Features, Print September 18, 2019

Mike Doughty: Escape and Return to Ruby Vroom

by Dan England

Mike Doughty knew he wouldn’t be able to shed his association with Soul Coughing, so the only thing he chose to keep from his old band was the approach to music.

Doughty was a doorman at The Knitting Factory, a gathering place for the hot avant-garde New York City jazz players at the time, and though he didn’t have any jazz training himself — or any musical training at all, really — the improvisational vibe seeped into his, well, soul.

Soul Coughing was formed on the idea that compositions were fluid, not songs to be played in their recorded forms to-the-note, like a jukebox. When they played live, they would play with the songs as well, something Doughty called structural improvisation. He would solo a bit, but the jazz vibe came from, say, playing a section softer than normal, or telling the drums to sit out in the beginning.

“You reinterpreted it,” Doughty said in an interview for BandWagon. “That’s what I grew up trying to emulate. I don’t want to say it was jazz, but it had the mindset of it.”

The songs were still recognizable, as they are today during his solo performances, but they were much different than the recording. In fact, Doughty said when he records an album, he loves it for two months and never plays it again, preferring to allow the current stage version to be THE version. He played Soul Coughing songs for years the same way, in different styles that help him leave the ugly past behind.

In 2012, Doughty wrote The Book of Drugs, a memoir that referred to his time with Soul Coughing as a “dark, abusive marriage.” It’s no coincidence that he freed himself from his addiction to painkillers, heroin and alcohol the same year he broke up Soul Coughing. That was in 2000, and he’s remained clean for 19 years. 

Doughty was willing to go through a humbling five-year period of touring in a rental car, playing acoustic sets and selling his own record Skittish on CDs in plain white sleeves, just so he could establish his own career and keep away from Soul Coughing.

His big escape from the Soul Coughing shadow happened when Dave Matthews, a fan, released Doughty’s album on his own ATO label. This returned Doughty’s music to the mainstream. His singles were used on TV shows, and he landed an appearance on David Letterman.

He has since enjoyed a prolific career and was actively working on an album at press time in August, of raw, rough and super-funky dub-step. It’s a departure, he admits, but a beautiful one. No release date is set, though this kind of forward-facing momentum is Doughty’s mode of operations.

And yet, he isn’t afraid to look to the past. His current tour honors the 25th anniversary of Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing’s debut album that established Doughty as a crazy slam-poet/jam-band cat, with ad-libs on two songs, including one by his ex-girlfriend from a payphone into an answering machine, toy xylophones, a train whistle and vintage keyboards.

The music still matters, he says, and because of that, he’s able to get beyond the emotional attachments contained in the songs. Ruby Vroom’s revival is also in part because he now values human connections more than ever, calling them the key to his sobriety.

“Soul Coughing was a very disconnected environment,” Doughty said. “It’s no wonder I had a desire to feel a connection.”

For this tour, he broke his own rule and listened to Ruby Vroom for the first time in decades to use it as a reference and honor the recording, which, after all, was part of the point of this tour. When he plays it in its entirety, it’s probably closer to the original form than he would normally allow.

“I just enjoy hearing live music that feels engaged, with the people on stage finding things to be fascinated with,” he said. “A lot of what people are doing when they reproduce stuff is going for the energy of the crowd. And that’s fine – the theory is that’s what unites them. But that’s not what I prefer as a listener.”

He’s comfortable with himself now, as a solo artist and not just the former lead singer of Soul Coughing, even though he knows that’s still how he’ll be remembered by most people. Not all, however.

“It’s really funny when people don’t know me from Soul Coughing, but it does happen,” he said. “The first few years (of his solo career) a lot of people got really angry at me for not wanting anything to do with Soul Coughing. Now they want to hear my solo stuff. It’s good to live in a state of flux.”

Mike Doughty plays Ruby Vroom in full at Washington’s in Fort Collins Saturday, October 5. The Ruby Vroom 25th anniversary tour hits October 4 in Colorado Springs and October 6 a the Belly Up in Aspen as well.