Interview with Duncan Sheik: A Contemporary Twist In The Works

It’s been a long, incredible journey for Duncan Sheik. It seems like it was just yesterday that “Barely Breathing,” one of my favorite music highlights from the ’90s, was airing on the radio and MTV every few minutes. Being one who does enjoy her fair share of modern indie and electronic tunes, as well as musical theatre, Duncan is certainly on my go-to artist list, especially since the release of his new full-length album, Legerdemain. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the instrumental contortionist himself, about everything ranging from recording to theatrical production. Check out what he had to say below!

Since your tour kicks off on Nov. 5, how are you feeling so far? It’s been a while since you’ve released a full-length album, I’d imagine it’s a very exciting time right now.

I’m really excited. I kind of have my little trio out with me, you know, since I’m co-headlining this one with Suzanne Vega. There’s a fun mix and match component going on (laughs) in terms of the material and who’s playing what, so I’m very much looking forward to it.

That sounds great. So, since the album incorporates plenty of cool new sound twists, partially deriving from your innovative use of audio technology, are you excited to finally perform all of that new material live at your upcoming shows?

Well, it’s great because I have been playing a fair amount of the material from the new record in my shows for the past year and a half.

Oh, you had some of the album ready that far in advance?

Yeah! So, now I’ll probably be playing much more of it now, because at least some people will have had the record for a good amount of time. I think they’ll be more familiar with these songs, and kind of just using a little bit more technology on stage, playing around with not just guitar, drums, and keyboards, but using Ableton and other fun little trickery ideas to make it sound new.

Legerdemain only came out a few weeks ago, how does it feel to finally have it out in the open after spending five years working on it?

Yeah, some of those songs were written back in 2010, so it was all great, it was a very long process. The record went through quite a few permutations, from when I started writing it to when I finished it. But… (laughs) I was very happy to get it off my chest.

(Laughs) Well, you were experimenting with it at some of your shows, at least you know your fans will be pretty familiar with the material.

You know, I think so—at least some of the material.

You said that it took you a while to decide to pursue a record with a more electronic feel to it. Would you mind telling me why you were a little hesitant to do so?

Well, I’m a guitar player first and foremost, and I think in the mid-’90s, when I first started making records, I was in a more organic head space, and even bands like Radiohead were still making organic music. But there were people like Bjork, and of course, what Radiohead did a little later. There was more openness with purely electronic production, and it took me a while to get to it, but… here we are! (Laughs)

(Laughs) I also find the name to be pretty eye-catching as well, would you mind telling me where the concept came from and how it fits into this entire record?

Yeah! So, Legerdemain quite literally means, sleight of hand, and there are kind of two parts of the album. The first half is more electronic and energetic, and the second half is obviously much more eternal, there’s more acoustic implementation, and it’s played in a slightly understated way, so that’s where you start to see the idea of sleight of hand. But then the first half does involve some amount of trickery or deceit in terms of what I’m doing (laughs). So throughout the album, you can interpret multiple meanings of the name.

Ah, got it. This one also took quite a few reiterations before it was finalized. What were some of the challenges that came along with that process, other than the concept of time?

Initially, I had version one of the record, probably a year and a half ago. I realized that a lot of the songs, with their initial versions, though they sounded really good, they were also kind of the oldie Duncan Sheik. They were, in a way, just contemporary Fleetwood Mac-like, so I decided to be stricter with myself, and just stemmed out pretty much all of the songs by taking the individual parts and chopping them up. Once I reconstructed them, I then put them into Ableton, and messed around with them a little more. I basically kind of remixed my own songs, in a way.    Once I went through that process, I was much happier with the sound picture of the songs.  Because of working on American Psycho and this other music that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, I’ve become much more interested in various types of electronic music from Europe and the UK, so I was trying more to bring those songs more into that universe.

Definitely. Since we’re on that subject, you’ve written for at least several theatre productions, most notably Spring Awakening, and most recently you’ve worked on a new production and musical thriller, Noir, is that correct?

Yeah! There was a lot of excitement about the show, so that seems like it’s going to actually come to see the light of day pretty soon next year, which should be very cool.

That’s so exciting! Now, this could be just me, but personally, I don’t know if a lot of fans realize just how long it takes for artists to actually make music, especially artists who utilize so many elements in one record. So I’m curious, do you ever feel like there’s any pressure to get your work out there, or are you generally just more comfortable going at your own pace?

You know, working on the theatrical side of things, everything takes a really long time. You have to line up all of the people’s schedules, all of the people involved, and then it takes a time for the producers, it takes time to find theatres, and then the theatres have to plan their seasons years in advance. So in a way, when I’m working on a score for a show, there really is plenty of time to get it right, which is nice. They usually take a minimum of three years—sometimes they take several years. I mean, there are shows I’ve been working on for the past decades, you know (laughs)?


Then, you know, with my day job being a recording artist, I used to feel a certain amount of pressure to put out a new record every two years or so. But, with Legerdemain, I kind of knew in the back of my mind that there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of people dying to hear the next Duncan Sheik record (laughs). So I kind of had time to work on it and get it right. The important thing for me was that I personally was very happy with it, so I felt OK taking my time.

Well, that’s all we can really ask for. I think it came together wonderfully, and the fans through social media clearly think so too, have you seen or received any of those positive reinforcements yet?

Yes! It’s been really, really great. There have been a lot of lovely comments from people on Facebook, and, I’m pretty active on Twitter and Instagram, but I don’t really use Facebook as much. Well, not until recently anyway. So, it’s been very nice to see both the good and some of the ugly, too. Of course, there are people who are like, “I hate this electronic music shit,” you know? (Laughs).

(Laughs) I actually haven’t seen any negative comments like that.

My response is usually just, “It’s not for you, mate,” (laughs). Also, I’m a masochist, I kind of seek them out (laughs).

Well, when you’re in that industry, I can totally see why those curiosities would be there—I’d probably do the same thing (laughs).

Yeah! Also now, I have pretty thick skin and a pretty broad back, and sometimes frankly, it’s just amusing. One of the iTunes reviews, a guy wrote a comment that said, “He had some producer go in and just put a bunch of music on the computer, and he just walked in one afternoon and sang all the songs and that was it.”


Yeah (laughs), and I’m thinking, if he only knew the grueling five years that it took for me to get that out there.

(Laughs) After getting wrapped up in the music industry, what made you want to pursue writing for theatrical productions? Was that always one of your aspirations?

No, it really wasn’t. I became friends with this Playwright, Stephen Stater, because we were both practicing Buddhists at the time. To make a very long story short, in 1999, we started collaborating on a set of songs that became Phantom Moon, my third record. During that process, he gave me the original play copy of Spring Awakening, which was written in 1891. He said to read this play, and maybe we can adapt to this as a musical. I was sort of like, “Ugh,” you know? (Laughs)

I didn’t really like musicals. But I read the play and I really liked it. It seemed like it could be a very interesting project. So, I said, “Look, I’m happy to do this, but only if, stylistically speaking, the music can be the kind that I’m interested in,” which was not the typical music you hear in musicals. He was very supportive of that, and so was Michael Mayer, the director, he was very interested in having a more contemporary indie rock sound, for lack of a better word. It took several years for it to be staged, so it was a very long, grueling process, but it came out great, so I was very happy with all of it.

So when the end of November comes around, are you going to be back to writing for another album or will you go back to work on productions?

Well actually, Stephen Stater and I wrote an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, called Alice By Heart, and we’re going to do a workshop of that, a theatre here in New York in December. Then, starting in January and February, we’ll kick into rehearsals for American Psycho on Broadway.


Duncan Sheik will be performing on Nov. 21 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York. On Nov. 22, he will also be playing at The Tarrytown Music Hall in New York. For more information, go to