Alternative pop band
Most artists borrow from their predecessors, and those most diverse in their inspiration are dubbed “eclectic.” Those bold enough to incorporate such far-flung styles as Soul Coughing does are deemed “eccentric.” That label, among others more and less flattering, has greeted the band that dares to combine rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, funk, spoken word, and recorded samples of everything from blues man Howlin’ Wolf and reggae band Toots & the Maytals, to assorted elephant sounds, slowed down voices, and unidentifiable squeals. “Everything is possible,” drummer Yuval Gabay told SonicNet, a website featuring music news and broadcasts. “It’s not about style or genre—we’ll try an idea and experiment with any sound.” Emerging from the New York City club scene in 1992 with little more than a commitment to finding out what comes after rock music, the band became a quick success in the alternative and college music scene. From 1994 to 1997 they released two critically acclaimed albums, toured the United States and Europe on the Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. tours, and appeared in a number of mass culture outlets like the Late Night with Conan O’Brien, HBO, The X Files, and the Howard Stern Show.
As the group’s wordsmith, performance front man and all-around cultural commentator, Michael Doughty is clearly Soul Coughing’s central presence. Known as “M. Doughty,” or most often just “Doughty,” the artist’s early life was that of the “Army brat.” He experienced cultures as different as Leavenworth, Kansas and Belgium before his family settled in West Point, New York, where his father taught military history. Before Soul Coughing became a staple of New York alternative music clubs like the Wetlands and Irving Plaza, Doughty counted Greenwich Village’s Knitting Factory as his primary source of employment. In addition to penning music reviews for the weekly New York Press, he was a six-dollar-an-hour doorman at the nightclub that hosted a range of alternative and experimental acts and served as a sort of social club for struggling musicians. Here Doughty met keyboardist Mark De Gli Antoni, who was pursuing a master’s degree in composition at the Mannes Conservatory of Music and playing with Knitting Factory regulars like jazz saxophonist John Zorn. Israeli-born drummer Gabay and upright bass player Sebastian Steinberg were recruited soon after.
Having been in numerous groups that had run the gamut from 60s-heavy improvisational jam bands to hardcore punk outfits, Doughty was looking for something new. “I was buying a lot of rock records and none of them appealed to me,” he told Stephen Rodrick in Details. “I turned entirely to hip-hop. I wanted something that reflected A Tribe Called Quest, but I’m not an M.C. I was trying to do a James Brown thing, with myself
Members include Mark De Gli Antoni, keyboards, samples, background vocals; Michael Doughty (born June 10, 1970), vocals, guitar; Yuval Gabay (born in Israel), drums, background vocals; Sebastian Steinberg, acoustic bass, bull fiddle, background vocals.
Group formed in New York City, 1992; signed to Slash/Warner and released debut LP Rudy Vroom, received four-star review in Rolling Stone, 1994; released Sugar Free Jazz remix CD, 1995; released Irresistible Bliss, 1996; contributed song to the X-Files television show and to Songs In The Key Of X: Music From The X-Files compilation CD; appeared on HBO program Reverb and performed on Howard Stem radio show, 1997; contributed to Batman & Robin soundtrack, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Slash/Warner Bros., Band —Soul Coughing, PO Box 773, New York, NY 10108. E-mail —[email protected] Website —Official Soul Coughing site: www.soulcoughing.com.
talking over something, and the music just became one animal.” True to the band’s later fluid, improvisational style, their first sessions were rooted in little more than that common desire for novelty, and little preparation went into their first show. Securing a two o’clock a.m. time slot at the Knitting Factory, Doughty assembled the group to play for an uninspiring 17 people. However, the group continued to coalesce around a distinctive jazzy-rock sound, the late night shows became more and more popular, eventually evolving into crowded Friday night parties at CB’s Gallery, the sister club to the famous CBGB’s in New York’s East Village.
Within a year this buzz had produced a recording contract with the Warner Brothers subsidiary, Slash Records. This was not a typical trajectory for an alternative band, which usually start out on smaller, independent labels like Sub Pop or Matador, or even with self-financed recordings. The band marveled at the speed of their acceptance by the music industry. “By the time I joined this band, I’d had a bellyful of chasing record contracts,” bassist Sebastian Steinberg told Rolling Stone’s David Sprague in 1996. “So when we started getting [record label] offers, I couldn’t believe it.” Instead of testing the market with a less expensive EP, as many labels do with a new alternative rock act, Slash released the first Soul Coughing album, Ruby Vroom, in 1994. Critical acclaim followed, including a four-star rating from Rolling Stone and an “A” from Entertainment Weekly. The release also sold well for its category—over 70,000 copies by mid-1996, according to SoundScan data.
The band’s name, which is slang for heavy vomiting, apparently came from a poem Doughty wrote about Neil Young. The members liked the sound of it and the name stuck. Writing for America Online’s music reviews, Smith Galtney compared the name to the Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul, citing John Lennon’s word play on the incongruity between the white musicians and the soul music feel they were trying to achieve.
Soul Coughing’s unique sound has to be heard—or better yet witnessed—to be fathomed, but Rolling Stone’s review of Ruby Vroom called the band “hip-hop, spoken word, dance hall, Manhattan’s avant-garde scene, Ken Nordine and straight jazz without being any one of them or even a hyphenated combination.” What one might expect to sound like a hodgepodge of dissonant styles is in fact brought under one roof. Writing in Details, Stephen Rodrick called them an art-rock band and compared their ability to meld a wide variety of musical influences to that of 1980s eclecti-pop stars the Talking Heads: “Soul Coughing appropriate a collection of disparate postmodern sounds—from hip-hop to synth-pop—and they do it cleverly enough to get overeducated white kids up and dancing.”
The band kept a lot of kids dancing, touring almost constantly in the U.S. and Europe with bands like Girls Against Boys, The Dave Matthews Band and Jeff Buckley. Their second album, Irresistible Bliss, released in July of 1996, revealed a move in the direction of mainstream pop music, sticking closer to the three-minute standard than in the first record. But in doing so Soul Coughing sacrificed none of its trademark bizarreness. Rating the album a seven (out of ten), A New Musical Express writer said this of the band’s sophomore effort: “There’s enough cool cat invention, liquidated guitars and squirming pop hooks … to stun a small elk at 500 paces…. What happens after rock? Indefinable bliss.” Two singles were released from the album, the jaunty “Soft Serve” and the fat-bass-thrusting “Super Bon Bon.” Both had chart success, with the former reaching number two in alternative radio rotation (behind mega-stars U2) and the latter reaching number 30 on Modern Rock Tracks.
Doughty’s album lyrics and live vocal improvisations inspire more than the usual fan club devotion to what a band is trying to say. The lyrics have been referred to as everything from “abstract art rants and bleatings of trash-culture poetry” in Details to “spoken word ramblings” in the New York Observer and are inevitably linked to the Beat poets, a comparison clearly irksome to Doughty. “The Beats must have been the best marketers in history, since anyone who mentions poetry is called a Beat,” he quipped to Rolling Stone in 1996. “What about Whitman?” But nevertheless the similarities are there in refrains such as, “Collapse, unload it; pop pop, I must accumulate,” from “Collapse,” a song on Irresistible Bliss about rampant consumerism. Other choice lyrics include those in Ruby Vroom’s “True Dreams of Wichita:” “Brooklyn like a sea in the asphalt stalks/Push out dead air from a parking garage/Where you stand with the keys and your cool hat of silence/Where you grip your love like a driver’s license.”
In a posting to the Soul Coughing message board on America Online, Doughty described his methodology: “When I’m hashing out the lyrics, I’m thinking, ‘Ooh, nice word. Pretty word. Mm, word tastes nice, I like.’ So it’s mostly a sound thing, a musicality thing.” He added that if a fan should mishear a lyric and interpret it differently, that person should bring it to his attention so he can use the new version in a live performance. This is evidence of the band’s close connection to its fans and the way it draws inspiration from them. “This band lives to play live,” Doughty told SonicNet. “We lose our minds sitting at home.” Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, writing an America Online review of Irresistible Bliss, described this aspect of the band: “Live, with Doughty’s frenetically rectilinear hands invoking the music’s shifting techtonics, it has so much action you can watch it bounce. And then there are the words. Doughty makes them swing, rock, move.”
This ability to make words move brought even wider success to Soul Coughing in 1997. In April they appeared in a number of scenes of an HBO show called Reverb and in June were guests on the Howard Stern Show, serving up an in-studio rendition of “Super Bon Bon” at Howard’s request.
The band’s songs also appeared on a number of mass market soundtracks, Songs in the Key of X: Music from the X-Files, whose creator, Chris Carter reportedly called the group one of his favorites. After playing on the second stage of the Lollapalooza tour in 1996, the band joined the H.O.R.D.E. tour in August of 1997, sharing a bill with Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Beck, Morphine and others. The New York City show was broadcast live on the Internet on SonicNet, one of the first concert broadcasts in that new medium. In fact, the group was already well-versed in using the Internet to communicate with their audience, having posted tour diaries on America Online as far back as 1994, and actively promoting their web site and email address on their albums.
The end of 1997 saw Doughty living in London between shows and taking in the city’s club scene, particularly the new “drum’n’bass” offshoot of hip-hop music. Doughty told Billboard‘s Bradley Bambarger that some of what he was absorbing from the cutting edge British music was bound to find its way on there: “I can’t promise how, of course. It might just end up sounding like Led Zeppelin’s take on reggae.” This wouldn’t be out of step with the band’s signature eclecticism, but at the same time Soul Coughing is about more than just musical and lyrical experimentation and raucous live performance. There’s a good deal of pain and vulnerability thrown into the mix, too, as seen by these lyrics from “Super Bon Bon:” “And by/The phone/I live/In fear/Sheer chance/Will draw/You in/to here.” Speaking in typically expressive metaphor, Doughty summed up the group’s embrace of incongruity, telling SonicNet, “I see Soul Coughing as this sort of V.U. meter with Heartbreak on the left, and Nonsense on the right. The needle twitches constantly from one side to the other.”
Ruby Vroom (includes “True Dreams of Wichita” and “Sugar Free Jazz”), Slash/Warner Bros., 1994.
Sugar Free Jazz (remix CD with bonus tracks), Slash/Warner Bros., 1995.
Irresistible Bliss (includes “Super Bon Bon” and “Soft Serve”), Slash/Warner Bros., 1996.
(Contributor) Blue in the Face (soundtrack), Luaka Bop/Warner Bros, 1996.
(Contributor) Songs in the Key of X: Music from the X-Files, Warner Bros., 1996.
(Contributor) Batman & Robin (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1997.
(Contributor) Spawn (soundtrack), Epic, 1997.
The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside, 1997.
Billboard, February 1, 1997. p. 71.
Details, November 1996; July 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, September 16, 1994, p. 121.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1997.
New Musical Express, May 25, 1996, p. 53.
New York Observer, 1996.
People, July 22, 1996, p. 24.
Rolling Stone, December 15, 1994, p.96; May 30, 1996, p. 96.
Spin, August 1996, p. 112.
USA Today, December 26, 1996.
America Online Rock Music Reviews
Additional information was provided by Shore Fire Media publicity materials, 1997.
—John F. Packel
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