By 1998, New York City-based alternative jazz-rap band Soul Coughing had reached the final stop on a remarkable ride through the nineties. Ace producer Tchad Blake manned the band’s 1994 debut album, Ruby Vroom, and their follow-up, 1996’s Irresistible Bliss, which yielded its first catchy radio hit, ‘Super Bon Bon,’ and thrust the band into the national spotlight. Remember, these were eclectic times in the music industry, and bands of all different shapes, sizes, and colors were breaking out—the Alternative Nation, as Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell had called it.
“One of the particular problems of getting pressure to write a hit song is that nobody knows what that is. And nobody knows that it’s difficult. And nobody seems to notice that things that are hits tend to come out of left field.”
And ’98 brought us the third and final studio album from this four-piece—featuring Mike Doughty (lead vocals/guitar), Mark Degli Antoni (samples), Sebastian Steinberg (upright bass) and Yuval Gabay (drums)—all of which have gone gold. With a trio of producers, including Blake, El Oso stands apart from the previous two records by simply being more tuneful; you can hear a band on the verge of writing actual ‘pop’ songs. That brings us to the focus of this Oral Hit-story, ‘Circles,’ which reached No. 8 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. We asked primary songwriter Doughty about it.
For us, this edition of Oral Hit-story was sort of a tie between ‘Super Bon Bon’ and ‘Circles,’ but ‘Circles’ did better on the charts, so here we are.
‘Circles’ also sold more records.
Do you remember where you were when you wrote the song?
Oh yeah. I was kind of breaking down as a person, and I had been living with a woman that was a terrible, stupid relationship to be in in London. So at the end of these long tours, I would end up in London, and she was … anyway. After that, I had a tour manager, Gus, who lived in Pensacola, Florida; and I ended up crashing at his friend Nick’s for a year — maybe a little less than a year. I don’t remember if it was after some time recording El Oso, [but] I think we decided to give up, because pretty much everything I’d brought to Soul Coughing ended up not as I wanted it. So I had just gotten to the point where I was like, ‘Fine.’ And the song I wrote, I had a drum-loop that I played on a sampler, and I went in the studio, laid down the drum loop and then split. I was at the point where I was like, ‘This is just a day-job.’ I will put down what I got. I have no artistic investments in this. I’m simply going to put down what I got and leave. It was an uncharacteristically dark winter.
This was 1997?
1997, probably. And then I started getting calls from the manager, multiple parties at the record company, and it was kind of like, ‘Heyyy, will you write us a single?’ And the thing about my relationship with everybody that we worked with was they were constantly telling me, ‘Doughty, stop being a problem. You don’t know how good you have it.’ The upside of it was just, ‘Shut up and deal with it.’ When I started getting these calls, it was devastating in a way. At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter, but only when they need me to be. So suddenly, everybody is out partying, and I was just utterly miserable. I was doing bong hits and ordering Papa Johns twice a day. Drinking Nyquil to go to sleep at night. I was subject to all this pressure, and it was a very particular kind of pressure you get [for] writing hit singles. And it tends to be very misinformed on the part of managers and the record company.
One of the particular problems of getting pressure to write a hit song is that nobody knows what that is. And nobody knows that it’s difficult. And nobody seems to notice that things that are hits tend to come out of left field. And they’re like, ‘Well, why aren’t you sitting down listening to the Verve Pipe.’ Write something that sounds like that. You kind of have to blow smoke up their ass on that front while trying to write something that is legitimately workable.
The Verve Pipe’s ‘Freshman,’ though an extremely cheesy song, still sounds like a hit.
But what I’m saying is, Isn’t it easy to just sound like everything else on the radio? You really get the sense that people were like, ‘What is the matter with these artists? All they have to do is turn on the radio and do stuff that sounds exactly like that!’ I remember Dan Wilson [of Semisonic], when he wrote ‘Closing Time,’ he’d been listening to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel. And he told his A&R guy at MCA, and the guy was just apoplectic. [In angry voice] Like, ‘Why don’t you listen to the fuckin’ radio?!’ He’s listening to great songs with great structure, and he’s talking to people who don’t know the first thing about the art form.
For a regular guy who’s never written a hit single, wasn’t that negative pressure you felt something that sparked a positive creative result in the end?
I love the song. It really is something I’m extremely proud of. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. For some reason, it got my band to shut up and play the song for once. But the chorus is “I don’t need to walk around in circles,” which is like what my life was. The first line of the second verse is “the ghostly dust of violence traces everything/And when the gas runs out, just wreck it, you insured the thing.” It’s like, ‘Fuck it, this ain’t workin’. I don’t care.’
There’s something mysterious about a hit song. Did you know that it was a hit the second you put it to tape, or did it take you awhile to figure that out?
I was at once extremely arrogant and totally hopeless. The phrase I love is ‘Thinking of yourself as the piece of shit at the center of the universe.’ And so I thought this is the greatest thing that’s ever been done in the history of time and it’s absolutely hopeless and terrible—at the same time. Really, it was very much scraping by to survive in those days; I cared and I didn’t care at the same time. I listen to it and I think it’s great. It’s one of a very few number of Soul Coughing recordings where I feel like this is what I meant. I look at the structure, the way the third verse is different from the first two and the chorus. And there’s the certain interval [sings] na-NA-na-NA [mimicking “I DON’T need TO walk around in circles”]. It was just a really simple, elemental, melodic gesture. You never know how you stumble on these things. But I love the song. I’m proud of it.
You had a few different producers work on El Oso. Do you remember putting that track down? Was that an early take or a later take?
Well, when you work with Tchad Blake, he’s very impatient with multiple takes. Generally, I find that the ‘like take’ is either the second or second-to-last take. So I suspect it was one of those, but I imagine doing five takes for Tchad would [make him] lose his mind. He also hated the song.
Why? Did he give you a reason?
Producers had the freedom at the time of getting paid $20,000 for a month’s work and not having to worry about whether there was a single on it. We did not. We were not paid that much money, and we needed a single. So he wanted weirder stuff, and this was a straight, down-the-middle guitar song.
A year after ‘Circles’ broke, Blake won his first Grammy for Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. Coincidence?
No, I think he was working with Sheryl at the time. I’m sure it had a lot more to do with Sheryl Crow than it did with us. I think he’d also just worked with Bonnie Raitt as well. So mainstream artists were beginning to filter towards him.
Music writer Robert Christgau referred to ‘Circles’ as Soul Coughing’s “songiest song.” Would you agree with his assessment?
I mean, to me, there are a dozen songs that would’ve been that good if I had made them the way I wanted to make them. That one I got to make the way I wanted to make it. So that’s actually sort of a bittersweet thing to hear. We could’ve had a dozen more ‘songy songs.’
Was there ever any time in your career where you refused to play ‘Circles’?
Oh yeah. I went years without playing Soul Coughing songs. Honestly, I saw a bunch of dudes dancing to it when I was on a solo tour, and they were so absorbed in their nostalgia that I thought ‘I don’t want to be a nostalgia vendor. I want to make my own music.’ And that was the last day I played Soul Coughing songs until July of 2013.
Are you more comfortable playing it live now?
At its best, music puts you in the eternal present. So if I can get into the oceanic, cosmic feeling of a song, I can separate it from its past and future. It is weird when nostalgia intrudes. Because there’s a certain kind of cheering, that is very distinct. It’s sonically distinct somehow; that is nostalgia cheering. Like, ‘I am cheering my sophomore year in college.’ That can be dispiriting. Because I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be a vital artist. And I think I’ve turned out a bit of money to be the artist that I am. But the song itself is a beautiful experience. I’m always hearing from people, ‘Ah, I got so sick of playing that song.’ I’ve never gotten sick of playing the song. I get weary when people pile their own stuff on top of the song, but the song itself is pure love.
What do you think the song’s legacy is?
I don’t know. I have no idea. I think to a certain extent, it made my career.
Do you get residual checks in the mail for it?
No, no, no. There’s no money in it at all. Like every band that was on a major label in the ‘90s, we are so unrecouped it’s ridiculous. I mean, I think it established me as a guitar player/singer, as opposed to a guy sort of fronting this eccentric band. I think the hit will do great things for you for the work you’re able to do for the rest of your life. By the way, that’s not necessarily a complaint that I’m not making big bank off it, because it is foundational to my career.
So writing a hit is sort of like winning an Oscar.
Really, if you look at so many great bands, it amounts to a song. Nirvana really amounts to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Everything after that was enabled by it. I mean, Phil Collins was enabled by ‘In the Air Tonight.’ For a lot of artists that went on to do interesting and successful things, it all boils down to one song.