Dan Kurtz: New Deal Dreams and Electronic Realities
I’m sure it must be interesting to kind of work or rearrange the song for the live show so it’s less of a featured vocal or featured guest spot to kind of work into your set which it kind of feels very seamless in. To get into the technical side of things, I noticed as I was watching you play the other day is that in addition to bass, you also play a lot of keys and do a lot of programming onstage. Can you talk a bit about how your role has progressed onstage and how you balance your various instrumental duties?
DK: Yeah, at this point, we have decided that there was no way we could get enough people onstage to do all of the parts and recreate all of the orchestration. We’ve always played along with playback and click tracks. In some cases, we’ve used those tracks to [bring in] backing vocals, percussion or extra keyboard parts. I have always played bass guitar onstage. What sits most naturally for us and makes us sound like Dragonette is that we have a real rhythm section—a real drummer and a real bassist—and then add tracks on top of that. We’ve never played off a bass guitar track. When I am playing keyboards onstage I am basically playing the keyboard like a bass player. In the last year or two, it feels like I’ve managed to bring the feeling I have with the bass to the keyboards, which is awesome for me. I’m not a keyboard player, but I love dong it.
So between me and Joe, our drummer, I think this is the most authentic way to reproduce a lot of these songs. A lot of them are written on the bass line anyway—I put them into my computer, and I get the bass line, and then I flesh out the chords and the vocals. If you stripped away all the playback and the melody and in almost all cases it would probably sounds pretty similar to the song.
Dragonette definitely manages to sound like a “real band” up there, despite the backing tracks.
DK: Yeah, totally, and to be honest, a lot of the stages we’ve played at recently, I’ve seen all these posters for these classic bands. We played Boston’s The Paradise, and I saw a poster from when The Police played there, and I saw a Cheap Trick poster yesterday in Chicago. Sometimes instrumentalist part of me says, “Fuck, I wish I could just play bass guitar over the drums” or “I wish we could play like The Police when we play our songs, really stripped down.” They are so much fun to watch live but our songs would sound pretty fucking thin if we played them with just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. So for now it has worked for the audience, and they have fun and of course it’s an amazing energy onstage.
Our goal is still to make the live show something special—it’s got to be a real sensory overload. [In terms of electronic music] a DJ in almost every case is going to sound better than a band could ever sound because you’re playing a fucking record. So there is this necessity for every touring band out there to create this exciting live experience. Unless you are going to go down The New Deal’s path, it is really hard to recreate that experience onstage. I think our goal is to be as minimal as it can be and still feel like an exciting live show and a situation where we are not just recreating the record exactly.
You mentioned some of the current dance trends in electronic music over the last few years. While electronic music has been big in Europe for a number of years, it is really in the past two years that both EDM DJs and bands have broke into arenas and the marquee festival spots in the US. You are in the unique position to track that evolution given your roots in the US festival scene and European electronic music world. Who are some of the electronic bands you are listening to and where do you see the scene going next year?
DK: I think that in terms of bands, I think there are varying degrees: I see bands being extremely dependent on electronics or DJs trying to incorporate what they do into [a more rock-centric setting]. Look at Justice for example. They’re playing the fucking show of their lives and just turning knobs. Someone took a photo of this guy’s back USB MIDI controller and even though the guy was freaking out on the knobs, it wasn’t connected to anything and he was miming his show. To me, I don’t think that there’s a huge problem with that. I mean, they’re putting on a show and they’re playing music that people like to hear, and they clearly know what the best version of their show is.
They’re basically going to play the same records or the same tracks and rock out. They are doing their music justice. There are plenty of people who hypothesize that Daft Punk isn’t even Daft Punk—that they are just hitting play and someone else is up there. But the reason I cite those two bands is that they both blew me the fuck away alive. They put on incredible shows.
Deadmau5 is doing some interesting things and creating what has become amazingly popular music—those are all like electronic acts who like totally rely on electronics. At the same time, there are bands who are doing closer to what we are doing, which is coming from a live band situation with a drummer and keyboard player and bringing electronics into it. For example, I went and saw M83 a while ago in France. They create a great hybrid of live and electronic music. I think they do it out of necessity—you can record 128 tracks as opposed to one. You end up piling a lot of shit into the songs and backing tracks are the best way to reproduce that for people when they come to hear you play the songs.
There’s also in some cases this totally unnecessary cliché about electronic music, with all these poppy rock bands where the guitar sits behind the vocals. These days you can’t have a fucking song on the radio without it having a dance track, and that’s unhealthy for diversity and interesting shit in music. In many ways, what was an interesting hybrid has now become an unnecessary kind of expectation that you don’t necessarily believe in.
It is almost like when hip-hop first started coming into rock. At first, it didn’t work in some cases but now people have figured out how to use certain production elements without making it sound too forced.
DK: Exactly, exactly. And I’m not sure if we have that level of finesse yet. Or that level of taste.
I guess my last question brings things full circle. Though it hasn’t even been a year since The New Deal parted ways, do you have any plans to work with those guys in the coming months?
DK: Well, it’s funny. Maybe ten days ago I had a dream that I was playing a New Deal show. It was so intense that I woke up so surprised that I wasn’t actually playing it. It was like a fucking awesome dream—I was dripping in sweat.
[In my dream,] I was playing my bass guitar, the white one I really like to play right now. We were in the midst of doing this very intense Dragonette tour, and I think that dream was the other half of my musical brain just reminding me that I used to play bass guitar for three hours in a row and lost ten pounds doing it.
I think that’s something that we all love, the vibes in The New Deal. I think all three of us have had exactly the same feeling, like the moment I just described to you. When we played our last show [on Jam Cruise], I went to my room, and I wept for 10 minutes. It was so emotional for me, the idea of no longer doing it.
[New Deal keyboardist] Jamie Shields and I have been friends since I was 13 or 14 and, despite the fact that we’re really busy and that he lives across an ocean from me, we’re in touch like every day. It would be really surprising if I didn’t do something with Jamie, whether it’s playing as New Deal or something close to New Deal—or something entirely different. The New Deal came out of me and Jamie wanting to find a reason to play together again because we’d been in a band together and then, he went off and did something and I went off and did something. Later, he called me and said, I really want to play with you! I’d be really surprised if it didn’t happen at some point.
I just don’t know whether the format of The New Deal, by which I mean the touring and in some cases playing the same fucking places year after year, is what we want to do. But I miss playing with Jamie and [New Deal drummer] Darren Shearer. They’re both fucking incredible players—they always brought out the best in me. I always felt so lucky to play with them. So yes, I’d love to do something with them, I just don’t know how it’ll come about, really. There’s some part of my brain that really misses it, and I am sure it is the same for those guys, too.