By Art Thompson
If there’s one thing you can say about Steely Dan, it’s that they always deliver exactly what you expect. True, their sound hasn’t changed a great deal in the last 30 years, but if consistency counts for anything, then Walter Becker and Donald Fagen deserve kudos for sticking to the blues-meets-jazz-meets-R&B template that has allowed them to create some of the most intellectually stimulating pop songs of all time. And despite Becker and Fagen’s history of laboring to the point of excess in the studio, their music always flows with the silkiness of a spring breeze.
Predictably, Steely Dan’s latest release, Everything Must Go (Reprise), is filled with catchy melodies, clever hooks, and fine guitar playing. It’s also a fairly stripped-down work by Steely Dan standards, reflecting a desire by the two bandleaders to focus more of their energies on the heart and soul of the songs, and less on the production. That’s not to say the slickness factor has slipped one iota — because it hasn’t — but the spirit and sense of togetherness that Becker and Fagen have tapped into is readily apparent in the sheer vitality of the songs. Here, Becker takes GP readers on a tour of the process behind the new album.
Guitar Player: Did you ever have any particular goals in mind for Everything Must Go?
Walter Becker: Our mission was to cut live tracks, do the album in a more compressed time frame, and have a fairly consistent band playing the tunes. Those are all things we haven’t had much success with in the last half of our career. On the Aja album, for example, we had six or seven different drummers. This time, we wanted to be able to spend more time focusing on the songs and the feel, and less on overdubbing and stuff like that.
GP: Were there any differences in the way you recorded Everything Must Go compared to your last album?
B: We recorded at a studio in New York called Sear Sound, which was originally the Hit Factory. It was stepping back in time, because that was the first studio I was ever in. Back in 1969, Donald and I did a record there with a guy we were going to school with. The studio has an older Neve console and a lot of vintage mics and outboard gear. There wasn’t much room to bring in any digital equipment, though, so we end up doing all the tracking to 24-track analog tape. All the songs were complete performances, and the six rhythm section guys did their parts without overdubbing. So it was a different process in the sense that everyone was playing together. We’d tried doing that on Two Against Nature, but ended up not succeeding very well.
GP: But you’ve made a lot of other albums that way.
B: Oh yeah. In the 70’s, that was really all you could do. You might go back and strip-in or replace a part here and there, and, occasionally, we built a track up from very little. I remember on Gaucho, we had one song that was constructed from a drum track, but that was a pretty ballsy thing to do at that time.
GP: What were the advantages in cutting live this time around?
B: The main advantage was the guys knew they had to pull together to create a take, or else we were going to go home with nothing. That creates an entirely different mindset than a situation where you have the musicians play a bunch of takes on a digital machine, and then go, “Well, we know we’ve probably got it in there somewhere.” In that case, the band ends up not knowing what the track will sound like, or if they even played on the cut.
GP: Did this require extra rehearsal before going into the studio?
B: Not really. We cut the songs in batches of twos and threes, and before most of the sessions, we’d take a day to run through the tunes. That helped everybody get their hands around the charts and think about what they wanted to do. Hearing the full band play the songs also gave Donald and I a chance to think about tempos and stuff like that.
GP: Your music is quite complex – do you write out the parts?
B: There’s usually a complete keyboard chart with chord symbols and some rhythms written out. We always have a keyboard demo that we play for the musicians, as well. On this album, (guitarist) Jon Herington wound up playing a lot of parts that were literally taken right off the demos. Sometimes, we’ll ask a guitar player to emulate a written part, but guitar playing is one of those areas where you have to let the players use their own chord voicings based on how they play their instrument.
GP: I know you took all the guitar solos on the album, but did you play some rhythm parts as well?
B: Virtually none – although I did play bass on every song. All of the rhythm parts were done by Jon Herington and Hugh McCracken. Like my hero Grant Green, I try to avoid playing more than one note at a time (laughs).
GP: But you could play those rhythm parts just as easily, right?
B: No. Those guys are real masters, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do what they did. Herrington is an incredibly well-trained musician, and a very versatile player. He’s really a stickler about having the right voicings, and playing inside the harmonic structure of the song. And Hugh is great at coming up with deceptively simple parts that just sound right. He’s one of those guys who can make any lick sound better than you can play it. The authority and feeling in his playing lends a lot to the songs.
GP: You stretch out quite a lot on “The Last Mall” – did you play that solo live?
B: All of the solos were overdubbed – although we were trying to make it sound like it wasn’t the case. Donald can be very exacting when he’s being the producer on my solos, but I had a pretty good repertoire of ideas for that song, so that one went down pretty easily.
GP: On “Godwhacker” you play some very tasty lines that echo the synth parts. I can’t recall hearing you do that kind of question-and-answer stuff before.
B: Right – and we ended up doing that on a couple of tracks. I thought it was a cool idea. Those were also both overdubbed parts. Donald did his solo first on that harmonica-like synth, and I just simulated coming in after him. I like the energy of it.
GP: You’re also singing on “Slang Of Ages.” Why has it taken you so long to do a lead vocal on a Steely Dan album?
B: I avoided it until the last possible moment (laughs). See, my singing is pretty limited in terms of range and other things, so unless we plan to have me sing something, the song will always exceed my vocal abilities. Since that song was about talking, however, it worked perfectly for my range.
GP: Did you play your Sadowsky guitars on the album?
B: Yes. I did the entire record with one Sadowsky guitar and one Sadowsky bass. I love them. They sound great, they stay in tune, and Roger Sadowsky is right here in New York. The guitar’s basic setup gives me all the standard Strat-type sounds I like, and it also has an onboard preamp that lets me get more low-end when I want a thicker or more mellow sound. The preamp gives you so much tone-shaping power that it defines the guitar’s sound as much as the pickups do.
GP: Are there any downsides to having active electronics in your guitar?
B: In general, low impedance guitar preamps and signal chains tend to create a little too much biting high-end. At times, that becomes more of a liability than an advantage, so, occasionally, I turn the preamp off and just use the passive pickups. I have Joe Bardens in one of my Sadowskys and DiMarzios in the others.
GP: What kind of amps did you use?
B: This record was all done with my Mesa/Boogie Maverick combo.
GP: Did you get your lead tones entirely from the amp?
B: Yes. My lead tone isn’t all that dirty, so when we play live, I end up just turning the guitar down a little for rhythm instead of switching to another channel. I’ve found that after I get into the thicker, darker lead sound for a bit, I don’t like to switch back to the brighter rhythm channel. This time, I’ll probably be using two amps onstage, along with a rack that lets me get some reverb and chorusing, or whatever. Because of the size of the places we play, however, there’s already a lot of ambiance, so I don’t really add much in the way of delay or reverb.
GP: Are you excited to be touring again?
B: Sure – it has been a few years, and I’m ready to go again. I’ve still got a bit of hearing above 5kHz that I’d like to obliterate, and, like they used to say, “Midrange is where the music is.”