BBC Host Welcome to the Steely Dan Live Chat, with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen joining us live from the US. We’ll be chatting tonight about the chequered history of one of the most important and intelligent bands the US has produced.
You can ask your own question by typing in the box at the bottom of the page – then just press return/enter on your keyboard.
Thanks very much for being with us tonight, Donald and Walter. Here’s the first question…
Wally McGrath: How do you write songs together when one lives in Hawai and the other in NYC? Is it done by e-mail?
Walter: I write all of the lyrics in Hawaii and Donald translates them into English. Most of the time when we are writing songs together we are in the same place.
Donald: Most of the time this time around we were in New York. Some of the time we were in Hawaii. Although we have written lyrics on the phone.
Brian Sweet: How does your 1990s songwriting routine compare to/differ from the one you adopted during the 1970s?
Walter: That name Brian Sweet sounds familiar. If he doesn’t know the answer to that question by now, I don’t know what to think.
Walter: It’s not that different, essentially.
Donald: We’re much older now.
Walter: There weren’t many arguments in the early days or these days
Donald: We rarely have arguments. We disagree more in the recording process than in the writing process but it’s still very rare.
Alan White: Great album – have been playing it all week. Good to see the lyrics which are intriguing, especially to my wife. How autobiographical are they? Can you tell the story behind any of the songs?
Donald: Not Cousin Dupree. None of them are strictly autobiographical, it’s all fiction.
Walter: On the other hand, you can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs. This we cannot and do not deny.
Anne McLean: As I was peering at Walter’s producer acknowledgements on the back of Kamakiriad recently I noticed phrases like “Spider King Demon,” and “the whole crew over at Steamer Heaven.” These names subsequently crop up in the new album which is some seven years down the line from Kamakiriad. Can you shed any light on these phrases?
Walter: I guess what you could infer from that is that much of our work process is sort of tending to a series of running gags that we’ve been working with over a period of 30 years.
Donald: Back in those days they were in gags but now they are out gags.
Phil Thornalley: “Never gonna’ do it without the fez on”… I believe this song includes a writer credit for someone other than your good selves. this is the only time another writer was credited… and it’s pretty much an instrumental. What’s the story?
Donald: The Fez was recorded using a rhythm chart but there were a few bars missing and Paul Griffin, the keyboard player on the day, came up with a nice little melody, so we felt we should include him in the writer credits.
Steve Callaghan: I’ve been a fan since Can’t Buy a Thrill but didn’t realize what a fine lead guitarist Walter is until recently. Why didn’t you play on more tracks in earlier years and conversely why so much on Two Against Nature?
Walter: I remain to be convinced.
Donald: I lack a certain confidence in my singing, and I think Walter sometimes lacked a certain confidence in his playing, but now we are hardier souls with massively defended egos in place.
Donald: We can afford to share a little largesse with the fans.
Walter: Actually I did.
Andrew Godsall: Did Steve Gadd really do the Aja title track in one take?
Walter: No he did it in two takes as it happens.
Donald: Which were edited together I believe.
Tim: Was there a lot of improvisation on that track?
Walter: There was a lot written for keyboards, and there were places where there were indications for what the bass should sound like as well.
Walter: Steve Gadd’s part was not written. We discussed the tune a little bit and by virtue of his musicianship he just knew what to do.
Donald: On the chart it would say letter d – ad lib. So he ad libbed.
Walter: I remember, though, the part that became the saxophone solo, telling him just to play like hell through there. He said okay.
Calum McGregor: What are the key jazz albums that influenced you at the start?
Donald: We were jazz fans from a very early age, independently, and I think the jazz of the late fifties and early sixties was very important because that’s when we grew up. We also both like jazz going back into the twenties, especially Duke Ellington.
Walter: Just to name some names – Miles Davies, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Gene Ammons and Sonny Rollins.
Roger Neal: Was “Kid Charlemagne” based on a real person?
Walter: I would say it was very loosely inspired by a character named Owsley.
Walter His name was actually Augustus Stanley Owsley. He was a well-known psychedelic chef of the day. Later a sound man for the Grateful Dead. I believe he’s still alive.
Richard Lees: REM are one of my favorite bands of the 90’s. Who inspire you with their music today?
Both The Jazz list above
Mark Richardson: Which song is the quintessential Steely Dan song ?
Donald: “Ride, Captain Ride” or (Walter says) “Year of the Cat.”
Both: We don’t really relate to that question. It would be difficult to answer I think.
Michael: Do you have any advice for a musician who wants to play music for the rest of his life?
Donald: Don’t do it for money.
Walter: I don’t have any advice.
True: When will you touring in the UK?
Walter: We’re not sure but we expect to be in Europe and the UK sometime in the fall. Late summer or early fall, we hope.
Brian Spence: Whatever happened to Denny Dias?
Walter: Denny became a computer programmer and he’s living in Los Angeles and still plays of course.
Donald: When we play Los Angeles we like to ask Denny to sit in with the band and he always plays beautifully.
Tim: What about the other guys?
Walter: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is an aerospace engineer.
Wayne: Is your musical creativity born or bred ?
Walter: That’s a great question. Donald’s mother was a singer and my father was a reluctant violinist and music lover. Does that help?
Donald Does that help?
Glyn Neades: Have you ever seen Napoleon?
Donald: I’ve eaten a very tasty Napoleon on occasion.
John Shaw: Why have you not used Gary Katz to produce the album?
Walter: Gary was the president of his own record company when we were working on this record. We have been producing ourselves for the last ten years anyway.
Donald: Gary got us a staff writing job at ABC Dunhill in 1971 and our recording career started from there.
Walter: Gary also kept the business people off our backs when we were making records.
Matt Isaacs: If you had to choose the ultimate Steely Dan supergroup of all the musicians that have played with you in the past, which ones would you choose and why?
Walter: That’s like one of those Playboy jazz poll questions.
Donald: On keyboards, Franz Liszt
Walter: On bass, the great John Kirby
Donald: on pan flute, George Zamfir
Donald: On harmonica. Johnny Pollejo
Walter: The guy from the Harmonicettes.
Both: On bagpipes – Rufus Harley.
Phil: Is it true that Chevy Chase was once a drummer with Steely Dan?
Walter: No that’s not true.
Donald: We went to college with Chevy and before we ever thought of the idea of Steely Dan we used to do pick up dates with Chevy on drums. He was a very good drummer. He was also one of the funniest drummers.
Donald He maybe wasn’t THE funniest drummer but one of the funniest.
Derek: What is the meaning behind “the caves of Altamira?”
Donald: It’s a pretty straightforward story about a guy who visits the caves of Altamira which have famous drawings by prehistoric men or women as the case may be, and he registers his astonishment.
Walter: It’s a story about the loss of innocence.
Derek Wright: Given the standard of your quality control, is there an archive of unreleased material, and will it ever see the light of day?
Walter: I can’t believe how English sounding all these names are.
Walter: There’s not much that meets the standard that we set for ourselves all along.
Donald: It’s mostly undeveloped garbage.
Walter: When we’re pensioners we’ll dump it all out there.
Kevin Molloy: I was interested in the origins of “Gaslighting Abbie.”
Donald: The verb “to gaslight” is derived from the film “Gaslight.” There were two versions in the 1940s. The famous one was with Charles Boyer, and in the plot Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she is going insane so he can get her money or jewelry.
Donald: Hence to gaslight means to make somebody think they are going crazy.
Walter: For one’s own sinister ends.
Steve Love: Were the memorable amazing guitar solos on “Kid Charlemagne” and “My Old School” carefully written or was it purely ad lib.
Both Purely ad lib.
Andrew Martin: What do you both consider to be the best guitar solo on any of your tracks?
Walter: I’m going to hang in there with the Elliot Randall thing. “Reelin’ in the Years.”
Donald: I’m very fond of Rick Derringer’s solo on “Chain Lightning.”
Walter: I never liked that one that much.
Donald: I’m sure Rick will be glad to read that.
Tim Wood: Do you think Barbra Streisand will cover any of the songs off Two Against Nature?
Walter: It’s a real possibility.
Walter: But a very slight one.
Donald: “West of Hollywood” would be a good choice. That’s the one we always imagined for her.
David Cox: The picture of Gary Katz on Katy Lied – does it really say “Bignose” on his sweatshirt??
Donald [Laughs] It sure does.
Walter [Laughing too] Actually, it says pignose. It’s a make of amplifier.
Gordy: What ever happened to Rosie Vela?
Donald: I heard she got married. She lives in Los Angeles
Adrian: Walter… loved your solo album and the production job for Rikki Lee Jones. Do you have plans to do any other producing in the not too distant future?
Walter: The only plans we have now are to carry on with this.
Walter: There’s not really a firm schedule for touring at this point. We think we’ll go to Japan for a week, then tour the States here for the first half of the summer, and then go to Europe. But it’s not really firmed up yet.
Jack Hepburn: My all time favorite track is “Time Out Of Mind” from Gaucho. I would be very interested to hear how Mark Knopfler was picked to play the solo, which in my opinion is the best thing he has ever done.
Donald: Mark Knopfler has a single out not long before then, “Sultans of Swing.” We really liked his playing and asked if he would come in and play on a track.
Walter: We knew he was going to be in New York. We asked him to come in and he did.
Anne McClean: How has the age of computers modified your writing techniques?
Walter: We do use computers to make little demos of the tracks as we are writing them which perhaps helps us to do writing and arranging at the same time.
Donald: That’s the biggest change. But that’s really not that great a change.
Pete Smith: How nervous were you releasing an album after all this time.
Donald: I never thought about it that way. I mean I, you know, I get nervous about things like, what’s the introduction to this song going to sound like? But I don’t get nervous about things like that.
Walter: We like the album and had no qualms about the album itself. Of course, we didn’t know what to expect as far as how it will be received, but that is always the case.
Donald: We write and play to amuse ourselves so we hope other people can enjoy it as well, but our standards are very much self-contained so if people don’t like it it’s not our problem.
Donald: It may be a financial problem but not a musical problem.
Walter: You have to consider that we have been recording right through the eighties and nineties to some extent. So it’s not as though we’ve been working in a shoe store.
BBC Host: Thanks for all your excellent questions for Donald and Walter. Tim Smith and our team here in Bush House is trying to sift through the hundreds of questions visitors have submitted. We’ll be finishing in 5 minutes, so if you have any questions you’d like answered, please send them now.
Jim Burke: What exactly is the Concept behind 2VN?
Donald: The concept behind the title track, “Two Against Nature,” is we’re introducing ourselves in the most flattering way possible. Other than that it’s just a collection of songs about things we’ve been thinking about recently.
Walter: One thing in particular.
Sandy Sanders: South west England in mid summer can be beautiful – Have you thought of coming to play at the Glastonbury festival at the end of June?
Donald: Perhaps she could send us a photo which would help us make up our minds.
Martin Ashurst: Question for Donald – The Nightfly sounded so much like the 70’s Steely Dan so how much did you miss Walter’s input into the writing and recording of that (glorious) album?
Donald: The latter.
John Holland: Do the backing singers in “Show Biz Kids” sing both ‘Go to Las Vegas’ AND ‘Go to Lost Wages’?
Walter: Actually they are saying “Go to Las Vegas” but they are mispronouncing it in the way that Lenny Bruce used to mispronounce on purpose, saying “lost wages”.
BBC Host: Just time for one more question…
Calum McGregor: Do you have more ideas waiting in the wing for an album in another year or 20 away?
Donald Our deadline is 2016, so we’re hoping we can make that deadline but usually we’re late.