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Man-machine music

Toronto band the New Deal challenge DJs with their live progressive breakbeat house


Before I can even toss my first question at Darren Shearer, drummer of the New Deal, he feels obliged to make a statement of intent, or disintent, which may or may not be inspired by the comments of others about his band–a band that aspires to bring “the vibe and flow of spinning records back to live instruments.”

“We’re by no means dissing DJs,” says Shearer, “but we do feel that we bring more to the table than a DJ can.” And “table” certainly does not mean turntable, for the trio of the New Deal have fooled more than one clubhead–in those hazy dens–by playing just bass guitar, drum kit and keyboards. No samples, no sequencers. A neat description of their music appears on all their flyers (“live progressive breakbeat house”), and the title of their ’99 recorded debut makes it explicit: This Is Live.

But back to Shearer’s preemptive defence– okay, I’ll bite that angle. We’ll set this up as throw-down smackdown; DJ vs. TND, no gloves (‘cuz it’s hard to play drums or mix with those gloves), format to be determined because the New Deal’s trad band gear won’t fit into a DJ booth for the preferred cage match. So, Darren, give us some hype shots for the camera. But first, tell me why you’d want to get into such a brawl?

“Some people may think that we’re biting the hand that feeds us,” responds Shearer, “in that we’re drawing inspiration from [club] music, yet we’re saying that what we’re doing is not necessarily better but more. I think that we bring more to the table.”

No rules in real time

Okay, now forget about the table and tell us what you bring to the ring, er, dancefloor.

“Crowd interaction, spontaneity–we’re able to change our sound on a dime to really emulate the vibe of the room. We can chill out, or bring it down to half-time, or build it up very quickly.”

(The other kicker here is that the New Deal improvise 90 per cent of their music on the spot. You know, like a jazz band. So forget about wondering if you’ve ever seen a live band in a dance club–when was the last time you witnessed improvised music? And if you’re thinking Grateful Dead, keep reading.)

“This isn’t a competition,” continues Shearer, “but I think there should be a real respect carved out for musicians that put their ass on the line–in front of a crowd, with no rules, no set-out songs–to create something amazing in that moment.

“People that make one song and put it out in the clubs and become huge–I think that’s great. But I think there’s so much more to learn from doing it the old-fashioned way: you’re a band–and you go out there and work it.”

Bee-yootiful. Let’s get back to the studio and edit this shit. We’ve only got an hour till airtime.

Fusion illusions

That the New Deal exist–and, in fact, are thriving on the East-Coast tour circuit and on the verge of signing with a U.S. major label–shouldn’t be a surprise. A live band that uses the words “purity,” “layered perfection” and “consistency” as they strive to “emulate” recorded music was probably inevitable given other artists’ quick fusion of dance and rock elements going back to the mid-’90s, when the current rapprochement of the electronic and the electric began.

There have been many such fusions and amalgams and alliances since, and some of the prominent ones include the Sneaker Pimps rock-band trip hop, the Chemical Brothers hooking up with Liam Gallagher (or Beth Orton, for that matter), the guitaristic house music of Rinàçéràse, Moby sampling Smithsonian folk songs and multifarious mainstream moments, as in a Shania Twain dance mix.

But the New Deal are not about fusion. Despite the fact that they embody the bridge between the once long separate worlds of dance and rock, they’re actually purists. But the purism isn’t concerned with genre (TND move freely between house, breakbeat, downtempo, and occasionally ambient), it’s about the medium. The New Deal are a straight-up, old-school band. This is live. Improvised. Nothing prerecorded or even sequenced. This is something different.

Once, a New York club manager wanted to book the New Deal but have them perform out of sight of the crowd–not sure if a live band would go over in his little corner of clubland. If I hadn’t dropped out of grad school, now would have been a good time to invoke Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra or at least Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and go on about how the New Deal take the “original-reproduction” chain one step further. But I’ll just hand it over to a musician, of all people:

“I think it’s come full circle,” says Darren Shearer, quite rightly. “I feel like the New Deal is emulating electronics that are emulating the organic. I mean, we’re not just emulating–we’re trying to emulate and expand on something that’s been produced electronically, that [in turn] was synthesized from something organic. And I think it’s a healthy thing.”

Yeah, eat that–whether it counts as genetically modified or not. Although really, what was ever so organic about an electric guitar?

Something Phishy

A few years ago, the nascent New Deal had a guitarist, and, “we were just playing acid jazz, like ‘The Funky Chicken’ by Jacko, or ‘The Chameleon’ by Herbie Hancock kinda tunes,” says Shearer. Bassist Dan Kurtz and keyboardist Jamie Shields had known each other since grade school, and their schooling took them to McGill’s Music Dept. in the early ’90s, when Shields was drawn to jazz and Kurtz to the Bus Company, which put on Montreal’s first big rave in 1992. Back in T.O. in ’98, the guitarist couldn’t make it for one gig. The boys happened to record that first show as a trio, documented on This Is Live, and that was the new deal.

“Our first album is not so much a house music album,” says Shearer. “It’s very mellow and chill, and that’s because we were playing in front of nobody. We didn’t play in front of anyone for a while. And we slowly started picking it up and getting in front of larger crowds, and people liked the chilled-out stuff, but when we played upbeat house people started freaking out and getting excited. So that’s the perfect example of the fact that the only reason we play the way we do is because of the crowd.”

So, on top of everything else, are the New Deal the ultimate democratic band? Shearer maintains that it’s impossible for them to sell out–imminent big-label deal notwithstanding–because they’ll always follow the vibe of the room. Foolproof? Perhaps. Utterly inclusive? Maybe. The New Deal have played dance clubs like Sona, the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, opened for Big Sugar and Mad Professor, and–to everyone’s surprise–are a huge hit with the very ‘Merican jamband scene.

“It is somewhat the Phish crowd,” ‘fesses Shearer, “which has spilled over from the Grateful Dead crowd. But I think the jamband crowd has latched onto us because they’re beginning to get into electronic music. And the jambands themselves–which we are not!–are starting to add electronic elements to their rock, funky, acid-jazzy sound.

“They’re a very loyal crowd,” says Shearer. “These are the people who drive four hours to come see us play, or follow us around for five or six shows. They’ll buy all the CDs and tell their friends to buy the CDs and will download stuff from Napster and will go to e-tree and find a show like ‘The New Deal live with DJ Logic at the Wetlands.’ And that’s why things like Napster and the MP3 rage don’t really concern me. In fact, I think they’ve totally helped us. It shows you that grassroots promotion is really effective.”

Up to now, the New Deal’s recordings have been of live shows (one album, two EPs), and that makes sense, because they are nothing if not a live band. If you don’t see them live, then the crux of the innovation falls through. But then, what does that mean for the eventual big-label debut, which Shearer says will be done in the studio. What’s the point of that?

“We want to tighten things up,” says Shearer, “so that when we press vinyl, that vinyl that a DJ will lay down will be able to compete with any other DJ/producer’s music.”

So the cage match will take place in the DJ booth! A DJ will be playing the studio music of a quintessentially live band that usually recreates studio music. Roll over Baudrillard, and tell Benjamin the news!

With Mocean Worker at Club Soda on Friday, Nov. 10, 11pm, $10