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Published: 2003/02/24
by Dan Greenhaus

Back to the Studio: A Conversation of All Things with The New Deal’s Jamie Shields

When one talks with Jamie Shields, it's instantly noticeable how verbose he
is. His words flow one into another, as he quickly melds one thought into the next.
He genuinely loves music and it comes out in his expressions, mannerisms and words.
It’s about 3:30 in the morning by the time I finally sit down with him. His band, The New Deal, had just completed another successful stand at New York’s Bowery Ballroom,
almost overwhelming the crowd in the final hour with a non-stop barrage of
some of its most powerful material. The backstage area is a flurry with
activity so we move out on the now empty floor to discuss, among other
things, their upcoming album, jambands, and what exactly goes on during a
New Deal concert.

*Dan Greenhaus: Its now been two years since your 2000-2001 New Years Eve
show at Wetlands, which at the time was your "biggest" show. How has the
band changed since then?*

Jamie Shields: Well, I think any band that plays as many shows as we have
between then and now, about 275 shows, is going to have a lot of changes
happen. Just the fact that we try to do something different every night,
and sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, but overall the development
of the band is based a lot on that. I guess, we’ve changed in the way that
we approach the live show. We have a lot more patience now. We’ve stopped
feeling like we have to constantly assault the audience. We try to be a
little more conscious of playing more downtempo. And I think that has come
about as a result of the incorporation of the light show. We’ve realized
that there are other things on the stage that can help us develop the music.

DG: I understand you have a new lighting director?

JS: Yep, we do. But I mean for the Wetlands show you mentioned, we didn’t
have a light guy. We always traveled with a sound guy and our road manager
and that’s it. Having a lighting director makes it, A. a lot easier for us,
and B, makes it more interesting since we do feel lights are important.

Musically speaking, when we made our first record, which we started
recording shortly after that Wetlands show, we decided we were going to
incorporate a lot of live performances so after that show, we went out and
recorded about sixty shows from our winter and spring tours. And then we
took those performances, added on to it, but the basic nucleus of that
record was live performances. For this next record, we’re still using live
performances as a base, however this time, its live performances of us in
the studio, rather than on the road. But we’re trying to take a difference
approach. I mean, we don’t want to make the same record again. We want to
try to employ a different tactic. Difference is, it will take three weeks
to construct a song in the studio instead of seven minutes or whatever on
stage. I guess that’s a big change for us, the way we approach the recording

*DG: In the two years since that show, you’ve played with Herbie Hancock,
Page McConnell and Rahzel to name a few.*

JS: Yep, we’ve played with on the Area One tour with Moby…

*DG: For you specifically, what was it like playing with Herbie on a nightly

JS: I mean, that guy can do no wrong. He’s been my idol for millions of
years. He has been on the tip of groundbreaking music, I think, three or
four different times in this life. He has completely reinvented himself and
the music he makes, and he’s been doing it for forty years. It was just a
dream come true to sit side stage night in and night out and just watch him

DG: How did that tour come about?

JS: He had heard of us and wanted us to be on the tour, and with luck, their
agent was our old agent. So it was very easy to try to put together. I
mean, it was just great. If you had told me when I was 20 or 18 or 16 or
whenever I was severely into Herbie Hancock that I’d be on tour with him, I
would’ve said "Yeah Right!!" But there I was.

*DG: By playing with him on a nightly basis for an entire tour, did that
affect your style of playing in any way, or was Herbie Hancock already
imbedded in your style.*

JS: It didn’t influence my style as much as it influenced my thinking on
performing. Just the fact that that guy lives and breathes music had an
influence. His bass player, Jimmy Garrison, would tell me how they would be
on tour in Asia somewhere, and they’d be completely exhausted, and when they
would get a night off, Herbie would fly somewhere else and play a solo show,
and then come back and rejoin the tour. And that kind of thing had an
effect on me because this guy is sixty-two and he’s doing more stuff than
guys a third of his age. And, that kind of love of music and performing,
that kind of tireless energy that he has, is something that I can strive
for. I mean, I don’t have it…..yet. You know, he’s a hardcore meditation
guy, so maybe I should get into some of that. (laughs)

*DG: I feel that, all along, I’ve heard Herbie as a prevalent influence on
your playing. However, on some of the newer songs like "Gone, Gone, Gone",
I feel that perhaps that dirty, distorted keys sound you use may have come
out of that tour. Do you find you altered your sound at all from seeing him
every night?*

JS: Not from seeing him live. I guess we altered our live performances….I
mean, when we go on tour, we listen to classic rock. I think that change
was just a development within the whole band. That was an example of
something we created in the studio. The New York version of that song, from
the Bowery Ballroom cd, is completely different. When we went back to the
studio, that was one of the first tunes we worked on, and that was an
example of us sitting there and trying out different sounds.

DG: How many songs do you have recorded already?

JS: Well, the funny thing is we have about six or seven recorded, but only
about four for the record. The way we were trying to approach the record
was from the ground up; First song, second song, third song. But before we
did that, we just recorded a bunch of tunes to try to get some stuff
together to figure out what sound to go with since we really didn’t have a
vision yet. And then when we got the vision, we decided to ditch a couple
of the tunes. We have them. We may release them at some point.

*DG: Did you work any of them out live first? Because I know from the
summer, the newer songs were starting to make appearances during the shows.*

JS: Oh yeah. For example, for that New York Bowery album, songs like
"G-Nome" were created that night. We had never played the songs before.
Ever. "G-Nome" was made up right then and there. That’s why we decided to
release that album. Because there were so many songs that were made up
right there that became songs in our repertoire. If we listened to every
show like we used to, we could pick out tunes that we could create. But we
cant do that anymore since we play too many shows.

*DG: Speak of the live show, what exactly goes into it? Cause I know a lot of
people, even your hardcore fans, aren’t exactly sure what goes on onstage.
For starters, do you guys come out with a setlist?*

JS: Never. We never come out with a setlist. Tonight, the only thing we
discussed was what we didn’t want to play, that way nobody would call it

*DG: So if you have no setlist, you obviously have to work your way through
several songs. The onstage communication between the three of you is
constant and obvious over the course of the whole show. If you don’t use a
setlist, how do you decide what songs to play?*

JS: Just by the feel of the moment. Should we try to explore? Should we
groove more? If things aren’t going anywhere, then we’ll try to go into a
new tune. Somebody will call it….

*DG: Speaking of choosing not to play songs, I’m aware that there was a
conscious decision not to play "Back to the Middle." What was the process behind making that decision? Because I know a lot of people who critique the band say that the band overplays "BTTM" or they go into it several times in one night. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything further from the truth
about you guys.*

JS: We play our songs once in a night. We may go back into one later in the
night to close it out, but we never repeat songs in the same show. We have
no need to. We have more than enough songs. We wouldn’t want to play
anything twice. And the decision behind that isn’t as analytical as one
might think. It was more like, "Let’s create more songs." So let’s pick
some that we just aren’t going to play, to try and help us create a little
more on stage.

*DG: There was a time where "BTTM" was the band’s go to song. Every band has
one, which is fine. By retiring it, at least temporarily, it allows you
guys to open up at little, and the audience can clearly see that.*

JS: It wasn’t even an official as "retiring it". We just decided to play
it, maybe, 10% of the time. And songs like "Receiver" are the same way. I
mean, we like those songs, and we know people like those songs, but let’s
make other songs that people like too. And since we never rehearse, because
we create our songs on stage, we have a limited amount of time to do that.
We have, what, two and a half hours? We had to try to get stuff out of the
way to allow us more space.

*DG: Since you never rehearse, how do you guys come up with new songs? What
is the songwriting process?*

JS: Right on stage, every night. Its a paid rehearsal. And what’s funny,
is that with our six releases or whatever, almost always the songs come
about AFTER we’ve released the CDs. When we released "This is Live", which
was our very first show, four songs came out of that, when the next release
came out, four songs came out of that.

*DG: We’ve discussed playing with Herbie, so now let’s move on to Page
McConnell. For those people who don’t know, you were a big Phish fan in the
mid 90’s.*

JS: Yep.

DG: What was it like when you got the call to join Vida Blue’s tour?

JS: That was great!! That’s another guy that if you’d told me a while back
I would be on tour with, I would’ve laughed. It was cool because it was
great to see a guy like that go out and make music for music’s sake. Her
definitely doesn’t need the money. And he isnt touring to keep the "Phish"
name alive or anything. He’s doing it because he wants to make music and
he’s doing it with people he likes. That’s another example of not so much
the performance having an effect on me, but rather the mentality. That was
the coolest part about it.

*DG: You played a big show up in Toronto, Canada on this past New Year’s Eve.
Part of the time a guitar player joined you onstage. How did that come

JS: Yep. That was a friend of ours, Gordie Johnson from the band Big
Sugar. He was actually going to join Double Trouble after Stevie Ray
passed, but that didn’t work out. Excellent guitar player and he’s huge in
Canada. You know, he’s pretty fluent in the way he thinks about music and
we’d been trying to make that happen for a while. We just kinda decided
since he was in town, so he came up for half the second set. You know, any
time you add somebody to our mix, since we have this "language" between the
three of us, its going to be tough, not just Gordie, but anybody. So
anytime we bring somebody up, we have to make sure they know what’s going on,
so it was kind of a neat challenge.

*DG: The Disco Biscuits’ guitarist Jon Gutwillig sat in briefly with you guys at
this past summer’s Camp Bisco, and now Gordie has joined you. Has there
been any talk of adding a guitar player on a temporary or trial basis?*

JS: Not really. We are always going to try to reinvent ourselves, but we
don’t want to rely on adding somebody else. I think we have is somewhat
unique, and we wanna try to keep it somewhat unique and develop on what we
have going at this point. In the studio is a different story. We can bring
in other musicians to join us, and if it makes the album better, then cool.
But as far as the live show, right now, we’re happy with what we have.

*DG: You mentioned earlier that you don’t use a setlist. You mentioned your
songs are determined on the fly, one segueing into another. You talked
about sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing. Using those criteria, as
well as others pertinent to the band, wouldn’t that make you a "jamband"?*

JS: Well, I guess it depends who you’re asking. As far as I’m concerned,
we’re playing "soft-rock". You can consider the band to be a jazz band. I
guess the difference is that our improvisation is more collective, as
opposed to what jambands have, which is more of a "solo" vibe, which gets
played over and over and over. Really, I don’t care what people call us.
It doesn’t matter to me what we’re considered, because the audience that
comes out to "jambands" shows are dream audiences. Because they are
genuinely interested in music that… interesting. The fans are
exploring something different, they don’t expect the hits all the time.
They like if you take chances, and if we flub on stage, which we do, they’re
cool with it because they know they’re hearing something different and new
and if they see a show and then another show two months later and it isnt
the same show, they’re happy about that. A lot of people would say that they
want to hear the hits. There are not a lot of audiences out there that would
be okay with that. We’re given the freedom to do what we wanna do. There
are a lot of jazz audiences out there that are so snobby, and there’s a
reason that scene is as small as it is, because they aren’t as open as this
audience is, allowing people to "come along". And that’s all we ask, and
that’s all we every ask. If you’re into music, then check it out. The
other two guys [bassist Dan Kurtz and drummer Darren Shearer] were never
into Phish or "jam" music, and I was never into "dance" music, so we’re
doing something that isnt really based on those things. We never set out to
make "dance" music. We never said, "Let’s make dance music, and make the
songs twenty minutes long and people will love it." Our first show was in
front of eight people, which wasn’t very encouraging.

*DG: I ask, because there was a point, several years ago, where the
jamband umbrella wouldn’t have been open enough to include bands such as
yourselves. And Medeski, Martin and Wood too, because, in reality, neither
of you met what was once the original definition of a "jamband", if a
definition really even existed.*

JS: Well, obviously MMW are far more into the jazz aspect of it than we
are. But I think the connection is the experimentation aspect of….. the
willingness to try something different. The same thing with Phish. I mean
those guys….people were into Phish because they were playing music people
loved. If you told some people there they were listening to Yes or Genesis,
they would’ve laughed. But they were paying money to see Phish do the same
type of thing. Its cool that it allows people to open up to other types of
music, if they’re willing to listen.

*DG: I noticed you guys were on the initial list of bands playing this year’s
Bonnaroo festival. Was there a reason you guys weren’t at the first one?*

JS: We were asked, but we chose not to because we’re far away. I mean, we
knew it was going to be great, but we had a bunch of other stuff going on,
and it would’ve been extremely difficult to make our way down there for one

DG: So why was this year different?

JS: We will most likely be down there around that time. By the time we were
offered last year, it was too late to put something together.

DG: Have you thought at all about what time slot you would want to play?

JS: I would assume we’d be offered something late night. The show we did
with Superfly at Jazzfest last year didn’t start until 5 in the morning!!

*DG: I was down at Jazzfest last year and saw the Disco Biscuits play a show
at Tipitinas that started at, I believe, 2 AM which didn’t end until just
after 7.*

JS: Yeah, our show didn’t end until 7:30 and the people still wanted more!!
The sun was coming up….only in New Orleans.

DG: Getting back to the album, when do you expect it will be released?

JS: We’d love to get it done by the summer, but we’re working and we’re
always adding shows. We like to take our time in the studio, you know, sit
there and stare at the ceiling and not feel pressured to get it done by a
certain point. We don’t want that, which is why we built our own studio.
So we could take our time and get more of "us" on the album. We can try to
play a little more downtempo. We can sit back and see what we like and what
we don’t like.

DG: Which probably led to a song like "Home Wrecker"?

JS: Exactly. That sort of thing goes back to our first album, when we would
just push record, let the tape roll and we wouldn’t play anything we knew.
We’d improvise for an hour and see what comes up. That’s how "Moonscraper"
came about. Just by us playing to see what comes up. And that’s what we’re
trying to do with this album.

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