Sad Man Happy Man
When Mike Doughty released his second official solo album, 2008’s Golden Delicious, the reaction from fans was intense. “Oh, people hated it,” Doughty says. “They called it ‘too pop,’ ‘garbage,’ ‘fluff.’ The guy from The Onion said something about how it was like watching Allen Ginsberg toss aside his poetic genius to write scripts for The King of Queens.’” (The Onion guy also admitted: “Okay, maybe not that bad.”)
Perhaps the poppy, freewheeling Golden Delicious didn’t connect with some of his fans because the diehards expect everything Doughty releases to be cerebral, and, well, fairly complicated. After all, many first fell in love the New York-based singer, songwriter, guitarist, and poet during his time leading New York’s Soul Coughing, whose output prominently featured Doughty’s bone-dry, half-rapped vocals, syncopated guitar-playing style, and nimble, free-associative lyrics. When he broke up that band in 2000 and self-released his solo debut, the completely acoustic Skittish, Doughty’s audience was polarized.
“Some hated it, some loved it better than Soul Coughing,” Doughty says. “I tend to take sharp left turns. Every time I put out a record, the audience seems to like what I did two years ago better. You’d think I could shrug it off because that’s what always happens, but it always gets to me.” Doughty admits that his new album, Sad Man Happy Man, is a reaction to his fans’ reaction and that he’s giving the people what they want. “I really went for the ‘na-na-na’s’ and the simple choruses and stuff on Golden,” he says. “The songs on Sad Man are more arcane and convoluted songwriting-wise, though they’re sparer in terms of instrumentation. Although my choruses are still simple — I love taking phrases and repeating them ad infinitum.”
The largely acoustic Sad Man Happy Man is a deliberate return to everything people love about Mike Doughty, so if you haven’t dipped into his solo catalog (more on that below), it’s time to find out what his dedicated fanbase has known all along. Doughty makes albums that simmer with verbal wit, and Sad Man Happy Man is no exception with its songs about everything from relationship bust-ups (Doughty was going through one while he was recording it) to his astute observations about the American economy.
“Pleasure on Credit” is a celebratory tale of the American spender in the face of the U.S.’s credit addiction crushing the world’s markets; “Lord Lord” is all sly drug references, like “Tango and Cash” and “Dr. Nova,” which are both brand-names for bags of heroin. “That song is kind of like my ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’” Doughty says. “I like how Lou Reed’s tune is all about tranny whores and yet is all over classic rock radio.” Doughty wrote “Rising Up” after his girlfriend sent him a terse email and, with his heart thumping, wrote five pages trying to exorcise his anxiety. “It’s my Gloria Gaynor moment,” he says with a laugh. “The message of the tune is: ‘You’re fucked, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep on with my spiritual journey.’ Yes, I really am that much of a hippie.”
His break-up may have inspired the “pained, lost-love stuff” (as he puts it), like “Diane” and “Lorna Zauberberg,” but Doughty has also realized that his love songs aren’t necessarily about specific women. “They’re about a kind of ghost, a shadow-woman, an ideal,” he says. “‘Diane’ is actually my mother’s name. Shows you how long I’ve been in therapy!”
Musically, Sad Man Happy Man finds Doughty returning to his acoustic roots thanks to its stripped-down arrangements that feature Doughty backing himself on guitar. He also did all the drum programming, as well as played keyboards and what he calls the “weird noise stuff,” while his long-time touring partner Andrew “Scrap” Livingston handles bass duties. “I wanted to go back to the acoustic lifestyle choices,” he says. “I intend to tour like this for a long time — it’s what feels most comfortable to me. I like the way the songs are when I play them acoustically. I like how idiosyncratic my guitar rhythms are — that stuff tends to get straightened out when I play with a drummer.”
Recorded at New York’s Kampo Studios, the album was co-produced by Doughty and engineer Pat Dillett (They Might Be Giants, David Byrne, Arto Lindsay), with the exception of album’s first single “Doubly Gratified,” which was produced by David Kahne, who helmed Soul Coughing’s 1996 album Irresistible Bliss, as well as albums by Paul McCartney, Sugar Ray, and Tony Bennett. “I wanted a song that would get played on the radio, and David’s the king when it comes to that,” Doughty says. “His range is deep. But David’s different than your average guy-that-produces-the-single because he really thinks like an experimental musician. If you listen closely to ‘Doubly Gratified’ there’s all kinds of weird stuff that he played happening just under the surface. It’s very cool what he gets away with.”
A bio about Mike Doughty wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his live show, after all, he tours four months out of the year and his fans turn out in force. Last year he launched the Question Jar show in which Doughty and Livingston field crowd queries and song requests (written on paper and put in a jar) from audience members between songs, answering everything from “Do chicks still dig robots?” (Answer: “I think it’s pirates now”) to what he considers his favorite word (“inscrutable”).
The intimate, anything-goes format is a good fit for Doughty, allowing him to “show off his various facets with equal vigor — his confidence and his vulnerability, his rage and his remorse, his romanticism and his cynicism, his apathy and his bleeding heart, his seriousness and his humor,” as one reviewer put it, adding: “It’s all in there, the well-rounded human condition finding voice through an expressive artist. This is a man one might actually get to know through his music.”
Born into a military family in Fort Knox, KY, Doughty got his start playing bass in a high-school band in Highland Falls, NY, and writing songs as soon as he picked up the bass. “When I could play two notes, I’d yell something over it and call it a song,” he says. He credits the late African-American poet and performer Sekou Sundiata’s poetry class at New York City’s New School with sparking his interest in the craft of songwriting. “He taught me that I’m working for the poem, song, or lyric, it’s not working for me. That I have to listen to it to get it to be what it wants to be, rather than trying to impose my will on it,” Doughty says. After eight years fronting Soul Coughing, Doughty launched his solo career with Skittish, which sold more than 20,000 copies through his website on the strength of constant grass-roots touring.
Being on the road sent Doughty’s creativity into overdrive. He released a live album called Smofe + Smang in 2002, followed by the Rockity Roll EP in 2003. In 2005, Doughty signed with ATO Records, an independent label founded by Dave Matthews, a huge Soul Coughing fan. ATO released Doughty’s first full-band album Haughty Melodic, which went Top 5 at Triple A radio thanks to its hit single “Looking at the World from the Bottom of A Well.” That song was featured on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy, as well as on Bones and What About Brian.
Through it all, Doughty has maintained a widely read blog (mikedoughty.com/blog) that chronicles his unique shows, international travels, and creative endeavors. He’s currently writing a memoir, recording an electronic album entitled Dubious Luxury, and working on a photo book about Eritrea’s capital city of Asmara, for Yeti Books. He also recently published a play, “Ray Slape is Dead,” in 24 by 24: The 24 Hour Plays Anthology, alongside Terrence McNally and Theresa Rebeck.
But for now, Doughty is looking forward to a fall Question Jar tour with his friend Scrap and releasing Sad Man Happy Man. “Basically I’m trying to make stuff I want to listen to,” he says of the album. “And I mean that in a literal sense, not like, “Were I a listener, I would like this,” but rather something I can listen to on the subway on headphones and really dig. This is my life, this is what I do. That sounds matter-of-fact, but I really do look at it as a sort of calling — and being an artist at its best is selfless. I’m working for the language, I’m working for the music, I’m working for the songs. I’m a happier guy when I’m conscious of that.”