Mike Doughty founded the alternative band Soul Coughing in the 90s, recorded three albums, toured the world and became an addict. He made the choice to detox, join the 12-step-program, see a psychiatrist (he was diagnosed as bipolar) and become a solo artist. The Book of Drugs, just published, is his memoir of the darker days of his addiction.
Why did you want to write a memoir?
I was asked. I basically had a bunch of good stories. It's really just a bunch of stories I've told to friends over coffee. I don't have any gained perspective.
How does writing a memoir compare to writing songs?
It's nowhere near the same thing. Long form is terrifying. Writing a song is utterly non-linear and you can write without knowing what you're writing about until late in the game. Obviously that's not the case with prose.
You said as a teenager that you hated and feared your parents.
Yeah, pretty much.
Why was that?
Was that a quote... I wouldn't put it like that. It was a strange household.
You said "my parents berated me nearly to suicide the same year." Maybe when you went to Simon's Rock, the alternative college in Massachusetts?
The year before.
Was that the military influence, being at West Point with father career military?
It wasn't as strict as other's families and others at West Point. My parents never put that pressure on me to go into the military.
Why did you decide to go to Simon's Rock?
It was a escape and for whatever screwed up kind of environment the house was, my parents paid for college and I said, "thanks for the opportunity and got the hell out of there."
So you went to Simon's Rock and then transferred to Lang at The New School. Did you graduate?
Well technically I didn't graduate because I was 11 bucks short on a library fee. Nobody has ever asked to see the diploma and it's completely not relevant to anything I've done in my life.
Did you study writing there or anything like that?
Poetry and playwriting.
Well, that relates to songwriting doesn't it?
Maybe but the diploma isn't relevant.
You worked at the Knitting Factory.
I just walked in and got a job. I went to meet a girl who stood me up and ended up working that night.
How did that influence your music career?
Well, it was an avant garde jazz club and there were some amazing experimental bands. I really related to the hip-hop I'd been listening to: the atonality; the weird noises. I don't have a great intellectual take on music but I think the great lesson is that it's not necessary. It's kind of giddy, funny, amazing sounds.
What made you addicted to pot?
There's an awful lot of pain and self-doubt. It made me feel smarter than I was it allowed me to write songs without utterly punishing myself. In my head. Constantly.
You said you used heroin but did you not use it as much?
I went on a long binge from 1999 on. And it nearly killed me.
How do you get out of that? Did you have a real rock bottom?
There wasn't a white light bulb or anything, necessarily. I was dying and I did not want to die. It was alcohol-dependent drinking from the moment I woke up until the moment I passed out.
What do you think the physical effects of addiction are?
Well, it depends on the drug but it's incredibly punishing to your body. The heroin depressed my lungs severely so I could barely breathe most of the time. And I kept doin' it. For a while I was in denial that that was what was causing it. Alcohol just makes you fat and bloated and pukey and you piss your pants all the time.
What about the mental effects of addiction?
It's punishing. There's one thing in the world that will get you away from that pain but you spend a lot of that day in a different kind of pain. It's just insanity.
How did you come up with the name Soul Coughing, a name that you didn't like?
I just threw a few words together. I thought it was a good idea at the time and then I thought what a stupid idea. It had the word "soul" in it.
After you signed to Warner Bros. in 1993, you say that the A&R guy tried to "make Soul Coughing feel too guilty to break up." What did he do?
He was this incredible passive-aggressive monster. He clearly knew how miserable I was but his thing was sending bad vibes.
Was it that you were never going to be able to do anything else if you left the band?
Yeah, pretty much. That was the message I was getting.
So from the beginning the other band members didn't like you? You didn't talk?
It was a super fucked-up marriage, essentially.
That's interesting to read because I think that people assume that if you're in a band you hang out and are friends.
I had just turned 22 when we did our first gig and they were all in their thirties. They were in a very different place in their lives and I think they were bitter about not having had more success up to that point and they were extremely bitter that this 22-year-old kid had the answers. Somewhat of a wunderkind.
Was there a good part to being in the band?
Initially. The fact that I was putting a record out and doing everything I'd dreamed of doing. But it wasn't even that great. There was this constant sense of loathing. It was fucking miserable. The things you'd dreamed of your whole life. It's such an empty shell.
What was the worst part?
Being loathed by my bandmates.
Do you have a really good memory or did you use journals to write The Book of Drugs?
It was just stuff I remembered. Everybody's memories are selective. I was talking to an ex-girlfriend about all these stories in the books and she said, "I don't remember those." She named a few stories and I said, "I don't remember those." And later I saw this woman that we'd hung out with and told her both stories my girlfriend had told me and my stories. She didn't remember any of them but remembered things that I didn't remember.
How did you organize the writing?
I wrote what was on my mind on that particular day. Then at the end of the process I kinda stacked them together chronologically and had to write the connective tissue.
When you talk about addiction in your memoir, you suggest that most people think smoking pot is pretty benign and not really a major addiction. What is your definition of addiction?
It's just doing something you don't want to do over and over again. It totally fucks you up but you think that you still have to do it. Very few people are addicts. I'm not saying that if you smoke weed you're en route to Hell. But there is such a thing as being addicted to weed.
Why did you detox on your own?
I just didn't look into other options even though I had decent insurance through the musician's union at the time.
Do you have any drug-related regrets?
No. I regret that I didn't fire the band in 1994 and go make a record with the Dust Brothers. I regret being in that band.
What do you hope people will get out of reading this?
I'm not a message carrier at heart. I tell stories.