Mike Doughty isn’t much for living in the past, but neither does he wish to shut the door on it.
Of late, however, he’s thrown the door open and gone diving back into the slipstream, 25 years into the past, when his old band, Soul Coughing, debuted with the 1994 album “Ruby Vroom.” It is, he told The Daily Times recently, a trippy journey through the consciousness of his younger self that’s fascinating to revisit.
“It’s a nebulous impression, but you can sort of see who you were in a very interior level, and I don’t even mean specifically in terms of your viewpoint of the world whenever you wrote it, but something more primal, more inner than that,” Doughty said via a phone call between tour stops celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Ruby Vroom,” a show that pulls into The Open Chord in West Knoxville on Wednesday.
“It really kind of lets you get a look at the schematic of your thought process,” Doughty added. “It’s one thing to do an old song every so often, but to do 14 songs, all written between 1990 and 1993 or 1994, that’s a big chunk of consciousness to absorb. What you’re engaging with are things that are much bigger and much smaller than simple events. It’s a really interesting look at the algebra of how you made music and wrote music.”
Over the course of three albums — “Ruby Vroom,” “Irresistible Bliss” and “El Oso” — Soul Coughing became known for gritty, urban rock ’n’ roll most strongly identified with New York. Rock critic Ryan Schreiber described the group as “mixing billions of musical influences ... sort of a hip-hop/jazzy/cartoon-style thing with either totally crazy or incredibly colorful lyrics read and sung over them.”
In the first half of the 1990s, rock ‘n’ roll was still in the midst of a contemporary rebirth thanks to grunge and alternative, but Soul Coughing, powered by Doughty’s robotic spoken word and gravelly singing, was something altogether different.
“The band could go from the slinky, slap-funk vibe of “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” on “Ruby Vroom” to the smooth, R&B tinge of “Soft Serve” on “Bliss,” which paints a picture of a hot sunny day and the laziness it inspires. Along the way, Doughty developed a reputation as a quirky, artistic front man with a penchant for obscure lyrics. After the band’s dissolution, Doughty went on to a modestly successful solo career, which included a handful of records, including his most recent, 2016’s “The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns.”
Looking back on Soul Coughing’s place in the canon of popular culture, he acknowledges that the band lives on the fringe of alternative rock, somewhere in the spacey post-psychedelic rock landscape near the crossroads of the sludge created by the Melvins, the trip-hop of De La Soul and the super-punk performance art of The Jesus Lizard. While Soul Coughing may not have anything sonically in common with those bands, the outside-the-box composition of the songs bears some resemblance, and getting back into those songs is a refreshing change of pace, in a way.
“There’s something about being inside a larger piece of music,” he said. “It’s not a qualitative comparison, but it’s almost like a symphonic form, or something, because you’re working through a whole record and not just pieces, and it all goes different places, so it’s really great. I like having that roadmap in front of you for the setlist, and making decisions in terms of the song order you wouldn’t necessarily make if you were just making a setlist for a show, but you would if you were sequencing a record.”
It makes for a challenging setup during soundcheck, he added with a chuckle; the sampler services the same role as a lead guitar, but it’s not being used for hip-hop or dance music. And to lead the band through the complexities of “Vroom” tunes, Doughty has worked out a series of hand signals, adapted from avant garde jazz sax player John Zorn, that lets his fellow players know when to stop, start and cut loose.
“There’s a lot of improvisation happening on the stage,” he said. “It’s a good show, I’ve got to say. The band is tight, and they all do this really weird thing with the improvising. I think it’s fascinating, even if you don’t know the record, because these players I’m working with are top notch.”