A Conversation with Duncan Sheik
Mike Ragogna: Duncan, you have so many chainsaws in the air including the US launch of the previously-British musical American Psycho. You oversaw the creation of the London cast album, right?
Duncan Sheik: Yes. Every inch of it.
MR: And every instrument of it.
DS: Yes. The vast majority of the score is electronic, both older synthesizers and drum machines and then some newer technology. I did cheat a little bit. There are some guitars and pianos in there, but I tried to keep those to a minimum.
MR: Because you were trying to replicate the sound of the era in which it's taking place?
DS: I think "replicate" is maybe too strong of a word. I definitely wanted to reference a lot of the sounds and the textures and the specific synthesizers and drum machines that were being used to make music in the late eighties. But I definitely played around with newer technologies, in particular, Ableton Live. I think it has more of a scope of many different genres of EDM.
MR: With American Psycho's instrumentation, everything old is new again. As I listen to the latest pop music, I'm mainly hearing sounds from the eighties, though spiffed up a little bit. It seems like the pioneering for current pop music happened in the eighties.
DS: This is true of a lot of different kinds of technologies, and specifically, music-making technologies. When you talk about microphones, for example, the Neumann mics that were made in the forties and fifties, nobody's gotten the technology better since then. A Telefunken 251 that was made over fifty years ago, and that microphone sounds just as good or better than any microphone that anybody makes today. The same is true of synthesizers to some extent. A Prophet-5 or a Juno-106 or a Minimoog, these are instruments that have a world of sounds within them. It doesn't get any better with that. There are new technologies that can create different sounds, but in terms of fidelity and versatility and the ability to put the human spirit within them, it doesn't get any better than those machines.
MR: Yeah, I owned a Prophet-5 back in the day. I loved it, as well as the original LinnDrum machine.
DS: The Linn was interesting because I think that was the original drum machine where they were sampling real drums in some fashion, whereas the Roland drum machines which were creating drum sounds from synthesis. There are a million ways to do these things and, actually, it's been really fun working on the score because really it's been a journey down the rabbit hole of the history of electronic and house music and techno and then all the genres that have proliferated since that time.
MR: So you've gone down the American Psycho rabbit hole pretty intensely in the last couple of years.
DS: Yes. Those two things kind of happened at the same time because, in a way, it was me jumping into American Psycho that was the impetus for me to break out my old synthesizers and really dive back into making electronic music again, which, frankly, I hadn't really done that much of since I was a teenager.
MR: There was the London show but you're ramping up for the US version. What do you think are the main differences between the staging of the two versions?
DS: We had a really amazing time at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in 2013 and 2014, but that's a super-cool three hundred-seat space, it's kind of the equivalent of an off-Broadway theater in London. There's only so much you can do technically in terms of how it sounds and how it looks and the whole feeling of the show. Having a Broadway production does have its perks in the sense that you're able to really refine things and deepen things both visually and sonically. I can say we recently began what's called dry-tech; it was the first time I was hearing the music through the speakers in the theater and seeing the set and some of the "pyrotechnics," I'll say. It doesn't involve fire but there's some visual tech stuff that's going on in this version of the show that's really fun to watch and definitely upping the ante from the London version, so that's exciting.
MR: This show itself is pretty new and it's constantly evolving. Where do you draw the line on innovations?
DS: Recently, we were tech-ing the opening of the show. The music for that changed fifteen times within the course of ninety minutes. It pretty much never really stops changing until you open the show and it's technically what they call "frozen." The real truth of it is that you're never, never finished with a piece of musical theater. You're never actually done with it but the shows just close at some point. [laughs]
MR: With the British version, did you continue to make tweaks along the way?
DS: Definitely. Things always change. We do have four live musicians who are the in the "pit." They're not actually in the pit, they're in the theater boxes, so you can see them. These are things that are being implemented now. I mean, the music's obviously written, but how it's actually going to be performed is still up for grabs. We will be refining and adjusting and figuring out which things are going to be purely technological and triggered from Ableton and which things will be physically played and to what degree we're relying on the technology versus the performers themselves. I'm really unabashed about the fact that a lot of this music being "performed" in the way a DJ performs a set. It's coming from Ableton, things are being triggered, things are being manipulated, but they definitely exist in a digital format in some way. That's what's been really fun about working on this show, using this technology in a Broadway context, in a way that I don't think they've ever been used before.
MR: Does the show ever become automated enough so that you can sit back and enjoy it?
DS: I very much hope and pray that by the time we get to opening night, it can be one of pure enjoyment. But I suspect until then, I will have the notepad out and there will be nine million little adjustments, and maybe some big adjustments, that will continue to happen until the very last minute.
MR: So, really, the fans of American Psycho are going to have to come to at least three or four performances before they get the real thing.
DS: [laughs] I think the previews will be getting it pretty close, but there always are these little adjustments from particular guitar sounds to particular synthesizer sounds, to "What is the drummer actually playing?" He's playing a kit of electronic drums, so what are the sounds that he's triggering, all of these things that are kind of malleable and that probably will change many times throughout the tech and preview process.
MR: Does the book ever evolve or is the book pretty solid?
DS: Oh, yeah. We had a fairly long first act through the rehearsal process and we've tried to compress it just so that the flow of the show feels very propulsive. We've moved some things around and shortened some scenes and compressed some dialog. We removed a song, we've changed the structures of songs; it's a moveable feast for a while. The whole thing.
MR: On top of this production, you also have your solo career. What do you bring with you from your Broadway experience into your own recordings and songwriting?
DS: I think working in these different mediums is very inspiring. It really helps to generate new ideas. When I work on a set of theater projects for a while, you just have different information that's coming to you through osmosis or through the process. That definitely plays into what happens when I sit down to write a song as Duncan Sheik, the recording artist. It definitely affects those things. On Legerdemain, for example, there's a song called "Avalanche," and it's sung in a much more flamboyant way than I would ever sing a song. But I think I just felt liberated to do that just by virtue of the fact of being around all these really amazing singers that kind of let go. I was too internal to do that before and it's nice to have those set of influences in your environment that trigger ideas and trigger different ways of doing things.
MR: Spring Awakening was your diving board for that?
DS: It was! And, frankly, I really didn't know what I was doing when I began that process. I was lucky to have some amazing collaborators, Steve Sater and Michael Mayer and Bill T. Jones and our very wonderful producers. They helped guide me through that process, but in a certain way I feel like we all just got really lucky that time.
MR: You get a lot of kudos as the god of American Psycho. How do you hold yourself back from getting involved with every single aspect, down to the choreography, the lighting, et cetera?
DS: [laughs] That's actually a great question. Because there's a degree to which I am relieved that the other departments have to deal with the other departments' stuff and I don't have the responsibility of worrying about that, and because I have enough to deal with in terms of the songs themselves--the lyrics, the music, the arrangements, and a lot of the programming. It's a big job. But that's not to say that I don't have strong feelings about choreography, or about the way that certain actors are playing certain roles and about the way the stage looks. Luckily in the case of American Psycho I have Rupert Goold and Es Devlin creating the look of the piece. They really are the best at what they do in terms of making incredibly stylish, cool-looking sets and blocking, and the projections are extraordinary. So all of that stuff is exciting, and then Lynne Page is doing the choreography and she does also work with a lot of "normal electronic music bands" who are not in the musical theater world. She does choreography for the Pet Shop Boys, for example. So it's great to have someone like that, who's got a very broad sense of what dance might look like for a show like this. But yeah, I think it is collaborative, and we all chime in, and we butt heads sometimes, as you do, but this is a mostly English team, so we butt heads in a more polite way.
MR: [laughs] Were you mostly inspired by American Psycho's characters over the script when making the music?
DS: I went to Brown University in the late eighties and early nineties, so there were a lot of people in my environment, and probably even myself to some extent, who exhibited characteristics of maybe not necessarily Patrick Bateman himself, but the people that were in his environment, his milieu. I think that's why I found the book so disturbing when I first read it, because it hit a little close to home, and the satire maybe cut too deeply when I read it as a twenty-one-year-old. When I read the book twenty years later and I first started to discuss the possibility of being the composer and lyricist for the show, the book had so much power and so much resonance. It just felt like, wow, Brett Easton Ellis predicted this thing about our culture and the way our culture was headed in this completely fascinating way. To write a song as Patrick Bateman is a lot of fun because I can say so many things that I could never say as Duncan Sheik, but I can say them as Patrick Bateman and get away with it and I'm just doing my job. Even writing for the female characters. A song like "You Are What You Wear," just being able to make a song that's like a list of designers and fashion houses from that era... I was really a clotheshorse back then, so it was fun to be able to write a song using Comme Des Garçons and Issey Miyake in the lyrics, which I wouldn't normally do as Duncan Sheik. It just kind of opens up the palette of what you're able to do. After writing songs for twenty-five years, it can get really, really boring writing the same song that's like, "Oh, this girl doesn't like me anymore." That's why it's a real pleasure to be able to do this.
MR: Because of your education and experiences in the time period you're writing about, in your opinion, do you think there was a turning point where we could have caught the dark side from manifesting in the US or was this a train always without an engineer?
DS: I do think that Reagan-era America did, frankly, turn a very dark corner. It had to do with the banks being deregulated. That allowed them to begin using financial instruments of greater and greater abstraction. That's why we had the crash in 1987, that's why we had crashes in 2000, and that's why we had the crash in 2008. We all saw it happen and we saw what it did to our entire culture, this heart of darkness of greed and wealth inequality and this sense of being all about materialism and having the nicest stuff and having as much money as you possibly can, and that becomes the only goal of existence. Look, far be it from me to criticize people for wanting to have nice stuff because I'm as guilty of it as everyone else. But I do think that the great thing about working on this project is you're able to take this hard look at the heart of darkness of late capitalism and dissect it in a certain way and play around with it and, hopefully, make a really entertaining show, but also, hopefully, make people think about what this ethos has done to America.
MR: You couldn't have a better time for something like American Psycho to come out. It works so well as a self-reflection on how we've traveled down the path we've gone down. Everyone is now talking about it, thinking about how billionaires control everything, and how the levels of greed and manipulation like that of the Koch brothers have never been more exposed. The timing of this musical is interesting, right when it's finally on everybody's mind.
DS: We feel really good about the fact that we're able to have a couple of choice Donald Trump references and quotes in the show because he was saying all of this stuff at the time, and he's referenced in the book. It's really great. Well, it's not great, but from a creative standpoint, it's amazing that this stuff is happening in the way that it is. I do think that it makes the material that much more trenchant.
MR: Duncan, what advice do you have for new artists?
DS: My advice for new artists is pretty much always the same, which is that the artists that I love and am inspired by have completely original voices. They find ways of making music that is totally fresh and unique to themselves, and that inspires different ways of thinking about what it is to construct a pop song, or what it is to construct music in general. I think it's about being unafraid to just be yourself, to be unique. It's great to have influences and be excited by other people's music, but don't slavishly do what other artists are doing because you think that's what's popular or that's what's successful or that's what's going to make you money. That's just a very short-sighted way of making art. I think the important thing is to find your unique voice, find something that you're truly excited about, and then go there a thousand percent and let the chips fall where they may. Some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it. But the people who love it will really love it, and that's the most important thing.
MR: Now what about you? What is this experience doing to your future?
DS: I'm trying to evolve, Mike. [laughs]
MR: Is there a desire for a certain kind of evolution? What do you see coming down the pike?
DS: There are some things that have been in development for a while. In particular, I'm doing a version of Alice In Wonderland with Steven Sater. It's very exciting, hopefully we're going to stage it in 2017. I'm working on the stage version of The Secret Life Of Bees, which will be great because that will be a completely organic set of instrumentation for that musical, the polar opposite of American Psycho in some ways. It'll be fun to just get back to playing guitars and banjos and marimbas and vibes and other things that don't have knobs and buttons. My record came out in October and American Psycho is happening now and I did some touring at the end of last year. I hope to do some more touring after American Psycho opens, and then I'll take stock. I actually feel really creatively drained right this second, which is fine. I don't feel the burning need to sit down at an instrument and write a new song right this second. But I feel like it's always been that way, where there are waves of inspiration that happen and you roll with that. Then there are other times when you're just putting your head down and doing the work to make the show happen.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
DINMACHINE'S "BRISÉ" EXCLUSIVE
According to its songwriter, Michael Schumacher...
"'Brisé,' written for choreographer Liz Gerring, features bits of glass, hanging like a mobile from strings, for part of the percussion track, the recording of waves--recorded on a trip to San Francisco--and a field recording of children in a playground in Berlin."
And according to director Azazel Jacobs...
"'Brisé' played in a loop from a small speaker while we made this video. We--cinematographer Tobias Datum, actress Debra Winger, and myself--had few preconceived ideas of what would occur during the shooting, but it felt far from being free form. The song itself, already loaded with story, has such a strong sense of place and particular grounding that it felt more like being led, than trying to find our way.
"We started at the beginning. Syncing-up the sound of water with an image of it literally forced us to be on the same track. We began raising questions while simultaneously shooting; Who is this woman? How long has she been here? Where is she going…? We trusted the music to reveal any needed answers, all we had to do was listen.
"I’ve never had a chance to work this way - to tell a story from the score, rather than the usual opposite. I believe it's a testament to the song, to the work of diNMachine, that the tables could be turned so and that I am still walking away with the feeling of making something personal. The woman that Debra so beautifully brought to life, and Tobi was able to capture, is someone that I feel I now know. She will remain on my mind, wondering whether this is a story of her survival or her destruction. Perhaps, it's more similar to the definition of "Brisé": (something I have only thought of looking up now) a ballet movement in which the dancer jumps off one foot, beats the legs together, and lands on both feet.
"Ah. So she makes it."
For more info: http://dinmachine.bandcamp.com
CHARLIE OXFORD'S "CALL ME" EXCLUSIVE
According to Charlie Oxford...
"It’s a song about support, and being there for a friend in a time of need. It came about because a really long time friend of mine from my childhood had been battling a lot of inner demons. It all started boiling up and myself along with a few other friends started noticing him lying about these massive personal accolades that were obviously not happening in his life. Needless to say he needed a friend to be there for him."
JANEY STREET CHATS ABOUT I'M NOT THE GIRL I USED TO KNOW
According to Janey Street...
"Music is and will always be, my life—but I never thought I’d get the chance to make another record. After signing to Warner Bros, then Capitol and finally with Clive Davis at Arista, I thought my dream had come true. I had a top 5 VH-1 video and two Billboard charting songs, “Under The Clock” and “Say Hello To Ronnie,” yet I continued to paint houses, my day job which allowed me to continue doing my music. My songs are charting and I’m hearing myself on the radio, yet, I’m breathing in paint fumes all day long – something didn’t seem right.
"And then, I was dropped…my dreams felt shattered yet I knew I could never give up on my commitment to my music. I left L.A., moving to Nashville, at the suggestion of my childhood friend, Janis Ian. I made my living writing music for movies and TV in addition to crazy odd jobs. I was doing songwriting workshops all over the country, mentoring for the Nashville Songwriters Association, painting houses, giving guitar lessons—whatever. I was just trying to survive.
"Here I am, years later, and I have a new record deal. My new EP, I'm Not The Girl I Used To Know was just released on Blue Élan Records March 18th and I have a full album coming in June 2016. Life is good for this Queens girl!"
For more info: http://www.janeystreet.com
"BELLY OF THE BEAST" EXCLUSIVE BY HOLY SHEBOYGAN!
According to Holy Sheboygan!'s Julia Blair...
"I wrote 'Belly of the Beast' shortly after moving back to Appleton, WI, in 2013. It's a song of frustration about things like society at large, my own community, the police, American culture, sexuality. It's not about just one thing, but more so the feeling I get as I beat my head against the wall-- or the "glass ceiling", for that matter. My good friend and band mate, Ben DeCorsey, helped me with the lyrics. 'Belly' is not the most serious song I've ever written, far from it. But I would say it's right up there with the most sincere, despite its seemingly ridiculous nature."