A Chat with The New Deal

By: Dennis Cook

The New Deal
From the their start in the late 1990s, The New Deal has hewed their own trail, blending the raw ingredients of a classic jazz keyboard trio with future forward sounds and instincts that made them closer relatives to what Squarepusher and Aphex Twin were doing in the same era than Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, or even MMW. However, as electro friendly as they may have been (and remain), The New Deal never lost a sense of humanity, stuffing meat-minded ingenuity into the wires and whirr of modernity. Playful, equally capable of simmering darkness and ebullient light, the Canadian trio never fully attached anywhere but the jam world, which showed itself at its most open-minded and musically liberated in its support of this band.

Sadly, the band announced in April of this year that their 12-year career together was coming to an end (read the official statement here). The New Deal’s final shows will be Wednesday, December 28th in Philadelphia, PA at TLA (Theatre of Living Arts), Thursday, December 29th in Baltimore, MD at Soundstage, Friday, December 30th in New York, NY at Highline Ballroom (Late Show), Saturday, December 31st in New York, NY at BB Kings (Late Show), and a final hurrah on Jam Cruise 10 on Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 and Thursday, January 12th. We caught up with bassist Dan Kurtz to discuss his winding road with Darren Shearer (drums) and Jamie Shields (keyboards) and what was behind the band’s decision to bow out of the touring life.

The New Deal @ Camp Bisco X by Dave Vann
JamBase: I didn’t quite realize how long this band has been around until I started digging through my bootlegs and found a few shows from 2000.

Dan Kurtz: And if you were really lucky you’d have some from 1999. Yes, it’s been forever. There wasn’t a gray hair on anyone’s head when we started.

JamBase: A lot of bands get called cutting edge but there really wasn’t anything quite like The New Deal when you got started.

Dan Kurtz: I’m pretty confident when I say that there was pretty much NOTHING like it, which was why we dropped everything we were doing with our lives to do it, and why so many people bonded with it. I blew my own mind playing with The New Deal. I was a new musician and wasn’t sure I would do this forever, and The New Deal changed my mind because it was the coolest thing I’d ever done.

That was my reaction to hearing this band for the first time in 2000. You had some of the energy and interplay of a jazz trio but none of the traditional feel, and it wasn’t pure DJ/electronic because one immediately picked up on the human element, the blood and muscle inside the machinery.

The New Deal @ Camp Bisco X by Dave Vann
It’s funny because I had the exact same experience playing last week. We hadn’t played in a while, and I’ve been working on the new Dragonette record, where I spend a lot of time hitting ‘play’ on a computer and crossing all the ‘t’s’. I was marveling at how it was the antithesis of what I was doing onstage, which was very human [laughs]. I was playing music, and if two seconds ago I really fucked it up there’s really no going back and fixing it. I think that’s another aspect of what we do that has appealed to people. Maybe as time goes on that will be less relevant because people’s ears are slowly being conformed to perfect pitch and metronomic time, and it might be difficult for future generations to appreciate something as un-machinelike as The New Deal.

One of the things that’s always been most appealing about this band is the happy accidents in this music. When you guys stumble it’s into something interesting, even if the initial step was tripping.

Well, this whole band has been about stumbling into something. There was nothing less planned than The New Deal, and maybe that’s been a sand trap ever since. I was just reading an interview Jamie did last week and he talked a lot about how we just didn’t decide anything and the music and the band kind of made decisions for us. That’s how it’s seemed to have worked.

Because you aren’t doing the metronomic, pasteurized thing, what was your reception in the electronica world?

Dan Kurtz by Jake Krolick
Our participation in the straight up electronica world ended a few years ago. We had a few opportunities like playing at the Winter Music Conference in 2001. We were a novelty to the dance world around that time, but as time has gone on there’s a greater divergence between what we do and the greater electronic music scene. In many ways, it’s almost impossible for a live band to hold up sonically to the music coming off a turntable or MP3 player. So for people who are addicted to the massivity of that sound, I don’t think we are, in some cases, as musically fulfilling as these people need it to be. By that I mean as loud, as big, as low, as bass-y, as over-the-top. We’re something else. We’re really intense in one way but we’re not electronic music with a capital ‘E’.

Not at all! It’s always been refreshing to hear you work with some of the same raw elements of that world but you never kowtowed to the expectations of the scene, which I’ve seen a lot of bands do. They get on the industrial treadmill in order to conform, and mostly for financial gain rather than for creative reasons.

It’s not surprising because it’s a daunting thing for people who play instruments to see that their forum – i.e. the stage playing to a bunch of kids – is being encroached by – and I don’t mean this is what good DJs do – some run-of-the-mill DJ who has to do little more than push play on a pre-arranged set that will satisfy an audience, in the right circumstances, more than live musicians can. For real instrumentalists and real bands, the lure of that 24-bit, fully mastered massivity is really intoxicating, like, “Sure, we’ll play along with Abelton Live and put a ton of phat beat in there and we’ll track some low keyboards.” I don’t think it’s exactly what people want to do but they play along.

I covered the first IDentity Festival when it came through Shoreline recently, and I was struck by how non-musical so much of what was on offer was. It’s about sensation - sound and fury but as the saying goes, signifying very little.

Darren Shearer by Jake Krolick
That may come and go. There’s only so loud and so crazy you can get before there’s a reset. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before things swing around and we get another iteration of the acoustic guitar thing.

That’s going on a bit in the Pitchfork world with the bearded bunch.

Yeah, but the bearded bunch all like a little bit of house music and Skrillex and their brother is in a dubstep band. They’re not mutually exclusive [spheres]. It’s really amazing how the live scene, at least from my perspective, is like 40-percent bands and 60-percent DJs, and that’s the jam scene right now. It’s pretty amazing, and maybe The New Deal is partly to blame for helping change people’s tastes in that direction.

Don’t take that on yourself, man [laughs].

It really is the logical progression, so it’s not all that surprising that harder, better, faster, stronger is what people want out of live music.

Doing something this unique begs the question of how did you find your audience at all?

Jamie Shields by Jake Krolick
We did it the traditional way – get in a minivan and drive anywhere someone would take us on for a gig, and then come back again if people liked it enough. That was always the method, and it worked out fine. I think we didn’t do a lot of things that would have accelerated that process. We got to a place that was really comfortable to us, which was to play shows in moderation and repeat. We didn’t get very good at social media. We decided not to make records because our studio records aren’t as good as our live show. We were The New Deal and we played shows because people liked it. It was amazing to see that even with that little intent that we went as far as we did. There are many bands that would kill – and have tried to kill – to build that sort of audience for themselves. We just played music, which is so great AND so lazy [laughs].

The band has always been the three of you – no lineup changes, no fourth or fifth member – and that chemistry is utterly unique. You are a country unto yourself.

That’s true [laughs]. Anytime we dabbled in trying to bring in somebody new into that experience, especially playing live, it’s never been a bonus I assure you [laughs].

A lot of bands that work the same circuit as you bring in guests as a standard, and The New Deal has largely avoided that.

We’ve done it on records. I’m really proud of the records we did with Martina and with Feist. They were really fun to do at the time – our first ‘pop’ songs – and it’s not to say it hasn’t been fun to have people come onstage and play with us, but it never felt like, “Wow, we should do this all the time!” As a result, we may not have had as many strings in our bow, colors in our palette, whatever you want to call it. We’re basically bass, keyboards and drums, and there’s never been an evolution from that. I’ve started playing some keyboards and Darren has some electronics and plays some hand drums, but that’s our band. The New Deal is that. You’d never listen to us and think, “That sounds like somebody else.” By the same measure, if somebody is into The New Deal, they could have something similar played for them but they’d know it wasn’t The New Deal.

The New Deal @ Camp Bisco IV by Dave Vann
The obvious elephant in the room is what prompted the decision to play your final shows?

There’ll all very reasonable, logical reasons. There’s not even a PR version. The PR version would be we wanted to leave on a high point, we’ve done everything we wanted to do, etc. While much of that is true, in a perfect world where we could play a show whenever we wanted to and fans would show up and it was really easy to work around your schedules, we’d probably have continued to do it. The difficulty is even if all three of us lived in Toronto, The New Deal hasn’t been our number one priority for a while. Jamie has his kids and his other business, I have Dragonette, Darren’s got his thing, and we’re busy guys who are not in a position to go on tour 200 days of the year – a) because we never wanted to [tour that much] and b) because Jamie has kids and a wife now and it’s not in the cards. So, the smaller ‘t’ vision of The New Deal touring band becomes, “So, how many shows do we play?” and the trajectory has been less and less over the past couple years. We hit a point where we realized it’s gonna suck if we can only play 20 shows per year. It’s gonna fuck over our fans, and really fuck over our crews. There are guys who’ve been hanging on my schedule for years and it’s a shitty situation for everyone to be in.

Another factor is how difficult it is for a Canadian band to operate in the U.S. If you’re going to tour in the U.S. you better tour a lot because the start-up costs in the U.S. are really high now. The taxes are insane. I feel I’ve personally employed a few people at the I.R.S. at a few times. It’s become this way with foreign bands from all over the place, but it’s an especially funny situation to be in given the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U.S. If it were going to be our full-time job to put food on our tables, I don’t know how we’d do it as a foreign entity in the U.S. The New Deal is sort of unique in that most foreign bands that tour in the U.S. most of the time tour in the rest of the world, too, but we’re a Canadian band that ONLY tours in the U.S. We’ve played one show in Canada in the past two years. There’s no buffer zone for us, no other places in the world for us to go and play.

It sounds like a massive headache.

The New Deal by Jake Krolick
I just want to play my fucking show. I got so tired of working through visas and dealing with American companies and three sets of books. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the U.S. doesn’t want my band to play in their country because they make it really hard to get in and then they take almost everything off the top that you make. That’s what happened.

This situation speaks to a creeping disrespect for art that isn’t corporate produced and underwritten.

It has to have bankrupted a lot of people. And you know what? The Canadian government is doing it to American bands, too, who they charge payroll deductions if they come tour here. I’m sure the U.S. government will do it soon, charging us Social Security for the three days our sound guy is in the U.S. That makes sense when say Metallica is touring through these countries and there’s big money to be made, but we’re the backbone of America. We’re the small business that employs three people. We’re the 99-percent! Any musician who’s been in the music business for 20 years that says, “It’s not about the money” is a fuckin’ liar because he’s had to find a way to actually make a living. But, it’s not about the money. The New Deal could have become dentists and made a lot more money and had a much cozier lifestyle. When people don’t make any money and they’re playing in a bureaucratically hostile environment, it’s just not worth it. This wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t the first or the last thing, but it was a factor. We spend so much time trying to get to play a show that the show itself sometimes hardly justifies the effort.

That helps shine a light on the decision. On a brighter note, tell me about playing with Darren and Jamie.

The New Deal @ Camp Bisco IV by Dave Vann
The reason The New Deal went beyond the wedding band circuit we were all playing in was Darren, Jamie and I all ended up playing as a trio on the same night, and when we all came together it was like magic from the very beginning. It’s like falling in love, basically, in the sense that you don’t want to do it with anyone else. That’s what it felt like. In the music scene, people are always talking about playing together but even though this guy can play really well he plays too loud or he’s a dick and so on. In this case, every single thing about these guys makes this awesome - what a surprise – and so we thought, “Let’s do something,” and we did. We may have hated each other at times – every band does that plays together over 10 years – and I’ve had arguments individually that make me shudder when I think of them, but all that is water under the bridge when we play together. That has never eluded us for more than maybe one show.

How are you feeling about these final shows? It seems a bittersweet, intense thing to step out in front of an audience knowing each gig is one step closer to the end.

I started to feel that at last Saturday’s gig, like “Wow, man, this is the last time I’ll be stepping onstage with these guys.” And I felt that at the place it all began, the Toronto Opera House, where we came back like soldiers who went abroad and returned with treasure, in this case, brought back acknowledgement from America, which then meant the Canadian press could acknowledge us, too [laughs]. The Opera House is ground zero for that sort of thing and the level we attained. Part of it is really sad, but at the same time, it made me rock my balls off on Saturday. I wanted to go out as well as I could, and if I can do that four or five more times they could potentially be the best shows I’ve played with The New Deal. That’s what I’m thinking about.

The New Deal Tour Dates :: The New Deal News

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[Published on: 12/27/11]

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