Features > On the Horizon > Mike Doughty
Mike Doughty


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   Sometimes, one isn't the loneliest number. Sometimes, one is company. A man crisscrosses the country, covering thousands of miles as he drives from city to city in solitude. There are no eyes to turn to save his own in the rearview mirror; there are no voices to meet his ear aside from those emanating from the car stereo. This man is Mike Doughty, former frontman of world-renowned musical mish-mashers Soul Coughing, and he's happier than he's ever been.

   Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. You see, this is all years after Doughty first entered the studio with the idea of a solo album on his mind. To arrive at today requires a bit of history.

   "I had a really rough time making the second Soul Coughing record," reveals the singer, "because essentially I had written all these songs and I had all these ideas for a direction to take the band in that the band just wasn't really that interested in." "So it was a real struggle to get the record done, and then when it was done, I had all these songs left."

   Faced with the prospect of scrapping the unused material, Doughty instead entered the studio in 1996 with producer Kramer (Low, Galaxie 500) and recorded the tracks that would become Skittish, his debut solo album. The songs were markedly different from what the band was doing at the time. With sparse acoustic backing, the songs exposed Doughty in a way he had never been before. The guitar became as much a tool for percussion as a stringed instrument. It served primarily as the sole counterpoint for a familiar voice that suddenly betrayed emotion and honesty so palpable, it's easy to see why some might have wanted to hold it back. Skittish wouldn't receive an official release until four years later, after Soul Coughing's 2000 dissolution. The immediate goal was just to bring these songs to life in a way Doughty was unable to do within the confines of the band.

   "A lot of this straight-up new wave stuff that's going on right now, that was what I wanted to do, that really sort of chunky guitar sound, which you hear on 'Looks' and 'Where Have You Gone?'" he explains. "The big ballads like 'No Peace Los Angeles,' that was kind of the stuff that I really liked that I did in Soul Coughing, songs like 'True Dreams of Wichita,' 'Janine,' 'Lazybones.' I was really interested in melancholy. That was just kind of where I was going."

   The album was completed and shelved. Doughty couldn't find the right way to release it at the time, and too many other, bigger problems -- of both a personal and professional nature -- diverted his attention.

   Imagine his reaction when, years later, after finally heading out on his own in 2000, he found fans at his solo shows singing along to his unreleased songs. It turns out that, unbeknownst to him, the tracks had been leaked online in the interim, and rabid fans were eating them up.

   "I was really surprised on that first tour when people knew the material," Doughty recalls. "I remember the first place I ever sold Skittish was in Detroit, and it was like a mob scene. I had never done the thing where you sit down on the front of the stage and you just sell the CDs to people on your own. There were, like, 150 people rushing me. They were pushing and they really wanted it. It was crazy."

   Lest you think he's exaggerating the response, here are the facts: within six months of his decision to press up and sell the disc on his website and on tour, Skittish had sold a staggering 10,000 copies. A year later that figure had more than doubled. After reaching the 25,000 mark, Doughty ceased distribution of the album in order to find a better way to get it to the fans. Now, having newly signed to Dave Matthews' ATO Records, he's giving people a reason to get Skittish all over again.

   The new release of the album features full artwork for the first time, as well as a bonus: it also includes Doughty's 2003 Rockity Roll EP as a second disc, as well as a number of extra tracks. And not only does the EP, produced by Pat Dillett (They Might Be Giants, David Byrne), offer additional, more recent material, but with its lo-fi synth sounds and electronic drumbeats, it also shows a different side of his songwriting. "That was another thing that I had been doing for a really long time," he explains. "Just little drum-machine recordings on a four-track. I had been demoing songs like that for years, and I always really loved the sound of them."

   When the time came for Doughty to approach his forthcoming second solo album, he presented a bundle of songs to producer Dan Wilson. Wilson chose the ones he thought would be best for the record, leaving a number of tracks that were still in need of a home. "He picked the 12 that he really identified with, and then out of the 10 or 11 that were left, there were these six," says Doughty. "I thought, 'You know, these songs kind of hang together. They were written around the same time, they're sort of similar in terms of the consciousness in the lyrics.'"

   "And then I thought, 'Well, this is a perfect scenario, because this other thing is going on with the main record, and I could just go in and record these in this sort of lo-fi style, and I'd really have this piece that hangs together.'"

   Which, of course, is exactly what he did on Rockity Roll. In the process of all this, he discovered even more about what it means to be both a songwriter and an artist. "Basically, I figured out that I work for the gift," says Doughty. "The gift doesn't work for me. I can't just turn around and say, 'Okay, let's have a bunch of great songs, right now.' I have a piece that I have to do, and I work for the piece. Really, making records as they come to me, and as they want to come out, is like the most minor part of it. The really difficult part is when you write a song and it's like, 'Oh, I don't want to sing that.' But, no, that's the song - I can't turn it into a song about chicks and cars."

   "'40 Grand in the Hole' is a song about drug and tax debts. I didn't want to sing that!" he added. "But it is what it is. People connect with the honesty. That's really my job. It's not to do some sort of watered-down version of something like that. Sometimes you've got to sing the stuff that you don't want to say. You have to be vulnerable."

   So, here is Mike Doughty today. The band is behind him. The barriers between him and the world have been broken down. And real life is only just beginning. 2005 will see the release of his long-awaited sophomore album, while 2004 sees the full-scale release of his work to date as Skittish/Rockity Roll, supplemented with outtakes, live songs and non-album tracks. The spotlight that hits him today may not shine quite so brightly, but when it does hit, it warms instead of burns. It's exactly where he wants to be.

   "In Soul Coughing, there was always the question of whether or not I was the songwriter, whether the song was more important than the playing," Doughty reflects. "Even stuff that I really loved, songs that I wrote in a very traditional way and brought to the band, I didn't really feel a sense of ownership towards. So just to make something and wholeheartedly own it as a writer, as a performer, as a singer -- that is incredible."

   Hear for yourself just how incredible it is.