Steely Dan: Still Reeling

By Chris Macias
Sacramento Bee

This is not typical Steely Dan mode. The group — founded in 1972 by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — rarely tours and hadn’t released an album since 1980’s “Gaucho.” But Steely Dan has emerged from pop music’s shadows this year with a new album (Two Against Nature) and a U.S. tour, which reaches the Sacramento Valley Amphitheatre on Sunday.

Still, it’s a stretch to refer to Steely Dan as a band. Becker and Fagen have always been Steely Dan’s guiding forces, relying on an ever-rotating lineup of session players (Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Larry Carlton) and jazz greats, including Wayne Shorter and Lee Ritenour, when recording.

Could Steely Dan be, as some have claimed, “less a band than a concept”?

“I think that’s generally true,” said Becker in a phone interview from New York City. “It’s definitely not a particular band as far as recording goes and hasn’t been for a long time.”

Nevertheless, Steely Dan has produced some of rock music’s most sophisticated music, mixing jazzy interpolations with pop melodies and wickedly intellectual lyrics that could often use a “Cliffs Notes” companion.

Here’s what else Becker had to say about Steely Dan:

The Bee: Many Steely Dan songs feature vivid characters, such as “Cousin Dupree” and the protagonist from “Hey Nineteen.” Have any of them been particularly autobiographical?

Becker: Not really. None of them are literally descriptions of our own lives. They’re all fictions, but at the same time they’re all in some sense autobiographical since they draw from and elucidate experiences, thoughts or experiences that obviously we’ve had.

The Bee: What is the typical Steely Dan song-writing process like?

Becker: We’ve worked together over a long enough period of time that we’ve tried everything possible, including setting Lewis Carroll poems to music, starting with the lyrics, or starting with a piece of music. At one point, we were even writing little stories and then trying to boil them down into lyrics of songs. Every permutation of the usual song-writing process has happened for us.

The Bee: Why did it take so long to record “Two Against Nature”?

Becker: That’s a complicated question. Part of the answer is that we’re trying to work to what we think is a very high standard, so we throw a lot of stuff out that we’re not happy with. In some cases, we’ll have a very specific idea of what we want and we just have a hard time getting that. Or, we’ll start something, work on it and think, “Nah, this isn’t right,” and start again in a different way. It’s the same way I imagine painters use sketches and takes on the same basic idea over and over again.

Also, I think the kind of music we’re doing calls for a high level of polish because it is sophisticated music and doing it crudely doesn’t work out well. It’s not the effect we’re looking for.

The Bee: How much of this perfectionism translates to your live show? Is Steely Dan as meticulous in concert?

Becker: I think we are, but in a different sort of way. The fact of the matter is we’ve already recorded most of the songs that we’re playing on stage. So, we’ve already answered a lot of the creative questions and they don’t have to be dealt with all over again.

We have a generous instrumentation with our touring band — four horns, three vocalists, two guitarists, two pianos, bass and drums — so we can do most anything we want. But on a lot of our records Donald sang a whole lot of harmony parts (himself). That we obviously can’t do.

The Bee: How do you compare today’s music business with that from the ’70s?

Becker: I think it’s more extreme now in terms of the amount of control that record companies and radio stations and TV outlets have over what they’re presenting. Essentially, they are able to dictate the terms of the game to artists to an incredible extent. Pop music has been degraded by the fact that it’s allowed to be the soundtrack for a couple of full-time TV networks that do nothing but promote rock music.

The Bee: Many hip-hop artists, such as De La Soul, have sampled Steely Dan songs for their own tunes. What are your feelings on that?

Becker: I hear hip-hop things I like, though some of it is not particularly interesting to me. But generally speaking, when someone requests to use one of our tunes as a sample, we just approve it. I can’t think of any we’ve actually refused. We sort of listen through them to see if there’s something vile or offensive that we wouldn’t want to be associated with. And we have a pretty high threshold of what that would be (chuckles).

The Bee: Do you think that method of just lifting a Steely Dan hook for the basis of a new song is a lazy approach?

Becker: I don’t think it’s necessarily a lazy approach because most of them are not actually musicians. They’re not capable of (playing instruments), so they have to depend on some pre-existing source of music to go along with what they’re doing. The question of what it means for music in general, that the best-selling records are made by people who can’t play, sing or write anything other than a series of lyrics is another question which I’ll leave to the audience to decide.

The Bee: So what’s next? Is there another Steely Dan album in the works?

Becker: We have a lot of stuff left over (from Two Against Nature) that’s good. We just didn’t get it down. As soon as this tour’s over — assuming that we survive — we’ll start working on that at some point.

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