There's no easy way to explain why Soul Coughing was as popular as it was. Its rhythm section played a remarkably supple mix of jazz, hip-hop, and drum-and-bass. Its lead instrument was a sampler. And singer-guitarist M. Doughty made David Byrne sound like Pavarotti. The members of Soul Coughing not long ago amicably parted ways, but the unique stylistic mix they created is already missed. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Doughty about everything imaginable.
The Onion: So, what's this about Soul Coughing breaking up?
M. Doughty: [Feigns shock.] Oh, it's a lie! [Laughs.] Yeah, well, we broke up. [Bawls.]
O: I take it this was a group decision.
MD: Yeah, totally. Basically, Mark [de gli Antoni, sampler player] had a kid, and it kind of got to the point where he was like, "Dude, I've got this kid." Yeah, that'll look good in print. [Laughs.] "Dude, I've got this kid!" So I think he wanted to do the family thing, do the right thing, and we really couldn't continue without him. There you have it. That and the psychological torture of Ricky Martin every day of the week.
O: Too much competition?
MD: Too much fucking competition. Well, no, because he ripped off that song from us.
O: What, "Shake Your Bon-Bon"? I guess he did, didn't he? [Soul Coughing had a minor hit with "Super Bon Bon." —ed.]
MD: [Laughs.] I was just in Miami and I stopped by his restaurant, Casa Salsa, lamely named restaurant that it is. And I was like, "Is Ricky around? He owes me a little money. Tell him Doughty stopped by."
O: I'm sure that if you wrote him a nice letter explaining the situation, he'd just send you a check.
MD: That… no, well, no. You've got highly paid business professionals going, "Nope, not a chance." Really, he's got nothing to do with it. It's all Desmond Child, author of "The Flame." [Child has written many terrible songs, including many for Martin, but not "The Flame." —ed.]
O: It's all these high-paid songwriters. If you locked Ricky Martin in a room with a guitar, he couldn't come up with a hit song.
MD: I don't really think that's a bad thing. But, really, Billie Holiday didn't write her own material. There's a lot to be said for letting songwriters be songwriters and singers be singers. Not that I'm heading for a career change or anything, but you see all these singers who kind of get to the end of their rope and just keep trying to write songs. Really, musicians would probably make amazing A&R people, because they listen to all kinds of shit. They can just toss it around and take out a few songs, you know? That's the way it used to be done.
O: But when you give too much credence to the notion of the singer as interpreter, you end up with things like Madonna's "American Pie."
MD: But you also get things like her version of "Ray Of Light," which she didn't write. It's some early-'70s thing. She changed around the words a little, so she has a lyric credit, and William Ørbit's got a credit. But it's a cover. Madonna's got taste.
O: Were you surprised that Soul Coughing became as successful as it did? You were one of the stranger groups on the radio.
MD: Totally. I mean, definitely, we're all about catchy. At the end of the day, though, I'm in the art camp because of my voice and my glasses. But, really, I was trying to make a Mary J. Blige record, and it just went horribly wrong. [Laughs.] "Oh, wait a minute—I'm not a black woman? What do you know?" But it's weird. You don't want to talk about it too much, because you could jinx it and it could go away. I'm just psyched that this [solo] tour is going on, and that people are still willing to pay a couple of bucks to see me. Or at least promoters are willing to speculate that people are willing to pay a couple of bucks to see me.
O: What will you play live?
MD: I've got a couple of new things in there. But it's a lot of the Skittish record, the great lost M. Doughty record. It's a record I made with [producer] Kramer in I think 1996. It just never came out. It didn't quite fit in the Soul Coughing release schedule. There were all these opportunities to just put it out and let it die on the vine, but I really wanted to work behind it. So it's this four-year-old record, but get your Napster on and it's totally in MP3 out there. I do a lot of those songs and some Soul Coughing songs. It's just me, very stripped-down.
O: You should borrow Mark's sampler.
MD: Oh, I've got my own sampler. The vocal samples in Soul Coughing were me, like in "$300" or "Down To This." He was more of an orchestration guy. "Screenwriter's Blues" is a perfect example of Mark-ness. "Bus To Beelzebub" was more my bag, the more blatantly obvious sample. You know, "Let's give away lots of publishing money!"
O: Is Suzanne Vega's kid old enough to know that a record is named after her? [Soul Coughing's first album is called Ruby Vroom; the child Suzanne Vega had with husband, producer, and Soul Coughing friend Mitchell Froom is named Ruby Froom.]
MD: I know that Suzanne got a bunch of promotional posters and stuff. She came to see us at Wetlands [in New York City] a few years ago, and she told us to make the posters out to Ruby. Hmm, born in 1994, six years old… Maybe. Considering that in her world, records are what mom and dad do, she probably thinks, "Of course there's a record named after me! But why am I not on the cover? Mommy's on mommy's record, but there's some chick in an astronaut's suit on mine." If she does have a recording career on her own as Ruby Froom, she'll probably be disqualified for the Best New Artist Grammy, because she has an album named after her and an album about her [Vega's Nine Objects Of Desire].
O: Your first album is named after Suzanne Vega's kid. The second one [Irresistible Bliss] is a play on a Prince song. What's El Oso referencing?
MD: That's the California flag.
O: Why is it that people still write songs about L.A. but seem to have given up on New York?
MD: Well, New York is not New York anymore. It's the city that just recently got up to speed with the rest of the nation. New York is the Banana Republic town. The Häagen-Dazs town. Starbucks fucking runs this joint. Runs it! There are three Starbucks within four blocks of each other up on 2nd Ave. But, dude, I'm so not knocking Starbucks! I was just there. I've got no problem with having three within walking distance of my house.
O: You should get an endorsement.
MD: Dude, that's a really good idea right there! I've got a song about busting up a Starbucks.
O: Well, there goes your endorsement.
MD: Oh, it's an anti-anti-WTO song. It's essentially a pro-Starbucks song. I saw this picture of a guy sticking his foot through a plate-glass window in a Starbucks in Seattle, and he was wearing a Nike. Man, couldn't you just change your shoes?
O: Soul Coughing was a lot more interesting than most stuff on the radio at the time, but I don't think you got a lot of credit for it.
MD: I'm sort of over it. At one point I was like, "Look at what we did!" But it's pop music. No one's lives were saved.
O: But people listened to it. Think of what they could have listened to instead. Turn on the radio now.
MD: Actually, I think the radio is in better shape than it was in the '90s. I'm so pro-boy-band it's ridiculous. Love those guys.
O: Did you see the MTV statutory-rape comedy Jailbait?
MD: See, I love MTV. I love it. But the movies? I'm sorry.
O: I like the way even the VJs seem embarrassed by what they have to cover. Talk about reaping what you sow.
MD: In general, I think MTV has a lot of leeway and breaks a lot more interesting stuff than anybody else in music journalism. Total Request Live is my life. I have this lovely coincidence where I leave my analyst's office, which is right above Times Square, and I get there right at 4, which is mid-Total Request Live. Those screaming noises are beautiful. I went twice to 'N Sync tapings. The first time I just happened upon it. Thousands of girls screaming. They all pick sort of this selective note, and they all go to this note. And then somebody in the middle of the crowd goes even higher. Like astoundingly, murdering-dogs high. It's a beautiful sound.