And the award for Rock Musician Least Likely to Become a Nostalgia Act goes to…Mike Doughty. The former Soul Coughing frontman doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs. Ever. His new memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” is a literary middle finger to the artist’s salad days. It puts the mental in unsentimental. It screams goodbye to all that — the band, the junk, the tunes, the willful inscrutability. To that last point, Doughty spent 2009 answering audience members’ off-the-wall questions between songs, and has just released a double-live album of recordings from the tour called “The Question Jar Show.” Doughty, 41, answered yet more questions via email.
Q: What’s the relationship between drugs and art as it has played out in your life?
A: I bought the spiel about the romantic connection between drugs and art, for sure. In practice, though, I used drugs to shut down self-loathing, so I could finish songs.
Q: What happened to your songwriting when you got clean?
A: I’m better than I was. The songs have more depth, there’s more of my heart truly in them. I’m able to access a darker part of myself — ironically. I’m working for the music, not trying to justify an inflated, grandiose sense of self — which was fundamentally just trying to feel OK about my existence.
Q: You’ve said that when you were unable to write songs you wrote prayers. Are you a man of faith or were you desperate?
A: People roll their eyes at the spiritual-not-religious spiel, but it’s very true. I was indeed desperate. But I did have a real fire to connect with something larger and deeper, to get out of my self-centeredness. The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he was so into his own looks — it was that he was unable to stop looking at his reflection, and missed out on everything in the universe. I heard a cardinal say, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” Which is incredible to hear from a guy whose entire life has been about his faith.
Q: What do you miss about life with drugs?
A: Buying them. Like, the physical act.
Q: Your bitterness about Soul Coughing seems to have turned you against the songs. Would you erase that part of your life if you could or is there a fatalistic part of you that believes the Soul Coughing experience made you the person and musician you are now?
A: I would like to have my songs back. I’d really like my former bandmates to give me the copyrights — I own just a minority interest in them. What’s truly fucked up is that — I think — they actually believed they wrote the songs as much as I did. Which, in my opinion, is utterly, bizarrely delusional. Some are songs I wrote years before meeting them. Other than the loss of the songs, what I regret is that we were never what we could’ve been. My bandmates, I think, were largely driven by spite — musical decisions were made just to fuck with me. That sounds bizarre, but I really do believe it’s true. So, we had the muscle to take on the Beasties, and Beck, but instead were a footnote, noted for our self-conscious weirdness. It’s really a shame. It’s interesting that you use the word fatalistic in this context. I do think, ultimately, that my happiness today is predicated on the unhappiness in my past. Desperation can be a gift. If I didn’t get to that desperate place, maybe I would’ve found some way to eke out a mediocre life, just being high enough to be functional, just being functional enough to get money to get high.
Q: Do you feel any obligation to the Soul Coughing fans? It seems like that equation becomes more complex over time, when an artist wants to move on and an audience wants the back catalogue.
A: I don’t feel an obligation to the Soul Coughing fan, and, in fact, with empathy and respect, say, Listen, I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to play those songs — perhaps not coming to my show is a better idea. When people yell out song titles, I’ll say, “Super Bon Bon–nope, I won’t be playing that.” If you address them directly, they hear you. I have a career because my first acoustic album, Skittish, which was rejected by Warner Bros., got out onto Napster, and there were people at the shows who wanted to hear those songs. It was really a gift from the cosmos. Beyond that, I’ve just had to work hard to be centered in the songs. Personally, I like to see an artist alive in her or his art, as opposed to just aping the old stuff. I wonder sometimes if I could make more money putting together a Soul Coughing nostalgia act — but, ultimately, it’d just be a well-paid, shitty job. I’ve worked hard to find an audience. I’m so, so grateful for the people that love the solo songs.