pretty quickly and it was just a blast to do, man. I definitely was a huge superhero fan when I was a kid.”

“Golden Delicious” is the Brooklyn-based hipster’s second studio effort for Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. The pair – casual friends since Soul Coughing supported Dave Matthews Band on a couple tours – joined forces after a chat backstage at the 2004 Bonnaroo Festival.

Matthews dug the “Rockity Roll” EP and was impressed enough by an unfinished copy of Doughty’s next CD to sign him. 2005’s “Haughty Melodic” proved a moderate success and included the Adult Rock radio/“Grey’s Anatomy” fave, “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well.”

Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Dixie Chicks) returned to produce the more spontaneous, pop-infused “Delicious.” Instead of layering sounds over a long period like before, they adopted what Doughty called “dude theory” – the vibe of a bunch of guys playing for the fun of it.

“I enjoyed what the [live band] sounded like and I wanted a record that profited from their styles…it was just a different way of working. I wasn’t trying to remedy anything. ‘Haughty’ was done piece by piece. I wanted something that was a little faster and looser.”

Doughty’s way with wordless phrases and knack for funky melodies (“Put it Down,” “I Just Want the Girl…”) are in full effect. Flashes of humor (“I Wrote a Song About Your Car,” the reworked “27 Jennifers” - a recent top 10 on AAA radio) and literary influences (epic closing jam “Navigating By the Stars at Night”) add up to his strong album to date.

“I cut words out of a Garcia Marquez novel and sort of jimmy jammed them up in different configurations, like a little art project exercise,” said Doughty, on the latter tune.

But the standout track is “Ft. Hood,” inspired by a visit with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. “I wondered what was going through their minds,” recalled Doughty, an Army brat born at Fort Knox and raised around West Point. Here, thought-provoking lyrics are coupled with optimism as he sings the familiar refrain from 1969 musical “Hair,” “let the sunshine in.”

The song was both “a need to transcend the horror and confront my own guilt about the reality of what these guys are going through.”

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