by Kyle Taylor
After a three year bout of silence, The New Deal made their return to the music scene this summer with a few select festival appearances. The Toronto band first emerged at the tail end of the 20th century, emitting a funky electronica sound. After a plentiful collection of releases and tours, the group went on hiatus in 2011… until now.
Fans of The New Deal can rest easy knowing that the summer festivities weren’t the only spurt of life from The New Deal. The three-piece band will be playing back to back nights the Electric Factory in Philadelphia (Friday, 11/28) and Terminal 5 in New York (Saturday, 11/29). The show offers the perfect opportunity to kick those nasty Black Friday shopping habits to go enjoy some gloriously groovy music instead.
Keyboardist Jamie Shields and bassist Dan Kurtz both share sentiments that the group is not just back for a quick reunion, but to get back to work on the project full force. I spoke with both members individually to discuss their beginnings, their influences, and of course, the future of The New Deal- read it all in the interview below.
Joining The New Deal for both shows is Philadelphia based jamtronica group Conspirator.
Additionally, Philadelphia group Cocktail Party Phenomenon will also take the stage at Friday night’s Electric Factory show.
Funkadelphia: “The New Deal has been on hiatus for some time now- can you tell us a bit about what sparked this reformation?”
Jamie Shields: “Dan and I have been playing in bands together since we were thirteen, so even when The New Deal stopped we were still making music together and hanging out together. We played our last show at the beginning of 2012, but most of our last set of shows was in 2011. So, I noticed in our last run of shows in ’11 that the landscape was kind of changing in terms of what we were playing, and bands we were playing with, and just the style of music that was out there. We just felt that we weren’t really developing as a band anymore, just because we needed to take a break from playing- just sort of needed to reassess how we wanted to make music.
We would play these festivals, and we’d be playing, and we’d enjoy our music, and we’d enjoy our show; but we’d be surrounded by deejays and dubstep and all that kind of stuff. That has its place, but it was perpendicular, artistically speaking, to what we were doing. We weren’t really fully comfortable travelling around playing music anymore. We enjoyed the concert part of it, but the whole environment around it wasn’t really where we wanted to be; and when you spend twenty-two hours of the day not playing music, and you only spend two hours of the day playing music, the two hours better outweigh the other twenty-two. The twenty-two hours started to outweigh the two, and so we just figured it was time to take a break.
That brings us to the end of 2013, and I’m hanging out with Dan, and we’re talking about how the landscape of music has shifted again, back to- at the time I think we were listening to the Daft Punk record. We started talking about wanting to maybe go play some shows. I wasn’t against it, I wasn’t for it; Dan was kind of spear-heading it, really because he enjoyed playing that music. I was fine with it. We didn’t know where Darren [Shearer] was going to be on it; he had moved to [Los Angeles], and he was just in a whole different mindset. We were like, ‘well okay, let’s find out what Darren wants to do.’ Darren wasn’t sure what he wanted to do; he was kind of yes, kind of no. So we just sort of left it hanging for a while. Then eventually Darren was like, ‘nah, I don’t want to do it.’
So we were like, what are we going to do- don’t want to start auditioning drummers, because the relationship between the three of us was pretty special. A lot of shows had gone under our belt- like 1,200 or whatever it was. Besides that, you can’t just pick a drummer out of the classifieds section and bring him along. He’s got to understand what’s required of the gig and have a wide, deep knowledge of- not really any style of music per se- but just the ability to improvise with people on stage and keep it fresh, keep it interesting.
So we didn’t really have anybody. Then we realized right in front of us was Joel [Stouffer], who plays in Dragonette with Dan and I’ve known forever. He comes from a very deep improvisational background, likes that kind of music, is very hip on that, and is a great guy. So we sat down and played- we were like, ‘well, we’ll know in five minutes whether or not this is going to work’- and it did. He kind of fell right into it. Pretty steep learning curve for that kind of guy though, because you’ve got to step up fairly quickly. You’re stepping into a situation with two guys who have been playing music together for thirty years, but he tended to it avidly. Every gig is still a learning experience- particularly for him, but for us as well. As far as I can tell, things have been pretty well received, and we’ve enjoyed playing with him. So that brings us up to having played about fifteen shows now as the new The New Deal.”
Funkadelphia: “How has that lineup change affected the dynamic in the band, or the band’s playing?”
Jamie Shields: “For sure there’s a different dynamic- it’s a different person. We see The New Deal as sort of musical extensions of our personalities. Part of the element of what we do is that it’s an extension of who we are. I never think about it when I’m playing on stage. That would kind of take it away from where I’m at creatively. So I think that’s kind of the purest form of expression of me as a person, as a musician, as a creative person.
So yeah, it’s totally different with Joel there: he plays a different style, he plays in a different way, he leads in a different way, he interacts with us in a different way. It’s great, it’s incredibly enjoyable, it’s fun to be on stage with him. It was fun to be on stage with Darren too, but Joel brings a different element to the band. He has more of a- I don’t want to say modern- but he brings along some sensibility that wasn’t there before. And we’re going to try to work with that, too. Like I said, we’d know in five minutes just by playing with him whether or not it was going to work. We didn’t know any songs at that time, we were just going to jam, and that’s just kind of what we do. His personality works perfectly with ours in that regard. He gets what needs to be done, and he’s willing to work at it.
Drummers are a tough gig in The New Deal, because drummers are never taught to lead; they’re taught to follow. Drummers are taught to follow the bass player, they’re taught to just play the groove and sit back. And that’s kind of the opposite of what’s expected of The New Deal. You’re supposed to lead the band at times, you’re supposed to take [the song] into a new section- new time changes, new fills, and not wait for us to do it. You do it, and we’ll follow you. And that’s kind of new, right? Still to this day, Joel’s still working on that, because that’s a tough, tough gig- to turn around, to reverse twenty-five years of drum practice for him, or whatever it is, and start to lead. You have to sort of drag your brain along with that, because that’s not where he is most comfortable, because that’s not where he spends his time on the drum seat. As he becomes more confident and comfortable playing with us, it’s going to be Armageddon.
Funkadelphia: “Is there a particular reason you chose Philadelphia and New York for this upcoming Thanksgiving run?”
Jamie Shields: “Well those are two important places in the life of The New Deal. Those are two of the earliest cities that we tried to get to all the time. We played New York, probably 125 times, from the basement of the Wetlands, all the way up to Terminal 5. And Philly the same thing- we would always try to tag on to Philly when we played New York. Sometimes we would just drive from Toronto, and play Toronto, Philly and New York, and go home. Ten hour drive each way, but those two cities have great musical stuff and great people that are into the kind of stuff that we do. It caught on fairly quickly in both those cities.
I’ve been going through some of our old shows recently to put up on our Facebook and Soundcloud, just some snippets of old concerts, and I just took one from Philly. I was just marveling at the performance, and after, I was marveling at the reaction from the crowd. The applause went off for like ninety seconds, and I’m like, ‘Right… Philly!'” [laughing] “It’s just a great musical town.”
Funkadelphia: “Outside of The New Deal do you play any other instruments aside from keyboard and piano?”
Jamie Shields: “Yeah, I play drums, I play bass. I play rudimentary guitar. I play some sax. I can hack away at most instruments. Obviously keyboard’s just my main gig, but I can get away with some things on bass and drums as well. I could be a one man New Deal band, but probably not as good… I don’t need those other guys.” [laughing]
Funkadelphia: “When did you first start playing piano?”
Jamie Shields: “I started taking piano when my parents made me at five. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, and I didn’t really have a choice in the matter until I was thirteen, and I hated it all the way. I didn’t want to practice and didn’t really care about what was going on. The minute that I got into music was when my parents stopped making me take lessons. I was able to sort of pursue it at my own wavelength, at my own speed, at my own level of interest, and not have to do the stuff I didn’t want to do.
Around that time is when I met Dan, and we started forming bands. We’ve been forming bands since we were in ninth grade or something.”
Funkadelphia: “That must be great having such a long musical relationship with someone you still play with today.”
Jamie Shields: “It’s a unique relationship that he and I have. Not too many words need to be spoken to get stuff done. It’s just a level of communication that, I guess, is based on the strength of experience and just agreement in understanding on how to do things, how to approach them, how to attack them. We generally share the same kind of set of ideas and know how to implement them. We sort of compliment each other in terms of our abilities. I’m stronger in certain areas, he’s stronger in certain areas, and we just work to our strengths.
Inherent trust as well is key in that- especially on stage. He has complete faith in what I’m going to play, I have complete faith in what he’s going to do. We communicate very intensely and very frequently on stage, but we never say anything to each other. It’s all via music or via our eyes, or hand signals.”
Funkadelphia: “So about your parents forcing piano on you- does that mean you have any formal music education background?”
Jamie Shields: “Yep, sure do. I studied classical piano until I was about fourteen, and then I stopped and never touched it again. I have fairly strong knowledge in harmony and in theory and all of that. I’m quite capable in referring to music in those terms; although ,I never do. Dan can as well. In a moment of academia, we might refer to something in a theory or a harmony way, but generally its done with our ears and with our fingers.
I can relate to listening to music on a mathematical level. I can appreciate it too. But the bottom line really is that it comes from the heart, right? Not from the head. That’s how we try to play it, and that’s how we try to present it to the people, and that’s how we hope it’s received. I like math rock as much as the next guy. But for us and for what we do, it’s got to be about resonating on a experiential level.”
Funkadelphia: “Whether it’s now, or from when you were growing up, who are some musicians you feel have been an influence on you?”
Jamie Shields: “That’s a fairly interesting question, because there are people out there that I listen to that I love and have had an immense impact on my musical life that you could never tell from what I do, and there are ones that you could.
You could take a guy like Frank Zappa, whose had an impact on my musical life in a number of ways. One, the style of his playing has for sure had an affect on how I play music. But primarily, the impact, and the affect, and the influence he had on me was in his approach to music, which was, ‘f*ck it, whatever I want to do, I’m going to do it, and I’m doing it for me- if you like it, great, and if you don’t, then don’t listen. This is a release that I’m having within. It’s coming out of my brain, it’s coming out of my soul, it’s coming out of heart, it’s coming out of my fingers, on to the paper, into the guitar. So, it’s pretty much about me. If you are interested in joining me in this, then great, let’s do it together- but if you’re not, I’m not going to try to please you.’ That’s how I approach my musical life as well. If people like what I’m doing, we’re going to have a really close relationship. If you don’t, then great, go listen to something else. That kind of influence was really big on me, besides just musically and besides performance wise, the approach and the concept to how you will embrace music in your life.
Then a guy like Brian Wilson. You can’t hear that [influence] in the music that I play. But if you pay attention to the cords I play, underneath the stuff, harmonically, or theoretically speaking, the cords that I’m playing would have a fairly strong resemblance to stuff Brian Wilson put together. His approach to music was kind of the same way: ‘I’ve got to do what’s in my heart- I’m going to play it and I hopefully you’re going to like it.’
So those two guys there were fairly big in shaping my musical approach. In terms of performance, I mean guys like Herbie Hancock and a lot jazz fusion dudes like that. But even guitarists like John McLaughlin, people with an angular approach to the performance. I was always far more interested in that than speed or flash. It didn’t hold my interest as much as stuff that might be a little left off center- that stuff always interested me.”
Funkadelphia: “How long have you been playing bass?”
Dan Kurtz: “I think I was like fifteen when I started, so a long time: twenty-seven years.”
Funkadelphia: “Have you ever experimented with any other instruments aside from bass?”
Dan Kurtz: “I grew up playing violin and saxophone. I wanted to… I don’t know, I guess I wanted to be in a band. I played in high school jazz bands and stage bands and stuff like that, but fundamentally that was just around the time I started playing bass. I’m trying to actually remember what it was, but it was kind of just, ‘f*ck it, every other job in the band is already done- the band I want to be in.’ It was my friend Sam on guitar, my friend AJ on drums, and my friend Jamie on keys, so that’s what was left.”
Funkadelphia: “You’re also a part of Dragonette, along with The New Deal’s new drummer Joel Stouffer- do you feel your playing in that project will affect your playing in The New Deal in the future, or on future recordings?”
Dan Kurtz: “Yeah, I think largely, because live with Dragonette I would almost always play bass, but I moved to playing keys in that band. In the process of both playing live and making a record, I ended up focusing a lot more on the bass synth sounds that I would make for the record. It definitely improved the kind of sounds I’m interested in making with my bass, but of course it’s easier for me to play the parts on my bass than on keys.
Since I spend most of my time making records, most of my time is spent doing sound design at this point like most people do who make records. It’s more so the sound of what I’m going for than the parts. I still play bass like a bass player.”
Funkadelphia: “Do you see this recent reformation of The New Deal as going long-term, or do you just plan to do these few shows?”
Dan Kurtz: “It feels pretty long term for us. The reason for playing again is Jamie and I ended up working on a movie soundtrack last year. The act of working together, and the type of music that we were writing, it just sounded like The New Deal slowed down, basically. I think both of us were reminded of how much we really like playing together, and with a couple of breaks in the last twenty-seven years, we’ve played consistently together for twenty-seven years.
Joel, our drummer, he plays with me in Dragonette. I’ve played with him probably now for ten years. This group of the three of us- we just really enjoy working together, playing together. The New Deal fans are awesome to play for. The scene that we play in is really great. It’s never been anything that we got bored of, or that we weren’t interested in doing anymore when we stopped playing.
The more natural state for me, and for Jamie, and I guess now for Joel, is that we play shows. The amount of work that’s gone into make it legal for us to play in the U.S., which is where we mostly play. It’s kind of mind-blowing; you can’t just decide to go play a couple shows in the U.S. I think both Jamie and I are in a much better position to do that now.
When we stopped, Jamie was exhausted from having two kids and making a lot of music for film and TV, and I was touring with Dragonette and living in the UK, which made finding time for The New Deal really difficult. But things have changed- I’ve moved back to North America. From a logistics point of view it’s much easier to continue. The amount of work setting us up is something that is going to take us a fair amount of time, too. We’re not yet at the stage of having a fluent system to be able to play shows. It’s still a lot of building our crew and building a team around the band- you know, all the stuff you’ve got to do to play in a band in 2015.
But more importantly, we’re really into it, and it’s so fun. So we’re going to play as long as people are into it.”
Funkadelphia: “Is there a good chance we’ll hear new material from The New Deal in the relatively near future?”
Dan Kurtz: “We took a stab at it with this last track, the song called “Sabotage the System”, which we did as an experiment to see digitally is it any good, and are we able to take this kind of live thing and turn it into a studio thing. Surprisingly to us, it was really easy, and it was really fun to do.
As soon as my house is not under construction anymore, we’ll all end up with a great studio that we can make records in. Joel lives a couple blocks away, Jamie lives ten minutes away, and we’ve got a lot of resources to deal with to make new stuff, and we’re all really excited about that, actually.”
Funkadelphia: “Who would you say are some artists that you either listen to frequently or feel strongly inspire you?”
Dan Kurtz: “The Beatles, a lot. That’s what’s actually got me into playing bass and seeing bass as a potentially melodic instrument in the midst of lots of other melody going on, which is what Jamie does all the time.
Sting’s bass playing was really influential in terms of- I remember reading an interview with him once talking about how he saw the bass as being an instrument that could re-voice cords in a really interesting way. And that’s a lot of what happens in The New Deal, what I do underneath of what Jamie does can shift the mood a lot of the music we’re playing.
For groove I listen to, there’s a band called Tower of Power that has one of the best bass players around, Rocco Prestia. A lot of 70’s funk, Herbie Hancock’s band.
Then The New Deal interfaces with stuff like more straight-up dance music. I grew up in kind of the first wave of Chicago dance music, house music. In the late 80’s, early 90’s, bands from the UK like Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai, which in turn is referring back to a lot of Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. That’s what really got me interested in playing bass in a dance format.
Then Daft Punk changed things a lot for us. And now, there’s an endless body of amazing bass players that have played on music that has been referenced so much more in the giant library of dance music- and house music in particular- that a lot of people are making. It’s pretty easy to hear and be reminded of that style of playing. I would say from the early to mid 70’s into the early 90’s, there’s so much great music to listen to there. I always have gravitated towards hearing the bass in everything.”
Funkadelphia: “You mentioned before having also played violin and saxophone- growing up did you have any formal music training?”
Dan Kurtz: “Oh yeah, I took violin classes for- I don’t know- thirteen years, fourteen years, something like that. Then in high school, Jamie and I were like the two guys who you would always see in the music room. Jamie was the musical director of all the musicals the school put on. We did “Anything Goes”.
Before Jamie’s time I played in the orchestra. We did “West Side Story”, which is actually a really hard thing for teenagers to play when I think about it. I would play violin and sax in those bands. I played in a couple orchestras. My school didn’t have an orchestra, but I had a symphonic band I played in. There was a string quartet I played in.
When I think about it, it’s basically all I did. Before and after school I’d be at rehearsals like four days a week- before school at about 7:30 [a.m.], and by the end of high school I was at school like four nights a week until 9:30 [p.m.] It was really fun.”
Funkadelphia: “You also mentioned that while The New Deal was on hiatus, you spent some time in the UK- can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing over there?”
Dan Kurtz: “When I married Martina she was a singer-songwriter, and I played in The New Deal, and it didn’t seem like a very obvious music connection. I had never written a pop song before, but I wrote one song on keyboard- trying to sound like Jamie- and got Martina to sing something over it. We did that two or three times, and we got a big, fat record deal out of the U.K. out of it. So we moved to London, in theory only for six months, to go and finish our record; but, we ended up being there for a year, and then it took another six months for it to come out- and it totally tanked in the U.K.. But by that point we were kind of installed there, so we ended up staying for like seven years.
Most of the work that we did was- we would make records and we would come and we’d do a little bit of touring in the UK- we didn’t do very well there. But we ended up doing a lot of touring in Europe, and then we started playing in the U.S., and a lot of stuff in Canada. Toward the end of it I was commuting- if not every week, then every two weeks- from the U.K. to either Canada or the U.S. to tour with either The New Deal or Dragonette. Towards the end of when we were in the U.K., I had been jet-lagged for about two and a half years and was like, ‘f*ck this.’ It was an amazing place to live and put us in contact with a lot of cool people- we made a lot of cool records. Martina made a record with a French deejay, Martin Solveig, that was a giant song, and that took us touring around the world for about a year.
But ultimately, most of what Dragonette does and all of what The New Deal does is in North America; so, we came back here.”
Funkadelphia: “Aside from The New Deal and Dragonette, do you have any other musical ventures or side projects?”
Dan Kurtz: “Well, I started a little production company that’s me and this guy named Davey Badiuk. He did some work on the last Dragonette record with me. He was involved with the soundtrack with Jamie and I for that movie. So he, and I, and another guy have got a pretty full plate of making records. We make a lot of pop records for up and coming bands. So that’s what we do every day is make records here. There’s like three or four projects we’ve worked on over the last year, and once we’ve finished the next Dragonette record we’ll be continuing on that track of either recording a couple tracks or full albums for people. It’s a great job.”