When most slackers get sick, they lie in bed hoping for codeine. Soul Coughing spits up a song. "Super Bon Bon," for example, was spawned by an allergic reaction. "I threw this sneeze across the room," says keyboardist/sample maestro M'ark De Gili Antoni, "and all of a sudden we were in this incredible groove."
Put too much pepper in this guy's soup and you might get a symphony.
De Gili Antoni has the strangest of a quartet of names that sound like anagrams in a Nabokov novel: Yuval Gabay, M. Doughty, Sebastian Steinberg.
By slipping bizarro noise into the mix--jackhammers, crickets, ambient washes, etc.--the classically trained Antoni paints the backdrop for his band's "deep slacker jazz," a sonic layer cake that matches Doughty's dry vocals and wit against funk drums, acoustic bass, skittering guitar and samples from the Andrews Sisters and Howlin' Wolf.
The result? The New York sultans of trash swing's 1994 debut, Ruby Vroom. That recording's best known for "Screenwriter's Blues," a scathing rebuke of Hollywood whose snide chorus keeps reminding you that "it's 5 a.m., and you're listening to Los Angeles."
"Blues" and the rest of Vroom laugh in the face of concise description. Call it jazz-rap, beatnik noir or white-boy hip-hop and you've only half-nailed the vibe. When the seagulls kick in on "Sugar Free Jazz," it sounds like a New Age anthem getting thunked over the head by a lo-fi rhythm section in a Brooklyn alley.
At least the band has a handle on its place in the cosmos. "Just say we're another part of Beck's army," offers singer/guitarist Doughty, whose voice the New Yorker pegs as "Jack Webb in leather pants."
Despite Ruby Vroom's modest sales--about 85,000 copies in the U.S. and another 30,000 overseas--critics have been kind to Coughing; a Rolling Stone writer recently mentioned Soul Coughing and the Talking Heads in the same breath. Antoni downplays the parallel, saying, "We'll have to make four amazing records before we're the Nineties' Talking Heads."
Still, Doughty's offbeat lyrics could be ghostwritten by David Byrne. Exhibit A: "Uh, zoom zip," in which Doughty nestles lucid moments between random Biblical references and speak/sing rants about telepathic security guards and traveling salesmen who overdose in motel bathrooms.
"I guess our purpose is to cater to the discriminating drug user," says Doughty. "I try to write with no regard to what the words mean. When I'm hashing out lyrics, I'm thinking, 'Ooh, nice word. Pretty word. Mmm, word taste nice, I like.' It's mostly a sound thing."
What emerge from the mist are tragicomic tales told in flickering, grainy images. "Supra Genius," explains Doughty, is about "boy, girl, planet-destroying death ray, etc.," while "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" grew out of a psychedelic sojourn in the Windy City.
"I came up with this theory that everything outside my body was Chicago and all within was not," says the singer. "I would point at a chair and say, 'Is Chicago,' and then at my chest and say, 'Is not Chicago.' This entertained me for a good 12 hours."
Hedonism cracks the dam on Soul Coughing's creative juices, Doughty says, and the band generates a ton of material on tour. Regularly scheduled jam sessions, however, usually degenerate quickly. "When we rehearse," says Antoni, "we get together for like five hours, but end up talking and eating pizza and making phone calls and getting coffee. Out of five hours, we play 20 minutes."
The glamorous tedium of show biz also cuts into practice. Antoni cites a "ridiculous" photo shoot for a Spin feature story that ran last winter. "We're all in makeup, and they made me wear Tommy Hilfiger clothes! Thanks a lot! I was like, 'No, I'm not going to untuck the shirt.' Then they were completely ironing Sebastian's hair, trying to make dreads out of it or something. "We're all crunched together and they're blowing a big fan on us, and it's like we're being blown through some tube at 2,000 miles per hour. We're there for four hours setting up for this immense shoot, and when the magazine comes out, it looks like nothing. It looks like four dumb guys with their hands in their faces. There was so little energy to that shot."
The same can't be said of the band's music, much of which is driven by Antoni's sound-biting. More than just trim around the edges, his samples are often the direct origin of a song. "That happens a lot," he says. "On 'Screenwriter's Blues,' I brought in an acoustic sample and built an entire song around it. I like to start from the sampler and then, once a structure emerges, bring in something else altogether."
"Something else" might be industrial machinery, cartoon snippets or a 55-piece orchestra performing one of Antoni's own compositions. Getting permission to use specific samples can be tricky, however. To snag a sample of the chorus from "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," Soul Coughing had to jump through legal hoops like a Ringling Bros. wiener dog.
"One of the Andrews Sisters is eightysomething," says Antoni, "so we're talking to some lawyer of a lawyer of a lawyer who can give a shit about her but who's giving us hell about using that sample."
The Roches, on the other hand, had no problem with the band copping their material; they just didn't want any credit for it. "They didn't want their name on 'Down to This' because they thought the song was too violent," explains Antoni. "A surprising amount of women wonder if the song's about rape. It's not."
Somehow, lyrics like "You get the ankles and I'll get wrists" don't sound that scary mixed with "You get Jim Backus and I'll get Koresh."
If being misunderstood guaranteed mass exposure, Soul Coughing probably wouldn't care if PETA claimed the band advocates bestiality (it doesn't). But anemic commercial radio play indicates there aren't many Jaguars in the Soul Coughing carport. "Our record deal fronts us enough money to pay rent," says Antoni. "We're not getting fat checks."
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Still, a recent Boston date sold 700 tickets. "People were apeshit for it," says Antoni. Including a certain aforementioned geeky genius. "David Byrne calls up and asks if we want to play with him," the keyboardist gushes. "I'm at this piano, and four feet from me is David Byrne. And it sounds just like him!"
After trading riffs with the King of the Big Suit, the members of Soul Coughing started preparing for a return to the studio. Scheduled for an early '96 release, Coughing's next album "will blow Ruby Vroom away," claims Antoni, who also predicts the recording will be "more personal and integrated, with slower tempos and more singing than speaking."
Lest anyone fret that the members of Soul Coughing will start to take themselves too seriously, Doughty offers a comforting reminder that his lyrics "sound nice, mean nothing." Look for the band to keep expectorating the unexpected. After all, deadpans Doughty, "We are, in fact, practicing Satanists."
Soul Coughing is scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 30, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Low. Showtime is 9 p.m.