Musicmakers: Reveling in the New Deal
By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010
For two years in my early 20s, I was obsessed with the band the New Deal.
The majority of my college friends were among the huge Phish following, but I only had eyes for this Canadian trio that brought electronic music to life with keyboards, drums and a bass. My friend Megan and I, along with a small group of fellow die-hards, traipsed across New England to see the band play night after night and logged on to message boards to chat incessantly about each performance. We were utterly devoted.
I tried to spread the gospel. If anyone asked why I slept in my car for weekends at a time to watch them play, I'd launch into a breathless soliloquy about their music. I'd recite the band's tagline -- "live progressive breakbeat house" -- to explain to the uninitiated how keyboard player Jamie Shields, bassist Dan Kurtz and drummer-beatboxer Darren Shearer created the energy of dance music using only live instruments. I'd talk about how they could take the temperature of any club and give the dancers on the floor just what we wanted -- whether it was heart-thumping techno or funky down-tempo grooves. I'd describe Shearer's sheer athleticism in ridiculously gushing detail -- how his arms would flail across the drum kit, delivering hundreds of beats per minute.
This being my first experience with rabid fandom, there were a few hopelessly embarrassing moments along the way. Like the time at a show in California when I accidentally elbowed Shearer in the face as he left the stage. Or the New Year's Eve in Toronto when Megan and I finally got up the nerve to jump up onstage to lead a dance party between sets -- only to be ushered off quickly as the band was about to return. There's also the issue of my questionable green bellbottoms, but that's another story altogether.
I had thought my band-giddy days were behind me, but my love for all things tND was reignited when I got the chance to catch up with Shearer, 36, about what the band has been up to in the many years since I subsisted on bagels and Red Bull. The group has a few shows in the mid-Atlantic this weekend, including one at the 9:30 club Friday, and has been gearing up for festival performances this summer. The live show has always been a hallmark of the band's approach.
"We came to terms a long time ago that we were like, sure, we will put out studio records and we will continue to try to be a band in that function to some degree, but we are a live band," Shearer says. "The New Deal is for the dance floor."
The group got together in 1998, having performed separately in funk and acid jazz groups around Toronto. They were growing bored with that music, Shearer says, and wanted to create an electronic sound with instruments. The young band didn't have a name but booked three nights at a Toronto club.
"There are a lot of bands that come from live music and try to incorporate electronic music into what they do," Shearer says. "We were really trying to channel electronic music through our instruments."
The distinction seems trivial, but it's not. Listen to the music with your eyes closed, and it's easy to imagine a DJ making those beats, basslines and Space Invader-y high notes. This sleight of hand was what had me hooked. It was everything I love about dance music brought to life by passionate, energetic musicians. Take a break from dancing at any New Deal show, and you'll see three great performers reading each other onstage, collectively deciding where they want their jams to go. The band has "songs," sure, but they're played completely differently from night to night.
"Because of the improvisational nature of our music . . . I think we can kind of almost meet that audience where they want to be," Shearer says. "If we see the audience is wanting to rock out full-on like . . . let's just rock this one out like a hard-core spin class, then we'll do that."
My New Deal obsession quieted a bit when the band took time off in 2004, and by the time they returned to touring, I had a real job and couldn't take off a random Tuesday to drive to Cleveland for a show.
Shearer acknowledges that the band saw some audience turnover after the hiatus. "Our age group was getting, you know, Volvos and children and jobs. And we began to see a younger audience start developing," he says.
And I'll be joining them Friday night, dancing like a fiend until well after midnight -- just like old times.