The Mike Doughty Interview: Yes, No, Yes, And Also Yes
Words and rhythm; rhythm and words. Mike Doughty is a master of crafting those elements into one experience. Whether it be leading a full band, in a duo situation with funky cello/upright bass genius Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, or just holding down the stage with an acoustic guitar, Doughty has a knack for combining infectious, clever lyrics with vibes and beats that will ambush you. This is the kind of music that’ll make one end of you think while the other end can’t help but sway. This man is not to be trusted: he will hook you.
On the heels of Doughty’s latest album, Yes And Also Yes (released on his own Snack Bar label) comes a new literary project. The Book Of Drugs: A Memoir (to be released by Da Capo Press in February) is not only an open look by Doughty at his past addiction problems, but a smart, funny, and honest view of the late 80s/early 90s NY music scene, Doughty’s years with the band Soul Coughing, and what it was like to reach the other side of a very dark place.
Don’t for a moment think that Mike Doughty has written your typical I-got-clean-and-now-I’m-above-all-that sort of book. We’ll talk about that in the following interview, but just to set things up, I think we’re, oh, four paragraphs into Doughty’s memoir when he writes, “I can’t renounce drugs. I love drugs.” This is not the average “Just say no” book, folks – but at the same time, it doesn’t encourage anything but honesty.
Mike was kind enough to share a slab of his time with us recently, talking about his music in general, some specifics about Yes And Also Yes, and The Book Of Drugs. Enjoy.
BR: Mike, thank you for making the time to talk today. Let’s see … according to the tour itinerary, you’re in … Utah?
MD: Yeah, well – we’re driving to Salt Lake City right now. We were in Denver last night and there was a snowstorm – the roads were shut down in Cheyenne, so we just parked the bus there for a bunch of hours and waited. We were 90% sure we were going to have to cancel the show, but they just opened the roads back up. It looks like we’re going to make it.
BR: You going to have time for a soundcheck?
MD: Nope – just throw and go.
BR: Well … that’s the road, right?
MD: Yes, it is. (laughter)
BR: Listen, one thing I wanted to say to you right off the bat is that you’ve always tended to play down your guitar work in interviews over the years. I have to tell you I think you’re one of the great six-string percussionists out there.
MD: (laughs) Well, cool – thank you very much. You know, I went to school with Ani DiFranco and when we were both 19 years old, she was in peak form … and I was like, just fumbling around. So I stole a lot from her – (laughter) – that kind of percussiveness.
I remember hearing Ani at the dorm room talent show: while I was playing something stupid, she played “Fire Door” and it was incredible. Seeing her was the thing that made me say to myself, “I want to get good at this.”
BR: I hear you. My oldest daughter Jess started playing guitar in her early teens. Once she got into Ani’s music, her playing was never the same – in the best of ways.
MD: That’s awesome. Yeah, Ani’s amazing.
BR: So just a couple gear questions for all the pickers out there: do you have a favorite go-to acoustic? And what do you use for strings and picks?
MD: I basically use the second-cheapest Martin. My approach to a lot of stuff is to get the second-cheapest thing. (laughs) It’s just a Martin cutaway acoustic-electric.
I use Elixir strings and they gave me an endorsement, which I’m extremely happy about. If I don’t change my strings literally every show, I end up popping them. One of the odd technical boundaries of my playing is that I’ve developed my acoustic style around bright strings – they can’t be dull at all. The Elixirs stay bright throughout the show. And I just use regular Fender picks.
BR: Wow – plastic? I pegged you for a nylon kind of guy. I figured you’d bust the plastic ones in half.
MD: (laughs) Nope. It’s funny – I break strings, but I rarely break picks.
BR: Where so many of your tunes have such a strong groove, I’ve long thought – in terms of writing – that the guitar riff had to come first. “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well”; “Day By Day By”; “I Keep On Rising Up” – songs like that feel as though they had to be built around the guitar. How does it work for you?
MD: Well, there are sort of parallel processes going on: there’s a riffs-writing process; there’s the collecting of language around places –and the cataloguing of those fragmented phrases and things; and then there’s melody writing, which is sort of between the two. At some point, I’ll just sit down like a screen writer does with a whole bunch of index cards to assemble a screenplay: I’ll take a lyric and put it on top of a riff; shove them around a little bit. Sometimes the riff will sort of suggest a word; sometimes the word will suggest a melody.
BR: Take a song like “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)”, for instance. Margaret Vaughan, one of my English teachers in high school, might have used that phrase in conversation, but you made it funky. (laughter) I’m guessing that would’ve been one of the fragmented phrases you were hanging onto.
MD: Yeah, I guess. I used to keep a notebook; now it’s all on my iPhone. I might write something down on the train; later on, I never know if it’s something I thought up on the spur of the moment, if it’s something that I heard someone say, or if I read it out of a newspaper or something. It’s just a matter of listening and pulling fragments from the world.
BR: Do you play Scrabble?
MD: No – I’m horrible at Scrabble. (laughs) People ask me that all the time. You know I did a photo session with Relix and the guy brought a Scrabble board. They said, “Oh, you’re a word addict.” And I’m like, “Okay – I’m not going to do the Scrabble board.” (laughter) I don’t understand games in general … it’s very strange. I’d rather hang out.
BR: One of the elements that’s become part of your sound is Andrew “Scrap” Livingston’s upright bass and cello playing. Scrap’s been with you since … 2005?
MD: Yeah – his first gig with me was on David Letterman.
BR: Ha – a good trial by fire. (laughter) He’s doing some cool electric work on Yes And Also Yes, as well.
MD: That’s right. A huge part of the sound on the new record is him playing stuff high on the neck of the bass with a pick; sort of a Cocteau Twins/The Cure/New Order kind of 80s stuff. I asked him about playing that sort of thing – and he wrote a bunch of stuff. “Strike The Motion” and “Vegetable” are his; just amazing lines.
BR: Do you ever hear him in your head when you’re coming up with riffs? You know, “Yeah, and while I’m doing this, Scrap could go …”
MD: That’s a funny question. In almost every scenario I kind of not tell people what to do. It really sort of bothers me when I’m with someone and they ask stuff before we start playing the song. You want somebody that just does what they do; they just jump right in and make something happen. I like being surprised. I tell people, “If you do something that’s the wrong direction, I’ll tell you. Other than that, just do stuff that compels you.”
I’m actually in the middle of writing this long-form theater piece that I was commissioned to write. And I realized that I’m writing something that will be a score; someone will play these exact notes – that’s something I have never, ever done before. I’ve sung bass lines to people or whatever, but I always try to get people to play things that interest them and reflect who they are.