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Mike Doughty Wants To Give Listeners Something ‘Stellar’
Thursday, August 21, 2014

Whether you’re familiar with Mike Doughty from his solo work, his time as the frontman of the 90s band Soul Coughing, or his book, The Book Of Drugs, you’re absolutely sure of one thing, he’s a really interesting dude.

It would be easy for someone who’s experienced everything he’s been through, from the highs and lows of the industry, to the highs and lows of getting high, to have a “been there, done that” attitude towards both music and life, but instead, Doughty continues to write new music, and embrace the experiences each new project brings.

His latest project is Stellar Motel, a distinctly hip-hop inspired album that goes back to Doughty’s roots, and will be released September 16th.

I caught up with Doughty to find out more about his Stellar Motel, and he revealed why even he might not fully understand the content of it until a few years down the road. Doughty also discussed a little NYC music history, and why he has significantly more respect for pop artists than one might expect.

Adam Bernard: Stellar Motel sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. As someone who’s traveled the world, is there such a thing as a stellar motel?

Mike Doughty: There is ... there must be. {laughs} I don’t know. You know what, I think you got me. I don’t think there’s any motel that is legitimately stellar. The meaning (for the album) is it’s a motel in the stars, a galactic motel. Obviously a pun.

Adam Bernard: This is your most hip-hop album in quite some time. What drew you back into the genre?

Mike Doughty: I did this album with a guy named DJ Good Goose, (who’s a) hip-hop producer, and I basically collaborated with him, and sort of followed his moves, and that was the rabbit hole he led me down.

Adam Bernard: How’d you originally link up with him?

Mike Doughty: I did some stuff with a hip-hop band called Handjob Academy and they knew him, they had done work with him, and he was a fan. He was a huge fan of Haughty Melodic, which is my super kind of pop sounding acoustic-y solo album, which was really bizarre, so I thought if he’s a fan of that, and he’s a hip-hop producer, he’s gotta be interesting, so we got together, and we talked, and it was like, man, I need to do stuff with this guy.

Adam Bernard: What was going on in your life that inspired the lyrical content of Stellar Motel?

Mike Doughty: It’s really difficult for me to pinpoint what lyrics are about until three or four years after I write them. You try and write this stuff as presently as you possibly can. You try and get it out without examining it too much. What that means is the most meaningful stuff tends to be obscure until it’s been performed a hundred times, two hundred times, and then there will be a eureka moment.

Adam Bernard: Do you remember one of your first eureka moments?

Mike Doughty: I knew that Haughty Melodic was about drugs, but it took me a long time to realize that the love songs were songs sung to drugs. There was certainly a lot of journaling about drugs when I wrote the songs, but the extent to which it was addressed to drugs as if it were a love song to drugs, that took me a long time to find out.

Adam Bernard: Does a revelation like that change how you feel about those songs?

Mike Doughty: No. The experience of the song is very different than the experience of the experience, so to speak. Certainly there are nuances that are added to it as the song reveals itself, but I don't think I’ve ever had a song that I really suddenly looked at and was like, “Oh my God, this isn’t something I want to sing about.”

Adam Bernard: You’re about to go on a tour that will start September 6th, and take you all the way through November 29th. I notice your NYC tour date is at City Winery, but I also know that you used to spend a considerable amount of time at the old Knitting Factory on Leonard.

Mike Doughty: I was at the East Houston and Mulberry location. The real first place.

Adam Bernard: Wow! Well, if the Knit was still open, and I don’t count the one in Brooklyn, would you want to headline there, or would you not want to revisit that time, even in the much better situation you’re in today?

Mike Doughty: Oh I don’t know. I mean, what was beautiful about the Knitting Factory when it was my home base was the avant guard music that was there, so... I don’t know about a gig, but I certainly would be hanging out.

Adam Bernard: A lot of us look at the city now and see gentrification, and rising rents, taking away a lot of the urban culture it once had. As someone who’s seen both sides of this, is there anything that’s better today than it was back then, or should we maintain our old man stance of, “You shoulda been here twenty years ago?”

Mike Doughty: Well, when I moved here in ’89, I was 18 years old, it was dangerous, and I definitely do not miss that. I was also a skinny kid, so dangerous was a little more pressing than it is now.

Adam Bernard: It was a rough era in the city.

Mike Doughty: (But) there was great music, you could afford to be an artist here, and it was before the Carrie Bradshaw era, which I roll my eyes at.

Adam Bernard: So you and Sex and the City don’t have a very good relationship?

Mike Doughty: Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Who wants to diss a television show? It’s just that was really the point when you began to notice that the people coming to New York were different than they used to be, and had different priorities.

Adam Bernard: You moved to the city at the end of a dangerous era, your book documented your dangerous lifestyle, is any part of your surprised that you’re alive today?

Mike Doughty: No. I mean, I’m surprised that I did not realize how stupid some of the things I was doing were back then, but generally I feel a lot more fortunate than surprised.

Adam Bernard: I like that word much better. Moving back to your upcoming tour, what qualifies as an enjoyable night on the road for you today?

Mike Doughty: Just a great show, a warm audience, a feeling of communal mind with the audience during the show, good people to work with, good space. I’m all about the shows. I’m all about the sensations of the room during the show.

Adam Bernard: Do you have a favorite moment from a show, or a favorite fan interaction from the past handful of years?

Mike Doughty: Oh gosh. Those are notoriously hard to come up with on the spur of the moment. If I come up with one before the end of the interview I'll blurt it out.

Adam Bernard: Fair enough. Switching gears a bit, back in the day you had a lot of MTV, and radio, airplay. Is that something you still desire, or, having seen what it can bring about, do you find more happiness in writing, recording, and touring?

Mike Doughty: Making records and touring is the heart of my life, and has been as long as I’ve been an adult, but certainly I would welcome any mainstream success that would come along as long as I was proud of the music I was making. If I feel like I’m saying what I mean to say, and making what I mean to make, and it were to translate to a larger audience, I’m into that.

The thing about that sort of stuff is it’s hard to fake. It’s harder to fake than you might think it is. It’s more complicated to make something specifically to be popular than you might think it is. I’m just hoping that I can do what I do, and continue to eat food, wear clothes, that kind of thing.

Adam Bernard: It’s interesting to hear you say how difficult it is to target fame, because we hear a lot of critics say, “It’s on the pop chart, it’s just bullshit, it was made for radio,” and you’re saying that’s not the easiest thing to do.

Mike Doughty: I think most of the stuff is a genuine statement. I think most people making pop records mean what they say, and love what they do. I don’t think a chef can taste a soup and be like, “I hate this, but I think somebody else will like it.”

It’s hard to be an artist without following your bliss.

Adam Bernard: Staying on the topic of pop radio, what’s the most embarrassing thing you might be caught singing along to?

Mike Doughty: I try really hard not to be embarrassed by anything. I love John Denver. I love Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” “Only Girl In The World” by Rihanna, these are all a couple of years old. I love “Dark Horse.” Generally anything that comes from Max Martin is amazing. “Wrecking Ball” is amazing, although that might be more Dr. Luke than Max Martin, but I digress.

It seems like my listening habits are either pop, or extremely avant guard, like Gyorgy Ligety, or tape loop music.

Adam Bernard: You could make some really odd mix tapes for girls with that combination.

Mike Doughty: Indeed. The right kind of girl would respond to it.

Adam Bernard: Now that our time is almost up, have you come up with a tour moment, or fan interaction, that was especially memorable?

Mike Doughty: You know, when it’s a good show you don’t really remember it when it’s over. What is important to me is that feeling of the collective mind, and that sort of presence that everyone is sharing. Plenty of times you look out in the darkness and you feel that feeling, but I don’t know if I can pick one out of the bunch and present it as better than the others.

Adam Bernard: No one’s come up to you and been like, “I named my kid after you!”

Mike Doughty: {laughs} That happens all the time, actually. A lot of kids are named Madeline. I have to say I’ve done quite a bit of legwork for the name Madeline in American culture.

Adam Bernard: So if it shows up in a baby name book it should really have an asterisk next to it with your name associated with it.

Mike Doughty: Maybe. Somebody just sent me a picture of their wedding cake which had a lyric from “Your Misfortune” spelled out in icing, which was super cool. It was sent to me by a friend of mine, (and) I was totally blindsided by it. I’m not that popular, I just have people that are very very intensely engaged with the songs, so there are a lot of people like that, who have that super intense relationship with a song, or a lyric, but obviously it’s not mass culture.

Adam Bernard: It may not be mass culture, but didn’t you recently have a kick ass PledgeMusic campaign?

Mike Doughty: Yeah, my second one, and it’s bread and butter if you have an intense audience already. It’s great. It’s excellent living in the future.

Adam Bernard: Was there any one backer reward where you were like, “Four billion people wanted that, and I’m kind of surprised?”

Mike Doughty: I did this thing where I’m typing out lyrics on an old IBM electric typewriter from the early 80s. Many many people wanted that, and it was surprising to me. I didn’t think it would be a huge hit like it is.

Adam Bernard: So basically after your interview days you have to get on a typewriter and go through a whole bunch of songs.

Mike Doughty: Pretty much. It’s fun typing on a typewriter, so I’m actually kind of stoked to do it. It’s fun feeling the carriage of the typewriter under your wrists.

Adam Bernard: How long did it take to get used to not seeing little red lines under misspelled words?

Mike Doughty: A long time, brother. A long time. It’s weird. It’s hard because you expect it, and the inability to backspace, and fix your typos, is really peculiar.

Adam Bernard: Have you gone through some whiteout?

Mike Doughty: I’m using colored pages, so, sadly, whiteout is not in the program. I figure that the typos are part of the art.

Interview originally ran on Arena.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 2:21 PM  
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