Mike Doughty, singer, songwriter, quirky troubadour, traveling sage of wordplay, whatever you want to call him, the one time front man of the innovative alternative rock band Soul Coughing has since moved on to create what he has dubbed "Small Rock." Incorporating inventive lyrics, inspired melodies, and an often Lo-Fi intimacy, Doughty's music offers something for any rock fan. His latest release, Sad Man, Happy Man, is in stores and available now. The iTunes store offers several bonus tracks including a cover of the School House Rock classic "Three Is A Magic Number." Doughty is currently touring with cellist Andrew "Scrap" Livingston on one of his infamous question jar tours. You can find just about anything you need to know about Mike that you don't learn in this interview, including tour dates, on his website: MikeDoughty.com.
WI: You have a knack for turning phrases upside down, playing with sound as much as sense. Granted, we all get better with practice, but is that something that has come more or less naturally for you or something you had to work hard to cultivate?
MD: No, it really came naturally to me. I look at it and, you know, I just started doing strange things with words. I've just always been fascinated by the musicality of the English language.
WI: When I was a little kid I wore out an LP of Johnny Horton's greatest hits and ran around town singing "Tom Dooley." What musical weirdness marked your childhood?
MD: The Muppet Movie Soundtrack was very big for me. Totally great soundtrack.
WI: You've toured with almost every variation of a "band," from solo acoustic performer to full band front man. Do you have a favorite configuration or do they fit you equally well?
MD: I'm into all of them. I've been touring with just me and Scrap playing cello for, gosh, a couple of years now and I've been thinking, I think it's way too early to, you know, to write it in stone, but I think somewhere I'm going to tour with a little trio, with a drummer.
WI: When you started your question jar tours you must have had something in mind; what's the one question you've never been asked that you always wish someone would? And what's the answer?
MD: The questions that I like are the super weird ones, so, I mean, that's it. Hopefully there's [a question] out there that I cannot even imagine that's just mindblowingly strange and allows me to go off on a riff for a little while.
WI: That does seem to be something you enjoy, that repartee with the audience. Is that true? Is that a factor in how you organize your shows and come up with sets, etc.?
MD: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I like to keep it fresh and make a real well-oiled communication with the audience.
Recently we've just been going out and playing and I've just been calling the songs audibly, what comes next, when we're there. But there are certain patterns. All the songs that I do in certain keys are clumped together. Other songs are good openers, or good closers. But it's all just sort of made up on the spot as far as the set list.
WI: Of all the artists and musicians out there, with whom would you most like to collaborate and what are the chances of it happening?
MD: Who would I like to collaborate with...I don't know, nobody jumps into my mind but it would have to be somebody doing something very differently than what I'm doing. The people I listen to are guys like Jose Gonzales and Bon Iver and other sort of folky dudes. But, I don't know. It would be interesting to collaborate with a classical guy, sort of like a modern classical guy. It would be interesting to collaborate with somebody who makes beats, DJs, producers, stuff like that. Just something out of left field. What interests me most is just challenging myself.
WI: Paula's out. Ellen's in, but sick. You get an urgent call to fill in as guest judge on American Idol, how do you reply? Which end of the judging spectrum do you think you'd fall into, totally honest or too nice?
MD: I'd be really good at it. I'd be really good at it, I swear to God. I would love that gig. Are you kidding me? Yeah.
I'm not mean, so I wouldn't be on the Simon Cowell end of things. And my point of view is a little bit different than the rest of the world so it would probably be pretty much but not quite a drunken Paula Abdul situation, but, I don't know, people would be wondering whether I'm on drugs probably.
WI: Many of your songs, it seems, are about loss, the ending of relationships or relationships dissolving before your eyes, and yet there seems to be a pervasive sense of hope to your songs. Is that hopefulness merely a rhetorical device, something you give your characters because you want the world to be a hopeful place, or is it an integral part of Mike Doughty?
MD: It's an integral part of myself, I'm just sort of naturally hopeful. But at the same time, you're right, I'm attracted to themes of loss, themes of yearning, stuff like that; but altogether, in my life I'm pretty overwhelmingly positive as a human being.
WI: You've made some interesting cover choices including the Schoolhouse Rock classic "Three Is A Magic Number" on the newest album. Schoolhouse rock was a really creative way to teach kids. You're a creative guy. If you could recommend one thing to inspire creativity in others, especially young children, what would it be?
MD: Oh my God. I mean, my inspirations are pretty mundane. I'm not a guy who avoids television. I read, but I don't read a tremendous amount. Just keep your ears open. Just listen to the world around you. Absorb. Absorb everything.
WI: We end every interview with word association. I say wombat and you say...
MD: Star Wars. That's two words. There actually is a thing about killing wombats in Star Wars. There's a scene there where they're killing wombats, Luke Skywalker does, in the early part of the movie, so I always think of Star Wars.