An Interview with Mike Doughty

Kevin Keating
Mike Doughty (Credit: 60 Cycle Media)

Mike Doughty will be playing two nights at the Independent on November 5th and 6th and took some time out of his current US tour schedule to sit down with SFBAC and answer a few of our hard-hitting questions. His new album, 'Yes and Also Yes', was released August 30th to critical acclaim.

Be sure to get tickets while they're still available!

SFBAC: Mike, you’ve performed a number of times in San Francisco, do you have any interesting stories from any of those performances?

Doughty: They're not necessarily performance-based, but they all involve the same venue. I remember an interesting night sniffing heroin with Jeff Buckley in the basement of the Great American. 

Ten years later, in a nearly opposite story, a guy that worked at the Great American came down to the dressing room, and asked if I needed anything. Nah, I'm alright, I said. He said again, But do you "need" anything? He meant drugs. Aha. No, totally good here, man, I said, with a smile. A few years later, I saw the same dude at a 12-step meeting in Brooklyn--and he'd been sober for a couple of years.

In the first days after I quit Soul Coughing, and was feeling really free and grateful, I played the Great American as a solo dude--I was literally driving thousands of miles, absolutely by myself, and selling CDs off the front of the stage post-show. The club had blocked off a massive parking space, right in front of the venue, for a big tour bus. I pulled up in a little silver Mercury Sable and parked in that gigantic space, and got out of the car totally alone, getting my car out of the trunk. It felt super DIY. I was really proud.

SFBAC: Do you have a favorite venue in the Bay Area and is there a venue you haven’t yet played in SF that you would love to?

Doughty: The aforementioned Great American, of course. I love the Independent--and they've been extremely kind to me in the past few years. I'm always awed to play the Fillmore. I've never set foot in the Cow Palace, but it had a legendary aura for me as a kid, because the Sex Pistols played their last gig there--Johnny Rotten famously ending the show with "Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" and stomping offstage. And the weird and mysterious name! I was a big student of musical mythology as a teenager.

SFBAC: Of all the places you've toured in the past, what cities stand out and why?

Doughty: So many places have been amazing, and continue to be amazing. At this point, I know how to get around every major city in America. Where my favorite thing to eat is, where I get coffee. In much of America, even in the giant places, good espresso was in short supply, and in just the past five years has there emerged a fantastic coffee spot in every town. Of course, espresso on the West Coast has always been top-notch. But even in New York it was terrible, for years!

SFBAC: What type/size venues do you prefer to play?

Doughty: It really depends on the show. At this point, I've played all the New York rooms I dreamed of playing as a kid: Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, David Letterman, and CBGB (RIP). All the SF rooms are great. It's more about what form I'm playing in--it'll be a quartet, an actually full band this round, but I'm thinking about doing it ultra solo on the next tour--even sans Andrew "Scrap" Livingston, my usual partner. There's no kvetch or anything, I'm just hungry to revisit that vibe.

SFBAC: Can you describe your writing and recording process?

Doughty: The writing starts with two kinds of fragments. There's verbal fragments that I write down in a notebook, or cull from my journaling, just the gems. Totally separately, I'll mess around with guitar fragments, and record the good riffs. At some point, I'll sit down and combine the two, and try to spin melodies between them.

Recording, for the last couple years, has been slow and fragmented. I'll be in the studio five or ten days in a month, and the process will stretch over more than a year. I rarely do live band recordings. I bring in each individual musician separately, and they'll lay down parts to each song in an intensive collaboration. The process comes from financial necessity, but it's funnily productive. Having a lot of thinking time between sessions is amazing for perspective.

SFBAC: What’s your opinion of the state of the record industry and how has the evolution of the industry over the past 20 years impacted you the most?

Doughty: I have an audience. I've had an audience for a bunch of years. So I've been able to play shows all over the place. In that sense, I haven't really been affected negatively. Word of mouth is much more efficient, clearly, given the internet.

I might've been a richer man as a solo artist, were the music industry booming as it used to. I don't really know. I allowed my bandmates in Soul Coughing to split up my songs' copyrights, so that lost me a lot of money. They largely controlled the business end, and, in my opinion, as a business we were woefully inefficient, unwise, and wasteful, and utterly fucked ourselves economically. If I had the brain I have now, and the recording industry was in the shape it was in, then, there might've been more money coming in. But I just don't know.

SFBAC: Can you describe what you feel has been your biggest ‘break’ so far?

Doughty: I don't think that, for a left-of-center artist, there are big breaks. There are many, many small breaks. Individual listeners find their way to the music via a friend, a blog, a performance on a talk show, the radio, and four dozen different other ways.

SFBAC: Do you think emerging artists of today have the staying power and longevity of artists who emerged prior to Napster and iTunes?

Doughty: Musically, yes, absolutely. But careers are more difficult, because there aren't labels with the cash to cover a new artist's touring. There's years of slogging around the country before you can really be a working artisan, and oh boy is that expensive. Not for Warner Bros., but expensive for a struggling musician. There's lots of great singers and songwriters, many I know personally, that may always need a day job, and that's a shame. The culture needs them.

SFBAC: What are you currently listening to?

Doughty: I love all the Sublime Frequencies radio collages. I just soak them up. Lately, their albums that I've been inexorably drawn to is Arabic-language music. So fascinating. Bon Iver is incredible. So is Jose Gonzales.  There's almost always a Max-Martin-written pop song I'm obsessed with, and of late it's Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream".

SFBAC: Who have you been influenced by most?

Doughty: I think I really puzzled together my sound from Billy Bragg and A Tribe Called Quest.

SFBAC: Thanks for your time and looking forward to the show!

Doughty: Thank you! Me too. Until then.

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