Critics hailed Duncan Sheiks 1996 debut as defiant, beautiful, and benevolent of spirit. Not necessarily three terms that you'd expect to see describing one of 1996's most acclaimed recordings. Most people may know Duncan from his monster hit, "Barely Breathing," but his catalog of recordings are diverse, challenging, and uniquely Duncan Sheik. His just-released CD on Atlantic Records, Daylight, revisits a similar sound to his debut recording, with sharp hooks and memorable melodies, but with a stronger drive and a confidence that can only be distilled from a maturing artist. Be sure to take time to join our Duncan Sheik Guitar Giveaway and pick up his latest release, Daylight.
Guitar.com: Now that you are established as an artist, who gets to pick the singles off the new release? Is that you or something that the label does?
Sheik: It tends to be a committee decision. It kind of happens. They keep me informed but they don't keep me very involved.
Sheik: It's funny. I'm lucky in that I've tended to be able to make the music that I wanna make but then once I make it ya know, certain other certain decisions are not entirely in my hands.
Guitar.com: It's all part of the game.
Sheik: Yeah, it's a trade-off.
Guitar.com: I've listened to the CD about 10 or 12 times at this point. It's really good, by the way. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I really like "Half Life" and "Genius."
Sheik: Well, that's cool. I'm pretty sure that "Half Life" will end up being the second single. And you know, the thing about "On A High," in terms of the radio in 2002, they're so intent in a song being up tempo. And they're so intent on it having a simple hook. So, that song, at least, satisfies those two things.
Guitar.com: There's a lot on the record to that degree.
Sheik: Yeah, I mean, I guess it seems a little more successful than some other things that I've done but uh, hopefully, there will be opportunity to get deeper cuts onto the radio.
Guitar.com: I remember reading some of your other interviews in Acoustic Guitar and a couple of other places. Do you consider yourself a gearhead on some level, whether it be in the studio or in a live setting?
Sheik: Yeah, definitely. I'm not going to say that I'm the most knowledgeable about anything but it's definitely something that I love. I built a studio at my place in New York that I'm really proud of and I spend a lot of time messing with gear for both acoustic and electric, and it's definitely part of the fun in making music for me.
Guitar.com: I agree. I think that when people see acoustic guitar players or players that are assumed to be acoustic, that's the part that people write off. They don't think acoustic players are gear-oriented.
Sheik: But that's not true at all.
Guitar.com: I totally agree that coming from an also-admitted addicted gearhead. What do you use on your acoustic guitars currently?
Sheik: I've been using the Rare Earth Pickup on this Martin 12-string that I have. It seems to be a good combination. Then I have a Fishman Blender that I have in front of me on stage.
Guitar.com: Which Rare Earth Model are you using?
Sheik: I ended up, for the 12-string, using the Humbucker without the microphone. I have one of the ones that has the microphone on it but it ends up being an easier, no-nonsense thing when I'm playing live. I have a Highlander in my Froggy Bottom and I run that through my blender.
Guitar.com: What do you normally take on the road with you? I'm assuming you'er planning on touring to support the new release Daylight shortly?
Sheik: There are many things that are up in the air in terms of what the tour is going to be and who I'm going out with and in what configuration. So I wish I could give you more info about it. All I know is that in November there will be some proper shows and it may be opening up for some bands. It may be co-headlining. It may be headlining in smaller clubs. We have to see how things play out.
Guitar.com: It's coming soon.
Sheik: Yes (chuckles).
Guitar.com: What would you normally take out with you?
Sheik: On the Phantom Moon Tour, for example I think I had nine guitars out with me. And that's just because I didn't really have a guitar tech and I use a bunch of different tunings. So it was just easier to kinda array six or seven guitars behind me and I would just change them throughout the set on my own. And there would be less dead time at me looking down at my Korg tuner (laughs).
Guitar.com: Are you still running a reverb, an EQ, and a compressor in-line?
Sheik: Actually at this point, what I've been doing, I have the Fishman Blender for the Froggy Bottom and that would just go straight to the board. And then I have a little Mackie onstage and the rest of the guitars would just go into however many channels in the Mackie. And I wasn't even using any reverb or compression. I was just leaving it to whomever was dealing with it at front of house and would put on whatever he wanted. But in terms of what was in my monitors, it was kind of the most plain, dry sound you could possibly imagine.
Guitar.com: That can be great as well, even for gearheads. There's something to be said for simply.
Sheik: Well, yeah, and then I can hear more clearly what's going on. If someone wants to sweeten up the sound, like Phil [Phil Sullivan - guitar tech] or whoever is doing sound front of house, they can do what they need to do. But on my end, I just like to have the clarity of knowing exactly what I'm doing.
Guitar.com: Now, you mentioned open-tunings and obviously you do use them. Did you use a lot of them on Daylight?
Sheik: Less than on Humming and Phantom Moon. That wasn't on purpose, it was just how it panned out. I ended up on Capo 2 quite a bit of the time and then there's the song "Magazines." "Magazines" and "Shine Inside" have this kinda drone tuning. Lemme see if I can remember (C, G, C, G, G, D)??
Guitar.com: All the open tunings that are used. Never ceases to amaze me when someone else comes up with another variation that fits a fingering or a chord schematic.
Sheik: What's interesting is that I just read this book called Temperment. Have you read this or are you familiar?
Guitar.com: No, I haven't heard of it.
Sheik: The writer's name is Walter Itzakof. And it kind of talks about moving from Pythogren tuning through well-tempered tuning and eventually to where we ended up now, equal temperment, and the kind of philosophy behind those different approaches. And one of the things that I realized as I was reading the book, you know, is when you tune a guitar in standard tuning, your thirds and fifths. Everything is a compromise to some degree in terms of thirds and fifths. When you're using alternative tunings and these drone tunings or fifth based tunings, you can really make the fifths very pure. It definitely creates a very different sound and a more expansive sound, to my ear. And that's what exciting about it to me.
Guitar.com: I read one of things you had said about open tunings. David Wilcox has said it as well, and a few other people. Sometimes when you feel too comfortable in a particular tuning, changing it, working within an experiment, or creating the opportunity for an accident, you come across the creative moment.
Sheik: I think that 50% of the time is where I start with just moving the tuning pegs around until they sit somewhere and you start messing around with it. I?m much more pattern recognition-based in my thinking about chord forms and stuff, as opposed to being a total music theory geek about this string and this fret being this note, and this string is this. For whatever reason, it's much easier for me to maneuver in these other tunings than even in standard tunings sometimes.
Guitar.com: Does that come from your Semiotician background?
Sheik: (Laughs) My background in Semiotics..well, that ya know??(laughs).
Guitar.com: I read that and I went "Whoa!" How does one go about picking that as their major [in college]?
Sheik: That was just a thing at Brown University. It's almost like an inside joke. But its kind of a way to take a bunch of interesting classes from a bunch of different disciplines, throw them together, and call it major.
Guitar.com: ...and still get a degree. I was fascinated that you got to write music for the New York Shakespeare Festival. How did those shows turn out?
Sheik: It was great. I enjoyed it so much. It was really an honor to be able to write some music for Shakespeare's lyrics in Twelfth Night. I got to write some instrumental kind of underscoring and scene transition music, which I hadn't done a lot of before, and that was a great learning experience. In fact, what was cool about that project, I ended up playing ukulele. I got a nice ukulele when I was in Kona, Hawaii for New Year's. So, I ended up using it a lot because depending on how you record it, and play it, and finger it, you can get this really great harp-like sound from that instrument. So, that was a nice process of discovery.
Guitar.com: It amazes me when I think of how most people think of ukuleles they think of these little plastic toys and My Dog has Fleas...?
Guitar.com: There's this guy named Mike Rock who makes Ukuleles and he makes these wonderful Koa ukulele's. They cost like $2,500.
Sheik: Yeah, there are some very expensive ones available. I spent $1,000 on mine just because I was like if "I'm going to get one it should be a good one and it better sound good." And you know, it was a good investment because it sounds amazing
Guitar.com: That's one thing that I did notice: the craftsmanship and the attention to detail. Granted that comes with a price, but it sounds like a real instrument, not some toy.
Guitar.com: Do you have any other production chores coming up? I know I read somewhere that you were working with Samantha Ronson.
Sheik: I'm making a record [as producer] with Samantha, actually over the course of September and October. She's the stepdaughter of Mick Jones of Foreigner. So, I got to hang with Mick quite a bit.
Guitar.com: How cool was that?
Sheik: It was really great. He's an excellent guy and of course, an excellent songwriter and guitar player. He comes from that great kind of English blues/rock tradition. That kind of style of playing which is very, very different from mine. But I just watch him and just soak in his technique and playing.
Guitar.com: Was the writing process for On Her Mind very organic or just sporadic?
Sheik: I had a guitar at my house. It was a high-strung guitar but it was kind of in that drone tuning I was telling you about. So if you think of that drone tuning in C#, but then high-strung so that the bottom four strings were an octave higher. That's how you would get to that place, which is kind of weird and bizarre. And it was just sitting there and he picked it up and started playing this riff. And then I thought that sounded really cool. I just sketched some chords around this riff and a couple of hours later there was this song.
Guitar.com: Interesting. What would essential listening be for you these days?
Sheik: I really like this record by this band called The Doves. It's called The Last Broadcast. I don't know if you've heard it.
Guitar.com: I know the name of the band but not the recording.
Sheik: Yeah, it's cool. Guitar-wise it's a great record. I listen to a lot of English bands. The new Coldplay record, that has some great stuff on it!
Guitar.com: I've heard that one. I really like that one.
Sheik: Yeah, in fact there's a song on there, Daylight, my favorite song on the record.
Sheik: Yeah, I guess it's a coincidence. I'm just trying to think of some things. There's another English artist, he's Irish actually this guy named Neal Hannon [his album is] called The Divine Comedy. That's some great stuff. I'm a big fan of Bjork. I love to listen to the way she uses the choral arrangements and the string arrangement. She's even made music boxes for this last record. That stuff is always inspiring.
Guitar.com: You live in New York. Do you spend any time in the undercurrent of the music scene?
Sheik: I wish I that I had more time to go and see bands but it's just not something that ends up happening very often, unfortunately. I guess it's a fantasy that I'll have that luxury of time.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I think we all wish that. What was the creative spark that got you writing with Steven Sater [wrote his last album, Phantom Moon, with him]?
Sheik: Well, it came about. Steven and I are both practicing Buddhists and that's kind of how I met him. And then he had a play that he had written called Umbridge and he asked if I wanted to write some music for a song lyric that he had in the play. Which I was happy to do. It was a really cool play. And that one song kind of led to another song and within a matter of months there were like twenty odd songs, song lyrics that he had sent me and there were these simple acoustic recordings that I had made of the music for each of these song lyrics. So, there was like basically this skeleton of this acoustic record. Initially, I wanted to put it out on my own. I went to Atlantic and I said, ?You guys don?t want to put out this record?I promise you.?
Guitar.com: That was an interesting way to put it.
Sheik: Yeah, well, it was something that I needed to do for my own reasons and is that okay? And they [Atlantic] were kind enough to hand it off to Nonesuch, which was very much the appropriate place.
Guitar.com: That's great and you're working on a second?
Sheik: Yeah, well there are probably another eight or 10 songs that we've written since that time, which would be a Phantom Moon II, so to speak. But, Daylight is just coming out and that's going to be a long process of promoting this record. And Steven and I wrote this musical together. This thing called Spring Awakening that the Roundabout Theatre in New York is producing.
Guitar.com: Oh, that's great! Congratulations!
Sheik: Thanks. Well, that will happen towards the end of next year. So, Phantom Moon II will be a while before it sees the light of day.