Interview | Dan Kurtz | The New Deal's New Deal

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Dan Kurtz - The New Deal’s New Deal ::

The New Deal back in March announced plans for a 2014 return, and the sound you heard among the fiercely opinionated electronica factions of the jam scene was something like joy – the trio has been long considered a connoisseur’s choice among jamtronica bands.

Several festival and club dates are on the books starting in early July, but the sweet of The New Deal reunion is not without its bitter: drummer Darren Shearer will not be part of the lineup.

In a new interview with JamBase, bassist Dan Kurtz explains why he and keyboardist Jamie Shields are confident Joel Stouffer – the band’s new drummer and a member of Dragonette alongside Kurtz – will help reset the high bar New Deal fans demand of the threesome. Read on for our wide-ranging chat.

JAMBASE: Why is 2014 the time for The New Deal to return?

DAN KURTZ: Jamie and I had been working together on a film soundtrack for a friend of ours and as we were working together under very different circumstances than before, it was like, oh yeah, we read each other’s minds, and oh yeah, this is fun, and oh yeah, I wish we were playing live shows.

The thing was, when we stopped, in theory for good, at the time it just felt like what we were doing had nothing going for it. We felt maybe that we were getting edged out of the scene we were playing in. I’d go and watch these big EDM DJs play and I was like, shit, this is amazing, and we can’t make our band sound like this with all this production, and I guess this is where peoples’ interest is now.

Things have balanced out a bit again. I think people see live performance as having value, not that that’s ever gone away, but there’s a lot that people like as an alternative to that production – immediately produced music and that experienced.

JAMBASE: I get what you’re saying but I’m also a little surprised – you guys were celebrated for your improvisational chops, especially for such an often-criticized section of the jam scene, and didn’t seem to lack an audience. Were you noticing lighter attendance or something?

DK: No, it wasn’t that. I mean, I’ve been around long enough to feel the waves of impact of electronic music on live music – we’re a product of one of those waves. And I have to say I can’t speak for the other guys, but it just felt like for me, at the time, there was something people were digging so much about super bass-driven EDM that I couldn’t recreate live.

What we did was musically satisfying and a lot of people were coming but I felt like we didn’t know what to do next. But I think it’s going to be really rewarding now being back playing shows with The New Deal. Me, and Jamie and Joel, I think we’ve gone back to a lot of the music we grew up listening to – '70s funk and house music – and re-learning that that still has some value to an audience.

You know, what got me interested, if I could just highlight one thing, is when I heard the new Daft Punk record. I actually viewed that as a signal that dance music was taking another turn – if Daft Punk can make a record that sounds like that and be celebrated for it well that means that those doors are open. It doesn’t mean EDM has jumped the shark or anything, but maybe it means, oh, that old-school funk and house thing can breathe again.

On the other hand, though, we’ve introduced a little bit more technology. I’ve managed to adapt my bass in such a way that I can actually reference a lot of these newer sounds that you hear in EDM. It’s fun. As The New Deal we can acknowledge a broad history of dance music, and play it.

JAMBASE: Can you give an example of a bass effect you’ve added?

DK: I’ve managed to trick some software into letting me control synths with my bass in a way that I’ve been trying to do for a long time. I have lots of pedals and I worked for a while with an unsatisfactory product from Roland. But now I’m running part of my bass chain through a computer and it’s given me access to a ton of effects – essentially some sounds that you might consider sounds of EDM: bit crushing, filters, and when I need it, some really aggressive synth sounds with my bass and the ability to control the tempo of certain effects. Stuff like that. It’s been kind of like building a Lego set in my basement.

JAMBASE: Let’s talk about the changed lineup. Somewhere along the way you guys approached Darren and the three of you just decided it wasn’t going to happen together. How did you come to that conclusion?

DK: I approached Darren last May. In earnest, everybody tried to make it happen and we held back on considering any alternative until it became really clear that he just couldn’t commit. He couldn’t commit because of the nature of the work he’s doing now – it’s just not a thing where he can book three months out and be sure that he’ll be available. I think he gamely tried to see whether it could happen, but The New Deal is not a full-time job for anybody and I don’t think he really had much of a choice.

JAMBASE: But to be clear, it wasn’t like he wasn’t interested?

DK: I think he wanted to do it. I don’t know to what degree he wanted to, but I think if I’m in his position, I have to look at the logical side and the emotional side of things. It makes you feel all kinds of weird to move on from something that was so great when we were doing it. But I think he acknowledged where his life is at the moment and didn’t see it happening.

JAMBASE: How do you and Jamie know that Joel is the right man for the job?

DK: Well, the role that Darren played was so much more than the drummer – half the time he was the onstage musical director, leading development throughout sections and moving us from one section to another. Those are things we can’t afford to lose, so there is some mechanical stuff that Joel needs to be able to do, and can do, thanks to his many years of playing jazz.

If Joel couldn’t meet that kind of thing, the jams would be really flat. He’s a different drummer than Darren, so he’s under pressure because he has to be able to do what Darren can do at a minimum if we’re going to keep up what we do. But what I do know from having played hundreds of shows with Joel is he’s just so solid – he intuitively knows what should be played, and my hope is that he’ll feel comfortable enough to explore his version of crazy. That’s a comfort level and an experience thing that we expect to develop over time. He’s also a really fun guy to hang with.

JAMBASE: Are these things you had to impart to Joel? Is it more important he just get comfortable with what The New Deal does as a tight-knit trio than give him too much direction?

DK: We haven’t had to have that conversation. Innately, Joel gets what needs to be there – we would have been crazy to even go this far without being sure he could do that. But there’s a lot of room for him, too. I think the stuff that’s of less interest to me now is revisiting the heads we’ve been playing for 15 years and getting them exactly right. We’ll still have that stuff that the crowd can rely on as an anchor when we get really far out there or in the middle of a jam sandwich, but one thing we’re encouraging Joel to do – and one thing that The New Deal has always done – is take leads and drag the band off in different directions.

We can all turn on a dime to meet wherever one guy has led the band. That’s not something just a drummer could do and not something that most drummers naturally gravitate toward. But Joel is a multi- instrumentalist. He understands the construction and development of multiple parts and he’s had a lot of experience doing that. I want him to feel comfortable taking us off-center – we’ll be with him.

JAMBASE: So much of what you guys do is rooted in that live improvisation, but do you think the three of you will be composing new music as well?

DK: I don’t know. I think we had the advantage of doing that early in the game. 2001 was when we wrote a lot of the heads we’re still playing today, and Joel will learn all that stuff and have it in his back pocket. But I never find that the pre-meditated stuff is the stuff that becomes the best of it. Sometimes we’ll play things, and then you’ll come off a show and be like, holy fuck, that’s awesome, let’s hold on to that and go listen to a tape and figure out how to work with that again. From the beginning that’s the kind of stuff I would always tell Jamie and vice versa – “That thing you played right there, remember that? Let’s see if we can develop that even more.”

JAMBASE: So are we OK saying The New Deal is back? Are you guys firming up more plans after the current announced dates?

DK: Yeah, we’re already talking about next year and what to do. It hasn’t escaped me that people could 100 percent wholesale not like this new version of The New Deal and just not come – which means those future opportunities wouldn’t present themselves. But I have a lot of confidence it will be great, and if people want us, we’ll keep coming. Jamie and I have both realized that we have a lot going on, but when you take The New Deal out of the whole portrait of what we do musically, something is missing. It’s a huge part of who we are.

JAMBASE: What else musically are you working on outside of The New Deal?

DK: I’m making another Dragonette album. I’m also working on some pop records, and they’re signed, known artists but I’m not sure how much I can talk about that. The other thing that’s been fun this last little while is that I’ve begun doing some work with a guy who worked on the last Dragonette record. His name is Davey Badiuk and he lives at the house, and it’s a factory of music happening here all the time.

Dragonette this year took a bit of a break after a prolonged period of touring, and that gave me a chance to think about playing with The New Deal again and maybe making some other records. I think the fruit of that will start coming out next year. Davey is really far into EDM and I’ve been learning a lot from him. I feel good – I feel like the only limitation I have is how much I limit myself.

[Published on: 6/10/14]

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