Love at first sight wasn't exactly the sentiment shared by the members of Soul Coughing, back when the four future bandmates gave an impromptu performance at the Knitting Factory, the trendy New York venue and informal hangout for denizens of the downtown music scene. Poet and failed folk singer M. Doughty, then a doorman at the club, simply called together three acquaintances -- keyboardist Mark De Gli Antoni, string bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay -- to see what might happen.
"It wasn't an outright jam," De Gli Antoni says from his home in San Francisco. "We just tried to keep the groove going. It evolved into the four of us getting together for gigs, and people showed up. The success of it became most immediately apparent to Doughty but not to Sebastian, Yuval and I, who didn't know each other. Then we went in and did five, six songs in the studio, and we all said, 'Wow.' The material could be looked at as something more than jamming."
Seven years and three albums later, Soul Coughing has crashed onto pop radio, with the slow-grooving single "Circles," and forged an immediately identifiable sound. Doughty's nasally delivery of impressionistic lyrics and uncomplicated guitar has married famously with De Gli Antoni's trick bag of eclectic samples, and a live-boombox mix of urban beats provided by Steinberg and Gabay.
In retrospect, it's not that difficult to figure out why Soul Coughing was able to score a degree of commercial success, while many of the band members' former downtown collaborators have languished in relative obscurity. Call it a good beat, and you can dance to it.
"We had a groove that didn't stop," says De Gli Antoni, who has a master's degree in music composition from Mannes School of Music in New York. Steinberg has played with everyone from guitarist Marc Ribot to Cibo Matto to reggae bands and belly-dancing groups, while Zahar's resume includes work with experimental percussion trio Bosho, Moroccan folk-rock group Zahar and various choreographers. "Here was this guy who wanted to just do words and here was this drummer and bass player who wanted to keep a beat going, and there was this wide highway in the middle of it."
The musicians jelled rapidly enough, signing to Slash/Warner Bros. in 1993 and hooking up with producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow) to record the following year's "Ruby Vroom," which sold 150,000 copies. "One thing he's definitely done is sort of 3-D'd us," De Gli Antoni says about the contributions of Blake, who has a second career as a member of the Latin Playboys, with Los Lobos guys David Hidalgo and Louie Perez. "It's very much about the first take.
"Especially on the first album, he was the perfect person, because he was, like, 'Here are you guys, don't try to be anything different. You're so amazing at this point, why don't you just play? Don't suddenly try to wear hats that you haven't had to wear before. Let's just make a record of what you are.' He was really great about just presenting what was played. Not coloring it in such a significant way that the gesture would lose its relevance to the song. It's sort of like a sculpture, or a guy working on a bas-relief, and those images coming out of the wall. That was enough."
Soul Coughing's second album, 1996's "Irresistible Bliss," went halfway gold, thanks in part to the single "Super Bon Bon." That tune got a little boost from the support of shock-radio jock Howard Stern, temporarily the band's biggest fan. Stern began singing the song to himself, on the air, and invited the group to play. "He loved that damn song," Antoni says. "You could tell he was completely flipped out by it. He really, really liked it. But there was no big bump (on the singles chart) after that. The record didn't suddenly take off. That didn't turn the corner for us."
"El Oso" (Spanish for "The Bear"), released last September, is juiced by the same kind of stream-of-consciousness lyrics, repetitive riffs and funky beats that made the first Soul Coughing discs such guilty pleasures, each a sonic treasure with more musical depth than might be gleaned from a single spin.
Jungle beats, the rhythms of drum & bass and ambient technopop have worked their way into the mix. And Doughty's lyrics have grown slightly more pointed, with tales of screwed-up relationships on "Misinformed" and "Circles," lost love on "I Miss the Girl," and a slice of Panhandle life he says he isn't anxious to reprise, on "Pensacola."
Says De Gli Antoni: "With this album, the beat is different. It's a little more aggressive. It's less hip-hoppy and a lot more influenced by other dance forms, and there's certainly a lot more minor-key elements on this album. As a lyricist, he has developed from this flip commentary to lyrics that are more about his personal experiences. It kind of has a focus and an edge. There's no 'Bus to Beelzebub' on this record.'"