By George Varga
San Diego Union-Tribune
SANTA MONICA – Making a mark on posterity is not a concern for Steely Dan’s acerbic co-founders, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who have absolutely no interest in how they’ll be remembered by future generations.
“I don’t care; I’ll be dead,” said a suitably deadpan Fagen, 55, as he and Becker, 53, sat in a plush hotel suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Such brevity is unusual for these two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, who have long been among the most articulate musicians in any idiom.
But ask this glitz-shunning duo to discuss their sveltely subversive music and they are happy to talk at length. For them, an in-depth interview is an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other in the manner of free-flowing instrumental exchanges between seasoned jazz musicians.
Here is the transcript from a relaxed chat with the Grammy-winning pair, whose tour to promote Steely Dan’s latest album, “Everything Must Go,” includes a stop tonight at Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista.
QUESTION: Just as kind of a backdrop, since we’re here at a hotel in Santa Monica, could you recall coming out to California — I assume it was after your brief tenure touring with Jay & the Americans — to work on staff for ABC Records in 1971. What, at that point in time, did Los Angeles mean to you, to two East Coast guys?
FAGEN: “Well, it was an enormous relief on one hand. New York was in a really bad period at that time. There was nothing much happening in the period between the end of the `60s and before the Concorde dance movements. So, it seemed that most of the recording studios, in place of the certain professional recording studios you had previously, there was also springing up a lot of recording studios run by drug dealers.
“Some of which were perfectly good recording studios, but there was nothing much to record and the drug dealers were just recording their friends. Just nothing much was happening. It also was a very, very cold winter. So, it was good to get to L.A. As to the negative side of it….”
BECKER: “Well, I think Donald had maybe been in L.A. on a pit stop maybe one time before we moved out here. I had never been here, or given it much thought. And so we sort of arrived in this milieu; we’re plunked down in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Our soon-to-be-producer (Gary Katz) was living in Encino, and Encino had apparently been built sometime in the previous two weeks.
“So, there were three long avenues full of brand-new apartment houses with empty apartments. And we didn’t know how to drive, we didn’t have any drivers. I guess you (Fagen) knew how to drive, but you didn’t have a driver’s license.”
FAGEN: “Yeah, I’d let it expire.”
BECKER: “And I didn’t know how to drive, so for the beginning of the time we were here we had to drive around with Gary. So he would drive us to work; we’d go with him and, at the end of the day, he’d collect us and drive us back and drop us off at our houses, around the corner from him.”
Q: Gary had a lively social life at the time?
BECKER: “Yes, but not for us. I’m sure that other people were having….”
Q: I mean that you were dependent on him….
FAGEN: “We lived right up Ventura Boulevard, which is essentially built only for cars. And, in fact, most of the services along Ventura Boulevard were for cars — muffler repairs, gas stations….”
BECKER: “The social center of our lives was the craftmart in Encino, the little booths of people selling crystals and handmade medieval jewelry, and potent dusts and potions.”
Q: Was the upside to this that you had no recourse but to do a lot of songwriting?
BECKER: “Well, that had long been the case long before that. When we met at Bard College (in New York), that was already the case. So, we just continued in that vein. The difference was that now we were being paid to do it — or we at least were theoretically being paid to do it, because it took us many, many weeks to get our first check. But on paper we were now employed.”
Q: You were “staff writers” at ABC Records?
BECKER: “Yeah, we were sort of pretending to be staff writers, and they were sort of pretending to consider (using) the silly songs we were writing.”
Q: Pardon my ignorance, but were you simply writing at will, or were they telling you, “Oh, we’ve got this act that’s doing an album and would you write a song for…?”
FAGEN: “Well, Gary would say, `Yeah, so-and-so is doing an album. We want to do a demo with such-and-such.’ But we were just essentially writing pop songs, with someone in mind or without someone in mind, it didn’t matter.”
BECKER: “All of their acts at ABC-Dunhill Records were essentially the same anyway. They had the Grass Roots, Tommy Roe, Hamilton, Joe, Frank & Reynolds…”
FAGEN: “Three Dog Night.”
BECKER: “Three Dog Night. They were the same; it was sort of the lowest common denominator.”
FAGEN: “But we couldn’t write pop songs very well, anyway.”
BECKER: “So we were just writing whatever — we were marking time; we knew and they knew…”
Q: And did what you were writing become fodder for (Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album) “Can’t Buy a Thrill?”
BECKER: “No, we wrote a bunch of ‘as-if’ pop songs, that they would politely listen to and then never do anything with them.”
Q: It might be a poor analogy, but I was talking to Burt Bacharach about the kind of subversiveness of what he was writing in the 1960s — it was pop but he was throwing in jazzy harmonies and classical-inspired counterpoint that you wouldn’t find in conventional pop songs. So, when you were doing these ‘as-if’ pop songs, were you in fact injecting your own…
FAGEN: “The problem with the pop songs we were writing is, we would sabotage them beyond where anyone would do them. Burt Bacharach wrote perfectly usable pop songs, even though they may have been more complex. If we had to come up with some good music that might have had a chance at radio, we would spoil it by putting some lyric to it that couldn’t possibly be played on the radio.”
BECKER: “Or else (something) slightly funny, or too obscure….”
FAGEN: “Too obscure, songs that made fun of themselves. We had a demo recorded by Denny Dougherty of the Mamas and Papas.”
BECKER: “What did he do of ours?”
FAGEN: “The Mamas and the Papas had shut down and he was looking for a (solo) career at the time. I think it was the same song that John Kay put on….”
BECKER: ” ‘Giles of the River’ — that was the one song we wrote that snuck through. That’ll give you some idea of what the ones that didn’t make it through the filter were.”
FAGEN: “John Kay did do it on his, I think it was his first solo album after he left Steppenwolf. It was different for people whose bands had just broken up and they were trying to get a career going and needed some songs.”
BECKER: “That’s right. As it turned out, when we got to ABC Records, they were falling apart, too, in a funny kind of way. In other words, their first wave of successes were more or less winding down — Three Dog Night….”
FAGEN: “Three Dog Night was in its ‘Boogie Nights’ stage.”
BECKER: “That’s absolutely right. It was perfect timing for us!”
Q: So, now fast forward. You’ve come back here, a little over three decades later; does L.A. have any resonance for you at all? Does it have any resonance beyond that you worked here and lived here back then?
FAGEN: “It actually gave us something to write about. When we moved here, I guess we started writing a lot of sort of `New York songs,’ about New York. I guess you do that once you get some distance from it. And then when we left L.A. in `78 (and returned to New York), we started writing songs about L.A.; it definitely gave us some material.”
Q: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama…
BECKER: “I know them; I worked with the Blind Boys. I’m a personal friend of (group leader) Clarence Fountain.”
Q: Lucky you. I was interviewing Clarence about 10 years ago and their guitarist, Sam Butler, had just left the band and they were auditioning new guys. I asked him what the criteria to be in the Blind Boys was, and he said: `Well, you have to be able to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously; you have to listen really well; and you have to be a great harmony singer. But the most important thing is, you have to be able to drive!’ I’m curious about the criteria for being in Steely Dan. You’ve had great players over the years…
FAGEN: “Have you seen Sam Butler recently?”
Q: You’ve got Bill Charlap who’s a great, young jazz pianist on your new album, and you’ve always had really good people in your touring band. But is there a criteria beyond being a great player?
BECKER: “Well, I think we tend to — there is definitely a consideration of people’s personalities, and to some extent it’s directly related to if they are or are not a great player, or if they are or are not going to play great on your record. But above and beyond that, you want people that you want to hang out with, because you’re going to be hanging out with them (on tour).
“So I think it is true that we hire people that we sort of like, that laugh at our jokes or whatever, as well as people who are great players. I think everybody does it to some extent. As far as the driving thing goes, we take cabs in New York, so that’s not a big factor for us. We do love personable, what we consider to be personable people.”
Q: So if it’s a brilliant player who’s sort of a stick-in-the-mud, you’re not going to be inclined to hire…
BECKER: “Well, it’s not so much if somebody is a stick-in-the-mud.”
FAGEN: “It’s more the opposite, really. If they’re wild and undependable…”
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new album, ‘Everything Must Go, set a near-record for you, in terms of the quickness with which it was made…
FAGEN: “It was certainly quicker than the one before it (2000’s ‘Two Against Nature’)”
BECKER: “Well, in the ’70s we used to pop them out every year.”
Q: So is it almost coming full circle and now it’s becoming more of a streamlined process?
FAGEN: “Well, (with) the first one in 2000 (which was the first new Steely Dan studio album since 1980), we were kind of getting started again, kind of gearing up. And then with this one, we already had a backlog of material, and so in a sense it was a little easier.”
BECKER: “We had songs, we had resources, we had players.”
FAGEN: “We had met some musicians during the making of the previous album that gelled nicely into a band. And we did go back to — we finally found some players who were able to (musically) negotiate anything we wanted to do, so we did do all the songs with one band. It made it much quicker; we didn’t have to go around looking for other musicians.”
BECKER: “We also had sort of figured out how to confine the (recordings, geographically). Eventually, everyone who worked on the record were New York people. So, where as in the past we had people flying back and forth — and this guy’s schedule would be matched up with that guy’s schedule — this album was pretty much done with just call these guys up and we could arrange a (recording) date pretty quickly. And that was nice. That helped.”
Q: I’ve learned that, often times, the things one thinks are autobiographical in a song rarely are. And, conversely, that things that seem impossible to be true, actually are. So I’m just curious:
Without prying into anyone’s personal life, I’m wondering if either of you went through any kind of emotional upheaval before or during the making of the album, or it’s merely the tone of certain songs that would imply that?
BECKER: “Our life has been one continuous emotional upheaval.”
FAGEN: “Yeah. The World Trade Center (terrorist attack) did happen during the recording. We had a few tracks (completed), and we had just started to write.”
BECKER: “We’d just started, really.”
FAGEN: “I’m not saying it had that big an influence on what we did, but it was an upheaval of some kind.”
Q: Did the recording come shuddering to a halt after 9/11?
FAGEN: “Briefly. You know, we were working on 32nd Street originally.”
BECKER: “Everybody was walking the other way that particular day.”
FAGEN: “We were ready to go downtown to work and there was no traffic going that way anymore. Everyone was coming uptown. So, it was pretty strange.”
Q: It might be a corny question but, post 9/11, did music in general — and your own music, specifically — mean more, less, or just the same to you?
BECKER: “The same.”
FAGEN: “I would say it took me a while to get back into the mindset to record and write and so on. After a while, your life just has reassert itself in some way.”
Q: Musically speaking, Walter, I think your guitar work is at a new level on “Everything Must Go.”
BECKER: “Oh, thank you.”
Q: I don’t know if you’ve been woodshedding, per se, but it just seems that the on last two albums the quality of your playing has gone up…
BECKER: “I guess actually playing on the records and touring is a great forced practice regimen for me. And you learn a lot playing with people. So I think that helped a lot, just doing it, really, and ending up doing as much — I think when we started the last record, I didn’t particularly intend to do that, and in the course of doing it, I played so much.”
Q: Given how well you know one another, how important is it — and how easy or difficult is it — to surprise each other in the studio or on stage?
FAGEN: “I don’t think we try to surprise each other.”
BECKER: “Certainly not on stage. On stage we’re trying to…”
FAGEN: “We sometimes try to surprise some of the other players on stage. When that giant moth came down from the lighting rig, down on Ted (Baker’s) piano, I think it surprised them all.”
BECKER: “By the way, you know what I discovered? Ted is very afraid of insects. It turns out that we tapped into something.”
Q: Hopefully you won’t exploit that…
BECKER: “Well, we already have. We have elaborate plans to….”
FAGEN: “That’s part of why we switched to this coyote, though” (he motions to a ceramic coyote with a $39.99 sales tag, which is perched on a nearby table).
BECKER: “But when I go back to Hawaii (where he lives), there’s no coyotes but there’s a lot of bugs. So, if I’m going to find something really special for Ted, for example, my choices are constrained to our little six-legged and eight-legged friends primarily.”
Q: What I was getting at when I asked about the importance of surprises in your work is that, to remain vital, it seems artists have to in one way or another reinvent themselves. Not a total 360-degree turn, but obviously you’re going to get into diminishing returns if you’re simply reiterating what you did before.
FAGEN: “Reinventing oneself is a mythic…”
BECKER: “Mythic or a myth?”
FAGEN: “A myth. It’s not something I’ve ever — what’s all so amusing is that, lately when you hear that, you hear that in connection with Madonna, which makes it especially laughable. She puts on a new hat and she’s `reinvented’ herself.”
FAGEN: “As if there was anything to reinvent in the first place.”
Q: I was thinking more along the line of Miles Davis. Or was that a natural evolution in your opinion?
FAGEN: “Miles Davis, I think, and Bob Dylan are exceptions. They obviously think a lot about the past and how to kind of annihilate it. It seems to me, our whole thing has been sort of bridging to the past and trying to perhaps engender something different out of the past without throwing it (away). We don’t want to throw away the baby with the bathwater.”
BECKER: “Because there are a lot of really great things that haven’t really been explored in the past that — in fact, part of that is, if there’s anything unique about it, it’s just that we know more music and go further back than most people.”
Q: I remember from an earlier interview that you told me you had certain phrases to describe your methodology of making music. For instance, a reference to (jazz saxophonist) Jackie McLean, “McLeaning it” meant someone was playing a little sharp. So I’m curious about some other terms you might use. It seems to me that the musicians you have now would automatically know what you meant, since they come from a jazz background, but maybe in the past some of them might not have.
BECKER: “You mean vocabulary, musician slang?”
Q: Yes, a code word or two that you guys kind of developed along the way.
BECKER: “Let me think. Well, you know the expression `B flat.’ OK, you know most of it. There’s probably a lot of them, but they’re just not arising right now.”
Q: You are both longtime jazz devotees. Does it cause you any consternation that Steely Dan has been embraced in recent years by “smooth jazz” radio, one of the most vapid formats extant?
BECKER: “In a way it’s ideal. The more of what our music does violates the premise of its format that it’s presented in, the better. So, hearing our music in the supermarket, a Muzak version, is great. Don’t you think? I always feel fulfilled by that.”
FAGEN: “No one I know likes that music. It mainly serves as a basis for people’s silly remarks.”
BECKER: “Smooth jazz?”
FAGEN: “Yeah, it’s like, `That’s hilarious’….”
BECKER: “It’s a kind of ambient music, it’s like Muzak.”
FAGEN: “Yeah, I know, I’m just saying that people think it’s funny.”
BECKER: “Yeah, yeah, it is.”
FAGEN: “I assume it maybe doesn’t seem funny to the people who like it, or elderly people, who actually experience it as soothing music. It puts me on edge.”
Q: I see it as more insidious, I guess, because in talking to teens or young people in their 20s, I keep hearing them say how jazz is ‘the most boring music’ they’ve ever heard. And then they say that the only jazz they’ve heard is on the radio, which is “smooth…”
BECKER: “But they don’t like the other (real) kind of jazz, either.”
FAGEN: “With the other kind they’d say that’s the most irritating music, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Q: We talked when you reunited in 1993 and then again when your last album came out in 2000 about how established artists have this dilemma, this conundrum, they face. Namely, that their core audience would be happy not to hear any new music, that they’re thrilled to just go back and relive….
BECKER: “Yeah, that’s right.”
Q: But to do that is death to the artist. How do you address that?
BECKER: “We’re going to die. We do a few new songs in our show. I count four or five new songs, or songs that are from a recent album.”
FAGEN: “I think part of the reason we’re doing this tour is we have an album of stuff to play that’s new, so we don’t want the show to be any kind of nostalgia show, or anything like that. In fact, when we do older things that seem stale to us, we try to vamp them up with a new arrangement or a new concept, or add horns or do something to it to make it interesting to us.”
BECKER: “Or rotate them out.”
FAGEN: “Yeah, we rotate them out.”
BECKER: “It’s sort of interesting for us, because when we started playing again in 1993, the old songs that we were playing, many of them we had never played on stage, never played since 1976 or something like that.”
FAGEN: “We have many songs that we would be happy to do that we’ve never done, because we just weren’t touring during those years. So they’re sort of like new songs, as far as live performance goes.”
Q: When you go out on tour now and perform the title track for “Everything Must Go,” which begins with the saxophone intro, that ‘Trane meets Pharaoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman fanfare, would that be expanded live, or…?
FAGEN: “I don’t know, maybe. It’s kind of a pretty good arrangement, so… But it depends on how the show is set up, where it appears in the order. It’s all different things.”
Q: To what degree do you get feedback from younger listeners that aren’t considered the so-called Steely Dan core audience, either through their parents or on the Web or whatever? And how important is it to reach a different generation than the people who grew up with you?
FAGEN: “I’m not really a Web person, so I get zero feedback.”
BECKER: “We get feedback at the Web site, though.”
FAGEN: “I know. I just don’t look at it.”
BECKER: “People write (to) it. It’s good, it’s great when somebody who is 20 years younger than you comes up and says, ‘Wow, we just got turned on to you guys and you’re really great,’ or something like that. I like that. But, you know, that’s sort of out of (our) control — like all the rest of it, really.”
Q: (To Becker) You’re a father?
BECKER: “Yes. My son is 18, my daughter is going to be 16.”
Q: And what do your two teenaged children think about the music that you do?
BECKER: “Um, they seem to think it’s okay, as an exemplar of an antique form of music.”
FAGEN: “Well, music with singing to them is kind of….”
BECKER: “Music with musicians…”
FAGEN: “Music with singing or musicians is kind of strange to them.”
BECKER: “Well, my daughter likes kind of singing-dancing, dance music. And my son when I was in Tower Records with him the other day, I said, ‘Let me see what you got. And here, look at mine.’ And looking at his things, it (was) all rappers and stuff. And he’s looking at my things and he’s saying, `Oh, these guys are all musicians. What the f— is this?’ ”
FAGEN: “My stepson is pretty much of a fan. That’s the thing, he’s about…”
FAGEN: “Forty-eight. No, he’s 36, actually.”
Q: I’m assuming Eminem did not send you a Christmas card.
BECKER: “He usually sends one of those Harry & David fruit things, you know. Pears and oranges.”
Q: Reflect, if you will, on the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2001 (when Steely Dan scoured an upset victory over the heavily favored Eminem for Album of the Year Honors). I honestly didn’t think anyone in their right mind thought Eminem would win for Album of the Year because given the conservative nature of the average Grammy voter…
FAGEN: “I think both of us thought he would win.”
BECKER: “Everybody thought he was going to win. It was more or less…”
FAGEN: “I know I did. I figured he was so hyped and was having such a good year.”
BECKER: “Even though he didn’t win, he sort of won, because it was presumed in advance that he was going to win. And the story at the end of the day was that he didn’t win.”
FAGEN: “Yeah, the story at the end of the day was that he was robbed.”
BECKER: “He couldn’t possibly lose. And why not? It was his to take. It was an interesting clerical error that we got it, anyway. It’s the kind of thing that would have meant more to him than to us, probably.”
Q: Did it feel odd coming at that point to earn your first Grammy, like maybe the Grammy voters were a little late in recognizing you and that was a factor?
BECKER: “There was something gratifying that we got it at all. I don’t think that the Grammys are in any way a just way of grading music. It was really kind of a ‘go, go’ for me (event).”
FAGEN: “No one there has anything in common with us anymore, if there ever was.”
BECKER: “Tony Bennett was there. Hugh Hefner.”
FAGEN: “Hugh Hefner, I saw him with all his girls. So, you know, I suppose on some level there is some kind of ego stroke that happens, but as Walter says, Eminem would have gotten a lot more out of it.”
Q: When you’re as established as you are and then you get that (Grammy-win) recognition, well, it might be a poor analogy but I remember speaking with Tito Puente years ago. He’d won plenty of Grammys, but he said it really didn’t make any difference at all. His (concert fee) price didn’t go up, he was already a known entity.
FAGEN: “Exactly. We did get a little bonus from the record company, though. not a large one, but we get a little they called it a Grammy Bonus. Like 50 grand each.”
BECKER: “It was not inconsiderable, but not a huge sum of money. But it was better than a cheese sandwich. It was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
Q: In making ‘Everything Must Go,’ how similar or different is the process of making an album now from the past. I recall one of you saying that each time you go into the studio, it’s almost like you’ve forgotten what came before and you’re starting anew.
BECKER: “That’s true. I think maybe that was less true in this case, because we had it done it so recently and at such great length and toured as well. So we were sort of building on what we knew from the last time, to a greater extent than perhaps we have in the past. And so that wasn’t as much true with this. I think one of the reasons it went more quickly is because we didn’t start off experimenting, really. We started off just recording songs with this bunch of guys. We were lucky and everybody clicked, musically it clicked.
“It saved us some of the exploration stage that usually goes along with what we’re doing. I know in the past we think about a few albums we made in the `70s and you think, Oh, yeah, here’s a song from the `Aja’ album, yeah, I remember we cut this with this band, and then we cut it with that band, then we tried it… So, this was a little more streamlined than that.”
Q: When people read that an album took one year or took three years to make, I’d want to disavow them of the notion — if it’s incorrect — that it took that long. It’s not like you were in there day after day, week after week, month after month.
BECKER: “No, that’s right. Although we have done that in the past. I think (with) the previous album, we really were in (the studio) most of the time for a big, long stretch of time.”
FAGEN: “Yeah, this one was a little easier.”
BECKER: “(With) this one we took a few breaks. We went back and forth to Hawaii (Becker is a longtime resident of Lahaina, Maui), we had some time off. We had a break right at the beginning, I guess, as we discussed before. It was a little more compartmentalized.”
Q: “We” meaning you, or you and Donald?
BECKER: “We both went to Hawaii, and we did some work there, for a couple weeks.”
Q: Having vacationed with my fiancee in Lahaina, which is such a gorgeous place, I wonder how much more difficult or not is it to work in that kind of a setting?
BECKER: “Oh, you mean because of the distraction of the Hawaiian [natural beauty]. That’s not a problem.”
FAGEN: “It’s actually harder because you have to drag up through the hills to get to the studio.”
BECKER: “It took up about the same amount of time to get up the hills to the studio as it used to take me to get to 32nd Street (in Manhattan). You’re traveling 150 times a greater distance, but it actually takes about 35 minutes.”
FAGEN: “The idea of having to concentrate on driving, but I don’t usually drive anyway.”
BECKER: “And I don’t drive, I don’t concentrate.”
FAGEN: “There you go.”
Q: You talked about how you left L.A. in ’78 and then you wrote about it and when you got here to L.A. in ’71 you wrote about New York. I haven’t seen anything to overtly reflect the reality of life in Lahaina or Maui in the songs. Is there in fact anything directly or indirectly…?
BECKER: “Well, a song like ‘The Last Mall’ is — mall life for Donald is certainly somewhat associated with being in Hawaii. If you live in New York, there are no malls in New York City. And Hawaii, as you know, is kind of a quasi-suburban environment with a few curves thrown in, in the middle of the ocean, as it is. But basically, a lot of this sort of textural stuff of contemporary American life — that non-urban, non-New York, non-L.A. kind of reality — is something that we both see there.”
FAGEN: “It’s funny, Hawaii has become kind of a…”
BECKER: “Middle America.”
FAGEN: “If you need to do research for suburban America, do it in Hawaii. I have occasionally tried to encourage Walter to draw more on the musical environment, but he doesn’t seem to have that much interest in it, really.”
FAGEN: “I think you’ve lived there long enough so that, you know, you could maybe…”
BECKER: “Well, mostly what happens in Hawaii now is reggae music.”
FAGEN: “Well, I know, but just like we go back into the jazz of the `20s and `30s…
BECKER: “Yeah. Well, I think it was Groucho Marx said it best: `All Hawaiian music was recorded on the same day.’ That’s the thing.
Q: Actually, I was walking in Lahaina on a Sunday morning and a church door was open, and I heard a form of choral music unlike any I had ever heard. It was mesmerizing.
BECKER: “Oh, there are some interesting things, some Polynesian choral musics and stuff like that. I actually have a couple ideas for things I might do with Hawaiian music, but it doesn’t really translate that well with what we’re doing.”
FAGEN: “Once I saw Bette Midler on the street in Manhattan. And we had a conversation about the same thing. I was also encouraging her to draw on her Hawaiian roots, since she was born in Hawaii and grew up there. She got all excited about it and everything, and she never called me back. It was really beating a dead horse.”
Q: If you take yourself back to the advent of Steely Dan, it seems to me that most bands from that time and a little earlier, no one planned to be here now in terms of being the same band; no one thought it could last more than a few years. Did either of you at that point think: `We’re in this for the long haul — 30 years from now we’ll still be Steely Dan?
BECKER: “No, I don’t think that was part of…”
FAGEN: “I don’t think we calculated our lifespan past a certain point.”
BECKER: “We didn’t really have a game plan that extended beyond the middle of next week, basically.”
FAGEN: “We’re ‘Cuban Missile babies.’ It didn’t seem like things would be sailing along that long.”
Q: So what role do you see for Steely Dan in an age of ‘American Idol,’ an age where your son makes a comment like, ‘Oh, those are albums by musicians.’ Is it a double-edged sword? Do you get good and bad out of it?
BECKER: “I think we’ve gotten mostly good out of it.”
FAGEN: “I tuned out. What are we talking about? Bear with me for a minute.”
BECKER: “Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we’ve survived to the present day?”
FAGEN: “Well, we’ve been out of harm’s way to a certain extent. I think we live in very interesting times. It all depends on whether you have the happy ending or not.”
Q: Back in the 1980s I interviewed (jazz drum pioneer) Art Blakey the day before he turned 65. And his wife I don’t know what number wife it was was pregnant with his eighth or ninth child, so I jokingly asked him: ‘Since tomorrow you qualify for Social Security, are you going to slow down?’ And he laughed, and said: ‘The day I slow down is the day they pat my face with a shovel.’
Anyhow, there’s an interesting dichotomy, in that no one looks at B.B. King or Sonny Rollins — who are both in their 70s and both going strong — with anything but awe and admiration. There’s nothing wrong with their continuing to work and create music and it’s great that they continue to do what they do…
BECKER: “Yeah, that’s right.”
Q: In jazz and blues, it’s a given that the older you get, the better you get. In rock the perception is: ‘Well, that you shouldn’t or oughtta not.”
FAGEN: “I think that really applies mainly to acts that have based their careers on a kind of adolescent philosophy or adolescent audience. There is something embarrassing about seeing the Rolling Stones. They seem to play pretty much like they used to.”
BECKER: “I think not. I think that they have tremendous credibility for a bunch of older guys.”
FAGEN: “They do, because they keep going musically –”
BECKER: “And they pull it off.”
FAGEN: “They write songs, but when I see them — when I hear them, it’s fine, but when I see them, like on this TV thing I saw part of it, I was kind of embarrassed. But I realize I’ve been embarrassed by their stage act since …”
BECKER: “Since the ’70s.”
FAGEN: “In the ’60s they had a beautiful act, and it was just like seeing a Motown act or something like that. But Mick has been doing this thing with capes and stuff, and to me there’s a real dissonance between what I’m seeing and the music I’m hearing, in their attitudes, in the poses they assume. It just always seems wrong. But that’s true, it’s been forever, almost. It’s these kind of exaggerated poses, grimaces. It doesn’t match what I’m hearing. I’m hearing some good rocking music and they’re acting like assholes.”
BECKER: “There’s a thing that they do in the middle of their show where I think they still do this — in the concert I saw in Honolulu, where they have a second (satellite) stage, like out in front of the big stage, and the five of them go out and they start playing just like a club band, with little amplifiers out in the middle of the audience.”
FAGEN: “Oh, yeah, they’re a little garage band.”
BECKER: “And it’s fucking great. I mean, they play just as well when they’re on the big stage, but suddenly you look at this and you realize…”
FAGEN: “They’re going through these very strange gyrations and so on, these really forced expressions. There’s something very schizophrenic, that to me is really hard to watch.”
Q: So is Steely Dan overqualified for rock `n’ roll?
FAGEN: “No, I don’t think so. Because as you say, it’s a labeling thing. You say when you see B.B. King, that’s fine; he’s playing blues. Blues, I think, has always addressed adult concerns, concerns of age and everything. I think we do the same thing. In that maybe we’re closer to Rhythm & Blues or a blues sensibility, a jazz sensibility.”
BECKER: “I think we’re more out of tune with the way music is marketed and presented to the public, it’s commercial manifestation, than we are with the actual music part. I think the music part works out fine. We’re a little bit of an anomaly…”
FAGEN: “Yeah, just (compared to) the sort of teenage ghetto that everything’s in. I think everyone else is out of tune. How is that (youth) culture adding to the life? That’s the problem.”
Q: You did recently go to Las Vegas and make a video with that (ceramic) Coyote on the table over there. Are you a video act?
BECKER: “We didn’t make a music video. We did a digital press kit type of thing.”
Q: Okay, last question. And not to intimidate you, but the best answer I ever got to this question was from Miles (Davis): How would you like to be remembered?
FAGEN: “I don’t care; I’ll be dead.”
BECKER: “I don’t know.”
FAGEN: “My stepchildren aren’t embarrassed by my memory, I guess. So it isn’t a problem for them.”
BECKER: “Fondly. What did Miles say?”
Q: He said, and I quote: “For not being white.”
(Becker and Fagen look at each other in stunned silence.)
FAGEN“We should’ve said that, too.”
BECKER: “Can we change our answers?”