The Toronto-based instrumental outfit The New Deal doesn’t want to be a house band or a jam band. Keyboardist Jamie Shields, the trio’s spontaneous melody maker, human drum machine Darren Shearer and the group’s groovemeister, bassist Dan Kurtz, just want to be The New Deal, an eclectic, danceable, improvisational, sample-sequencer-and-overdub-free sound onto itself that unites both the house and the jam scenes.
I spoke with Shields right after the band and several similar-sounding outfits were featured in a Spin magazine article by Richard Gehr, author of “The Phish Book.” In a Spin article about Phish a few years back, Gehr brought attention to some of the then new groups that the veteran jam band had spawned: moe., Ominous Seapods and Moon Boot Lover. The national followings of all three bands immediately mushroomed. The recent Gehr article, which also featured The Disco Biscuits, Fat Mama, Sound Tribe, Sector 9, Lake Trout and Medeski, Martin and Wood with DJ Logic, may have an even bigger impact.
Shields feels that the techno jam scene may be the music industry’s next big thing. But unlike most trends nailed with that catch-phrase, the keyboardist thinks the union of improvisational rock and electronic dance music will last because it can flourish as long as there’s people who want to dance to it. Given that house music goes back to the late ’70s and improvisational rock is even older, the techno-jam scene has some pretty strong roots. Compound that with the technological and financial ease of today and tomorrow’s recording equipment, and you’ve not only got the next big thing, you’ve got a sure thing.
For The New Deal and its fans, what’s more fleeting is its CD releases. So far, the band has released a limited run of two sparsely packaged live discs on its own Sound and Light Records: “This Is Live,” a document of the trio’s first real gig in early 1999, and “Live: Portland, ME 12/17/99,” a killer show in the midst of a New England blizzard. Once the 1,000 or so copies are of these discs are sold, the band plans to move onto another release, much like the feeling of a spontaneous New Deal performance: if you weren’t there, you missed out.
A third live disc will be released in the fall. The band’s studio debut, based on the spontaneous music composed at live shows, will be readied once negotiations for distribution and representation are ironed out. In the meantime, enjoy this enlightening and uplifting chat with Shields. For more information about The New Deal, check out www.sound-and-light.com.
How do you feel about all the attention The New Deal and some of the other techno jam bands have gotten in Spin and Entertainment Weekly recently?
Shields: The New Deal has worked hard in the past year or so to play a lot and turn people onto the band that way. One thing that the Spin article was able to do was to get people to check out the band on their own. Some people are trying to hunt down some shows. That helps us a lot, that recognition factor. It’s been great.
Comment on how you’ve turned DJ-oriented house and breakbeat music into a live experience.
Shields: It depends on who you ask in the band. If you ask our drummer, Darren, he’s all about trying to sound like a drum machine with a human element. If you ask our bass player, he’s all about getting the most out of the same four or five notes. He can play the same thing over and over and over, but he always plays it with different inflictions, and he plays it with a different feel all the time, where he may change one note up here and there. To him, the bass is his job in playing house music or progressive electronic music. And if you ask me, it’s none of the above. I’m all about trying to create a song on the spot. We’re improvising a lot on stage so it often falls to me to create that song right then and there. So I’m probably the guy with the least amount of electronic direction on stage when we play. I’m more a song-oriented kind of guy. But the other two guys feel their responsibility is to maintain that electronic groove.
But the house and breakbeat scene is mostly DJ-driven.
Shields: It’s all DJ-driven. People do all their creation in the studio and when they play live, there’s no performance going on. It’s all a replication of the work these guys did in the studio, which is the exact opposite for us.
The problem that the mainstream music industry has had with that kind of music is that you really can’t put a face on it. It’s not Britney Spears. It’s not Bruce Springsteen. But you guys are a band and you play instruments. And the irony of this kind of music is that there’s a portion of it that is called drum and bass, but you don’t really go see somebody play the drum and bass unless they’re going to see a band like The New Deal. So you’re putting a face on this stuff.
Shields: I agree with you 100 percent, but it goes even deeper than that. With regard to the live experience, people like to have an interaction with the performer one way or another.
At least American audiences do.
Shields: Most audiences do at a very base level. If you walk into a venue and you spend your entire time staring at some guy who’s spinning a record, there’s no real interaction between the performer and the audience. But if you have guys playing, you are obviously vibing on what the audience is doing, then that creates some kind of nuclear reaction where it gets bigger and then bigger and bigger and bigger. People completely get off on that when they see The New Deal because they know that we’re feeling what they’re feeling and we’re trying to throw it back at them yet again. A DJ can’t change what he’s playing on the spot, whereas a live band can.
Given that, do you think what you’re doing and what The Disco Biscuits, Sector 9, Lake Trout, Fat Mama, Medeski, Martin and Wood with DJ Logic and the other bands featured in that Spin article are doing, could be, for lack of a better phrase, ‘the next big thing.’
Shields: I think so, yeah, in a couple of ways. It could be the next big thing because what else is there to be the next big thing? And you could look at it in a more positive way, which is that there’s a lot of good qualities about these types of bands that could make them … But the next big thing has a negative connotation to it. It implies that it doesn’t last. This kind of music is going to last. This is not swing.
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