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Duncan Sheik
Questions & Answers

August 9, 1996
Chicago, IL

A Interview by
Stu Gotz
The last time I saw Duncan Sheik is when he opened for Jewel at Chicago's Metro. I had the opportunity to speak with him then and form the opinion that he is rather a meek and shy fellow with poor dietary habits (he reluctantly admitted to having an Egg McMuffin that day). Kitten did that show with me, and she liked Duncan too.

This time around I drug Suzie Q. with me to see Duncan open for Jars of Clay at Chicago's Double Door. During Duncan's sound check I thought he waved at me. "Naw" I thought to myself "he couldn't have remembered me." During a pause in the sound check he jumped off stage, ran over to me, and said with a grin "I'll have you know I've changed my dietary habits since the last time we talked." I was impressed that he had remembered me and given up the McMuffins (I love those little cholesterol bombs). Shortly after his sound check was over Duncan invited me and Suzie Q. downstairs to chat. That, and he bummed a cig from Suzie.

This interview with Duncan Sheik left me with a little bit of a moral dilemma. Normally I really wouldn't like a guy who grew up on the east coast, went to an Ivy League school, drank red wine that that didn't come out of a jug, excreta. In my book all these things would lead me to the conclusion that the person would be a pretentious snob. Duncan is definitely not a pretentious snob. Combining that with his great musical talent leads me two draw the conclusions that I should not be predisposed to judge people I really don't know well and that this guy deserves to make it big!

Oh well, here's the interview.

S.G.: So, the last time I saw you it was May (96) and you were touring with Jewel. What's been going on since then?

D.S.: Well, just the usual kind of record company hubbub, I guess.

S.G.: More touring, record company hype, and all that?

D.S.: Yeah, they're, I mean, I can't complain, they're doing a number on us, its nuts, I'm glad. Happy to have them...

S.G.: Have you had any time off?

D.S.: I really haven't had much time off at all. That's been kind of the nightmare because I'm exhausted, can you tell? I'm about to collapse.

S.G.: Well, you look all right to me. So what kind of media grind have you been going through since Jewel?

D.S.: Well, basically, it was the month of May with her and then June, that was kinda press & publicity month and I played like, Conan O'Brien and did some other stuff like that and then July and August has been Jars of Clay and then we're gonna start, actually I'm gonna do some dates with Frente.

S.G.: Oh, they were just in town.

D.S.: Yeah, so I'm gonna do some dates with them after this tour.

S.G.: Your press kit mentioned that you grew up with your Gram in New Jersey and got into music real early in life? Tell me about that…

D.S.: Well, yeah, that's a little misleading, My mom was like a single mom, pretty much so. My grandparents were around allot, kinda helping out, Yeah, I was born in New Jersey and I really grew up in South Carolina.

I got into music when I was little, like 5 pretty much, started playing guitar around then and I got a 4-track recorder when I was 14. I got my first synthesizer when I was like 12 and I was just always kinda hibernating by myself recording and I played in some bands a little tiny bit but I did not really play out much at all.

I was in this band when I was 12 in South Carolina called "Slightly Off" and that's what they mention in the Bio and it was like all the bad covers that like, 80's rock-Pat Benatar, Def Leppard..

S.G.: And that's not your style obviously, but it was definitely the style of the times.

D.S.: It was the style of the times, I will give it that, yes. Basically, that kinda put me off Pop music for a long time so then I got into my kinda Art-Rock Phase, like pretentious, Prague rock, wank off, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Genesis and Yes. Well, I went to Music Camp around that time and I started getting into this really silly music, you know? Then, finally, I went away to boarding school, basically like, in 9th and 10th grade, like I was 15 and 16. I started getting back into, I guess, more Pop stuff, but this time it was like, Tears for Fears, and The Smiths, and New Order and Depeche Mode and that kinda stuff. And then I kinda got really into like, David Silvian and like the late Talk Talk records and stuff like the Blue Nile and stuff like that, kinda ambient new music.

S.G.: I wanted to share some e-mail with you. It says "Dear Stu: Just read your Duncan Shiek review, Bravo, saw Duncan in Detroit with Jars of Clay, however, the audience was not as polite as they were in Chicago." Did you have a hard time in Detroit?

D.S.: Actually, Detroit wasn't such a bad show. True, it has not been as polite. It has something to do with the fact that we are not a Christian band.

S.G.: Jars of Clay is a Christian band and you're not, so people were turned off because of that? Oh well that's just a great Christian attitude, huh?

D.S.: Well, you know, that being said, Jars are great, they are totally cool guys and they've been really supportive.

S.G.: Have they been trying to convert you to Christianity?

D.S.: No, no, they're, no, they know better.

S.G.: That's cool. They respect you.

D.S.: Yeah they do, yeah.

S.G.: What can you tell me about the time you spent with Lisa Lobe at Brown University?

D.S.: I was her lead guitarist .

S.G.: How long were you guys together?

D.S.: About a year, a little over a year we played together. It was really fun. We went down to New York and played some shows after Boston and played obviously some shows in Providence and so this was fun, you know, the thing is I did not want to be so much a guitarist, so I got out of it.

Well, its actually a small footnote. She actually recently called me and we have yet to have a conversation but we traded phone messages back and forth.

(reflective pause)

All that time I was in the studio recording my own stuff, but I was just playing out with her because I was super self-conscious. I suppose I still am vocally, like very self conscious, so it took me a long time. It took like three years of training with an opera singer, like a coach, before I could really get up in front of people and do it.

S.G.: So you didn't leave Lisa out of vanity, rather out of a sense of wanting to do your own thing?

D.S.: Well, that's why I, yeah, it was a sense of doing my own thing. It was quite the opposite of vanity that kept me from, it was definitely insecurity that kept me from doing it for so long, you know, I never played out in college as Duncan Shiek.

S.G.: Care to share your best or worst industry moments?

D.S.: Well, let's see, (laughs) the worst industry moment was basically the fact that for two years I was signed to this record deal and nothing happened. Like, I got signed to this label. It was really kinda in an inappropriate place for me to be, so I just spent two years, like in business limbo, living in LA and not knowing whether I was going to make a record or not, but supposedly signed to this label. So, finally, when Atlantic bought me off of that initial record label it was really cool. Like Val was the President of Atlantic, Ron Shaprio the GM, Tim Sommer my A&R person, they all came in my living room, and like saw me play an acoustic show, at my house.

S.G.: This was in LA?

D.S.: This was in LA and that's pretty much when I got signed. It was cool. It was nice.

S.G.: Now that your signed with a major label and you have a CD out, are you getting on all the A-list parties?

D.S.: I was on a few of them before. I had some kind of slightly jet-set friends in College so, yeah, it's, in fact, I think I'm going to less parties then I did when I was in College. Maybe that will change, we'll see.

S.G.: Has the exposure now gotten you a little more recognition with some people that probably would have snubbed you a couple of years back?

D.S.: Maybe, but, you know, it's really not at that point yet. I think you have to sell a ton of records to get that thing that we think of as "Name Recognition." You know, maybe five thousand people in the world own my record right now, so its just not.....

S.G.: Being on the road has got to be long and boring. What do you read or what do you listen to?

D.S.: I actually just read a really interesting book about the IRA, which was quite good.

S.G.: Remember the name or the author?

D.S.: Um, his name is Kevin Tulis(?). He's like an English-Irishman who wrote the book and it was quite good. I read allot of you know, Irvine Welsh, you know, Trainspotting guy. I read all of his books, they're really fun. I'm reading a Julian Barnes book of short stories right now. It's kinda neat. I like English authors.

S.G.: Do you buy them in soft or hard back?

D.S.: Kinda half and half.

S.G.: When you put the headphones on, what are you listening to?

D.S.: Believe it or not, allot of like, drum and bass music.

S.G.: For example?

D.S.: Like, Jungle stuff like- Metal Heads, Goldy, Jerky you know that kinda stuff.

S.G.: That surprises me. I wouldn't have imagined that.

D.S.: Yeah, for some reason I'm just really into that.

S.G.: It's your alter ego, huh?

D.S.: Maybe, yeah, it maybe a little hint as to where things could be going in the future.

S.G.: There's a little insight. Have you changed your show since May?

D.S.: Well, the show is pretty much the same thing because we haven't had any time to go into rehearsal to go in and change it, its just been like constant stuff, the show's pretty much the same. Hopefully I may possibly go out on the road with Everything but the Girl, in which case we're gonna try to change some things up and make it slightly more... groovy, I guess you could say.

S.G.: So you're gonna funk up your music?

D.S.: Maybe, yeah, a little yeah, maybe even some drum sequences even.

S.G.: Do dare, do dare.

D.S.: (laughs)

S.G.: Where are you calling home these days and when you get a little vacation what are you gonna do?

D.S.: Well, New York City, um, I have no vacations. I don't. I'm not gonna get a vacation. I do go to Europe in September and um, in like two and a half weeks I have to go to England, France Spain, Italy, Denmark and Germany, so, its just gonna be like craziness until Christmas time I think - I don't even know if I'm gonna be at home at all. I've been in New York about three days since I've moved back.

S.G.: So, your apartment is probably pretty clean, huh?

D.S.: Actually, I'm kinda homeless right now so, like a homeless person.

S.G.: So, what, is all your stuff in a storage locker somewhere?

D.S.: Yeah, it's like at my dad's in New Jersey and some of my friend's house and all over the place right now.

S.G.: Here are some questions the E-Ave. staff came up for you.

D.S.: OK.

S.G.: Would you call yourself a cat or a dog person?

D.S.: A dog person.

S.G.: What don't you like about cats and what do you like about dogs?

D.S.: Well, I think dogs are just a little bit more human. Cats have their own, like, kinda mystical independence that I find very cold.

S.G.: All right, the last time I talked to you, we talked about junk food. Care to comment about ice cream?

D.S.: I just had an espresso milk shake today, before sound check for what it's worth.

S.G.: What do you remember about your first car?

D.S.: It was a hand-me-down from my mom. And it was an Audi 5000 so I thought I was really very sophisticated, thought I was pretty cool. It was a total piece of junk though and it broke down all the time so....

S.G.: So you probably didn't look that cool with your hood up on the side of the road?

D.S.: No, No. And my roommates all trashed the car, you know whatever, one of those things.

S.G.: Driving around cruising for chicks?

D.S.: Something like that, going down to New York city and just driving way too fast and slammed it into the ground.

S.G.: Would you say your a pub, club or a bar person?

D.S.: Have been definitely more of a club person in the past. I mean when I was going to Brown, we would go down to New York every weekend pretty much and go out to the clubs. Like in New York we would go to Morrissey when that was big, you know Nell's way back in the 80's, MK and all those kinds of places.

S.G.: I'm not familiar with that. What kind of music is that?

D.S.: Pretty much, dance music and like, you know, we were all like little kids just trying to chase after models and stuff, we were just bad. Not very successfully, I might add.

S.G.: OK, what's your drink of choice?

D.S.: I drink red wine, too much red wine.

S.G.: Any particular type?

D.S.: I'm really into a couple of things, because we made the record in France, I got really into Sonser instead of French Wine and then like Coutenvy is really good, whatever. Good cabernet is fine with me.

S.G.: OK… Obviously you smoke, cuz you bummed a cigarette off of my friend Sue…

D.S.: But not too much, I smoke really only a couple of cigarettes a day, if that, its rare. After a show, I tend to need a cigarette but I try to limit it to that.

S.G.: Darts, Fooseball, Pool or Shuffleboard?

D.S.: A bit of pool, a bit of fooseball, that's about it. Not too much, cuz when we were recording they had a fooseball table and a pool table so we spent allot of time there.

S.G.: This may be a hard question to answer because you're self proclaimed homelessness, but what is your bathroom like?

D.S.: Yeah, it's yeah, non-existent.

S.G.: Seen any good movies lately?

D.S.: Um, one of the last movies I saw was Lone Star, the John Sayles movie. He's actually a really incredible film maker. I really like his stuff. And I've been trying to go see Trainspotting for the past three weeks and I have yet to have a free night to go. Trainspotting? It should be in Chicago somewhere.

S.G.: Probably Music Box or Fine Arts.

D.S.: Yeah, (pause) I saw Fargo, that was pretty funny. It was a good movie. What else did I see? I did see Independence Day. Whatever. I saw it on a big screen in LA so it was kinda exciting.

S.G.: Finish the following sentence: I never leave home without....?

D.S.: Chanting.

S.G.: Chanting? So that comes from your Buddhist faith?

D.S.: Pretty much, yeah.

S.G.: Is it OK to lie to someone you love in order to avoid hurting her feelings?

D.S.: (Small laugh) I plead the fifth on that one, because its gonna get me in trouble. Ha-Ha.

S.G.: I can't let you off with that. Do you want to share a story Did you get into some trouble or what?

D.S.: I... I'll tell you what, ... OK.. I'll kinda turn it around. There are times when I'm happier to be lied to. Yeah, certain things I just don't want to know.

S.G.: Well, you're in this industry now, I'm sure you've come across some lawyers in your time, I don't know if your positive or negative on that but, do you know any good lawyer jokes?

D.S.: (big laugh) Well, I did, wait a minute, it's not going to come to me. My lawyer is really great actually. My lawyer is the guy who has stuck with me for like four years and never gotten paid yet, so I have to give him allot, so I won't say anything bad about lawyers.

S.G.: No jokes about lawyers, huh?

D.S.: I have a good Michael Jackson joke though.

S.G.: OK share it with us.

D.S.: OK. Why is Michael Jackson the epitome of the American Dream?

S.G.: Why is Michael Jackson the epitome of the American Dream?

D.S.: Because he was born a poor black boy in Gary and he ended up a rich white woman in Santa Barbara.

(big laughs from everyone)

S.G.: Who and what was the best advice that you got?

D.S.: Hmm, well, you know, kinda like the musical people in my life have, it depends on what level you're talking about. Are you talking about music or life in general?

S.G.: Maybe just life in general, what stands out in your mind, every now and then when your just sitting alone not worried about music and reflecting on something?

D.S.: Yeah, I think probably the best advice I've ever gotten is that, you know, nothing in this life is set in stone, everything and anything is possible. We live in this world of totentiality so, whatever you determine to do within yourself is totally within the realm of possibility so, you have to just always, whatever. I don't want to say believe in yourself because it's such a cliché but you have to always, just like you know, understand that anything can happen, anything can be your reality. Whatever you choose it to be and you have total control over that.

S.G.: What helped you draw that conclusion?

D.S.: That's really kinda Buddhist philosophy.

S.G.: (pause).....I read the book of Buddha so, It's really kinda like reading the King James bible to me. I really need the Cliff Notes for both.

D.S.: Well it depends on what you read. I mean the Buddhist writings are like so, there's so many of them and their so dense and it's so vast and it's also so metaphorical.

S.G.: That's what I need help on.

D.S.: I mean, if one is to read the Lotus Sutra, let's say, just like the Buddhist, kinda highest teaching, it just sounds like he's telling this wild fable, in a sense but really it all has these kinds of metaphorical and symbolic meanings that you need to kinda pull out those interpretations.

S.G.: Who helped you come to a better understanding of your religion?

D.S.: Allot of people. My mother's cousin is the person who really introduced me to Buddhism and so she's always been, has helped me understand what I'm doing within that realm and there's a total network of people who are really great, where we all have discussions and talk about it and try to understand it better so, its a whole group of people really.

S.G.: Were there any books ... that were helpful?

D.S.: Well, the books that have been helpful really are the writings of this guy, Disoqui Kata(?) who is kinda like the Head of the Soko Doctrine nationally. He's really kinda, I'm trying to think of a good, western equivalent to what he does. He's kinda like a Buddhist statesman something like the Dalai Lama, in a way, but he's from Japan. He doesn't wear orange, he's like a regular guy who wears a suit who goes around, talks to professors and politicians and different people and tries to help them to understand what's going on in the Buddhist community and stuff like that. So, his writings have been very influential for me personally.

S.G.: One last religious question here, and I'm not sure how you're gonna answer this one. God?… Male? Female? Don't know? Don't care? Who?

D.S.: I mean we could argue semantics all day about what God is. From the standpoint of Buddhism, there isn't a God in the sense of a being, per say, that controls things. There is a law that operates within all phenomenon in the universe, so I'd say that God is kinda like the law of the universe, the ultimate ground of being that causes all phenomenon to exist. It's like a rhythm, rather than a person.

S.G.: What time do you go on tonight?

D.S.: About nine.

S.G.: I'll let you go do your pre-show thing. Thank you for your time.

D.S.: Yeah, thank you so much. I'm sorry I didn't mean to talk about Buddhism so much, that wasn't my intention its just that's what all the questions were.

S.G.: That's cool, thank you for coming, I appreciate it. One more thing-the guys in your band, I want their names for the article.

D.S.: OK, yeah it's Milo DeCruz on bass, Michael Chaves playing guitar, Chaves with an "S" and Toby Ralph on drums.

S.G.: And who put these guys together for you?

D.S.: Milo and I played together for awhile and Michael is an old friend from LA who just joined up with us and Toby is a drummer that we just met through friends of friends in New York.

S.G.: Great, thanks a lot......


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