Getting old, then new again

How theNEWDEAL got its jam back

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Courtesy of theNEWDEAL

Jamie Shields, keyboardist and founder of theNEWDEAL, was enjoying a break from the brain-lock cold last week. Well, what passes for a break from it in Toronto, anyway.

“Yeah, it’s only 10 below today,” he said with a laugh.

Well, all right then, time for a vacation.

So what passes for a vacation for Shields is taking his jamtronica trio out again for a swing through Colorado (where it isn’t much warmer these days), Texas and the East Coast for morsel-sized bits of road work. Born in the early days of jamtronica, the- NEWDEAL had been one of the genre’s more spontaneous, less mannered outfits, deeply invested in euphoric galactic anthems, layers of Shields’ synth colliding and sparkling across a furious rhythm section.

Longtime fans of the outfit already know that this is a small but welcome step back into the fold, as Shields and bassist Dan Kurtz decided a few years ago to put the enterprise on ice.

“When we stopped playing at the end of 2011,” Shields said, “we kind of felt that it had run its course, at least for us.

“theNEWDEAL had always kind of led this shambolic music existence. We never really rehearsed, we never had a set list, we’d just sort of wander on stage and start playing whatever tickled our fancy. And so much of our set was improvised. … All that sort of translated into our collective lives. If we wanted to play, we played. If we didn’t, we didn’t. Wanna do a 40-minute jam? OK. And that worked for us for a long time.

“I think it got to the point where it started to feel like work. We always said that as long as the two hours onstage outweighed the 22 hours when it was just travel and so on, then it was worth it, and we kind of got to the point where that wasn’t the case anymore.”

The band’s original drummer, Darren Shearer, moved off to Los Angeles a few years ago and mostly drifted away from the working musician scene (his seat’s being filled by longtime band friend and sometime-collaborator Joel Stouffer). Kurtz was living in London when Shields invited him to help with a film score he was working on about a year and a half ago; Kurtz moved back to Toronto and the film project inspired them both to start the band up again.

But beyond that, Shields says that the scene had started to change to a point where he and Shearer felt that their gig — broadly reaching, heavily improvised, make-it-up-as-you-go jamtronica — was struggling a bit to find a place in a world increasingly dominated by dubstep and other more formally structured genres. In a sense, theNEWDEAL always felt like a small venue act, more spontaneous and intimate than the big-stage, big-production acts who brought out heavy duty multimedia hardware and whose music seemed increasingly wrapped about samples.

For Shields, the jam and electronic festivals from the early aughts seemed to embrace a musical ethic consistent with the band’s approach, but that started to change.

“About four or five years ago, we kind of noticed that things were moving in a different direction, especially with stuff like dubstep. … I kind of equate it with musical fireworks, where people will go to those types of concerts and oooh and ahhhh at what they’re hearing, but to me, and this is just my opinion, there wasn’t a whole lot of a musical element to it.”

Kind of a Burning Man thing. Performance art.

“Exactly, and that wasn’t what we were really about. We were about improvising and creating dance music on stage that had resonance with us in the band and with our crowd. We kind of felt like we were the odd man out when we were going to some of these festivals… It wasn’t the right fit anymore.”

Leave it to the French guys in helmets to save the day.

“And then about a year and a half ago, Daft Punk came out with their album [Random Access Memories] and Dan had gotten an advance copy of it,” he said. “And we just thought, if this was a barometer of where the music is heading, kind of returning to a more groove-based or emotion-based style of dance music, then maybe it’s something we can slide back into.”

While Shields is passionate about his band’s ethic and their (for this writer, underappreciated) role in the development of the electronic jam/ EDM scene, he is deferential about his own personal musical ambitions — which, he says, are egregiously misaligned to the second decade of the current century.

“I’m the guiltiest for guilty pleasures. I’ve always said that I’m playing soft rock onstage, the other two guys are the cool guys. They’ve got the cool sounds and the electronic element, and I’m playing Steely Dan,” he said. “My latest obsession is collecting television library music from the ’60s. Pop and talk show music, stuff that they played on TV shows. Love it, I can’t get enough of it.”

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