“This record is huge. It’s my favorite,” says M. Doughty. But then, suddenly realizing that’s what everybody says when they have an album in the pipeline, Soul Coughing’s frontman adds, “I’m not lying. On El Oso, we have really grown as a band.” You cannot blame Doughty for choosing his words carefully. The release of their third album sees the genre-bending quartet poised on the brink of greatness – which a predictable dose of massive industry hype would only delay.
Building a fan base the old fashioned way – by relentlessly taking theircommanding live show on the road, Soul Coughing broke out of the experimental art rock ghetto in 1994 when their first album, Ruby Vroom, sold in excess of 150,000. Powered by the high-spirited aggression of the radio-friendly track “Super Bon Bon,” their sophomore effort did even better and Irresistible Bliss sold over 250,000 copies.
Spawned in the bowels of New York’s underground in 1992, Soul Coughing, ironically, never entertained the thought that someday they might have commercial potential. Indeed, Doughty confesses that, “When the band was formed, I had given up on making it in the music industry. I didn’t care anymore and I just wanted to book some Monday night shows and have some fun.”
To this end, the struggling avant poet put together an unlikely band of talented musicians. Mark De Gli Antoni, who has a Masters in music composition, handles keyboards and sampler. Yuval Gabay occupies the drum stool. His credits include Bosho, an experimental percussion threesome; Zahar, which fused traditional Moroccan folk music and rock; and musical collaborations with choreographers. Stand up bassist Sebastian Steinberg’s career has included stints in everything from reggae bands to belly dancing combos as well as collaborations with New York’s leading dissonant guitar hero, Marc Ribot, not to mention playing on the upcoming Cibo Matto LP. “We are four smarty pants, who are proud of their great musical backgrounds,” says De Gli Antoni. “So it’s not that easy to chew up and spit out what it is that we do.” To make matters even more interesting, De Gli Antoni had never been in a band before and Steinberg’s professional experience was mostly confined to electric bass.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, they came together with a unifying theme. Steinberg relates the band consensus: “Funk had become this tinnysounding shit. One of the things we all agreed upon was that Soul Coughing had to have a dark deep low-end and that live we had to be as fat as all these hip hop records.” Almost predictably, their first show at New York’s très hip Knitting Factory saw only 17 paying customers-but remarkably, the lineup stayed intact. Within a year, there was a good word on the street about the band, and their weekly residency at CBGB Gallery had become the downtown cognoscenti’s party of choice. “People started dancing,” says Steinberg. “And once that was taken care of, anything else could happen.”
And so it did. After sorting through some offers, Soul Coughing inevitably signed to Slash/Warner in 1993. The following year they recorded Ruby Vroom with Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Cibo Matto). After backbreaking tours with the likes of Jeff Buckley, Sunny Day Real Estate and Cop Shoot Cop, they returned to the studio in 1996 with renowned producer David Kahne and created Irresistible Bliss out of the tunes they had perfected while on tour.
Which brings us to El Oso…
The record title may have been partially inspired by the bear on the California state flag-although rumors abound of bears appearing on Soul Coughing’s set lists as early as 1994. But when asked for further information Doughty will only reply cryptically, “El Oso quiere miel.” From that, we can divine that the lyricist is still savoring the sweet taste of success after spending 12 weeks with the band last winter at L.A.’s Sunset Sound Factory. Once again, Tchad Blake was at the controls and Doughty says that, for once, they actually had to fully develop their tunes. “Tchad had a zillion keyboards, whistles, bells, toys, weird speakers and guitars, and we went crazy with the overdubs.” But just in case you suspect that with all this, they were really only given enough time to muck things up, rest assured that Soul Coughing’s already prodigious funk is fatter and their groove more hypnotic than ever before. “I don’t think we hit stride with song production until this record,” confides De Gli Antoni. “In the past, I think we always felt that we didn’t squeeze the wine-press hard enough and there were still a lot of skins and stems left in the juice.”
El Oso clearly brings Soul Coughing more than a few steps closer to realizing their dream of being a great dance band. Jungle beats dominate the cuts and the boys have also been obviously listening to a lot of drum and bass. “Eventually it snuck into my music,” admits drummer Yuval Gabay. “When I come up with beats I always try to imagine how people would dance to it. And with jungle, people are bending their knees but their heads are also bobbing up and down. So these days, I am trying to get people to bob their heads as well as shake their booty.”
Soul Coughing have also acknowledged their influences by having British drum and bass maestro Optical (Metalheadz, Grooverider, Goldie) work his magic on two of the tunes (“Blame” and “The Incumbent”). “It was an awesome collaboration,” continues Gabay. “The beauty is that it all came from us and went through his filters. He did very subtle things that made a big difference. He didn’t fuck with the music.”
And as for Doughty’s lyrical prowess, which draws its sustenance in equal measure from A Tribe Called Quest and the beat poets, it has never been more refined. Check out the way he captures that salacious gutter vibe on “$300,” the fetid claustrophobia of addiction on “Houston” and the supple swagger of “Rolling.” And still, for the single “Circles,” Doughty manages to wear his heart on his sleeve in lyrics that were inspired by a recent breakup. “The girl was confusing,” he confesses, “So I said, ‘fuck you girl you are so confusing to me.'”
Released on September 29, El Oso.