Steely Dan: The Second Coming

Chinese music always sets me free
Angular banjoes sound good to me
Aja, when all my dime dancin’ is through
I run to you.

From “Aja” By Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

By Paul Zollo
The Performing Songwriter

We’re in Manhattan, a couple weeks before the final Christmas of the 20th century. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have arrived together at the 12th floor Broadway office of their publicist. But not before going first to the fourteenth floor, where Fagen was sure the office used to be. It’s the first time the two have ever been here together, as this is the first interview they are giving to herald their new album Two Against Nature. “It’s pretty bleak up on the 14th floor,” Fagen says darkly, clearly rattled by the experience. “There’s nothing going on up there.”

It’s but one of the many struggles they’ve had to endure in order to create this, their first album of new Steely Dan songs since Gaucho was released some 20 years earlier. It’s the reason they designated “Two Against Nature” as the title song: it has to do with their dual struggle against the elemental forces they fought to finish this album, as Becker and Fagen (herewith referred to as B & F) explained in this characteristically spirited exchange:

Donald Fagen: We made it the title cut because we thought it was descriptive of our condition at the present time. Because when you start to get older, you really are fighting nature all the time. And musically you’re fighting nature, trying to organize atoms of sound. You’re trying to manipulate or overcome obstacles in nature.

Walter Becker: You’re fighting to tame the forces and bend them to your will.

DF: Right. You’re fighting lethargy. You’re fighting –

WB: Chaos.

DF: And laziness. You’re fighting-

WB: The ordinary.

DF: And other people, even if they’re on your side. You’re fighting your own sloppiness, or lack of patience.

WB: Your own internal economy of time, energy, money, ideas, patience-

DF: Trying to balance your musical life with other parts of your life. It’s essentially a classic struggle.

WB: Think of the Two Against Nature album as akin to the building of the Hoover Dam.

Although no humans actually sacrificed their lives during the making of Two Against Nature, as during the construction of the mighty dam, the creation of this album was hardly less monumental. Stretching three years from the writing of the first song to the completion of the final mix, it was a period ironically delineated by the visible progress of other people in the proximity of Fagen’s studio on East 95th, where much of the record was recorded: “We’d been working on the album for about five months,” Becker said, smiling, “and we looked out the window and noticed that they were starting to build a large high-rise 40-story apartment house on the corner across from the studio. And we actually went back in the studio a couple of days ago to add a part to the album, and we noticed that the building was finished. And people were living in it already! And here we were still putting parts on the album!”

Truth be told, Two Against Nature might very well stand longer than the new high-rise across the street. Like all previous Steely Dan albums, it’s been built to last. As their fans know well, B & F have never followed any trends other than their own, and for this reason, as well as the tremendously high standard of artistry and musicianship they bring to every project they take on, their albums possess a distinct timelessness.

Two Against Nature extends this magic into the new millennium. It’s got everything that makes the Dan great: supernaturally tight, soulful grooves, lyrics that are elegant, mysterious, funny, sardonic, even perverse (such as the lecherous “Cousin Dupree” ), melodies that are sophisticated and slinkily visceral set against tight textures of electric guitars, bass and keyboards, and all underscored by a dazzling counterpoint of horns and harmony vocals.

It’s a stunning level of accomplishment they’ve achieved by being intricately involved with every aspect of the creative process, as consciously careful with each word of every line as they are with each beat of the kick drum and the snare. Though the ongoing brilliance of their seamless and soulfully singable songs might often seem to be the product of some kind of spontaneous genius, it’s actually the result of a lot of hard work, as B & F explained. Take the flowing chorus of “West Of Hollywood,” for example:

I’m way deep into nothing special
Riding the crest of a wave breaking just west of Hollywood

It’s a single sentence that evolved through a profusion of lyrical permutations before the ideal form was discovered. “One trick of writing is to use the mechanics of typing things over and over again as a way of exercising and developing an idea,” Becker said. To illustrate this technique, he shared some of the variations he and Fagen generated for this line:

I’m way deep into nothing special…

…coming from a place of power just west of Hollywood.
…with a base of support located just west of Hollywood.
…in a matrix with its nexus just west of Hollywood.
…situated as I am in the crescent just west of Hollywood.
…having as my target the citizens just west of Hollywood.
…in a cluster franchise operation just west of Hollywood.
…and business is booming in the triangle just west of Hollywood.

All of the songs on the new album went through this lengthy process of thought and revision, each the result of many pages of notes, character development, and explorations into the best ways to compel and conclude narratives. Each character emerges only after sessions of abundant B & F banter and discovery, resulting in a rich emotional subtext that serves as a foundation for all of these songs. In “What A Shame About Me,” for example, they went through a series of variations before arriving at the appropriate climax for this tale of reminiscing college sweethearts. When the woman in the song boldly suggests a rendezvous at her hotel to rekindle their romance, the man sadly declines, admitting that any substance left to his soul is mostly spectral at this point. It’s a confession that assures that this character, who takes his place now among Kid Charlemagne, Peg, Doctor Wu, Aja, and other fully-realized personages from the fertile fiction of B and F, shines with a spirit that is genuine and poignantly human.

I said, “Babe, you look delicious
And you’re standing very close
But this is Lower Broadway
And you’re talking to a ghost
Take a good look it’s easy to see
What a shame about me…”

from “What A Shame About Me”

B & F were both born on the east coast of an America darkened by the shadow of war: Fagen came first, on January 10, 1948 in Passaic, New Jersey “amidst growing furor over Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb,” according to B & F’s self-written and often hilarious bio. Becker’s birth in New York on February 20, 1950 occurred “as war loomed on the Korean peninsula.” Though they wouldn’t meet for decades, like separated identical twins they developed acutely similar artistic preferences, simultaneously gravitating towards the music of classic American jazz masters Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and others. At this point, according to their bio, “inexpensive saxophones were purchased forthwith.”

At Bard they merged their love of jazz and black humor into songs, which they performed in a series of pick-up bands. After graduation they started peddling their songs at the Brill Building in New York, and succeeded in getting signed to two publishing deals, as well as joining the touring band for Jay & The Americans. They came to L.A. to work in a tiny office with an upright piano where they were expected to start churning out hits like Goffin & King. Instead they collaborated on a series of “classic but unrecordable cheesy pop songs” while secretly conspiring to start their own band.

With Fagen on vocals and keyboards, Becker on bass, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and David Palmer sharing lead vocals with Fagen, they rehearsed for a few months in an unfinished office wing before recording their debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. They named themselves Steely Dan after a sexual device described in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

From the first album on, B & F shared an explicit musical vision, swimming against the current of spontaneous, haphazard rock recordings to set a new standard in terms of record production. Disbanding their original lineup of musicians after their third album, they evolved to the essential core of B & F only, surrounded by the brightest satellites of the rock and jazz worlds, including Michael McDonald, Steve Gadd, The Brecker Brothers, Phil Wood, Bernard Purdie, and others. Gaining reputations as studio tyrants (which both deem as inaccurate) they cooked up tracks that were at once burning and pristine; hot, sizzling jazz textures with the most precise and tight rhythmic foundations imaginable. And they created a succession of masterpieces throughout the seventies, following their debut with Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja. In 1979 came Gaucho, and the Dan was done.

During the eighties, B & F went their separate ways. Donald recorded his own solo masterpiece, The Nightfly, a huge critical and commercial success. Becker moved to Hawaii to become “a gentleman avocado rancher and self styled critic of the contemporary scene,” but returned often to the mainland to produce albums for others, including the glorious Flying Cowboys for Rickie Lee Jones. (Rickie on Walter: “He’s much smarter, you know, than most humans.”)

The ’90s found B & F at work on an assortment of solo projects and productions, including Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad and Becker’s first, the triumphant 11 Tracks of Whacks (which a Swedish magazine recently named the “Best Album of the Decade.” “I told my son that we’re all moving to Sweden!” Walter said.) B & F also returned to the touring circuit as Steely Dan for a series of summer concerts, and in 1995 started writing songs for Two Against Nature.

Two against nature don’t you know
Who’s gonna grok the shape of things to go
Two against nature make them groan
Who’s gonna break the shape of things unknown

From “Two Against Nature”

In person B & F project opposing personalities. Becker seems quite comfortable in his skin; bearded and beatific, he’s happy to expound on any subject posed to him with a warmly gentle and somewhat professorial countenance. Fagen, who fidgets in his chair and distractedly pages through a book of photography on the desk before him, seems ready to ankle at any moment, but gets noticeably calmer as soon as the subject turns to music. Unlike other songwriting duos who have famously tired of each other after decades of collaboration, it’s obvious that B & F truly enjoy each other’s company. Rather than tune out when the other speaks, as is often the fashion, they seem as close as brothers — hanging on their partner’s every word, finishing each other’s sentences, even laughing at each other’s jokes.

The following discussion is a combination of our initial talk in New York on the second day of December, 1999 with a phone conversation that occurred soon thereafter, allowing us a generous measure of time to illuminate the perpetual mystery and marvel that is Steely Dan.

You’ve said that impatience is one of the natural forces you had to fight against to make this album. Yet you both must have a lot of patience to get your albums to the level that you have.

Donald Fagen: Well, it just means we’re victorious over our lack of patience. I am impatient. I want everything to happen now!

Walter Becker: But on the other hand, having said that, you’re able to work very patiently on something.

DF: Yeah. I’m more impatient about technical breakdowns.

WB: You’re only impatient during delays. You’re only impatient when you have to wait.

DF: Yeah, only when I have to wait. Yeah, when the band is learning a song, I’m impatient for them to already know it.

You have always had a tremendously high standards, both in terms of writing and production. Does the struggle to get it right ever get easier?

DF: Mostly it gets harder, I would say. Some of your techniques might prove to make things a little easier, but those can have their down sides.

WB: I don’t know if it gets harder in general. I can imagine making a different sort of record where it would have been easier instead of harder. But we decided to do something that we knew was going to be hard to do, and it was. And depending on what the musical context something is going to be viewed in may make it harder to make something mean what you want it to mean. It makes it harder to make things that have the real feel of real musicians playing instead of the mechanical feel of machine tracks but that still has the same kind of consistency.

In most songwriting collaborations, it’s usually pretty clear who writes what, yet in your work it’s always been mysterious who does what, though a little less so since you have done solo albums-

WB: Although that might not be informative as to what we do when we are actually writing together. Because if we are writing separately, then each one of us perforce has to write the lyrics and the music and have the overall concept.

So the two of you actually do write the songs together, as opposed to bringing in separate fragments that you write individually?

DF: Usually, a lot of time, most of the time I will bring early music. I’ll bring a chord progression or an idea for something. And sometimes Walter will have an idea for some music. A piece of something, and then we’ll work on that together. And then we’ll work on lyrics almost from the beginning together.

One of the things that has always been so impressive about Steely Dan is your chord progressions. Yet these would not be so effective without a strong melody over them. Do you come up with chords first, before the melody?

DF: Well, they sort of come in a piece, usually.

WB: Sometimes they come in a piece and sometimes we’ll have –

DF: A riff.

WB: Or vampy sort of things where you set up a vamp and then you have to develop a melody over it. Eight bars or sixteen bars over one chord, or over some sort of repeating figure-

DF: A lot of times we’ll have music and a title. Sometimes not even a title but maybe just an idea, what the song is sort of about. And other times we’ll have a title.

Do you always know what the song is about prior to writing it?

DF: No. But that’s usually what we start with. We might have a clue as to what it’s about.

By the time you finish it, is the meaning always clear to you?

WB: To us it is.

DF: In recent years. [Laughs]

WB: Listeners might argue otherwise. But to us we’ve usually got a pretty good idea very early on – these days – what we’re writing about.

Was that different in the old days?

WB: Well, yeah. I think in the old days some of the songs were more, shall we say, more impressionistic. And so –

DF: But we knew what those were about, more or less –

WB: We knew what we were trying to do, but we didn’t necessarily know what those were about. Most songwriters write songs using existing idioms, but you two almost always invent your own. DF: Well, it’s cheating to just take idioms that are in the language.

Is it?

DF: [Laughs] Isn’t it?

If the idiom is used in an inventive way, such as “Still Crazy After All These Years,” it can work.

WB: That’s a perfect example of cheating.

DF: I thought Paul Simon invented “Still Crazy After All These Years.” But maybe I’m wrong.

WB: Then it’s not cheating if he did. Then he’s just doing what we’re doing.

Your new album starts with “Gaslighting Abbie,” which seems like a newly invented idiom–

DF: Right. Well, the slang word `to gaslight’ is something I’ve heard used– actually, I’ve never heard it used outside of New York City. [Laughs] It usually was from a woman who is usually accusing me of gaslighting —

WB: [Laughs]

DF: The word `gaslighting’ comes from the film Gaslight where Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she’s crazy. So it’s kind of a synonym for mind-fucking –

WB: A certain kind of mind-fucking, where the method by which this was accomplished was by manipulating the physical reality in such a way that the person would be cold all the time, or by lowering the gaslights all the time making it so that the rooms were getting darker and darker. That sort of thing.

DF: Stealing clothes and things like that. Or denying that something happened that actually did happen.

“Jack Of Speed” is another new idiom you’ve created.

DF: Yeah, that one represents the personification of a kind of demonic obsession.

WB: We just felt that “Good King Psylosibin” was too hard to sing. [Laughs] So we decided to go with “Jack Of Speed.”

I love that line about trading fours with the Jack of Speed.

WB: [Laughs]

DF: Yeah, that’s scary. You know, the Jack of Speed is very competitive. If you’re trading fours with the Jack of Speed, you’d really have to be on your toes.

WB: Yeah, talk about your cutting contests. [Laughter]

DF: Yeah, really.

The use of original idioms ensures that songs retain some mystery, and don’t ever seem dated.

DF: Yeah, they don’t become dated that much. At least the greater part of them.

WB: Well, I guess they also don’t become dated because they’re not tied to the slang of twenty years ago.

DF: Yeah, though the slang of twenty years ago seems to have been completely recouped and is back in circulation.

WB: Some of it.

DF: I think maybe we got some of that because when we were kids we were both big science fiction fans, and sci-fi writers, at least in those days, is invent slang, because they’re writing about the future. For instance, there may be some kind of technology that they’re inventing so they will invent slang words for the technology. Just the way we invent slang words for current technology.

You’ve often used words that originate in science fiction, such as in “Two Against Nature,” when you say, “You’ve got to grok the shape of things unknown…”

DF: Yes, `grok’ is also a pre-existing term.

WB: `Grok’ is from Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

DF: Twenty years ago that word was used more than it is now.

WB: Let’s say 30 years ago. [Laughs] It was part of the ’60s currency.

DF: `To grok’ meant to understand something, to see its deeper meaning –

WB: At an intuitive level, yeah.

You said that using existing idioms is cheating, yet you both love Dylan, who has used existing idioms such as “a simple twist of fate” repeatedly through the years.

WB: Well, Bob Dylan started out and in some ways never moved that far away from the idea of being a folk musician. In which genre you sort of are permitted to recycle a chord change or a melody or a lyrical idea. I think that’s essentially what it means to be a folk musician. You are going to be recycling musical and/or lyrical ideas. Or personalizing them in a variety of ways. There’s something about the economy of someone like Bob Dylan. There’s a great economy that allows him to focus his energies on what is really important to him. And I think that’s probably part of his genius, and what made him so productive over the years.

His is the complete opposite of your approach in the studio. Not only will Dylan not write out his chords, he won’t even say what they are – You have to watch his hands.

WB: Right. Certainly we couldn’t get away with that. “Watch my hands” wouldn’t work for us. [Laughter] Even in the best of circumstances.

DF: Yeah, it is the opposite of what we do. And I think we feel that an integral part of what we’re doing has more to do with the presentation and production, the sound of the record, perfected arrangements, and stuff like that.

Like Dylan, some of your lyrics are clear narratives and others are quite cryptic. Yet those songs also never age, because there are new possibilities in them. Is it sometimes better that meaning not be obviously understandable?

WB: No, I think, depending on what the song is and what it’s about, it’s more or less important that I have a very comprehensible narrative to it. And I think for example, a song like “What A Shame About Me” on the new record, I can’t imagine anyone having any trouble knowing what that’s about. Whereas a song like “Two Against Nature,” people ask us about quite a bit and sort of wonder about it. And particularly foreign people who are sort of confused about what might be meant by the idea of “Two Against Nature,” or who don’t recognize any of the names of those demons. The figures of the voodoo pantheon there. Which must just seem like a lot of confusing names to some people, I’m sure. Or a song like “Gaslighting Abbie,” if you don’t know about the movie Gaslight and that expression, you’re screwed, right? You have no idea what that’s about. And yet if you do know that, then I think you can make sense out it.

But even if you don’t, it’s still intriguing and has a lot of resonance-

WB: Yes, it’s still intriguing and it has a lot of resonance. And I think there’s a lot of times when I will read something, and I’ll like it and be taken with it before I completely know what it is. And then there’s other cases, with Bob Dylan songs and so on, there’s such a series of kaleidoscopic images and surrealistic imagery that it’s hard to categorize it in your mind what it is. It’s something that you experience, and it sort of reinvents itself every time you hear it because it’s so allusive.

I think there is something to be said for the idea that something can retain some element of mystery. That is very likable. And I think our new songs, generally speaking, are less obscure than they might have been at other times earlier in our career. It was the seventies back then, and the sixties weren’t far behind. [Laughter] We felt free to take appropriate liberties. At the same time, I think what we’re doing has gotten a little clearer, don’t you?

Yes. And your use of the language and specific details, even when the meaning is not immediately obvious, such as “now you’re the wonderwaif of Gramercy Park,” from “Janie Runaway,” are so great.

WB: [Laughs ] We certainly were pleased with that. We probably sat there for two hours trying to come up with that line. We had all different parts of the city. We had “Another year of dogpatch would have done you in.” [Laughs] Let’s see: “My waif queen,” “My waif supreme,” “waif mistress,” “the baroness of my Wall Street loft,” “now you’re the princess of Van Damme Street,” “Now you’re the baroness of Elizabeth Street,” “of Irving Place,” “of Waverly Place.” We had “Dixie Runaway,” “Susie Runaway,” “Polly Runaway,” “Molly Runaway,” “Annie Runaway.”

We have notes which define the idea of certain songs. For “West Of Hollywood” we had, “Ideal flatness of field, leveling, nulling out, zero potential, the tyranny of the disallowed.”

When your lyrics get mathematical like that, or “the axis of pain/pleasure sheared the arc of desire,” it sounds like some of language in your solo album, Walter, as in “Surf And/or Die.”

WB: I think when we hone in one something, it’s hard to tell who it came from. The original version of that line was “The axis of pain/pleasure distended the calculus of desire.” Which I actually liked better. But try singing it that way sometime. The one we came up with was a little more singable that that.

That smooth singability is a hallmark of your work.

DF: Yeah, well, it’s hard to sing those tongue-twisty words. It has to sound good.

WB: Things have to meet a minimum standard of singability.

DF: There have been times when we couldn’t figure out any way to say something and so we moved up to rougher language. But generally speaking there is a way to do it when you get both the sound and the meaning.

When you’re working together on a song together, how do you go about it?

DF: In recent years we usually start out with me on acoustic piano and Walter on guitar. And then when we have something it’s transferred into some kind of sequencing program so that we have something to work with that sounds a little like a track. And Walter usually works the computer. [Laughs]

WB: That’s true.

How conscious is your process when working to create new music?

DF: Sometimes it’s not conscious at all. Sometimes it comes from just messing around with a cassette recorder on. And other times there are effects you hear in music that you try to store up in your mind. And you think about what will this effect sound like in a different context than you found it in.

A sound effect?

WB: A harmonic effect.

DF: A certain tension or atmosphere of a certain harmony and/or melody. Even down to the timbres. For example, there are things in Duke Ellington’s music I know I’ve used. He was amazing at coming up with original pieces of sound. Because of the guys in the band and the ways it was arranged and the chord progressions and the melodies and the ranges that he put the instruments in. For instance, you will hear something in there and you will come to a certain place when writing a song and I’ll play a certain thing that might remind me of that. And then I’ll see what would happen if I used a similar progression or somehow assimilated that effect right here in this context.

When you are working on the lyrics, do you do with the music?

DF: Generally. We have an idea of the rhythm of the melody and sometimes the melody itself.

WB: Usually we have the melody by the time we write the lyrics.

And you always write lyrics together?

DF: Yeah. Almost all of them.

What is your main objective when working on a lyric?

DF: Mostly it has to do with what’s the most entertaining. If you can come up with something that’s funny in some way or tells the story in an amusing way, that’s best. Or little details. Someone will come up with a detail that is very telling about the character. It might be more like writing stories than actual lyrics sometimes.

Do you plot out the story before writing the song together?

DF: Yes, but sometimes we might not know how it ends.

WB: You get the general idea and then you see where it takes you. I noticed on the songs we just wrote, for example, by the time we were finished with the song we’ll have a couple of pages sometime of lyric material and ideas and conceptual stuff about the character and the situation that we didn’t use. Either lyrics that we rejected, or just back story, if you will.

DF: Yeah, sometimes we will have two or three pages of junk we came up with as notes about a story or a character.

WB: It’s just like a short story writer or a novelist would work in some cases to develop an elaborate back story and a set of impressions that you then draw from-

DF: The reader doesn’t have to know the whole back story, but we have to know it –

WB: We have to know it to write the song.

It’s not surprising that you work this way, because these stories are so rich and real seeming, as in “What A Shame About Me,” which is like a little short story with a surprise ending. .

DF: Yeah, that’s kind of like a five-minute play.

WB: That started with the title for the song.

DF: That’s kind of a renovated blues idea. I think the ending of it was the last thing we wrote, I think, the ending.

WB: We had ourselves on the edges of our chairs until we got there. [Laughter] We just didn’t know what was going to happen.

DF: We thought it was just too obvious for the guy just to go up with the girl —

WB: I would say, generally speaking, that songs on this album, we didn’t know how the stories were going to end until we got there. Wouldn’t you agree?

DF: Yeah, pretty much.

To be funny in songs can be tough, because jokes quickly get old. Yet your songs such as “Cousin Dupree” are funny without being jokey.

WB: Well, when Donald and I started writing together way back when we were in college and for several years after that, the songs that we wrote were humorous but in fact they were too humorous. They sort of, unfortunately, suffered from that very problem that you’re describing, that they were just too jokey and sounded like novelty songs. But we realized that that was a liability and so we developed over time and we sort of tempered that idea, and honed into the idea of things having humor in them but a certain kind of humor and a certain amount of humor, along with other stuff. Because we were both definitely interested in humor as a central element of what we were doing, but we didn’t want to write Tom Lehrer songs.

DF: “Cousin Dupree” is a song we had from a while back. That one had sort of been kicking around for a while. At one point we were talking about writing some country songs, and I think that one came out of the list of ideas for country tunes. Really parodies of country tunes.

Musically country?

DF: Well, we were thinking of doing that at the time but we didn’t. Although “Cousin Dupree” does have a kind of rockabilly, Chuck Berry-ish quality to it. It’s mainly the lyrics that are country.

It’s hard to imagine you writing country music, because the kind of expanded chords you use are never heard in country. Years ago you referred to the “Mu chord,” which is a major triad with a major second in it. Musicians also know of another “Steely Dan chord” — Did you consciously choose to use these chords, and are they still a part of your vocabulary?

DF: Well, I think both of us have maybe been to the College of Musical Knowledge since then. [Laughter] So we know a lot more about harmony now. Those chords that we used then were some of the more interesting chords that hadn’t been used that much in beat music at the time. So, yeah, I think we still use those chords –

WB: But there are so many others –

DF: It’s not like we ever said, “I’m going to use this Mu chord here” –

WB: That was just a joke. We made that up just for the songbook. We never referred to it, before or after that day, as the “Mu chord” –

DF: No, we never did, we never did.

WB: It was just an invention. [To Donald] Do you know what he means by this other chord, this “Steely Dan chord”?

DF: Yeah, it’s a minor seventh with a sharp-five.

WB: Yeah, right.

DF: It is a major chord, but with the third in the bass, you can call it a minor-seventh. [Laughter] It’s really an inversion of a major chord with an added second-

WB: Right. And no third.

You’re famous for getting the tightest rhythm tracks possible. Musicians now have machines which can create that kind of precision, but they rarely get the soulful grooves that you create. How do you do it?

DF: It comes out of the arrangement a lot. And the drummer. And in the last couple of years there has been a certain manipulation of the rhythm track. We started with live drums on every song.

WB: But then we edit. Essentially it’s an editing process.

DF: Yeah, it’s not only a live drum track, but actually a live band playing. We have a quintet or a sextet.

WB: Some of the later ones we did with a trio. Sometimes on some of the larger sections I wouldn’t play.

DF: Walter was actually producing when we were having the bigger bands. I was playing outside and Walter was inside —

WB: Ordering take-out food. [Laughter]

The horn arrangements on this new album are remarkable. Are they part of the original conception of the song?

DF: It’s usually one of the last things we put on. Of course, you listen to a track and say, “Oh, we can have horns do that.” Generally speaking it has to do with where do you need a kick in a song. And I think that’s good, because it keeps it kind of minimal that way. So you don’t overwrite. Sometimes just a little horn goes a long way.

That to me seems a key to your production and arrangement style, that you have a lot going on, but everything comes in at the right time, so that you can hear all of the separate components.

DF: Yeah, that’s the advantage of working on tape.

WB: We try to avoid the abuse of the bourgeois football technique. Where guys are just playing chords and holding them. We want more emotion in there, more contrapuntal movement –

DF: More air in the production. There are a particular bunch of guys, especially guitar players, who just want to play a chord and hold it through the bar. Which is something we try to avoid. Because it weighs down everything.

It’s also common to sustain keyboard pads through the bar, which is something you never do. And that does create a feeling of space in the music.

DF: Yeah. In fact, because we don’t do that much, then when we bring in the horn section, then it can serve as a little pad there or sustain section. You can do it at the end of the song without gunking the whole thing out.

To keep that space, are you also pretty sparing when it comes to the use of reverb and echo?

WB: Certainly by comparison to other people I think we are. We are shooting for a different end result than what a lot of people are. In general, people, when they are making rock and roll records, want a big, powerful, sort of massive sound. And we’re thinking more in terms of being able to clearly hear the details. We’re more influenced by good sounding jazz recordings of the late fifties and sixties and some subsequent things as well. So I think our things tend to be a little drier and clearer sounding and more up-front in general.

Unlike most bands who develop a distinctive sound over a series of albums, you had your sound complete from the first album. Did you two discuss what you wanted to do in terms of sound, before you accomplished it?

DF: We had been working at studios a little bit, and by the time we made the first record we had met Roger Nichols, and Roger was also a hi-fi buff and had a very compatible concept, and certainly we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. And Roger knew how to do it, essentially.

WB: Roger was totally into doing whatever we wanted to do in terms of experimenting. We knew early on that he was the guy for us. It was essentially working on the Steely Dan albums with Roger where we first had the opportunity to go in and fool around with things and try different stuff, and play around with equipment, and mix a record, and so on.

Do you have favorite keys to work in, and do you feel that each key has its own character?

DF: Yeah, I do, in a funny way. I don’t know if I can define it, exactly. With different keys it’s almost as if they each have different smells. [Laughter]

WB: There is some kind of complex, synesthetic effect that each key has-

DF: Yeah. At least in relation to other keys. I’m sure if something was in D and then it was in E, I don’t know if that would make as much of a difference if you heard it out of context. But if you heard the D one first and then the E one, then you could compare them.

WB: And forgetting about if keys in the abstract have some kind of color, if you are working on some particular musical instrument, they certainly are quite different.

DF: Also the way that keys affect range and inversion. That’s not anything intrinsic to a key, but it does affect the way it sounds.

As the lead singer, do you gravitate towards certain keys that best suit your vocal range?

DF: No, I just usually make sure the highest note of the melody falls within my range.

WB: Or very nearly so.

DF: If not, then we decide if it’s possible to have that be some kind of background part, so that we can get up higher. Sometimes we’ll take the melody and say that it is going to be falsetto or a girl singing. And that’s cool. I’ll sing the lower part.

WB: Sometimes the verse needs to be in a certain key or not below a certain key, because we are modulating a lot up to the chorus, and that would place the chorus too high.

DF: In “Two Against Nature,” we liked the verse in a certain key for my voice and the way it sounded on the keyboard. And we actually had the chorus in another key, but it didn’t work out rangewise for my voice. We tried to get the same effect by putting the chorus in a different key.

WB: Often we’ll have a series of possible different key relationships between verse and chorus, and we’ll have to decide on one that is the best in terms of ranges. Sometimes there will be two or three modulations in one song. I know that was the case with “Two Against Nature.”

DF: Right. We wanted the effect of the chorus to have a lift in a certain way. What is it?

WB: The verse is in A flat and the chorus is in D.

DF: The first relationship we had was similar. Maybe it was a third up. But we knew we wanted that kind of thing but the first thing we had just didn’t work out from a range point of view. So we searched around for something that sounded pretty much as good that was singable.

The harmony vocals on Two Against Nature are wonderful. And more then ever you have a lot of counterpoint harmonies going against the melody.

DF: Yeah, I think that is one of the things we are doing a little different is the vocal parts. Because we used to do more block harmony. Now this is more interesting. I guess this is our classic period because we are going back to counterpoint.

WB: [Laughs] It’s our Baroque period.

DF: Primitive counterpoint it might be, but counterpoint nonetheless. [Laughs]

You finished this album in 1999 to be released in 2000, which ensures that there will be good music in the next millennium. Any thoughts as to how your music applies to the next century?

WB: Well, we’re still confused about how our music applies to the current century. [Laughs] We have been fortunate enough to do something that has always been out of the mainstream and yet have an audience for what we do. And I hope that continues to be true. I don’t think what we are doing fits neatly into the context of what’s happening now anymore than it did in the early seventies when we started doing it. We were fortunate at that time that radio was as wide open as it was that people doing something like what we were doing could sneak in there.

DF: We sneaked in a window of a couple of years when radio was willing to play something that didn’t sound like something that had been played for the last forty years.

You are one of the only bands to never have been influenced by any trends.

DF: You know what it is, we’re influenced by music from the last century.

WB: We’re influenced by trends but they are only trends that we know about. [Laughter] They’re secret trends.

Will there be more Steely Dan albums after this one?

WB: There could be. It depends on how long we live.

DF: Depends on the sales, really.

WB: [Laughter] It depends on demand.

DF: They’re not going to let us make another one, you know, unless somebody buys it.

Having listened to it thoroughly in both New York and L.A., I can attest to the fact that it sounds great on both coasts.

WB: [Laughter] Well, that’s really nice to know, but it’s really the middle of the country we’re worried about. If you find anyone in the middle of the country that likes it, please let us know.

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One Response to Steely Dan: The Second Coming

  1. Stephen GC September 4, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

    I grew up in St. Louis (now in LA and NY) and Steely Dan was the most influential group we followed. Our band played many of their songs. Love singing “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More”. You don’t have to worry about the middle of the country!

    I just saw you guys play at the Beacon in NY a few years ago.

    Thanks for sharing this brilliant insight.

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