The New Deals New Frontier
The New Deal started its career at the top of the Class of 1999. Along with the Disco Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector 9, and Lake Trout, the Canadian-trio helped bring electronic beats into the world of improvisational-rock and carved out a distinct livetronica niche in the burgeoning jamband world. Then after releasing two albums in 2003, Please Be Seated and Gone Gone Gone, the trio, which features drummer Darren Shearer, bassist Dan Kurtz, and keyboardist Jamie Shield, surprised man fans by announcing a brief hiatus. Since returning to the road in late-2004 the group has done things a bit differently, scaling down its touring schedule, focusing on live releases, and dividing its time among a number of side-projects. Below, Jamie Shields lets Jambands.com know why.
MG- A few years ago the New Deal scaled down its tour schedule. How has this decision benefited the band?
JS- Well, it benefited us musically—-we all think we sound better—-and it definitely benefited us personally because we were able to spend a little more time at home with our families, etc. And it benefited us sort of socially between the three of us and everyone we work with. As with anyone, if you see the same people every day for five years running you tend to not want to see them every day for a while [laughs]. Since so much of our music is improvise-based you have to be in a proper mind when you get on stage. You don’t want to be like, “ugg, that guy, I don’t want to improvise with him.” So, as a result, we all sort of took a step back and started working on other projects.
Everyone is still doing other musical things and the New Deal is still important to us, but Dan is busy in England. That is the number one reason we are not playing as much as we are—-it makes it tough to play every month like we’d like it. His band, Dragonette, is a very big priority for Mercury Records and we would be foolish to say, “don’t do that” or “quit the New Deal.” The whole point is that we are friends first. So, that is not the only part, but it’s the main thing. The band is a very important thing when we play, but it is also very import for us not to play as much we did. We felt the shows were devaluing the music when we would play as much as we did because we weren’t giving as good a performance as we could.
MG- Is the New Deal working on new material at this point?
JS- Well, most of our songs come from playing onstage and then going back and carving songs out of those moments. But we do have a bunch of new material since we recently started playing. We recently went back and listened to some shows we liked and starting making some new songs from those moments. We notice things while we are playing and we make notes and then go back learn those songs. That is how all of our songs are formed, from going back and listening to those shows. Now that we have this renewed focus on writing new songs, we’ve made an effort to go back to some of those shows and work on new songs during soundcheck. So, we have a big backlog on new songs we are ready to play.
MG- What recent shows have you been listening to?
JS- We listed to that Camp Bisco set from last year  which we officially released. There are a number of songs in there that we picked out to play. There were also a couple of shows we did in December that were also all great—-Boston, Philadelphia, and Rochester. New York was also great. There was a lot of stuff in there we might pick out to play again
MG- Including your Billy Joel cover from New York?
JS- [Laughs]. That was our intermission discussion. We were like, “Who is from New York, oh yeah, that guy!” So, if you’re wondering what bands talk about during intermission that is what we talk about. What cheesy cover can we play during second set [laughs].
MG- Would you say your 2005 set at Camp Bisco was a turning point for the band stylistically?
JS- I think that show is a good indication of the style we are moving towards which is why we released it. It is sort of a new direction is terms of how we write onstage. It was less sort of long, housey jams and a little more aggressive, angular in its approach, and harder hitting in its deliver. It is less groove based and I think that is an indication of the style of the New Deal part two or four or whatever [laughs].
MG- Do you have any more live releases in the wings?
JS- When we go back and start playing again I am going to go back and devote some focus and energy to another live release. It might not be a recent show, but this summer we will probably release something. We like releasing shows. It gives life to something that was kind of in an archive somewhere.
MG- Before the New Deal’s hiatus in 2003 you toured with a vocalist. Do you have plans to incorporate lyrics into your new material?
JS- I think it all depends on what sort of releases we want to put out. We could lay down a groove in the studio and put vocals over it no problem. The problem is replicating it. When we had [Dragonette’s Martina Sorbara] who could sing those songs and that worked out well. But it kind of takes away from the ethos of the New Deal which is sort of freeform and flowing. It is nice to take a break from that every once and a while, but, logistically speaking, we’d have to either bring someone on the road or use a sample. The second certainly doesn’t appeal to us and the first, if someone is in town that’s cool, but generally speaking we instrumentally find we don’t have the room for a vocalist if we are playing the proper harmonies and chords. Also, it would be very boring for someone to sing for four minutes with us and then go play cards of something [laughs]. But our approach is still never say never to anything.
MG- Are you currently working on any other musical projects?
JS- I am so busy with my kid and have a bunch of TV shows I write for. That has been keeping me busy when I haven’t been on the road. So most of my work has been in the studio. I am working on music for this show, Opening Soon, which is about restaurants on the Fine Living channel and then there is one on HGTV which is called Opening Soon By Design. I am also working on some shows which are in production now. It is great because it is not cheesy elevator music. It kind of sounds like the New Deal at times.
MG- You also recently played with members of Umphrey’s McGee as The Omega Moos in Chicago. How did that project come about?
JS- That was Darren’s idea actually. Knowing that Dan was in England and that we weren’t going to be playing as much we put our heads together and decided to find some people whose company we like and we could beat up easily—-no just kidding—-who we could fit with musically and socially. It took us ten seconds to think of the guys from Umphrey’s. They are great guys and great players and know when to sit back musically. And they have a great sense of humor. It was awesome. We rehearsed with them the night before for about and hour-and-a-half, drank to 5 AM, and then went and played the shows. We definitely drank longer than we rehearsed. We are going to do it again for sure.
MG- In retrospect, what were some of your favorite New Deal performances?
JS- The show we played at Coachella was awesome. It was 2 in the afternoon and about 108 in the shade. But there were a ton of people there. I got to go see so much music that night, like Chemical Brothers and Sigur Ros. We also did a show at the Great American Music Hall a while ago which I also really like. We’ve put on a few surprise shows where we play for 80 people which I’ve also always enjoyed. We are going out to the west coast in May for a few shows which will be nice.
MG- As one of the few musicians who have played the country’s two most prominent music festivals, Bonnaroo and Coachella, how would you compare those two experiences?
JS- Well, Coachella was very west coast and Bonnaroo was very east coast. The vibe at Bonnaroo was a little more energetic in terms of the clientele. Coachella was on such an expansive piece of land and I think was a little more loose. Bonnaroo was a little grittier and that was cool. It is like mud verses the desert I think [laughs] in every which way.
MG- In the past five years a striking number of Canadian bands have crossed over in America. What’s led to this artistic revival up north?
JS- There are more pockets of musical communities then ever before. When I went to school in Montreal in the early-1990s there was nothing. There was cheesy dance music and that was it. Since there was no other options people started forming bands and opening clubs for those band to play. I think that is sort of how these bands are able to exist. There are all these sort of “starter clubs” now for bands to play. When there weren’t these smaller places you couldn’t develop and band and I think that has helped these communities develop across the country. It’s great to see.
Mike Greenhaus saw his first jamband show while on vacation Canada, as documented here.