Former Soul Coughing frontman M. Doughty is virtually unrecognizable these days.
Gone are the gaunt cheekbones and the near-shaved head. The singer's tall, too-lean, angular frame — which once gave him the peevish look of a bespectacled Gumby-gone-berserk — has filled out to a healthy, but still-slim weight.
His wheat-colored hair has grown out into a cheerful brush. These days, the all-improved, completely clean Doughty more closely resembles a strapping Swede about to hit the ski slopes than the intense, downtown New York guy whose distinctive, keening bark and darkly witty songwriting was bolstered by the euphoric, bold musicianship of his Soul Coughing bandmates.
Soul Coughing — which achieved moderate radio success with such singles as "Super Bon Bon" and "Circles" — released three albums (Ruby Vroom, Irresistible Bliss and El Oso) before calling it quits in March. The announcement provoked an sigh of despair from fervent fans of the band's playfully subversive, hip-hop-influenced rock.
But for a man whose band broke up under acrimonious conditions about nine months ago, Doughty is not only looking good but is also very, very happy.
"I just can't wait to get back into the studio and start working every day," Doughty, 30, said in a big, booming voice. "My dream in life is to have an office. An office with a coffeemaker, a guitar and a notebook."
He'd love to end up in a studio by January, but since freed from his Warner Bros. contract, Doughty is still mulling over numerous offers from other labels, including several majors. He recently laid down some demos with Ben Holt, an engineer who has worked with Missy Elliott and the Ruff Ryderz, and he's been driving across the country and touring as a solo acoustic artist (playing his favorite, eccentric instrument of choice, a Baby Taylor practice guitar).
Two months ago. Doughty — who as a military brat was rarely called by his first name, Michael — finally crossed his first threshold as a solo recording artist, releasing his first, independent album, Skittish, on his own Web site, superspecialquestions.com.
He recorded the album in a New Jersey studio in one day, with Galaxie 500 and Low producer Kramer, but he never anticipated releasing the disk.
"I decided I wasn't going to do anything with the record, but then it kind of got rescued by Napster," Doughty said. "I made three or four copies of it for people, and somewhere down the line, someone put it up on Napster. I had started doing these acoustic solo shows and put songs from Skittish in the set ... and then noticed that people were singing along with me. Basically, they got it right off of Napster.
"At first I was really pissed off," the singer said. "You know, it's just really scary to have the stuff you do for a living offered for free out into the world. There were a lot of mixes that I didn't like that got out and songs that were pretty much outtakes. But then I realized that the album had its own life in the world. So I just figured, I should just release an official version, and people have been buying them."
Fans of Soul Coughing's brand of irreverent, brash grooves, demonstrated in such songs as the loony-tuned "Disseminated," which madly spirals off an old Raymond Scott sample, will no doubt be startled by the decidedly lo-fi, dark and melancholy nature of Skittish. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Doughty brutally lays his soul bare. In such songs as the brittle lament of "No Peace Los Angeles" and the yearning, ruthless honesty of "Sweet Lord in Heaven," Doughty confronts the agonizing despair of drug addiction, lost love, abandoned hope and the slow spiritual resurrection that accompanies a junkie's decision to find the strength to save himself.
"I had been a really unhappy guy in a very happy band," Doughty said, laughing wistfully. "There was a certain kind of shtick element to the Soul Coughing stuff that was really very considered. We came out around the time that Kurt Cobain died, and the whole grunge period to me seems like one long musical Lent, everyone was really dour, and it wasn't cool to enjoy yourself. So we were like, 'F--- it, let's be happy, let's make really happy music.' " Doughty paused. "But certainly what was going on in my life wasn't particularly happy."
Doughty, whose own destructive drug demon was snorting heroin, has been clean for more than six months, he said. He credits his newfound health and hope to a spiritual epiphany.
"There's this whole mental system that you develop when you're a junkie, and it's just terrible. It's a terrible life on levels that you can't even understand, not even just, 'F---, I need to find 300 bucks and cop some dope,' but just the way you think about yourself," he said.
"The one thing I discovered about not doing drugs is that I actually don't need drugs to write, which is really the most painful fallacy of the whole thing," Doughty said. "I kept going, 'I can't give this up! What will I write about?' It's just f---ed up, when you start thinking that your music comes from a substance."
Talking about the breakup of Soul Coughing is one of the few times that the affable singer doesn't break into his engaging guffaw. He hasn't spoken to any of his former bandmates — bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Yuval Gabay and keyboardist M'ark DeGliantoni — in many months, and it seems unlikely that the quartet's rift will be easily healed.
"We had this deal about publishing money," Doughty said. "Even though I wrote the songs, all the money was split equally. That was kind of fine when I was 22, but as time went on, it really began to feel like these were my songs, and I didn't really own them. The instant I brought them into the band they were owned by these other guys. And there was a lot of envy going on in the band. Everybody kind of resents the singer, because he gets more attention than everybody else. It just got to be really wearying after a while, you know, there was this attitude in the band of, 'What makes your song more important than my bassline?' "
A spokesperson for the other members of Soul Coughing declined to comment.
While the emotions involved in Soul Coughing's demise are still quite fragile, and the anger and hurt has far from abated, Doughty said he misses his friendships with DeGliantoni and Gabay. "I'd love to have those again, sure."
But life is no longer in circles for Doughty. He's awaiting a pending label deal, and he's having a blast selling Skittish on his own, very chatty, Web site. As for his 40 or so new songs, does the somber, vaguely folky tone of Skittish indicate a new direction for a singer/songwriter who cites as his life-changing musical influence LL Cool J's live band-backed rendition of "Mama Said Knock You Out" on MTV's "Unplugged" so many years ago?
"I'm real shy about getting new stuff out there, but it's along the lines of Skittish," Doughty said. "But I'm not doing any radical shift in style. They're different songs, because I'm in a different place in my life."