Soul Men

It has been my experience that, with the possible exception of Sam Cooke's Soul Stirrers, all bands with the word "soul" in their name suck. Soul Asylum, Soul Rebel, Collective Soul, Soulhat, Soul Survivors (which couldn't survive the wonder of its sole hit) ... any one of them could suck the rust off last year's steel wool.

But rules are proved by their exceptions, and the latest is Soul Coughing, which, if you ask me, doesn't suck at all. The group has nerdy/wordy art appeal, weird noises galore, a funky beat and you can bug out to it. Really. I've done it. Point of fact: the New York quartet's Ruby Vroom was one of the finest releases of 1995, and their latest, Irresistible Bliss, released just last week, is already short-listed for best-of status in 1996. It's a great little band. It's just their name that sucks.

For a proselytizer, a great band with a crappy name is a little frustrating, not least in this case because words are a key part of Soul Coughing's concept. Sometimes the words are sung -- almost -- but more often they're closer to spoken, with maybe a touch of rant here and there. The words are put to the service of imagistic set pieces, words strung together with a touch of nasal tone-poem intonation that, at least once on each of Soul Coughing's albums, becomes annoying enough to skip over.

But more often they work. Either as stories, such as Ruby Vroom's "True Dreams of Wichita" and "Screenwriter's Blues," or as slogans -- "is Chicago, is not Chicago," and "5 percent nation of Casio-tone," for example. The repetitions drill straight into the gray matter that retains such ephemera. The Cougher calling himself M. Doughty, who functions as lyricist, singer and occasional guitarist, shares a single characteristic with Beck, in that there's sometimes not much point in following what he says too closely. You either like the way he says it, or you don't.

Words have also been a key part of the band's image, since early stories tended to dwell on the fact that Doughty, preband, once toiled as a music critic at the nicely wordy New York Press. But with Irresistible Bliss, the angle is music -- something that might have been part of the angle from the start had it not been for Astoundingly Brilliant Producer (my title) Tchad Blake, who made Ruby Vroom sound so sonically out-there that it was easy to think of Soul Coughing as a studio project, a band that pushed a lot of buttons and might have trouble playing live.

Wrong. As it happened, the band followed Ruby Vroom with heavy touring all over the U.S. and Europe, playing little rooms (the Urban Art Bar on an early visit to Houston) and huge European festivals with Violent Femmes and the Dave Matthews Band. And it turned out that despite the apparent studio wizardry, 95 percent of Ruby Vroom was recorded live, a practice continued with Irresistible Bliss. Everyone in the band -- Doughty, upright bass player Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Yuval Gabay, keyboard sampler Mark De Gli Antoni -- played simultaneously in the studio. Vocals, instruments, everything was done as a performance. It's just the whacked, non-natural sonics coming from De Gli Antoni's sampler that confused things and made some listeners think they were admiring a producer's construction.

But the way Gabay -- whose snappy lope gives the band its swing -- explains it, Soul Coughing's roots lie in live performances in the revolving/evolving scene around New York's Knitting Factory club. Steinberg had been playing with a band called Blond Redhead, as had Gabay, who also gigged with Marc Ribot, Syd Straw and John Zorn. De Gli Antoni was a regular presence at Zorn's Cobra project and with Anthony Coleman, but he also had his own thing going as a composer of pieces for chamber orchestra.

Doughty, like any good underpaid New York music critic, worked the Knitting Factory door. It was Doughty who approached the musicians with the idea for a band, and he knew what the lineup ought to be: standup bass, drums, guitar and sampler. This all started about four years ago.

It took six months of occassional gigs before a sound started to emerge. It could start with a guitar part, or a sample, or a bass line, or a drum beat, "little skeletons of songs that we had and we'd rework them, just disembowel and cut-and-paste," says Gabay. They'd play a piece live, working it out on-stage. "Eventually, somebody saw us, and eventually we got signed to Slash/ Warner probably about a year after we started. Up until the record came out, we only played New York," says Gabay. "And we played New York a lot. We had this weekly gig that we used to do which came to be this really cool party, it's called 'Slaw.' Every Wednesday. And we had this friend screening eight millimeter films and we had this DJ come in. Then it moved to a Friday and it just grew."

After Ruby Vroom came out, Soul Coughing grew into gigs all over the place, from 200-head rooms to festivals to 10,000-seat halls. They got songs placed on two compilations, Blue in the Face and the high-profile Songs in the Key of X -- Music from and Inspired by the X-Files. Gabay says the tunes for both collections were written under the gun. "We had to come up with some shit really quick last year for soundtrack stuff," he says. "Like a quarter of a rehearsal quick, and we just pulled it out. Boom."

The record company, though, didn't move so fast. There was talk of releasing the X-Files contribution as a single, and there was talk of a video. Meanwhile, Irresistible Bliss was done and scheduled for release. Plenty of publications reviewed the CD months ago, assuming it would be out on the street at the promised time. But the X-Files talks pushed the CD's actual release date to late last week. So where's the single, the video? Nowhere, apparently. "They were just being a bit too slow," says Gabay. "And we were like, 'You know what? We can't wait. Fuck it.' "

None of the delay is evident on Irresistible Bliss, which presents a more focused Soul Coughing. Only two of the CD's 12 tracks clock in at more than four minutes; nine of Ruby Vroom's 14 hung around longer than that. There's more song, less collage, without altering the music's identifying marks -- groovy, jazzy bass lines, syncopated drum beats, charismatic vocal presence and careening sheets of sampled sound.

The tightening into songs is no accident. "I think it's a direct reflection of playing live a lot," says Gabay. "You learn to consolidate your stuff and be more direct. Especially if you're playing large halls, which we got a chance to do. It's good experience. You learn a lot doing gigs like that, because sound tends to be larger and longer, so you have to make your gestures smaller, because they just sound big whatever you do. Playing a lot has taught us less is more and to cut to the chase."

Playing live also revealed certain weaknesses. Irresistible Bliss' "Collapse," for example. "We used to play 'Collapse,' but that song just couldn't find itself, we lost it," says Gabay. "We played it good once and we just couldn't repeat it, so we left it out [of the live set] for a long time."

But not forever.
"I liked the melody of that song," Gabay says. "I thought that it had potential, it just wasn't working the way it was. So, not long ago, I came up with this beat and made everybody play with me, we fitted the bass line in and then we fitted the vocal, just trying to retain the melody and totally recreate everything else. It was successful because we totally brought that song out of the dead."

Where it will now get a performance workout when Soul Coughing plays the second stage on the southern leg of Lollapalooza. Gabay is happy. He likes festival gigs. But mostly, it seems, he just likes performing, as do his bandmates. The days of storing amps at the Knitting Factory and showing up to jam every night may be over, but Soul Coughing still wants to play a lot. That's why they booked a sub-tour that brings them to Houston, so they can play spots Lollapalooza doesn't hit. That's why Doughty just did vocals for an 808 State song, and why Steinberg and Gabay just finished sessions with Suzanne Vega, and why Gabay is doing gigs with guitarist Marc Ribot's band. All in the midst of the heavy press commitments and double-duty touring of a pretty hot band promoting a new release.

They're probably just getting tighter while you read. Maybe by the time they get here, they'll pop.

Soul Coughing plays at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, Wednesday, July 24. For info, call 869-

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brad Tyer