Just before the release of his new Ghost of Vroom 2 EP (QRO review) from his new band Ghost of Vroom, Mike Doughty talked with QRO. In the conversation, Doughty discussed making his new band & new EP, previously making the yet-to-be-released Ghost of Vroom 1 full-length, working with longtime collaborator Andrew “Scrap” Livingston & producer Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys, Seu Jorge), obviously being compared to his old band Soul Coughing, life in blue & red Memphis, his question jar, encores, “Firetruck”, rioting, Zoom sobriety meetings, not being promoted by The Washington Post, and much more…
QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?
Mike Doughty: Well, I’m kind of an isolator by nature. The most important thing in my life is my chihuahua…
And I’m also a person that gets up every day and works on music. I have a kind of ‘practice of the craft’, you know, like some weird dojo-like thing, where I get up and get into the trance of writing.
So, I’m kind of doing great…
QRO: Where are you quarantining? Where do you live?
MD: I’m in Memphis.
QRO: How are things in Memphis?
MD: They’re pretty good.
So, the thing about Memphis is, midtown Memphis is like hipsterland valley of the Bernie stickers. You know, all the ‘BERNIE’ lawn signs are still up.
So here, I’m assuming a very different story than when you cross East Parkway, and you’re in a Red State again. Or you cross the Mississippi, and you’re in a Red State again.
I went downtown to record something – you know, was glass between me & the engineer – like two weeks ago. And I realized, it was like two miles away, I was like, ‘This is the furthest west I’ve been since March.’
Like, I saw a bunch of young, groovy kids, you know, hanging out in a cluster, passing a joint. And I was like, ‘I don’t smoke weed, so I don’t know what the protocol is. Do you bring your own pipe?’
But I was dismayed by that, and hopefully we don’t learn the hard way.
QRO: And how is Scrap doing?
MD: He’s doing good. He’s in New York. He’s sequestered with his girlfriend, also writing weird music.
Mike Doughty & Scraps playing “Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me the F Train” live at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York, NY on April 24th, 2010:
QRO: Why did you decide to form ‘Ghost of Vroom’ with Scrap?
MD: This takes some backstory.
‘Ghost of Vroom’ was the working title for a Soul Coughing album. And I found myself, over the past few years, sort of having these threads that kind of led me back to that kind of music.
One was just getting interested in samples, just playing a sampler for kicks at home, loading up all these different voices & manipulating them, finding ways to mess with sounds.
Another was I got GarageBand on my phone, and the only good bass sound is the upright bass. So, I looked up months later, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve written a ton of upright bass lines.’
And then I just started listening to the old breakbeats. The classics, you know, the Amen Break, and the Al Jackson Break, and the Supersonic Break – all those breaks.
I do this Patreon thing where I write a song every week, and so I just started writing them around these breakbeats. And I was hanging out with some rappers, so I started – not exactly rapping, it’s more like a chanting, talking thing, as much as it is rapping. But I really got into doing that.
And so, I thought, ‘So, I’ll call this album that I wrote “Ghost of Vroom”, I’ll call it Soul Coughing, and see if they want to record it.’ And of course, I got back a hot plate of gravy. So, it was just a perfect opportunity.
Scrap & I have been playing together for fifteen years. We are intertwined like you wouldn’t believe.
We got to the point where I don’t write the set list; I just sort of call them out as we play. And I would play a song, we would play a song, and then I’d realize we never rehearsed it! [laughs] I would be like, ‘You’ve never played that song before!’ He’s like, ‘No, no, I just know…’
We really have become enmeshed. We’re a band.
And I thought, rather than just doing this one album called “Ghost of Vroom,” let’s be a band called “Ghost of Vroom.”
I have a kind of ‘practice of the craft’, you know, like some weird dojo-like thing, where I get up and get into the trance of writing.
This is our second release, despite the fact that our first release has not come out yet…
QRO: I was wondering that, why it was called “Ghost of Vroom 2”…
MD: So, we made a full album with Mario Caldato at the end of 2019. It is sequenced, mixed, mastered, the cover art’s done.
And then my manager called me up and was like, ‘You can’t put this out. It’s just gonna die in the world, because you can’t tour behind it.’ And this is important to me, so I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll wait.’
But over the summer, I just found myself diving into the zeitgeist, you know? Not just the pandemic and the unrest, but the level of cultural awakening about we’re enmeshed with this racism in our history, and the thread of paranoia that, you know, half the country literally does not believe the things the other half the country are saying.
So, I just dove into those topics, not really with a lot of premeditation. And I wrote these three things that just hang together. They are a piece.
And I called my manager and said, “I got bad news, man. We’re putting out an EP in two months…”
QRO: So, you started doing this Ghost of Vroom stuff before the pandemic?
MD: Oh yeah. Ghost of Vroom 1 was made & completed before the pandemic.
And then Ghost of Vroom 2, the version I put up on my Patreon is just loops & me playing all the instruments. But I sent it to our drummer; she tracked the full songs live. Sent it to Scrap; he tracked the bass live to the track that I sent him. I put on the samples and the vocals, and then Logan Hanna, who’s a Memphis guitar player, came over and sat ten feet away from me, and just set out a chair & put a guitar table in front of him. He played through each song like three times. Both of us masked.
Then we sent it to Mario.
With Mario, you really have to deal with him as a musician. It’s not just about making the things hang together correctly, but really his contribution in terms of the delay, the sounds, the distortions, and the way things are placed…
He was a little hesitant when we made Ghost of Vroom 1, because he’s had so many experiences which are baffling, that he’s worked with a client who’s been like, ‘You know, eh, can you tone it down a little bit?’
And I was like, ‘Dude, I do not want you to tone it down. I want full-on Mario action up in this, for real.’ We sent him everything, and he went crazy. His laboratory.
Mike Doughty playing Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on November 23rd, 2013:
QRO: Did you think, in the back of your mind, ‘Oh, everybody’s just going to compare this to Soul Coughing’?…
MD: Well, that certainly wouldn’t be unfair.
Conceptually, thought of as an album to do with Soul Coughing, so, you know, I get it.
I was asked to write a one-line bio for the band, a single sentence. I wrote, “This band gets an unusual number of comparisons to Soul Coughing.”
QRO: Were you at all nervous, being in a band with someone else, after what happened in Soul Coughing? I’ve read your book, The Book of Drugs…
MD: The fact of the matter is, I’ve had really deep, 50/50 collaborations with Dan Wilson, Good Goose, and with Mark Kramer, that are really very band-like.
And I really am a collaborator by nature, try not to tell people what to do, but to get them to do something that’s very much from their style & their identity.
And with Scrap, I’ve known him forever! So, you know, we were already a thing.
It was more like, we kind of looked up and were like, ‘We’re a band,’ than saying, ‘Hey, let’s try this band thing.’ It was a nominal change, and that’s it.
We would play a song, and then I’d realize we never rehearsed it!
QRO: I was also wondering, maybe was Scrap nervous, knowing your experience in Soul Coughing?
MD: I mean, I don’t think so. I don’t want to speak for him.
He certainly knows me. He knows me on a bad day, and I know him on a bad day. So, I think we’ve seen just about as bad as it can get.
He & I have one fight per tour. It lasts like an hour. And so, I think it’s pretty damn good, as a relationship.
QRO: And how was working with producer Mario Caldato Jr.? Why did you search him out?
MD: I’m a fan of the Beastie’s whole universe. And I thought they just did it right, on all levels. And I just love the way those records sound. I love his looseness.
You can just tell he’s not just the guy making sure the high-hat’s loud enough. He’s throwing weird shit in there.
And I know that when the Beasties did a tour that he was the front of house engineer for, it was in quadrophonic sound. I didn’t see that tour, but that’s amazing. So, I just wanted to work with him.
And he’s not a guy that you just ‘hire.’ You have to send him the stuff, and have an idea that he feels a resonance with. He’s just incredible. He’s one of the deep cats, one of the all-time deep cats.
QRO: You’ve obviously toured a bunch with Scrap, but had you recorded with him before this?
MD: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Since like 2010, he’s been on everything.
On Ghost of Vroom, he plays the bass, but then he would play the piano, and then he would play the synthesizer, and then the clavinet, and then the Wurlitzer, and then the Rhodes [piano] – whatever weird thing Mario has lying around, and he has a lot of weird things lying around…
He’s played guitar on some stuff that I’ve produced for other artists. He’s an incredible guitar player – he’s like a jazz guitar player.
Some of the best times I’ve had with him have been after the show, I hand him the guitar, and he just goes wild, improvising on it. I just sit there listening to him. I just find him incredible in every way.
QRO: Did you worry about the material you did for the EP being too timely – is “Rona Pollona” going to be applicable when things get back to normal?
MD: I definitely did worry about that. [laughs]
It’s not something I get into very often. Sometimes I’ve written political songs, and it’s like, you know, after the end of George Bush’s first term, I’ll never play it again… [laughs]
I don’t know about “Rona Pollona”. It certainly is like a super vibe, bouncy song, so I don’t know if I’m gonna get away with not ending shows with that.
The other two songs on the EP are more impressionistic, and those, I’m totally confident I’ll be able to play for as long as I can play them.
Half the country literally does not believe the things the other half the country are saying.
QRO: Will people get the “Fuck Mnuchin” line?… [Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin]
MD: I hope so.
You know what’s funny? I’ve improbably made friends with Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
QRO: Is he the host of Washington Week In Review?
MD: Yeah, exactly. Great writer, great reporter.
He invited me to the Washington Post when I played D.C., and he would walk around & some me something, try to explain it to me, and I’d be like, ‘Dude, I know.’ Whatever it was, I was like, ‘Yeah, I know you got a Pulitzer for blah-blah-blah,’ all the stuff.
But so, I sent him the song, and he was like, ‘I love this. Definitely can’t retweet this, because I cannot retweet the line, “Fuck Mnuchin’…” And I was like, ‘That is a very valid – I’ve heard radio stations with dubious excuses for not playing a record, but Bob, that completely makes sense…”
Mike Doughty playing Soul Coughing’s “Sugar Free Jazz” live at Bowery Ballroom on March 1st, 2019:
QRO: And whenever we get back to normal, then you can put out the album.
MD: Oh yeah.
I wanna get it out soon. Because just the writing for me, has just become like perma-state. Like I’m writing all day, until I am starving to death and have to have dinner.
I don’t want to call it, because you never know, but I feel like I’m gonna have to put Ghost of Vroom 1 out so I can start on Ghost of Vroom 3.
QRO: I suppose you’re bummed that you can’t tour as Ghost of Vroom right now…
MD: We can’t do it right now, yeah.
Scrap & I have an improvisation thing that we’ve just developed for years & years. The last physical tour we did, which was right before this went down, we opened for ourselves, wearing masks – me & the drummer wore masks. We just improvised for half-an-hour, and it went great! People loved it!
It was totally our like, ‘This is our indulgent thing we want to do.’
We definitely are potentially the weirdest jam band in the history of the twenty-first century.
QRO: Most importantly, will the question jar be a part of any Ghost of Vroom show?
MD: Oh – no, that’s a very specific thing. This is very much where I’m at, and where we’re at, right now.
But I imagine, someday, we’re going back to that. Those shows are super-fun. Just opening it to be completely knocked sideways by an audience question, that uncertainty – we love that.
QRO: What about, for Ghost of Vroom, will you do ‘the song before the fake last song’?
Essentially, Ghost of Vroom toured Ruby Vroom last year, for the twenty-fifth anniversary.
QRO: I saw that, in New York, at Bowery Ballroom.
MD: Oh, you did?
For one thing, we had Rachel Murdy with us, doing the actual “Janine” vocals. She’s the original vocalist. That’s her.
And so, we would have to end every night, saying like, ‘Guess what? You’ve been listening to this album for twenty-five years. You know perfectly well what’s going to happen next, but we’re going to pretend the show’s over. And then we’re gonna turn around a play “Janine”.’
I think encores are just one of the weirdest conventions. You cannot not play encores. You could play a five-hour show, but if you don’t play an encore, people are going to be like, ‘What a dick, man! What the fuck?…’
So, we like subverting it. We have fun subverting it.
QRO: You know in any Ghost of Vroom show, people are going to be requesting Soul Coughing songs…
MD: Oh, yeah. And we might do some.
QRO: What about your solo songs, like “27 Jennifers” – or “Firetruck”…
MD: “Firetruck”! Well, “Firetruck” has been in hibernation for some time, because I’ve changed my guitar tuning, to one that’s not “Fire Truck”-friendly.
But “Firetruck” is never going away, man. It’s just resting. It’s coming back.
I don’t even know, because it’s all so very conceptual at this point, but I imagine we’re gonna do all kinds of stuff.
Andrew’s got a great new album out called “News From the Oort Cloud.” I’d love to do some shit from that.
I feel like I’m gonna have to put Ghost of Vroom 1 out so I can start on Ghost of Vroom 3.
QRO: During this lockdown, a lot of artists are doing livestreams. Have you done stuff like that?
MD: I do ‘em all the time. I’ve been doing them for a couple of years. Basically, since Instagram live was invented. I’ve never made a big deal out of them.
It’s basically a really advanced way of practicing. Because you just go into your studio, and turn on the phone, and play for a couple hundred people on Facebook & a fifty people on Instagram, and you’re actually playing a show. You’re not just sitting by yourself, plucking out the tunes…
QRO: Have you thought of a doing a full-fledged Ghost of Vroom thing livestream? Obviously, if you’re not in the same city…
MD: The technical challenge – I mean, somebody’s going to figure it out, like, imminently. There’s some way to do this.
What I do with the live shows is, I just play ‘em, anyone can watch them, they’re free, and I say, ‘Look, if you can afford to join the Patreon, please join the Patreon. And if you cannot afford it, I need an audience more than I need your five dollars. My soul with die if I don’t have people to play music for. So please, just keep watching…’
‘And when you hit the lotto, you better join at the twenty-five-dollar level…’
QRO: Or a drive-in show – perhaps on top of a firetruck?…
MD: [laughs] That would be fun! I’d love to do that. Everyone would hear it through their little radio…
Ghost of Vroom’s video for “Rona Pollona”:
QRO: Who put together the video for “Rona Pollona” (QRO review)?
MD: It’s a director named ‘SWIVS’. He’s just a dude I started following on Instagram. Just a genius animator, self-contained art machine.
His idea was to do the thing that looked like an Instagram feed. I love it. And he packed so much sort of ‘Easter egg’ information in there; like, I’m still finding out stuff about that video, watching it again, seeing things I didn’t see the previous time I watched it.
QRO: I suppose, though, that also came from not being able to do an in-person music video?
MD: There’s another video that’s coming out, that the director has these ideas for animating a picture of me, and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I kind of want to do a round where you don’t see my face in the video. It’s really just about the song.’
So, I think I would be doing that anyway.
QRO: Was Scrap bummed that he couldn’t be in a video?
MD: You know, I’m bummed that Scrap can’t be in all the interviews. Cause he is funny, and really, really odd.
That is honestly much more of a bummer, to me, than any other aspect of putting this out, promoting it. The rapport that we have is just so surreal.
If I had my druthers, he & I would be talking to you right now.
QRO: I noticed you said, “If I was young / I’d find a store to loot in” – doesn’t that go against the intended “pointless of rioting” message that you said in “Bustin’ Up a Starbucks”?
MD: Yes. However, it’s entirely true.
I was talking to a friend of mine about this. You know, another fifty-year-old white dude.
And, you know, it was like, ‘Oh, this is terrible, this is terrible. But, let’s admit: We would be down at the Best Buy, waiting for someone to smash the window. And we would run in and grab whatever we could. If we were sixteen-year-olds…’
Rioting is pointless, really. But, as a sixteen-year-old, I think one is selfish, to say the least.
It is a tough time for people in recovery, to be sure.
QRO: I actually interviewed you back in 2013 (QRO interview), after you’d published The Book of Drugs. Has the pandemic made it easier or harder to deal with sobriety?
MD: It hasn’t been a challenge for me. There are meetings on Zoom, and I go to them all the time.
I’m sober twenty years at this point. Not that the weird, obnoxious cravings, thoughts in your brain, don’t suddenly show up, but it’s not like you have two years, and you’re really struggling.
I know people that have gotten sober. That have like under three months clean, during the pandemic. I try to make myself available to anybody who needs help. But it is a tough time for people in recovery, to be sure.
QRO: Like, I was wondering about meetings. They do Zoom meetings?
MD: Yeah, oh yeah. And they’re great, by the way. I really like them.
But it’s not the same. Cause, you know, you’re in your house, and when you’re done, you turn them off. It’s not the same as having a group of people that support you.
QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits? Like I went a long time without shaving…
MD: Oh, well, I didn’t cut my hair for like two months to see how weird it would get. It got pretty weird. Got pretty weird.
QRO: I haven’t gotten a haircut in a long time. I really need one, but…
MD: When else are you gonna get the chance to do this?