If you were alive and listening to radio-play alternative rock music in the 1990’s, then you probably remember Soul Coughing; a progressive experimentalist band from New York City that blended jazz, hip hop, stream-of-consciousness poetry and sampling at a time when such an innovative style was scarcely seen (or heard).
The founder and frontman of the band was Mike Doughty (then referring to himself as M. Doughty), an exceptional young poet who used to be the doorman for the NYC Knitting Factory music club. The band is best remembered for their hit single “Circles”, though loyal fans of the cult band (myself included) would tell you that the band’s most remember-worthy accomplishment was their first record, 1994’s Ruby Vroom. After forming the band, achieving mainstream success, recording three studio albums, touring, and Doughty becoming addicted to heroin, the band split up in the year 2000 after years of inner turmoil and feuding. Though Doughty prevailed from the haunting drug addiction (and the band he created gone sour) by getting sober and starting an impressive and undoubtedly successful solo career that is still going strong today.
After seven albums, countless EP’s and Live releases, and endless touring, Doughty decided to publish a memoir in 2012 titled, The Book of Drugs which chronicles his early years as a songwriter, forming Soul Coughing, becoming addicted to drugs, and how much he hated that band and how the songs he wrote for it turned out. Doughty admits that after touring the book and repeatedly telling audiences his frustration with the outcome of those songs, he was inspired to dig back into the Soul Coughing songs that he’s refused to play for audiences throughout his solo career (no matter how persistent audience members are), and re-record them into a full-length album the way he had always wanted, but could not within his feuding band.
The resulting album was a collection of Soul Coughing songs, remade the way Doughty had initially intended them to be. The album, titled Circles, Super Bon Bon…(the title of the album is the thirteen song tracklist) was crowd-funded by donations from loyal fans via Pledge Music, a Kickstarter-like campaign platform. The projected budget was pledged “in, like, 14 hours”, says Doughty, who recorded the album with acoustic bassist Catherine Popper, and drummer Pete Wilhoit; Doughty playing all guitar parts and this time around doing all the sampling himself.
The three then hit the road to promote Doughty’s solo release of reimagined Soul Coughing tunes, and on a brisk November night in Los Angeles, I step foot into the historic Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard to see Soul Coughing songs live for the first time ever.
The inside of the Fonda is like a time-warp to Hollywood in the roaring 1920’s (the venue originally opened in 1926). The curtains part to reveal Mike Doughty in rock-star power stance, his back to the audience, satirically poking fun at such a persona, yet still backing it up completely as the man of the night that the packed venue came to see. The band opens with “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” from Ruby Vroom, followed by “Sugar Free Jazz” and many more Soul Coughing hits, including one of my favorites, “Soft Serve” from their second record, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss.
As the set winds down I begin to think that my favorite Soul Coughing tune may not get played (though I’ve seen it played live multiple times at Doughty’s solo shows, as an acoustic recording of it appeared on his 2005 EP, The Gambler). The stage lights begin to alternate between orange and purple when I’m suddenly soothed by the opening licks of “St. Louis Is Listening”. It’s nothing short of spectacular, and the long-time supportive audience of fans love it just as much as I do.
The band goes on to play two more songs before a two-song encore, ending the show with Soul Coughing’s biggest hit “Circles”, to which everyone sings along, smiling as they end their joyous trip of nostalgic time warp to the 90’s. The show ends, the curtains close, the lights come up and the night is complete. An eager fan snags the set list from the edge of the stage and she kindly allows me to snap a photo of it.
One thing I know for sure is that Doughty has still got it. From Soul Coughing, to his solo career, to his latest record blending the two acts, Mike Doughty is undoubtedly a thrill to watch perform, and a joy to listen to. Whether you’ve heard of Soul Coughing or not, definitely check out this extraordinary and timeless new record, and this one of a kind songwriter.