Above It All | Duncan Sheik

“I think there was a sense that music is not supposed to be about big ideas.



Forget everything you think you know about Duncan Sheik, the blue-eyed pop king of 1996 with the lite-rock hit, “Barely Breathing.” Sheik’s actually a highly literate, contemplative, politically active singer-songwriter with loftier goals than mere record sales. Hiding behind a full-cheeked beard these days, he’s unabashed about his beliefs: Buddhism, peace, democracy. And the record industry.

“It was a big bout of tension at Atlantic, and I was never really comfortable in that universe,” he told me. “That’s been my own personal battle: To try and make people understand that I’m not coming from this top-40 music place.”

Following his two major-label releases, Sheik’s instead refocused, looked inside himself, and followed his muse. What’s resulted is a catalog of well-regarded—if not always well-understood or radio-played—CDs with thoughtful lyrics and contemplative arrangements. His latest, White Limousine, marks his debut on Rounder (after a dip back into the Atlantic with 2002’s Daylight)—and the first on which he openly voices his political views. As expected, reviews have been decidedly mixed.

“Because there was some political content, there were some people that were really—maybe ‘threatened’ is the wrong word—but felt the need to really attack it in some way,” he said. “I think there was a sense that music is not supposed to be about big ideas.”
tn_sheik_duncan_1__marita-m.jpg Limousine’s a two-disc set, the second being a DVD which breaks down all the individual parts of the songs. Sheik’s actually encouraging listeners to reinterpret his songs, then submit them for posting on his Web site and a potential later release. “I look at it like it’s an art project; it’s playing with this idea of authorship. And once you completed this work and put it out to the world, does it not become the property of whomever it is that hears it?” I asked him if he wasn’t afraid someone would turn in a version that’s better than his creation. “I’m only annoyed when the mixes are too polite and they don’t change enough stuff,” he laughed.

Another thing keeping Sheik busy is composing music for the New York production of Spring Awakening, a dark musical adaptation (along with playwright Steven Sader) of an 1891 Frank Wedekind play. “I think that what we’ve lost is what musicals were in their inception,” he explained. “In the ’30s and ’40s, the popular music of the day was George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and that’s been somehow misplaced. We’re trying to reel it back in some way. We’re saying, ‘Let’s have a piece of musical theater where the music is relevant to people who are 20 and 30 years old.’”

As a 16-year practicing Buddhist and graduate of Brown University’s semiotics program—“It’s the study of science and signifying systems,” he explained; “it’s a branch of linguistics, actually”—Sheik’s definitely got the big ideas. “I’m going to be really pretentious right now,” he warned me at one point in the interview, before launching into a theory of decad Gally helpful.” But that doesn’t change the fact that his music’s stripped dence involving Marcel Proust and culminating with, “I do think that if you do everything completely by the rules, you’re going to tie yourself into knots creatively in a way that’s not reown, quiet, intricate while appearing overtly simple.

Ever fighting the shackles of his early top-40 pigeonholing, Sheik initially claimed to have derived little benefit from the early exposure. “There was a record company and a lot of folks connected to that thing that didn’t help the cause. They were just trying to sell records the best way they can, but I’ve spent the past ten years of my life of just dealing with that reality.” He paused, considered. “It’s fine. I’m here. I’m playing shows. I get to continue to make records. There’s a real luxury in that. I’m not complaining.”

Read the entire interview on the next page.


Tell me what was behind the decision to release the new album as a two-disc set.

I kind of had the idea of making a minimalist electronica singer songwriter record initially, that is what it was going to be. Then over the course of three and a half years that it was made, it kind of evolved and changed into something else. I had the internal feeling that I'm really happy with my record, I'm really proud of it but I'm really sorry that a electronic version of it exists.

What inspired this electronic version desire?

Lots of things. You know bands like the Notwist and obviously things like Bjork, Board of Canada, Air, and even Postal Service. Like lots of things that I think are interesting hybrids of different genres and it was one initial direction I was going to go in. There had also been the idea that I would release software files so that people could remix the record in some way. So once the album became very organic, it didn't make sense to release software files; it made sense to do stems of every instrument and figure out a way of fitting that onto a DVD-rom, which we barely managed to do. And that became the way I could put it out there and people could have the raw materials to deconstruct it or reimagine the record in some way that it continue to evolve or at least exist in different genres. Now there's a Web site called whitelimousineremix.com; some of those things have started to put up some of those versions, its actually exciting that there could be this other strange life to the record, where it just mutates and evolves over time.

You're not threatened with anybody else coming up with something better?

Believe me, I'm only annoyed when the mixes are too polite and they don't change enough stuff. What I want is for it to be completely different.

Is there a plan down the road to release the remixes?

You know, that is a good question. I say the plan of the future is to take the best versions and re-release them in some fashion, whether it's a compilation CD, to find a way of showcasing the best remixes they did.

That takes a lot of guts; you have to believe in what you're doing to let somebody mess with it.

[Laughs] I don't believe in myself enough that I don't care what anybody else does. No, it's not like that. I look at it like it's an art project; it's playing with this idea of authorship. And once you completed this work and put it out to the world, does it not become the property of whomever it is that hears it?

How much do the negative reviews affect you? I know it's been a mixed bag on this album.

Well, it's been more polarized. Because of the nature of the music that I'm doing, where a lot of it is in general pretty nuanced and subtle, there can be a tendency from a certain set of reviewers to just be like, "Oh, another soft rock record from a white guy with an acoustic guitar." Which is fine; I don't mind that. But this time, because there was some political content and because of the DVD itself and just where we're at in the culture, there were some people that were really-maybe "threatened" is the wrong word-but felt the need to really attack it in some way, which I guess I was surprised about it at first, but then when I thought about it, it made total sense. Possibly the most personal attack was from a reviewer that was clearly not politically conservative at all but was trying to make a really snarky comment about. I think there was a sense that maybe with this particular person that music is not supposed to be about big ideas. In any case, that's what they feel and I can live with that, but it's frustrating because it just makes it more difficult to get it to the people that will enjoy. That's kind of a drag.

I think it's really interesting that your influences skew very indie, but your music is more mainstream pop. How does that come about?

I don't think White Limousine is terribly different from [Elbow's] Leaders of the Free World, stylistically.

Lyrically. I think stylistically—well, maybe you're right. Maybe I just have this whole image in my head of what Elbow is and what Duncan Sheik is. Now they're sort of converging, but I am still thinking of where they started.

Right. Perhaps. The reality is even if you look at songs like "November" or "Little Hands" from my first record, there was nothing pop music about them at all.

It was just the way you were marketed.

It's the way I was marketed, definitely. It was the big bout of tension at Atlantic, and I was never really comfortable in that universe. That's been my own personal battle: To try and make people understand that I'm not coming from this Top 40 music place.

You got pegged really early.

Definitely. I was in the middle of that world. I'm trying to think of other examples of people where that's happened. There's any number of white guys with acoustic guitars where that's happened. They may have a lot of really amazing musical soul within them, but you would never know it because of how they've been treated.

I found it really interesting that you majored in Semiotics at Brown, same as Damian Kulash, who I just adore. So what is it about really literate singer songwriters that majored in Semiotics? And he's really politically active too-I don't know if you're aware-we did a big piece on politics right before the last horrible election, and he was really speaking out.

Good. You know, I think that the Semiotics department at Brown was influential—

Can I ask you a dumb question first. What the hell is it?

[Laughs] It's the study of science and signifying systems. It's a branch of linguistics actually. But in practice, it relates more to film criticism and literary criticism and kind of theorizing about different artistic mediums and how those mediums affect the culture at large and how the culture affects those mediums themselves. You can just as easily talk about Edward Munch and the Simpsons. It's very multi-disciplinary. Anyway, I guess the thing is that semiotics-or you know, modern culture in media, and studying that particular field-it made me think a lot about what it means to record a CD and put it out into the culture as opposed to what I do when I'm actually writing a song, and I'm in the process of writing and recording a song and writing music and lyrics. It doesn't have any effect on the internal process of writing music. It has a huge effect on how you think about what that music is and what it does in the culture.

That's kind of a good thing to help you project yourself and your image.

I don't know if it helps me project anything. In fact, it probably has hindered it-[laughs]-because, on some level, it kind of shackles you. Especially-at least for myself, I've never been able to go along with the kind of overt marketing nonsense that people have always wanted me to do, and to the degree that I have kind of grinned and beared it, it's just been bad news for me.

Are you one of those where nobody really wants to touch Duncan Sheik because he's so outspoken?

No. I'm happy to talk to anyone about my musical process and what I'm up to; I'm not trying to put on an air of mystery or anything like that. But I definitely think that there have been a lot of misperceptions about what I was up to and what I was interested in. There was a record company and a lot of folks connected to that thing that didn't help the cause. And that's not their fault; I don't blame them for that. They were just trying to sell records the best way they can, but it's been the past ten years of my life of just dealing with that reality. It's fine. I'm here. I'm playing shows. I get to continue to make records. There's a real luxury in that. I'm not complaining.

You get to do what you want for a living. Have you ever Googled yourself?

Oh yeah. Of course.

There's a Web site called brainyquote.com that has 48 Duncan Sheik quotes.

It does? Interesting.

But they're good ones. [Quoting] "After college, I traveled across country to L.A., and within six months, I had a record deal that was very premature. I was not ready to make a record. And frankly, when I made that record, hit songs were not what I was trying to achieve." What were you trying to achieve?

My influences were people like David Sylvian and Mark Hollis, to some degree Nick Drake. I guess I was making music that was a little bit more accessible than some of those artists, but to me, it didn't feel hugely different.

I would argue that a song like "Varying Degrees of Conartistry" from my second record is really no different from "Orpheus." I'm just saying in terms of the production and what's going on with the song.

I'm sure that I could make a CD-well, Rhino wants to put out a "Best of Duncan Sheik" thing, and I said, "Fine, I'll do it as long as there can be a two-CD thing." One of them is "day" and one of them is "night." So I can make a night CD that. to any normal person's ears, wouldn't sound too hugely different from any of those artists I just mentioned. I don't mean to compare myself to them at all; I just mean those are definitely my influences. In the Harp magazine review of this record, of White Limousine, he just went and said, "Oh, it sounds like any number of any David Sylvian or Mark Hollis records."

Really? [Laughs] Did you pay him to say that?

No, I promise you. The only thing that surprises me is that it didn't get said earlier. Although, I did read a David Sylvian review once in some magazine and they said that a bunch of his songs sounded like Bryan Ferry or Duncan Sheik.

Are you serious? Did you just freak out?

It's kind of like reviewing a John Lennon record and saying it sounds like Lenny Kravitz. [Laughs]

It's like me playing one of the bands I grew up on for my interns and them saying, "They sound like Interpol."

Right. And that's the thing-I actually really like Interpol a lot and that's because I love New Order and I love the Cure and I love Depeche Mode. That is the music that I absolutely grew up on.

There's a Web site called crisscross.com. Have you heard of this? I just googled Duncan Sheik. It told me, "People interested in Duncan Sheik are also interested in Peter Carey, the Killers, eggs, loving, explaining, discussing, thinking, wandering, The Catcher in the Rye, Theodore Dostoyevsky, Daniel Pinkwater, H.G. Wells, David Mitchell, Salvador Dali. It's just this weird ass list.

That's bizarre.

What the hell? Eggs? Where do you get that? I can get Peter Carey, loving, thinking, wandering, but beyond that…

And the Killers? I don't know. Whatever. I try not to critique if someone's doing something creative. What is most frustrating to me is the music that is the biggest music within the culture is so terrible. Devoid of any kind of value. Honestly, I do not understand what is the thing that people are attaching themselves to in that kind of music.

You mean people, listeners?

Yeah, listeners. I guess the people making it, too, unless they're just being really cynical. But I don't know; what are they being really cynical about? In a way, it seems that they are all very sincere about what they are doing. It's just so trite. But anyway-

That's totally why we started. We started this magazine four years ago just because we were like there are so many bands—

That are doing things that are interesting and unique.

Yeah. If I find myself singing along and the lyrics are retarded—

Right. There's a problem.

I mean, I know I'm a snob, but I want it to be about something.

I agree. And I almost never care if a band is really pretentious. I always find something interesting in what they're doing. [Laughs]

And you get down to the point where you're talking to however many bands a month and if you're pretentious and you're an asshole—

It's bad. I agree.

Unless you're Morrissey. If you're Morrissey you can do whatever you want. I've got a little pool of like three artists—

That can do whatever they want?

Yeah. Have you heard of Matthew Good from Canada? If you haven't, you should check him out.

I've heard the name.

Very, very political guy. Really intelligent.

Oh, great.

Just in terms of production and the way he hears things and translates things. Really good. Him and Morrissey. There are like three that I put in this little pool. Everybody else has to behave.

[Laughs] OK, I'll behave.

Back to brainyquote.com. When you were a freshman in college, you had a post-adolescent spiritual crisis. Tell me about the crisis.

I was in class one day and had some kind of…at the time I thought it was a real epiphany, but in fact it was some stupid 19-year-old thought. But it was followed 15 minutes later by the bleakest, most horrible anxiety attack I've ever had in my life. I had to get up and leave class and splash water on my face and be like, "What's happening to me?" I think that's all it was, an anxiety attack, but I attributed far more weight to it than maybe I needed to. So, at that point I was like, "I need to have some kind of practice where I kind of reorient myself in some way where I'm not going to be in an emotional or psychological state where this kind of thing can take me down." I had been studying Buddhism in a general academic way, and I went to Los Angeles that summer after my freshman year. I stayed with my mother's cousin, who had been practicing Buddhism for like 30 years. She taught me how to chant, so that's why I became Buddhist. So for the past 16 years, that's been my practice, and it's a big part of everything in my life, but of course my creative process, too.

I have a squirrel named Buddha.

You have a squirrel named Buddha? Oh, nice.

In what ways are you grateful for the early exposure as a pop artist? How has that benefited you?

The only benefit of it is that there continue to be people who will invest money in your project and it allows you a certain amount of creative freedom to go and make records. That's the only thing.

So you don't feel like personally you got much out of it?

[Long pause] I think it gave me a certain amount of confidence to go and-you know, like when I made let's say Phantom Moon, the Nonesuch record, I don't think I would have made that record unless I had had the experience of having been in that Top 40 world and feeling the need to stiff-arm all of it. That's the benefit, if anything, is to really be able to look the devil in the eye, and see who the devil is really.

How do you—because personally, I have trouble with this—how do you see past all of this weakness and desolation right now? How do you look at George W. Bush as our president and see anything positive. I mean, I am so shut down politically because I don't know how to cope with it.

I understand that feeling 100%. And there are certain moments when I'm surfing the Web and reading political blogs and stuff and reading things both on the right and on the left that are ultimately counterproductive. They are just there to be humorous for themselves and just be snarky and to be obnoxious, and that's really frustrating. My brother, who is 27, and he's very politically engaged, and a lot of the people in my coterie of friends in New York-in a way, that's our main focus of conversation: politics and American foreign policy, in particular, and what that means in terms of what's going on in our world. I'm just reading the new Francis Fukuyama book, America at the Crossroads. Francis was one of those guys at the Rand Corporation who was essentially a neo-conservative, and this book is kind of his defection from that camp. It's really fascinating to read somebody that was part of that whole Wolfowitz and Pearl-he was in that group of neo-conservatives who shaped Bush policy, and he basically said, "You guys have misapplied these ideals." So to me, that's hopeful. That's the kind of thing where, when I read that, I can use statements he said in that book and have that conversation with other people, with Republicans, and say, "Here's a person that's on your side of the fence and here's what they say about foreign policy right now, and it's not pretty." Yes, I think it's very distressing and very troublesome, and I think that we do need to engage.

Now that you've finally put your thoughts into the songs, do you have any hopes of what you want to accomplish or is it just you having some truth in who you are?

I think it's mostly the latter, and then if something else happens off the back of it within the culture at large, that's great. You know, David Poe and I did some concerts for [John] Kerry during the election period. It was very depressing, but doing the concerts was good. [Laughs] We did our part, and I'll continue to do that certainly with David. He's another person who's also very politically engaged, and also he's a great person. He's a very smart guy, and I feel like having these people in my environment is definitely a real benefit. We'll continue to do stuff no matter what. [Laughs]

Did Spring Awakening open this weekend?

No. Previews start May 18, and then it officially opens June 15. When I'm not doing shows, I'm there everyday for 10 hours a day in rehearsal. It's very exciting. And I can't wait until it's actually on stage and happening. It's been a long road, but it's a very intense piece. It's always been a beautiful piece of theater for over 100 years, but I'm hoping that this version that we're creating does it justice and there's an aspect of it, in terms of the music, where people can think of musical theatre in a somewhat different light. Look, I feel like there is a place for Hairspray and Avenue Q, and there are aspects of those things that I enjoy a lot, but I think that what we've lost is what musicals were in their inception. They were the popular music of the day. In the '30s and '40s, the popular music of the day was George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and that's been somehow misplaced. So, we're trying to kind of reel it back in some way. We're saying ‘let's have a piece of musical theater where the music is relevant to people who are 20 and 30 years old. When I say that, I mean even people who are in their 40s too, but have the same sensibility as a 20-year-old, and I know a lot of them.

What other singer-songwriters do you identify with, or do you not even want to go there?

The people that I've felt artistic kinship with lately are Elbow, Sufjan Stevens, Damien Rice—

Now this is not just politically, it's more stylistically?

Stylistically, yeah. I'm just talking about music. Keane. I don't know; I could say more. The reality is that I respect all of these people as artists. I don't think what I do sounds like them. I guess the only thing that I found heartening to me in a way was when you go to iTunes and you go to White Limousine, they say, "Listeners who bought this also bought songs by these artists." On the first record, it was a lot of really terrible bands, but this time it was Ryan Adams, Elbow, Beth Orton, Rosanne Cash, and David Gray. There was nothing there that wasn't above board, in my opinion. So, if nothing else-if all I've been successful in doing is weeding out the people with bad taste-[laughs]-then that's all good.

There's something to be said for that. All right this is my last one. I don't even remember where I pulled this quote, but there's a quote: "I'm not advocating doing things that are self-destructive. I just think you have to live dangerously sometimes." Dangerously…I like that.

Well, you know, [Marcel] Proust—I'm going to be really pretentious right now. Part of Remembrance of Things Past is the fact that there was all of this kind of decadence that went on both in his behavior and everyone else's and that environment. So therefore, he had something to write about. So I think what I mean is you don't need to be Pete Doherty to make a good record. I'm sure he's very talented, but I do think that if you do everything completely by the rules, you're going to tie yourself into knots creatively in a way that's not really helpful. The other side of the coin of that statement is that you can have those experiences, but you better learn from them as opposed to just going and repeating them.

That one might make #49, you know.


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