Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

July 4–11, 1996

20 questions

Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing

By Margit Detweiler


Background: Somebody who happened to answer the phone here at City Paper asked who was calling.

"Sebastian Steinberg from Soul Coughing."

"Huh?"

"Soul... cough cough."

The 37-year-old upright bass player is used to explaining his band's name with an audio illustration.

"Because they often think it's Soul Coffee."

Sipping some iced coffee in his hotel room in Seattle, Steinberg chatted about the heady brew of noise that makes up the four-piece Soul Coughing: mind-tweaking experimentalism, gritty hip-hop, cartoony, streetwise lyrics and pure, melodic pop. And, of course, the crazy mixed-up sounds of New York.

After the band's stunning debut in 1994 with Ruby Vroom, they've released a second similarly chunky stew of sound with Irresistible Bliss. For longtime New York player Steinberg, this is his most intense project so far.

I've seen you play so many times in so many different bands.

Really?

Marc Ribot... and didn't you play with the Lounge Lizards for a bit?

[Laughs] No, but there's a rumor that I did. There's a guy named Erik Sanko who had a blonde ponytail and yeah, well, I guess from a distance... if you weren't... Sure I did!

But I did see you play at Khyber Pass with Marc Ribot and Shrek.

Oh, that show was insane. That place is a madhouse. Soul Coughing played there, too. Basically you put whatever you have on stage and then you just wait to play and... boy, that place should never have a fire.

Suzanne Vega is somebody you play with, too.

I just played a bunch on this new record. Yval [Gabay, Soul Coughing's drummer] and I went in to do a track because we know her via Mitchell [Froom, who co-produced Ruby Vroom] and Tchad [Blake, the other Ruby producer], and she just turned out to be this really nice person. She's phenomenal. I really like playing that songy, constructed stuff. Soul Coughing's more like hanging on the wing of an airplane.

How is the chemistry different with Soul Coughing?

Soul Coughing is kind of like a Ouija board. It's this territory that exists between the four of us and if any one monkey grabs the wheel, boom! — the TV goes off, the lights go on, the phone rings, the spell is broken. Everything is a result of equal participation.

And you all contribute to the writing?

Oh, yeah. What'll happen is any one or two people will have a cellular idea, like a motif or a line or a lyric or just an annoying note you play over and over again. Until somebody disrupts it and turns it into a song.

How would you characterize your bandmates' musical personalities?

Let's see. Mark [De Gli Antoni, the keyboard sampler] would be the horse of the band. At 4 o'clock you gotta let him out and romp or he'll go bananas. Yuval is just Yuval. I don't know what to tell ya except he's this guy born in Jerusalem of Moroccan parents and he is the funk. He's got this insane accent and everybody assumes his fractured bent on English is because it's not his native tongue. But then his girlfriend met his family and his brother said, "Oh no, Jesus, he talks like that in Hebrew, too." And Doughty, he's the digital guy. He pretty much founded the band.

Doughty was a doorman at the Knitting Factory...

And sort of casting director for Soul Coughing. I got this phone call and I said, "Oh, it's that nice guy who lets me in at the Knitting Factory." He and I are kind of bookends of the band.

How so?

He's the brain. I'm the tear duct. In other ways we're also the closest. He and I are the two songiest people in the band. He and I agreed that between Tribe Called Quest's "Low End Theory" and The Replacements'"Answering Machine," there was a whole world.

There's a strong sense of New York in Soul Coughing.

Thank god.

Like the song "The Brooklynites" from the Blue in The Face soundtrack — the gritty rootsiness and the high tech digitalness.

Absolutely. It's funny. Ruby Vroom was totally a postcard from New York. Even though we recorded it in Hollywood.

That's why it was a postcard.

Thank you! These four elements that may be in any other city wouldn't have hooked up. It's just New York is the one place where you would have found the four of us. The new record is much less about New York to me. Ironically enough, we recorded it in New York.

In Rolling Stone you were quoted as saying you and Yuval had been "playing that stuff before there was hip-hop," in terms of sampling various elements. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

That was purely a reflection of my age. I was playing funk music back in 1975. Hip-hop was so profoundly influenced by all this stuff I grew up playing. It was nice to come at it with a little history under my belt. Rather than trying to be a live loop machine, the whole magic of those [funk] groups was the way you could take something that was seemingly static and make it grow. Not by adding on soloists, or adding more notes every time you go around a phrase, but just digging and finding that trance spot.

How does playing with Soul Coughing differ from some of the other groups you've worked with over the years?

Soul Coughing is the first band I've been in where everything turns me on. Every note I play is what I want to do. That's just extraordinary. The fact that this band, doing exactly what it does, got a deal and the record came out, and the second record came out, and we're touring and people like it — it's not like everything I ever wanted to do I can do in this band, god forbid, what a bore. But I'm up there dealing with Fred Hopkins and Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington and my particular world and I'm dealing with it very directly and it's a goddamn pop band. It rocks.

What are you doing for the Fourth?

Oh [groans], the band will be filming our video at Roadside America in Pennsylvania. John Flansburgh, of They Might Be Giants, is directing it. Do you want to know what I'd like to be doing?

Of course.

I want to see Independence Day !

Do you have any favorite patriotic tunes?

No, not from this country.

What kind of food do you like to eat at a Fourth of July barbecue?

Whatever the sound man's having.

Soul Coughing plays on Monday, July 15, at Khyber Pass, 56 S. 2nd St., 440-9683.

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