Arranging the alternative: an interview with Mike Doughty

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Never reluctant to keep us guessing, intrigued, and thrilled by his consistently inventive creativity and releases, Mike Doughty recently gave the world his new album The Flip Is Another Honey. The release was an enthralling collection of covers given the unique imagination and vision of the Brooklyn singer songwriter, songs teased and seduced into little irresistible jewels crafted with mischief, invention, and inspired vision. The release of the album gave us a great opportunity to talk with Mike again and find out the inspiration and heart to The Flip Is Another Honey and more…

Hi Mike and welcome back to The Ringmaster Review.

Before we move on to your new album it seems you have been very busy since we last talked to you around the release of Yes And Also Yes. Are you a man who has to be creatively active or are you able to find down time in that respect to re-energise the artistic batteries?

I guess I don’t really do down time, artistically. I’m always working on something, even when I’m not working on something. When I’m on vacation, I relish journaling in an unusual place, and when I wander around, half my mind is on what I’m going to write about what I see.

You have just released the wonderful album The Flip Is Another Honey. I read you got the great title from an old Variety review in 1956 of the Jerry Lee Lewis single Crazy Arms. How did you come across this and how does it relate to the contents of your album?

The review was quoted in Nick Tosches’ “Hellfire”, which is a biography of Jerry Lee. Great book. The phrase basically means, “the B-side of this single is also really good.” I don’t know if I had a logical reason for picking the title–just an intuitive one.

Are the tracks you cover on The Flip Is Another Honey ones you grew up with, ones which inspired you at certain times, songs 487617_10151459081085200_1323909964_nwhich inspired ideas just for the release, or a mix of all?

They’re songs I’d been playing by myself in the green room, before and after shows. Some of them, improbably, sounded good in my voice-those are the ones I recorded. There are plenty songs I love to sing that sound shitty in my particular style, (and, on the ones that I sounded good in, I often had to omit or duck a high note in there someplace).

I learned “Country Roads” to impress my girlfriend, who’s from West Virginia (and, apropos of nothing here, has a giant tattoo of the cover of “Trout Mask Replica” on her ribcage.)

How long has the album been in the making from the first seeds of the idea and how long did the actual physical recording take?

It was quick. I had the tunes selected when I hired Kevin Salem to produce–we set a date six weeks later, I programmed and arranged the songs, and then I came up to Woodstock to lay it down. It took–four days? I think. Maybe five.

How easy or difficult was it to settle on the chosen 15 on the album?

I do my best to make those kinds of choices quickly, and intuitively, without a lot of psychic self-torture. So, easy.

Apart from three tracks with your long time collaborators pianist Dan Chen and cellist Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, you played every sound on the release. Does that also apply to the ideas and way you approached each song or did you engage thoughts of others on those?

I like to coax something unique out of the people I’m working with, rather than dictate. The people I play with are adept at jumping into a song with very general directions from me, and able to bring their full selves into the instrumental parts they create.

Obviously, I wrote all the parts on the album, but I also worked with Kevin, the producer, as I’d work with a musician–I tried his suggestions, like, “Why don’t you phrase the vocal like such-and-such?” Along those lines.

As much as I would love to ask questions about every track on The Flip Is Another Honey, we will look at the songs which lit the biggest fires inside if that is ok.

OK!

Firstly can I ask about your version of Take Me Home, Country Roads, a song I will admit I have never taken too and as good as your take on it is I am still not convinced but that is personal taste only ha ha. You brought the wonderful voice of Rosanne Cash into the song with you, how much persuasion did she need if any to lend her vocal charms to the song?

Virtually no persuasion. Super bizarrely, she’s a big fan of mine.

The album opens with the excellent Sunshine where you sample John Denver’s vocals to merge with your rapping. Where did the idea to approach it this way get its inspiration and when gaining permission from the John Denver estate for the use of the Denver sample did they have any inkling of how you would wonderfully interpret the song?

Often times, when listening to songs, I’ll pick out sample-able parts–it’s kind of a tic. I guess I just was listening to it on my headphones on the subway, and suddenly I heard the sample.

I was terrified that the John Denver estate would be super affronted that I’d messed around with their dude so oddly–I sent them the completed track–and I was thinking of other singers to do the part when they wrote back to say they were ultra-enthused about it. Weirdly. So great.

Mike DoughtyThe song is a major highlight on the album for us; did the track emerge on the finished record as you initially envisaged it when coming up with the idea?

Oh yeah. Being based around samples, there were fewer variables

Tell us about the two Cheap Trick covers Southern Girls and Reach Out. There is a passion in the tracks which suggests maybe this band had a big impact on you and your heart. 

Yes yes. Actually, when I was 13, I waited outside Eisenhower Hall in West Point, NY, to meet them. I asked Rick Nielsen to play “Reach Out”, and he was totally confused by that. I guess it was a song they threw onto the soundtrack of the animated movie “Heavy Metal” (super corny and great 80s sci-fi), and didn’t think much about. It was written by the bass player who filled in for Tom Petersson, when he was absent for a couple of years–maybe that indicated an also-ran-ness. But I loved it.

Reach Out merges seamlessly into the Josh Wink anthem Higher State of Consciousness. What sparked the allying of the two songs in one compelling encounter and was it always your intention or something which evolved during recording?

Totally evolved. As we were tracking guitars, I played the riff, absent-mindedly, as the playback track faded out, and Kevin was like, “Oh my god, play that part again.” He didn’t realize it wasn’t something I was just improvising!

For us the biggest pinnacle on the album of nothing but great heights is Ta Douleur. You give it a new breath and energy which escalates in the passions for an insatiable almost lustful pleasure. Tell us about the song and its meaning to you, the Camille original and what you have done with it.

I heard it on the radio–WFMU, which is a great New-York-area musical treasure–and iTunes’d it instantly, and listened obsessively. I have a pretty believable French accent, because my dad worked in Belgium for a year when I was a kid–didn’t pick up much of the language, but I absorbed the pronunciations–and I messed around with the tune just to see what it was like–and I liked it. Now, I did have to eliminate the sections that I was unable to sing, which excise a little bit of the elegance, but turn the song into kind of an unstoppable train. Honestly, I could only pick out a few phrases here and there that I could understand in French, and didn’t really understand the overall until I Google-translated the lyrics.

Some songs you have covered faithfully in your own inimitable style and others you have re-invented. What sparked either decision on each song which way to approach them and have any subsequent ideas not used for the album stayed alive in thoughts for an unveiling at some future point?

I made a deal with myself not to do any Magnetic Fields covers. I’ve done a whole bunch of them, throughout my recordings. But, I have ideas for arrangements of covers of three or four more Magnetic Fields songs! It’s an involuntary function of my consciousness.

Claudia, their drummer and manager, asked me to open for them on a tour a few years ago–I already had my own tour booked, and it broke my heart that I had to say no. I literally could’ve gone to them and said, “Listen, whatever songs you’re not playing in the show, I’ll play them–I will do the part of your repertoire you’re not doing!”

There are a couple of show tunes on the album too, is that a medium you would consider writing for, like to create a soundtrack for a musical?

I actually studied playwriting, intensively, and still write one-acts for the 24 Hour Company, sometimes. Couple years back, they did a benefit on Broadway and I had Julia Stiles and Michael Kenneth Williams–the guy who played the iconic role of Omar on “The Wire”–in mine.

But, no plans, as yet.

Is The Flip Is Another Honey a project you might follow-up with a similarly inspired release at some point?553922_10150926960595200_77130733_n

Quite possibly. I think that, as singers get older, they become more nuanced interpreters of songs–both their own, and others’

What is next for Mike Doughty, creatively and to narrow it down musically?

I’m messing around with songs I wrote for Soul Coughing, trying to figure out how to reclaim them.

Many thanks for taking time to talk with us Mike.

You’re very welcome–thanks for your support!

Would you like to send give us a sales pitch for people to check out your excellent album The Flip Is Another Honey? 😉

THE FLIP COMES WITH FREE CANDY AND PIE!

And finally are there any other songs that you would love to put your distinct touch upon which did not come up on the album?

Allow me to delve into fantasyland for this question–I so wish I could do justice to Sam Cooke’s songs. What an incredible voice that guy had.

The RingMaster Review 08/03/2013

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