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If Mike Doughty had played his cards right, his 1990s alt-rock band Soul Coughing would be reuniting at Coachella right about now. At the very least, the New Yorkers would be co-headlining a tour with Blues Traveler or other HORDE Fest alumni.
Songs such as 1996's "Super Bon Bon" won a devout following for the band with an original, quirky sound that fuses jazz with a sample-driven blend of hip-hop, electronica and rock. Soul Coughing reached a degree of mainstream success in the mid-to-late '90s, highlighted by an arena tour with the Dave Matthews Band and gigs with Jeff Buckley. "Circles" climbed as high as No. 8 on Billboard's Modern Rock Chart and was played on alt-rock stations across the country. Even so, arguments over songwriting credits and publishing monies, compounded by Doughty's drug and alcohol addictions, led to the band to call it quits in 2000.
Now sober for 12 years, Doughty is going strong as a solo artist and, in January, released his autobiography, The Book of Drugs, which chronicles his drug-infused days and gives fans an inside look at the dysfunction that was Soul Coughing.
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"My impetus was that I had a bunch of really good stories," Doughty says. "I don't claim to have any overarching wisdom on my life."
If you're hoping for the band to re-form, don't hold your breath. In the book, Doughty refers to his former bandmates not by name, but instead as "the bass player," "the drummer" and the "sampler player." He expresses a lot of disappointment with and anger over how things worked out with Soul Coughing.
"My bandmates, in my opinion, were kind of psychotic," he says. "So many of the decisions were made out of spite toward me. It was a nightmarish situation. Soul Coughing were an abusive marriage full of emotional violence, and I have no interest in stuff I wrote years before I met those guys—it's heartbreaking. Lots of people are Soul Coughing fans; I am not."
Doughty's solo career, on the other hand, has grown organically. When he first set out on his own, most of the audience were Soul Coughing fans who resented Doughty for becoming a singer/songwriter. He refused to play the old songs, instead focusing on tracks from his 2000 solo debut, Skittish. Diehard fans were upset, but because of the album's availability on sites such as Napster, people who were fans of the new material and hadn't heard of his earlier work started to check out his live shows.
"It was just me, and I was making exactly the type of music I wanted to make," he says. "I can't explain how free I felt."
Now, touring behind the release of both the book and his live album, The Question Jar Show, Doughty has constructed a show unlike any he's done before. He'll play a couple of songs, then read a passage from the book, then answer fans' questions and repeat.
"I was quite terrified contemplating doing this at first," he explains. "But it's going really well."
Performing before seated audiences that range from 50 to 500 people has allowed for this unorthodox show to reach fans in a more personal way. Fans will get the answers about all things Doughty they haven't heard or read about. So far, things have gone well. "Generally, the vibe has been chilled-out and intimate," he says.
These days, too, Doughty is relieved that his fans appreciate his newer material. Lately, he's far more likely to hear calls for "Madeline and Nine" instead of Soul Coughing's "Circles," which shows how much he has distanced himself from his former group.
Having released six studio albums, three live albums and two books and conquered both professional demons, Doughty is in a better place, still growing as both an artist and songwriter. The success he's had as a solo artist has been much more rewarding than what he had with Soul Coughing, he says.
"Life is quite amazing. I feel like I'm a better artist than I've ever been; I have more friends," Doughty says. "Everything is much more dynamic, interesting, fascinating and romantic and poetic."
This article appeared in print as "Alone and Unafraid: Mike Doughty's much happier as a solo artist, thank you very much."