For several years in the 1990s, from the outside looking in, Mike Doughty seemed to be right where he wanted to be: in a successful band on a major record label, touring the country. It turns out he was in a much darker and more insidious place
The band was Soul Coughing, a quartet that fused indie-rock, hip-hop, beat poetry and other elements into a sound that Doughty (pronounced “doty”) once described as “deep slacker jazz.”
The rise of Soul Coughing in the mid- to late-1990s coincided with Doughty’s descent into drug addiction and alcoholism, a dark and turbulent whirlwind he chronicles in “The Book of Drugs: A Memoir,” published this year by De Capo Press. The book describes Doughty’s youth, growing up near West Point, N.Y., in a military family, and his years with Soul Coughing, which he calls an “emotionally violent marriage,” hardly the things dreams are made of.
The writing process, he said, put into perspective a time in his life he’d been talking about for years but had never assessed in its totality.
“The book is essentially stories I’d been telling people over dinner for years,” Doughty, 41, told The Star recently. “So there wasn’t anything difficult to dredge up, except perhaps some of the stuff about my family. So I already know I was all messed up about it. But looking at the galleys and reading them to myself, it struck me that I could not really process how bad those years were.”
Those years began in the late 1980s, when Doughty moved to New York to attend Lang College at New School University, where Ani DiFranco was a classmate.
He was later hired as a doorman at the live-music club the Knitting Factory. That’s where he met the musicians who would join him in Soul Coughing (where he referred to himself as M. Doughty), all of whom were about a decade older: keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay.
Soul Coughing quickly became a cult band acclaimed for its fetching musical brew.
“Driven by M. Doughty’s stream-of-consciousness poetry,” wrote Steve Huey in the AllMusic Guide, the band’s sound was a “willfully idiosyncratic mix of improvisational jazz grooves, oddball samples, hip-hop, electronics and noisy experimentalism.” Though it arose amid a small herd of other “quirky, unclassifiable bands that emerged in the post-grunge era, including Morphine, the Eels and Cake,” Huey wrote, Soul Coughing was “too avant-garde to cross over into the mainstream, keeping one foot planted in the downtown New York scene.”
In 1993, the band signed to Slash Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. In 1994, it released its first album, “Ruby Vroom.” It would release two more studio albums, including its most commercially successful, “El Oso.” That album reached No. 48 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1998 and contained the band’s highest-charting single, “Circles,” which hit No. 8 on the alternative charts. But by then, the band was already in a deep, dysfunctional state — a place Doughty was very familiar with.
“I grew up in a turbulent household,” he said. “I look at my family’s behavior now, and it looks absolutely psychotic. But I used to look at it and just think they were jerks. If you’re the kind of guy I am, you grow up and you find that family again and re-create that environment as an adult.”
His band, he said, became its own psychotic, dysfunctional marriage and family, one whose internal chemistry — a cauldron of resentment, spite and passive-aggressive behavior chronicled in “Drugs”— damaged not only his own psyche but the band’s music, too. Twelve years after Soul Coughing’s break-up, he can’t bear to hear or perform any of its music. The music, he said, can’t be separated from the experience through which it evolved
“No, I can’t separate the music,” he said, “but even beyond that is the fact I’m so disappointed with those records. It seemed to me that my bandmates were making musical decisions largely out of spite. It’s crazy to look back at it. It could have been a lot better. It’s not what I wanted it to be. So it’s very strange to talk so somebody who’s a big fan of something that’s so disappointing to me.”
But the experience was not a complete waste of time, said Doughty, who went into rehab after the band broke up and has been clean and sober for more than 11 years.
“From a basic level, it was the start of my being a musician and making a living at it,” he said. “Getting around the country four or five times is what got me an audience. And, thank you, Warner Bros., for paying for a van.”
He rediscovered that audience, and a new one, after Soul Coughing broke up. And Doughty thanked Napster, the file-sharing service, for helping spread the word about a record he’d recorded in 1996. In 2000, Doughty self-released it.
“After I left Soul Coughing and Warner Bros., I had made an album called ‘Skittish’ that was an acoustic record that had got rejected, and it got onto Napster,” he said. “People were pissed off at first; they did not want to see an acoustic guy. But there was this nugget of a crowd that had come to hear the ‘Skittish’ songs. Napster and the people who downloaded it saved my life. ”
He has since released 12 recordings, including several EPs, live albums and a “Skittish” bonus CD. In January, he released “The Question Jar Show,” a live two-CD compilation of songs and Q&A, with accompaniment from cellist Andrew Livingston. The questions were submitted by audience members on scraps of paper and pulled from a jar, questions like, “How come there are no songs written called ‘Bridget’?” “Can you name 27 Jennifers, first and last names?” “If Bono were here, what would you say to him?” Answer: “I’d say, ‘Go get me a soda.’ ”
Doughty said his audience has grown steadily over the past decade, to the point that references to his former band have almost become extinct.
“I can genuinely tell you that the audiences are there to hear just the stuff I’ve been making for the past 10 years,” he said. “Those other people left a long time ago. Oh, on occasion some confused person wanders in and wants to hear ‘Super Bon Bon.’ I tell them very respectfully, ‘God bless you and thank you for coming. But I think you’ve come to the wrong show.’ ”
As a songwriter, Doughty said, he has abandoned whatever voice or spirit he tapped into when he was with Soul Coughing. He has become a committed solo artist. “Join another band? No, never,” he said. “Who does that?”
He does, however, acknowledge that the process that almost ruined him is in great part responsible for getting him where he is. These days, he sounds like a guy who is exactly where he wants to be.
“I feel like I’ve become the artist I always wanted to be,” he said. “I’m so engaged with what I’m doing. I put out records that are exactly what I meant to say. I feel so vital and fiercely into it. It has really been amazing.
“My life is pretty terrific at the moment, and it’s pretty directly based on experiences I had, some that were very negative: going through what I did and getting into recovery. If I didn’t have those experiences, I don’t know if I’d feel as good as I do now.”