A few years ago, singer Mike Doughty decided he was tired of the predictable banter that usually characterized his live shows. So he decided to spice things up a bit and put out a question jar so that fans could write down their questions. During the show, he’d take the time to answer each and every one of them.
“With the first one, I thought I had to answer absolutely every question with total honesty,” he says in a phone interview. “Now, there are some questions that I skimp on a bit. I give answers but I’m a little elusive.”
So have any of them gone terribly awry?
“They have not,” he says. “The worst thing is that can happen is that the whole crowd asks serious questions that are unapproachable from a surreal or funny level. Generally, [accompanying tour mate] Scrap and I are good at steering things into surrealism. It’s all in a jar. You write it out and there’s only so much back and forth you can do when the questions are written down. We tend to shut down drunk assholes.”
Doughty’s got plenty to talk about too. A jazz club doorman turned beat poet-inspired frontman, he’s carved out a singular niche for himself over the course of a career that now spans two decades. While he certainly had the most notoriety leading Soul Coughing, the New York-based avant-jazz act that appealed to hipsters and jam-band fans alike, he’s also done fine on his own after going solo in 2000. On his terrific solo albums, he works his extensive vocabulary into a variety of tongue-twisting tunes. His new album, Stellar Motel, ups the ante by pairing him with an assortment of underground rappers. He gives some of the credit to producer Good Goose.
“He’s pretty broad and spread out in his tastes,” he says of Good Goose. “I met him because he had these super nerdy questions about [2005’s] Haughty Melodic that had to do with tuning and compressors and how many tracks were on a certain song. It was stuff that I was unable to answer because it was years ago. But that was his mindset. The fact that Haughty Melodic was his favorite record of mine combined with fact that he knew so much about hip-hop is what brought me in.”
There are quite a few guests on the album. Doughty says he didn’t have any real criteria for selecting them.
“Just that I love them and that I’m incredibly engaged by their voices or instrument or their style,” he says. “Most of them I met through Goose. A lot of them, like Big Dipper, are from the queer underground scene in New York. They’re all connected in that regard.”
A couple of the songs on the album were intended for other purposes. Doughty wrote “Oh My God Yeah Fuck It” for a house producer who wanted a vocal.
“I put that on a voice memo and sent to him and he didn’t even respond,” says Doughty. “He was so not into it. I thought it was good and when we were putting the record together, I dusted it off. It was really poorly recorded. I don’t think I gave him a good sense of how it was supposed to sound.”
And the rollicking “Let’s Go to the Motherfucking Movies” was intended to be a Travie McCoy song.
“He wrote me and said he wanted to do a song together,” says Doughty. “I said, ‘Sure.’ That’s what I sent him and I didn’t hear back.”
On his last tour, Doughty extensively revisited Soul Coughing. This time around, he’s only playing handful of songs from that era.
“The set is 21 or 22 songs," he says. "The biggest chunk is from Haughty Melodic and the rest is spread evenly.”
And the Question Jar will undoubtedly add an unpredictable element to the proceedings as well.
Mike Doughty's World-Renowned. Award-winning Question Jar Show (featuring Andrew "Scrap" Livingston), 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, musicboxcle.com.