Published Oct 01, 2001"It was such a beautiful accident."
Dan Kurtz, bassist for the New Deal, is reliving his band's birth. It was a legendary conception, a rockn'roll myth for a group that is, to put it mildly, far from rock.
Most live acts are cobbled together by music-minded friends, sometimes through desperate ads in the street press, almost always involving long hours annoying neighbours in dank basements. They finally score a show and naturally, no one shows up.
On this last part, the New Deal were far from extraordinary. When the trio of Kurtz, keyboardist Jamie Shields and drummer/ beatbox Darren Shearer entered Toronto's Comfort Zone on a dreary Wednesday in the dying days of 1998, approximately five people bore witness to history. The trio, already well deep in Toronto's jazz/funk scene as vital parts of One Step Beyond, ¡Que Vida! and Gypsy Sol, decided to try something new. Shearer had a regular gig as the acid jazz house band, hiring various friends to perform with. When he brought Kurtz and Shields in, they all noticed a curious chemistry one that was not being catalysed by their monotonous set list.
"We went to the Comfort Zone to see what would happen if we didn't have to play a host of tunes that we were beating ourselves over the head about. And it got taped by accident to a cassette."
Free from the expectations of an actual crowd, the three simply improvised in the Zone, enabled by the fact that Kurtz and Shields had been playing music together since they were 14. While admittedly down-tempo, the two-night stand presaged the beginnings of what may be world's only "live progressive breakbeat house" band.
It resulted in their first release, the aptly-titled This Is Live, so dubbed to let people know that breathing beings pumped this shit out. Suddenly they were a band. And they didn't even have a name yet.
"We freaked out," Kurtz says of his first listen. "I remember playing the tape at my house and phoning these guys and going you have to come over and hear this because this is the best thing I've ever done.' If we have any philosophy of how we make music, it is from that show. This is what we can do if we're not deliberate about what we set out to do when we play. This came without rehearsals, without songwriting. And it just happened to be a really great moment. We run the risk of having less than stellar moments in order to keep open the possibility of another This Is Live happening. But to me, that is one of my favourite moments of my life."
Shearer, who inadvertently created the band, was no less impressed with the results. "It showed us this is the way we have to make music. Also, I can't stand rehearsing."
The New Deal Really Is
Fusing the DJ aesthetic of dance culture where you don't stop till you get enough with the improvisational unpredictability of the jam-happy children of the Dead may seem like a natural enough mix, especially given the warmth of house music. But almost no one else is doing it.
Their sonic uniqueness albeit with enough similarities to be lumped in with beat-happy jammers such as Disco Biscuits and Lake Trout has garnered the band notice throughout North America, including write-ups in Urb, CMJ and Spin.
It also tends to inspire hyperbole the Village Voice writing they "recoup and revamp disco past, present and future" while DJ Logic has famously dubbed them "the Kraftwerk of the new millennium."
And they attract a seriously dedicated fan base, the hardcore of whom participate in a newsgroup numbering over 400 calling themselves Dealerz, they drive hours to shows and trade tapes like Pokemon cards.
"They're like the nexus of information dissemination. They find out everything and they spread it out from there," says Shields, who has taken on the role of newsgroup guru reading the posts, contributing updates and road tales, even asking fans for taped copies of shows he might have missed. "The tape trading has been incredibly key in developing the band. People who may have never heard of the band are turned on by a friend and they turn on another friend. The speed at which that travels is mind-boggling. We get emails from people in Europe and we've never been to Europe."
Now the band is about to make its first foray into the "proper" music industry with this month's release of The New Deal, on Zomba records. For the first time, the band gains access to a major label-sized recording and touring budget. But what it won't stop is the success of their efforts so far having built their entire reputation through word of mouth and stunning performances, that approach remains foremost.
The band has an uncanny way of drawing people in. Justin White, a 24-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, saw the New Deal for the first time at the end of August and was immediately hooked.
"While I was dancing for an hour-and-a-half straight with my feet three feet off the ground, my jaw was dropped to the floor in awe and amazement at the same time," he writes via email. "What was just as impressive though was that all three of the members of the New Deal were looking back at everyone in the crowd with a look on their faces expressing amazement also. They were in awe that 2000 people were receiving them so intensely."
You see, the New Deal appeals to the kids who shouldn't like dance music, the Phish-heads who eschew technology in favour of the authentic experience of musicians drowning in their own creative juices night after night. Which, miraculously, the New Deal avoids, despite their sets being about 90 percent improvised touching down on basic reoccurring themes and melodic tags.
"A lot of the stuff that we like individually fits into a common language that can be defined loosely as house music in terms of its tempo, the way Darren approaches drums and a lot of the jazzy chords and stuff Jamie and I play," Kurtz says. "But there's too much human imperfection to be considered electronic music. We approximate relatively reliable four-on-the-floor beat but at the same time, we jam on stage.
"But it's very different from the archetypal jam band who tend to get lost in themselves. For us, the line between the band and the crowd is really blurred. They have a tremendous impact on what we're going to play and there isn't a self-indulgent moment ever, ever, ever when we play. There isn't going to be a ten-minute bass solo over Darren playing hand drums when everyone wants to be rocking out. We're pretty much slaves to the rhythm that way."
This lack of artistic self-importance is derived from a genuine love and respect for DJs who have fewer reservations about serving the crowd what it wants. Kurtz was involved in promoting Montreal's rave scene in the early 90s and Shearer aspires to sound like a drum machine. Both lament the mediocrity of today's live music scene and the morphing of concert halls to dance clubs and they are stoked about bringing back dance fans to witness the creators of the music, not just the suppliers.
"Whatever is coming out of our mind at that moment is making it onto the speakers," explains Shields, the least electronically-influenced of the trio. "They know that they are getting the real deal right there. That's a visceral reaction that the fans have, they see it being created right in front of them, night after night."
Though they manage to avoid the primary pitfalls of both genres the noodling of jam and repetition of house they can come across as too live for ravers and too electronic for jammers. Nevertheless, they've managed to bridge both cultures. They're as at home playing a dance party as they are on the jam or jazz fest circuit. And they've won over crowds opening for bands as wide-ranging as Mad Professor, Gil Scott-Heron, Jane's Addiction and Dimitri From Paris.
"And it works," says Shearer. "It's not like East coast rap versus West coast rap and there's big brawls. The people work really well together and they all get down. They just get down differently."
Of course, the band also loses a little in the fusion. The precision of dance music is by no means achieved, neither is the ability to up the BPMs too high Shearer flies only so fast. And the artistic license jammers treasure is untenable in a house music setting. Not to mention, of course, they tire faster than a turntable.
"At times my hand stops working because it's been three hours," Kurtz says. "There's nothing I can do, I can't put on another record. That's the risk of playing live."
"I can drop a stick better than any drum machine," Shearer adds, smiling. "We're never going to be 100 percent perfect, but I think trading any of the interaction and energy we get from playing our instruments live for that would be absolutely foolish."
Perhaps this deep into the rave-olution, heads are starting to pine for what Shearer calls the "human element," a connection as intangible as making eye contact with a pretty girl across a crowded dance floor. We want live, but at the same time, we have no patience for the pause, that interminable break between songs to feed the performer's ego with cheers. We prefer to holler when we want to, when the music has aroused us into such a frenzy that we can't help but scream. And dammit, we don't want to stop dancing.
The New Deal know this.
"Music can have a phenomenal impact if it works into your head 40 or 50 minutes at a time without stopping," Shearer says. "That's the best thing about DJs and a phenomenal DJ can really change the vibe up or down or sideways, anticipating what the crowd wants. That's what we try to draw out of that."
Using a complex system of hand signals and other non-verbal cues, they "spin" sets, often drumming out of the opening DJ's last record and letting each song mix seamlessly into the next sometimes building to 25-minute monster breakdowns, other times including snippets of, say, Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer."
It's why they have been accepted into rave culture like few live acts. But this is not DJ Sneak with ears in headphones and hands in his record crate. This is not even a "live PA" where the Chemical Brothers twiddle knobs while cool videos distract us. This is a band that emulates a DJ and, somehow, doesn't suck.
"We're progressive in that it is completely with live instruments, no samplers, no sequencers we've said the line a million times. It's just what we do," explains Darren for the millionth time. "But above and beyond the fact that it's live, it is about what the three of us bring to the energy of house music the pulsating room and sweating bodies getting into it. But we bring much more to it. We don't sound like Armand van Helden, we don't sound like Josh Wink. We sound like the New Deal."
Now the ante is upped as the indie kids go major albeit with a deal that allows them to keep putting out live records on their own releasing a self-titled disc on Jive Electro, a division of Zomba, home to the not-so-spontaneous likes of Britney, Backstreet and *NSync.
Following their accidental emergence, the trio founded Sound & Light Records to put out their work, which prior to this summer had consisted of three live albums two-track recordings off the mixing board for which they controlled everything. Since then they have been slowly letting go, signing a management deal with Nettwerk (who also run the careers of Sarah McLaughlin and Barenaked Ladies) and releasing the four-song EP Receiver on Jive Electro earlier this summer.
"We were a cottage industry before, right down to recording, editing, mastering, graphic design, assembling, mailing, getting press and booking shows," Kurtz says. "[Jive Electro] has misrepresented us in the past by virtue of not caring or by accident or because of a timeline. But relative to what it could be, it's a phenomenal deal so far. We've been able to do things like make this record, which could never have afforded to do, and take on what is going to be a really substantial tour entirely thanks to their wallet."
It has also allowed them to momentarily enter the surreal world of pop, briefly hanging with *NSync's JC, getting a photo with Backstreet's Howie ("Man, is he short," Shearer recalls) and being asked to remix a Britney track something the band nonchalantly refused. "I think it would be the largest PR nightmare ever trying to justify why we spent our time making a Britney Spears record as opposed to one of our own," says Kurtz.
Despite denying Spears any BT-style dance cred, the head of Zomba is apparently a fan and with the oodles of cash his pop tarts bring in, he can afford to allow the New Deal to build a career slowly. It would be an opportunity most bands no longer receive, as they are pushed like cattle onto the charts and slaughtered just as quickly if they don't make an instant impression. Even then, the mega-corporations no longer guarantee support. But the band doesn't seem worried.
"We're three guys that got signed on the basis of no demo, there's no singer, we play 20 minute songs," Shields says incredulously. "And we make it up every night."
"There's nothing about The New Deal that says it's going to be a million-selling record," adds Kurtz. "They could blow their wad and totally misrepresent us and misrepresent everything about the whole culture the band has built up, the music itself, the purpose of the band. And we could sell a modest number of records and our brand, to use a marketing term, would be ruined.
"On the other hand, if we put out a record every 12 months and continue to tour then that is what we're interested in. Zomba is around for the long haul and that's how they look at us not a flash in the pan."
This self-titled major label debut is not the most arresting release in dance music history the band knows it's their live show that has got them this far one would be hard-pressed on first listen to realise it was the sound of three musicians at play.
And while it does capture that element, it's not simply a record of a really good show. It's more like a record of 60 really good shows. With the help of a mega-expensive recording rig, the band embarked on the road, multi-tracking each improvised performance from Montreal to Boulder to Missoula and then messing with the bits and bytes.
"We started that with a little bit of trepidation. We know that we perform better in front of people, we need the give and take of an audience to make sure we're doing our best," says Shields. "But we didn't have any touchstones to relate to because we didn't know of any other record that recorded that way. Once we got into the flow it was good, but it was an incredibly long process."
"It meant a tremendous amount of moving data from one computer to the next. We discovered, holy shit, this is going to be the biggest editing job of all time," Kurtz agrees. "We were trying to make songs that would work for a record as opposed to how they worked well live basically writing songs out of raw materials on the tapes."
Confronted with not only naming their spontaneous compositions but actually condensing them from their traditional slow-build format they consider themselves "set composers" more than songwriters proved a challenge for the band, and they did add some studio work into the mix.
"Technobeam," for example by far the record's ecstatic highlight boasting a Knight Rider hook and nine-minute build that defies you not to dance was recorded as 22-minute jam in Shields' basement, since the high-energy track tends to get a little sloppy in a club scenario. Other tracks were built from "samples" of the band's live performance a bass line here, a drum pattern there, 30-second to two-minute stretches cut and pasted and looped in what they dub "slash-and-burn recording."
"It was a balance between making a record that was true to what the New Deal had been up to that point and making a record that satisfies any number of requirements that a major label record needs. Which is a certain degree of sound quality that made us throw away a lot of material and it had to adhere to a format that they like, you know X number of tracks, X number of minutes long," says Kurtz. "If we tried to make a true representation of the live show it would have been less than a great record."
In the end, the elements of house, drum & bass, funk, jazz and trance coalesce into a great record to play on your headphones, preferably while waiting in line to see the real deal the band even joked about including a ticket in each jewel box. They will be hitting the road in support of the release for their most ambitious tour yet culminating in a proposed New Year's Eve show in their hometown of Toronto, before staggered releases in Japan, Australia and Europe. Just don't expect to hear on stage what you hear from your speakers. For the New Deal, every show has been unique and it's not sure as hell going to change now.
"That's the best thing about our audience," Kurtz says. "And why we can consider going back to the same city ten times in a year. As long as we guarantee to the audience we're going to give them something new every time, the audience has this reciprocal agreement where they say We're going to support and push you.' The worst thing that could happen is that the New Deal is playing the ten songs that are on that record."
"At Casino Rama," Shearer pipes in cheerfully.
Photos by Roman Sokal