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Interview: Mike Doughty

After the breakup of his band Soul Coughing in 2000, Mike Doughty wandered the wilderness without a record label, spending some time away from music, in places like Cambodia. But late last year, he signed with Dave Matthews' ATO Records, which re-released his solo discs Skittish and Rockity Roll as a double-disc set. His new album, Haughty Melodic—the title is an anagram of his name—was recorded in Minneapolis over two years with producer Dan Wilson (of Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare). Haughty features Doughty's easily recognizable poetry-slam/hip-hop vocal aesthetic, but musically, it moves toward a more radio-friendly sound than Soul Coughing ever had. After touring the U.S. in spring, he's currently playing another round of shows across the country this month. Doughty spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about recording in Minneapolis, traveling in Ethiopia, and the pathetic life of Aquaman. (For more, check out Doughty's blog.)

The A.V. Club: Haughty Melodic marks a pretty significant change for you as a solo artist, since you're working with a full band for the first time since Soul Coughing, and you're with a label instead of self-releasing your music. What prompted you to go to Dave Matthews?
Mike Doughty: It was interesting, because I sought him out, and as it turns out, somebody had just given him a copy of Rockity Roll—so he was preparing to seek me out. So it was kind of fortuitous. It's just a great label. It's a place where, in a Venn diagram, indie-rock and jam bands and singer-songwriters are meeting.
AVC: And that's pretty much where your music meets as well.
MD: Yeah, it's definitely where I want to live. And it's also an artist-run label. And it's Dave, who's awesome.
AVC: You've got a long association with Minneapolis—Soul Coughing did very well here, and your new record was recorded here. How did you hook up with Dan Wilson?
MD: Dan and I got together to write bridges for a few of my songs, because I had a few that had something missing in the middle—"American Car" was one of them—and then we did these little demos for them that sounded great. And he's just such a creative guy and just impeccable as a producer, in terms of his bedside manner.
AVC: Why did it take two years?
MD: He's a busy guy. He's writing with everybody and doing his own records and producing other people—and I was doing this at the time without a label—so whenever he had some time, I'd come out from New York and spend a week or two. It was really difficult, because you'd get a creative head of steam going, and then immediately, when you're working at your peak, you're yanked out of it and you have to go home. It was really the first time that I'd actually hung out in Minneapolis. I mean, I've been playing there for years, but you know, you stay at the Crowne Plaza on 7th Street, walking distance from First Avenue. [Laughs.] This was the first time that I was really eating the tempeh reuben at the French Meadow and hanging out in Uptown, and really getting a flavor of life in Minneapolis.
AVC: What's your favorite place here?
MD: The French Meadow. The tempeh reuben is the center of my spiritual existence, I think.
AVC: How has world travel changed your perspective?
MD: It's amazing to go somewhere where you're economically head-and-shoulders above everybody that you meet. And you're staying in a hotel that's like 12 bucks a night. I'm not a rich guy, but in Ethiopia and Cambodia I am. It's an amazing lesson in the fixations about money that we get into. And the other thing is, I really think people in the countries I've traveled to are more content than Americans. They don't have AIDS medication, there are famine problems, there are all these very practical issues, but as far as just contentment and happiness, they're head-and-shoulders above us. I question whether we're really that much better off. [Laughs.] We have access to health care, but the lives that we're saving tend to be sad and lonely and full of anxiety.
AVC: Most Americans haven't traveled as much as you. Do you run into problems when you come back, trying to explain what it's like?
MD: No, not with the kind of people I hang out with. I have a lot of faith in Americans. I think we've bought this lie that an American is a guy who lives in, you know—I don't want to dis a town—some small-town, closed-minded Republican guy. You know, somebody living in St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, Athens, Georgia—all these incredible liberal cities that we have—they're just as much Americans as the rednecks are, the "red-staters."
AVC: Speaking of which, before the 2004 election, you recorded "Move On" as a kind of theme song for MoveOn.org. Have you stayed politically active since the election?
MD: I've stayed politically informed. The best I can do in terms of activism is write. I'm not a very effective hands-on guy. But I've stayed outraged, for sure.
AVC: That's true of "Busting Up A Starbucks," although that one's about your anger at seeing a guy at the 1999 WTO protests kicking in a Starbucks window with his Nike shoe, and not the anti-corporate, anti-globalism song it's been mistaken for.
MD: I'm not pro-corporate, but I'm just really angry when someone misdirects their inner rage at a store. I just find it pathetic, and it infuriates me. I'm super, super angry—still—at the far left for Ralph Nader. Just livid. I mean, how many fucking American lives did we lose because of that asshole?
AVC: You wrote one of the stories in DC Comics' superheroes-parody anthology Bizarro World—the one about Aquaman's humiliating experience at an open mic.
MD: The thing about Aquaman is, he's the sad sack of the Super Friends characters. When I was a kid, I was really into Batman and I thought Superman was kind of fruity, but Aquaman? Who the hell is Aquaman? What does he do? He talks to fish? Who is this guy? So I just took on the perspective of the downtrodden, least popular superhero.
AVC: Mason Jennings recently turned you on to meditation. Is there a story there?
MD: Well, not really. He just was doing this meditation practice and said, "This is really great. You should try it," and I did, and I'm grateful to the guy, big-time grateful. We've sort of bonded over being super-practical, kind of spiritually minded guys. We both have an essentially austere point of view of the universe, but we're both, you know, closet hippies, closet New-Agers.

This interview was originally printed in The Onion's Twin Cities print edition May 12.

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