Verily Remixing: An Interview with Duncan Sheik

Duncan Sheik
Covers 80s Remixed
Red Distribution

Duncan Sheik became an international sensation in 1996 when the single “Barely Breathing” hit the Billboard Charts and stayed there for a record-setting 55 weeks. The singer followed his initial success with the moody, string-laden Humming album in 1998. Sheik has since released six more studio albums, which have been critically acclaimed and have delighted listeners who dig the sometimes-morose ballads the singer pens.

But Sheik’s musical talents go far beyond the beautiful pop ballads for which he is well known. An accomplished composer, he has scored several stage productions including the musical Spring Awakening, which won a Tony for “Best Original Score.” He also runs Sneaky Studios, a cozy recording facility in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to releasing a new album called Covers 80s in 2011, Sheik is working on a score for a stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s infamous book American Psycho.

Just recently, Sheik released Covers 80s Remixed, a collaborative effort that offers listeners new-new versions of the legendary songs the singer covered on Covers 80s. The brilliantly-paced album speaks to Sheik’s fondness of the remix and electronic music on the whole. Sitting down with PopMatters, he tells us all about it …

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I’m interested in what attracted you to remixing songs, to reinventing songs.

Well, when my first record came out in 1996, there was one of those moments in New York City when I feel like remixing really started to kind of happen in the public consciousness in some way. It’s been around for awhile, but it certainly became a big thing. Around that time there was a really great DJ named Junior Vasquéz who remixed Reasons for Living, which was a song on my first record. I remember going into a club in 1997 at 2:30 in the morning and hearing this kind of mangled, psychedelic version of my song in this club and it was incredibly awesome. I’ve always had this kind of closet love of electronic music in many different forms.

Did that inspire you to begin remixing yourself?

I’ve been a little too sheepish to do too much of it myself because I’m always wanting to leave it to the pros, so to speak. When I made the acoustic version of the covers album, Covers 80s, I knew right away that these were cool versions but that there was a lot of potential that I could up the ante or change the ante in some way with this material. So I got in touch with some people I know who are fancy remixers or fancy DJs or up-and-coming electronic music producers and gave them the material and let them run with it. It was a lot of fun to sit back and wait for new versions to come in. It’s a nice way of working. 

With the White Limousine album, there was a DVD that allowed your listeners to do their own remixes.

Yes, and to be honest, that was something that I’m psyched that I did but the response to it was — I mean, the mixes I got back from fans were great and they were cool — but there wasn’t a lot of it. I realized something fundamental, which is most people, when they buy music, they just want to passively listen to it. They don’t want to have to work on it. That’s totally fine, I think I kind of misjudged how much people really love to get down and dirty with these kinds of materials. But obviously there are a set of people where this is what they do and they’re really fantastic at it. I was a little bit more focused this time and I gave the materials to people who actually do this for a living.

Do you think that the access to more inexpensive technologies to remix will change the way that listeners interact with music?

I think it obviously has greatly already. I think — I’m not necessarily a big fan of mash-ups per se — but it’s obviously something that’s happened in the culture and people kind of pay attention to that stuff, or things like The Grey Album or whatever that never would have been possible without technologies like Ableton and those kinds of software.

Do you think music is becoming democratized in a way?

I think it’s enabled a lot of people to do incredibly great work in their bedrooms or living rooms. It’s democratizing and it’s exciting. A lot of the records I listen to these days aren’t made in multimillion dollar studios, they’re made in alternate kinds of environments. I think that’s a positive thing. 

When you appeared on The Song That Changed My Life, you were talking about the transformative power of the Depeche Mode song “Stripped”. Would you say that reinventions of a work are a way of sharing with your listeners how that song made you feel?

Certainly that’s the goal. It would be fantastic if somebody were to listen to that version of the song or watch that clip and have some kind of inkling of what the song meant to me and what it did to me emotionally. That would be genius, but you never know how it’s affected people. I’m sure there’s a set of people for which it’s, like, “Oh my God that’s the most boring, lazy acoustic version anyone has ever made.” You know, you just kind of have to do stuff and hope that it hits people in the right moment in the right way. But you never know. 

There are some people who will hear your covers before they hear the original tracks from the 80s. How do you think that changes the listening experience?

I think it usually changes it. I think if you know those songs, if they’re kind of in your consciousness in some way and then you hear a version of that song that’s stylistically significantly different, or that uses a significantly different sonic palette, then I think it hits you in a completely different way. If you know the song, I think it hits you in a more powerful way no matter what. If you don’t know the song at all and you listen to it and you like it, then somehow I just got lucky. 

Spring Awakening was an adaptation of an earlier work, right?

Yes. Absolutely. It was a play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind.

And you’re working on an adaptation of American Psycho right now.

Yes. We’re kind of gearing up for a first production of that in London basically in a year from now. 

Do you ever think of that kind of theatrical work as a form of remix?

Sure. I think you can certainly use the analogy. You’re definitely taking a set of existing materials and rejiggering it and re-imaging it and adding and subtracting to it in whatever way. We would never have our version of Spring Awakening without the original, so that material was crucial to it’s creation. It’s interesting, if you read [lyricist] Steven Sater’s text, I don’t think there’s a single line of text that’s a direct translation. It’s all definitely an adaptation that is retaining the spirit of the thing. 

Of course, you’ve received a great deal of praise for Spring Awakening, which won Tony Awards for Best Orchestration, Best Original Score and Best Musical. As you work on American Psycho, how is the musical landscape shaping up?

There’s a lot of music in the book. When I went back and re-read it a couple of years ago, I remembered how there are these kind of hilarious music critic — bad music critic — rants that Patrick Bateman goes on. It totally informs his world. It’s funny to me as I’m reading the book because all of the things that he appreciates in music are these completely circus-oriented qualities of a certain kind of pop music that was made in the 80s. I kind of took that aspect of Patrick Bateman’s tastes and made that the sonic palette that I was going to use for the score of the stage adaptation. As it stands, the band is completely electronic. 

Have you considered having work from some of your earlier albums remixed?

It would be great. It would be an interesting project to put those materials out there in the world and see what people did with them, but having just done this remix album and having written the better part of a regular Duncan Sheik album, for lack of a better word, I’m ready to just make music that is not an adaptation of some other existing material. I’m excited now about getting back to basics and writing some songs from the ground up. Most of the record is written and will be recorded this winter, so hopefully it will come out sometime in summer of 2013. That’s what I’m shooting for.