By Greg Haymes
Albany Times Union
Saratoga Springs, NY — Don’t call it a comeback.
Despite the fact that the recent Two Against Nature is Steely Dan’s first new studio album in two decades, guitarist Walter Becker — who along with keyboardist-vocalist Donald Fagen helms the band — insists that another album never seemed all that far off.
”We had talked about this for a while,” Becker revealed during a recent telephone interview from a Los Angeles hotel, where he was ”hiding out” following Steely Dan’s spring tour of Japan. ”We’d even written songs together a couple of times in the mid ’80s. We always had in the back of our minds some songs and some ideas for a new album.” The new album picks up right where 1980’s ”Gaucho” left off. Seamless harmonies, funky hooks and tight, punchy horns blend into a highly polished jazz-flecked background; the sardonic lyrics are sung with an appropriately snide delivery by Fagen.
”We’re doing a kind of music that hardly anybody else — if anybody else — is doing,” explains Becker, who will be leading Steely Dan back to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. ”We’re doing a combination of genres — harmonic ideas from jazz along with rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm ‘n’ blues rhythm sections.”
In spite of the long hiatus between albums, (the silence broken by solo projects such as Becker’s ’94 11 Tracks of Whack and Fagen’s ’82 Nightfly) Becker says it was pretty much business as usual when the duo reconvened for Two Against Nature.
”Forgetting for a moment that there are a few technological tools that exist now that didn’t exist back then, I think generally speaking our approach to making this album was very similar to the way that we’ve always worked in the past,” Becker concedes.
”When you get down it, basically we’re just trying to write good songs and then get good versions of them recorded in the studio — good performances with a good feel to them. And that’s the same problem now that it was back then.”
What has changed dramatically is Steely Dan’s willingness to hit the road. The band made its album debut in 1972 with Can’t Buy a Thrill, which yielded the hits ”Do It Again” and ”Reelin’ in the Years.” But just a couple of years later, Becker and Fagen made the very unorthodox decision to quit touring.
”It was mostly a reaction to circumstances — logistical problems, bad sound, strange venues, all sorts of things,” Becker admits. Touring ”was such an unsatisfying, unproductive, unreliable affair for us at that time. We basically felt that — given the fact that touring was a money-losing proposition that sort of ended up wrecking us — we’d be better off staying home, writing songs and making records.
”It was a total drain on our creative process of making records, which we needed to keep going at a certain pace just to have enough money to live. Now, all of those things are more or less reversed.”
Indeed, although they had no new album to support, Becker and Fagen resurrected Steely Dan in the summer of 1993 and hit the road for a tour that brought them to the Capital Region for two shows — first at SPAC and then at the Knickerbocker (now Pepsi) Arena — within the span of a month.
”Nowadays, as you might imagine, touring is a much more comfortable process,” Becker said. ”We have a totally different kind of band because we get to pick and choose from amongst a field of eminently competent, reliable and mature musicians, as opposed to just storming around the country with our raggle-taggle band as we were doing in the old days.
Also thrusting Steely Dan (or at least their music) into the spotlight this summer is Me, Myself & Irene, the new Farrelly Brothers movie starring Jim Carrey. The film features a soundtrack crammed with Steely Dan covers, including Wilco’s version of ”Any Major Dude,” Ben Folds Five’s treatment of ”Barrytown,” Smashmouth’s rendition of ”Do It Again” and even Leon Redbone’s stab at ”Chain Lightning.”
”Yeah, we had some discussion early on with the directors about it,” Becker says somewhat sheepishly. ”As it happened, these guys were just big fans of ours … and we thought, ‘Well, why not?’ so we gave them our blessing. They went off and got all the bands, and made all the song choices and so on. … There’s definitely some good stuff on it; actually, I don’t think that there was anything that came out badly.”
The rest of the summer is pretty much mapped out for Steely Dan. They’re currently in the midst of a two-month tour of the States, and then they’ll take a little break before launching into the European leg of their world tour. ”Depending on our survival rate,” Becker cracks.
And after that?
”We have absolutely no plans whatsoever beyond that,” Becker insists. ”There’s nothing else on our horizon. That’s the edge of the earth for us right there. After Sept. 25 or whatever it is, we turn into pumpkins.”