As Mike Doughty notes in conversation, the iconic vehicle of "White Lexus" literally shadows the song. Lyrically, the song's rife with images of dispassion. "Please show me how to live," he dryly pleads in the opening stanza, "Please show me how to have a day." He sounds as though the simplest joys have escaped him. He doesn't want to wake up now, and, in fact he may not have to wake up at all, as he hints in the next line by comparing his distress to that of a soap opera star ("shrill and bland"). The aching chords are joined by pedal steel, accentuating the pathos without offering a reason for our empathy. Whatever the source of his malaise, it's tied to this universally recognized status symbol, idling in his driveway.
Picking up the acting metaphor, Doughty instructs, "Try to feel nothing on demand/ When your White Lexus comes, the thrill be damned." Whatever the specific meaning, the benumbed detachment's a readily recognizable cultural symptom. But he music swells wistfully, and it makes the sadness mysterious. Doughty seizes this, coming back from the chorus with a redemptive plea: "I forgive the world right now," he sings, acknowledging, "I play the chump's role every time."
And with the song's two best symbols, he goes for the knockout: "My life's the surface of the moon/ My heart's down in the diamond mines." The isolation and desperation are almost palpable, even as distant, dulcet pedal steal slips over the horizon. Like a pretty song camouflaging despondent sentiments, "White Lexus" pairs a disconsolate, soul-sucked air with a status symbol for success.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What inspired "White Lexus"?
MIKE DOUGHTY: There was a bunch of threads happening at once. I had just bought this guitar synthesizer, and it was literally the first thing I played on it, this riff. I went from C to G, and, "What if I do a B Major 7th?" Like, "What the fuck?" and worked my way back with the E and the A. It was literally an improvisation that fell out instantly without adjustment.
I only had the title, which I liked because it had the coldness of the brand name, but at the same time it was very mysterious to me. My own drug dealer drove a beige Lexus, so that was kind of resonant for me.
So I sat down and took things out of my notebook, just sort of plugged them in there and a sort of story emerged. I had this line, "Idling in the long driveway," which repeats itself in the second chorus. And then this line occurred to me, which was "Drive me to the edge of town." But I didn't wan to use that because it didn't fit my idea of what the song was about because, as the song came out, I kind of interpreted it to be about a drug dealer coming over and not wanting the drugs, resisting the drugs. But when I got into the studio Dan Wilson was like, "Some kind of variation in the second chorus would be great." And I just did the line and he was like, That's perfect.' And it was, and it made sense in the context.
My philosophy is that, as the writer, whatever you're writing, you work for the song, the song doesn't work for you. The song was, "This is the line. It's the right line. I don't know what I'm about, but this is the way it's supposed to be."
The radio promotions guy at ATO asked me what the song was about which is intense because promotions guys don't usually get into the meaning of the lyrics. And he was like, "What's it about?" and I'm like, "I don't know." The song is talking to me, and I'm hoping I'll get it eventually. His idea was that it was about death. It was cool to really break through someone's veneer.
When things are a little more open-ended, I suppose it allows the listener to impose their own imagination and ideas.
Yeah, I guess. It's weird to think about other people dealing with the song and putting their own meanings on it because I like to think of them as mine. But of course the song is the song, and it has its own life in the world. And it kind of makes its own decision.
Who played pedal steel on the track?
Joe Savage, a friend of John Munson, the bassist on Haughty Melodic and [forthcoming February release] Golden Delicious. He turned out despite the name to be a really kind of gentle old guy who'd been sober for 1,000 years. And he really had sort of gotten that there was something about drugs in the song. So he was hip to it, which was cool. We communicated on that level.
Do you miss being in a band?
The band is sort of evolving. We've been together a couple years, sort of adding and subtracting different people. I like to work with the same group of people on the road. I like to have relationships. So I have a band which I call Mike Doughty's Band, kind of a pun on Dave Matthews Band. The drummer's Pete McNeal. John Kirby plays keyboards. Andrew "Scrap" Livingston plays bass/cello/guitar. John Munson played bass on this one, so he played guitar on Golden Delicious.
How did the sessions for your new album differ from the last album?
This time I definitely wanted to work with the core of a band, so it was less session guys. Not that anyone is a slick L.A. session guy, but it was less like someone coming in and being a sort of faceless contributor. I really tried to harness everybody's personality and make it feel collaborative, like a band was playing. And largely it just is a band playing all at once.
Do you have a preference to perform solo or with a band?
I like doing it all. This next tour is just me solo, which I haven't done in a bunch of years and I've been itching to do. It's like nine to 10 shows, and then the next tour's a full band tour, and then I want to do another tour with just Scrap playing cello and guitar. I don't have a preference. I just move from idea to idea.
You've done a book of poetry (Slanky), plays (www.24hourplays.com), photography and even wrote an Aquaman story for DC Comics' Bizarro World, how do you work that?
I just kind of have ideas and pursue some and not others. Some are completed, some aren't. I just try to stay working. The photography thing is really important to me. I've been doing some electronic music on the side, like instrumental electro-music. I just do what I can.
Mike Doughty plays The Pour House on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.