On an early Autumn night high among New York’s Catskill Mountains, I laid in a hammock back stage during the rain. I was about as anxious as anyone could be in a hammock, which wasn’t that much. But the thought had crossed my mind that despite my notes, I would have nothing of substance to ask keyboardist, founding member and one third of jamtronica, or livetronica’s most seminal yet indescribable bands – The New Deal. I’d asked around the festival, the fifth annual Catskill Chill Music Festival that is, and lots of people were excited for their set later that night but had a hard time describing why. Curiously almost everybody stumbled over their words, waved their hands in the air, rubbed their foreheads and squinted at the question: How would you describe The New Deal? Describe…The New Deal?
Apparently this makes as much sense as asking how to divide a triangle by a circle. For once, The Chillfam let me down, or so I thought. What I later realized, thanks to that very key hammock session, was that I’d been approaching it all wrong. The New Deal needs no description, just some context. What I did know was that The New Deal, along with acts like Lotus, STS9, and The Disco Biscuits, are kind of like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and The Clash of their genre. Nobody can say with certainty that any of them really started the style, but they were all there at its inception in the mid-late 90’s. De facto parents of a new thing that combined improvisation and instrumentation to create a blend of jazz, funk, hip hop, and rock all aimed at making new breed of dance-ish music. What I did know was they had been at the top of the scene when three years ago they took an unexpected indefinite hiatus. What I did know was that they’d just come back with a new drummer to tear the lid off of The Hudson Project earlier in the summer. What I did know was that a lot of the younger crowd had only heard legends of their amazingness.
Just then a golf cart cut through the mist, and a miserably drenched PR director laughed her way under the awning trailed by a couple of guys. I was reborn out of my hammock-womb invigorated, prepared to hear the gospel of dance music from a patristic evangelist. I rose, stretched, and was promptly, comfortably, and thankfully seated again next to Mr. Shields, who carries an ambiance all his own. Approachabley Canadian, Jamie shook my hand with a smile and lit his cigarette.
I was about to have the opportunity to ask one of the originators of one of today’s most progressive genres anything I wanted, but I had no idea where to start. So I began by confessing. I figured I’d be up front about it. As much as I felt like an idiot saying it, and not for lack of trying: I’d never seen The New Deal before. So I went off the cuff. I was soon to find out that Jamie Shields, keyboardist of The New Deal, creates music much the same way I create interviews: I kind of know what is going to happen, but there’s definitely a lot made up on the spot.
Jamie Shields: No, definitely not. (Laughs) Well we got a new drummer!
PD: Yeah! Why don’t you tell me about that?
JS: We took a break about three years ago and we didn’t know if we’d be coming back. Like anything else we do with The New Deal, none of it is too planned out. You know, especially with the music, whatever happens, happens. We apply that beyond the music. It’s just kind of how we approach the band. It’s like, alright, we’re going to stop, and maybe we’ll start later, or maybe we won’t. We don’t owe anybody anything, just ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to decide what we want to do. So we took a break about three years ago and we were like “Eh maybe coming back, maybe not.” And then about eight months ago, Dan, the bass player, said “You know, I want to do New Deal shows.” He felt it was kind of missing in his life. And I could see it; it’s kind of a special thing that we do. It has a very strong personality that’s not just like any other kind of band, and he didn’t want to try to find that in another band. He and I have been friends since we were twelve, so we’re always talking. So we started to talk about it and we went to talk to Darren (previous drummer) about it. And Darren now lives in LA, and he wasn’t particularly interested in doing it. So it went back and forth for about six or seven months, and he didn’t know, he didn’t know. So we said “Well, you’ve kind of got to tell us: are you in? Are you out? What’s up?” So he decided that he wasn’t in. So I was like “Well, I don’t want to go find another drummer.” Because you can’t just go pick up any drummer. Right?
PD: Of course.
JS: Drummers are taught to follow. Uh, and they’re taught to, you know, “Don’t step out of line, just fuckin’ play. Follow the bass player, and do your thing.” That’s not the case in The New Deal. As the drummer, you lead just as much as anyone else in the band. You want to change something? Change it. You want to call something? Call something. Just fucking do it, and we’ll follow it. Hard to find someone like that who doesn’t have to have done that already, but has to have the ability and ears to listen for that kind of thing and be able to do it.
Joel (new drummer) plays in Dragonette with Dan. I’ve known Joel for ten years, Dan’s known him forever, we’ve played with him before. He filled in for Darren when Darren broke his hand. So he understood what had to happen and he got it without having any problems. But most importantly I like him as a person. You see I don’t want to hang out with anyone that much that I don’t particularly like. You’re hanging out a lot, you’re on the road a lot. And then we started to jam, and we were like “So let’s see how this goes with Joel.” Because trying to find someone else outside of the city (Toronto), it’s not going to work. How the fuck are you going to become a musical family? After the first five minutes it was clear: “Yeah, this is going to work!” He comes at a severe disadvantage. Dan and I have played 1100 shows as The New Deal.
JS: We have our own language beyond the communication that we have on stage, we’re just able to play without really saying anything to each other. We’ve never really had to explain that to anyone. It’s always just been Dan and Darren and me. So it took a while for us to understand that he (Joel) doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know all the shit that we’ve done in the past. So bringing him up to speed was a really big deal but it wasn’t hard because we saw that he could do it. And then we played like that for about three or four months in a rehearsal space. We’d play for an hour – just play, not learn any of our tracks, just play – take a break, and just play again. Right? Because the ultimate New Deal set is one where we just play! We don’t worry about any of our songs, we don’t worry about making sure that we play a certain track. It’s mostly jamming, it’s like 90% improvised. So once we got that down and we felt that we were going to be able to do it we started to learn some of our tracks – and that’s what we did. After about three or four months we thought “Yeah this is fucking great!” We’ve learned about three or four tracks, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. We play 45 minute jams. Tracks? Maybe one per set. So we started doing a couple and we started playing some shows in July. Our first one was at The Hudson Project and I guess we’ve played about six shows since then and each one is progressively better because we get progressively more comfortable with each other as a new unit. Like I said it’s not like, “Just play the song and be done,” it’s not like that at all. Because each track might be 35 or 40 minutes, they go through a lot of changes within the piece. Everyone’s got to be like “Ok I’m ready to do it, or I’m ready to keep on this – I’m just ready.” And you’re not ready until you’re really comfortable with each other. So he’s in. And that’s just a godsend because I didn’t think we’d be able to find anyone to replace Darren. Just in terms of familiarity and the ability to just go up there and play. We never had a practice. Before Joel, The New Deal never had a rehearsal. Ever. Ever. So it was nice to be able to step right back into it with just a little bit of jamming at home.
PD: That’s incredible, for never having rehearsed. Do you think part of the reason why he fits so well is due to his involvement in Dragonette. Do they take a similar sort of approach?
JS: No, not really. They’re very singles oriented, they’re like a pop band. But Joel has a real big jazz background. What he has is the ability to really, really listen when he plays. And that’s all it is. And you’ve got to be a good drummer, but there’s a million good drummers out there. Good drummer, that’s just a given. Beyond that level, you have to have the ability to listen to what everybody else is doing, and like I said, to lead. And Joel never had to lead before, right? So it’s like “…you want me to what? Ok, now?” And we’re like, “I don’t know, whenever you want, man. Change here, change there.” Or we’d go through our tracks, and it’d be like “Ok well do this first and then we’ll go to this part. But sometimes we don’t go to that part. Sometimes we’ll do it four times as long.” And he’s like, “Well, which one?” and I’m saying “I don’t know, you decide! When we play it, you decide, and we’ll just fucking play, we’ll follow. You know?” And he says “Really? ok…” But once we’d done it enough, he goes “Ok ok, I get it.” That’s a trait that’s not necessarily part of every drummer. There’s lots of awesome drummers but they’re awesome at playing the groove and following the bass player and starting and stopping and that’s it. He’s got that, but he also has the ability to blend in, and contribute to whatever piece we’re just creating on the spot.
JS: Crucial! Huge.
PD: So besides the obvious, how would you compare this latest string of shows to those three years ago and before?
JS: Oh yeah they’re different.
JS: Well, sonically speaking, we’ve changed some sounds. Dan has taken a dramatically different approach to…the guy never has a standard bass guitar sound, right? He’s got hard core synth bass electronic music low end kind of bass sounds that could be coming right out of a synth. And he’s got a bunch of synths that he’s set up through his bass guitar. And when you hear it, you say “Well that doesn’t sound like bass, that sounds like low end synth.” He did a little of that in the old style New Deal, but now that we’ve had a little time to kind of sit back, we decided to make some changes in that regard. When we stopped, you know, dub step was like the thing about three or four years ago. We would play and it would sound so out of step with everything else going on at the festival but we didn’t care, we always did what we wanted to do but it was like “Ok this isn’t resonating with our fans the way it used to.” And then during our little break things like the Daft Punk record came out, and dub step kind of faded away. People are back to what we think are the most important elements of the music, which is like, the rhythm, just kind of like feeling something. And it doesn’t mean an endless jam on the same chord. Uh, it means, developing something from the heart, right? Stuff like dub step, you know, I enjoy it, but it’s not from the heart. It’s completely mathematical creating, it’s like architecture. And people listen to it or dance to it like you would a fireworks display. You’re like “Oh cool! Oh right on! Oh wow!” And that’s kind of not our element. It’s not like we’re all mellow and shit, we’re kind of hard core. Ours is much more of a visceral reaction because what we’re trying to do is create dance music that has a little passion to it, or a little bit of human element to it. And that wasn’t really popular about four years ago, right? But the shit that stays, that lasts, is the stuff that true in music, in general. And that’s the case with our style. It’s not necessarily about us, I would never go to that length to say it’s about us, but it’s about art in the style we play.
PD: What you’re shooting for.
JS: Yeah. And the style we play has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years if not more. It’s music from the heart. Rhythm, groove, and emotion that isn’t drawn up on a computer and played exactly the same way every time, right? We used to play a lot of jazz festivals as well as raves, and that was because there was a relationship between our usual listener and us, that was something like “Well OK, fuck up, that’s fine! What you’re doing is hitting me on a gut level, and I dig it. I dig the mistakes because it’s human. I dig where you’re going. I dig that that didn’t sound so good because you’re making it up on the fucking spot.” So that little spot where we’re trying to figure out where we’re going next is bookended by fucking two stellar pieces of improvised music. So it all works out perfectly, right? This relationship that we have with the fans is this honest, like, “Well here we are! You either dig it or you don’t. If you dig it, let’s go. If you don’t, check out the other tent over there. Right?” And that’s all we bring to it. I’m not going to worry about what you like and what you don’t in terms of styles of music. You kind of either like The New Deal, or you don’t. There’s so many elements to the style of music we play. Ya dig what we do or ya don’t. And you see the people and it really resonates with them. And as a result, since we’ve come back, we’ve seen a lot of new people, but also a lot of people who’ve been following us for a long time: and they still dig it. Because it’s still the same thing: music from the heart, created emotionally, by human hands, doing it right then and there.
PD: That’s awesome. I’d like to know about your preferences in gear and what you’ve changed since the hiatus.
JS: Me personally?
PD: You, the band, whatever’s important.
JS: Darren used to play an acoustic drum kit with a little bit of electric drums. With the exception of the cymbals and the high hats, everything Joel plays is electronic. My opinion on that, always, is “Hey if it sounds good, I don’t give a shit what it is.” If it works, and it’s working for us, than go for it. So that’s new. As far as gear goes for Dan, his rig is completely revamped. The only thing that’s the same is the bass guitar. Now he’s always been a fairly progressive guy on this scene since the very beginning. I know a lot of very big bass players and a lot of big bands on this scene, good friends of mine, who’ll be the first to admit to me that all they’ve been doing is trying to cop Dan’s sound. Which he’s done with filters and pedals and trying to create his own unique sound, which he has, and it’s been ripped off a lot. But that’s fine, that’s what music is. People will take something and they’ll make it their own. So his rig is completely different. He’s running a whole series of fucking effects in line on his computer into his electric guitar and I don’t know how the fuck he does it. In jams, in the rehearsal space, he’s like…I don’t know what the fuck he’s doing. He’s like, creating computer programs on his screen and Joel and I are always like “What the fuck is he doing?” And then he’ll get ready and he’ll play and he’ll blow our fucking minds! “You just created that right now? Wow. Well that’s fucking heavy.” And it’s great. Yesterday in our second set we started to play and he came in and Joel and I were like “Wow. Where did that come from? That’s not a bass guitar, man” And it was perfect. It’s all about him creating new programs through his laptop that he plays on his bass guitar. It’s fucking, nice. For me, I use mostly the same rig. I’ve gotten rid of one keyboard and added some more soft synth stuff. Just to have a bigger palette. I’m not limited in what I have, I’ve got five keyboards up there, but I wanted something else in there to help create a new language for me up there. A lot of the synths I have, I don’t use many presets. I have something that I created that I call the “Random Past Generator,” where I just pick a fucking sound.
PD: Random Past Generator?
JS: Right. I just pick a sound. And I’ll start playing it, and then I’ll start creating a sound I like based on what I’m hearing. And I’ll never have it again. The downside is I never have it when I want to try to play it again.
PD: You can’t cue it back up?
JS: No. Random! I don’t even know what keyboard it was on when I’m hearing it. But I like that. It’s like it’s for the ages. For that moment. For people recording it. I have five keyboards, I’d say that I have about five presets on my entire rig. Everything else is just generated on the spot. I’ll pick a sound and then I’ll just start tweaking it until I find something I like about it. So, as a result of that, when we started to talk about coming back, our front of house sound engineer, he’s been with us since day one back in about 1999, I said to him “Well I guess I should just get a whole new rig, right?” Because I know those guys always have to be repairing my shit because it’s old, it’s mostly 70’s and 80’s gear. And they say “Fuck no man! That’s your sound! That’s your signature shit!” And I said, “Well alright.” I play the Moog Prodigy synthesizer. I hear a lot of bands out there sound somewhat similar. But that happens, they hear something they dig, they take it with them and they do something with it. I got that for $30 at a yard sale.
PD: What? Aren’t they worth a couple grand?
JS: Now they’re worth about $1200, yeah. So those sounds I still use because they’re kind of signature. But I’ve added a soft synth in there just to create some different sounds that I’m not able to create on the 70’s and 80’s gear that I have. But I get the most mileage out of most of my keyboards, man, because I just take a sound and start fucking with the knobs and see what you get. And you know you hit it, it feels good, and then I just go with it. I’ll play it, and then it’s gone, it’ll never happen again. (Laughs)
PD: Do you remember where you got it?
JS: The Prodigy? Oh it was in Toronto. Long time ago, long time ago. I got a Moog Modular System at a yard sale in Toronto for $70. Big ass Modular system, from 1968.
PD: What year was that?
JS: The Prodigy I got in 1995 for $30. The Modular I got in 1998.
PD: So what would you say is your favorite or most crucial piece of gear?
JS: Good question. Probably the Prodigy. That’s the sound most associated with me. People hear it and know it’s me immediately, or hear other people playing it and know it’s someone trying to cop me. But the only reason I got into that is I was trying to cop someone else. (laughs) Like Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, or even just Frank Zappa. I get described sometimes as being somewhat Zappa-esque on the synth, right? I’m just playing super weird synth lines that kind of sound like a guitar now and then, not the sound but the style I’m playing in. Guys like that, that was my initial approach. That’s all jazz improvisation ethic, but with a funk background for 70’s style music.
PD: So these musicians inspired your tone or the style you play?
JS: Well no, just to pick up a synth and try to play. They didn’t play a Prodigy, but I thought “Well that’s a synth and that’ll be cool for playing lead lines.” They used stuff like it, mine is like a budget model. It’s really small. And when the band started, we weren’t going to be a real band, we were just a weekly thing at a club. So I just brought out whatever gear I had. You know? So it kind of went “This is the kind of gear I’ll stay with I guess.”
PD: Sounds like it’s worked out.
JS: (Laughs) So far!
PD: Do you have a formula for generating material or is it 100% spontaneous? I get the impression that a lot of people don’t know.
JS: Yup, you don’t know. Some of the creation we’re doing on stage, if I wasn’t there playing it, I’d think it was written before. For sure it was written before. But it’s not. We have about thirty “tracks” that we play, like heads, that we do over and over. And the only way those were created was by us listening back through our shows and saying “Oh let’s do that again. Let’s make that into something.” That’s how all our shit’s created. All the tunes that anybody knows from us were just created on stage. And we record all our shows, all 1100 of them we have in our archive. So we listen back, and that’s how every single track that we play has been created. So the way we create tracks is by jamming them and making them up on stage and then hearing them back and deciding what we want to play again. It’s fucked up. It’s backwards.
PD: It’s backwards, you said it…
JS: It is! It’s completely backwards. We make it up on stage and then listen back and go “Well that’s a song…” That’s not how things work. So that’s how we do our shit. We know, based on the three or four shows we played last week, I know that I’ll be listening to those shows to pick out the tracks that we’re going to have new songs come out of. I know because I remember some of them being fucking awesome, right? (laughs)
PD: So how much time would you say you spend listening to last week’s shows?
JS: Well I’ll just listen to the show once, pick out the pieces that are good, send them to the guys, and then at sound check we’ll listen again and say “Let’s play this again.” We don’t work it out: that’s for the show. (laughs) We’ll continue to create it, on stage.
PD: So you listen to it once, pick out the good parts, send it to the guys…
JS: Yeah, make sure we’re all on the same page, but not create a structure for it. We’ll let the structure create itself.
JS: Yeah, that’s part of the from the heart, right? Whatever feels right, whenever we want to make the change, that’s how it works. And there’s so many moments, and this happens with Joel now too, which really proves to me that he’s understanding what we’re trying to do. There’ve been so many moments on stage where we’re making a track up and he’ll make up a change and it’ll be exactly the change I wanted to make. And we didn’t say anything. Or we’ll be playing along and then at the same time, without us saying anything, without it ever happening before, both of us will just go (drum noises implying a synchronicity of rhythm). Well how did he know to do that? How did I know to do that? It just felt that it was was it. And that’s that from the heart creation element that you can’t make in somebody. They either have to have it or they don’t. And you know we’re on the same wavelength when that shit happens. And everybody’s creating the piece together and nobody’s saying anything to each other and we’re just there. It’s happening, we’re letting it happen, really. We’re letting it unfold they way it should. I try not to think at all about music when I play. I can’t. We never talk about the set beforehand, we don’t have a set list.
PD: How could you?
JS: Right! We just step on stage and start fucking playing. We could say “We’ll play this song first,” but we don’t. There’s a whole series of hand signals that we have for each other for changes and that’s it. That’s the only communication that we have.
PD: Oh so you have the hand signals, ok. I was actually about to ask about them because what you’re describing as far as improvisation reminds me of Umphrey’s McGee.
JS: Now I play in many bands with Brendan, Ryan and Chris, and they’re really good friends of mine, and I can’t confirm this, but…they might have stolen the hand signal thing from us. In fact they might have told me that. I love those guys, I see them all the time, they’re very good friends, I’m not dissing them in the slightest. I have nothing but respect. If there’s any band I ever talk about most glowingly in any interview, it’s Umphrey’s McGee. Those guys have the fucking hardest work ethic of any band I’ve ever met. They’re the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I’ve stayed in all of their houses, they’ve stayed in mine. They’re fucking great guys. You can tell Vince, you can tell any of them: I believe they stole the hand signal idea from us. (laughs)
PD: (Laughs) You believe they told you, or they told you they stole it from you?
JS: Uh I think they told me but I can’t remember. They’ve told me lots of stuff… Ha, I think they did.
PD: Lastly, what’ve you got coming up for shows?
JS: We’re in Red Rocks at the end of September. Ah, we’ve got a bunch of shows coming up! We’re in (Suwannee) Hulaween, we’re in Atlanta. We’re in Vegas at Halloween. We’re in New York and Philly in November, we’re in Dominican Holidaze in December. San Francisco in January and then we’re back in April. We’re not going out on six-week tours anymore; I’ve got two kids at home. Right? But we’re playing as much as we can, and we’re playing as much as we’re able to right now. Everyone’s got a lot of shit on the go. When we started this band I was 27. I had no responsibility besides this band. Got a lot of other responsibility now, (laughs) got a lot of other responsibility now.
PD: I can’t think of anything that confused me about The New Deal as of a half hour ago that I couldn’t go explain to somebody now.
JS: Beauty. Pleasure, man!
PD: The New Deal seems like the most inexplicable band around these days, so thank you so much.
JS: Yup, trying to explain it to Joel when he started to play with us was like, “I can’t explain it man, just sit down and start playing, it’s going to be good.” And that’s it! I say that to anybody. Dude just come see it! You’ll either like it or you won’t. If you like it, you’ll love it and you’ll come back. If you don’t, you won’t: that’s it.
Written and Photographed by Pete DeStefano
OurVinyl | Contributor