Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty On His New EP Ghost Of Vroom 2
Mike Doughty may have left Soul Coughing two decades ago, but Soul Coughing never really left him. On his brand-new EP with bassist and longtime collaborator Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, Doughty has purposefully sought to revive his alt-jazz-rock project, which was famously born out of the ‘90s underground jazz scene in New York and resulted in three genre-defying LPs: Ruby Vroom (1994), Irresistible Bliss (1996), and El Oso (1998).
Though Doughty has spent part of the last decade distancing himself from Soul Coughing as a solo artist, he’s intentionally leaning back into the past on the three-track Ghost Of Vroom 2, which showcases the same brand of offbeat, not-quite-this and not-quite-that arrangements — and, of course, Doughty’s famous tongue-in-cheek rhymes. “Don’t touch the box/ Don’t touch the shelf/ Don’t touch the people/ Don’t touch yourself,” he deadpans on the EP’s lead single, “Rona Pollona,” a freewheeling, casual jaunt that stands in direct contradiction to its pandemic-minded lyrics (“Do the Rona Pollona … You’ll never know if you’re doing it right,” Doughty reminds you in the chorus).
Finding the humor in a global pandemic might sound like a tricky tightrope to walk, but subverting expectations has always been Doughty’s style, more or less. “I want to do what nobody else is doing,” he says.
In our conversation below, Doughty expands on how Ghost Of Vroom 2 was originally meant to be a Soul Coughing follow-up to their 1994 debut, connecting with Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato for Ghost Of Vroom 2, and what he learned from hanging with avant-garde maestro John Zorn at the original Knitting Factory.
STEREOGUM: How is life right now?
MIKE DOUGHTY: I’m an isolator by nature, so it is actually going rather well. I do this Patreon thing [where I release] a new song a week. Basically, I can get up every day and just work on songs for Patreon all day. Congratulations, you’re the one commitment I have this week.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I know you’ve been doing Patreon for a while! And you’ve written hundreds of songs as a result, right?
DOUGHTY: Yeah. I’m productive with it generally. It’s a shitload of songs. It’s been 260 songs over three years or however long it’s been. I’ve been playing online shows for a couple of years. A lot of the stuff that artists are struggling with [right now], I just have been doing for a while.
STEREOGUM: So with this three-song EP with Scrap Livingston, was the thinking that Ghost Of Vroom 2 would be a totally separate project, independent of what you’ve written for Patreon?
DOUGHTY: Yeah. It’s a band, Ghost Of Vroom, and this is our second release, though the first release hasn’t come out yet.
We did an album with Mario Caldato a year ago. It was supposed to come out now, basically. Obviously that was put off. The manager called and was like, “Please, can we wait until you can play shows again?” Fine, I’ll wait. In the meantime, having this super productive time writing, I wrote three songs. It was of the moment. I called him and I was like, “Look, you’re going to have to help me put out an EP even though you asked me specifically not to put anything out.” Hence, Ghost Of Vroom 2 is coming out before Ghost Of Vroom 1.
STEREOGUM: So how did Ghost Of Vroom — the band, that is — actually come together?
DOUGHTY: The short version of the story is, I started writing Soul Coughing music again. I called up Soul Coughing and said, “Do you want to do this?” I got back a hot plate of crazy.
I was like, “Well, thanks, guys.” Then I went and just made the album, and Mario Caldato is of that time period, like the Beasties, everything. Their whole universe was my everything, and working with him was incredible. There’s a bunch of threads. I’m just writing a lot because of the Patreon thing. I moved to Memphis. I moved so I could have a studio bunker situation and just work all day.
Do you remember a CD called Classic Beats And Breaks? It’s totally illegal. It’s taken off the market. Who’s the Rap-A-Lot guy? Is it Scarface? It’s Scarface. He put out all the great break beats on one CD, totally against the law. I was wondering what happened to it. Then I found it on YouTube, and did the YouTube-to-MP3 convert and started writing around that.
The other thing was, I got GarageBand on my phone, and I went through their bass sounds, and none of them really sounded good except for the upright bass. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to do upright bass lines.” I was just like, “Well, this is the good bass of all the presets.” I was writing upright bass lines again, so break beats, upright bass lines.
Then I did a tour where I had a sampler. The Soul Coughing style was a sampler on stage that played a keyboard/sound effects thing, not looped stuff that sequenced, but you’re mashing the keys and playing it live. I started doing that again. I started working with rappers and got very envious of them. There’s a label in Memphis called Unapologetic. They’re great. The guy, IMAKEMADBEATS, is the masked label head/producer. I started writing with A Weirdo From Memphis and Pro, who’s another rapper on that label, and I just got really envious of them. I started writing raps, I guess. I wouldn’t call myself a rapper, because there’s a lot of Bob Dylan in there, and a lot of Tom Waits in there.
STEREOGUM: True, but you have a definite cadence to your vocal style.
DOUGHTY: Yeah, I came to New York when I was 18, in 1989, middle of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul. That completely changed my life. I didn’t know how to do it, and all I had was an acoustic guitar, so I ended up with this extremely imperfect version of it — which, as it turned out, was a total blessing, because I invented this thing for myself that only I sound like.
STEREOGUM: You’re in good company. Remember the actor Rex Harrison of My Fair Lady and Dr. Dolittle? He couldn’t sing. But he instead developed this sing-speaking style that became like his trademark.
DOUGHTY: Fucking Fred Schneider vibes in the ’40s.
I still can’t freestyle. Literally, [IMAKEMADBEATS and A Weirdo] would come over, and I’d put up a beat, and they would each go on for 20 minutes. That’s an incredible amount of material. I can’t do that. It takes me literally eight hours to write 16 bars, approximately. I just wrote a fucking Soul Coughing album. That’s not what this is.
STEREOGUM: I’m actually really interested in your overall relationship to Soul Coughing. In interviews that took place in 2013 or so, you seem to be trying to distance yourself to the band. How would you say that your relationship to Soul Coughing has changed in the last seven years?
DOUGHTY: I went deep into the singer-songwriter world for 15 years. Really, the only way for me to not be a professional world’s number one Soul Coughing cover band was to be really harsh and rejecting that material. There’s a bunch of trauma associated with it. The band relationship is just so loopy. I’ve talked to people in the loopiest bands, and they’re always like, “Wow, you guys were really fucked up, weren’t you?”
STEREOGUM: There’s such a spectrum of band fucked-upness. It’s all relative, isn’t it?
DOUGHTY: I know, I know. We’re on the far left of the fucked up spectrum, or the right, depending on your [point of view].
Everything right now is super in tune because of Auto-Tune, which I think people use wonderfully. Bon Iver uses it wonderfully. But I wanted something that was out of tune, and I wanted something without those huge cold reverbs on them.
My theory is that that’s the product of widespread MDMA usage. I seriously think just remembering my fucking rave, MDMA days, those reverbs sound amazing when you’re rolling. Yeah. I get into the thing where it’s like, “I want to do what nobody else is doing. What is nobody doing? They’re cold, I’m going to be warm. They’re in tune, I’m going to be out of tune. They’re smooth, I’m going to be chaotic.”
STEREOGUM: Even the name of your EP, The Ghost Of Vroom 2, connects to Soul Coughing verbiage. Why did it feel right to reimagine the word “Vroom” here?
DOUGHTY: The story of the title, Ruby Vroom — there’s an old reggae record called Marcus Garvey. I can’t remember what the band’s name was. I’m not a reggae expert. [Editor’s note: The band is called Burning Spear.]
They put out a dub version called Garvey’s Ghost. We’re in the studio, Sunset, Town Factory, 1994, whenever it was. I was like, “Oh, my God, we could do this album, and we’ll call it Ruby Vroom. Then we’ll do this other album that we call Ghost Of Vroom that’ll be the dub version,” which we never fucking [did].
Really, the title Ruby Vroom came just from the idea of doing an album called Ghost Of Vroom. I could have called the album Ghost Of Vroom. Then I just started thinking about it in the present day. This is the Soul Coughing stuff that was never made. It’s a very specific return to ’94, ’95 Soul Coughing. I’m getting deep, but the way the band sounded at the end of the Ruby Vroom tour, but before we went in with David Kahne to make “Super Bon Bon” and “Lazybones,” all those songs.
STEREOGUM: Was Ruby Vroom originally meant to be called “Ruby Froom,” after Suzanne Vega’s daughter? Did you change it to “Vroom” because Suzanne wasn’t super into the idea?
DOUGHTY: No, no, Suzanne is my homie. We were working with her then-husband, Mitchell Froom. They just had Ruby. It was this whole thing of “Ruby Froom, Ruby Vroom, Ghost Of Vroom.” It’s not really named after her, but yeah, in my own tortured interior syntax, that is where it came from.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned some tension with the other members of the band … When you want to dig back into Soul Coughing material, do the other former band members have any issue with your reimagining that persona?
DOUGHTY: I’ll get some weird volleys from those guys every once in a while, [but] I haven’t heard anything about this. I think everybody, myself included, comes from the old avant-garde jazz Knitting Factory. The John Zorn Knitting Factory.
We all come from a jazz mindset, came from different parts. Keyboard player, Mark [Degli Antoni], is a real composition guy. Sebastian [Steinberg’s] a real player guy, real jazz bands. I’m just a weird poet guy, and into DJ music, and sampling, and that kind of stuff that was being generated as a sidebar out of the Knitting Factory. There’s just a mindset of taking things and making them new. I don’t know. Maybe if I was really, really, really carefully reconstructing things, that might be problematic.
STEREOGUM: When you’ve performed out, to what extent do you reimagine recorded material?
DOUGHTY: All the arrangements are very explicitly different. Something like “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” is a song that I sang to Soul Coughing. I said, “This is the bassline, this is the drums, and this is the way it goes.” That one I feel comfortable using the apparatus of the song.
I had this live remixing system that comes from John Zorn’s “Cobra,” Butch Morris’ Conduction thing, where I teach the band these hand signals. It’s like, “Stop, start, remember the part you’re improvising right now. Go back to the original part from a part you were improvising.” I teach them this.
STEREOGUM: I’m guessing that the Ghost Of Vroom 2 tracks “1918” and “Rona Pallona” are reacting to the pandemic.
DOUGHTY: Absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover art. It’s the two-headed police plague doctor creature. “Rona Pallona” is very funny. If you dig enough, there’s darkness in there, but it’s essentially jokes about coronavirus, whereas “1918” is about a ghost of the plague coming into a protest and killing people, invisibly touching them, and they die later. “Chief Of Police” is about grief and rage. It started when I just wrote the second chorus, “Grieving the hour, grieving the man, grieving the day.” I was like, “How the fuck do I write a funky song with the word grief?”
I don’t mean to be a hippie, but I really believe in that tuning in to whatever, the sound of the spheres, the spiritus mundi kind of a theory of songwriting, which is like you’re trying to coax it into you. You’re trying to receive it and then process it, as opposed to your beautiful brain thinking up all these, whatever, gems of wit and meaning.
STEREOGUM: Right. That sounds plenty spiritual to me.
DOUGHTY: Yeah, it is. I don’t like being that guy.
STEREOGUM: Well, everybody gets there a different way.
DOUGHTY: Everybody gets there a different way. And I think that if you’re an artist and you stay an artist for a really long time, I think you have to get to this point where you don’t feel … You’re 22, and you’re like, “I’m a fucking genius. Listen to the wonders that I have created.” Whereas you grow old and it’s like you’re listening, you’re listening, you’re listening. I guess my goal is to become an art wizard. A Tom Waits, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Meredith Monk.
I guess I made a choice earlier in my life that what I was interested in wasn’t having a family, but really getting very deep into the art head. Everybody I know with a family is losing their mind.
It’s just like, “Holy shit.” Dealing with all these weird feelings that are bouncing around their little houses. All my friends are in Memphis and Texas and Los Angeles. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have kids in New York.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of New York, what stands out to you the most when you think about your early days there working the door at the Knitting Factory on Houston Street?
DOUGHTY: Zorn. Zorn changed everything for me. He was kind to me. I was 20, 21. I didn’t know what the chords were. I didn’t know how to read music. I wasn’t a composition person or a jazz person. All these hardcore guys would take you seriously if you were clearly someone with the spirit and with the interest and the fire for it.
They built the ticket desk way too high [at the Knitting Factory]. They wanted to save money, so the owner built it. It’s just a mess. Super high, just a judge’s fucking bench. It turned into the VIP bar totally inadvertently. It was in the back of the room, and right before you went up to the stage, whatever musician would get a beer and stand there talking to another musician. I ended up listening to these wild conversations. I learned everything about not even music, but what the life was, and how to approach it, and how to live in the spirit of newness, the spirit of experimentation, how to embrace these weird forms.
Within a year, I was doing Zorn’s “Cobra,” which was learning these weird commands. I was like, “I could do that. Let me in on that.” The first time I did “Cobra,” Jeff Buckley was on, which was really odd.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah?
DOUGHTY: Yeah, no, Jeff was my friend back in the day. I have a movie. I have a script to write about it or something. I’m kidding, but yeah. When I did “Cobra,” it was like, “Oh, I’m in this thing. I can do this thing.” That just changed something for me.
[Another time], Irving Stone used to come hang out with me when I was working the door. He was there every time something weird played. He always used to say, “I’m a thrill-seeker.” I thought that was hilarious. He was this ancient guy, and he would come to the ticket booth and catch cigarettes from me. His wife was upstairs and wouldn’t let him smoke, so he’d sneak downstairs, and I’d give him a cigarette, and he’d smoke with me. He’d go on about when Ornette Coleman was his roommate, and all this crazy shit. Yeah, that’s deep. That’s deep.
Ghost Of Vroom 2 is out in September on mod y vi Records. Pre-order it here.