Rolling Stone magazine named Soul Coughing’s first album, Ruby Vroom, one 1994’s finest. Released the year alternative music truly crossed into the mainstream, it takes its place among such classics as Without a Sound by Dinosaur Jr., Pisces Iscariot by the Smashing Pumpkins, and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Ruby Vroom is jazzy and improvisational, a little bit hip-hop and a little bit punk rock, with driving dance beats and spoken-word-style lyrics — on songs like “Sugar Free Jazz” and “Screenwriter’s Blues” — bitten out by lead singer Mike Doughty.
In the 25 years since the record’s release by Warner Bros., Doughty — a solo artist with more than a dozen studio albums to his name — has been frank about how miserable he was at the time. He didn’t get along with his bandmates, plus he was on pretty serious drugs and filled with self-loathing. Soul Coughing broke up in 2000 after recording two more albums and arguing for years over songwriting credits and publishing rights. As a solo artist, Doughty has a history of getting angry when fans request Soul Coughing songs at his shows. “If somebody says they love Soul Coughing, I hear [expletive] you,” he wrote in his 2012 vignette-filled addiction-and-recovery memoir, The Book of Drugs.
Things have changed. Doughty is now on an album anniversary tour for Ruby Vroom, stopping in Santa Fe to play a show on Tuesday, March 26, at Meow Wolf, with opening band Wheatus. Brendan B. Brown, the frontman for Wheatus, also plays guitar for Doughty’s show and serves as his musical director. Together with other musicians, they will recreate Ruby Vroom for a live audience.
“[Brown] is the guy who went into the album and listened to what really needed to be extracted and reproduced. For this tour, there needed to be an element of what was vital about the recording,” Doughty said while driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania. “I listened to the album a bunch of times to get vocal phrasing closer to the original, because I change everything slightly from night to night. It’s microscopic, incremental change — but you add that up over two-and-a-half decades and it’s really different.” He won’t reproduce the album note for note and lyric for lyric, but he won’t stray as far from the original as he has in past shows, and the album’s song order will be the same.
Doughty doesn’t have a rock-solid answer for what, internally, has allowed him to play the songs again or what he resented about the music he was making then versus what he appreciates about it now. “I will tell you something entirely different now than I would have told you a year ago or I will tell you a year from now. I’ve gotten too old to pretend otherwise,” he said. “Living inside the album feels natural now, but there are things on there that I would not write as a forty-eight-year-old that seemed like a good idea when I was twenty-three.”
Ruby Vroom is older now than Doughty was when he made it. Growing up and honing his craft as a musician over time feels natural, he said, because he came of age around jazz musicians who played at The Knitting Factory in New York City, where he worked as a bouncer. “All those guys were getting older, so that never seemed all that daunting.”
Soul Coughing had an experimental edge to it. The band’s music incorporated snippets from old movies and samples from the Andrews Sisters, and a bass player and drummer improvised beats, atop which Doughty would lay down his poetic ramblings. Doughty wrote the songs and suggested the ideas for samples. In his memoir, he characterized his bandmates as uninterested in the music at best and aggressively malevolent toward him personally at worst — but when they played together, they achieved the sound that Doughty heard in his head. Ruby Vroom sounds today like old-school spoken word from the cafés and bars of New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s and early ’90s — which is the tradition Doughty came out of. (He studied playwriting and poetry at The New School.)
Soul Coughing’s music was far flashier than what Doughty plays now, but they share the same seriousness of intent. Doughty’s voice is deep and resonant yet not melodious, gritty but not lacking beauty. With Soul Coughing, his talk-singing was lightly experimental for the time. It is obvious that poetry and language — rather than an intense focus on instrumentation — drive his songs. In his telling, his lack of formal musical training was what provoked continual ire and condescension from his old bandmates, who were talented but epitomized a certain slacker attitude prevalent in the 1990s.
“By hook or by crook, these guys were not going to be successful,” he said. “They were just those kind of guys. Everyone’s got those people in their life that, like, you could say, ‘Here’s a million dollars,’ and they would say, ‘[Expletive] you, I don’t want your million dollars!’ ” ◀
▼ Mike Doughty plays Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom, with opening
▼ 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 26 (doors 7 p.m.); 21 and over
▼ $22 in advance, $25 day of show; holdmyticket.com/tickets/328189