The word had spread that The New Deal were coming to Boston last Saturday night, and every paper with its nose to the air printed a few lines of ink towards the Toronto trio, and why not? It's not often that you can listen to a live band pumping out a methanized, improvised version of house, trance, and dance, but the New Deal are putting a mortgage down on the sound. In today's rapid sub-speciation of musical genres, it seems the band has stepped -or stumbled - into a niche with a surprisingly open frontier.
At The Middle East that noble evening, the usually dank charm found downstairs was eerily transformed into a grinding mass of crazed ravers. Well, at least compared to most nights. The first thing you noticed - after the obligatory checkpoint search and deep cargo pocket inspection - were the lights. Strobes, floods, lasers, those jiggly things - you name it, the place was lit up. Thick smoke (created almost entirely of water vapor with trace amounts of inert chemical additives) spilled thickly from the stage, saturating empty space with color. Retaining this most excellent element of the disco experience - the light show - was a prudent decision. Matt Iarrobino, who has done lights for the west coast jazz-electro, eminency the Disco Biscuits, is to blame for executing this sensorial bonus.
DJ Harry got things kicking with an hour of heavy dance mixes. Thick beams of light flooded around him, cutting a distinct silhouette, Harry's trademark flower of dreadlocks bobbing above the tables. The scene was two parts crunch to one part black leather. Spanked-out progressive dance types were sprinkled among the mostly casual crowd. With Harry still spinning, the three members of the New Deal stepped up to their instruments, turned on, and slowly worked their way into the vinyl. Drummer Darren Shearer dropped tightly into the beat. Jamie Shields chimed in on the keys, and Dan Kurtz pulled down the bass. They took off from there on a jamming trance journey that was probably a first for almost everyone there. The show was a blast, as expected.
Just what do these guys think they're doing anyways? To say that they're pioneering a genre would not be that far-fetched. I had a chance to sit down with keyboardist Jamie Shields before the gig, and ask him the same battery of questions I'm sure he's been answering since the band got started. This is what he had to say about the "New Deal."
What's the New Deal all about?
The band never really "formed." Darren, our drummer, had this gig that he was playing in Toronto, this really terrible cover band that would play every Thursday for no real reason. Sometimes he had me come in and play, or he'd have Dan our bass player come in and play. I've been playing with Dan in bands since we were thirteen so we've known each other forever. So we started playing this gig to make a little money. And then we realized, that nobody was really listening, you know- nobody really cared what we were doing. So we said, forget that, let's just start making things up, and do what we want. And when we started doing that we realized that, well - nobody still cared- but we were lovin' it.
So we decided to take what we were doing and take it to an actual club where some of our friends might actually come and check it out. We were all really involved in the music scene in Toronto, so we called up a bunch of our friends, and I think six people showed up. Just by chance, we happened to record the show. Actually our soundman now, who is on the road with us - Gee- he was the house sound guy at this club in Toronto. And we just happened to listen to this show afterwards, and were just blown away by what we heard. We were so impressed we decided to turn it into a CD. We didn't have a band name, we didn't have anything. Then we decided "well, we have CD now, we've got to come up with a band name."
So, our first show ever was our first EP. Then we decided to name it, and it just became the "New Deal," so then we were a band with a CD. It cost us, what, four dollars to record it. That's how the band started.
In terms of our influences, we never set out to play dance music; never said "o.k. we're going to play twenty minute house music tunes." I'm not into electronic music at all, really, I don't listen to it in the slightest. The other two guys, they don't listen to "jamband" music at all. They're more into dance music, r&b and hip hop. That was their angle. I listen mostly to pop, or I used to listen to a lot of avante garde jazz, jazz funk from the seventies, stuff like that. But the cool thing is you can take three circles, and where the three circles meet in the center - "boom, boom, and boom" - that is where the influences of all three of us are the same. And then everything else outside it is our own separate influences that we don't really share. But where we meet in the center is all the things that we agree upon, and that's the stuff that we play.
I'm big into repetitive music, I like Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, but not really dance-oriented music. But the repetition of it I thrive on. That's the category of the New Deal. The same can be said for the other guys, that there's specific elements that we all like, and that we can all listen to. It's not "what are the influences of the New Deal?" It's more like we agree on certain styles. We agree on a lot of classic rock as well (laugh), but in terms of the stuff we actually play, there's an element of hip hop, there's an element of dance music, for sure. But because a lot of it is improvised - a lot of it is created on the spot - my interest is in the creative element of it, in writing these tunes on the fly. And we succeed. We now have about ten or fifteen musical heads or themes that we use. And those we bring into the show - we don't bring all of them all in every night, but we'll bring in maybe five or six. Then we can jam out of those, so eighty five percent of the night is improvised, fifteen minutes of it isn't, and the fifteen minutes are the little bits and themes that we use. Sort of like touchstones, to keep the flow going, so it's not just aimless meandering forever.
So, for instruments, you've got, keys and...?
Keys, drums and bass. No samplers, no sequencers.
But you're getting that house sound?
Yeah, we're getting the house sound but there's no DJ, no sequencers, there's no loops, there's nothing. It's just all played live onstage with real instruments.
Personally, there's a lot about house music and club music that I like, but some of it sounds canned.
Yeah. Well, our [latest] record was made live. We recorded sixty of our shows, and went into our studio and edited a bunch of it together. We have a mobile rig, and we can take it anywhere we want, so we recorded some of it in my basement, but most of it's live. It's a mix of live recordings, some of the stuff we did in the studio, and we did a bunch of manipulation. But the performance to us is the most important. A lot of the up-tempo stuff we perform better live, in front of people, where there's a give-and-take with energy. Which you don't get when there's three guys staring at each other in the studio. We know that - and excuse the bad cliché - we're on the tightrope when we're live and there's no net. We're just on our toes more. In the studio, if you're not on a hundred percent, then whatever, we'll let the tape roll, and in five minutes or so we'll be back in. When you're live, you have to go for it all the time. And that came through. Listening to the album took a long time. Listening to all those shows - that's 120 hours of music, and we had to cut it down to sixty minutes. That's less than one percent of what we had. It took six months to make the record. It took two months to play all that music, and then four or five months to sift through it. We tried to make a record that wasn't just a live record. We wanted something that you could sit and listen to and not have to pretend that you're at a show. We have three other CD's that have come out and they're all live shows. They're sixty minute records with three songs on them. People will listen to them, and you can say, "well that's a great record. AND it's live," or, "that's a great record, AND it's only three guys, and there's no sequencers or samplers." We didn't want to have that on our record now, we didn't want to have have a caveat, like "but it's live," or "but it's only three guys," or "but there's no sequencers or samplers." We just wanted people to think, "that's a great record." You don't have to relate to the live experience to enjoy the record.
What's your crowd like?
It varies all the time, because we play so many different kinds of shows. We do jazz festivals, we do raves, we do club gigs; it ranges from sixteen year old club kids to sixty year old music lovers. You see people who are there to dance, and you see people who are just there to just dig the music.
Do you pull in the heavy club scene, the black goth and that crowd?
Well, more like the candy ravers. But that scene is sort of snobby, too, like, "Oh if there's not a DJ then forget it." But a lot of times we've taken people who were there for something else who have probably never heard a live band before, they've only been into DJ's, and we've been able to turn them onto this kind of music, because it's a mix of dance music but it's live. Same goes for people that have never been into DJ's and club music, they've only seen live acts, so we're able to turn them onto electronic music a little bit by doing what we do. So, it's kind of like a toe in the water, being able to check it out without being assaulted by some DJ in a club somewhere.
So do you think this is some kind of new music that you're exploring here?
Well, I kind of do, but it hurts me to sit here and say, well we're the "new thing," because everyone thinks they're the new thing. We've played 300 shows in the last two years, and I haven't really run into too many bands that do what we're doing. I can only speak from empirical research, which is, I've been out there, and looked around, and spoken to a lot of people in pretty much every city in the U.S. and Canada, and nobody has ever said "you remind me of a band called so and so," and never said, "you sound like this." I know a lot of bands that have taken their cue from the New Deal, and formed this kind of music, but that's kind of a different scene, that's people that like the New Deal and try and do their own thing based on what they've heard here.
So, you're pretty big in Canada. Where's your biggest following right now?
New York. Or Toronto, LA, San Francisco. New York is about 1200, Toronto is about the same, San Fran is about 800, LA about the same.
Boston is new turf for you?
On and off. We've played here three or four times. We've done a lot of stuff on the east coast. Our last gig was at the Somerville Theatre, although we don't like playing there that much because you can't really dance, and we want to play somewhere that's a little bit more open, that's why we're here [at the Middle East].
DJ Harry is with you tonight?
Yeah, he'll play before us. Whatever DJ happens to be spinning before us, in this case DJ Harry, we'll just start playing along with him and blend in, much like a DJ set.
Craziest show? Most energy? Best crowd?
Oh, New York the other night was up there. That was a great crowd. Um, there have been a lot. Austin was incredible. Boulder was incredible. LA, San Francisco, Santa Barbara. We've only been to these places a couple of times, but the crowds keep getting bigger and bigger.
People are gettin' down out there?
Yeah, crazy dancing. Last night too. Nuts.
Any trouble getting over the border?
No, not too bad. Ten minutes.
What music are you listening to right now? What's in the changer?
Right now I'm listening to a lot of dub. Lee 'Scratch' Perry, King Tubby. But I'm more on the pop kick - been listening to the Super Furry Animals, I'm a big fan of them, they're from Wales. I like the Tenacious D Record. I don't know, mostly dub. And a lot of Pink Floyd, as I always do.
Does that influence what you play - what you're listening to currently?
Yeah, well, what I've been listening to for the past fifteen years of my life has. Bands that always played a little longer tunes, that were very patient with the development of their songs. It's basically the same approach I try to take with my music. The climate for listening to that kind of music has improved over the past couple of years. Despite all the garbage that's been on the radio, a lot of people have been able to open up a little bit, to listen to that kind of music. Longer songs, slower songs. Not that we play slow music too often, but it's good to be able to be patient for that sort of stuff, to let a song go for ten minutes, and let it unfold, as opposed to like, ok here: bam bam bam bam bam bam bam!
It seems that there's a lot more hippies listening to club type music.
I know, it's strange.
And a lot of club folks are listening to more psychedelic type music. It seems like those genres are really coming together. Why?
They're totally coming together. The length of songs, and because there's a lot of bands that feel that the beat is important- a lot of the dance music and punk music, but also a lot of improvised music feels it - and that's one of the major common elements. Funk music, dance music, the jam music, it's all the same approach - just let it flow and it will unfold unto itself. You've got to have the patience for all three of those kinds of music. There's people who could get bored just listening to dance music.
What's your stack look like?
I've got a Roland Juneau 106, a Korg CX3 organ, a Moog synth, and a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
So, you've been on the road for five weeks, and you're in Boston. Anything special planned for tonight?
Well, it's always open. We just let it go, we never think about it. But we may play a Boston song tonight though actually. We like Boston as a city, and we like Boston as a band, so we'll probably do a Boston tune.
Just a little band out of Boston.
Yeah, I think that's probably the one that we'll do. Rock and Roll band.
Are you going to sing?
No. I'll play the melody.
Do you ever go back into old school funk. You got any favorites?
Yeah, well, what I think is one of the greatest albums of all time is from sort of a non-funk guy: Miles Davis, the album On The Corner, from 72 or 73, is one of the funkiest records around. Straight up funk for 60 minutes. It's just go.
Well folks, there you have it. You all owe it to yourselves to check out the New Deal, and watch a little music history unfold. But put on those dancin' shoes, your going to need 'em.
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