Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Duncan Sheik: The Alchemist


Pop, rock star and musical composer plays Yoshi's

Duncan Sheik. photo: courtesy The Old Globe
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With Grammy-winning music, seven albums, two Tonys for his musical accomplishments and even a few film soundtracks, there's no telling which of the many songs in Duncan Sheik's repertory he and his band will play at their Yoshi's concert on February 8. But fans and the newly interested will assuredly be entertained.

The 43-year-old acclaimed composer-singer talked by phone while en route to his upstate New York home and music studio.

"I played at both Yoshi's in Oakland and San Francisco with Suzanne Vega about a year and a half ago," he said. "I'm excited to come back. This concert is a little bit of a moveable feast. There will be a lot of my own music, perhaps some Depeche Mode or Tears for Fears, and some from the musicals."

With a diverse array of songs, does he stick to regular sets?

"We have a grab bag of stuff, so that we can pull certain things out if the energy is right," he said. "If the show is 14 to16 songs, I like to have 25 things that I'm capable of playing."


A Killer Score

Sheik's new music includes songs from the just-premiered stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' disturbing 1991 hit novel American Psycho. The controversial dark satire of corruption and soulless mania, written through the voice of serial-killing executive Patrick Bateman, was also adapted into a 2000 film starring Christian Bale. The musical's London premiere, which closed after a limited run on January 25, starred recent Doctor Who star Matt Smith.

What drew Sheik, whose musical style is, at first listen, devoid of such obvious terror, to such a project? He's been quoted as marveling about the "alchemy" of creating a musical and its varying creative elements.

"I had reservations about it when they first came to me and asked me about it," said Sheik. "I did need to reread the book, twenty years after I had read it when I was at Brown [University] in 1991." Sheik was born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey.

"I found it trenchant and prescient about so many things, and it still continues to have a lot of power," he said. "I also found it much funnier reading it as an adult. I understood the satire more because I had a sense of remove from it. Back then, I had too many friends who were their own version of Patrick Bateman. That's why I found it really troubling. And that's why I found it important, to get underneath all the shenanigans."

Sheik's prior experience with recording an "unplugged" collection of 1980s pop music became integral to his composition of music for the stage adaptation.

"We never wanted to veer into campy nostalgia," he said, "but a critique of an ethos," particularly character Bateman's utterly sincere critiques of late 1980s hits.

Matt Smith (right) in the London world premiere of American Psycho, the musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Curious fans can expect a U.S. staging, but not too soon.

"It was the first production, so we still have work to do," said Sheik, who remains proud of the show, despite a few critical jibes. For the most part, however, reviews raved over the show's deft combination of sociopathic protagonist and innovative staging.

Of particular note is the casting of Matt Smith, who, despite his extensive theatre experience, "is the first one to say that he's not a singer, in the way many musical theatre actors can be," said Sheik. "But he has good taste in music, which I agree with. He sings in a manner that I really enjoy. His choices are really smart."

So, what are the differences between a rock or pop-based song and musical theatre style? Sheik's scores tend to bridge the two worlds.

"My biggest influences were essentially UK electronic music bands," said Sheik. "They were by and large bands that used synthesizers and drum machines to make music, so it's definitely in my DNA."

In developing the American Psycho score, said Sheik, "It became something I was chomping at the bit to do. And I was not going to pick up a guitar, but instead a few synthesizers to make the score using those tools. It was really enjoyable to immerse myself in those sounds."

Those sounds contrast with the folk-rock influences in his own music, particularly songs like his 2009 hit, "Barely Breathing."

"I've had this other side of me, where I love the sound of human hands on wooden objects," said Sheik. "I'm always fighting this battle between real and electronic instruments."

Along with original music for American Psycho, composer Sheik mentioned what he referred to as "cover songs" of a sort.

"We re-imagine certain songs that are referenced in the book. For example, we do Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight,' but it's a cappella, and a ghostly haunting version of the song, performed before Patrick murders someone. From a theatrical standpoint, it becomes a great moment."

This is a unique twist, but familiar territory for Sheik, whose seventh CD, Covers 80's, includes stripped-down versions of songs by New Order, Howard Jones, Love and Rockets, Thompson Twins and others.

"I love those songs, and they're great apart from their production," said Sheik of both his album and the refashioned pop songs that weave into American Psycho's score.

For his live concerts, expect some different variations of his own music as well.

"It's much more fun for me to play the old songs in a different fashion," Sheik said.


Wide Awakening

Sheik's other musicals include Whisper House, a World War II story set in a lighthouse replete with ghosts. Musical theatre fans may know Sheik mostly for his score for the hit musical Spring Awakening. Based on the controversial German expressionist play, The Awakening of Spring by Frank Wedekind, the musical about sexually repressed teenagers won Tony Awards for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score (Music), as well as Best Musical. The original cast recording album received a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Musical Show Album.

Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening. photo: Joan Marcus

That success wasn't easy, and had a development of seven years and many workshop versions, Sheik noted of his collaboration with Steven Sater and director Michael Mayer.

"We were neophytes, and Michael often had other stuff going on," he said. "And yet, it took a minute for the stars to align. I'm very glad that it did take as long as it took. The show got better as we spent more time to develop it."

Asked about how he composed music for the stage, and if he envisioned scenes or actions, Sheik replied, "Those things are certainly more directorial, so at the time I was just trying to write a good song. Sometimes I didn't know which character I was writing it for. I was so naïve about the process. Now, having worked in theatre for the past dozen years, I feel like I have a much better grasp of it. And, probably to every producer and director's annoyance, I have a lot of ideas."

When the joke that winning a Tony makes him an honorary gay (Sheik is straight, but has an understandably big gay fan base), Sheik chuckled.

"The truth of the matter is, I don't really have that many straight male friends," he mused. "I have only gay friends. I think it's partly because certainly a lot of my theatre friends are gay. But also, I'm a practicing Buddhist, and there are a lot of gay men in Buddhism."

That faith's 'abandonment of materialism; aside, I asked Sheik where he keeps his awards. The Tony and Grammys reside "atop a bunch of big fat art books, and they look really fantastic," he replied. "When Spring Awakening first came out, we won a bunch of other theatre awards, but I had no idea what they were. I've joked that I was going to make an coat rack to hang all my awards on."

Duncan Sheik onstage

Along with the hopeful U.S. premiere of American Psycho, Sheik's other current project is Because of Winn Dixie, a musical about an Irish Wolfhound; its star is a real pair of dogs. The show recently closed at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, where it had a successful run. And although the adage of 'Never work with kids or dogs,' may be true, Sheik is happy to have taken that risk.

"There is a difficulty of working with animals," he admitted. "But there is an amazing thing when you see the connection. John Tartaglia of Avenue Q directed the show. We had these amazing kids and Irish Wolfhounds. I have a real fondness for the show. It's literally the polar opposite of American Psycho. It uses a different part of your brain and heart."

Never one to settle, Sheik's other projects, still in development, are stage adaptations of the Belgian transgendered teen film Ma Vie on Rose, and the musical stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees.

"The weird thing is, all this stuff I've been working on, it's all happening this year, so I'm pretty excited," he said. "I also finished a regular record, which I haven't put out since Whisper House, like, five years ago. It's done, and we're just kind of sorting out when it'll come out."

Hopefully his fans will get to hear some of those songs at his upcoming show.

Said Sheik, "We'll see!"


Duncan Sheik performs at Yoshi's Saturday, February 8, at 8pm and 10pm. $21-$34. 1330 Fillmore St. 655-5600.

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