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Published: 2003/10/28
by Jeff Waful

‘It’s Still Freaking Out At Times’: Why The New Deal Is Not Entirely Gone Gone Gone

Let's cut right to the chase. "It's good fuckin’ music," one industry insider says of The New Deal’s latest album, Gone Gone Gone. Indeed, the disc has a sensual grace to it, a more mature, relaxed flow than past efforts from the Canadian Trio. The band has already cornered the market with its unique form of self-dubbed "Live Progressive Breakbeat House," or what other bands simply refer to as "that New Deal sound." In some ways, it’s the Phish equivalent to live techno, complete with open-ended improvisation, which inevitably culminates with mathematical formulas of tension and release. Although you know that ecstatic release is on the horizon, it’s still explosively satisfying every time like sex [well, from the male perspective anyway].

Like most great artists, the group recently found itself looking to reinvent its sound, albeit subtly. Instead of attempting to recreate its live show in the studio, as has been the case in years past, keyboardist Jamie Shields, drummer Darren Shearer and bassist Dan Kurtz decided to utilize a fourth instrument: the human voice. Guest vocalists Feist and Martina Sorbara add a new dimension to the collective sound, one that just might grab the attention of mainstream radio. "Don't Blame Yourself" features Feist's gentle vocal seduction, a blend of Dido, Sade and at times even Joan Armatrading. Sorbana's more glossy harmonies on "A little While," are about as additive as they come, especially when coupled with Shields' bed of synthesized bliss. Make no mistake; it's straight-up pop music, but in non-cheesy way, like Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan, in all of its lactose intolerant glory.

There's a bit of irony in all of this. The music of the jam band generation is a breath of fresh air for legions of fans that grew up listening to the formulaic sounds of Top 40 radio. For many in the Northeast especially – the evolution of musical taste may have gone something like this: The Grateful Dead->Phish->The Disco Biscuits->The New Deal. It's all rooted in improvisation of course, but suddenly we've come full circle. After so many years of jam music, these concise pop songs are a welcome change. They give you that nostalgic feeling, conjuring up images of school dances, acne and Molly Ringwald. It's the same reason you can't stop watching VH1's I Love the 80s (admit it). But Gone Gone Gone is equal parts reminiscent and futuristic. The music straddles 1987 and 2005. There are influences from The Pet Shop Boys to The Flaming Lips and The Beach Boys, but there is also a unique twist that gives it that "New Deal sound." And don’t worry; there’s plenty of hypnotic breakbeat house on both the album and on stage. Indeed, as Shields puts it, "It’s still freaking out at times."

JW: Let’s begin with the new CD, which has a much different sound with the guest vocalists. Take us back to the planning stages of the album and how the whole thing came to fruition.

JS: We tried to approach the album in the same way we approached our other albums and how we approach a show, which is to do what we feel is right at the time. But we did decide one thing, which was that we had made our share of instrumental records and we knew that we could put together a record with 15-minute songs and that sort of thing. We wanted to try a bit of a different approach and we knew that we could do that and it would require more work. It's not what we usually do, but because we run our own studio in Toronto, we knew that we had the time and the ability to make the effort and just be patient and try to create something. So as a result, three or four of the pieces that are on there were pieces that we had played live in the past, before the record. The rest of it was created in the studio, pretty much from scratch.

I guess one of the things we did decide was that in terms of variety, we wanted to have a singer on one or two tracks. Not that we would release the same record if we didn't, but it was attempt and sort of an unconscious attempt to try to progress in our recording style. We didn't want to just put out the last record in a different style. We wanted to make a different record. We were somewhat conscious of the fact that we didn’t want it to be a record by what could be termed a completely different band. And we felt that we managed to bypass that concern. When listening back to the flow of the record, to us it does sound like The New Deal with another instrument on a couple songs and that instrument is the vocal. We didn’t want to be like, Well, here are ten songs by The New Deal and here are two songs by singers with The New Deal behind them.’ So that was kind of the approach we took. We wanted to expand the way that we develop records and at the same time not fall prey to having The New Deal falling in the background with songs that a singer would sing.

JW: It certainly seems like a very different approach for you. Traditionally, all of your songs have been culled from the live experience, something that comes up improvisationally. Did it happen the same way in the studio? Did you jam in the studio or did you sit down and write songs in the traditional manner?

JS: No, for the most part we jammed in the studio. There are a couple songs that I can use as an example. The instrumental song, "A Little While" was kind of created on stage and we took it and played it a little more in the studio with the tapes running. From there, we got more ideas and then spent time putting those ideas into a five-minute instrumental tune. We finished the tune completely and realized that we could do a version of it with vocals. So the song had been completed and then we just took what we had and changed parts around and moved things together to have sort of a variation on that song. So that's a song that was kind of based on live improvisation on stage and some improv in the studio and then some kind of conscious work at the mixing board, trying to create the song from all of the little bits that we had.

Take another song like "Don't Blame Yourself." That was based completely on just us jamming in the studio, and we put together the instrumental track based on 15 minutes of us playing around and then realized that it would be pretty good with a singer. The album was already being made when we decided. We looked at it in a song-by-song basis as opposed to an album view. It wasn't, This album needs singers.' We'd work on a song and say, This would be pretty cool with somebody singing it.' So as a result, that's how the vocals came along on a couple of those tracks. It's sort of based in an improv element that we do to an extent and then standing in the middle of it with all the parts around us, realizing that we could make it sound even better with an instrument; that instrument being the vocal.

JW: Who wrote the vocal part? Is that something that the band came up with and then went out and found a vocalist or did you bring her in and say, Hey, what do you want to do with this?’"

JS: It was a bit of both. We had some ideas in our head before we had any singers come in. We had ideas of how we wanted to do it, but we used our discretion as well. So as a result, the singers on some of the songs have a writing credit because they were quite involved in the creative process in regards to the melody and the lyrics. We had a basic idea, but we wanted to kind of see what the fourth person coming in could come up with as well.

JW: Are there plans to have any or all of those musicians join you on stage?

JS: Absolutely. We're on tour right now with Martina Sorbara, who sings "A Little While." She also happens to be Dan's wife. She does some of that opera work on the last tune ["Senza Te"] as well. She's done a few shows with us and will be on the road for at least the next two weeks.

JW: What has the fan reaction been like?

JS: You know, that's a good question. Obviously we care what our fans think, but at the same time we want to do what makes us happy because that's what we've always done. We didn't know what was going to happen off the top when all the sudden out of nowhere, in the middle of a freak-out New Deal set, out comes a singer to sing these songs. But, the fan reaction has been completely positive. I mean, people are just excited to hear a different kind of element added to a New Deal show. It's nice to be able to take a break from what ends up being like a sonic assault of New Deal. To break it up and have those different elements in the set, it's been better for us. People seem to be enjoying it. I get response. I get email back from people saying they like it. They love the new direction. They like the variety that it adds to the set. In the end I think that that can only benefit us.

JW: Traditionally your self-dubbed label has been Live Progressive Breakbeat House.’ Does that description still apply?

JS: Absolutely. When we play live it's the same kind of experience that we would have before. We wanted to be able to have a new element of The New Deal and that was that we didn't want people to always pretend they were at a live show when they listened to our records. Our attempt was to do just that with the last record too. But because all of those performances on the last studio record were basically from live shows, you still felt like it was a live element. This time though, we were quite focused on trying to make a CD that had more variety in terms of tempos, sounds and not be afraid to use what's at our disposal in terms of instruments. So yeah, we're still the same band live, but we're trying to expand it a little bit. We play a bunch of songs off the record, but people who have seen us in the past aren't going to walk away going, What the hell was that? I thought I was coming to see The New Deal.' And that was a concern that we kind of had when we made the record. It was like, Well, if we intend to play the record, how are we going to do that if we make a record that we can't play?' But I think we managed to massage it enough to the point where we're quite comfortable playing a bunch of songs off it and we feel it fits perfectly into the set.

JW: The liner notes say the album was produced by The New Deal. What is the relationship like between the three of you? Who does what? How democratic is it when you’re in the studio?

JS: Well as far as decisions go it's entirely democratic, but as far as the work goes we all gravitate towards our strengths. Dan and I primarily were the people behind the making of the record, as we were behind the making of the last one. We just have more facility in the studio than Darren does. As far as ideas and decisions go, everybody comes up with the same amount and we use them when it feels right. Dan and I were the guys behind the desk, but Darren was most definitely involved in less hands-on ways.

JW: As far as the live setting goes, what’s the state of your improvisation? That’s always been the essence of the band. How would you describe the current stage of your evolution?

JS: You get to the point where if you keep improv-ing these bits and they're good bits and you want to play them every night, then the amount of improv you do per night goes down. You want to play these cool bits and you want to work on them, but at the same time, you want to play some of the other stuff that people like to hear. What we've tried to do is try to take a different approach to the improv that we've been doing that seems to be the popular method right now, which is you take the groove and you jam on it for a million years and you see what comes out. To an extent, we do that at times, but I think what we're trying to do more is create more with more rhythms, try to create more songs on stage than just trying to work out grooves. You know, that's how so many of the songs on the record were developed, by us trying to create songs in the moment. As a result, maybe some of the pieces that we play within 15 minutes may be a little shorter than they used to be. But, there's just that same element of improv. It's just sort of a different style of improv. We try to work in more of a sparse element then the constant filter sweeps and house grooves. We're trying to approach it from the way that we approached the record, which was that you can break it up and shake it up with different styles and different sounds. You don't have to play them for 15 minutes at a time.

Again, it's all about gauging the crowd to see what's going on, but when we've been listening back to some of our shows recently, they're a different animal. It still has that New Deal stamp on it, but it's not just the four-on-the-floor house beat with twenty minutes of creative or not so creative [laughs] improv on top of it. It's a little more sparse. It's a little more restrained, at times. It's still freaking out at times. But, you know, by playing some of the songs that are on the record, we tend to do that. If you want to try to make the set a cohesive unit, then you can't play a part of something from the record and then delve into a big freak out. You have to make everything work. So I think that has worked to our benefit because we look at what we've just played and say, Well it would be wrong to try to step into a big freak-out now. Let's just try to keep it where it is and work on something from this.' At the beginning, when we first started doing that, it was a new fit and we're constantly working that new fit. We're trying to work it in. It's all in terms of trying to develop and expand the set.

JW: Do you notice a trend in musicians as they mature they become more song-oriented and less concerned with freaking out’?

JS: For sure. For us, it's not about being more song-oriented in our playing, but it's about being more song-oriented in our improv-ing. It's not that you have less to prove, but I think you just become more comfortable with the things that you're doing. To use the record as an example, when it's all in bits and pieces and all we have is all these little down-tempo moments and you're like, What the hell's going on?' But then once it's all together and you listen to it, you're like, This could work.' These ideas and these mid-tempos and these sorts of varying shades of sound, they work. So when you see that it's all together and it works, you're less hesitant to approach that on stage. You're a little more comfortable to tone it down and more willing to try things from a different angle as opposed to doing the same angle again. That was the way we approached the record, so as a result, that's how we're approaching what we're playing these days.

JW: One of the unique things about The New Deal is the hand signals you use on stage. At any time you have the ability to modulate or change tempo.

JS: Absolutely. It's the only way we can communicate on stage, even though maybe we're playing some bits a little more down-tempo or playing some different bits, the communication is still based on the hand signals. It's second nature to us now. I mean, Darren and I don't even communicate by hand signals anymore. We just communicate with our eyes. It's just so strange. I just shake my head sometimes. I'll look over and he'll nod or shake his head and I'll be like, Are you sure you know what I'm talking about?' and he'll nod and sure enough, he's knows what I'm talking about or I know what he's talking about. It's kind of nice. Those were the things we thought we might lose when we tried to step into other directions in terms of tempo and in terms of creation with the band. We didn't want to lose that comfort level, but it's there completely. It's there regardless of what we're playing, which is really nice.

JW: So let’s say you’re playing a live version of a song off the new album like Don’t Blame Yourself.’ Is there still that elasticity where you could randomly signal the band to modulate up a half-step and go to double-time?

JS: Absolutely. Well, some of them work that way and some of them don't. If you have a singer on stage that hasn't played 500 shows with The New Deal and she's singing the song the way she knows it, we tend to stick to the map for those eight minutes in the show. But at the end of a song like A Little While' for example, her singing ends and we just continue on. We'll change it here or there willy nilly. That's often the problem that we've had with some people that come up [on stage], which is why we don't play too often with a guest musician because we're too busy trying to figure out if they know what's going on with us. We've become so comfortable with each other, with our changes. I know that if I do something really strange, Dan will be right behind me in a matter of seconds. Some of the songs that we play off of the record are completely elastic and then there are some that just for the thrill of it we keep composed. Again, it's another way of developing portions of the set. Not everything is like, Oh, they just played the head and now they're gonna jam it out and then they'll go back to the head.' So, it doesn't have to be that all of the time, right? We like the idea of having tunes maybe two or three in a night that are set. It's a nice way to break up the improv so it's not like a big waterfall of improv all the time. As someone put it on one of the fans sites, It's a thought-out five minutes.' If people have the record, they can know what's coming next and that's kind of a thrill. For the most part people don't know what's coming next.

JW: Well traditionally, that’s the reason people go to concerts.

JS: Right, exactly. That's exactly it. For us, we're thinking to ourselves, Aren't we all about playing where people don't know what's coming next?' But then we realized that it's only like ten percent of the show and that's cool. When we do those bits live, people who know that it's going to be safe for the next four or five minutes go nuts. They know exactly what's gonna happen and they're looking forward to it. Like you said, that's traditionally why people go to concerts. They want to hear the song from start to finish. We're not gonna turn into a band that plays 20 songs, three minutes long, the same set every night, but it's nice to have two or three songs like that. I mean, we like to do it too. We like to know what's coming next at times as well. We used to not do that. We used to be kind of stuck up about making sure that we didn't know what was coming next. It's okay to know what's coming next here or there [laughs].

JW: It sounds like you used some new keyboard tones on the album. A couple of the tracks, especially Moment #1,’ have that total 80s production.

JS: Yup, absolutely. I collect vintage keyboards. So, we were making the record and we had a lot of these keyboards in the studio. Dan and I had this discussion and determined that we might as well use everything that we had at our disposal. Why not? It's our record. We can do what we want. We want people to enjoy it, but after we played our first show and it became our first record, I said, Look, I don't know if anyone's going to like this, but I know I love it. So, if I love it, there's gotta be people out there that are gonna like it.' That's sort of been the way that we've approached making all of our records. Any time that we had a moment of doubt making this last record, we just said, If we like it, there are gonna be people out there that do.' We're not from another planet. Moment #1' and Moment #2,' those are two things I kind of did in the off time, when the studio wasn't being used or before a session or something. I whipped those off in like ten minutes each. It's like an 80s drum machine and a couple 80s synths that I happened to have lying around. I finished the thing in like a half hour. They're kind of like a nice break between the songs. We tried to throw it in for that reason. It's the melody from Gone Gone Gone,' which is kind of the theme throughout the record. It's on the melodica just for like half a second in the very first tune, so we tried to make it a recurring theme and we didn't want to make a million songs with the theme, so I just figured I'd write 60 seconds worth of music. And that was actually completely improv because any of the chord changes or any of the bass lines that are on those songs were done in one take. That's maybe the truest element of improv on the entire record [laughs], the two 60-second interludes that we have.

JW: Moment #1’ reminds me of West End Girls’ by the Pet Shop Boys.

JS: For sure, it's got that vibe definitely.

JW: But hey, I always loved that song as a kid.

JS: Yeah, me too man. When I was a kid, I remember that song was on radio rotation like every seven minutes. I remember just waiting for it to come on like over and over and over. I love that beginning part.

JW: Speaking of beginnings, the Intro to your new album has these beautiful Beach Boys-esque harmonies. It has sort of a Flaming Lips feel. Where did that come from and who’s singing?

JS: That's what I call studio improv. That's the first song we made for the record. We were writing the songs in order of the record. That's why it flows into I Feel Love' the way it does because we said, What should come next?' Then we said, What should come next? Then we recorded Gone Gone Gone' and placed it in.

JW: So you were actually recording the album in chronological order.

JS: Yeah, whatever wasn't created already, we created and recorded in order, up til about track seven. Then we had all these other bits and we were like, These are great, but it shouldn't go next.' So we got halfway through the record and decided not to sacrifice the quality of the songs just for the theory of writing the record from start to finish.

Back to the story, Dan and I were trying to work on what should be the first song. We thought it should be an intro thing and we knew that we were kind of thinking about having vocals on the record. So we decided to dispel the notion 60 seconds into it for anyone that's wondering whether or not there will be vocals on the album; just mow em down with this giant Beach Boys six-part harmony. So, we did. It was funny because we had those first couple chords there that go on and on for a while and then again, it was that studio improv moment. I sat down and the click track was working. We put the drums on last. Dan and I were kind of just working out the song. So I just played a bunch of chords and it was the first take. It sounded so good and I was like, Great, those are going to be the chords we're gonna use.' And then I decided to do it with vocals and not even have any chords being played. Those vocals are all Dan. I sat in the control room, engineering and Dan went into the other room. I was playing each note on the piano, telling him what note he should sing. He didn't hear anything. All he heard was his own vocal. He didn't hear any of the harmonies for like four hours. I would say, Okay, now sing this note and then sing this note.' I'd play it and he'd sing it. Then he came back in and we listened to it and we were just like, Woaahhhhh.' It was a very interesting way to work. We were pretty happy. It boded well for the rest of the record.

Dan and I work well that way together. He doesn't question me. I don't question him. I innately trust his musical opinion and the same goes for him with me. He knows that whatever I'm doing, he's going to like it and that was the way that tune worked out. I don't know if it's my favorite song on the record, but it's definitely up there. I love it because it's just so different. The whole album is. It took forever to do and we devoted a lot of time to sitting around staring at the walls, trying to come up with sounds, but I think it was worth it in the end. For sure there were moments of doubt where we were like, Well, we're not making the same record we made before' and then of course there're moments of supreme confidence where we were like, Yes! We're not making the same record we made before!'

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