Donald Fagen’s ‘Kamakiriad’: Words and Music

From the radio show “Words and Music” with Donald Fagen, featuring music from his new Reprise Records release, Kamakiriad. This program was written and produced by Davin Seay, and edited by Rick Dasher for Marc Graue Recording Services, Burbank. Executive producer, Larry Butler.

Segment 1

INTERVIEWER: Donald Fagen, it’s been over a decade since one of today’s most intriguing and elusive artists released his acclaimed solo album, The Nightfly. Now Donald Fagen returns with Kamakiriad, and from the evidence of these eight new songs, including the single, “Tomorrow’s Girls,” it’s been worth the wait.

Hello, and welcome to Words and Music, featuring Donald Fagen and his new Reprise Records release, Kamakiriad. With Steely Dan partner Walter Becker at the production helm, Kamakiriad is a dazzling journey into a brave new world with some of the most adventurous music of Donald Fagen’s career. And now here’s Donald Fagen.

DONALD FAGEN: On a literal level, Kamakiriad is about a journey that the narrator takes in a special sort of car. The story takes place a few years in the future and the car has some super-technology. It has a link with a satellite called Tripstar, which is a routing satellite that helps him find his destination. It has peculiar gauges. Also, a bionic farm in the back. Which is a self-sufficient food supply. And it essentially is a new age sort of car. It’s an environmentally correct car. I felt that by placing the story a few years in the future it allowed me to have a certain amount of detachment from the story, which can be seen, at least on one level as being autobiographical.

(“Trans-Island Skyway” plays)

DONALD FAGEN: The science fiction angle, I think, works as its worked for a lot of science fiction writers who write stories and novels, in the way that it sort of removes the sentimentality from what is potentially an over sentimental story.

The Kamakiri is a car I sort of made up. In Japanese it means “praying mantis,” which I thought was a great name for a car. It’s a combination of various super-technologies from different parts of the world and it’s the kind of car I guess I imagined I thought I’d like to drive a few years in the future, towards the millennium.

I don’t know if I ever had a total visualization in my mind of what the car looked like. I guess I thought of it as being a medium-sized car with perhaps the garden would be covered with some sort of bubble and the tires I guess I thought of being rather large. One of the main things is that I felt that the car didn’t really drive very quickly. It actually moved fairly slowly, the idea being that in the future speed would be something which is no longer of that much value. And rather slow and thoughtful progress is something to be desired.

The car is propelled by steam, which makes it environmentally correct. I can easily see it stopping at a steam station to be refilled. It would obviously have a boiler of some sort, in order to produce the steam. As I said, because the car doesn’t have to really move so fast, it doesn’t need that much energy to drive it.

The Kamakiri is a product of many nations. I guess I see it as being planned not so much as a technical feat, but rather as a work of art. It’s kind of wishful thinking on my part that perhaps architecture and technology will be conceived along the lines of art rather than along the lines of expedience in the future.

(Trans-Island Skyway” continues)

DONALD FAGEN: Kamakiriad was an album that I felt I had to do alone. The concept was something I came up with by myself and I wrote all the tunes, except for one tune that Walter and I collaborated on in the mid-eighties. I felt that the album was really a follow up to The Nightfly, and that it continued in an autobiographical vein.

It’s been a long time since Nightfly came out, 1981. Eleven years is a long time. If you think about novelists or painters who aren’t working in a popular medium, it’s kind of accepted that an artist will need to develop something for a number of years. But in the record business, which is a popular medium, you’re supposed to just keep socking out those records.

I think that’s part of the problem. I’m working in a medium, both an artistic medium and an entertainment medium. What happed after Nightfly, I had a bit of a writer’s block. Since I was having trouble writing tunes that I really thought were successful, I took a number of other musical jobs in the eighties. I co-produced a soundtrack album of Bob Telson’s music for The Gospel of Colonus, an off Broadway musical. Composed a film score for a film called Bright Lights, Big City. Wrote some material for other people, The Yellowjackets and a few other groups.

And then in the late eighties, I got some creative energy back, and came up with the idea for this album, Kamakiriad. Simultaneously, I was involved in the New York Rock And Soul Review with my friend and now my wife, Libby Titus. A concept we came up with, in which a number of singers would revive some of the old great soul tunes from the great golden age of soul, from the early and late sixties. We did a couple of shows at the Beacon Theatre and then toured with that group, including Phoebe Snow and Michael McDonald and some other great singers in the summer of ninety-two.

(“Pretzel Logic” from The New York Rock & Soul Review Live at the Beacon plays)

DONALD FAGEN: The eighties were generally a period of self-examination for me. And when I started playing live around New York, and eventually elsewhere with the Rock & Soul Review, I think it did give me some energy which allowed me to start writing again.

(“Countermoon” plays)

Segment 2

DONALD FAGEN: Like The Nightfly, Kamakiriad is a series of songs which are loosely connected. If you are trying to write an album where the songs are tied together, there’s always a danger that you’ll have to use too much exposition or too much explanation which would make the album didactic and boring. I trust the listener to fill in some of the things which might be missing, some of the details. They used to call these things “concept albums” back in the sixties and seventies. That’s good enough a title, I think. Usually “concept album” was said in a negative way simply because most of them were not that successful. Hopefully, Kamakiriad is successful, in that you can listen to it all the way through and get something out of it you wouldn’t by listening to a song here and there.

Essentially, the first song, “Trans-Island Skyway,” announces that the narrator has bought this terrific car. And that he will be travelling on a journey which is going to be very exhilarating and yet has some danger about it. Because he is travelling in apocalyptic times, there is all sorts of natural disasters to be avoided and all kinds of bizarre adventures he might be having. He says, at one one point, “this route could be trouble.” And, in fact, he does run into trouble in his journey.

(“On The Dunes” plays)

DONALD FAGEN: The next six songs – there’s eight altogether- really represent adventures or detours that he runs into along the way. Some of the songs occurred to me in sequence. Or I had an idea of the arc of the story, but the songs weren’t all written in sequence. In fact, “On The Dunes,” which is the penultimate song, was written in 1983, before I had even conceived the project. But when I was putting the songs in order, I realized that “On The Dunes” would be perfect because when he starts his journey he doesn’t know where he’s going. In fact, in a way he sort of makes it up as he goes along, just as I made it up as I went along.

(“On The Dunes” continues)

DONALD FAGEN: The chronology is sometimes interrupted by explosions from the past. Specifically the song “Springtime,” concerns an amusement park that he stops at along the way called Springtime. The introduction is the exposition and it tells you that there’s this place called Springtime that’s the most popular place along the Funway. In this place they scan your brain for the memories of your early romances and then play it back to you in some magnificent virtual theatre.

Then, when the actual song begins after the introduction, you actually see some of these scenes recreated. At that point, the music becomes manic rather than nostalgic. Because nostalgia is really a sort of a trap we fall into sometimes that prevents us from moving forwards. I feel by putting the wrong music under the lyric, it basically sabotages the sentimentality.

(“Springtime” plays)

Segment 3

DONALD FAGEN: The album, to me, seems to be about loss in a lot of ways. One of the ways people experience loss directly is when a relationship goes bad. It’s not that uncommon a thing for someone to wake up in the morning and look at his mate and not really know who he’s looking at anymore. People tend to change and grow in different directions. I think the most extreme form of that is when you look at the person you’re living with and decide that they may as well be from Mars essentially. When it becomes obvious that there’s some lack of communication between you, or perhaps things are starting to go wrong, it sometimes seems that the person you’re living with has been replaced by an alien.
(“Tomorrow’s Girls” plays)

DONALD FAGEN: Well I think that in Kamakiriad the narrator’s trying to reclaim some of his optimism, perhaps naive optimism, that he had as a child, and as it’s spelled out in The Nightfly. I think that the way it ends up, the character at the end is still optimistic, but without the naivete. In other words, he’s basically much more in contact with reality, and realizes the harshness of reality, and yet maintains a kind of optimism.

I try to keep my own personal politics out of the stuff I do, aside from the spillover that happens when you create something that’s part of yourself. I think that a lot of the elements, the attention to seeing the world as a planet moving in space, that we all exist on, the car is going through territory in which tidepools are boiling and plates are grinding – these are really natural disasters.

For instance, the song “Snowbound,” is about a city that constantly has really bad weather, the streets are icy and it’s always snowing and hailing, and so on. The narrator gets trapped in this place for a while and starts to share the decadent lifestyle of some of the dwellers of the city. I guess I imagine him really having to fight to get out of this place. Of course, I can’t detail everything, but maybe the movie version will more explicit.

(“Snowbound” plays)

Segment 4

DONALD FAGEN: The album took about two years to complete because Walter lives in Hawaii and didn’t want to spend that much time away from his family. He would come to New York, where I live, for six weeks. And I would perhaps write a couple more songs and then I’d spend six weeks working with him at his home studio in Hawaii. So there were a lot of breaks and it was not a particularly hurried schedule, it was kind of relaxed. But altogether it took about two years.

On this record, I felt that I wanted to have more control, you might say even more control, than I had on other records, so I played all the keyboard parts myself, and arranged all the rhythm tracks myself. I even, in fact, did the horn arrangements myself. In the past, I always had someone help me with the voicing of the horns. I felt that if I wrote the arrangements fairly simply, the music would be more unified, if everything was bent to my own conception.

I think that the music is unified in the sense that one of the most important things to me when I was doing the arrangements was the groove of the tune. I was looking for something very specific in the way of groove, and in fact made essentially the demos that I used to start with the very specific absolute groove. I wanted the groove to be aggressive and yet very relaxed at the same time. The groove is so consistent that when you get to the end of the album, it’s easy to loop around back to the first tune.

With Walter producing, we first started to think about other musicians we would use and we realized, certainly I realized, that the bass player I would most rather have play on the thing was Walter. So he ended up doing all the bass parts, and all the lead guitar. If it sounds like a Steely Dan record, there’s a good reason for it.

(“Florida Room” plays)

DONALD FAGEN: I feel that, more than any other record, I got the finished product to sound the way I imagined it would come out. I didn’t know where I was going exactly, I think it’s a psychological journey that’s taking place literally in space rather than in the psychological space. The last song on the album, “Teahouse On The Tracks,” was the last song that I wrote. I didn’t really know where the guy in the car was going to end up in his car until I wrote that song. So there was a sense of suspense about writing the record as to whether I would actually come up with some kind of conclusion.

In “Teahouse On The Tracks,” he finally arrives at this town, which I call Flytown, this nasty little place. A kind of unfamiliar town, where, psychologically, he’s totally abandoned, and just about ready to cash it in, when he hears this band playing from a place, a second story window. He finds out it’s a little place called Teahouse On The Tracks and he walks in there and he finds people from his past on the bandstand. They’re experiencing a certain kind of joy which has become totally unfamiliar to him. By meditating on his past and bringing it back to life again, he experiences this resurrection. He suddenly gets a case of party feet, as it says in the tune. The next morning, he gets back in the Kamakiri and heads back into the unknown.


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