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Published: 2009/03/26
by Mike Greenhaus

Back To The Future With The New Deal

Drummer Darren Shearer, bassist Dan Kurtz and keyboardist Jamie Shields formed The New Deal in 1998 after jamming together at a party and immediately decided to release their first performance. The trio began playing the jamband circuit and quickly became one of the most successful bands to blend improvisation and electric dance music. Within only a few years, the group scored high-profile appearances at festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, sold out clubs like New York’s Bowery Ballroom and even nabbed Leslie Feist to sing on its studio album Gone Gone Gone. But, starting in 2004, to the surprise of many, the group spent almost a year off the road and has only toured sporadically in the years since while Kurtz focuses on his indie band Dragonette. Yet, 2009 is shaping up to be the New Deal’s busiest year since 2003 with a new live album, national tour and an all-around renewed sense of purpose. Below Shields discusses The New Deal’s upcoming plans, the story behind his side-project The Join and why he occasionally feels like a character from Superman.

You are currently working on the first live New Deal album in a few years. Did any particular show or run trigger the decision to release a new live album?

It’s in the moment and when that fancy strikes us, we go and put something out. We've never really answered to anybody in the past, and I guess we don't really do that now. We are trying to be conscious of making ourselves available to people who want to come see us. We get a lot of questions and requests to play all the time and for a while we were conscious of not playing all the time and then for a while we were kind of like “Whatever we’ll go and do it because we like to play music.” Now I think we are taking it a little more seriously in terms of presenting ourselves to places that we have neglected or wrongfully ignored, you know? Places like Colorado that we always had a great time in that we didn’t go back to for four-and-a-half years because we were busy doing other things.

So we've invested some more energy into that and it has been working out: we can go, have some fun, make some music and make a little bread without being on the road for 180 days a year. So it's kind of just a different approach than we've taken without ever planning it or thinking about it. Like all things New Deal, we just kind of stumbled over it and there it was and, “Oh that works, so let's do that.” And not in a haphazard way, but without sounding cheesy, in an organic way. Where it's like, “Well, that's the path in which we're moving, let's see what pops up in front of that path.” We kind of just trusted our instincts for a while and those instincts were to lay low and let Dan do his thing with Dragonette. He is still doing his thing, now we just incorporate his schedule into our schedule and say, “Let's go make music.”

While Dan was playing with Dragonette you and Darren were focusing on The Join. In what ways did you find playing with other artists has changed The New Deal’s sound?

It's different, and it was an interesting question when we all came back to The New Deal. I mean, Darren and I enjoy playing in The Join immensely, and we enjoy playing with all those guys like STS9's David Murphy. The cool thing about The Join is that it's two of the three guys from The New Deal, but the third guy brings something else to the equation. And its not like he just brings his sound, he bring his approach to music which is completely different than the approach that The New Deal takes. So as a result, it forces me to listen to somebody else that I am not used to playing with. I have to learn what they're doing and understand what they're doing and open myself up to what they're doing. So that had an important part in sort of expanding my musical consciousness and my abilities. Even though you’re always exploring new things, when you've got the same three guys in a band like The New Deal, you do find a comfort zone.

I've been playing in a band with Dan from The New Deal since we were 13, so I know exactly what's happening with that guy. You canif you allow yourself toget lazy, so the important thing about something like The Join and The Omega Moose is that it forces me to pay a lot more attention to the musical behavior of the guys on stage with me. I need to adapt, I need to complement whatever those guys are doing. And what I am used to doing is complementing what Dan is doing. But that doesn't work with Dave Murphy or Ryan Stasik or Brendan Bayliss or guys like that because they have a different approach to music and that forced me to mature a little bit in terms of my approach to playing with other people. I can sit down and jam with anybody, but it's a whole different thing when you're trying to make improvised music onstage. So you really have to listen to the other guy, and if you don't have 200 shows under your belt, then you really need to step up and pay attention to what the other guy is doing in order for me at least to complement what they're all about.

The reason The Join exists is because when Dan went away, we thought to ourselves, “Well, what are we going to do? Are we going to continue on as The New Deal?” And both Darren and I immediately said no because no matter what happens, it's not The New Deal, not to sound cliche, but it's true. We just kind of step up and start playing, and we're making interesting music in our style, and it's our specific style and anyone else that sits in makes it a different thing, so it's not The New Deal. So when Dan was able to play again, there wasn't any doubt that we were going to say, let's do New Deal stuff, and Dan's available now so it's going to be New Deal stuff. And there will be a time when Dan is not available again. He's making a new record, and he'll want to tour that record at times so when he's not available, we'll go do The Joint and Omega Moose and that's as fun but you know, it's just a different thing. The New Deal is a priority when it can be a priority but then when it isn't, Darren and I are a little bit lucky in that sense that we have these two other outlets that enable us to play music we enjoy playing, with people we enjoy hanging with.

That must be one of the best parts of The Joinplaying music with your friends.

Exactly. One of the great things about The Omega Moose is that we just have a real nice time with those guys. They're so warm and positive and funnyit's nice to be able to get out and it's nice to be able to play music with dudes that you like spending time with. Especially the guys from The Duo. It is nice to be able to play music and then get off the stage and continue the same conversation. Something like The Join with The Duo, I mean, I don't understand how that works. It's two drum kits and two keyboards, but some of my most musically fulfilling experiences of that year of 2007 definitely occurred during The Joint Duo run that Christmas.

It was great, but those kinds of things make me appreciate The New Deal because as great as it isand as musically inspiring as it isThe New Deal is like this special kind of unit. The Omega Moose started out as a joke, and it's become this thing that's popular. It's just me singing songs, and singing songs from 1981, but we take it seriously, we don't take it seriously like a Vegas cover band or anything, but we're not making a joke of it. We love these songs, we grew up with these songs and we've probably at one point or another all secretly harbored a desire to play these songs onstage and so we just kind of said, “Fuck it.” When we were learning Foreigner’s “Double Vision” Brendan was like, “No one's going to know this, why are we doing this?” and I said, “Dude, just trust me on this.” I wouldn't place myself in the position of singing “Double Vision” by Foreigner if I didn't think that the people were going to dig it. At our first gig, and I just heard a tape of this recently that reminded me of it, we played a show in Bloomington, Indiana, and we got to the chorus, and every single person in the place was singing it, and Brendan just sort of stopped and was saying, “You're right, you're right!” And he was pointing to me because they all knew the tune. So it's this kind of thing where you pick the song, and you don't think anybody is going to know them, and then they know them and they know all the words. That's kind of how we approach it. We just pick songs that we liked to listen to in the past from when we were like 11, and songs that we're able to play and sing.

The last New Deal studio album had some vocalists on it, would you guys ever explore that concept again?

Yeah, we would because we've never said no to anything before. Maybe we will, maybe we won't. I would imagine that it would definitely be something we would do. At the same time we're doing this live record, and we're contemplating just putting out a couple singlesreally dance-oriented stuff. But as with anything with The New Deal, that gets put on a list and we'll get to it, but we don't know when. It's like we talk about it and then we go and we start doing it, and eventually we do it but, like anything with The New Deal, it takes time for it to germinate and formulate and something gets put aside and something becomes prioritized.

So yeah, we definitely would like to work with singers again. I mean, Dan knows everybody everywhere all the time so it's easy for him to be like, “Let me go phone Gwen Stefani and have her sing on it.” I'm not saying he knows Gwen Stefani, but he knows like 1,000 other people who could do as equally good of a job singing on something. So it's on the list and getting somebody as a singer isn't something that we've discounted. We did that because it just felt right. Like, “Oh this song would be great with a vocalist.” So if we come across material that we feel will work really well with a vocalist, we'll do it. But will we go into something saying, “Okay we have to write something with a vocalist”? Probably not.

I think many readers might be surprised to hear that Feist played on Gone Gone Gone.

We used to play in her band, and Dan produced her first record. So we've known herand I still refer to her as Lesliefor a while, I'd say upwards of 13-14 years. I played keys in her band, Dan played bass in her original band. That was something again that was an organic experience. They wrote a piece and we said, “This would sound cool with vocals,” so Dan brought Leslie over and they just kind of banged something out real quick and we said , “Oh, that's great lets put it on the record.” And it went away for a while, and became very big.

I have heard that many of your best known “songs” were originally improvisational segments that you boiled down into tracks on your live albums?

That's how a lot of the pieces that we play on a semi-regular basis come into fruitionwhen we were listening to stuff for live records, we'd be like, “That's great, let's go learn that and play that.” Or we'd listen to the finished product of a record we put together, and be like, “Well, yeah, we should be playing that live,” so now that's a song. And that's happened for a million things. If you want to pick the 30 main pieces that we play here and there, I'd say a good 20 of them are from pieces we listened to later on and said, “Let's play that, let's go learn that.”

As a result of us going through our music and trying to decide what we want to put out as a live record, we were also approaching it like, “Yes, let's also use this time and energy to be picking out themes that we like from here that we can continue to play.” Like I said before, part of The New Deal shtick is that, yes it is organic and yes it is sort of in the moment, but you can also bring it down to being very lazy. Because you know, we don't talk about the set because we don't want to start thinking about the set. We don't write a setlist because we don't want to think about the set. We don't rehearse because we're lazy, but it turned out to be the right move, because it keeps everything fresh. So as a result, while we don't want to make ourselves stale by having to go back and listen to stuff and then repeat it, at the same time it's because we don't want to sit through the music and figure out these themes. So that's the rude version, but that has a kernel of truth. We have three guys who are very good at making improvised music, and as a result, who needs to go back and listen to the other one, we'll make something else that's equally good but different tomorrow. And generally speaking, we're right. So we validate ourselves by having another good show the next night, and not having to worry about, “Oh yeah that was cool last night, but it will be cool tonight too.”

But, although The New Deal is still the same three musicians, your sound is very different than when you first started.

There's been a big change in our style. Anything The New Deal does has to make it interesting for us, otherwise this thing never would have started because what we started with was, “Oh this is musically interesting to us” and it has to be, otherwise we don't want to go out and play it. And we found that there were other things out there that were musically interesting to us after a while and not playing house music all the time is important to one's soul. Musically speaking, I'm happy to go anywhere that someone wants to take me even though I'm kind of like leading the charge onstage because I'm the only guy playing chords and melodies. But, at the same time, if somebody wants to go somewhere else then I'm hip to that too. But I'd have to give the credit to sparking the newer New Deal sound to Dan. He decided to completely throw away his old bass sound and come up with this new rock kind of bass sound and that completely changed what we were doing.

When would you say that change started to take place?

I would say that that took place in ’06 or maybe 05. We had changed our style when we came back from taking a break in ’04we came back with a different style because, well, we had made the decision to take a break in the fist place because we were tired of playing the kind of music we were playing. I think we felt it became a little bit stale, and we needed to reassess how we wanted to play music. The best way for us to do that was not to talk about itnot because we aren't open with each other but because it has to come from the heart. It has to develop over time and if you just give it a little time, you're going to be able to feel what you want to play. When we came back to it in 04 and then throughout '05 and a chunk of '06, we had a different sound already, but the crux of the sort of “new” New Deal sound was definitely sparked by Dan's new approach to bass playing. It wasn't just the sound, it was this whole new approach to playing where he did two things to me: he completely re-aligned his sound, and he completely re-aligned how he plays the bass and he decided to play a lot heavier. He also decided to be less tricky in what he does, and it had an incredible impact on what we do and how we approached it. We became a lot heavier, and we developed a bit of an edge to our music that we didn't really have before.

How did Dan’s new approach change Darren’s drumming?

Dan’s fresh concept reignited a sense of interest in the band, and Darren was able to expand to his approach to danceable music. While he still plays four-on-the-floor beats, Darren became unbound to complement Dan’s new style. But, I still think we have the musical personality or least the soul of The New Deal comes through and every once in a while something we do will trigger a memory from seven years ago in something new we are doing. Lots of bands fall into the trap of moving forward nostalgically, so we are kind of letting us go without being hippie-dippie about it. I something feel we are like the three characters from that Superman movie in that flat glass triangle, sort of moving along together.

So besides a new live album, what do you feel is the next step for the New Deal?

We are happy with what we are going with our new sound and still have a lot of untapped ideas for what the New Deal can do. I think we have figured out how to balance all our projects without resenting each otherwe always did things in a backwards way and got more popular my playing less shows. I remember when we listened to our first concert, which was released as our first album, we thought, “That is we like it others will towe just need to find those people.” So I think we just need to do what feels right and if we build it, they will come.

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