By now, you've likely heard about the brouhaha surrounding the release this week of previously unheard Elliott Smith material. Normally, this would be treated as a grand occurrence, given that, unlike many of his peers in the gone-too-soon club, Smith's recorded legacy seemed to more or less end when he died in 2003. Sure, there have been posthumous albums—2004's From a Basement on the Hill, half-completed at the time of his suicide, and the 2007 odds-and-sods collection New Moon—but for the most part, the songwriter, who spent what many consider his best years in Portland, has avoided having his vault picked clean over the last decade, due either to his family's desire to carefully mitigate his memory or because there might not be much left that the public hasn't heard.
And so, when Pitchfork reported Tuesday that ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty had issued three songs featuring unreleased Elliott Smith vocal tracks, you'd think fans would be elated. Then they actually heard the songs. Posted to a Soundcloud page for Doughty's solo project UUL, they find Smith singing over some pretty silly "EDM" production that probably sounded outdated even back in the late '90s, when Doughty recorded the vocals—a cappella and through an uber-expensive binaural head microphone—at a studio in L.A. Except, Doughty only got around to laying down the beats last November, when he unearthed the long-lost tape containing Smith's recordings.
Doughty has alleged this is the form the collaboration was meant to take, but that didn't stop fans, and a few publications, from calling his motives into question. "[T]here's no way that, in 1998, Doughty could have explained to Smith what kind of track he might make 16 years later," writes Spin. Ryan Walsh, writing for the Boston Globe's music blog BDCwire, wonders if this is all somehow part of Doughty's ongoing mission to divorce himself from his former band. As for the reaction from people who actually knew Smith, in a thread on Sam Coomes' Facebook page, Tony Lash, Smith's former Heatmiser bandmate, says the songs "harmed my ears." Rob Schnapf, producer of four Smith albums, called them "pretty awful." Larry Crane, Smith's archivist, tells WW he hasn't listened to the tracks, but confirms Doughty did reach out to him. Meanwhile, Coomes, who also played with Smith in a later version of Heatmiser, said he didn't like Doughty's treatments, but shrugged off the controversy: "Weird people take shit like this so personal. Who does it harm?"
To get some clarification of his intent, we emailed Doughty a few questions. These are his responses:
Willamette Week: Some Elliott Smith fans are more upset than pleased to hear these songs. Does that surprise you?
Mike Doughty: I would point out, with very sincere respect, that people do like the UUL tracks, and that you have to make your music for the people who get it, and who are moved by it. But it definitely doesn't surprise me, and I tried to be ready for it. I empathize deeply with the intensity of emotion. I know, so very well, and with all of my heart, that this is Elliott fucking Smith.
What you were hoping to accomplish by finishing these songs and bringing them to the public?
Just to put art out into the world. Elliott and I began this, but I lost the tape for years. When I found it, I thought it was right to fulfill a long-delayed collaboration.
Just how did that tape end up going missing for 16 years?
The tape was lost because I'm a mess as an archivist. When I find things, it tends to be when I'm moving, which is how I found Elliott's vocals. This is an example of the suitcases and boxes of VHS tapes, DAT tapes, cassettes, micro-cassettes, notebooks, CDs, not sorted by era, that I've kept:
Elliott Smith's family is very protective of his legacy. You must've felt some trepidation over releasing these songs, which are so different, musically, from what one would expect to hear his voice over.
Tremendous trepidation. I was very scared. Ultimately, my feeling was that this is the project we began, and it needed to be completed. It has taken on a significance that it doesn't deserve. They're just tracks. Very sadly, if he was alive, this would just be a weird curiosity in his body of work, which, at this point, would have many more astonishing songs in it.
Did you attempt to reach out to the family or those close to him to ask for permission? And have you heard from anyone in the last few days?
I didn't even tell people I work with, managers and lawyers. I blindsided everybody. If I did, even with people I work closely with, this would never have come out. I got the email address of Larry Crane—who worked a lot with Elliott, and has acted as his archivist—to write him a long apology for the weirdness and suddenness of this, and sent him a file of the full, unedited session. He wrote back, very quickly, that, actually, it wasn't under his purview, since Elliott had signed with Dreamworks at that time. I don't really know what he thinks of the tracks, but he was very kind, and cordial. Other than that exchange, nobody has contacted me.
You've said these songs sound the way Elliott would've wanted them to sound. But, as Spin posited, after 16 years, how can you be so sure that this is how he would've liked his vocals used?
I just don't know what he would've thought about the final tracks. I wanted people to understand that he was into the process, so I put a snippet of him speaking in the studio on the top of one of the UUL tracks, "Dogs." It's after he finished one song, and was about to sing another. He says: "Yeah, that one's kind of like…it might be kind of..it might be kind of hard to put things under it. Let me play you this other one, you can tell me if it's too long." I think it was an adventurous lark for him, and it was a simple thing to participate in. The entire session—and I do mean the entire session, all songs, all takes, even the talking between takes—is under 14 minutes.
Along those lines, this piece in the Boston Globe's music blog, BDCwire, points out that back in 1997, you stated the recordings were intended as samples, to be used on the final Soul Coughing album, El Oso, and not necessarily as the lead vocals of a complete song. Can you clarify that?
The idea was to sample the vocal. He didn't give me any complete songs—he gave me a few individual verses. I do think that the way he recorded it, it seemed like he expected full verses to be deployed. I felt weirder about the slicing-and-dicing than I did about using longer parts.
There's this wonderful and mysterious aspect of Elliott's melodies: they unspool in this mystifying way. It was difficult to excise parts, and not relate them to the whole. In the instance of "The Record," I just did not feel comfortable cutting and pasting without having his whole verse be the foundation of the track.
It's painful to confront things I said in the '90s, because I told a lot of lies about what life was like in Soul Coughing, and what everybody's roles were, because I didn't want people to know how desperate I felt. Forgive me for not clicking on the link and reading the piece. I try my damnedest to stay away from any writing about the music. Even—maybe especially—the positive stuff. I try to pay attention to the work. What people are writing out there, that's not my department.
Did Elliott record these vocals thinking they were going to be on a Soul Coughing album, or did he think they were going to be used for UUL?
I don't remember how exactly we thought it was going to come out. I had ideas for things like white labels and mixtapes that came to naught, but I don't remember what he and I discussed.
That same piece BDC Wire piece wonders if this is part of your attempt to distance yourself from your ex-bandmates in Soul Coughing. What is your reaction to that assertion?
Oh, gosh, that's super weird to hear. I don't think this could've been brought to fruition as part of a Soul Coughing recording, in terms of the way the band worked. There were a lot of things I tried during those particular sessions, stuff I wanted the band to do, that failed, and this was one of them.
There's also a certain kind of micro-cutting and piecing things together that was ridiculous to attempt on the Ensoniq ASR-10 I owned, or any of the other kinds of samplers around back then. There is so much meticulous assembly to it—in the recording software, the vocal tracks look like the spine of a fish.
Anything else you'd care to add about all this?
I follow a Twitter feed called Don't Read Comments. It tweets out, multiple times a day, that you shouldn't read comments. I'm grateful for it.
People say that music changes their life. Elliott actually changed my life. At a time when I felt lost, I followed a friend to a barely-attended show at Fez, a club that was near Astor Place, in New York. It was a basement club, and the subway rumbled beneath the stage, periodically, drowning out the music. Elliott played, and I had never heard of him. Also on the bill were the Magnetic Fields, who I also had never heard of. Can you imagine! I was tremendously moved by him. I realized that I wanted to be a solo acoustic guy. Later that year, I recorded my first solo album, Skittish.
MORE ELLIOTT SMITH IN WILLAMETTE WEEK:
- "The Last of the Sad Bastards" (Oct. 16, 2013)