May 3, 2008
Tom Moon interview
TITLE: The Return of Steely Dan
INTERVIEWER: Tom Moon
SOURCE: Musician magazine
DATE: September 1993
The new Rolling Stone arrives. Donald Fagen has heard that the review of his second solo album Kamakiriad is not totally favorable. He's just spent 2hours with once and future cohort Walter Becker deconstructing the myths that gather around Steely Dan like black clouds, so he's ready for a fight. He begins to read aloud.
"If the firmament of pop were a high-school yearbook, Donald Fagen would qualify for either class beatnik or class nerd."
"Already a big mixed metaphor right there," he bristles. "Now am I up in the firmament or in the yearbook?"
He keeps reading. "The futuristic song-cycle suggests the fantasy of an overgrown kid who dreams of touring the galaxy in the coolest automobile ever built." Did I ever go into space in the car? Do you remember that?
"The journey eventually takes him to the Florida Keys, where he fantasizes he's being murdered in On the Dunes." "Now, how does he get from 'it was like homicide' to being murdered?"
Ah, yes. It's been a while. Seems like decades since these acid-tongued bards of thinking-person's pop have had anything to gripe about. They're clearly aware of the adversarial volleys that are now part of the legend. And after all, they're here to kick-start Steely Dan, to return one of the most bizarro success stories of the 1970s to active status following a mysterious decade-plus absence.
Last summer, in one of rock's mmore curious turnabouts, the two artists who spent their stardom swearing they hated touring provided children of the 1970s with something we were brought up knowing we'd never see: thousands of people on their feet, singing along with that resolution about never going back to My Old School. Sure, it was part of the all-star New York Rock & Soul Revue, but so what? The band was roaring and the main men were serene, breathing fresh life into music they hadn't performed in nearly 20 years, if at all. And, wonder of wonders, they enjoyed it. Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, victims of the bad-PA-opening-for-Slade grind. Evermore a studio band, they became known for wanting to control every guitar quip and cymbal crash. When keyboardist Fagen and guitarist/bassist Becker split after Gaucho in 1980, it was clear they'd worn the concept out.
Yet here they are. Back again, as Steely Dan. Fagen says he and Becker have talked about more collaboration, possibly a new Steely Dan studio album once Becker's solo debut gets finished. Drew Zingg, the guitarist and musical director for both the Rock & Soul Revue and this summer's Steely Dan tour, says Fagen & Becker have had to come to grips with the lingering affection fans have for Steely Dan: "I don't thik they quite understood the phenomenon. That people are fanatic about hearing this music," he said days after tickets for a Madison Square Garden show sold out in some 40 minutes. "He [Fagen] really took it cautiously. From the very first Rock & Soul gigs where he wouldn't sing at all. By the end of the tour last summer, I saw him really enjoying himself."
Zingg says the tour, which may be recorded for a live album, will be anything but nostalgic: "They want to openit up. Have as much of an improvisational approach as possible. The band is geared toward that. And the only way these two will play some of the older things is to substantially rework them. Rewrite the horn charts or something."
These days, rock artists enjoy anendless supply of second acts and Unplugged comebacks. Even the least cynical in Steely Dan's audience must wonder about this: Not them too. Why, after all this time spent with a secure legacy, risk adding another verse? Why return now, at a time when the sons of the Dan (most recently Bruce Hornsby) find themselves hitless? When selections from Kamakiriad (it hurts to report) regularly turn up on jazz-lite radio? When intelligent pop is an oxymoron?
TOM: What made you do it?
DONALD: Money. Of course. I think my manager was trying to prove that this could be done in a way that wasn't too onerous. Cause all we had was memories of the early 1970s, being for the most part an opening act. Kind of rough road-trips. I think one of the big things was that you could be comfortable enough so that you could actually play at night without having gone thru this ballistically bruising traveling.
WALTER: What we did last summer made clear to us that this whole procedure of traveling around with rock-&-roll bands and playing concerts for people has evolved considerably.
DONALD: In a really scientific manner.
WALTER: And the other thing I saw, which I guess Donald had already experienced in his previous ...
DONALD: ... life ...
WALTER: ... live performances. What were you in your previous life?
DONALD: Remember in the movie The Egyptian, the architect who built the pyramids?
WALTER: That was you?
WALTER: What was I saying? At those shows, I was reminded of the fact that there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for hearing this music performed live. Throughout the Rock & Soul shows, practically everything that we did was really well-received. But there was a certain segment of the audience who were saving themselves for the Steely Dan songs. There was a real demand for it.
TOM: Why now?
DONALD: A lot of it has to do with having some new material. The Kamakiriad record. The fact that Walter's got some new material of his own. It it was just us going out doing Steely Dan material, I'd have to think a lot harder about doing that. eVen with rearranging them and so on, there's still the same element of nostalgia that I'm really not interested in.
TOM: How do you feel about playing arenas?
WALTER: We did at least one arena last year. The Spectrum in Philadelphia. While it was kind of weird-sounding onstage, it actually sounded good out in the hall.
DONALD: We played at Madison Square Garden when we were with Jay & The Americans. On this big oldies show. And that wasn't bad.
WALTER: Hugo lost his tambourines and shakers. You remember that. It was a tragedy. We played there twice. Once it was in the round. And that sounded pretty good. And those were pretty harmonically sophisticated, rhythmically precise arrangements we had with Jay & The Americans. Our Day Will Come sounded great.
TOM: What's your recollection of the 1974 Steely Dan tour?
WALTER: I don't think I was making any memory tracks by the end of that tour. Luckily there were a few recordings. The band was young. And there was a lot of medication of various types going on. As was generally found in the day. Of course, the audience was much more medicated than the band could ever afford to be. There were all sorts of interesting musical and personal clashes going on onstage. There was a core band there--5 guys, right--that was about to disintegrate. It was loud and guitar-heavy.
DONALD: We were getting pretty good by the end of the run. When Mike McDonald joined the band. Jeff Porcaro. We had 2 drummers. It started to have a rich sound to it, in a way. And we had a lot of energy. So we'd play everything really fast.
WALTER: It was frightening up there on those stages.
DONALD: We just wanted to get it over with.
WALTER: What we were lacking in precision we were hoping to make up in enthusiasm.
TOM: What were the clashes?
WALTER: The overall problem was Donald and I not wanting to tour in a bigger league at all. And the other guys in the band, particularly as they were being sort of phased out of the record-making, all they wanted to do was tour. It seemed to us like: "Why should we be doing this when it doesn't really help us make records? In fact, it seems to detract from it by using up a lot of time and energy." And it seemed to them like: "Here we are. We're finally in a position to do what we've always wanted to do. We can make some money. Make some new friends in every town. And why aren't these guys letting us do it?" It was ultimately an irreconcilable difference.
DONALD: Also, the band was put together very quickly. It was while we were making the first album. We'd never played together before. And the record came out and we were expected to tour. So we went out. Also, it was a matter of musical and personal style clashes. We had a pretty good idea of the sort of thing we wanted. And some of these guys, although they were good rock-&-roll players, couldn't handle this different universe. It wasn't as if there was much of a power struggle. They liked all of our tunes. And they were willing to take direction and all that. But even so, they just didn't really understand what we were trying to get them to do. I don't know what was more shocking: finding out who we were or finding out who they were.
WALTER: It was a shock all around, let's face it.
TOM: How did you arrive at the new band?
DONALD: It was the people who didn't have anything booked for the summer. We started a little late.
WALTER: There were no auditions as such. These are all people that we either played with in the studio or heard on numerous records and live performances. So we're knowledgeable about what they're doing. The actual combination of people is just our conception of something that would work well together. The same way it was when we were booking record dates.
DONALD: In other words, it looks good on paper.
TOM: Peter Erskine was an inspired choice for a drummer. He's often underrated.
WALTER: He's not underrated at my house. He always sounds good, any kind of music that he's playing.
TOM: Is there a set list?
DONALD: There's a set list. Half Steely Dan songs. Half my stuff. And a few of Walter's things from his yet-unreleased album.
WALTER: And then we were thinking of doing some songs that people might remember being us but weren't really.
DONALD: Like Ride, Captain, Ride On Your Mystery Ship. Or the one about the horse with no name.
WALTER: Some of the quirkier 1970s things.
DONALD: We're probably gonna do Babylon Sisters. I like the more pop-type songs like Josie. And some of the blues things like Chain Lightning stand up well. I'm a sucker for the blues. Anything based around that progression is fine with me.
TOM: But you've already played them last year. You know they work. How about something like Any Major Dude?
WALTER: That was on our list. I don't know if it'll make the final cut.
DONALD: We're messing around with rearranging things. But when we started doing it, we found it kind of tricky. Say something like Babylon Sisters. We couldn't figure out much to do with it. It was already so complex that we'd probably do pretty much the structure as it is on the record. Most of the lead sheets from the record are missing. So I've had to pick out a lot of things off the record. There are some things that are very tricky. Passing chords and stuff which I don't remember writing. When I finally figure out what it is, I'll remember its structural function. Then we have some of the earlier simpler stuff that's easier to fool around with.
WALTER: You know why? Because the arrangement things we're thinking of doing to the early ones, we already did to the later ones before we recorded them. We're thinking of doing the whole show as a medley. One long Steely Dan medley.
DONALD: Using those little musical bridges in between. Broadway-type things. Modulations.
WALTER: "Way down upon the Swanee River ..."
TOM: Would that require you to play all the hits?
WALTER: A fast few bars of each would probably do it.
TOM: With this body of work, do you feel obligated to play hits?
DONALD: "Body of work" has a nice kind of cadaverous ring to it.
WALTER: We examined the body of work for signs of abrasions or lesions.
DONALD: And found that the time of death was sometime in late 1974.
WALTER: Unfortunately, the body was too dumb to lie down and continued to roam the earth for some years longer.
TOM: Back to the hits.
WALTER: I think we're probably gonna do most of them. Whether out of a sense of obligation or just love for them.
TOM: Musicians who have played on Steely Dan records seem to cherish the work they did for you. They say you were able to get from them something they don't always capture on tape. Why is that?
WALTER: A tremendous portion of the careers of studio musicians--they're submerging themselves to some dreary strictures based on the length of the commercial or the ideas of who's in the room. And yet the kind of guys we're talking about are prepared to go way beyond that. So when the right context comes along, they get a chance to do what they rarely get to do.
DONALD: Soloists are challenged by the complexity of the chords. When we write, the arrangements are set up to make the soloist stand out. There'll be a modulation or something to help him sound good. We build things into the arrangements. The way a good big-band arrangement does. Some of these guys may be great musicians, but they may not be the best writers.
WALTER: Even when a guy's doing his own album, I've noticed as often as not: the things that have the best blowing will be the standards. Tunes they can get right.
DONALD: We tell the guys: "Go out there. Have a good time. Take a few cracks." Everybody mentions Wayne Shorter playing Aja as one of those things that took so long. It really didn't take that long. He rehearsed it a few times. Then he decided he wanted to write out scales. As good as any musician is, when you hit him with some music he's never heard before that's got some complexity to it, sometimes it's better to take a look at it. So he wrote them out. And this allowed him to forget about the mechanics of it. After that, a couple more takes and that was it.
WALTER: Usually, the guy gets it or he doesn't. Maybe the guy basically gets it but there's a little area that's rough. A little passage he's going to have to work on. What's actually on the record are the things when a guy got it. We might have some general kind of rousing advice about the mood of the thing.
DONALD: I remember when Cornelius [Bumpus] came in for On the Dunes. I did suggest that if he had a chance, and it came into his mind, to play By the Sea. Which he didn't for a couple of takes. And then he did, sort of, for the last. It clicked in. In a weird way.
TOM: How has your relationship changed since the 1980s?
DONALD: We're going for the license. Going down to city hall.
WALTER: After Gaucho, I moved to Hawaii and I didn't see Donald for 4 or 5 years. And when we got back together to do some writing, we pretty much found it was an enjoyable process. But it was a commuting situation. It's hard to casually traverse 5,000 miles. But when we are together and we're working together, I feel like it's a similar dynamic to what we were doing back in the old days. We haven't collaborated on writing too much in the last 3 years.
DONALD: We still never touch each other's bodies.
WALTER: Except perhaps a handshake configuration.
TOM: Are there any lingering misconceptions about Steely Dan?
WALTER: Misconceptions? I feel pretty well-understood.
DONALD: It depends on what audience you talk to. For instance, I've known musicians who take the vocabulary of the harmony very seriously. Where for us there was always something funny about that whole thing. Applying jazz harmony to backbeats and everything.
I don't know if a lot of fusion bands see the humor in it. Especially young musicians, learning for the first time, take it seriously. To us, there was some sense of parodying the fact that even before we were born, jazz had already been co-opted: detective shows, The Ed Sullivan Show. We both liked the authentic music. But we liked the fake jazz as well.
WALTER: If not better.
DONALD: We could tell the difference, at least. I think.
WALTER: Maybe we couldn't tell the difference. That was the problem. The other thing was that we were aware of the high degree of incompatibility between jazz and rock music. And that it didn't take very much jazz to offend a rock listener pretty badly in a way they would never ever forgive.
DONALD: What did Chuck Berry say? "I got no something against modern jazz. Unless they try to play it too darn fast."
TOM: Was the legend overblown of the weeks you spent in pursuit of single sounds?
WALTER: There were many stories that were greatly exaggerated or without any truth whatsoever. But that's not to say that we weren't obsessive or didn't take a long time trying to get things a certain way.
TOM: But are you happy with the records?
WALTER: You mean without actually playing them? I manage to live with them as long as no one plays them. Thru the years, we were more and more able to accomplish what we were trying to do without sounding too amateurish. On the other hand, in isolated examples, some of the stuff on the early albums is just as good as the stuff on the later albums. On the early albums, the things that were more ambitious didn't come off as one might have hoped, and still sound that way. Although it's kind of charming that we were trying to do some of the things we were trying to do. You get points for that. To tell you the truth, some things from the first album that were successful were as good as anything else we did. And what they lacked in polish, they made up for in other ways.
TOM: Those obscure lyrics have become touchstones for people, in ways you could never have intended.
WALTER: We were probably just taking the cheap way out with these evocative little names for places or people that we used.
DONALD: Some of them were real people.
WALTER: It was subjective and stylized in a way that lends itself to the type of thing you're talking about. Or to William Gibson naming bars in his books after Steely Dan songs. We were throwing out a lot of little names and places that made it possible to enter the songs. I think it's great up to and including Steely Dave's. It kind of adds to the myth.
TOM: Steely Dave's
WALTER: One of Donald's uncles was going to open a bar.
DONALD: Actually, it was my Uncle Dave. He had this bar in Dayton. The bar was going belly-up. And he called me and asked if he could change the name to Steely D's. Dave, you're down there in Florida now. In the long run, it was better you got out of the bar business. You even sold the beer and wine drive-thru warehouse.
TOM: Hey Nineteen is more prescient than it was when it came out. You guys are part of something that happened a generation back.
DONALD: The sequel's gonna be Hey 34. It's just like the old days. They think we invented jazz chords.
WALTER: That of course adds a lot to the myth--those jazz chords. Remember that, upstairs at Minton's Playhouse?
DONALD: Yeah. We were great.
WALTER: We'd come up there after our regular gig.
DONALD: And explore some of the upper intervals of the chords.
WALTER: Charlie Parker, man? He played with us. He was just a sideman, brother.
TOM: Walter, you're working on your first solo album. Donald has established a certain territory connected to but apart from Steely Dan, with his 2 solo projects. Do you have to avoid certain things?
WALTER: I don't feel any compunction about that. But as a pratical matter, because I was working alone and I don't have the harmonic ability, the compositional ability, and some of the other technical abilities Donald has, it's basically me and a sequencer for most of these songs. A couple of them are guitar-based. But most were written like that. I realized very early on that I should not necessarily try to maintain any particular high level of harmonic sophistication. Because it's just not possible for me to do that without a lot of work. So I started writing things that were simpler and more accessible to me with the skills that I did acquire over the years, which are spotty. For all the years I was writing with Donald, I didn't have to worry about learning the chord voicings or anything. Because Donald already knew all that. The things I have that may sound different or simpler harmonically than Steely Dan things are a product of the fact that it's just me writing. I didn't have Donald's ability in that area. But there are similarities. I notice anything I've had to do with will remind somebody of Steely Dan. Whether it's the lyrics to other people's songs that I didn't write or whatever.
TOM: Anything you've heard recently that you admire?
DONALD: I don't follow it. So it's usually music I'll hear in a cab.
WALTER: I like the Farsi cab guys. Where the dispatcher has echo on his voice.
DONALD: Dentist music. Commercials on tv. I don't watch television hardly at all. But every once in a while I'll hear something interesting.
WALTER: That's where the best musical talent is going. The trained musicians are playing commercials, imitating cab music.
TOM: What about jazz?
DONALD: There's something reationary about it that's just not very satisfying. There's some great players. But it's kinda lost its way. No one wants to hear a retread. It's more interesting if you're a rap group that uses pieces of this and that and puts them together in this kind of collage. Just to recreate one style is an academic exercise.
TOM: The flip side of that is Kenny G.
WALTER: That's another aspect of the problem. The question of style is crucial. Obviously at this moment in history, you can do anything and perhaps be taken seriously for doing it. So anything's possible. And people are looking for slants that are gonna somehow draw attention to them so that their substance, if there is any, will get thru to people. It's hard to get the attention of the musical audience right now. There's been a lot of fragmentation. There's a lot of retro stuff, a lot of very primitive things, very stripped-down in a kind of punk way: "We don't care what this sounds like. It's the attitude more than anything else that we want to present." One night Donald and I went to a club. It was jazz musicians, basically great musicians we were hearing, and they were playing The Anger Of The 60s.
DONALD: We called the mode police on the way out.
WALTER: They were playing this angry type of music that evolved in the 60s. And at the time, I saw it as an aspect of the black experience and the demand for social equality. But here are these guys playing it completely out of context. And in retrospect, it was the least attractive element of that music that's what those guys chose to celebrate.
DONALD: Both the musicians and the audience are on their own sentimental journey. The music takes second place to associations with the music. They're trying to bring back what they think happened. It's not only bringing back the past, but some idealization of it. So it's an illusory experience. Or certainly an inauthentic one.
TOM: You've managed to sidestep this for 2 decades simply by taking yourselves out of circulation. Does this reunion beg the charge of nostalgia?
DONALD: People will probably think that's what it is. What can we do?
WALTER: We could do Sentimental Journey.
DONALD: When people hear some of the old stuff, they'll be in their own world. Thinking about sitting in their Volkswagen with their first love. Or second. Or third. Or maybe several at once. And they'll associate with the music. Rather than actually hear the music. I try not to associate anything. I've trained myself so that I only hear exactly what's happening. I don't bring anything to it. It's called "laser thinking".
TOM: Naturally you'll give workshops on this after the tour ends.
DONALD: That's what the whole tour will be. About a 40-minute lecture and a 10-minute musical demonstration.
TOM: On Kamakiriad, the grooves have much more pure R&B in them.
DONALD: I was researching records at the time of The New York Rock & Soul Revue. I was looking for a more aggressive feel. I had a lot of control because I was building the tracks with a sequencer. Like a mechanical model. I could create these beats that a drummer would not normally play. I was very careful about the groove. I'd run everything thru delays and kinda play around with it until Igot everything really relaxed. Then I'd show that to the drummer. And then he'd ...
WALTER: ... fall to the ground weeping uncontrollably.
DONALD: The drummers were generous about suspending their own feel, their own personal grooves. They got very good at avoiding the expected kinds of grooves and creating what I was looking for.
TOM: Were you thinking about that Stax rhythm section?
DONALD: When I'm playing around with it, I think ofit almost like swing music. Where it's a very laid-back backbeat. More space than Stax had. For instance, for most of the Stax stuff, Al Jackson Jr actually pulls up on his snare drum, and he has a racy feel.
TOM: It's ahead of the 8th note.
DONALD: Yeah. I guess I like a more relaxed thing. To me, it comes from a swing vein. Where it feels like every bar it's about to fall over. That's what I held out for.
TOM: Rhythmwise, was any one track harder than another?
WALTER: Trans-Island Skyway] was a bitch.
DONALD: That was hard. Drummers tend to want to race along. We had to just keep telling em to relax. You know what else was hard to get? Tomorrow's Girls. We had several versions of that I was playing around with.
TOM: What about the vocal harmonies? Do you work them out on a keyboard?
DONALD: Tomorrow's Girls has a basic melody that was very difficult to harmonize. Some of the inner parts are awkward. At times it sounds like parts are crossing. But they're not. It went up a key for the chorus. I knew that I had to amend the melody to be able to sing the chorus. Because my range could not handle it. So we had to kind of spritz that one together a little.
WALTER: It was really loose at times, too. Reminded me of The Band. The way those guys would just slide into those harmonies. The character you're talking about comes from the unusual underlying harmonies.
DONALD: It sounds simpler than it is. The second chord of the chorus is a IV triad. In C. Like an F. But with a major third in the bass. So it's like F over E. But it's a blues thing.
WALTER: When a guy plays blues licks in the middle of a pop-song improvisation, you sit and look at it and say: "This is ridiculous. It'll never work."
DONALD: But then it goes by. And it smooths out. You know how I was able to do it? Laser thinking.
TOM: Were you as concerned with precision as you were as Steely Dan? It sounds as though the tracks are a little less fussy.
WALTER: I think "as though" is a good operational term. The underpinnings of it were as precisely laid out as anything else. With the layers, you try to create the more casual kind of thing. You put it together more carefully to make it work.
TOM: With Aja, the innovation came through structure and harmony. Where's the locus of the next innovation?
WALTER: We can't tell you that. It's secret information. We know. We've thought about it. We've identified it. But it's secret.
DONALD: We've got it in a locker down in Port Authority. You got the key, right? I don't have the key.