Combining techno and organic music is not exactly a revolutionary idea anymore. Plenty of groups, from Dubtribe Sound System to Medeski, Martin & Wood, have successfully merged the dance-driven grooves of the turntable underground with the in-the-moment excitement of an improvisational live performance. But few artists can mix the two quite so deliciously as Soul Coughing.
On the bottom end there are the dirty rumble of Sebastian Steinberg's stand-up bass lines and Yuval Gabay's versatile drumming tactics: milking hip-hop's cool swagger or impersonating the frantic trademark beats of jungle. Sliding in and out of the mix are M. Doughty's rhythmic guitar hooks and Mark De Gli Antoni's keyboard sampling tricks that smooth their songs out with a shimmery coat of otherworldly noises. And floating atop the entire sonic waterbed, Doughty's voice spills out off-kilter lyrics that ease from spoken tirades to catchy melodies and back again. It's a humanized techno/hip-hop hybrid or it's electronica-tinged groove rock, depending on which segment of Soul Coughing's following you ask.
Still Soul Coughing's commercial success is an enigma. The group was born in New York City's experimental underground in the early 1990s, working clubs like the Knitting Factory and eventually landing a weekly gig at CB's 313 Gallery. With no heady goals to "make it" in the music industry, the four musicians had only one clear agenda: to make music that had the bottom-heavy punch of hip-hop. But people started to roll into shows to dance to the group's grooves. The band's debut album Ruby Vroom (1994) sold more than 150,000 copies, supported by tours over the next few years with acts such as Jeff Buckley, Cop Shoot Cop, and Sunny Day Real Estate. And though Ruby showed the band's ability to tap into an original musical vibe, the group's second effort, Irresistible Bliss (1996), was the recording that showed Soul Coughing could push past novelty. The band found something bigger: catchy, spacious grooves that didn't pull punches for radio success, though the infectious track "Super Bon Bon" did make its way on to radio and into the hands of the mainstream public.
The group's third and latest release, El Oso (1998), is arguably Soul Coughing's most exciting record yet, an adventurous dive into the speedy weirdness of jungle and drum and bass without abandoning the organic edge of live instrumentation. With two tracks produced by Optical (known for his pioneering studio work with Goldie and Grooverider), El Oso finds Soul Coughing leaning even closer to the rave scene. As Steinberg says from his parent's home near Lake Okeechobee, the drum and bass feel that dominates most of the album was a natural, stylistic evolution.
"It all began in Arhus, Denmark, during our very first European jaunt; that was about four or five years ago," he recalls. "I mean, we had read about jungle music but hadn't really heard it. So we were walking down the street and this music was coming out of a store. And Yuval, our drummer, stopped dead in his tracks. He was just like, 'Yo, G!' and he never turned back. As Yuval's style changed, it naturally infected all of us. There was a little of this stuff on the other albums, like in the tune 'Collapse' on Irresistible Bliss. But on this album it's more prominent, I guess."
From the first beats of Oso's opening track, "Rolling," Soul Coughing is clearly in tune with the sonic capabilities of techno production. As El Oso plays out, the music may not stay within the confines of one subgenre (namely drum and bass or jungle) but the influences make their way into even the less speedy songs. Synthesized blips and sampled bursts of noise swirl around the dirty grooves of "Monster Man." "Blame" hurries along aggressively before dropping off into a midsong ambient soundscape. And rhythmic patterns fade in and out of the nearly seven-minute closer "The Incumbent," almost as if some unseen DJ is working the turntables. By the end of the album, the members of Soul Coughing prove they understand and appreciate modern electronic music. So have they frequented raves and parties?
"We haven't hit parties like we'd like to," Steinberg says. "We've talked about this recently, actually -- about how the whole idea of a rock show is kind of stupid in comparison. It's a lame presentation for music. It's over. I mean, if you go see a really good DJ spin, it's just so much more fun then seeing some band where everybody's facing a big, rectangular stage on one side of the room. It would be so nice to play a show where we're not the center of attention, just find a groove and hang on it for the night. I really like how DJ's focus less on particular songs than on a connected set as a whole. That's so much cooler than a parade of hits.
"But then, what we're talking about predates electronic music. I mean, this is like African shit," he continues. "Both Yuval and I were in ethnic bands before this -- though not together -- and with those bands, there could be a whole room of people doing some insane dance. And when they were getting into it heavily, you
wouldn't stop. You would keep playing. It's how dance music should be, and I like to think that Soul Coughing is a dance band. I've seen our music have that kind of effect on people and that's part of what excites me about being a part of this band."
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Soul Coughing's live shows do allow songs to open up, but not in the conventional way of most rock acts, where the key is the solo. Instead the band approaches live versions of songs almost in the way DJs mix records in a live setting, pulling out parts here and there as new elements are slipped into the grooves. The focus on live improvisation within danceable tunes is part of what has attracted many fans in the first place; the band encourages listeners to bootleg shows when possible, an approach that has worked for bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. As a result an active trading community has developed on the Internet in which fans trade shows to spread around the music. Eventually Soul Coughing plans to use Internet resources to put out music in their own way. Although the idea is still in the planning stages, Steinberg says the band hopes to unleash an Internet radio station within the next year that will air songs from the band's albums as well as alternate takes, rarities, and live cuts.
As Soul Coughing continues to draw in fans through conventional and not-so-conventional means, Steinberg and the other band members are enjoying a period of relative fame. So how does it feel to be in such a situation?
"It's a lot more than I've dreamed, but I'm definitely trying to keep my head clear," he says. "Things in the music industry are really deranged and the more I think about it, the more it troubles me. But as long as I just focus on the music, everything should be alright."
Soul Coughing performs at 8:00 p.m. Friday, May 7, at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $16.50. For more information call 561-833-7305.