By Joshua Klein
Lost in the furor over Eminem’s nomination, the oddness of Steely Dan’s recent Grammy for Album Of The Year was somewhat overlooked. In some respects, that’s perfectly in tune with a career characterized by quiet subversiveness. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker spent the bulk of the ’70s sneaking their cryptic, sharp-witted songs onto the radio in the guise of smoothed-out California pop. Beginning as a much larger ensemble, the group shed members as its discography grew. By the time of 1974’s Pretzel Logic and its ubiquitous hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Fagen and Becker had converted Steely Dan into a studio-only outfit and firmly established their themes, primarily the fallout of the freewheeling ’60s. Together, their music grew softer and subtler over the course of 1977’s Aja and 1980’s Gaucho; then, Steely Dan as a group seemed to disappear. Fagen and Becker both released solo projects with each other’s assistance, but their band remained silent throughout the rest of the ’80s. That changed in the mid-’90s, however, when they reconvened Steely Dan as a popular touring group, a reunion that last year found them releasing Two Against Nature as if it were simply a follow-up to what had come before. Now, in spite of their apparent disdain for the music business, Fagen and Becker are once again the center of attention, receiving the Grammy (which may or may not be for sale at steelydan.com) and acceptance into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the same year. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Fagen and Becker about their spate of good luck, which, like everything else in the world of Steely Dan, often amounts to less than it may at first appear.
Walter Becker: Thanks a lot.
Donald Fagen: Thanks.
O: What have you done with your statues?
DF: You know, they haven’t even sent me mine. They give them to you when you get up on the stage, and then they take them right away. Did you get one?
O: Not even an IOU?
DF: No, nothing. We’d have to call in about it, just like my Uncle Dave tried to call in about his Purple Heart that he got after WWII.
WB: This is the music business, so I think they expect that they’re going to be energetically harangued by various businesspeople until we get what we want.
DF: Maybe we should try to get a Purple Heart.
O: You would have to suffer the double-indignity of asking for a Grammy statuette. I’m surprised that you got shut out of the rap category.
DF: Well, when did we have a rap?
O: There’s always been the Steely Dan/hip-hop connection. People keep sampling you.
DF: Sampling, yeah, for sure.
WB: You know, we were the authors of the R&B Song Of The Year a couple of years ago, according to ASCAP.
DF: You mean, “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)”?
WB: “Déjà Vu,” parentheses “Uptown Baby.”
DF: We got an award for that.
O: That’s a step in the right direction.
WB: I’m not so sure, because they told us that it might be good if we didn’t go to the ceremony.
DF: That’s right! Someone actually advised us not to go because it might be dangerous.
WB: I don’t know if they said it would be dangerous. They did say it “might not be our type of affair.”
O: Wasn’t there a fight over who ripped off the Steely Dan sample from whom?
DF: The way I heard it was that Lenny Kravitz and Puff Daddy were riding around at night in a limousine, as they enjoyed doing in those days…
WB: Puff Daddy had already licensed the song “Black Cow” to make a track with, and in fact had made a track.
DF: Right. He had sent this thing to get a license to sample from “Black Cow.” He and Lenny were riding around, and they heard on the radio the identical sample with a different rapper, doing different rapping, at which point Puffy said, “Hey! Somebody ripped me off!”
WB: “Somebody stole my track!”
DF: It had been ripped off by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz.
O: People act like you somehow stole the Grammy from Eminem, but considering the body of voters, I’m surprised you didn’t get Best New Artist.
DF: Yeah, you’re right.
O: Did the Eminem controversy distract you from enjoying the awards?
DF: No, it was great that he was taking the heat. We didn’t get that kind of soul-killing exposure you get when you really hit the jackpot.
WB: It’s lucky for us, thinking as we do, that what we do essentially defies the kind of large-scale, commercial reification that has been given to people like Eminem. We believe that finding yourself in that position tends to undercut your ability to function as artists and as human beings.
DF: It’s good for us. We had a hard time getting ourselves to even go to the Grammys. I went once, years ago, when one of my albums was nominated, but generally speaking it’s kind of a scary affair. If you want to be looking at things from the outside, it’s a little scary to get in that far.
O: It’s also sort of a backhanded compliment, since you didn’t get a reward when Steely Dan was most active in the ’70s.
DF: Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe there were good reasons not to vote for some of the other things, and there wasn’t really a good reason not to vote for us.
O: What about the lascivious lyrics?
DF: But we sneak under the limbo bar with those.
WB: That was a good reason to vote for us. One of the better reasons.
O: Your lyrics have often touched on strange or potentially offensive subjects, but the “Ban The Dan” movement never quite caught on.
WB: First of all, what we do and the way we do it is essentially irrelevant, and as I said before, not amenable to the type of reification they were laying on so thick for Eminem. While it perhaps was an interesting point to make, it obviously didn’t apply to us. What happened with Eminem was part of a systematic promotional campaign on behalf of the people who run the Grammys and the people who sell newspapers. It wasn’t a legitimate scientific controversy or intellectual dispute of any sort.
O: Because you do sneak things under the radar, would you consider your music subversive?
DF: That’s not for us to say, really.
O: That’s a pretty subversive answer.
DF: Well, I don’t think that’s for me to comment on, either.
O: You were just inducted into Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March.
DF: [Sarcastically.] Yeah, we were really excited about that.
O: Well, it’s got slightly more honor going for it than the Grammys.
WB: How do you figure that? [Both laugh.] Not to what degree do you figure that, but what process tells you?
O: I was going to say there’s less politics involved, but that’s bullshit.
DF: Follow the money.
O: So, which is sillier, rewarding rock ‘n’ roll with little statues, or enshrining it in a museum?
WB: We won’t be sure until we either a) get our little statues or b) are enshrined in a museum.
DF: Yeah, we haven’t gotten our Grammys yet.
WB: Then we could make a strict, straight-ahead comparison between the two. You understand that we, personally, are not going to be enshrined in a museum, right?
DF: Do you get some sort of award at the Hall Of Fame? Some sort of acknowledgment? Something that you can keep at home?
WB: I’ll tell you this, I’m planning on getting a receipt for the 600 boxes of Swedish ginger cookies.
O: For all you know, it’s like that Vincent Price movie House Of Wax...
DF: Right, where they actually use the…
WB: …the humans, to pour the wax on. I find that to be a disturbing metaphor.
DF: You know, I think that was the first movie to ever be released in 3-D. Certainly one of the first.
O: It’s only a matter of time before you re-master all the Steely Dan albums again in 3-D, so you have to wear glasses to listen to them.
DF: That’s right.
WB: We applaud the development of any new format that means our old albums may possibly be resold.
O: You just need to keep inserting minor track-listing errors.
WB: We tried that. We’d like to point out that those early albums with the track-listing errors are real collectors’ items now.
O: Because you took a long Steely Dan break throughout the ’80s, you managed not to date yourselves. You didn’t have the drum machines or cheesy production.
WB: We didn’t have those haircuts, either.
O: How does it feel to go to the Grammys and sit with a whole new generation of music-makers who weren’t even around then, let alone during the ’70s?
WB: We wouldn’t know, because we had Tony Bennett on one side of us and Hugh Hefner on the other.
O: Did they put you in the old-guy section?
WB: I’m beginning to wonder.
DF: Hugh Hefner had these seven blondes sitting around him. The thing I want to know is, couldn’t he get girls whose hair wasn’t made of the same thing their face is made of? Is that some kind of girl Play-Doh or something?
WB: Girl-Doh, it’s called.
DF: Yeah, Girl-Doh.
O: You’re both East Coasters who have become associated with the L.A. sound. What is the L.A. sound?
DF: It’s a lot different from what it used to be. To me, the L.A. sound has to do with alto-saxophone players with a really smooth tone, and the Gerry Mulligan-type arrangements. I’m so far behind that it’s almost not worth talking about.
O: I was under the impression that Los Angeles sounded something like Fleetwood Mac.
DF: That’s after our time. In terms of the L.A. sound, I would say the Shorty Rogers All-Stars.
WB: Shorty Rogers & The Jazz Giants.
DF: Yeah, and The Jazz Giants.
O: You guys have earned a reputation as studio perfectionists. You have all this new technology at your disposal, so do you feel that you have to go above and beyond to be more perfect now that digital technology allows you to be perfect by default?
DF: We always had the newest technology at our disposal. Our engineer even invented some of that technology. But I think that, although the technology may help you in areas of efficiency and so on, it actually doesn’t help that much, musically speaking.
WB: You notice that music is not necessarily getting better and better.
DF: Right! [Laughs.]
WB: To put it mildly.
DF: If music followed the sophistication of the technology, we’d all be listening to Debussy right now.
O: The people who vote for the Grammys are also the engineers and producers, right? The behind-the-scenes people?
WB: I think to get a really accurate description of the voting system for the Grammys, you’d have to ask somebody else. But generally speaking, I think you’re right.
DF: I have to say, I have no idea who votes for the Grammys.
WB: I don’t, either. I’d be going on hearsay. That’s a good question. It’s something that your publication might want to explore at some point. Do you have any muckraking journalists over there?
O: We can rake a little muck.
DF: I think the Tri-Lateral Commissioner is involved somehow, and the Skulls.
O: It’s a well-kept secret, lest the Grammys erode what little authenticity they possess.
WB: I don’t think they’re worried about that.
DF: It’s so arbitrary. The Album Of The Year category, putting rap albums up against pop albums up against things like Radiohead. It’s kind of a genre mishmash that makes it all meaningless.
O: Now that you tour, some of that mystique you built up throughout the ’70s may be dissipating, now that people can see that actual human beings are playing this music.
WB: I don’t think anybody who’s actually seen us perform would mistake us for human beings.
DF: It begins to erode, the first couple of years you go out, but then it begins to build up a different mystique. Like, “How did they get so good?”
O: You did play a lot of your own music on the last album, even though you have every session musician in the world at your disposal. Why the change?
WB: We wanted to keep the session bread. Every penny counts, you know?
O: How did touring this last time out compare to touring in the early ’70s?
WB: Well, I don’t think we were actually driving around in cheap rented station wagons with the whole band in the station wagon.
O: What did you do when you weren’t touring in the ’70s? Watch a lot of TV?
WB: We made records.
DF: That was actually our most productive period, I think. We were in the studio almost the entire ’70s. We put out Royal Scam, and Katy Lied, and Aja, and Gaucho, so that took a while. In the ’80s, we also did solo albums, record productions, movie scores, and shows.
O: But you haven’t exactly fostered a reputation for being prolific.
DF: I actually was fairly prolific. We just chose not to work in the Steely Dan arena for a while.
O: What is the difference between you two collaborating together not as Steely Dan and you two collaborating together as Steely Dan?
WB: We did a couple of solo albums that we both worked on. Generally, what happened is that one of us wrote the songs for his own album, and then the other came along and sort of helped him actually record it.
DF: It depends on what point the other guy enters the picture.
WB: I think that the Steely Dan record we just made, we sort of worked on from the inception together. That’s the difference.
O: This might be heresy, but I think that some of your greatest artistic achievements have been your web site, and even your liner notes.
DF: Thanks a lot.
O: It seems like you put a lot of work into what you post on the Internet.
WB: It’s another vehicle that gives us occasion to express this or that, or respond to things happening around us.
DF: We usually write them in between things, like at the end of the day, when we’ve been writing songs and we run out of steam, so we start writing some diatribe about something. We wrote a lot of them on airplanes during the tour.
WB: It’s another way to add some texture to your artistic persona.
DF: It’s more fun than Parcheesi, you know?
O: How does the collaborative process work on lyrics or longer essays?
DF: I think that if we’re writing songs, I’ll start the musical thing rolling. With lyrics, I think it’s quite often Walter, and also some of the prose stuff. And then there are other things we do pretty much on our own. We just sort of go up and read it to the other guy, and maybe the other guy will fix it up or sign off on it.
O: The amazing thing about the Internet is that anything you do becomes available instantly.
DF: And for free, too.
O: That’s unique in the world of rampant merchandising. Also, it doesn’t go out of print or need to be re-mastered.
O: But the downside is that you can’t reissue it.
WB: We’ll see about that.
DF: It can certainly be repackaged. Or revised. It’s been optioned by filmmakers.
O: The Steely Dan Internet movie?
WB: What a great idea. We’re got to start working on the treatment.
O: You’ve been very quick to embrace DVD Audio, which hasn’t quite caught on yet. They do sound good, though. Do you think that will be the next sound revolution?
WB: It could be. I think it depends on whether the public really embraces it for its own sake, or as a by-product of the fact that people are buying DVD machines with the surround-sound setups to watch movies on.
DF: Our engineering staff — Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner — has been encouraging us to convert everything to DVD.
O: Neil Young was always one of the digital detractors, but apparently he loves DVD Audio.
DF: That’s funny. I think that shows how arbitrary his acclaim or criticism can be.
O: I think he doesn’t like the mid-range on CDs, but he does on DVDs.
DF: I wonder if DVD has more of a mid-range for some scientific reason?
O: Not that the human ear can ever really tell. Some people still prefer vinyl.
WB: Those people have never actually mastered their album on a vinyl record. The difference between the audio… When we mixed this album, we mixed it in the high sample-rate format and in the regular CD sample rate, and the high sample-rate format did sound better. In fact, we used that to generate the master tape for the CD. But it was a very subtle degree of improvement. It might have been the performance.
DF: The people still stuck on the vinyl thing fit into one of the DSM [Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders —ed.] categories: schizotypal.
O: Or maybe they’re just afraid to replace their old collections. You’re on a roll right now, so I don’t think there’s an obvious next step for you to take, except maybe a book or a movie.
WB: We could be knighted, or something like that.
O: Can Americans be knighted?
DF: They can start doing that.
WB: They can renounce their citizenship, and then be knighted. Look, obviously this is the time for us to be honored by one and all.
DF: There’s this concept in the Hawaiian Islands, where Walter hails from these days, called pau hana time. [Sort of like Happy Hour. —ed.] That’s the time period we’re in right now.
O: Don’t they throw you into an active volcano at the end?
WB: No, usually you just pass out.
O: Do you have any messages for the youth of today?
DF: We keep thinking that one day we should write sort of a “how to live” book for teenagers and college students. With all the wisdom that we have accrued through the years, put down in a series of chapters. So maybe we should hold off until then.
WB: How about “clean up your room.”
DF: Yeah, Clean Up Your Room. That would be a good title. Remember that book that came out a few years ago, How Proust Can Change Your Life? This will be like How Steely Dan Can Change Your Life.
WB: The Steely Dan survival guide.