20 Years Ago: Soul Coughing Start to Come Apart With ‘Irresistible Bliss’
Soul Coughing were sadly destined not to last. But on July 9, 1996, they released the right album at the perfect moment.
That album, Irresistible Bliss, marked the group's sophomore release — and a musical evolution from the distinctive sound they'd pioneered with their debut, 1994's Ruby Vroom. Unable to work with that record's producer, Tchad Blake, the band hooked up with Bangles vet David Kahne for their next set of songs, which dove further into the dense thicket of samples, hip-hop grooves, live instrumentation, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics they'd explored throughout Ruby and added another layer of radio-friendly sheen.
"The second record, as usual, is the toughest record to make for a band. And it was indeed a tough record to make," drummer Yuval Gabay told The Morning Call. "We all bring a big sack of puppies with us. Sometimes you have to know not to let out a certain puppy. You have to know how to hold back sometimes."
Those puppies, in Soul Coughing's case, would eventually prove to have a nasty bite. The band was founded by vocalist Mike Doughty, who enlisted musicians while he was still a doorman at New York's Knitting Factory nightclub — but even if it was his initiative that gave the group its glue, he was quite a bit younger than his eventual bandmates. Gabay, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and keyboard player/sampler Mark de Gli Antoni had more experience than Doughty did, and they weren't shy about arguing their point of view. Then again, Doughty was fairly open about the fairly fluid nature of his own artistic expression.
"I mean, definitely, we're all about catchy. At the end of the day, though, I'm in the art camp because of my voice and my glasses. But, really, I was trying to make a Mary J. Blige record," he laughed to the A.V. Club. "It just went horribly wrong."
Although they'd only stick together for one more album, 1998's El Oso, the center held for Irresistible Bliss. Whatever battles Doughty had to have with his bandmates in order to get the songs across, the results were inarguable — dense thickets of live and sampled sound, topped off with his idiosyncratic vocals. On the relatively eclectic Top 40 of the mid-'90s, Bliss singles like "Super Bon Bon" and "Soft Serve" sounded like the future.
"We had a groove that didn't stop," De Gli Antoni told the Orlando Weekly. "Here was this guy who wanted to just do words and here was this drummer and bass player who wanted to keep a beat going, and there was this wide highway in the middle of it."
The band's signature blend of alt-pop and hip-hop was destined to linger on the commercial fringe — Irresistible Bliss rose no higher than No. 136 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart — but it exerted an outsize impact on MTV and built the band's cult following while hinting that bigger things lay ahead. Although Doughty's rambling lyrics and willfully bizarre persona always flirted with novelty-act status, there was something undeniably magnetic about the way they blended state-of-the-art production with hip-hop beats and beat poetry.
"Soul Coughing is the first band I've been in where everything turns me on. Every note I play is what I want to do. That's just extraordinary," Steinberg told My City Paper. "I'm up there dealing with Fred Hopkins and Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington and my particular world and I'm dealing with it very directly and it's a goddamn pop band. It rocks."
Unfortunately for fans, it all fell apart after El Oso. Doughty announced the band's breakup in 2000, embarking on a solo career that started out with a series of acoustic efforts before evolving into a more Coughing-esque sound. Yet even as his albums have flirted with the group's sonic legacy — and a 2013 album of re-recordings saw him reappraising their songs with new arrangements — he's remained adamant about avoiding the dark personal dynamics that derailed Soul Coughing's time together.
"Soul Coughing was an abusive marriage full of emotional violence and I have no interest in stuff I wrote years before I met those guys. It's heartbreaking. Lots of people are Soul Coughing fans," Doughty told the Orange County Weekly. "I am not."
"I don't miss being in a band with Mike, but I have a lot of compassion for him," retorted Steinberg in an interview with The Pitch. "I genuinely sense his agony over this. I feel for him on the most human level. I'm sorry that he feels that way. I wish he could look at Soul Coughing and be proud that he's created a whole new thing."
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