A Conversation with Mike Doughty

in conjunction with
The Developing Arts And Music Foundation
Minneapolis, MN
February 2002

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation.]

Admittedly this reads a bit strange; I don’t always write out questions in longhand for an interview, and I only transcribed M. Doughty’s answers, leaving only my original notes as a reference; sort of a code for the actual questions I had in mind. Word association, I suppose. Maybe some day, I’ll dig the cassette out and fill in the blanks. Or, maybe not …

Q Venues …

A I love playing theatres man, that’s like my new adult VH-1 style, that I’m rocking [laughs]. Pretty much anywhere The Magnetic Fields go, I’m fine!

I’ve done a bunch of ’em. I’ve done it as a playwright, and as a musical guy. I did one celebrity one as a musical guy. The interstitial – device. I just come runnin’ out between plays. It’s a thing where the writers and actors show up at 8 pm, or 9 pm, anyway, they show up the night before, everybody meets each other, actors leave, they’ve taken polaroids of themselves, the playwrights kind of divvy up the actors, they have all night to write a one-act play, a ten-minute play, and the actors show up the next day, they rehearse it, and it goes up at 8 pm that night. So you know, 24 hours.

Well, I’ve kind of done it as a playwright, I think the key thing is not to think your words are going to be memorized perfectly [laughing]. You know, paint with broad strokes, as they say. It’s totally fun, it’s just a great thing.

The NY celebrity one was a lot of September 11th stuff, but I think that’s because, that’s what was in the air.

Q How do you balance all the different kinds of writing you do?

A Jeez, I don’t know – you got me man, it’s just what I do, really. I just actually wrote a script for a comic book. It’s kind of like a big fancy deal, it’s like a sort of well-known comic book character I wrote for, but I don’t want to reveal it because it may end up not happening. Sorry to be like, Mr. Enticingly Coy, but… it was just like, I just did it! [laughing] I thought it was gonna be harder than it was [laughing] and I just did it!

Q You wrote a song for a comic book, right?

A Yeah, for a comic strip by Chris Ware, for McSweeney. He is a guy from Chicago, and I am a HUGE fan of his. He had a graphic novel out called Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth, it’s like, so sad, it’ll bum you out so hardcore, it’s almost cruel and unusual. But he’s such a genius, and I was over at John Flansburgh’s little Williamsburgh writing studio, working on a couple of things, and he was like, “oh, I’m doing music for this McSweeney’s thing”, and he hands me this big folder, and I’m looking through it and I find this Chris Ware thing, and I’m like, “oh God, you have to let me do the Chris Ware thing!”, so we did.

I think you go to mcsweeneys.com [NOTE: at the time of this interview, it looks like it’s at http://www.mcsweeneys.net]. I think it should be easy to find in a good indie bookstore. I think they have specific problems with things like Borders and Barnes and Noble – which I don’t really get, but they have. [laughs] So it goes.

Q Covers in your sets …

A It’s just such a beautiful song, it just got to a point where I was listening to it so much that I just kind of absorbed it. A lot of times I’ll start out songwriting by basically explicitly trying to rip something off. Sort of, you change this, that, and the other thing, and then ten steps later it’s something completely distinct from what you started out with, and what you started out trying to rip off. Things like that. I do a couple of Magnetic Fields songs every once in a while. “Strange Powers” is my jam. There’s things that…there’s no way to rip them off [laughing], they’re just too good to change anything in the whole house collapses. [?]

Q “Emulating”…

A There’s all sorts of things you can use, like specific chord progressions, and ways of phrasing things…I’m trying to think of an example…like, I listen to Elliott Smith for song structure. He’s just kind of got this linear thing that just goes and goes and goes and goes, as opposed to a real strict verse-chorus-verse style, that kind of thing.

Q Band?

A Well, I’ve been doing these arrangements at home, I just write ’em on a little sequencer, you know – drums and piano, horns, and whatever else you wanna throw into the mix. A lot of like, electric piano, is, like, my thing lately. You know, like old Wurlitzer sounds. I’m sort of undecided as to whether I’m gonna take a real electronic direction, and sort of loop everything, ’cause I’m really not super good at doing it all at home. I mean, it sounds…acceptable…but – like a demo. I don’t know – there’s all kinds of hardcore, old-school, New York session musicians that I’d really like to get in a room with and fuck around with for some time. There’s a bass player, this guy, Jonathan Marin, that I’ve been rehearsing with – writing with, a little bit, actually. He’s an old friend, he’s the guy from the Groove Collective. But it’s funny, because he’s sort of indulging his “inner Paul McCartney” on me. The songs we’ve been working on – it’s pretty different than what he’s been doing before.

But who knows, you know? [laughing] Who knows? I’m not really that worried about it, I think if you get really great players, and you kind of trust them, and don’t try and sort of over-manage what you want them to do, you’ll get really good results. I’m perfectly chilled about it.

Q Da Capo book …

A There was another critic at the New York Press that I was kind of having this argument with, about – he was like, “music isn’t really good unless it’s dangerous”. I just don’t think that music is that dangerous [laughing]. It’s funny, because his examples were like, The Ramones – the guys that did “California Sun” [laughing]

Q Korn, Limp Biz …

A It’s funny, but those bands are like, so emo, it’s unbelievable [laughing], so self-revelatory – like, this kind of painful expunging of personal sturm und drung, which is great, to see men being emotional; I dig that.

Q Distinction between rock and pop?

A Oh, I’m not really sure I do. I think that genre is something that is best determined from a distance of time. Like maybe, fifteen, twenty years in the future, you can look back at something and say “clearly this was this that and the other thing”.

Q So where does “small rock” fit into that picture?

A Basically it was just a joke, you know? [laughing] Just this one guy, and a guitar. I used to play with an extremely small guitar, a Baby Taylor – so… hence, small rock.

Q You’re not using that guitar anymore?

A No, I got a big guitar. Can you believe it? I sold out. I got a big expensive guitar.

Q That’s too bad, I bet it will be missed.

A Oh they sound great. But if you play you know 7500 gigs a year on ’em, they start to kind of burn up under your hands.

Q They’re essentially practice guitars, aren’t they?

A Yeah exactly, beginner guitars.

Q It’s amazing they hold up that well.

A Yeah, not super well [laughing].

Q One of their advertising lines is that they’ve “changed the playing and writing habits of guitarists all over the world.”

A Hey – they changed mine!

Q The Zhong Ruan …

A Yeah, I went over to Shanghai in October, and found this in a music store. I actually had arranged a couple of old Soul Coughing songs on it. It was kind of amusing. But, it’s kind of hard to mic. And, it’s a bit delicate, I don’t really want to bring it out on the road, because I don’t really know where I could get one of these things again [nervous laughter].

Maybe, I don’t know. I tend to find a couple of textures I really like, and kind of stick with ’em. Right now, I use a particular sort of drum sound, and that old Wurlitzer sound, and an acoustic guitar, and just sort of finding my way with that. I tend not to like records that are super textural, like, every song has a different texture.

Q Kramer …

A Yeah, he’s okay with the reverb, which is very rare these days [laughing]. He has these huge reverb plates running down the sides of his garage…so that the walls of his garage were…it sounded fuckin’ killer! It was great! He doesn’t have the same studio anymore. He’s not afraid of reverb!

Q Slanky …

A There’s just been some problems with Soft Skull, which is the little publishing company that’s putting it out, but it’s coming out, slowly but surely.

Q Is the chap book version completely gone?

A Other than the 5 or 10 copies layin’ around my house.

Q Will it be the same thing?

A No, it’s gonna be a different layout. It’ll look totally different, but the same content.

Q You once wrote an essay on the distinctions between a music writer vs. music critic; has your perception of that changed at all, in lieu of the different kinds of writing you’ve been involved with?

A Hmmm, I don’t really know how I could answer that. You’ve stumped the artist!

Q You don’t see it along those lines anymore?

A Yeah, I don’t know – movin’ on. Movin’ on.

© J.Free / D.A.M.F.; 2002; 2022

To read the published article as it appeared in the D.A.M.F. Magazine, GO HERE