By Darrin Fox
Even though two decades have passed since Steely Dan’s last studio album (Gaucho), their new release, Two Against Nature (Giant), bears all the trademarks fans expect from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: complex, yet musical songs, stellar production values, and — of course — exceptional guitar work.
The guitar is an essential part of the band’s legacy. Throughout the ’70s disco era, Steely Dan kept many guitarists inspired and hopeful by peppering their radio hits with classic solos by Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliot Randall, Denny Dias, and a slew of others — including Becker.
However, the approach to guitar solos on Two Against Nature differs greatly from Steely Dan albums of the past. Gone are the days of various session aces. Becker decided to handle most of the guitar duties himself, and he proves — as he did on classic Dan solos such as “Black Friday” and “Josie” — that he is a master of understated, bluesy lines with just the right amount of sardonic wit.
GP: Why 20 years between studio albums?
WB: Much to our amazement, we had a great time touring the last few years. We soon realized if we were going to continue doing live shows we had to have new songs. Otherwise we’d turn into the thing we had always not wanted to be: a bunch of guys playing the same old songs. Now we can go out there with our heads held high.
GP: Steely Dan is famous for the “guitar solo by committee” approach but you handle all the guitar solos on Two Against Nature.
WB: There are a couple of reasons for that, but the biggest one is I’m more comfortable with my playing. Back in the ’70s, I was the bass player on the two tours we did, so when we went back on the road in the ’90s, it was the first time I had played guitar on stage with Steely Dan. That was very satisfying. It made me want to play more guitar in general — as well as play more on the new album.
Also, the new material didn’t suggest soloists we had used in the past. The new stuff is more blues-based, and a strong rhythmic approach works better than the virtuoso approach we had used so much. There were other guitarists who took shots at solos on Two
Against Nature, but they just didn’t work out.
GP: But you still used different guitarists for Two Against Nature’s rhythm parts.
WB: We still use a guitar committee, but it has been thinned out. For some of the rhythm work we used Dean Parks, Paul Jackson Jr., Jon Herington and Hugh McCracken. Each of those guys is a very distinct stylist with a tremendous amount of technique. They each have a personal approach to chord voicings that is way different from anything I would do.
GP: How has your guitar style changed over the years?
WB: I play through an amp now, and that sound leads me to different stylistic things. Subtle nuances — like hanging on that one note just a little longer — are easier when you have a thicker tone. You can do more with less. Miking an amp produces a tone that’s more expressive and more variable than a guitar plugged directly into the board — which is how I recorded most of the early Steely Dan stuff.
GP: A lot of your tones on the old records don’t necessarily sound direct.
WB: There are ways around the stereotypical direct sound. On “Josie” for example, I plugged my ’54 Strat straight into the board. But in mixdown, we ran the direct signal to a small Fender or Ampeg amp, miked it, and blended the amp sound. Sometimes, however, the direct sound worked just fine. On “Any Major Dude”, Jeff Baxter plugged his ’59 Jazzmaster straight into the board. A lot of rhythm stuff on Two Against Nature was recorded direct, as well.
GP: Your solos on the new record are more economical than they have been in the past.
WB: Spewing out a lot of notes is dated. Also, with the stuff we’re doing now, a lot of notes isn’t appropriate. Back in the 70’s we used guitarists who played the way a sax player might play. But I’m not concerned with sounding like a sax player. I’ve reconciled that this is an electric guitar. I’m a guitar player, and that’s a cool thing. So I just tried to come up with solos that expressed the essential part of each track.
GP: What role does the guitar play in the Steely Dan songwriting process?
WB: The guitar is not that important to us in the songwriting process. Most of the tunes were written on a keyboard. When I’m writing by myself, I may move to the guitar if I’m stuck, because it helps me get away from the keyboard and introduce a different element to the composition.
Also, because of digital-audio sequencers, the entire writing process is different. When we write a tune now, we can produce a much closer approximation of what we want the finished track to sound like. In the 70’s, for example, we never had a drum pattern in mind when we wrote a song. Now, we’ll create a drum pattern that may not be exactly what the drummer ultimately plays, but it points to the finished song.
GP: You play bass and guitar on more than half the tracks on Two Against Nature. Do you think differently for each instrument?
WB: There are times when I find myself playing low-string stuff on the guitar that might seem like more of a bass idea, but I usually don’t have a problem separating the two. With both bass and guitar, I’m trying to get a lot of mileage out of a few notes. I’m thinking more about driving single note patterns, or setting up a riff in such a way that helps propel the song.
GP: You obviously have a natural feel for both instruments.
WB: I find playing bass a very satisfying job. You can have a tremendous effect on the music by doing very little — which is neat. Same with the guitar. A simple, solid part that you may find in certain types of soul music usually works best.
GP: Steely Dan records are renowned for their stellar production values, yet you guys have committed some gnarly guitar tones to tape.
WB: It doesn’t seem like a big contradiction to us. We like to record instruments with a lot of clarity and dynamic punch, but at the same time we like electric guitars. If we’re recording drums or piano, we’re doing it with a certain sonic goal in mind — a clean, articulated sound. But if we’re recording an electric guitar, we’re shooting for something at the opposite end of the scale. Guitars do a certain thing that no other instrument can do, and you have to make sure they sound like real electric guitars — organic and big. That raw, rock guitar element is crucial. It keeps Steely Dan from sounding like easy listening music.
GP: Still, as the rhythms are so polished, is it hard getting a vibe going when you solo?
WB: There are times when I’m not sure what to do, but it’s not because the records are polished. It has more to do with not knowing what to do with a certain piece of material. Sometimes you’ll put together something you think is a good solo section, but when you actually play over it, it just doesn’t inspire you. For example, if I had tried to play a guitar solo on “Janie Runaway”, I would have been stuck. That song has a real static vamp, and I knew I’d draw a blank, so we used a sax solo instead.
GP: What was different about recording Two Against Nature as opposed to Aja or Countdown To Ecstasy?
WB: We could never have made this album in the 70’s. It would have been impossible. We were so limited in the old days. For example, I remember we wanted a tape loop for the tune “Show Biz Kids”, and we had to build a huge contraption to make it happen. On today’s workstations, it takes minimal effort to produce loops. Thanks to digital recording, our options are almost limitless.
Here’s another example: In the Aja days, when it came time to record guitar solos, we usually had just a couple of tracks left. So after you did your two takes, you had to decide which parts you wanted to keep, and then bounce them down before you could try another solo — or you just erased everything and started over. Nowadays, you can play the solo a million times, and still keep the first attempt. On hard-disk recording systems, the number of tracks is not even an issue. All this technology allows us to do things we could only imagine before. I’m sure there are all sorts of musicians to whom none of this stuff matters, but to us, it does. In the end, digital technology allows us to do the things we were struggling to do all along.