The New Deal reunites and plays Belly Up Aspen
In the years after its formation in Toronto in 1999, the jamtronica band The New Deal became a staple of the Colorado jam band scene, playing Denver and Boulder, in keyboardist Jamie Shields’ words, “a million times.” But Thursday marks The New Deal’s Aspen debut.
The show at Belly Up comes on the trio’s comeback tour, following a four-year hiatus. If you haven’t seen the band before, expect a danceable show powered by long improvisational jams from – imagine this – human musicians rather than computers.
“The New Deal is based on dance and electronic music,” Shields said from Toronto before launching the current tour. “But because it’s three guys playing live instruments and making emotional, creative decisions in real time, it’s always different.”
After becoming a music festival attraction with feet firmly planted in both the electronica and jam band scenes, The New Deal’s members grew disillusioned with the direction of the electronic music scene and broke up in 2011.
The impetus to come back began with Daft Punk’s 2013 album “Random Access Memories,” which Shields saw as a watershed moment for instrumental dance music. It signaled a shift back to the thoughtful approach of bands like The New Deal, he surmised, after crowds had embraced a more abrasive DJ culture for several years.
“From like 2010 onward, we’d go to these festivals and it would just be a massive amount of these dubstep DJs and really aggro music that didn’t have much development, flow or emotional investment in it, and the crowd was there just tweaking,” he said. “To me, it’s the musician equivalent of fireworks. You’re just like, ‘Oh! Whoa!’ And then you’re like, ‘I don’t remember what that was, but it was cool.’ That’s all the live music scene was like for awhile.”
As Shields and bassist Dan Kurtz saw that shift happening, they started talking about bringing the New Deal back. Friends since age 13, the pair had been scoring films and television together during The New Deal’s hiatus. Drummer Darren Shearer opted out. Shields was reluctant, too, but came around as he saw fans clamoring for The New Deal to return.
“We’re in a position right now that millions of bands would love to be in,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m an idiot if I don’t do this,’ because this is not an opportunity that bands don’t have very often: to get back together because of demand.”
It was a tall order to find a drummer that would connect with Shields and bassist Kurtz strongly enough to play the 30- and 40-minute improvised dance songs for which the band is known. The band’s original three-piece lineup played some 1,200 shows together. Joel Stouffer, who plays with Kurtz in Dragonette – and had previously filled in behind the drum set when Shearer broke his hand – clicked immediately with The New Deal, according to Shields.
“We knew it would be tough to find another drummer who could lead through this,” said Shields. “But he stepped right in and it was no problem.”
Those kinds of serendipitous breaks have been a part of The New Deal since its inception. The band’s first live gig, for instance, at Berkfest in Massachusetts, Shields recalled, they were booked to play inside a ski lodge. It was the kind of show at an outdoor summer music festival that’s doomed to be poorly attended. Just before they were set to play, though, a thunderstorm rolled in, packing the venue and catapulting The New Deal’s notoriety.
“Those kinds of things have happened our entire career,” Shields said, laughing about the band’s improbable rise to prominence. “We might have a discussion and say, ‘I want to form a band that plays 45-minute improvised instrumental pieces that change every night, and we’re going to become really popular and play North America. Europe and Asia and it’ll be great.’”
After reuniting last year, the band released “Sabatoge the System,” its first studio song in more than a decade. They also released downloads of the song’s stems and musical elements, inviting fans to remix it. They’ve been recording new music, but don’t yet have set plans for a new album.
“The New Deal doesn’t worry about stuff that much,” he said. “A set list? Meh. What are we gonna play first? We’ll worry about it when we get up there. We’ve never rehearsed! For 12 years we didn’t have a rehearsal. And the only reason we rehearse now – and when we do we just jam for an hour – is to get Joel comfortable and bring his personality to it.”
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