After the Music Stops
Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing discusses managing a drug habit alongside a major label recording career, relearning to write songs after getting sober and his love of the albums John Coltrane recorded in sobriety.
Singer-songwriter and author Mike Doughty first gained notoriety in the 90s when he fronted the critically acclaimed and commercially successful band Soul Coughing. After the band disbanded in 2000, Doughty reinvented himself as a prolific and successful solo musician.
In 2012, Doughty released Book of Drugs, a memoir that delineates both the dark and dysfunctional dynamic of his former band as well as his battle with drugs and alcohol and his path to recovery.
Doughty sat down with The Fix to discuss managing a drug habit alongside a major label recording career, relearning to write songs after getting sober, and his love of the albums John Coltrane recorded in sobriety.
How long did you use [drugs and alcohol] in total?
Well, I guess I started when I was 16 and I didn’t really lose control until the last couple of years of it. Basically, the heroin binge that brought it to an end was in 1999 and then with alcohol shortly thereafter. But, I was basically, I had a decent grip on being functional. I guess when I was 18 or 19, that’s when I became a daily weed smoker. That’s when it became a career. Like, an everyday, full-time thing. So, I guess 11, 12 years? Not that long.
And you’ve been sober for 14 years?
Wow, so you’ve been sober for longer than you used drugs and alcohol.
Wow, I have never even thought about it that way. Wow, that’s trippy.
Now that you have a good bit of time under your belt, does it take more effort to remember what it was like before you got clean?
Yes. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody who is newly clean and it’s just, you know, it’s a bracing reminder. I spoke at a detox the other night and it’s really like, just startling. And equally startling that you can go through your life not remembering how bad it got. But, I guess that is a question of having a baseline sense of gratitude in your life.
So, back when you were a major label recording artist at the same time that you were feeding this substantial drug habit—at what point did it become the most difficult to maintain your addiction while keeping your career afloat?
I don’t know that I ever really had a problem maintaining the sort of work aspect of being an addict. There was a certain level where I had just given up. I was in this very dysfunctional band and there was this certain level where I had let the inmates run the asylum. Occasionally I would have to get my shit together. So, “Circles” was the big Soul Coughing single at the end and that I actually had to get my shit together to write because otherwise, we wouldn’t have existed as a band and wouldn’t have given anything to Warner Brothers that would be sufficiently worthwhile for them to work. Other than that song, I was basically going into the studio and laying down some half-assed vocal before taking off. There were a few things I really got my shit together to write and to make good.
Otherwise I did the “Nestea plunge.” [opens his arms wide and mimics falling backwards]
The time where you left that dysfunctional band relationship and the time you got sober coincide and it doesn’t seem like that is an accident.
Probably not. The real sort of bottom was right after I left Soul Coughing and went on my first solo tour where I was drunk and pissing myself the whole time, essentially. But yeah, just in the sense that everything got to its worst point at the same time. It looks like a very clean ‘and then I gave it all up’ at one time but it had been at sufficiently advanced levels of degradation at the same time.
After getting clean, you were facing the prospect of writing, performing and recording music as a sober person. Was there any part of you that was afraid start writing music without the drugs?
There was every part of me that was afraid to give up the drugs, know what I mean? So, I guess I was kind of known for a kind of surrealism when I was in my 20s. And I really thought that was impossible without drugs, or without hallucinogens, at the very least.
What was your last straw before getting clean?
Well, I had this really long heroin binge. One of the things about heroin is if you have it in your story and you’re public about it, everyone gravitates to that because it’s scary. You story seems much less nuanced. When really, it was weed, it was Ecstasy. There were all kinds of substances that were equally as detrimental.
But what got me clean was the fact that I became a real shakes in the morning, pissing on myself alcoholic-alcoholic. I had previously felt that even as a heroin addict, there was something acceptable about that where there was this history of drunkenness in my family and I felt that as long as I stayed aloof from that, I was basically okay, no matter how degraded it got. As long as I wasn’t an alcoholic it was okay.
And when it just became undeniable that I was an alcoholic, that’s when it started to look like I was powerless.
So, as generally scary as heroin is perceived, drinking is the one thing you swore to yourself you would never do.
Oh yeah! You know, it’s one of the unfortunate things about being a heroin addict is that people attribute this kind of bad-assness to your story that I don’t have at all. I think your average opiates addict and people into Oxy or Vicodin or whatever are in the exact same boat. I mean, fundamentally, heroin gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. And when you hear some super tough junkie guy being like [mimics a kind of tough guy growl] you’re like ‘...and you spent your life looking for a warm and fuzzy feeling.’ It’s the drug equivalent of a jacuzzi full of teddy bears and you’re acting like you’re such a bad-ass.
In your book, you talked about being in this physically broken down state where it took you like 45 minutes to go to the corner ATM and then 45 minutes to walk back from the corner ATM. And the rest of the day was just spent in your apartment waiting for your dealer.
Denial is really extraordinary. It’s funny, you say that and I don’t think about it on a daily basis.
And I was able to create for like, 5 minutes after I used and then the rest of life was utterly unproductive.
I have semantic issues with the word ‘disease.’ I would maybe prefer the term ‘illness’ or ‘syndrome’, but, if you think about it, you’re really doing stuff that is contrary to being an organism. Like, evolutionarily, we did not develop this sense of “okay, I’m doing this thing that is killing me, and it is very apparent, but everything in my brain is telling me that I should stop doing this thing that is going to end my life’ is going to disperse so I will die.’ No. There’s no evolutionary argument for addiction as something that we developed meaningfully.
So how long did it take for you to start writing music again after getting clean in 2000?
It took me a long time. I got a deal to make a 4 song demo. I got a chunk of money to make this demo and it was so incredibly bad that it was shocking how bad it was. It was like, holy shit, I had blown out my ability to completely do anything.
I had lucked into a sustainable touring career as a solo guy, because I had a made a record, Skittish, my acoustic record, before the end of the band and before the real terrible days of my addiction. So, I had something to tour on. But in terms of my really having a career again, I had to figure out how to be a songwriter kind of from square one. I started going through the journals I was keeping in recovery. I was kind of scrawling and scrawling and sitting and inhaling espressos and scrawling and scrawling and I was sort of just go in and pick out phrases and I would compile a list. Then I would sort of have the instrumental, melodic process that I would attach to certain phrases and sort of mash them together and that’s really how I learned to be a songwriter again.
The first real burst of great songs came, and it was probably the most fertile period of songwriting in my life was right after September 11th, so I probably had about a year and a half [sober].
So, it took that long to be confident in your songwriting ability?
It took that long to be functional. I don’t know how confident I was. For one thing, I had a sponsor who was a recording artist and he was like [effects raspy voice] "You ever read a song that was ‘Oh, booze! I love you, booze! I miss you!’" Sort of the idea of disguising those songs as love songs. So I started writing those, which was a tremendous source of genuine feeling of betrayal and longing for something that you know is not good for you. Something that was immediately translatable to songwriting.
Was it difficult to have to immediately play music in bars right after getting sober?
I don’t think that in and of itself was triggering for me. At that point, I was such an isolator. I mean, I did a fair amount of drinking in bars, but mostly I was just in a hotel room alone.
Alone with a mini-bar, too.
Oh my God, that was so expensive.
Yeah, I went to Thailand when I had under a year sober, which was the dumbest thing I had ever done in my life. The mini-bar bottles were these huge bottles and they weren’t locked away, so they were sitting right there in the open so you could see them from your bed as you try to fall asleep. That was pretty intense.
Was that one of the biggest challenges of your early sobriety?
I think I was too messed up to know that it was a challenge. My dysfunctionality as a thinking being was key to my ability to stay sober [laughs].
I think if I was in my right mind, I would have been more afraid. You know, completely starting my life over as an artist, but as it was, I was too messed up to even notice that.
You recently put out a record where you reworked a lot of your Soul Coughing songs. What was it like to revisit the songs you wrote before you got sober now that you have a clearer head?
Most of them pre-date the real period of total degradation. And it’s a much more abstract process to record a song than it is to talk to somebody about a song. So, what’s much more difficult to me is not playing the songs and recording. That you can step to very nebulously. What’s difficult is talking to somebody who wants to tell you about their life when they were 23 and how the song is meaningful to them. And that is really difficult.
When somebody is sort of pummeling you with their memories and it has very little to do with you. It’s like, you don’t know me, you’re talking to me about a record that I haven’t listened to since the day I recorded it. That is way more triggering and emotionally hazardous than just a song.
Ever since your memoir came out, do you find that people reach out to you regarding their own struggles with substance abuse?
Yeah. Not a lot of musicians, but certainly a lot of fans. I’m really surprised because I really did my best to not be an example. Like, I wasn’t trying to bring a message of recovery to the world, I was just trying to tell a story, but I guess that in and of itself is more powerful than trying to say you must do this and you must do that.
I also have become a much stronger writer in recovery. A lot of people when they get sober, they dedicate themselves to their family or their relationships or they enter a new phase in life that is not necessarily embroiled with their creativity and I really made it all about the work when I got sober. And I think more and more, really, like kids are getting sober. Like, there was not a Macklemore of my day. More and more, there are examples of people who got rid of substance abuse problems and focused on the work.
So, what it sounds like you’re saying is that you were once afraid to give up the drugs because you thought your art would suffer, but it turns out that your art improved.
One of the great moments was that I read the liner notes to A Love Supreme, The Coltrane album. Coltrane is everything to me, a tremendously important beacon to me. And he’s basically quoting the 12 steps in those liner notes. And what is key about Coltrane is that he didn’t get clean and figure out how to make commercial records, which is mostly what people did before this era. He got so much weirder after he got clean. He made a couple of them, like, what was it... Coltrane Does Ballads? But the rest of it was like Sun Ship and Living Space. These albums that are just so freaky. That to me was just a powerful example of real, fiery, spiritual creativity.
Maggie Serota is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last interviewed Matt Fraction.