M. Doughty, the mind behind the magnetic, brainy amalgamation called Soul Coughing, didn't attend Juilliard or a pricey guitar institute. No, he received his musical education at the Knitting Factory, an avant-garde breeding ground in New York City. And he got paid for the privilege.
"Yeah, I worked there," Doughty says. "When I first started, I was a waiter, so I pretty much got to see every group that hit the bar. Then I got moved to doorman. But I could still check out somebody's sound check every day--and when I was done, I could go upstairs and hang out for the last third of the second set. It was my first real contact with jazz as a living entity."
Of course, jazz is only one factor in the Soul Coughing sound; also included are hip hop, funk, rock, spoken word and a thousand other less readily identifiable ingredients. The collision of these elements is what fires Doughty, just as it inspired him while stamping hands outside the Knitting Factory. When asked about the best music he heard at the venue, his response is instructive.
"There was a switch on the bar stereo downstairs that allowed you to listen to what the bands were doing upstairs," he recalls. "And occasionally the bartenders would turn that on so I could hear it at the door. But most of them had absolutely no idea how to relate to the kind of music they had there; they'd spend all their time listening to Van Morrison tapes. It was a drag. But if there was a particularly loud band playing upstairs, I could hear the band and the music coming out of the bar speakers at the same time. So you got this great, Ivesian effect."
You don't hear many rock stars making references to Charles Ives, an influential composer and musical experimentalist who died in 1954. Hell, many of them couldn't identify Burl Ives. But coming from Doughty, the allusion seems neither surprising nor pretentious. Give a listen to Ruby Vroom, the exceptional Soul Coughing debut released last year on the Slash imprint, and it becomes clear that there's plenty going on in this music. And what's there is a lot of fun to sift through.
The band got its start in 1992, when Doughty pigeonholed keyboard sampler M'ark De Gli Antoni, upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay, all three of whom played the Knitting Factory regularly as parts of other acts. While none of the musicians knew Doughty as anything but a doorman, they soon discovered that he had a way with words. In fact, he'd been showing up at poetry recitals throughout Greenwich Village over the previous several years. But in spite of the generally positive responses his readings received, he wasn't wholly satisfied with this manner of self-expression.
"I really admire people who can do a set of spoken word--really hold people for, like, half an hour," he allows. "But for me, playing music with another person is all but better than sex. It's an intensive form of interaction with somebody that struck me as more gratifying than standing on a stage in front of a microphone by myself. My motivations for being in a band were entirely selfish.
"I still like spoken word, but I haven't been doing much of it of late, principally because once you leave the downtown sphere and enter the big, horrible world of the great Satan and the corporate ogre, it becomes a little hard to go back there and say, `Hi. I just want to chill and kick a poem.' Suddenly people get very jealous because you're a guy who can pay your rent. Which strikes me as funny, because the reason a lot of them are doing poetry is because they can't get a band together."
Doughty didn't have that problem: Once he joined forces with De Gli Antoni, Steinberg and Gabay, there was no questioning either their compatibility or the sounds that resulted. Given Doughty's varied musical background, it's easy to assume that this process was a fairly intellectual one, but Doughty denies it. "Soul Coughing is not really an idea-based band," he insists. "It wasn't like we said, `Let's take 25 percent of jazz and 35.3 percent of hip hop and 10.6 percent of rock, and then add the contents of this or that.' There was no stunning concept involved in the creation of the band. It was the nature of the people in the band that made it what it was.
"But I knew what I didn't want the band to sound like. Because I was going to a lot of rock shows back then, and they just got more and more depressing. I was like, `Gee, all these bands are lousy. This is just not doing shit for me anymore. There's got to be something else out there.'"
Soul Coughing's individuality quickly made an impression on the habitues of the New York club scene; after little more than a year, the quartet had signed with Slash. Tchad Blake, the producer who helped them record the songs that became Ruby Vroom, proved to be an exemplary fit; his style, heard to best advantage on the discs he engineered for Tom Waits and the criminally ignored Los Lobos side project the Latin Playboys, brought out the best of the group. "He's a motherfucker of an engineer--a genius, genius cat," Doughty says. "His way with the stereo field and the sonic spectrum is pretty amazing."
So are the fourteen tracks on Ruby Vroom. "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" sets the stage with a deep, mysterious groove, a soundscape in which recognizable instrumentation is transformed into new and quixotic aural stimuli and a declamatory vocal from Doughty that's simultaneously amusing and creepy. Later, "Sugar Free Jazz" takes a shot at what's been passing for acid jazz, "Down to This" merges an oddball lyric with samples from the Andrews Sisters, Howlin' Wolf and Toots and the Maytals, and "Screenwriter's Blues" paints a surrealistic picture of Hollywood that's practically an updating of Billy Wilder's film Sunset Boulevard.
"I was studying to be a playwright when I was in college," Doughty notes by way of explaining the genesis of the last number. "And one day it just occurred to me that the shit I was writing was pretty fucking weird and there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to live off it. So I figured I'd probably wind up living in Los Angeles and writing for a soap opera, or maybe writing the second draft of a script for a movie starring a Saturday Night Live cast member from three years ago. In other words, it was a nightmare."
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Material like this has been lauded by critics and has garnered modest airplay on radio and video outlets. "We're not Green Day, but we're kind of kicking ass out there," Doughty bubbles. "It's weird to be driving around in some Midwestern second city and turn on the radio and there we are."
Of course, many stations aren't alternative enough to give Doughty's baby a try--and you can understand why. Aside from G. Love & Special Sauce and Morphine, few groups seem to come from the same universe as Soul Coughing. Or, as Doughty puts it, "If you listen to nine tenths of the music out there, it's like Bad Company with more obtuse lyrics.
"But I can't complain, because this record has galvanized people in a really cool way. The people who like it are just insane about it: They want to go out and kill people in the name of our great and just cause. Whereas the people who don't like it want to destroy us and feel that we're the embodiment of evil on this earth. And that ain't bad."
Jeff Buckley, with Soul Coughing. 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $9, 322-2308.