Interview: Mike Doughty
Mike Doughty is one of the best, most creative singer-songwriters out today. He has a skill for writing memorable hooks, and writes intriguing, oddball, poetic lyrics. His latest album, Yes and Also Yes, will be released August 30th on his own label, Snack Bar. Mike recently wrote in to discuss his love of pop songs, how he creates beats and the challenges of being an independent artist. For more info on Mike Doughty, check out http://www.mikedoughty.com
McClain Johnson: What inspired “Into the Un?”
Mike Doughty: Actually, weirdly, I was asked to write something for the next Twilight soundtrack–though they rejected the song. It’s a kind of psychedelic goth fantasia–I hung out with a lot of amazing, mysterious goth girls when I was a teenager. There’s kind of a plot to the song–goth kids meet on a dancefloor, take LSD, end up in Penn Station stealing porn from newsstands, and drinking a mythic potion from Greek myths.
McClain Johnson: “Into the Un” has a very danceable groove. What do you use to create beats?
Mike Doughty: I’m into Ableton. It interfaces with my particular consciousness in a very groovy way. It’s funny, my practice with other musicians is to coax performances out of them that’ll surprise me–an enforced absence of overthinking–but when I program beats, I get really micro, work on the tiniest nuances of the arrangement.
McClain Johnson: Yes and Also Yes combines many different musical styles. Are there any albums/songs that you found yourself listening to when working on the album?
Mike Doughty: I like pop songs, because the structure, the drama, the melodies, are so real and beautiful. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, “Only Girl in the World” by Rihanna. And I like the Sublime Frequencies radio-collage compilations–Radio India, Radio Palestine, Radio Algeria–actually, a comp of Iraqi songs called “Choubi Choubi”. Arabic music is intense and gorgeous, and so sneakily funky. Also the new Beasties, just tremendous. I really think it’s their best record of their career. Great textures, great instruments–and the chord changes are really satisfying, very unique for hip hop, which tends to hang out on one chord for an entire song (which is also amazing, and that single-chord kind of James-Brownian drone-tension was hugely influential on me–I’m just saying what the Beasties are doing is innovative)
McClain Johnson: Rosanne Cash guests on your new album. How did you first meet her?
Mike Doughty: At a WFUV fundraiser show. From the stage, she said, “I’m nervous playing my new songs, because Mike Doughty is here, and he’s such a great songwriter.” Utterly blew my mind.
McClain Johnson: You recorded the album in Koreatown in New York. What was the most enjoyable aspect of recording an album there?
Mike Doughty: You know, I took basically zero advantage of Koreatown. I love Korean food. The thing is, you prepare it on your own grill on the table, which is time-consuming if you’re trying to record a bunch of songs. I did discover there’s some 24-hour Korean joints there, which I’ve yet to take advantage of. There’s a good 12-step meeting nearby there, and I went to an excellent karaoke party organized by my friends Bex and Marianne in a Korean karaoke emporium. It was a star-studded affair, with the kind of stars that I’m stoked to be with: John Hodgman, David Rees, Kurt Braunohler, Ted Leo. Lotsa comedy peeps, and comedy-adjascent peeps.
McClain Johnson: What inspired you to do a song in German?
Mike Doughty: I just love the language. Been studying it for a few years, just out of fascination. The complete lyrics to that song are: “Immaculate man, because you’re so evil, I’m an actress, stunned in dust and traffic.”
McClain Johnson: What do you feel is the most personal song on Yes and Also Yes?
Mike Doughty: The lyrics I just quoted. No, I’m joking. “Na Na Nothing” is a burn-in-hell-wretched-ex-girlfriend song; the central idea is, you’ll get nothing from me, I’ve forsaken your memory, you’re irrelevant. And the ex in question dislikes being ignored.
McClain Johnson: You are releasing the album on your own label. what do you enjoy most about having your own label?
Mike Doughty: Well, honestly, the money. It’s a lot of work. In some ways, it’s easier to be on a label. ATO, my last label, was extremely supportive of me artistically. I mean, on every label, there’s some guy with a bunch of ideas you have to sit there and go, Uh-huh, sure, great, genius, yeah, absolutely…but then ATO wouldn’t get aggro on me if I ended up ignoring the advice.
McClain Johnson: What are the biggest difficulties of being an independent artist?
Mike Doughty: The flip side of making more dough is that you have to come up with your own scratch to record the album and pay the producer, and the musicians. That can be nerve-wracking. Oftentimes, people work on the “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” plan. I really dislike not being able to pay talented people quickly. However, working cheapo-thrift can be beneficial–the album was made over the course of ten months or so, a few days here or there that I could grab with my producer, Pat Dillett, or when somebody like Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett or Andrew “Scrap” Livingston were available. So there was lots of thinking and listening between sessions. That’s golden.