By Peter Galvin
Duncan Sheik is ready to talk politics. Known mostly for his examinations of romantic and spiritual states of being, Sheik has turned his gaze to the state of the world on his fifth album, “White Limousine.”
“My politics are known,” says Sheik, a Nichiren Buddhist who has initiated humanitarian projects in Albania and Cuba, performed in benefits for hurricane relief, women’s issues and the homeless, and participated in 2004’s Concerts for Change. “I’ve resisted putting those thoughts to music until now. But there’s a point where not doing so seems irresponsible.”
Included in the “White Limousine” package is a DVD that enables listeners to create their own versions. Using the software provided, fans can isolate and remix the album.
BTL: Did you feel liberated to be more political because you completely produced and financed this record yourself without a major label involved?
DS: [R]ight after September 11 … there was a lot of knee-jerk political music that happened. Some of it was really terrible, and some of it was okay. Most of it seemed not very levelheaded or even-handed – it was really far one way or the other in terms of a political perspective — either totally jingoistic or just kind of simple-mindedly liberal. Obviously, I’m on the way left side of the spectrum, for sure, but I just felt like at that time, it would have been ridiculous and annoying for me to comment on that stuff. I felt, “Oh, I’m a 32-year-old white guy with an acoustic guitar who lives in Tribeca — like, who cares about my opinion really?” And then, as time went on, I’ve read a lot more and dug a lot deeper, and I think things have happened politically and historically that has made it more acceptable and necessary to talk about this stuff.
BTL: On your web site, you wrote that you feel sorry for Bush. Can you talk a little about that?
DS: Well, I believe that he’s convinced himself that he’s doing the right thing. And somewhere in his heart of hearts, maybe he knows he’s not doing the right thing. I don’t know. But I believe that there’s a huge part of his psychology that’s wrapped in the idea that he can be the superhero who rids the world of evil, and he sees that as a positive thing. How can any one person take it upon themselves to rid the world of evil? I mean, even Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha — none of those people had that as their project. They were really trying to say, “Here are ways to be happy within yourself, and then provided all of that works out, maybe you’ll reach a better place where there’s less suffering.” That’s why I feel bad — Bush has a really fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being and to be a leader of human beings.
BTL: Clearly, on the list of what’s evil to this administration and many of its followers is the idea of a “homosexual lifestyle” and gay marriage.
DS: Yes. I mean how tragically ironic is it that Bush’s anti-gay policy or stance is so similar to that of the Taliban or whoever he says he’s going after in order to give people freedom?
BTL: Well, you fight the Taliban in the name of women’s rights in Afghanistan, but you oppress the rights of American gay people at home.
DS: Well, people feel that as long as they are going after the “Terrorist Boogeyman,” the government can do anything it wants. People are willing to throw every civil liberty out the window.
BTL: Speaking of gay issues, tell me about your awareness of your gay fans.
DS: Well, there was this one time in particular. Junior Vasquez had done a remix of my song “Reasons for Living,” and I went to Twilo or somewhere like that, and it was a totally gay scene — hundreds of super-cut dudes with their shirts off dancing to my song, which I thought was awesome. It’s just one of those experiences that you can’t even categorize. It was surreal. [laughs] And recently, I’ve done two full-scale musicals, and obviously, most of the men in the musical theater world are gay, and I don’t even bat an eye anymore. It’s just the environment that I live and work in.
BTL: What is your feeling about gay marriage?
DS: Well, really, what is the argument for not allowing it? The argument for not allowing it just doesn’t make sense to me on any level — on a human rights level, on a psychological level, on a spiritual level. The argument against gay marriage is just stupid. What else can I say?
BTL: How is it different to compose songs for musical theater versus writing songs for an album?
DS: Well, the great part about working with Steven Sater, my collaborator on these shows, is that he’s very prolific. He writes a lot, and he’ll send me lots and lots of lyrics. And I come up with a lot of music on my own, but lyrics are more of a painstaking process for me. So, it’s a great way of being more prolific.
BTL: In what way is writing for musical theater more rewarding for you than making records and going on the road to perform them?
DS: [W]hen it’s working, there’s that thing about theater that you don’t get in any other medium where all of your senses are totally engaged. And that’s a feeling that’s really hard to beat.
BTL: Let’s talk about the DVD that accompanies your new album. As an artist, do you feel that it’s all risky to allow people to rearrange and transform your music in whatever way they’d like?
DS: It is totally risky, but it’s really exciting, too. Yeah, people can pull the songs apart, and maybe there are some that are going to do really terrible things to them and make them sound really awful [laughs]. But … there’s an evolution that can happen. In that way, the record is never truly done. You know, I mentioned the whole thing about hearing my song at Twilo at 2:00 in the morning, and that’s really what I’m into — I would love to hear electronica versions of these songs. That’s a not-so-subtle hint of the direction that I’d love people to go in.