For musician and songwriter, Mike Doughty, a borrowed electric bass changed everything. Doughty, the son of a military man, grew up on an army base. But that meant a more conservative upbringing, one where order was prioritized and improvisational soloing wasn’t, necessarily. Nevertheless, Doughty began to discover music – Led Zeppelin was an early favorite. As he began to open his mind to the idea of art and creativity, though, there weren’t many kids around the barracks to talk to or jam with. But there was one fellow – a football player around Doughty’s age – who had an electric bass and Doughty was able to borrow it. From there, he began to undertake the beginnings of composition. He plucked the low-E string endlessly and belted out lyrics. Later, of course, Doughty would go on to front the popular band, Soul Coughing. Today, Doughty is set to unveil his latest single, “I Hear The Ax Swinging,” from his newest project, Ghost of Vroom, which will release its debut LP on March 19th (pre-save it).
“It wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I borrowed a bass from a kid on the football team,” Doughty says. “I don’t even know why he had this bass. I had nobody to teach me. So, I learned how to just bang on the low-E string and yelp, basically. I just made my own shit up.”
In some ways, not being privy to the proper tools and techniques at an early age can stunt an artist. In another way, however, having to make up everything on the fly without direction can foster individuality. One, in this sense, is almost forced to find one’s own voice. There are no other distractions or avenues. So, Doughty forged a way forward. For him, music was medication. It was a away to sort through and even sometimes remove himself from feelings of anxiety and depression as a younger person. He enjoyed many styles of music at this time, but one genre that became informative was hip-hop. Doughty fell for the rhythms and phrasings of emcees like KRS-ONE and Q-Tip.
“That was the key that unlocked my ability to write songs,” he says.
Doughty also listened to rock ‘n’ roll artists like Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin. He wrote poetry too. He chipped away at his “naïve” artistic beginnings and began to mature as a musician.
“Synthesis was very natural to me,” Doughty says. “By this time, I was stuck in my bad habits and had no choice but to evolve as myself.”
Later, he found a job working at a jazz club in New York City, the Knitting Factory. In the 80s and 90s, the spot was known for its avant garde music. It attracted skilled and versatile experimental players. As such, Doughty got to know a bunch of the local musicians and he began to ask them to collaborate with him. Doughty wanted to put a band together and, through trial and error, he did just that. Prior, he’d played his songs on acoustic guitar around coffee shops (“I was trying to be Public Enemy on an acoustic guitar,” he says). But now he was ready for a group. Eventually, one configuration took off and Soul Coughing was in the mainstream.
“As I get older,” he says, “It’s interesting to have a relationship with this old material that people met when they were in high school. Everyday, I’m also getting up and I’m working on new songs. I have twelve unfinished things going at once at all times. It’s a funny thing to have this old material when you’re constantly trying to innovate and improve and just practice the craft!”
Doughty says that, during the pandemic, he’s been writing constantly. In fact, Ghost of Vroom wrote and released a new EP, which the band called, Ghost of Vroom 2, even though the band’s first full-length album, Ghost of Vroom 1, has not yet been released. The band wrote and recorded that first LP in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and chose to shelve it for the time being until the chance to tour was more possible. Now, the band, which also includes Doughty’s friend and longtime collaborator, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, and famed hip-hop DJ and producer, Mario C, is ready to put its first record into the world in earnest.
“I’m suddenly finding myself in this new phase,” Doughty says. “I’m open to making hard left turns. I’m following the art wherever it wants to go, as opposed to me pushing it around and making it fit my needs.”
Today, Doughty lives in Memphis. As a result, he finds himself exposed more and more to rappers in the area. He produces beats for freestyling sessions. In other words, he’s returned to his musical roots. As a result, Ghost of Vroom harkens back to Soul Coughing. At first, Doughty wondered if the music would be released under that moniker. But, in the end, he chose completely new route. Doughty’s ability to make sharp left turns, in this way, has been a signature to his career. When the band was going through a low period in the late 90s and early 2000s, Doughty left the project behind. He found a partnership with prolific songwriter and ATO label owner, Dave Matthews. Doughty released solo material and his career found a second act, of sorts. Today, he continues to be ready to evolve.
His new project’s new single is a deft amalgamation of multiple genres. He blends the heft of rock with the percussion of hip-hop and the swing of jazz to make a catchy song unlike anything else out there. While Doughty maintains a sense of elasticity or freedom in his work, he says he wants to continue to produce music under the Ghost of Vroom moniker with “Scrap” and Mario C. Ultimately, Doughty appreciates the freedom that music offers him. It’s pleasure and possibility all wrapped up in one fruitful endeavor.
“I love the way it changes me,” Doughty says. “The weird magic of it. The mystery.”