Dan Kurtz: New Deal Dreams and Electronic Realities
For many longtime readers, Dan Kurtz is best known as The New Deal’s bassist, but for almost a decade he’s also lived a double life as part of the electronic pop group Dragonette. Kurtz and his wife Martina Sorbara originally formed Dragonette as The Fuzz during The New Deal’s breaks from touring, and the group has since grown to include drummer Joel Stouffer. From the beginning, he used the project to explore a different side of the electronic universe: Dragonette’s second gig was a support spot for the recently reformed New Wave group New Order and by 2008, the band was playing Perez Hilton’s SXSW party. After signing to a major label overseas, the Canadian band relocated to England and quickly made a splash in the mainstream electronic world across the pond. In 2010, they became one of the international dance scene’s biggest success stories when they backed DJ Martin Solveig on his hit song “Hello.” The song rose to the top of the US Hot Dance Club Song charts and reached the Top 10 in countries around the world.
For Kurtz, whose musical pedigree includes years on the jam, jazz and rock circuits and the top production credit on indie songstress Feist’s debut album, Dragonette’s worldwide success has been an eye-opening experience. While Kurtz is the first to admit “Hello” has taken the band to stages they never dreamt of playing, it has also forced some unrealistic expectations on him. Those expectations and a hefty promo tour behind “Hello” also delayed the completion of their third album Bodyparts, which Dragonette released independently in the States and on Universal in Canada. During Dragonette’s fall tour, Kurtz discussed his recent success and independent roots with Jambands.com
Many of our readers first heard you perform a member of The New Deal. Can you start by giving us a little history lesson about how you went from playing in that band to Dragonette?
DK: Dragonette formed in 2004 or 2005. The New Deal had a six-month or so hiatus so I wasn’t playing any shows and, at the same time, I was trying to convince my wife Martina Sorbara to work on some songs with me during that time. She has her solo work before that and played with The New Deal [she appears on 2003’s Gone Gone Gone along with Leslie Feist].
The first Dragonette song was totally influenced by The Beatles. It took us a while to write that song. It actually started out as kind of a joke—we didn’t think it was a band—but we tried to entwine our musical paths. So we had a slow start. We became a band because we’d written enough songs to play a gig, and it got propelled into being Dragonette. Our manager, who used to be The New Deal’s manager, was working for a record label. He played some of our [earliest songs for a] few friends, and we’d actually gotten a gig by accident.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of your songwriting partnership? Do you and Martina write together or sort of send ideas across the house?
DK: Well, it’s never really changed with [a few exceptions]. The process has always been us going over tracks until something sounded like a song. I tend to flesh things out a little more but we actually used to do that almost in isolation from each other. We’d go through our individual creative processes, even though there was another person there, co-writing the song with you. It used to be to just be about me doing production and writing the melody, and she will write the lyrics. Our roles are pretty defined in that way—only in one or two cases did Martina say, “Oh, I have this melody, and I think it goes like this can you figure this out.” Most of the time it’s the other way around.
Can you talk a bit about the process of making your new album Bodyparts, specifically? It has been several years since you released a studio album—have you been working on material in the interim period?
DK: Well, I think we wrote the songs in a way that most people [would find strange]. Usually, you write and produce it as you go along. This time, it was all done on our laptops, and we actually didn’t use any proper studios at all. It was all done at our house, in a cabin, in Ontario or wherever we were staying. We’d write and record one song at a time. If they were really shitty, we’d re-recorded the vocals but we basically spent 18 months writing and recording.
What led to this extended recording approach?
It actually took so long because between when we started and finished the record there was this huge explosion of Martin Solveig’s song “Hello” [which featured Dragonette], which led to a year of touring. It was actually kind of like spot touring—we’d be living in London, and we’d have a one off gig in the Philippines. We’d jump on two planes and fly to some remote location and then, 10 hours later get on two planes and fly back to London. In some cases, it’d be like a 15-minute gig, and you get a lot of jet lag. We didn’t have any momentum at all for the record—it was like restarting every couple of days. We tried to write, and the only time that we only had to do that was when we went to Brazil for a few months. Besides that, it always felt like a case of being interrupted.
Given your background with The New Deal and the Canadian indie rock scene, Dragonette has a very grassroots following in some circles. Do you feel that being part of such a universally recognized song has caused your fanbase to shift?
DK: Well, universally it was a good thing in some cases, for very obvious reasons, to be part of a song like that. Having Martina’s voice on that song—that’s a fucking great place to be. In some cases I’ve had people ask, “Aren’t you sick of that song,” and I’m like, “We’ll never be sick of that song—it’s the best greeting card that we can ever hope to have as a band.” You play that song and people have a point of reference for you. You can go to places all around the world and you can play 50 songs, but if we play “Hello” and 49 songs it contextualizes all that, which I think is wonderful to have. [In certain ways] we may never be able to catch up to that song.
We recorded that song as Martin’s backing band and, at first, it never occurred to me, “Oh we could play this song as Dragonette number.” And when we did, it definitely, totally overshadowed everything else that we’d done. That was kind of hard to figure out. So that was all positive. The only shit thing that came out of the whole experience was the position it put Dragonette in the music business. We have a lot of fans—a lot of people really like the music that we make—and we are actually a perfect fit for the major label side of that world. But then, all of the sudden there was this unrealistic interest from the music business like, “go back and make another record like that, do another one of those.”
DK: People kept telling us, “We’ll get you guys the best record deal you’ve ever seen.” And then they kept calling us saying, “How’s your album writing going?” I’m proud of all the songs featured on our album but there’s no way that any of the songs were going to stand up to “Hello” because “Hello” is “Hello.” It was like asking The Beatles to write “Let It Be” again, not that we are The Beatles.
And so, on that level, for a few months it kind of made us falter and go, “Fuck, should we just stop doing what we do and try to live up to what this external vision of Dragonette should be? But, luckily, that didn’t last and I think, once we got past that, it gave us a lot more freedom. It was a lot more fun—easier—and we wrote much more interesting songs. I actually listened to one of the prototypes of the songs we were working on when [we thought about going in a different direction] and was like, “Goddamn, I can’t believe you wanted to pursue this.”