In 2015, Mike Doughty moved from New York City to Memphis, Tennessee. The singer-songwriter had been in New York for more than 25 years, and says he thought that, at some point in his life, he “would like to not live there.”
The former frontman for ’90s alt-rock band Soul Coughing, Doughty considered several cities—including Austin, Nashville, Chattanooga and Dallas—but it was Memphis that stole his heart.
“I’d been touring for a long-ass time, and had never really seen Memphis, other than a club or two on Beale Street,” he says. “I was just floored by it.”
Doughty describes his new stomping ground as a “very vibey, mystical town—a Tom Waits kind of town.” He figures his unconscious has “profited mightily from its energies,” and likes that some of the musicians who played on classic Al Green and Stax records are still there.
Doughty wrote his latest solo album—his ninth—after his move to Memphis. On The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns, Doughty blends pop and rock with electronic beats, African rhythms, and even a reggae-inspired track. At the core of the album is Doughty’s world-weary-yet-danceable songwriting style that stretches back to Soul Coughing—a band that struggled with internal drama and eventually imploded in 2000 as band members feuded with Doughty about songwriting and production credits. Doughty described Soul Coughing to The Village Voice as a “weird universe—sort of a Dante’s Inferno, where I was the devil’s asshole, and there was the band, the management, the record company, and everybody hated me.”
In 2012, Doughty wrote a memoir titled Book of Drugs, filled with stories from that time. In it, he writes about being bipolar, his struggles with addiction and eventual recovery, the dysfunctional band dynamics, and his early life. The book caught attention for Doughty’s acerbic take on his former bandmates; he says he was just telling it how it was.
“I just had a bunch of really good stories, basically,” he says. “Just stuff I would tell people over dinner. I’m not trying to tell any kind of insightful narrative about what my life’s been about, I just think there are some anecdotes that are funny and interesting.”
When asked if any of his former Soul Coughing members contacted him about the book, he says the people he heard from had “very small roles” in the book.
“It’s funny,” he says. “There was a guy I referred to as having a little bit of EMT training. He was like, ‘I was an EMT for 10 years in Texas. I’m really offended that you said I just had some training.’”
Another person wrote to him and was offended that he said she was really tall when she’s not. “In the second edition I’ll correct her height and his training,” Doughty says with a laugh.
Doughty says he still relates to songs from the Soul Coughing days, and at live shows he “hits certain nostalgia points” to make the audience happy. “But life is too short to play things you’re not enjoying playing,” he says.
Despite the drama surrounding Soul Coughing, Doughty has die-hard fans who’ve supported him through all of his ups and downs. He’s crowdfunded several albums, including 2014’s Stellar Motel, and sees the new model as a “big old conceptual art piece people participate in.” The downside, he says, is “going to people begging for money.”
“You can’t always be coming up, shaking a tin can, asking for alms,” he says.
The Doughty faithful don’t seem to mind. They continue to support his crowdfunding campaigns and show up to his gigs, where Doughty leads his new band with hand gestures he describes as “kind of like James Brown meets John Zorn.”
He uses these signals to change how and what the other musicians are playing. This way, each performance is different depending on the venue and the mood of the audience, band and Doughty.
“It’s getting remixed every night, and you can see it,” he says. “I like to keep everybody a little bit loose. This is just an extension of that.”
Mike Doughty will perform at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 3 at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $20. 429-6994.