When singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Doughty left Soul Coughing, the band he formed through sweat, drugs and willpower, the group was at the peak of its popularity.
“Circles,” a pleasantly poppy track from the band’s third album El Oso, was getting mainstream radio play, and the band had experienced some major touring successes, including opening for the Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden.
But behind the facade of success, Doughty was seething. Struggles with his bandmates over songwriting rights and other clashes became a force that pushed him into deep and heavy drug use, withering his doughy frame to a mere 135 pounds. He quit the band, got clean and embarked on a solo career.
Doughty has always been reticent to talk with journalists about his time in Soul Coughing, but that has changed now that he has written a memoir, The Book of Drugs, part of which details his side of the Soul Coughing story, cataloguing everything from petty slights to crass manipulations he suffered at the hands of his gifted yet clearly jealous bandmates. The rest of the book details his life from his military upbringing to his career as a solo artist, with drugs, sex and world travel in between.
On his current tour, which stops at the Fox Theatre on Sunday, April 1, Doughty will read from The Book of Drugs and perform some songs on acoustic guitar. He will also, for the first time, take audience questions about his former band.
Soul Coughing is now remembered as a quirky ’90s funky alt-rock band with a weird poet/singer and killer bass player. The music has an experimental feel to it, raw guitar parts strummed over urgent and driven acoustic bass lines and funky drum parts topped off with eerie-sounding samples and Doughty’s rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness poetry.
“The Soul Coughing thing was an abusive marriage, essentially,” Doughty says. “A dark, emotionally violent, toxic situation.”
The Book of Drugs details just how toxic that situation was. When Doughty met his bandmates though jam circles at famed NYC venue Knitting Factory, he was in his early 20s, and the other members of his band — sampler player Mark De Gli Antoni, upright bass player Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay — were a decade older and far more established as musicians. Doughty says whatever musical chemistry the quartet had as a group, the members never meshed well with each other off stage.
However you classify the relationship between Doughty and the rest of the band, they weren’t friends.
“And ‘co-workers’ is putting it politely, I think,” Doughty says. “They were in their 30s, and I was 22 when we played our first gig. And you know, they mostly didn’t care. It was sort of the hardscrabble days of the old East Village, and everybody who played an instrument was playing in like 30 bands, just to afford the rent and a slice of pizza every other day. So you know for them, I was 30 bucks on a Tuesday night.”
Things changed when the band got a record deal.
“I always wanted to share something with them,” Doughty says. “I felt like everybody should own a piece of the band and a piece of the songs, the majority of which they didn’t write. I wrote a lot of those songs before I met those guys. But they wanted something absolutely equal. They had this tremendous spite for me that just looks pathological to me from this vantage. But they essentially told me, you’re not particularly important to this band. You’re a guy, and you’re not really very good, and you got lucky and you’re with us. Some of it was a hustle, and some of it was just straight-up creepy delusion.”
Doughty goes into greater detail in Drugs about how his bandmates treated him. The history still rubs him the wrong way, as evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t refer to his Soul Coughing bandmates by name, only as “the bass player” or “the drummer.”
Some of it is typical band stuff, clashing egos and conflicts over songwriting royalties, and some of it is some pretty dark stuff, such as when his band members proposed crediting their names without saying who played what instrument — so that, in Doughty’s words, people would look at the CD and “not know which name was the singer’s.” It pushed him into a “constant state of shivering rage,” Doughty writes of the move.
To an outsider, leaving a group that was that well-established and well-regarded as Soul Coughing might seem like a tortuous one, but for Doughty it was liberating.
“I felt this tremendous freedom and artistic satisfaction I had never felt before because I was my own man, and I finally felt like an artist, at last,” Doughty says.
There was inevitable backlash. Soul Coughing fans called him out for not sticking it out with the group, and they reviled the new direction his music took, which Doughty calls a “musical 180” from his Soul Coughing stuff.
Old fans were nonplussed, but a copy of his first solo album, Skittish, made it onto Napster and was pirated incessantly, birthing a small audience for his solo work. That small audience blossomed into a larger one that supported his solo work, to the point where he now makes more money as a solo artist than he did while in Soul Coughing. He’s about six solo albums in, and at his shows, he says, people have gradually stopped requesting Soul Coughing songs (which he says felt like a giant “fuck you”) and started yelling out his solo stuff.
“It took me a long time to have an audience that really is listening to the solo songs. And it makes me so happy, having spent so long where people will yell out ‘Super Bon Bon,’ [from Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss] and me having to tell them that I don’t play Soul Coughing songs,” Doughty says.
“I look at what I’m doing and I am just happy with it in a way I was never happy with the music I made during the ’90s,” he says. “And it’s very strange to sort of have this albatross of a history of music that I just dislike, just straight-up do not like.”