Last week, as a whole horde of entitled Yankee heads (and some Canadians thrown in for good measure) descended on their last week of JazzFest, us northern heads were up here (look up, way up) banded together in Toronto to greet our hometown warriors for their triumphant homecoming. Of course I am speaking of the New Deal, our most cherished export short of the cash crop. I mention all of this because Canada is a special place and Toronto (at least to some) is the cherry on top. The New Deal shows came as a welcome relief for those of us Canadians who find ourselves always having to travel to someone else's country for a great show. Which is not to say that I didn't have to travel, having resided in Nova Scotia since my formative years dried up.
Toronto is at its most beautiful in May, and with thoughts of magnolias and lilacs blooming, I boarded a flight headed half way across this very big country of ours. Not such an odd occurence in our culture, but one I was not accustomed to embarking on for anyone shy of the Phish. Any debate over travelling pretty much came grindingly to a halt after about ten minutes into the first set on the first night. Saturday afternoon I would drag myself down to an odd little club in Toronto's fashion district to interview Darren Shearer (chief skin-beater) and Jamie 'Is it live or is it Memorex?' Shields about precisely these concerns.
In retrospect, it is a long road that led all of us to that little club for a chat. As a teenager, Darren's band Gypsy Soul had been our local band to catch, and seemed at the time like the band to watch on their way up. A little bit later Jamie was making his name touring Canada at the helm of One Step Beyond, sort of Canada's answer to the Greyboy Allstars. So logically, that's where we started, and both were happy to pick up the story there. Over the course of a good twenty minutes we talked about everything from the dynamics of their performance on stage (cues and non-verbal communication), memorable shows from the last tour (Coachella!), recording, the current musical landscape and so on. From the experience of being at both shows and talking with the band, I really did feel quite tangibly that something progressive is bubbling up through the bedrock of mediocrity. Amidst all of this contrived dross, the New Deal fit the part of the Renaissance alchemist well, and it is their lot to turn all of this lead into gold.
Ever the cynic, or the good head depending how you see it, I felt obliged to push the envelope of our conversation and ask the questions I thought the audience wanted to ask. I queried them both point blank as to how the band was going to grow, given what I called the 'clarity of their technical vision'. For those unfamiliar with the band, they refer to their style as 'live progressive breakbeat house' and they do not use any samplers, sequencers or looping whatsoever. While aware of this the band's catchphrase, I don't think it really dawned on me until the flight home what an accomplishment it is to assemble music as dynamic as theirs on the fly. In conversation, we both likened the process to architecture in that they are trying to build something whole, akin to a song, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. The hope is for the last note to fall at precisely the right juncture. An intuitive form of architecture for these three, for sure.
Surprisingly, no one balked at the question of how will the band grow, no flailed arms, no storming out of the room a la Liam Gallagher, no Diego Maradona-style tumble to try and draw the penalty. Jamie actually said it was an interesting question since the growth curve of the band has been so sharp. He went on to say that the band had been through decidedly trance and ambient modes, progressed into house, jungle and hip-hop modes, and were resting for the moment in a decidedly breakbeat phase. Having surprised themselves in the past, they reckoned they would surprise themselves in the future.
Feeling buoyed up by weathering the 'stunted growth question,' I went for what I thought was the throat. "Some of the tapers, touring kids, and myself are calling these shows the 'litmus test' as to whether you're a band that one could catch on multiple nights or a small run. Do you think there's enough variation in the setlists, given the organic nature of their taking shape, the lack of vocals?" They went on to say that people do follow them and catch whole runs, and that that was somewhat common in the States. Every night is improvised after all, and considering they play largely four on the floor house, there is a huge diversity in their recordings and performances. All this is worth mentioning, as they are the sort of blips that constantly surf around in the monkey mind of a tourhead. I suppose I was thinking of the band in comparison to a band such as The Disco Biscuits, whose setlist structure provides a whole side pursuit for the avid audiophile to pour over. In the end, the New Deal don't have songs with names as cool as the Biscuits, they don't finish songs two days later, they don't play songs backwards and inside out (well actually, they kinda do that) - and they don't because they don't have to. Per ardua ad astra ('through adversity to the stars',) the New Deal seem to have arrived. They have reaped everything that a band with a cult following can reap yet they've done it without Gamehendge, without Timmy Tucker, without the benefit of a Hot Air Balloon, and without words.
Oh, and the shows were good too. There were Donna Summer 'I Feel Love' teases both nights (only played 'in its entirety on Friday' as Jamie Shields would later point out directly in response to one of my posts on the newdealhq). Apparently from Jamie's detailed corrections of my Sunday afternoon post there is some good evidence to suggest that we were at different shows entirely - that, or I was far more spun then I am willing to admit to. Funkytown was not played both nights as Jamie also pointed out: 'Funkytown by 'Lipps, Inc., not Donna Summer. Funkytown was played on Friday night only.'
Saturday on the whole was seen by those in the know as having more grasp and texture than Friday. This was added to by the interlude in the second set which I described as follows: 'Jamie started playing this hypnosis tape and was looping it and playing weird keys over top, effectively creating a mass hypnosis.' Jamie describes the interlude, "Nobody left the stage. Me and Danny did do a little bit of a duet thang. It's Dan who runs the tape machine over his bass pickups. I really have nothing to do with that, although I did make the first tape for him (with Ravine, etc.) He has made a new tape that he unveiled on Friday night. He used the Ravine one yesterday. Of course, the looping involved only my two hands, no sequencers, samplers blah blah blah... Quite hypnotic though, mostly (IMHO) because of Dan's increasingly creative ability to time the rewinding of the tape machine to create loop-like phrases. Maybe we'll keep him around after all."
Part of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that Darren's kick drum pedal had broken during that segment, and perhaps Dan was crouched down, out of sight playing with his knobs, as is often the case with him. Also worthy of note is that it was a self-confessed Paul McCartney weekend with 'Jet' teases Friday night and 'Silly Love Songs' on Saturday. In terms of the band's own songs, it came out in our conversation that the band likes to use some of the same headers and phrases night after night both because of their effort to craft a 'song' and because they like playing those bits. Some of the themes used both nights were "Ravine" (with monster Bootsy-style bass reprises), "Return to Whenever" and "Back to the Middle." In conversation I mistook Friday's rendition of "Back to the Middle" for "Holland Tunnel." Jamie conceded that the two songs were close in proximity on one of their releases, hilariously on cue Darren then proceeded to ask, "Which one's 'Holland Tunnel?'" Jamie proceeded to mouth the drum hits and sing the phrase a cappela, essentially like smoke going up the chimney or the sound of a car going through the "Holland Tunnel."
This all led to laughs and joking about the naming of the 'songs', and Jamie ultimately conceeded that he just names them on a whim and is forced to learn the names because of the detailed attention to their music by the fans. It is also worthy of note that "Jungle Boogie" was played as entirely as possible as an encore Friday night, while I had a shit-eating grin on my face the whole time the choice struck me at the time (and still does) as a bit derivative. The "Star Wars" tease Saturday night first set struck me the same way. In reference to the teases, the boys said that the choice is more humour-based. I only wish they thought it was funny to pull out some Talking Heads or Hall & Oates, as the warmup DJ Neil Harris had in his pre-show set.
Since the New Deal doesn't require thinking about songs played or desired, setlists and timings, one is given a certain breathing room. One is brought into the present moment, and the dance ensues.
All this occurs between the notes, between the four on the floor beats, between the artists and the audience. What is great in the case of the New Deal is that they are aware of this give and take at work in their music. In talking with the band members it became clear that we truly are on the verge of a new epoch in music.
Near the closing of our conversation, I asked Darren and Jamie specifically about a question from a previous JamBase interview about the lack of a history and culture of jam bands in Europe. The question was intended as a way of gauging where they would fit in or rather how big they would blow up across the pond. Jamie responded in what was just the most dead obvious way, essentially saying that while Europe lacks the clear lineage that we have inherited from the likes of the Grateful Dead, they do have a strong history of improvised music and an appreciation for it. They are also less concerned with labels and more with sheer appreciation of musicianship and craft. Whether we dub that band as jamming or not is largely irrelevant. Here I am not pining for another term than jamband but rather for a closer looking over of who we are, and where we are going.
It is the New Deal's distinct hope that the audience will continue to grow with them, remaining in flux. And what is constancy in the face of flux? Or as another head put it, "Are integrity and consistency the same thing?" Surely we are all drawn to this music because the bar is set higher from the get-go, the audience demands constant innovation and will berate those that do not deliver. But is it this cynicism that defines us as heads? Or is it our willingness to wade in between the notes, to plunge ourself naked headlong into the well of truth, initiating ourselves into the mysteries of music. I suppose that we can only hope that as an audience we are willing to grow, to put aside for a moment how we want things to arise and focus rather on how they happen all the same when left to their own devices.
The Head Canadian Head
Go See Live Music, Eh?!!!