Dusting Off Ruby Vroom
Mike Doughty Looks Back on Soul Coughing's Unique Debut

By Lee Valentine Smith

Only a relative few albums can be called truly original, groundbreaking pieces of art. Ruby Vroom, the debut studio release from the late, great and highly influential New York-based band Soul Coughing is one of them.

Arriving in late 1994, during a time when formulaic commercial alternative ruled radio and major labels, the record's sound was an abrasive blast of free-range expressionism. The first of three studio albums for the band, it uprooted the musicians to Hollywood to record with experimental eccentric Tchad Blake at the helm. A blend of samples, fever-dream jazz, indie rock and hip-hop and soul fusion, the record didn't exactly become the next big thing - but for clued-in listeners, it became a favorite.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, Soul Coughing leader and songwriter Mike Doughty is looking back on the album with a tour that includes a performance of the album in its entirety.

INsite caught up with Doughty by phone recently to discuss the history of the album.

You've avoided some of the Soul Coughing catalog over the years but now, for the 25th anniversary, you're plunging headlong into the first album.

Yeah, I started doing Irresistible Bliss [Soul Coughing's 1996 album] shows like two years ago, as a sort of dry-run because I knew the 25th anniversary of this one was coming up. Everybody's been doing these full-album shows, so I tried it out in some clubs, with just me and a cello player. I discovered that people are doing the album shows because they're great. It's so much fun to be inside a framework like that. To be playing this big piece of music as opposed to taking it in chunks. I think most artists probably do not listen to their albums after they sequence them and send them off to be mastered.

Right and a tour for an album has a completely different structure.

A much different structure. The second song can't be slower than the first, and you have to end on a rocker not a ballad. You know, all these ideas that people have about structuring a live show, the flow of doing a concert. If you plan an album, you realize you're not bound to that stuff at all. The intuitive decisions you made about those songs at that time are often great decisions. People will often take the leap with you, because they know the leap is coming. It's so freeing.

There's a lot of improvising in your work in general.

Yes and especially within the show, so there's a great set of parameters to be able to operate within.

In the case of Ruby Vroom, it's such a unique piece of music. At the time it was actually something new and even in retrospect, it remains a very unique listening experience.

I think it's a record that nobody else tried to do, which I found very surprising. I thought we had come up with ways to combine these very specific threads. There's the hip-hop thread, the experimental music thread, the jazz thread and the kind of singer-songwriter, indie-rock kind of thread. We'd figured out how to do this thing and I thought there was gonna be more of us. I thought we might be the beginning of something that somebody else would do better. Or if not better, then in a way that would be more popular. But it turned out to be a pretty unique thing, even as hip-hop beats came more and more into the rock side of things as the '90s progressed. I think nobody ever got quite as weird or dissonant as we did.

We're both music fans and we've heard a lot of material over the years, but there's very few records, especially from the '90s, that can be described as truly groundbreaking.

I appreciate that. I really wanted to make a case for this album, even just on an egotistical level. When lists come out on a regular basis, like 'The 100 greatest records of the '90s' or whatever. I always expect us to be maybe like number 87. It's fine if people don't think we're Nevermind or Check Your Head. But I always thought Ruby Vroom belonged in there somewhere.

So now you're taking it out on the road.

I guess the real reason is I wanted to remind people of what an innovative record it was. How unique and how good the songs were. I'm trying to say this purely without trying to sound grandiose about it, but I think it's a really good record. But I don't know. I guess I grew up in a world where you really didn't brag about yourself.

Let's talk about working with Tchad Blake. He's done so many wildly diverse recordings over the years. What was he like in the studio? Was he hands-on like a Todd Rundgren or did he just let you run wild with ideas?

He was an artist, essentially. He played an instrument. For him, that instrument was the studio. He wasn't the kind of guy who'd talk about chord changes or structural ideas. It really kind of felt like we were just jamming with him and he was band member. All these different weird things he did, like taking a rinky-dink PA system and using it to record or taking a mic and putting it in a car muffler or recording the drums in a booth as opposed to out in a room. There were just so many great things he'd try. He was as inspiring as any musician.

Going into the project, did you have the sonic ideas already in mind or did his style change the overall sound of it?

The thing I remember was meeting with him and an old Trojan Records compilation was playing in the background at whatever cafe we were in. You know, those old 1967 to '69 kind of songs, the really early not-quite reggae and not ska records when that world was really finding its identity. I said, 'How do you make something sound like this?' He said, 'Well, you record three albums in a day.' I was like, 'Alright, let's do it, man!' We didn't do that, but it was just that he really got the kind of thing I was looking for when I said that. He would follow stuff down the rabbit hole, just without hesitation. The first time we recorded "True Dreams of Wichita," I said, 'I don't like the way this vocal sounds. I want to put a mic in the back of your old rusty Ford pick-up truck in the parking lot and then run the vocal back into the studio.' He was like, 'All right.' Obviously he had an assistant engineer so that was the guy who had to actually run a mic cable 200 yards and set up with headphones in a parking lot. And we ended up not using it! But the thing is, he was fine about the idea, with no reservations whatsoever.

You needed a risk-taker like that with the material on the album.

Oh yeah and he was very much a maverick. I think he sort of jumped at the chance to work with a band that had basically been playing the album - though not in the sequence it eventually lived in - at clubs. Like at The Knitting Factory, and we had a residency at CB's Gallery and we were an incredibly rehearsed band. We just went in the studio and just started recording. So I think it created kind of a perfect moment once we got into the studio.

When you were done with it, what did you think about the finished product?

At first I loved it and then I hated it. Our fans in New York didn't like it. We had a core of people that came to every show and made t-shirts with lyrics on them, this really rabid little group of people. When they got the album, they said, 'This doesn't sound like you guys.' So I was a little bit crestfallen at the time. But it's an album of its moment.

Have you started rehearsals for the new Vroom tour?

Oh yeah. I had real trepidation about how we'd approach the sound of the original recording and of course my tendency is to improvise. I have a bandleader in Brendan B. Brown from Wheatus who is also opening the show. He's obsessive and exact and particular. So the balance between those two opposite impulses is what's gonna make it good.

So every show will be different.

Absolutely.

Will you utilize your improv system for this project?

Yeah, I have a system that's based on some stuff that people like John Zorn and Butch Morris did. It's like a system of live improvising that uses particular hand-signals to change the sound in the moment. I think it's gonna be good.

Mike Doughty plays Ruby Vroom on Thursday, February 21 at The Ear. For more information, please visit badearl.com.

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