Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'

Rolling Stone
Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'
.

View photo

Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'

Interviewing Steely Dan is no easy task. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen turned messing with journalists into an art form back in the Seventies. Rolling Stone checked in with Becker and Fagen during the final days of rehearsal for their upcoming 53-date Mood Swings American tour. It kicks off on July 19th in Atlantic City and runs through October 8th in New York. Select shows will include complete performances of Aja, Gaucho and The Royal Scam

We spoke with Fagen first, and he lulled us into a false sense of security by casually answering our questions in a relatively straightforward manner. A couple of hours later, Becker called. He was a little less cooperative, though equally sardonic. The pair talked about choosing songs for this tour, the possibility of a new Steely Dan record, their aging fan base, what songs they're sick of playing and many other topics.   

Are you guys in tour rehearsal right now?
Donald Fagen: Yeah. We've been at it for about a week now. We really just need to brush up, and then we added a few things.  

Like what?
Well, it's probably better if it's a surprise. But we did notice that we're doing all the songs from the Countdown to Ecstasy album. We're thinking now that we know them, which was kind of an accident; we'll just bring the whole album out during some of the shows. We'll probably just wind up doing it randomly.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Steely Dan, 'Aja'

You're doing Gaucho, The Royal Scam, Aja and now Countdown to Ecstasy. Why not do Pretzel Logic too?
I think we have almost all those songs. Maybe we'll have that one, too, if we add one or two more.  

So you might do it?
Yeah, sure.  

I remember you saying once you don't love all those songs, though.
That's true. "With a Gun" is not my favorite. We'll see, though. Maybe we can alter it slightly in a way that makes it more palatable.  

Is there a small part of you that wishes you stuck with another singer all those years ago so you didn't have to sing all night long on these tours?
There's a large part of me that wishes that we stuck with another singer. When Michael McDonald joined, I voted to make him lead singer, but I was vetoed. 

You did have another singer on some of the first album, though.
Yeah, but no one thought Dave Palmer was a good match. I thought Mike would have been great, but it's probably good for him that we didn't force him to do it. 

Do you have more fun on the Dukes of September tours because you can just focus on piano playing for much of the night?
I don't know about more fun, but there's less pressure, and that makes it easier and more fun. 

The band seems to be in a nice groove now where you tour every other summer. I always know that if it's an odd-numbered summer, I can go see Steely Dan.
It's because we don't want to overexpose ourselves, and I can always find something to do in the alternate summer, so it works out pretty good. I'm either recording or going out with the Dukes or something.  

Have you ever thought about just taking a summer off and relaxing?
I don't like vacations unless I'm writing something specific, but I usually do that in my spare time anyways. I get very anxious on vacations. I'm sort of always working. 

You guys have had an odd career in that you stopped touring pretty early back in the Seventies, but now you tour all the time – even though it's been a decade since you last released an album.
Well, we had that all planned out, of course . . . In truth, our original bit was put together very quickly, and it got kind of frantic in the first couple of years of touring and making records. I guess we figured we'd be deceased at an early date, so we figured we'd cool it for a few decades.  

It was a smart move. A lot of your peers burned out on the road in the Seventies, or they spent so much time in close quarters that they learned to utterly despise each other.
Yeah, that's true. None of that really happened, or at least not to a great extent. We kept the hate down to a slow boil. We didn't want that Rascals thing to happen. 

I think a lot of bands like that just had terrible management.
A lot of it is bad management. They work the bands too hard. I also think the greed factor happens, especially revolving around songwriting things. Walter and I have always done the 50/50 thing, no matter what was the actual origin of the song.

There's also just the two of you. That means no factions can rise up. It can never be two against one or something.
That's true. That's true. It worked out pretty well, and neither of us cared that much. We never came across any issues that were serious enough to cause a split. We were lucky.

You're also lucky your voice held out like it did.
That's some unintended luck as well. I didn't burn out singing in the Seventies and Eighties.

Tell me about crafting a set list on this tour. How did you figure out what you're going to play and where you're going to include it in the set list?
We started talking about it about four months ago. We know there are certain songs the audience is gonna charge the stage if we don't do, certain hits and other popular tunes. Then maybe a third of the show we get to play around with, adding things we haven't done or some really obscure thing we never recorded.

Are there certain big hits you're just sick of singing?
Yeah. Historically, Walter and I aren't that fond of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" for some reason. Not that it's a bad song. I think that it's, quote, "well-written," but I guess because it's so simple that it has more of a listening fatigue.

Yeah. It's one of those songs you always hear when you walk into a drugstore.
Yeah. It's got that classic rock thing that it's been played so much. It's the same with "Reelin' in the Years." We keep trying to change that arrangement, although lately we've been going back to the original. The band likes that one.

Might you just spring a complete album on an audience with no warning this tour?
We might. The audience seems to like that.

But Can't Buy A Thrill won't ever happen?
That has some songs on it that we really feel probably shouldn't have made the album. It was before our style gelled for a little while.

What song on that is your least favorite?
Let's see . . . What was on there? "Change of the Guard" approaches a level of filler, not that it was intended to be that way. It just sounds that way now.

How about "Katy Lied?"
We're very close on that one. I think maybe there's one or two we'd have to learn.

Might you do the two newer albums at some point?
Yeah. We do just about everything on Two Against Nature and most of Everything Must Go. I think one night we sprung just about the whole thing, and we didn't like the audience response. It's so much unfamiliar material for a large part of the audience. We're not as invulnerable to audience response as we'd like to think we are. I think there are actually some artists that enjoy getting beer cans thrown at their heads.

Bob Dylan clearly doesn't give a shit.
Yeah, Bob Dylan. And I've been to Bob Dylan shows where I essentially walked out in the middle. I just didn't like it. Usually there's a good reason why those songs shouldn't be done.

Yeah, Dylan's voice isn't in the best shape.
Dylan's voice is shot. There are certainly times when that doesn't bother me so much depending on the song, and he still comes up with ways of doing tunes that makes that OK, but with him it's more that he does a lot of recent material. He has about a dozen minor-key drone tunes with three chords. I find that very tedious.

Yeah. He's way into that pre-rock & roll blues sound.
That doesn't bother me. It really has to do with the individual song. He actually has some songs that are even more boring than some early Appalachian songs. It's amazing that he actually . . . It's songs with 512 verses and no melody. It's more than I can bear, really.

I often wonder what would happen if he went to a doctor to check his throat or if surgery . . .
I think a psychiatrist more than a throat doctor would probably be useful at this point.

Do you think if Everything Must Go had been greeted with the same reaction as Two Against Nature, that there would have been another Steely Dan album in the past 10 years?
Um . . . It's hard to say. Record sales certainly haven't been encouraging. I think both of us are of the opinion that Everything Must Go is actually even better than Two Against Nature in some respects, although that was a very good album as they go.

I think it also has to do with the culture. People just aren't really interested in actual songs that have the sort of musical values that we've espoused anymore. They're more interested in videos or songs where the celebrity or personality of the artist is more interesting than any actual musical values. That's just the way the cultural ball bounces.

With that in mind, do you think they'll ever be another Steely Dan album?
Yeah. We've been talking. We always talk about it on airplane rides. Usually we forget what we talked about before we do anything about it. But yeah, we actually had a conversation about it the other day, so who knows?

A certain part of your audience probably just has no interest in new material, from anyone. I look at my parents. They don't have the slightest bit of interest in new songs by acts they love. They solely see them as artifacts from the past.
Well, people my age aren't that interested in music, period. I've found they're much more interested in sports, or they're more interested in the fact that their knee hurts or something like that. That's perfectly valid. I'm very interested in the fact that my knee hurts. Nevertheless, I still enjoy music.

I got a galley of your upcoming book, Eminent Hipsters, the other day. I don't want to phrase this the wrong way, but after reading the Dukes of September tour diary, it's hard to escape the conclusion that you have disdain for some part of your audience.
That's fair. That's fair enough. Part of it has to do with the way I feel in the moment as I'm touring. A lot of times it depends on the mood I'm in. That journal was generally written in the evening when I was exhausted, generally speaking, and I wasn't in the best shape. It actually reflects my condition at the time. Also, a lot of it was done with a certain amount of humor. I was trying to get a laugh.

It was definitely funny.
Thanks. I wouldn't take it that seriously, but I certainly take my various complaints out on the audience. I mean, who else is there to take it out on? I can't take it out on the band. They're too nice, and they work for me. So the audience is the next best thing.

You dismiss anyone born after 1960 as "TV babies" since TV has rotted their brains, but the older ones you dismiss as petrified mummies on slabs. You even say you feel that you're sometimes playing to nursing homes and you should be calling out the Bingo numbers instead of singing songs.
They're good targets and good vessels for my rage.

It really seemed like you were miserable on that tour, so why keep doing so many shows a year?
I was. The fact is that I'm not nearly as miserable as I sound, because it's not funny if you're in a really good mood. You don't see many comedians talking about how great they feel. You don't see Louis C.K. because he's in such a good mood.

How are you going to avoid "acute tour disorder" on this tour?
Drugs, generally speaking. No, I'm just kidding. Although, I'm sure that I have certain pharmaceuticals which are legally prescribed that help my various physical and mental problems. It's just part of the job, really. Also, in a sense, the mood disorders go along with touring. I think you give a certain amount of energy. Being 65, you need that kind of energy.

Do you get a lot less publishing money than you did 10 years ago?
Yeah, I'll say!

Because of the collapse of the industry?
Yes. I mean, I need to tour to make a living. I get maybe eight percent of the royalty money I used to get.

Is that from 10 years ago, or the peak of Steely Dan?
From the peak, but less than 10 years ago, too. With the amount of free downloading the business is no longer a business, really.

Also, you have to understand that our songs are not covered very often. They're very personal and, generally speaking, we came from a kind of ironic standpoint where pop singers really don't do them. We don't get that kind of coverage.

Yeah, but you've stood the test of time. When you first got big, acts like Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night were selling out stadiums.
Yeah, we used to open for those bands. But we don't play arenas anymore, generally speaking.

Right, but those guys are in county fairs now.
We play county fairs too.

Not the same kind of fairs as Three Dog Night.
No, we play nice fairs. They have sheep-breeding contests and things like that. I enjoy those. It's fun. Sometimes the audience is all farm animals. That's cool, too. Sometimes it's hard to tell these geriatric people apart from the the farm animals, actually. It's all assisted living.

Do you see yourself doing this in 10 years?
I really don't play that much for the future. It's the only way of life I know, and I enjoy it. I think Walter and I both consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this for a living. We have always felt lucky to be able to do this for a living.

But from 1974 to 1993 you didn't tour at all.
Yeah, but we were always . . . I guess we're from a generation where our fathers gave us these kind of workaholic personalities. They told us we had to work for a living. When we were in the studio, we worked hard every day. I had a serious workaholic disorder. I'd make the band band come in on Christmas and stuff like that. I've always just been working on music.

Is part of your reluctance to record new Steely Dan songs due to the simple fact that it's hard to top what you created in the past?
I don't know. I think it's hard because we're generally humorous in a way. I think it's the same trouble that comedians talk about. The reality now is funnier than the fiction. I mean, just the way the government acts. You read about it in the papers every day, and it's so absurd that it's difficult to make fun of it, or it's so horrible you don't want to make fun of it.

I think a lot of people don't realize just how funny your old songs are.
Yeah. I still think some of them are pretty funny, especially in rehearsal, like we're doing now. I'll print out lyrics to something and I'll go, "Hey, that's pretty funny."

Hey Walter. Thanks for doing this. I already spoke to Donald, so…
Walter Becker: What did Donald leave out?

Quite a bit, and I want to go over some of the same stuff with you.
No, no. See, I don't want to do that.

You want all different questions?
No . . . Yeah, actually, we were sort of scheduled to do this at the same time. I don't know why it ended up different, so I'll answer what I can, OK?

Sure. Let's start with the tour. How are you approaching the set list this time?
Well, the tour was a big success. I mean, we went everywhere, and as far as I can tell we probably sold more tickets and pleased more people with our music, including ourselves, than we ever did before. That's the view looking back for me after the tour is finished.

And how do things look before the tour?
Before the tour? I don't know. Jeez. I don't know.

Can you tell me the process of sitting down and figuring down what songs you want to . . .
We don't do that sitting down.

So you stand up and do that?
We stand up and do that, standing around the mic at soundcheck.

How do you determine what song to open . . .
I don't know. I'm never sure about that.

Donald told me you guys might play Countdown to Ecstasy straight through.
I don't know that "thinking" is the word. There's been a rumor going around that we might do that. Wouldn't that be cool?

Yeah, definitely. I'd love to see that.
Yeah, I'm thinking about it. I guess I'm with him – what he said.

Are you opposed to doing Pretzel Logic?
Am I opposed to it? You have to appreciate the fact that as a guitar player I'm not opposed to anything. If I were singing them, I would be opposed. Then it would be different.

Are you going to sing any songs on this tour?
We've been talking about it, yeah.

Which ones?
I don't know, but I'll tell you that whatever I decide to sing, it's gonna be fucking good, man. It's gonna be a great show.

It seems like you guys hit the road every odd-numbered year.
We took a blood oath to do that back in the oddest year of all.

By getting off the road so early into your career, you really built up a demand to hear your music live. It also helped to preserve Donald's voice. So many of his peers can't really sing a note these days.
They can't even work. They can't even walk. That's what Lee J. Cobb said in On the Waterfront.

Just look at Bob Dylan. His voice is pretty shot.
Really?

I love the guy, but it's not in great shape.
Well, I'd like to quote Jack Nicholson in Rolling Stone. He said that as long as Bob Dylan is alive, he will be the greatest living songwriter.

I totally agree, but that doesn't mean his voice is in great shape.
I don't know . . . Wow. Wow.

So, are you thinking about recording any new Steely Dan songs in the future?
I don't know, man. I heard that thing about Bob Dylan and now I'm thinking of playing it pretty close to the vest. I mean, hey . . . shit . . . God . . . wow.

Ha! Well, Donald was saying that he was thinking about recording new music at some point.
Donald, Donald, Donald. Always Donald. Yeah, whatever Donald says, he's right. Yeah.

But you're the other half of the group. What are your thoughts on the matter?
A group is . . . Yeah, I am half the group. Is two people a group? We're sort of a duo, like Peter and Gordon, more than a group.

Well, the White Stripes were a group. There's just two of them.
Oh, what an unfortunate example.

They're obviously very different, but . . . 
Jesus Christ. Go ahead and tear my heart out.

Not a fan?
Well, I don't really know what they do. I mean, I haven't heard much of it, to tell you the truth.

Do you think being a duo has been helpful in that there's just the two of you, so it's never two against one or something?
I have to think. That's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure, because I haven't been in that position as well. The thing is that it's a lot easier to deal with the stage costumes. When one guy does something, then whatever he does sets the other guy up. You get a third guy in there and you gotta have cadets' uniforms or something. I don't know. It's a weird problem.

Historically speaking, most rock duos wind up despising each other.
That's just the ones we know about. I have a feeling there were many, many successful rock duos that just didn't get attention. That's the fault of the rock press. They are always playing up controversy, scandal, aggravation and irritation.

We're definitely guilty of that. Drama always makes a great story.
You know what Tolstoy said – lemme see if I can get this right. Maybe he said the opposite, so don't hold me to this. Maybe it was [Alexander] Pushkin. Don't hold me to this. But he said something like, "All happy families are happy in the same way and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own, unique ways."

So if you were to guess if there's ever going to be a new Steely Dan album . . .
There already are. Are you kidding me?

I mean one in the future.
Well, I hope so. Jeez!

Why has it been 10 years?
It seems like I've heard this question before. That's my answer.

Do you still enjoy playing live? Is it as fun as it used to be?
It wasn't so much fun back then. It's like anything else. Some night it's fun. Some nights, it's not fun. Most nights it's jolly good fun, I must say. Now, in the Seventies, I'm not sure sure I cared about whether it was fun or not. There were obviously good performances, but it was harder to guarantee a certain level of quality.

Did you face lot of pressure in the mid-to-late Seventies to tour?
Well, I wouldn't say we "faced" it. It just came and went, like in a moment. It just blew right past us, because that's the only thing that we didn't do. They couldn't make us tour, but there was hardly anything they could make us do.

There wasn't pressure. We were in a very special situation, because it was the Seventies. There was actually still some vestiges of artistic license. We also had our producer, Gary Katz, and he was protecting us from anything like that.

I would think that helped the group in a huge way. You guys didn't expend all your energy on the road, and you were able to pour all that into the albums.
I think that was part of what we were thinking at the time. That was probably the biggest factor, in a way, because what we cared the most about was making records. 

Is part of the group's reluctance to make new music just the worry that your back catalog is so beloved and perfect, that topping it is very daunting?
We're not reluctant to make new music . . . It's a whole other type of process that starts off more like, "What do I want to do now?" or "What does it seem like I'm doing now as I look at myself and see what really interests me?" 

To be reluctant and to confront our adolescent output, it may be somewhat daunting, but that's not the way I feel about it. I doubt that Donald feels that way, but I don't know. What did he tell you?

He said that you often talk about it on plane rides, but you haven't gotten around to it yet.
Yeah, maybe the problem we have is that our plane is too fast or our gigs are too close together. Maybe they should put us up in the air and make us fly around until we come up with something. We could refuel in the air and everything. That'd be great. I'd love to see that on YouTube.

Are you thinking about making another solo record?
Oh, yeah, I'm always thinking. But I don't know . . . Yeah, I am.

Has the collapse of the music industry meant that your royalty checks have gone way down?
I don't know. Actually, I've never seen one. That's part of the process that happens below the level of the threshold of my awareness.

But you must see your bank statements and have some idea.
No, I've never. I really don't. I just tell them to tell me if I run out.

I imagine that touring must account for a huge percent of your income.
Well, it depends on how you figure it. I remember I was talking to a Haitian cab driver here in New York. I told him that when I was down in Haiti I heard about how when dinnertime came the mother would give a couple of pennies to the kids, and they'd go to the village and buy four pennies' worth of oil to cook dinner. He was quiet for a while and then he said, "But that was a strong penny." 

He was right. That's what we used to have. It was a penny, but it was a strong penny. So it's hard to judge. It would be an ambitious calculation with my skills. Maybe you could have that guy – what's his name, with the "Vampire Squid" quote?

Matt Taibbi.
He could figure it out. And if not he, the guy who wrote the book on the Federal Reserve . . . William Greider. 

Are you dismayed by the state of the music industry? Kids are just stealing your songs from the Internet left and right.
That's how kids are. They really don't know what's right or wrong.

But does that bother you?
Well, they're not my kids. I mean, what can I say? I'm glad they like it. I'm glad they like our music and are listening to it.

Even though you aren't getting paid for it?
How would I know that? What kind of mercenaries do you think we are? And with that, I gotta go back to work, because we're supposed to be rehearsing. I hope I helped, though.

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'
View Comments