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Published: 2014/07/02
by Mike Greenhaus

The New(er) Deal

The New Deal surprised almost everyone this spring by announcing both a reunion run and new lineup via their social media sites. The news came 15 months after the Toronto-based livetronica pioneers played their last show aboard Jam Cruise in early 2012 and almost two years after the band formally confirmed their plans to retire from the road.

During The New Deal’s downtime, bassist Dan Kurtz continued to record and tour the world with his electro-pop band Dragonette, whose 2010 collaboration with Martin Solveig yielded the international smash hit “Hello.” Meanwhile, drummer Darren Shearer moved to Los Angeles to work in the film and music industry while keyboardist Jamie Shields took part in a variety of film, television and commercial projects in his Toronto studio. After working together on a soundtrack for a friend’s film, Shields and Kurtz started tossing around the idea of an official New Deal reunion. Kurtz also says that he saw Daft Punk’s 2013 smash Random Access Memories, which was released concurrently, as a sign that the electronic world was ready for livetronica and disco-influenced sounds The New Deal helped pioneer in the late ‘90s. The duo approached Shearer about playing some dates but conflicts with the drummer’s current day job ultimately led him to step back from taking part in the band’s upcoming reunion tour. Ultimately, the group filled his seat with Dragonette drummer Joel Stouffer, a longtime New Deal fan who has actually subbed for Shearer in the past. Shortly after confirming their reunion, The New Deal’s three members spoke with about their upcoming dates, first rehearsals after an extended hiatus and why the electronic world is ready for “live” live music.

I was pleasantly surprised when I heard The New Deal were reuniting this summer. Can you start by giving us a little background on when you guys first started talking about playing together again and how the reunion really got into gear?

Jamie: It was kind of a casual thing that came about. It was definitely not a conscious sort of effort or decision. Dan and I have been doing work on some soundtrack stuff for a movie. We always enjoy writing and playing with each other. Dan sort of brought up the idea of doing it and I wasn’t against it. Like I said about two and a half years ago, probably to you, it’s not that I don’t like the guys I’m playing with, it was just kind of the time to stop. It was the right thing to do at that time and this just feels like the right thing to do at this time too.

Dan: I thought this feels like there’s a good energy here between what I’m doing with Jamie, the fact that I really want to play “live” live music again as opposed to, when you play in a pop band, you play along with a track and you’re playing songs that from show to show don’t vary too much. And then just this breath of acoustic air happening as signaled by one of the world’s most influential dance music bands, I was like, this feels about right to come back and do what we started doing a long time ago, which is playing real instruments and making dance music with them. So that’s when the conversation for me left my head and actually went as far as to say to Jamie, “Would you like to play some more shows?” It was also around the time that the new Daft Punk album came out and the focus of electronic music seemed to be shifting back toward instruments and the live performance.

It is interesting you mention that Daft Punk album. Just like Daft Punk’s big breakthrough albums in the ‘90s signaled the beginning of the whole EDM dance craze, I feel like this album kind of brought it back to the livetronica sound that you guys and so many jambands really helped pioneer 15 years ago now, which is interesting. In terms of the plans moving forward, obviously it’s a little bit of a different New Deal lineup, so I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to tour without Darren and also how you got your new drummer, who I know has deep roots with you through Dragonette and also as a fan of the New Deal?

Dan: I was thinking, “Fuck man, there’s some great music here, and it’s really fun to be doing this in this environment and it’s really great to be playing with Jamie,” especially writing stuff because we hadn’t done that together in years. We would just kind of meet up in whatever city when I was living in England, play a bunch of shows and then not see each other again until the next set of shows. On the one hand, musically, it was feeling really great just working with Jamie. And on the other hand, on a personal level, I love playing with Jamie. I think he probably wrestled with it for a while to try and figure out whether it was something he wanted to do, as well as whether it was something he could do. Jamie and I were like, well look, we want to play, and it mightily sucks that Darren can’t do it for whatever reasons.

Joel, was it strange going from playing with Dan in a pop band to rehearsing open-ended jams for The New Deal?

Joel: As far as locking in, Dan and I, it’s pretty easy. As you said we’ve been playing together live for over 7 years and a lot of those years, there was some pretty heavy touring. So we’ve put in a lot of hours, and it’s pretty tight when we play together. I actually was a little concerned with the improvised thing—that it would take me longer to get back in that head space because the only band I’ve really been touring with in the past few years has been Dragonette, so I haven’t really had a lot of experience playing outside of that, let alone playing improvised music. But I guess it’s like riding a bike—it came back right away, in fact it was fresher than I remember it and I think probably because back when I was playing more improvised music, you kind of start to fall back on some tricks and some things to get you out of a jam, pun intended, when you are jamming. But I had sort of forgotten all that and was just going for it and just trying new shit. It’s just been really exciting for me to be able to play improvised music again. Coming from such a regimented, pop world, which is Dragonette—and which I love—it’s never better or worse, it’s just different. And the fun thing about Dragonette is mastering an arrangement, you know trying to breathe life into the live version of an album track and really tightening the screws on a live set and a live production over a tour—that’s a really exciting thing when it really clicks and the audience is in. But it’s another kind of exciting thing with the improvised music that obviously you can’t have in that world, which is just creating music on the spot. That’s something that I haven’t done in many years and it’s fun to be doing again for sure. It’s very exciting to be doing it again.

In terms of the goals of it, it sounds like it was a pretty casual, natural progression to reunite the band. What are your plans? Are you going to do some select shows this summer and then take it as it is after that?

Jamie: Our decision at the time was merely to just say, “Okay, well we’re going to just stop.” My line always was, “Never say never, but I don’t see it for the foreseeable future.” But now, I think the foreseeable future has passed.

I don’t think it’s a case of only remembering the good things about it because most of it was good. In 2011, The New Deal had started to become a little bit work-like. And if I’m going to do something that’s work-like, I’m going to go and become an accountant or something—that’s not what I became a musician for. I became a musician to play music, play concerts and to go through that grind. And we all went through that grind very much so for a long time. But it started to outweigh the fun stuff. And Dan and I have been playing music together forever—since we were in 10th grade. It’s always fun with Dan. It’s always fun with Darren too, but talking about playing with Dan, it’s always fun with Dan. When we play it’s so easy between the two of us. We talked about it, Dan and I. We’re like, well, we want to do this with Darren, but if he’s not available then he’s not available and it just seemed like he wasn’t ready to do this. And that’s cool. He’s gone and done other stuff, that’s his right and prerogative and I like him as much as I did before. There’s definitely no ill will; I love the guy. But he couldn’t do it, so we were like, well, what do you want to do? We’re not going to go and start auditioning drummers. That doesn’t work for this band. It does not work.

You either kind of get it, or you kind of don’t. First of all, we had decided that if we’re going to try to do this, because there hasn’t been too much blowback about not having Darren. He’ll be missed, but for the most part I think people are excited. I think people trust our ability to pick a musician that would not sort of denigrate the quality of what we do on stage. I sure as hell don’t want to go up there and play music with a drummer that I’m not confident with. You can’t replicate 30 years like I have with Dan of playing music, you can’t replicate that just by sticking a guy on the stool, but you can get pretty close if he’s good, he listens and he knows what’s going on. So we didn’t know anybody like that, but then we realized that we did know somebody like that and that was Joel, right? Because Joel played with us when Darren broke his hand. I’ve known Joel forever, Dan has played with Joel forever and has known Joel even longer than forever. So we were like, “Well, that could work.” And then you realize, yeah, that’s not even “that could work,” that will work. Because he’s done the gig, he’s played with The New Deal. You don’t know what you’re getting into with somebody until you kind of stick them in that hot seat of doing that kind of thing. So we’re like, yeah, well he’s done it, so he’s cool. Let’s go do it. It’s kind of, again, like shambling forward. Like, yeah, he’s good, we trust him. You can’t overthink it. It’s like, well, we’ve done it with him and so he’ll be cool. So then we went ahead and decided okay, we’ll go do this.

Dan: It’s still an interesting question. But I do know that when we took the leap, we just decided, we’re going to do these gigs and Joel’s going to do it because his schedule works really well with mine. He lives around the corner, in the sense that he and I have been playing together a lot over the last seven years and I know what Joel’s up to every day. If I’m available for a gig, Joel’s available for a gig. So just from the nuts and bolts perspective we’re like, that meets a pretty important criteria just in terms of being able to service what a band is supposed to do, which is play enough gigs and be able to commit to gigs. And then also just musically I knew that he was going to be able to do the job. But we committed to the idea of making a website. We committed to a couple shows, etc., not even having played together as The New Deal until Monday, where we’re like, “We should probably jam.” It was really great. I think from what I heard I know that Joel has obviously spent some time paying attention to what Darren did in The New Deal because when we were jamming the other day I was like, “Holy shit, it’s like I’m playing with Darren” on one hand. But on the other hand, Joel’s personality is totally different. People’s personalities find their way into their playing and I know him really well, so I’m like, “Oh yeah, there’s this side of Joel that I really enjoy both personally and musically,” and it’s great to be able to be working with that as well. So the exciting thing actually is that I think we’ll probably have to make a bit of a conscious effort to retain the things that were really great about The New Deal with Darren and Joel’s definitely going to meet that expectation. But on the other hand, I’m really excited about the other things that Joel can do. Joel’s an amazing keyboard player, for example, he actually went to the New Jazz School [The New School for Jazz] in New York when he was a teenager. Sometimes I watch Joel sit at the piano, he plays Chet Baker songs and sings along, and I’m like, “Fuck yeah, I totally forgot that Joel’s that guy too.” And in Dragonette, sometimes while he’s playing drums, he’s leaning over and playing keyboard. But I’m just thinking in terms of an evolution, there’s untapped stuff there that I’m excited to see what happens. He doesn’t play didgeridoo and he doesn’t beat box, but he does other things.

When it came time to start rehearsing with the new lineup, were there certain songs you specifically decided to focus on? Or did you first just try to jam and see how the energy felt?

Jamie: We’re not rehearsing anything, we’re just playing together. It’s sort of like what we used to do very early on in The New Deal, which is set the timer for about 60 minutes, go play without stopping, then take a break and do it again.

Dan and I started playing yesterday with Joel, and Kevin was there setting up, getting the stuff ready, making it happen and putting everything in order. And at the end of the first hour, Kevin’s like, “Well that was a New Deal show.” Kevin doesn’t say that. Kevin doesn’t say much. Anything that you ask Kevin is always a problem. It’s like, “Yeah, well, you know, it could have been this, it could have been that, or it was alright,” and he was like, “That was a New Deal show.” And it was. It was ridiculous. It was just ridiculous how good it was. I’m a fairly hard critic myself, but it was great. He just sat down and he did exactly what he was supposed to do, he just opened up his ears and he just played the shit out the drums. It was just unbelievable.

Dan: We’re going to learn some songs, if anything just to have them in our back pocket. I don’t want to consider this version of The New Deal like the current version of Journey, playing the greatest hits of Steve Perry. To be honest, and I know I’m probably not the only person if you include Stan, there are a lot of the kind of older New Deal jams that I think should be put to bed for quite some time. I’ve played them too often and I’m not going to make a point of relearning them again to play with Joel. I would way rather be making music that’s coming out of where our heads are at now. That’s the special thing about The New Deal—grabbing some idea that either you came up with right now or something that has been kind of knocking around in your brain for a week, just being able to play it right now and see how it feels with everybody else. I think that’s what’s cool about playing in this band, for me. I think that’s what New Deal fans like. That’s what makes this band special to people as opposed to us just coming out and fucking playing an album. So, a short answer to that question is of course we’re going to learn the material because there may be times where it’s totally appropriate, you know the right thing to play. And sometimes just structurally in a show—they’re like a life raft. Once you’ve gone way too far into either a really spaced out jam or a shitty jam or whatever, like okay boom, let’s regroup. They have their purpose. But I think among the three of us, we’re going to be able to make some new, at least as interesting, if not more interesting music.

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