Mike Doughty Chats About ‘Stellar Motel,’ Crowdfunding + Upcoming Tour
Mike Doughty might be one of the most prolific artists of the last 20 years. From fronting the '90s alt-rock outfit Soul Coughing to building a constantly burgeoning solo career to penning a personal memoir, Doughty always seems to be moving at a much quicker pace than most. Proving that notion, this year alone he is celebrating the release of two new records.
'Live at Ken's House' is a live album of all Soul Coughing songs that he played during his 2013 fall tour, and 'Stellar Motel' is his latest full-length studio LP. Both were produced via the crowdfunding site, PledgeMusic.
Currently in the middle of his esteemed Question Jar tour, Doughty took a few minutes to dive deep into the crowdfunding experience, what fans can expect from 'Stellar Motel' and more. Check out our exclusive interview below, and catch-up on the singer-songwriter's latest crowdfunding campaign here.
With 'Stellar Motel,' you approached the writing and recording completely different than previous albums. From improvising the beats to filming everything, what was it like putting this record together?
This record is a full on collaboration with hip-hop producer, Good Goose. What we would do is get together and I would play whatever instrument I picked up. He’d ask what beat we want to do today, he’d program something really quickly, I’d play along with the track and improvise parts until he said that’s enough. I’d stop, I’d check my email, he’d select a part, loop it, put in a little bit of bass and some sounds. Then I’d get on the mic and improvise melodies, just trying to do the most extremely peculiar vocal melodies I could do. Then I’d go home.
Usually at 4AM, he’d email me parts of the vocal improvisation that were constructed into a song. I’d take that and begin to write lyrics. Often times, when I was improvising the melody, there would be words that would come out anyway; they would just pop out in this process of being spontaneous. Those would often be in there. Sometimes, though, I’d start from nonsense lyrics and would have to flesh out a real song from it.
With Good Goose's involvement, there's obviously a heavy hip-hop influence on 'Stellar Motel.'
It’s really modern hip-hop, I would say. I had not been paying attention to it for a bunch of years. About two years ago, trap beats became a thing and I love those records. Obviously I’ve been listening to early-‘90s hip-hop for my entire career. Really, the current stuff, I’m surprised I’m embracing it, but here we have it.
Why are you surprised? It seems like there has always been an electronic element to your musical foundation.
I think I’m surprised because I’ve never been the kind of person who’s really intent on being up-to-date. Having this album that is super, super current, it’s surprising for me.
On the PledgeMusic campaign page, you end your note to potential backers with the line, "This is an insane idea." Were you talking about that whole process with Good Goose?
[Laughs] The process was reasonably insane. Video taping everything, you know, the extremely embarrassing footage of mouth noises and trying to make songs out of it, that was pretty insane for me. I’m the kind of person that, you know, there’s a lot of revelations that I don’t feel bad making about very personal parts of my life. Those videos, that was a brave step. [Laughs]
This isn't your first experience with crowdfunding. You did it last year with 'Circles, Super Bon Bon, and the Very Best Of Soul Coughing.' Looking back on that, were you nervous about asking your fans to help you fund a record?
I thought it was a terrible idea. I thought it wasn’t going to work. When we started it, I got to this point that it was kind of worth doing I guess, you know? Why not try it? It was an explosive success. If you’re an artist like me and working from a small, hardcore audience, it’s great. It’s absolutely great.
Were you worried about going through the process again this year?
Nope. I was like, hell yeah let’s do it again.
It seems to me, as a fan, that if I'm going to spend $30 on a record, I'd much rather be a part of it from the ground up rather than just picking it up at my local record shop.
Yeah, it is different in that the fun stuff is the experience stuff. On the most obvious level, fans can pledge for private shows, shows over Skype, but on a weird level, I have an old ‘80s typewriter and I’ll type lyrics out for you. I’ll record stuff on micro-cassette recorders for you. Stuff like that, which is definitely more interesting than just getting a t-shirt. Crowdfunding is getting to be a little bit of an old hat for audiences. They want stuff like lyrics typed out on an old typewriter or a Skype show or something else that is fun and odd and interesting.
One of those interesting things is the opportunity for fans to pledge for hand-written Soul Coughing lyrics. How did you find those?
I digitized all of my notebooks. I’ve been dragging around a gigantic container full of notebooks for 25 years. Good lord. To hell with this, I decided to digitize them. In doing so, I found ‘True Dreams of Wichita,’ ‘St. Louise Is Listening’ and ‘Janine.’ I don’t write a lot of lyrics down as such, you know, really write them down in full. Usually they’re just written in bits and pieces and I memorize them as I go. But there they were, written in one chunk. I wasn’t aware that I did that! I had them framed and made them available.
Did you have any trouble deciding to part with those?
No. I’m not an artifacts person. I digitized all these old journals and threw them away. With my own stuff, I’m not precious with it, you know? If it was a handwritten Elliott Smith lyric, that I would probably keep. Actually, I had Sun Ra’s autograph in a notebook. I kept that one.
As you mentioned earlier, videos are a big part of the 'Stellar Motel' campaign. It seems like you've been releasing them non-stop. Do you have any plans for a traditional music video for one of your new songs?
Oh yeah. I’m making two videos of me standing there and lip-syncing, you know, just videos. I’m trying, though, to make videos with some people that I found on Vine. They make really beautiful Vines and they’re all kind of working low-budget. I don’t know which ones are going to end up completed, but yeah, I’m really excited about it. I’m not in any of them. I asked them to make videos and I’ll release them. The exciting one is Ted Travelstead, the comedian, who is beloved on Vine for the 'Twins Talking' series. He’s making one! I was just like, “Dude, do it on your phone, lip-sync, don’t lip-sync, whatever you need to do.”
What song is he doing?
He’s doing a song called ‘These Are Your Friends.’
'Stellar Motel' isn't the only album that's part of your current crowdfunding campaign. You also released 'Live at Ken's House,' a disc full of Soul Coughing tunes from 2013's tour. Did you always have it in mind that you'd release a record after the tour?
Actually, the first idea was just to do the tour of all Soul Coughing songs. I knew Cat Popper, the bass player, and so the idea for the tour gestated. I then thought it would be great to do an album to go along with it. I did it with Good Goose and it was all programmed to what I was listening to in the ‘90s when I was writing the Soul Coughing songs. The ‘Live at Ken’s House’ album came from the fact that as the tour went on and the band got fierier and fierier - is that a word? - I just realized we needed to get this on tape. So like three days after the tour, we booked a studio and went in and played much of the show.
And now, you're in the middle of another tour. Are you playing Soul Coughing tunes?
Yeah, two or three songs. I’m throwing them in there now from time to time. I really like my acoustic version of ‘Super Bon Bon,’ so I usually throw that one in there at the very least.
The big draw for this tour, other than the music itself, is the fact that it's your infamous Question Jar tour. I've seen you a few times, but never when you've done the Question Jar. For a newbie, what can I expect from this concert?
Well, the idea is that me and Andrew 'Scrap' Livingston, my cello player, who is a delightfully strange human being, answer questions that fans put in a jar. It’s self-explanatory, but the fans come with weirdness. The average question is, “Would you rather be a tree, an orange or the ocean?” And generally, me and Scrap can have a conversation about this that is fun, you know? It just came out of the fact that a lot of my show, when it’s a duo show or a solo show, is talking to the audience. I wanted something to knock the pool balls in random directions and get me to think on my feet a little more. My audience is very, very good at coming up with some weirdness. I am grateful for that.
So what would you rather be?
I think I picked the oak tree. No wait, I think Scrap picked the oak tree because of the Morris Day song, I think I might’ve gone with the orange.
Why the orange?
You got me, brother. [Laughs] All I can tell you is I had a very funny explanation at the time.
It sounds like quite the unique experience.
Indeed. We put the jar at the stage before the show with pens and paper and then we answer the questions during the show. It is definitely unique.
The ‘Stellar Motel’ name comes from a newspaper headline you saw someone reading on the subway. How often does inspiration hit you like that when you're out and about like that?
Dude, two-thirds of what I write is lyrically on the train. I swear to God. I see stuff, I hear stuff, I type it into my phone and then when I sit down to write lyrics, I plug them in to see what works and what relates.