Is This Band Good: Soul Coughing
A monthly feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?” a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANT: SOUL COUGHING
Whenever someone mentions Reseda, I think: we are all, in some way or another, going to Reseda, someday, to DIEEE.
It’s uncontrollable. I can’t help it.
Sometimes I even say it out loud. This accomplishes one of two things:
1) It’ll kill the conversation, evoking a reaction similar to if I had turned on a slasher film during a baby shower—some combination of fear, disgust, concern, and, ultimately, disappointment.
Or 2) I’ll find a Soul Coughing fan.
The Reseda line is not from one of Soul Coughing’s radio hits, but from “Screenwriter’s Blues,” a track from their debut album, 1994’s Ruby Vroom. Ostensibly, it’s their best song. I’m not saying that just because it’s as quotable as The Big Lebowski, but it encapsulates everything that made Soul Coughing unique. In other words, the song feels like a thesis statement.
“Screenwriter’s Blues” dwells in pastiche. The noirish horns, a hip-hop beat, the clever hyperliterate lyrics by Mike Doughty (in this case, sing-spoken)—it feels like a collage of musical eras. The song, and by extension Soul Coughing, isn’t so much a product of the ‘90s post-grunge evolution, but a melting pop of jazz, experimentation, and a deep knowledge of non-white musical genres which they could exploit.
There’s no denying how striking Soul Coughing was. Even though they weren’t popular in the way, say, Cake was (Soul Coughing’s most popular album, El Oso, only reached 49 on U.S. charts), they cultivated a fervent fanbase. The people that loved them loved them hard, and still do. There was nothing like Soul Coughing on mainstream radio, and there’s been nothing like it since. Even listening to it now, I can’t tell if it sounds dated or timeless.
So, is Soul Coughing good, or are they just unique?
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of this newsletter. I like music and sometimes I write about it. If I was on Tinder, and I found “music” on that app, I’d swipe right (or whatever direction that shows you like it [is that a dated reference? Do people still use Tinder?]).
Nathan Hubbard: I’m a composer, drummer, bandleader currently living in San Diego. My music has been described as both “life-changing“ and “atonal bordering on unlistenable.” I’ve released many recordings, toured all over North America and bits of the EU and was listed as one of "Ten Of San Diego’s Best Drummers" in 2018 by NBC San Diego.
Ryan Bradford: Like many, I first heard Soul Coughing via their single “Super Bon Bon,” which had pretty regular rotation on Utah’s only alternative radio station, X96. I remember thinking it sounded similar to The Folk Implosion’s “Natural One”—another song I liked—due to its bass-heavy riff and vaguely menacing aura. But “Super Bon Bon” had a funny title which, to a 12-year-old, seals the deal.
My older brother bought Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss based on “Super Bon Bon” and it quickly became one of those rare discs that we ended up sharing. Soul Coughing transcended ownership; they felt like our band. Shortly after, I picked out Ruby Vroom as a gift for my brother’s 15th or 16th birthday. This was the same year that he got a kayak, but I still remember his friends marvelling at Ruby Vroom, asking me how I—the annoying little brother—even knew about that album. I don’t know if I’ve felt as cool since.
It didn’t take long for me to love Ruby Vroom more than Irresistible Bliss. The fact that the band sampled Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” on “Bus to Beezlebub” blew my little fucking mind. It was a song from cartoons!
And then there was the aforementioned “Screenwriter’s Blues.”
Not gonna lie,“Screenwriter’s Blues” scared me a little the first time I heard it. It was my first exposure to noir, specifically LA noir. As a somewhat sheltered Utah kid (I didn’t even step foot on an airplane until I was 14), Soul Coughing’s depiction of Los Angeles—with teenagers toting semi-automatics and an omniscient radioman that oversees everything—filled me with dread. I did not want to go to there.
But any good repulsion possesses an equally strong attraction, and I could not get enough of “Screenwriter’s Blues.”
Years later, I’d recognize the dread I felt while listening to the song in the films of David Lynch and books like Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Dread, it seems, is something that I actively seek out now in pop culture, but I believe it was Soul Coughing who introduced it to me.
Oh, and once I saw Soul Coughing play a big radio show (X96’s [sigh] “Big Ass Show”), and people started moshing to “Bus to Beelzebub.” Mike Doughty stopped the song and admonished the audience for moshing to unmoshable music. I thought that was cool.
Nathan Hubbard: I first heard Soul Coughing in the mid-’90s via bassist and Cardiff By The Sea native Jesse Hix, and have spent eons enthralled with their perfect balance of whiteboy hip-hop and funky rhythms. In the jammy ‘90s, it was a breath of fresh air to hear a band that grooved hard and used weird sonics. I admit that it hasn’t aged well, so I’ll attempt to look at the band from today’s perspective rather than any rose-colored glasses.
Ryan Bradford: Here’s a fun (i.e. not fun at all!) game to try: play a Soul Coughing song for someone who is not familiar with them. Find the nearest Gen Z-er, unplug their Taylor Swift/Ariana Grande/Billie Eilish/whatever (sorry, I’ll be over here yelling at clouds) and turn on the dulcet grooves of “Super Bon Bon” or “Circles.”
I’m guessing it won’t be pretty.
As we move farther away from the confused musical landscape of the late ‘90s, it becomes clear that Soul Coughing’s music is, well, kind of annoying. Their music—instrumentation and vocal delivery—feels embarrassingly indebted to Mike Myers’ poetry scenes in So I Married an Axe Murderer, a movie that came out a year before Ruby Vroom and which itself was a parody of hackneyed coffee shop poetry readings. It’s baffling that nobody in the band recognized that, or we, as a society, allowed it to happen. But again, this was the ‘90s: a high point for coffee shop chic, a low point for self-awareness.
Let’s also not forget that Ruby Vroom also came out the same year as Pulp Fiction—another endeavor that cribbed heavily from non-white art. If anything, the likes of Soul Coughing, Tarantino, Beck, and David Foster Wallace prove that the ‘90s were a goldmine for white weirdos appropriating obscure Black art.
But let’s ignore the cringy contextual offenses for now (it sure was easy to do in the ‘90s!).
Soul Coughing’s next biggest offense is how objectively joyless the songs are. Yes, the songs are bouncy and are somewhat danceable, but there is basically zero fun in a Soul Coughing song, which makes for a miserable experience when listening to their three albums back-to-back-to-back. At one point while preparing to write this, I told my wife that I had a Soul Coughing song stuck in my head, and upon playing it, she asked, “And what part got stuck in your head?” Turns out, there are no melodies to focus on, only words. The song, btw, was “Disseminated” and the part that was stuck in my head was just Doughty saying “disseminated.”
(For the record, Mike Doughty’s singing voice—a major point of contention among Soul Coughing haters and music journalists—is really quite beautiful).
The music is groovy. It’s experimental. It’s hip and smart and pretentious and challenging and a whole lot of adjectives that make music snobs all hot and horned-up, but very few Soul Coughing songs would end up on a party mix (unless the host is, like, an English professor). “Super Bon Bon” could be a straight-up banger if the chorus wasn’t overpowered by a high-pitched squeal. “Sugar Free Jazz” is genuinely pretty until its goofy, Tribe Called Quest-aping bridge. And so many moments are ruined with some zip-zap-zippity-doo scatting.
Yet, [problematic guy voice] some of my favorite bands are deliberately abrasive! Who knows, maybe without Soul Coughing pushing me into unfriendly listening territories, maybe I’d never get into punk, hardcore, black metal, hip-hop or the like. There’s a good chance that I’d still be listening to Smashing Pumpkins, Bush and Candlebox.
And I think that’s the true beauty of Soul Coughing—they made us feel smarter while listening to it. They were a gateway band that paved the way for weirder music. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was geeky in a way that felt nuanced and obscure, even if it was playing on mainstream radio. There’s inherent value in art that challenges us, in music that’s not instantly accessible, and Soul Coughing did a very good job of packaging intellectually challenging music into something that felt novel but also radio-friendly.
Except “Circles.” Has there ever been a song that’s spent so much time highlighting its own redundancy?
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that any and all qualms with Soul Coughing have been more or less expressed by their singer Mike Doughty over the years. His memoir, The Book of Drugs, is an excellent, juicy, and vulnerable account of his years in Soul Coughing. It’s by far the most literary rock memoir I’ve ever read, and I blew through most of it in one night.
As Doughty describes it, being in Soul Coughing sounds like a nightmare.
“I’m full-bore, bat-shit crazy with regards to Soul Coughing. If you say you love Soul Coughing, I hear fuck you. Somebody yells out a Soul Coughing song during a show, it means fuck you. If I play a soul Coughing song and somebody whoops—just one guy—I hear fuck you...”
Doughty frequently refers to the band as an abusive relationship. He does not mince words when writing about his former bandmates, whom he refuses to name and only refers to them by the instruments they played (e.g. “the sampler player”). Doughty’s trauma, it seems, largely stems from being young, naive and bullied by these older musicians (Doughty was about 10 years younger than his bandmates) into relinquishing creative control and songwriting credits.
I have no reason to doubt Doughty’s trauma—it doesn’t take a music insider to know that the industry is predatory on young, creative geniuses, but a lot of The Book of Drugs is a candid rollercoaster that often veers between self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Doughty never misses an opportunity to write himself as a martyr, and the fervency in which he dismisses his bandmate’s contributions sometimes feels megalomaniacal. Anybody who’s ever played music with another person will probably recognize that being in a band with Doughty was no walk in the park.
That said, I don’t think anyone can ever sum up Soul Coughing’s weaknesses as pointedly as Doughty does:
“Geeky, weighted down with a waka-waka Vaudeville thing, diseased with terminal uniqueness, pompous, crammed with ostentatious parts that barely acknowledge the songs, that fight to push the voice into the background, fight every other instrument because each guy’s convinced his part’s the most important. The really great instrumental parts are weakened, transformed from fantastic hooks to stumblers in the jumble. There’s often a refusal to play something that would just make a listener feel good, because what’s unique about that? Instead these parts are self-consciously obscure, fake sounding, insincere.”
As to the real reason why his band hated him, I guess we’ll never know.
Nathan Hubbard: OK “theoretical evidence” of why a band is “good” is insane. There are thousands of examples of bands that cover all the needed “these guys are good” checklists (equipment, studied with the correct teachers, sold records, critical acclaim) but still suck balls. Dream Theatre is a perfect example. So let’s try and divide the line between “technically good” and “this music doesn’t suck so bad that I hate it.”
Soul Coughing appeared in that weird mid ’90s moment where it was cool to love the slacker pop/rock band that could play their instruments and also had catchy hooks and layperson appeal. On the bad side you had Spin Doctors, and the good side you had Eels. Both were annoying, but, hell, it wasn’t derivative drivel like Bush, so you went with it. If you were there, you could almost imagine Soul Coughing as the Devo of the ‘90s.
Looking back years later, it almost makes sense: Mike Doughty (doorman at the Knitting Factory NYC) invites three downtown New York avant musicians to join him playing his weird slacker whiteboy-hip-hop-meets-Dada-esque songs. Yuval Gubay (Roni Size) and Sebastian Steinberg (Joe Morris, Marc Ribot, Fiona Apple) turned out to be the rhythm section par none. They could mash Charles Mingus and Fred Hopkins into current trends in music and it worked. I remember my buddy whispering, in awe, rumors that Yuval bought a drum machine and spent all his time duplicating it. Hilarious now to think of it, but in the day you could almost hear it. Keyboardist/samplerMark Antoni turned out to be the secret sauce, taking Doughty’s Raymond Scott samples and channeling them into pure bliss.
Before we go too far, let’s remember this is the “music theory stuff” section, so let’s forget memories and get into the dirt.
Their first record (Ruby Vroom, 1994) gives us a good overview of their strengths and weaknesses: The tightness of the rhythm section, Doughty’s nasal voice cutting through like a crazed late-night radio announcer, the weird references to jazz that seemed to pop up in this era, the seamless use of samples giving the band their unique sound. You can set a clock to Steinberg’s bass intro to “True Dreams of Wichita,” which completely ignores Doughty’s noodly playing. You wonder if Doughty overdubbed his guitar part on “City of Motors.” Doughty rushes the shit out of the groove on “Supra Genius” (like Jimmy Page on “Black Dog”) while they hold it down.
Doughty was an okay guitarist, held together by the Steinberg/Gubay rhythm section. Note the intro to “Sugar Free Jazz” where Doughty drops a beat and Yuval effortlessly shifts it over to deal with him.
Throughout their recorded history, the strength of Soul Coughing was the unstoppable Steinberg/Gubay groove with Doughty floating over them. If anything, Doughty was the dirt in the chitlins that reminded you why it was so funky.
This all casts a shadow over Doughty, which I think is warranted. But let’s not forget that any song is judged more on its lyrics and melody than anything else—it’s a weird, Western take where pitch is more important than rhythm. It’s an idea that we still deal with today.
We can say that Doughty’s weird stream-of-conscious lyrics give the grooves an unstoppable force, like steamy fudge on top of ice cream. An amazing groove will move your butt, but some (perfect) lyrics about, say, how alone you are in this world will change your life. Yes, I’m talking about “True Dreams Of Wichita.”
See also: the strange and perfect “Screenwriter’s Blues,” which features the lyric “You are going to Reseda to make love to a model from Ohio whose real name you don’t know.” The song made so little sense in 1995 or whenever you heard it first, but when you think about it, none of the best songs ever made any sense, and that mystery is perhaps the perfect definition why it is so amazing.
By the time we get to the second record (Irresistible Bliss, 1996) the songwriting has elevated. Doughty’s guitar playing is better, and he starts to realize that leaving space for the band can give the songs room to breathe.
The Raymond Scott samples are still there but not as prominent, often using keyboard/atmospheric sounds. We also notice the tempos and grooves are a bit more slamming. I’ve always considered this their “we’ve been touring and have noticed what makes a crowd jump up and down” record. I also think of it as their “creative friction” record, because each member has spoken about how relationships were splintered by this point, but I believe this is their best balance between songwriting and musical differences. Hell, it’s maybe one of the best albums of the ‘90s.
1998’s El Oso would be their last recording and it showcases the obvious divide between the band and Doughty. There’s noticeably less guitar. On “Circles,” Doughty continued to work on the pop chops he started developing with “Super Bon Bon” or “The Idiot Kings.”
Doughty was never one to write a bridge or anything more than his usual verse/chorus/vamp out model. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it gives each song a head-nodding vibe that you can get lost in, but on El Oso, you hear the band defining different sections more dramatically. You also hear Yuval Gubays interest in drum ‘n’ bass, which sorta defines the record, to the point where you have not one but two breakbeat inspired drum solos (“Rolling” and “$300”). And damn it, even I start to mutter—in my best James Hetfield—“Hey buddy could you play it a little more straight? This off-beat shit is taking away from the song.”
What I’m saying in overly long terms is that the recording and production is great, but the songs are lacking, and the band is trying to cover that fact. It is a strange ending to a weird and wonderful band.
In 2013, Doughty released “Circles, Super Bon Bon, and The Very Best of Soul Coughing,” a re-recording of Soul Coughing songs “as Doughty originally intended them prior to being altered for recording by Soul Coughing.” The album finds him trading in grit and fire from the band for some tepid drum machine programming and a stripped down approach. It’s a mind-opening moment where you wonder what would have happened if Doughty pulled a Paramore, fired the band in 1998 and hired some session dudes that would do what they were told. It also shows how much collaboration allowed these songs to find a unique identity where we’re still talking about them today.
So where does that leave us? Were they technically proficient? Yes. Original? Yes. Did they have any chart topping hits/albums? No. Would your significant other have gone with you to one of their concerts? Hmm, maybe if they were cool.
Will you look up their records on your current streaming site and listen to them? I hope so.
Soul Coughing is a complex and strange band that provided mainstream audiences a pathway to more experimental music.
Mike Doughty, if you’re reading this, we’re sorry to say that Soul Coughing is good.
When I started publicly wondering whether certain bands were good or not, my friend, visual artist and writer, Xtina was the first to suggest exploring Soul Coughing. So Xtina gets the final word on the subject. Go support them!
“My first brush with Soul Coughing—probably along with a lot of people who were teenagers in the ‘90s and thus obsessed with The X-Files—was “Unmarked Helicopters,” a song on the (superlative) soundtrack album Songs in the Key of X.
My second, proper introduction is just as perfectly nostalgic: when I was in high school, a friend burst through the door of a classroom, illuminated by some otherworldly halo. Turned out they’d won a stack of promo CDs from a radio station, and dispensed them with the warm glow of a benevolent god. I was awarded the 1998 studio album El Oso, (in)famous for its supremely obnoxious earworm “Circles.”
The song never got much play from me, but the rest did, and still does. Like many albums from that era (and probably now; I’m 38, I mostly stopped listening to new music in 2007) it was overshadowed by the worst and, inevitably, most popular track (h/t to Joan Osborne).
Soul Coughing as a whole is, to this day, tainted by “Circles,” which is enough for most people to bail immediately. And that’s fine! It’s a terrible song! The band hated it! We can all hate it! Give me the louche slackness of “St. Louise is Listening,” the free-jazz freakout of “I Miss the Girl,” and the murky, threatening burble of “Pensacola,” but make it quick, I gotta go skip fourth period.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
I’ve been hearing a lot about Detroit-style pizza lately, so I made the mistake of hopping on Instagram stories and questioning whether it was just a rebranding effort by Chicago style pizza (which we all know is an insult to pizza). Dear readers, the backlash was swift and ruthless. People barreled into my DMs to pizzasplain me. It was a difficult lesson, but one for which I’m ultimately grateful, because multiple people pointed me toward TnT Pizza. Sold exclusively through Instagram—and only on Wednesday and Fridays—I jumped at the opportunity to try it. I’ll always be a NY-style guy at heart, but wawa wowweee, TnT was good.
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know Larry T. Baza’s contributions to the arts in California until reading his obituary in the Union-Tribune, but his accomplishments are simply staggering. The San Diego native was not only an advocate for arts, but human and civil rights. Just reading about his life makes you want to be a better person. Let’s all aspire to be more like Larry.
Feel weird about this
It looks like System of a Down have announced a tour with Korn, Faith No More, Helmet and Russian Circles, and it begins in October. As far as I can tell, this isn’t one of those sit-in-your-car-things, but an actual, old-fashioned concert... which, you know, seems kind of major? Who knows where we’ll be in terms of vaccinating the public by then, and I’m not holding my breath that it’ll actually happen as scheduled, but baby steps, right? But also: what if Korn was the first live band you saw after a year and a half without live music? Might turn you off live music for the rest of your life.
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.