By J. D. Considine
Walter Becker still remembers what happened when word first got around that he and Donald Fagen were writing songs together again. This was 1986, just six years after the two had called it quits for Steely Dan, and already, the interest in a reunion album was enormous.
“We had been writing off and on for about a year at that time,” he recalls, over the phone from an office in New York. “Suddenly, everyone around us was gearing up for this thing. Business people and managers and producers — everybody was beginning to foam at the mouth slightly.
“Needless to say, we never made that record that we were thinking of making then,” he continues. “I think one of the things that happened was this anticipation and all this other stuff kind of got ahead of where we really were.”
So rather than get ahead of themselves, Becker and Fagen are taking the Steely Dan reunion one step at a time. There was a tour last summer, and there’s a tour this summer. There will likely be more tours in future summers. But a new Steely Dan album? That, says Becker, is a question better left to the future. “The hazy, indistinctly-seen-through-the-mist type of future,” he says.
That’s not to say Becker has been avoiding the studio. He has an album of his own coming out in late September. Dubbed 11 Tracks of Whack, it’s a solo effort in the truest sense of the term.
“My original idea was I would have a band, and go in and do all these things real quick, just knock ’em out and make this record like that. I’ve done some jazz albums like that in the last couple years, and it’s by far my favorite way to work.
“But it just didn’t quite work out that way.” For one thing, he says, “I forgot that you don’t just hire a band and have it sound like a band.” For another, the fact he was recording at his home studio in Hawaii meant that most of the musicians he would have wanted to use would have needed to fly in from the mainland for each recording session.
“I kind of ended up just doing stuff myself with my sequencer, because it was easier and cheaper and it was more, it lent itself to experimenting. I kind of felt, being in Hawaii and doing what I was trying to do, that I had to be as self-reliant as possible, and do as much stuff by myself as I could.”
But for Becker, the toughest thing about making the album was having to sing. “When I had sung in the past, there were pitch problems and stuff like that,” he admits. But having to sing a couple songs on the last Steely Dan tour helped solve that problem.
“When you’re up on stage, you just kind of have to stand and deliver,” he says. “When I came back from the tour, I found that I could just imagine that I was standing onstage and I’d be less self-conscious. I got better results that way.”