For Mike Doughty, revisiting songs he wrote in some cases more than 20 years ago felt like walking into a ghost town.
The former frontman for Soul Coughing -- the distinct 1990s alternative band he once described as "deep slacker jazz" -- decided to record an album of reimagined old tunes, freeing them from the past and presenting the music closer to his original vision for the songs.
Soul Coughing's three idiosyncratic albums reached a modest but devoted audience with their blend of hip-hop, jazz, rock and drum 'n' bass, but those were dark personal years for Doughty, who described the band relationship as a bad marriage in his 2012 memoir The Book of Drugs.
So why revisit Soul Coughing now at 43 years old, 15 years after the band's final album and five proper albums into a thriving solo career?
Embarking on the project was both scary and surreal for Doughty -- and unexpected for fans. "I think I found myself wondering who I was back then and wanting to separate the songs from the darkness and look at them in a purer light. It really had to do with excising the song from the past, as opposed to trying to cure the past," he says.
The new album, referred to as Circles Super Bon Bon (the full title is the names of the 13 reimagined songs), pairs Doughty with hip-hop/house producer Good Goose, a collaboration that's both clubbier and poppier than the original Soul Coughing recordings.
"I wanted to make these songs as I wanted to make them back then. I felt like I would have a chance to really fulfill the vision that I had a long time ago," Doughty says. "They'd been dormant for many years, but when I wrote them, there was a pop impulse and there was an impulse towards real club bangers. Both of those were frustrated impulses back then."
Circles Super Bon Bon let Doughty reconnect with the memories of writing the songs -- "True Dreams of Wichita" came on the roof of his apartment building on Manhattan's Lower East Side, while he wrote later drum 'n' bass influenced songs the dance floor of London clubs -- but playing them live now with bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit is all about the present. "Whether you're listening to music or playing it, at its best, music puts you in the now, that eternal present. When you're in the song, you're in this ineffable oceanic space. The stuff that happened before and the stuff that will happen just goes away and you're living in that cosmic moment," Doughty says.
Doughty says meeting and working with Good Goose helped guide the album's direction.
"Certainly he's an artist as well as the producer-as-facilitator kind of figure," Doughty says. "His beats are more like trap beats, bounce beats, and mine are more of your circa-1990 boom-bap beats. That particular hybrid was really the crux of what we were doing."
Supported by a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign (that saw Doughty separately record 20 Soul Coughing songs acoustically as pledge rewards), Circles Super Bon Bon is the happiest record he's ever made. And even if Soul Coughing was a dark personal time, he recognizes those years are a part of him.
"It is such a joy to do this stuff again and really live inside it," he says. "I'm so happy where I am now and I wouldn't be here if I wasn't there, so there's a certain wistfulness, but I have no regrets. That's wrong. I have plenty of regrets, but I have no wish to redo anything. I'm totally accepting of my past. It's a hard-won perspective."
For Doughty, this trip back in time isn't, to borrow a phrase from his only top-10 single, just walking around in circles.
"It's funny, but you live the song. It's not like you can hold it in your hand and look at it and see something from a long time ago," he says. "You're in the middle of it, it's like you're walking into a ghost town."
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Mike Doughty is scheduled to perform Sunday, November 10, at Crescent Ballroom.