Mike Doughty: The Making of the Small Rock Singer-Songwriter Mike Doughty begins the first day of his self-proclaimed 'Small Rock World Tour' by taking caller questions and performing songs from his new album Haughty Melodic at NPR's Washington studios. Doughty is the former frontman for the group Soul Coughing.

Mike Doughty: The Making of the Small Rock

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. A military judge has rejected a guilty plea from Army Private Lynndie England. She's charged with abusing prisoners in Iraq. The judged made the decision after testimony that England may have believed she was taking part in a legitimate training exercise. And a new report says that Army officials knew that former NFL player Pat Tillman had been killed by so-called friendly fire in Afghanistan, but the Army delayed informing Tillman's family. More on those stories coming up later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, all the creativity and cool that fuels the life of a jazz musician doesn't mean a lot when old age arrives without retirement, savings or Social Security. We'll talk about making a living in the jazz business tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Guitarist Mike Doughty's solo career started back in 2000 when his jazzy, genre-bending group Soul Coughing disbanded. As its lead singer, Doughty found himself with an album's worth of songs, but no band to play them. He had already recorded a solo album years earlier, but never released it. So Doughty did something few musicians who've toured the world with major-label backing would: He threw his guitar in the trunk of his car and hit the road. To his amazement, people across the country sang along to songs that he'd never released or even performed on stage. A leak on Napster had found its way to an adoring audience. Doughty took the hint and continued touring on his own, self-releasing several albums. His first fully-produced debut full-length release, "Haughty Melodic," came out yesterday. Tonight in Washington, DC, he opens his self-proclaimed Small Rock World Tour. If you've been listening, he's been playing a little accompaniment to the news headlines with us here in Studio 3A.

If you have questions for Mike Doughty about life or music on the road, give us a call: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

Mike Doughty, congratulations on the new album. Welcome to Studio 3A...

Mr. MIKE DOUGHTY (Musician): Oh, thanks a lot.

CONAN: ...and TALK OF THE NATION. Since today's the start of your tour, why don't you start us off with a song?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sounds good.

(Soundbite of "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well")

Mr. DOUGHTY: (Singing) A Cuban girl from below, she had that skin so fine, (unintelligible) right now. Her mouth was wide, sweet as well. Now I'm a little less ...(unintelligible) dreaming up her spell. I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well and lonely. And the only way to beat it is to bat it down, the only way to beat it is to bat it down, the only way to beat it is to bat it down, feed it lonely. And the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down.

Through all the days that I have run, I start to lose that cloud that's blacking out the sun. My train will come some one day soon, and when it comes I'll ride about from night till noon. I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And aimless days, uncool ways of being affected, painless days, blacked-out thoughts ...(unintelligible) protect them. Lonely, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down. Lonely, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down, and the only way to beat it is to bat it down.

Well, let's get down to business now. I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well. And I feel as if I'm looking at the world from the bottom of a well.

CONAN: "Looking at the World from a Bottom of a Well" from Mike Doughty's new album, "Haughty Melodic."

Mike, what's exactly a Small Rock Tour?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Small Rock. Well, you know, I was in Soul Coughing for a bunch of years, and it was a very big sound. And I just started joking about it when I got out on the road, just me and a guitar, that it was small rock. Actually, I heard an interview with David Lee Roth when he went from his "Crazy from the Heat" period back into whatever kind of rock band it was, and he said, `My heart's always been in big rock.' That always stuck with me. And I thought, `Well, my heart is in small rock.'

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, I don't think there's a kid on the planet who has not, you know, lip-synced into a lightbulb or something and imagined himself on stage with, you know, 14,000 amplifiers...

Mr. DOUGHTY: (Laughs) Yeah.

CONAN: ...and 12 guitars, and--do you miss that at all?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Well, we never had quite 14,000 amplifiers. We were in, like, the high 5,000 range. But--yeah. I mean, it is what it is, you know? Like, I guess I miss it. I'm getting back into it. I did a record with the band, and--yeah.

CONAN: Well, this record has a band in it...

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sure.

CONAN: ...but then again, you're back with your guitar promoting it by yourself.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah, yeah. Me and a piano player.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah, well, it's the Farewell to Small Rock Tour. It's like, goodbye, small rock, we barely knew you.

CONAN: Well, if you could work like this Cher, you could do this for the rest of your career.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Exactly. Yes, that's--you hit on the secret plan. Dang.

CONAN: But it must be fun--you know, you're obviously in smaller venues than you used to play in.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sure.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sure.

CONAN: I mean, you used to open for the Dave Matthews Band. And that must have been...

Mr. DOUGHTY: Well, I'm still opening for them on Randall's Island in New York in July.

CONAN: Well, that's cool.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah. Yeah. So...

CONAN: Yeah. Well, there's some people who want to talk to you on the phone.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Oh--cool.

CONAN: If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org.

Let's talk with Jeffrey. And he's calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

JEFFREY (Caller): Hi, guys. First and foremost--huge fan of the show, and...

CONAN: Thank you.

JEFFREY: ...Mike, huge fan of yours, man.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Oh. Thanks.

JEFFREY: I guess my question for you really was, where did Soul Coughing really get their genre from, you guys. I mean, the music you all produced was amazing. And nobody had ever done anything like that or since. And I just--I guess it amazed me what you guys did, and it still does to this day. I've just recently introduced several friends here in Tulsa who had never even heard of you guys to your music. And they're now, of course, all in love with you. Where did you all get that sound from?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Well...

JEFFREY: And I'll take my answer off the air, by the way.

CONAN: Thanks for calling, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY: Thanks.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Jeez, I don't know. It's just kind of what I was listening to. A lot of hip-hop, a lot of sort of Knitting Factory experimental music. You know, my thing has just always been trying to assimilate everything I've been listening to into a bunch of songs, really. You know, I pick collaborators that I really like, I trust them. I get, you know, musicians that I just dig everything they do and they surprise me. And--yeah, I mean, then as now. The same deal. Yeah.

CONAN: I've read interviews that you said that when you were with Soul Coughing, it was a bit of a commercial product. You were knowledgeably...

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sure.

CONAN: ...out there for the money.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Sure. Sure. Well, I mean, you know...

CONAN: I mean, all of us are in the business to get paid, but...

Mr. DOUGHTY: Exactly. You know, my landlord would be very surprised to learn otherwise. But yeah, I mean--yeah, towards the end, Soul Coughing got very--I got very cynical about Soul Coughing, and, I mean, it had a lot to do with me breaking it all down and going small rock.

CONAN: Let's go to an e-mail, this from Jason in Phoenix, Arizona. `I'm wondering if Mike Doughty could talk a little bit about where he gets his lyrical inspirations from. For instance, I know he's a fan of the silent film actress Louise Brooks...

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah.

CONAN: ...who's referenced in some Soul Coughing songs. Does she still figure into his creative output. I'm a big fan of both Mr. Doughty and Ms. Brooks.'

Mr. DOUGHTY: Geez. Well, I have a tattoo of her on my arm. So...

CONAN: Oh, I see her there. Yes.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There she is. Yeah, there's actually a picture of it in the package of the CD. I don't know, man. I'm always--I sort of get up in the morning and journal a lot and pick phrases out of there. And I sort of have this, I don't know, kind of file of phrases culled from the journals that I just plug into melodies, plug into chord progressions. And, you know, it's kind of catch as catch can. And I usually pick stuff without really thinking about what it means and sort of, you know, try and find something that really engages me. And then usually, like, a year or two later, I'm, like, `Oh, that's exactly what that means.' Like, it becomes incredibly clear what I was going through, what I was thinking about.

CONAN: You've not only studied poetry, you've written a book of poetry.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah, I've written a book of poetry, yeah.

CONAN: And we tend to think of--you know, the first thought of poetry is, you know, somebody, you know, opening up their veins and agonizing in the dark. And I--your stuff is pretty funny.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, that's--but it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to be the opening up of the veins and the...

CONAN: (Laughs)

Mr. DOUGHTY: ...blood spilling...

CONAN: We're not supposed to laugh at those parts.

Mr. DOUGHTY: The blackness of my Germanic muse.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Troy. Troy's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

TROY (Caller): Hi. Hi, guys. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TROY: I just wanted to say that one of the best shows I ever saw was in Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans with Soul Coughing opening up for Jeff Buckley.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Oh, really?

TROY: And I just wanted to tell you how much I like your music, and I look forward to getting your album. And I wondered, can you--now that Jeff Buckley has passed away, do you have any memories of him or anything interesting since he's sort of becoming almost legendary, being dead and everything?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Well, I do have a song that's about him, a song called "Gray Ghost" on the new album--which, unfortunately, I'm in the wrong tuning to play right now. But, yeah, I mean, he and I were sort of local musicians in New York around the same time, and we used to sort of hang around this theater group, the Atrium Theatre Company. I hooked him up with a director that actually directed him in a production of "Wojtczak,"(ph) which is just bizarre--it freaks people out, you know, Jeff Buckley as "Wojtczak." But yeah, you know, I mean, what a fantastic, haunted individual, a very crowd-pleasing kind of a guy; you know, very much a people-pleaser, always. He helped me move once, which was just really bizarre. I hadn't spoken to him in, like, two months, and he called me and said, `Hey, what's going on?' `Well, I'm moving, you know.' `Well, I'll come over and help.' Like, `Dude, I'm moving to a fifth-floor walk-up.' He said, `No, I'll be right over.'

CONAN: You got my old apartment. Yeah.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, dude.

CONAN: We're talking with singer-songwriter Mike Doughty. His new album is "Haughty Melodic." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Are you in the right tuning to play "White Lexus"?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yes, I am.

CONAN: By chance. Go ahead.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Here we go.

(Soundbite of "White Lexus")

Mr. DOUGHTY: (Singing) Please show me how to live. Please show me how to have a day. I don't want to wake up now. Why do I have to wake up anyway? Like a soap star in anguish ...(unintelligible) when your white Lexus comes around the way, I lay along the driveway, try to feel nothing on command, when your white Lexus comes ...(unintelligible) be damned.

I'll forgive the world right now. Still, I play the chump's role every time. My world's the surface of the moon, my heart's down in a diamond mine, like the black stars of Memphis moaning on when your white Lexus comes to drive me out, drive me to the edge of town. Try to feel nothing on command when your white Lexus comes, ...(unintelligible) be damned. Damn, it's the last (unintelligible) man, when your white Lexus comes, when your white Lexus comes, when your white Lexus comes.

CONAN: Mike Doughty. His album again, "Haughty Melodic."

Here's an e-mail question from Noel (pronounced no-EL) or perhaps Noel (pronounced noal); I don't know how to pronounce it. `We too are a band struggling to find a label and wonder how you finally did so successfully after breaking from the major-label record companies. What advice might you have?'

Mr. DOUGHTY: Well, I--first of all, when I got off of Warner Bros., when I was dropped from Warner Bros., it was tremendously freeing for me because I had an audience, and I could just put a guitar in the trunk of a car and go around the country and play to them.

CONAN: Still had enough of a name to make a living going around the country.

Mr. DOUGHTY: And essentially Napster saved me.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. DOUGHTY: Yeah. I mean, essentially, like, I had made this record that Warner Bros. wasn't interested in. They shelved it, they gave it back to me, and, you know, no thanks. And then I went out and discovered that people had been downloading it for years and knew all the songs by heart, and it really had sort of found its own life. So, I mean, to me, it looks like it is possible to do it without a record company. I don't think it's quite as possible yet, especially if you're a new band. I think if you don't have an audience yet, I mean, it's much more difficult. It's not like you have something to naturally attract people to you. But, I mean, the record companies are fighting for their lives right now. And, I mean, anything you can do to be your own entity, you know, to put your MP3s up on the Web, to tour locally--I mean, DIY. DIY, DIY, DIY. I mean, it's--you know, it's how everybody does it, you know. I mean, there's always a big explosion of bands getting signed and getting a million dollars, and then it goes bust, and then everyone's doing DIY again. So--we're in a bust cycle. So DIY is the way to go.

CONAN: And do you find that because of the Internet and places like Napster, that, you know, the requirements for doing this--it's not all that expensive to do?

Mr. DOUGHTY: I should say it's not that expensive for me. I mean, it's been tempting for some press people to look at my career and go, `Oh, it proves that file-sharing is the savior of the music business.' But, in fact, you know, I've been--you know, it was Warner Bros.' money that put me on the road in 1994, and, you now, rented me a van and hired me a sound guy. So, you know, you can't really look at me as a phenomenon of, you know, the populist Internet.

CONAN: Mike Doughty, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Oh, thanks.

CONAN: Good luck on the road.

Mr. DOUGHTY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Mike Doughty's latest album is "Haughty Melodic." To hear more of Mike's music and to see pictures of his performance today, you can go online to npr.org. We'll end today with a track from the new album. This is "Unsignable Name."

(Soundbite of "Unsingable Name")

Mr. DOUGHTY: (Singing) ...bells around me ring. Chime, unsingable name over everything. Sweet and plain, unsingable name that rings in my mind now, that strums me like a string. Chime, unsingable name over everything.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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