Gone Gone Gone: Jamie Shields on The New Deal’s Farewell Run
The New Deal began essentially by mistake in 1998 when three friends from Toronto found themselves recently free from their former bands, and with the unique opportunity to explore something original. In the thirteen years that have followed this inauspicious beginning, the trio – comprised of bassist Dan Kurtz, drummer Darren Shearer, and keyboardist Jamie Shields – has played over a thousand live shows, toured the world, and inspired a generation of young artists to follow in its footsteps.
After announcing in April 2011 that the band was parting ways, its three cohorts embarked on a final mission that’s set to culminate in January 2012 aboard the 10th installment of Jam Cruise. Along the way, The New Deal will make concluding stops in a handful of decisive locales, paying ultimate recognition to their biggest fans. In a recent conversation, Shields offered his version of the band’s engrossing tale.
Jamie Shields: I’ve been friends with Dan since we were about 14. We played in all sorts of terrible bands and all sorts of great bands. We kind of knew even back then that we would be playing music together for a long time. Even with The New Deal winding down, we still play together now (recording for Kurtz’s other band Dragonette).
We met Darren around the same time. We were all in various bands in the city. Darren had a weekly gig playing acid jazz music or something. This is in 1998. He needed a keyboard player to fill in a couple times, so he called me and I went and did it and it was fine because it was 100 bucks or something. The bass player didn’t show up to one gig, and they needed a fill-in. I was like – “Hey, let’s get Dan” – so we got Dan.
There was a guitar player and one time he didn’t show up either. So now we have a keyboard player, a bass player, and a drummer at this place, I think it was The Bohemian. Nobody listened, nobody cared, so we just kind of played and we realized – “You know what? Fuck this, let’s just start improvising. Let’s just start doing whatever we want to do because nobody knows the difference and nobody cares.” So we started to do that and nobody cared still, but we thought it sounded great.
I had just finished playing in One Step Beyond, Darren had just finished playing in Gypsy Soul, and Dan was playing in Que Vida with Andrew Whiteman from Broken Social Scene. So we said – “Let’s go play this in a real venue and just call our friends and tell them to come see this”. I think 6 people came and we happened to record that show – just to listen back to it to see what it sounded like. We could never hear what we were doing. You know, it’s like looking at a picture of yourself. You need to see how you look that way as opposed to just looking down and seeing how your pants and shirt look.
So we taped it and that actually became our first record, and the sound guy who happened to be working at that gig has been our sound manager ever since, he’s actually in my studio in my basement right now working on something. That is step one in the evolution of The New Deal.
The gig in question was played at The Comfort Zone, a subterranean cavern known for Grateful Dead tribute shows and after-hours rave parties. Despite the fact that they had yet to decide on a name, the band members agreed that the recording of this debut performance captured what they were striving for musically. The album would be descriptively titled ‘This Is Live’ and the act would be called The New Deal. With a modest foundation in place, Shields would find the stylistic development of the band to be unusually natural.
JS: The decision to be an electronic band was made the same way we’ve made almost every other decision in our career, which was that it wasn’t made. It just kind of happened. I hate to use the dreaded ‘O’ word – ‘Organically’ – but it just happened kind of lazily. We’re not lazy people, we’re incredibly driven, but at the same time – we choose to make the anti-decision which is not to make one at all and see what happens. Our entire career has been based on that.
I didn’t listen to any electronic music at the time, so I wasn’t particularly well versed in anything like that. As far as I was concerned, I was playing Steely Dan chords over a bunch of dance beats. I was playing soft rock, is what I thought. I don’t think Dan was well versed in the performance of electronic music either. Darren just played what he liked playing, and we just started to do what we did and then it rolled around into being a live electronic thing. At the time when we started, especially listening to our first record, I know for a fact that I had zero knowledge of electronic music, or at least very little. It was limited to The Propellerheads and Daft Punk.
But each one of us managed to find two other bandmates where we could say – “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s play 30-minute instrumental improvised dance-type pieces and then we’ll go on the road and it will become somewhat popular.” And the other two would go – “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” No one went – “What are you talking about? This is the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” They actually said – “Yeah, let’s do it.” So right there, you knew that we were hooked into each other. We were bound.
Conscious or not, the musical formula that Shields and co. had discovered was instantly fruitful. The reception from their early audiences and the band members themselves was encouragingly electric. But unlike most young groups, the trio decided to forego the local and national circuits, immediately setting their sights South of the border. This approach would be a key component of their inevitable success.
JS: We never play Toronto. I don’t know why but we decided at the beginning of our career that we were going to focus more on the United States. That was purely economical and physical. It’s a lot easier to drive nine hours to New York and play eight places in between than it is to drive to Thunder Bay (eighteen hours from Toronto) and have that be your first stop on your Western tour. We’d done it a million times in previous bands and we knew we didn’t like it. At the time we didn’t have a tour bus or any road crew, so we were doing everything. We could go out to Thunder Bay and make three hundred bucks or we could go to State College or Rochester and make three hundred bucks.
So we kind of stopped playing Toronto. We never played it as often, we never focused on it as much. It never became really part of our tours. As a result, one major difference is the size of the crowd. In Philadelphia, we’ll go to the Electric Factory and visit 2,200 of our closest friends at our concert. We’re not doing that in Toronto, it’s like Mod Club (600 capacity). That’s just a conscious decision, one of the few that we made in the band, just a question of logistics.