Singer Mike Doughty led the group Soul Coughing in the '90s with hits like "Super Bon Bon" and "Circles," and then went solo with songs "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well" and "Busting Up a Starbucks," among others.
He wrote a book about his addiction to heroin called Book of Drugs that was released this past January.
His latest album uses tunes from John Denver and he brings it our neck of the woods at the City Winery. He talked with Windy City Times about Ani DiFranco and how the word "tranny" didn't go well for him.
Windy City Times: Hi, Mike. You are a New Yorker?
Mike Doughty: Yes I am, ever since I was a 19-year-old with an acoustic guitar and a shitty haircut.
WCT: Did you want to be a musician your whole life?
Mike Doughty: Yeah; when I was a kidlong before I discovered drugsit was the thing that made me feel good. I was haunted by the need to make music. I thought it was impossible. I was the guy that was working his ass off to become a rock star but you would never have believed I would become one.
WCT: Were you good at math in school, like many musicians?
Mike Doughty: No, not at all. I get mad when mathematicians say music is math. Fuck that shit! Music is so much more than math. Math aspires to describe music is the best I will give them.
WCT: You went to class with Ani DiFranco.
Mike Doughty: We took poetry classes from this guy named Sekou Sundiata, who was an African-American poet from the South Bronx. He was just an amazing, inspiring guy. I think her and I and basically any writer that was under his tutelage got utterly galvanized by the way he thought about the work and the life.
WCT: I spoke with her recently and really enjoyed it.
Mike Doughty: She is a true warrior.
WCT: I saw you are a blogger on your website. Do you enjoy it?
Mike Doughty: I'm just one of those suckers that is addicted to it and on his phone every three minutes.
WCT: Do you like how the music business is now?
Mike Doughty: It is great if you already have an audience. I built my career on Warner Brothers' dime. It is not as easy for new artists. If you already have a crowd it is a great time to be making music and putting it out in the world.
WCT: What went into the repetitive style of Soul Coughing?
Mike Doughty: That is just sort of my thing. It comes from hip hop music and house music. I came to New York in 1989 and I was 18 years old. I was into Billy Bragg and The Replacements. By sheer dumb luck, I found myself in this explosion of amazing deep house records and jazz hip-hop. It was an amazing creative energy in terms of picking a phrase and repeating it. That is totally where I caught that from…
WCT: Is it more rewarding to do the solo stuff now?
Mike Doughty: I am actually really disappointed with the Soul Coughing records. It was a democratic band and all of the dudes in it were older than me. They were mad that a 23-year-old came in, and it was a shitty experience. I look back upon it with regrets. It would have sounded a lot more like hip-hop or techno music if I had done it.
WCT: Do you play Soul Coughing music in concert these days?
Mike Doughty: I gave it up after a few years. Maybe I would make more money if I put on the Soul Coughing review. I fought really hard and I have an audience that has been coming to see what I write in my 30s. I am extremely grateful that there is an audience showing up for that stuff.
WCT: I thought you were older since you are referencing artists from the '70s.
Mike Doughty: John Denver I was listening to when I was 3 years old. I have memories of being in the back of a massive 1973 Oldsmobile with an old box tape recorder that you find at libraries pressed against my ear with John Denver's greatest hits playing.
WCT: I used to record things off the radio with those old tape recorders.
Mike Doughty: Right. You would hold them up to the speaker?
WCT: Exactly. You picked songs from that era with "Send In the Clowns." Have you written any songs about the LGBT crowd ever?
Mike Doughty: I was busted one time for using "tranny" in a song. I had no idea it was a negative term because friends of mine who did drag used the term all the time in front of me. I got so much shit for it that I changed the word to transphobe in the song. It is describing a scene on the street. It was originally "a weeping tranny is cradling a steak knife" now it's "a weeping transphobe is cradling a steak knife." That is my moment of reckoning.
WCT: You learned a lesson. Will this be your first time at City Winery?
Mike Doughty: The first time at the one in Chicago. There has been one in New York for a few years. The people in New York are just becoming aware that there is a City Winery in Chicago now.
WCT: It is a great space to play.
Mike Doughty: They are doing it right. Michael Dorf, who runs it, was my boss at the Knitting Factory, which is a club in the East Village in the early '90s. I did the door there. The guy [who] used to pay me six bucks an hour to mouth off at jerks coming to see avant-garde jazz music now runs it. It is an amazing room for sound. It has respectful audiences and built for grown ups. I haven't seen the Chicago one but if it's like New York then it will be awesome.
WCT: Will you be signing your book there?
Mike Doughty: If people catch me on the way out but I am just jumping up onstage, playing some songs and getting out of there. I don't read from the book but did it the one tour when it just came out. I'm a songwriter. I play songs.
Mike Doughty plays those songs at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St. on Monday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m. Visit www.citywinery.com/chicago for tickets and www.mikedoughty.com/ for more of magic Mike.