Steely Dan dare to give a more-open-than-usual interview

By Sylvie Simmons
Sounds Magazine

It’s not every day that Steely Dan bare their souls to the public. But amid the palm trees and coke bottles at the Bel Air Hotel, all was revealed — if not all, at least a lot for Steely Dan. Warning: at times this interview degenerates into the Becker and Fagan Laugh-In, a crazy double-act in which Walter B. (bass, vocals, long hair) and Donald F. (keyboards, vocals, Brooklyn drawl, shades) play off each other with the sole purpose of pushing unstable journalists over the edge.Beach boys Becker and Fagen left their Malibu home for nearby Bel Air to promote (promote?) their latest offering, ‘Aja’—follow-up to last year’s ‘Royal Scam’, and their sixth album since the birth of the Dan in ’72.

This one is not, despite the rumours they’ve spread to the contrary, a double album in the States (sense of humour, remember?) It just looks like one. They needed a gate-fold cover to fit all those sleeve notes on. Journalist Michael Phalen’s terrifying tale of an interview rife with insults and threats and a CIA-like confiscation of the tape, a warning to would-be interviewers, balanced with some real nice guys-type praise from the president of ABC records; can they be talking about the same people?

Part I. Aja, an Oriental name of no significance, probably Korean.

Did you start out with any particular idea or concept in mind?

Fagen: We do it song by song. We don’t really plan the shape of an album, except perhaps subliminally. First in this album we ended up with too many medium or slow-tempo songs, so we went in and cut a couple of up-number ones. ‘Peg’ was the last cut. We had a song slated for it, ‘Here At The Western World’ that had originally been cut for the ‘Royal Scam’ album. It was laying around and we liked it a lot, but it didn’t fit on ‘Scam’ and we thought we had too many songs in that tempo on this album, so it’s still sitting around. We’ll get it out sooner or later.

Are you influenced, or put under any pressure, by what your fans expect of you?

Fagen: No, not really. We really aim to please ourselves you know.

Becker: Plus we have no way of knowing what the audience expects of us.

Fagen: I think we put pressure on ourselves. I think we’ve topped ourselves every succeeding album in quality.

Becker: Good for you! I never know for sure. I have a good feeling about this one, but it’s too hard to tell when you’ve been working on it for as long as we have. I mean, you can’t listen to it objectively any more without dissecting it in your mind in a funny kind of way, because you know how it was put together. But I’m really proud of it. Now I can forget about it and start the next one.

Fagen: I usually think the one we just did is better than the last one. Must be something to do with our mood rings, I guess. When we were writing this our mood rings were green.

Any particular favourite?

Becker: The title song I like. It was an interesting cut. We’d gotten this drummer we didn’t know but we’d heard a lot about named Steve Gadd—he was flown in from New York. We had a chart for the tune, and it was like eight pages long—three music stands in front of every musician. What’s on the charts is very specific for some of the players—like the keyboards—but very open for others. Like, there’s nothing written for the bass player except the chord symbols, the guitar player basically works on his own concept, and particularly the drummer—he really had to outdo himself on that one.

No track immediately offers itself as a single. Are you releasing one?

Becker: I’m sure we will, but I don’t know which tune it will be. When we write the songs and prepare the album, we really don’t concern ourselves with that, because we’re not a good judge collectively of what’s going to strike the public’s ear in that way. And a lot of our things are too long—there’s all kinds of restrictions in radio here, it can’t be more than 2-1/2 minutes long or something.

Fagen: It’s a very unlikely choice for American radio because of the length of the cut.

Becker: They’re still a very puritanical society as far as the media goes. I think it’s loosening up a bit, but not on Top 40 radio. You’re allowed to have simulated orgasms on record

Fagen: Yes, as long as you do it quietly.

Part II. The Way We Were And The Way We Are Now.

You started out as pop songwriters, didn’t you? (After two years as back-up musicians for ’60s pop-harmony group Jay And The Americans, Gary Katz, their producer, found them a cosy niche at ABC as staff songwriters. One of their pop songs, titled ‘I Mean To Shine’, was recorded by no less than Barbra Streisand).

Becker: Well, not really. We tried to be, but we weren’t. When we came out to ABC we were hired as staff writers; we would be writing songs for their artists roster. We knew very well that what we were going to do was end up with our own band, recording our own songs, as no-one else particularly wanted to record our songs. Then and now. So we just kind of played at that for a while, then once we had the band assembled we said, hey, we’re ready to record, and that’s it.

We had what is now a studio at ABC, which was then under construction, making more offices for accountants or something. Anyway, there were these empty offices, and they were nailing up stuff during the day. We had all our amplifiers in one of these rooms. After six we went over there with the band and rehearsed for a couple of hours. That’s where we got our first album together.

(Original members Jeff Baxter, Dave Palmer and Jim Hodder have long since passed on. The only old Dan remaining is guitarist Denny Dias. Otherwise it’s session men—the best.)

How did you come across the musicians on Aja?

Becker: We hear them on records—

Fagen: We meet them at parties—

Becker: Yeah, and we ask other musicians about them, and go out and buy more records, and hear about them that way. Then we just call them up and hire them and see what happens. Sometimes we run into cases where we thought we had the perfect musicians for a particular thing, but then nothing happens and we all go home early. Usually something happens because we check out as much as we can, what kind of musicians they are, what they’re capable of and best at.

They’re quite happy to adapt to your concept?

Becker: It seems to happen by itself because of the nature of the songs, and because of the kind of freedom they have at the sessions. In other words, there are certain things – certain harmonics and certain motifs in our music – they do have to pay attention to. And I guess that’s what takes care of the continuity in the sound. But they also have a certain freedom. There are always-sessions where they can play A little more than they do at most of the other things, and do what they do best, rather than being too confined. We never ask anybody to consciously adapt to our style. In fact a lot of musicians come here, and I don’t think they have any idea of what our style is—don’t know or care.

Will you ever get a permanent band together?

Fagen: We use a lot of the same players anyway. On the last three albums—like, Victor Feldman’s been on all three, Chuck Rainey’s always at the sessions, and Larry Carlton. We’ actually have a band with a few substitutions.

Part III. In which the Dan are contented to sit In Malibu and live off the royalties.

Rumour has it that you’ll be touring the States before long.
(Steely Dan haven’t toured since’74. Their only visit to Europe was a year earlier.)

Becker: Not that I know of! We had intended to tour, but the album release was delayed, so we put it off. Now we’ve no plans to tour.

Fagen: Making these records pretty well takes up our time. Once we’ve finished one we start the next. That’s the reason we haven’t been touring.

Becker: Touring is an expensive hobby.

Fagen: We spend money on a tour. We have an expensive set-up. We don’t like playing big halls—the sound is bad. So we have 4,000 people coming in, and it’s not enough money to meet the expenses of putting on a show.

Becker: And we spend a longer time preparing our albums, I guess, than other people do.

Fagen: Stevie Wonder spent 2-1/2 years on his record.

Becker: But we found from past efforts that being on the road wasn’t enhancing what we were doing in the studio. So we decided that we’d do either one thing or the other.

Do you go see other bands?

Becker: Very rarely. In concert halls here you get a lousy sound, parking costs a buck and stuff like that. No.

Part IV. Lyrics, language problems, black humour and the American Dream.

Your lyrics have sometimes been called impersonal.

Becker: We don’t feel the urgent need to bare our souls that Ted Nugent probably does, or Kiss or Queen or Black Death or The Bees Knees or …(collapses in laughter).

Fagen: We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We’re basically assuming the role of a character, and for that reason it may not sound personal. But I try to assume the role and make it believable—not to the extent of doing dialects

Becker: I’ve heard you do dialects—

Fagen: I say his words, try to express some of his emotions, some of his problems, hang-ups—primarily the hang-ups.

Becker: This is not the Loving Spoonful. It’s not real good time music. Anyway, we think those are happy thoughts.

Fagen: It’s a part of life, so why not enjoy it?

Becker: Also we feel that these give us the more fertile ground that we’ve been trampling on for the last five years. It’s bard to keep trying to write a song about something you haven’t written about before—you keep coming back to the same themes. There’s some truth in the fact that happy situations tend to be more or less static and-not that interesting to hear about.

Fagen: When you read a novel in which there are no rough spots for the characters to get over, if everybody did The Hustle from the first page to the last, it wouldn’t be much of a novel. It wouldn’t enlighten you in any way.

Do you look on your lyrics as enlightening?

Becker: Not in a Buddhist sense.

Fagen: But they do shed light on certain situations. I think a lot of people in Britain know about Haitian divorces now that probably didn’t before.

Becker: Of course, you can’t get a Haitian divorce any more. You used to be able to go to Haiti and get a divorce real fast. They give you this document in French with ribbons and plumes and everything, and it’s recognized by the American government. In a way that’s enlightening. It’s a situation people probably thought we made up. There are probably people out there who think we made up the name Haiti. We’ve been accused of everything else.

Fagen: There are people who think we made up the word ‘Aja’.

But your lyrics are nothing if not obscure.

Becker: To us it, s a perfectly straightforward story. On the other hand, if anyone finds the lyrics obscure, there’s always the music. So, even if you don’t know anything about Haitian divorces—

Fagen: You can always look in the Steely Dan Listener’s Companion.

Becker: We feel that we use basically the English language. In the United Kingdom, I don’t know if people know what the word ‘scam’ means. There was some question as to whether the word ‘pretzel’ makes sense to English people. There were a lot of reviewers asking us what a pretzel was.

Fagen: So it’s basically just a language problem.

Becker: We hadn’t anticipated either of those things. So it may appear to people in the United Kingdom that we are writing very much in code.

They’re pretty cynical though, and bitterly realistic.

Becker: A lot of what you’d call bitter or cynical, we’d call funny.

Fagen: We think these are very funny songs that we’re writing. And when we’re writing them, we really do have a grand old time yukking it up about the lyrics’

Becker: We may have a slightly blacker sense of humour than your average person. I’m always surprised that divorces and things aren’t funnier than they are. The American Dream? That’s very funny too.

What about your home, California?

Becker: I think that’s very funny—it’s probably the funniest of the 50 states that I know of.

Fagen: We’re not as negative as the Eagles. They’re totally down on California.

Becker: When we first came out here it was pretty different from New York, and it does give you a creative vacuum in which to work. It gave us some new characters and new ideas, and it gave us a laboratory-type sterile atmosphere to work in. Because if you walk down the street here in California, you’ll be the only person doing it. Nobody gets out of their cars here. It’s a different kind of society.

Part V. Time to light another cigarette, get some fresh gum, and discourse on books, films and fans.

Becker: We’re pretty bookish guys.

Fagen: In our profession, we’re as bookish as I’ve met. But I think that’s more a reflection on what everyone else is doing than what we’re doing. I think people should be asking themselves why they’re so god dam illiterate.

What do you read?

Becker: I like instruction booklets a lot, science fiction and recipes. My favourite author in the English language is Vladimir Nabokov. Of course he just recently died. So 1 feel that now he’s dead, he won’t be writing any more, so I have nothing new to look forward to until they start publishing whatever they can find in his apartment,

Fagen: I read novels, history, anything that’s lying around. The only things I don’t. read much are self-help manuals or poetry.

What would you say is the effect of your lyrics on the audience?

Becker: We hear from a few psychotic fans, threatening and maligning us, or alternatively renting huge football stadiums to perform in and telling us after the fact, or writing to us in strange languages –

Fagen: If a person’s on the edge, you know, we could probably throw him off.

Becker: We’re just trying to cheer people up. Also we’re thinking about writing a movie.

How near to a reality is that?

Becker: Very far. It’s just –

Fagen: Just a gleam in Irving Azoff’s eyes.

Becker: It’s the potential ringing of cash registers in our manager’s mind. Irving’s been encouraging us. He keeps telling us, ‘Hey, if you guys can write these songs you can write movies, it’s the same thing. You just fill out a couple of hundred pages with the same story on it.”

Part VII. Heroes and villains; featuring a change of record company and Irving Azoff’s strange disease.

Another quote. Mike McDonald (keyboards on ‘Katy Lied,’ back-up vocals on ‘Aja’) said ‘you’d have liked to have been Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.’

Becker: I’d rather be Charlie Parker than anything.

Fagen: Everyone would like to be possessed of genius.

Becker: Those are a couple of our heroes. Do you mind being Duke if I’m Charlie?

Fagen: No, I’ll be Duke Ellington.

Becker: We have other heroes, other jazz musicians, but those a two are particularly outstanding examples.

Fagen: Like Root Boy Slim. (sings: “put a quarter in the juke, boogie till you puke”) He’s the sound of the ‘70s. When Root Boy goes (sings: “Awl riite”) that’s the sort of thing that can really get us going.

Why are you changing record companies? (Steely Dan have one more album to do with ABC before moving to Warners.)

Becker: When we realised our contract was going to be up, we shopped around.

Fagen: We were just going to sign up with ABC, but they didn’t want us enough.

Becker: They weren’t putting up the same amount that Warner Brothers was. And they have this nice building at Burbank, Warners—

Fagen: Knotty pine—

Becker: Very ethnic. This move will mark a new development in the band’s career, because from that point on, instead of that ABC label in the centre of the records, there’s going to be a WB label with palm trees—

Fagen: Coconuts, everything.

Becker: Actually the reason we signed with them was because of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck being Warner Brothers characters. We try to catch the Bugs Bunny show in the afternoons when we can. Of course, you can’t see it every day, so that influenced our decision a lot.

Any other reason?

Becker: Irving Azoff, our manager, wants us to come out and socialise, mix with the other guys from the other bands a lot more now.

Fagen: We were supposed to go to the Eagles’ wedding.

Becker: No, that wasn’t the Eagles’ wedding; it was Jimmy Buffet’s wedding—

Fagen: Or birthday party.

Becker: We couldn’t make it. I was in San Francisco and the wedding was in Colorado. Irving got some kind of amoeba disease which we tried to keep secret. The water supply in Colorado is a little tainted, We want people to know that so they won’t go there and ski.

Part VIII. The Future

Becker: We’ve already started writing our next album, and of course we’ll be working on the theme song for Irving Azoff’s forthcoming movie (eventually titled, ‘FM’). That’s about all—Donald’s going to learn how to drive his new Jaguar.

Fagen: We’re buying up options on science-fiction stories to be made into movies, going down to Washington D.C. to see Root Boy a lot.

Becker: We’re going to branch out and start to merchandise the Steely Dan name—

Fagen: Steely Dan breakfast meats—

Becker: Kewpie dolls and things like that. Anything we can put the Steely Dan name on and sell for some of the coin of the realm. That way we can become real capitalists. That’s the only thing left for us.

Fagen: Except for politics, and that’s so boring.

Becker: Anyway, Irving’s going to run for governor of California next year.

So I guess we’re just going to keep on doing the same thing we’ve been doing all along—whatever that is.

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