On his first solo tour, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen brings something for both jazz snobs and pop fans
By LYNN SAXBERG
The Ottawa Citizen
Donald Fagen makes music for discerning people. In Steely Dan, he and musical partner Walter Becker created some of the most sophisticated rock of the 1970s, music so finely crafted that it was appreciated by jazz snobs, audiophiles and the literary set.
While their biggest commercial success came with 1977’s Aja, it was the 2000 release Two Against Nature that raked in some long overdue Grammy recognition for the band.
Now Fagen is about to release Morph the Cat, his third solo album in as many decades, and it’s as finely crafted as anything by Steely Dan. Jazz snobs will appreciate the playing, audiophiles will revel in the lush sound and the literary set will have a blast digging into the lyrics. There are even some hooks for the rest of us.
And this time, a tour is planned — his first as a solo artist — so Fagen can bring the music to his discriminating fans with a band made up of many of the same session musicians who appear on the disc. They stop at the National Arts Centre Sunday.
During a break from tour rehearsals in New York City , the often curmudgeonly Fagen talked about his new record, and what it’s like to be an aging perfectionist in an imperfect world. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: Why did it take so long to make a new solo record?
A: Whenever a few years go by, I’ll just start writing about whatever phase of life I’m in, and then I guess it takes me a few years to go by before I have enough distance on it, to say something about it, I suppose.
Q: This record has been described as the final instalment in a trilogy. What’s the flow?
A: The first one, Nightfly, from 1982, I was kind of writing from an adolescent’s point of view and the Kamakiriad, in 93, was about midlife.
This one is, you know, I’m 58 now, and it’s more about approaching the end of life. You start thinking about how many years you have left, and I think when you get to be near 60, certain friends of yours will have died. My mother died a couple of years ago and I’m a New Yorker, so 9/11 had a big effect on me. The tragedies start to threaten to overwhelm the joys sometimes.
Q: Is it obvious to you when a song is destined for Steely Dan or should be kept for your own purposes?
A: Sometimes it’s not that obvious, but if it is obvious, I’ll put it away for myself. Sometimes if the approach is more personal, I’ll say something to Walter, and he’ll say, ‘I think that’s one more to mix with one of your things.’
Does he lay claim to certain songs? No, it’s more like he’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s a Donald Fagen idea, I don’t want that one.’
Q: How do you feel about setting off on your first solo tour?
A: It’s a little anxiety-provoking, but we’ve been rehearsing the last few days and the band sounds good, so I think it will be fun.
Q: Sometimes at 58, one is unwilling to start a new chapter of life. Did you go through that?
A: That’s one reason I’m really excited to go on tour by myself. I think it’s kind of a challenging thing. Warner Brothers, they see me as a new artist, because I only do an album every 12 years or something. Every 12 years there’s a whole different bunch of people at the New York office of Warner Brothers, and I have to introduce myself and say ‘Hi, I’m Donald Fagen, where’s the bathroom?’
Some of them probably don’t even know Steely Dan. For sure. So I’m definitely a new artist there, and it’s very hard to compete with new artists who are 19 years old. I feel like if you’re over 30 or something, they don’t even put you on the list.
Q: Did you go into studio with the songs fully arranged?
A: Generally speaking, with both Steely Dan records and my records, since the middle ’70s, we’ve always gone in with our charts. I’ll write out charts with chords and chord voicings that we used, and maybe a bass part.
I’ll work with the musicians a bit, but usually it’s pretty well conceived before we go in.
Q: Are you a perfectionist?
A: Well, other people mention that, but to me, I like everything to be a certain way, make sure it’s clear, and I change a lot of things as I go. Certain things occur to me and I’ll replace something with something better from time to time. I just want it to come out nice.
Q: How did you decide who you wanted to work with?
A: Well, Walter and I had been working with a group of musicians since we got back together in the early ’90s, and we’ve continued working with players that we thought were particularly adapted to what we were doing. By now, we’ve ended up with a group of guys who really understand what we’re doing. At this point we kind of have a band. It’s great to work with guys who know what you want.
Walter just went in the studio a couple of months ago to do a solo record, and he used a lot of the same guys, too, so it’s kind of like a repertory group, really. He did (his first) solo record in 1994.
Q: So you’re ahead of him in solo output?
A: We don’t compete. We’re not into competition, really.
Q: What is the status of Steely Dan?
A: After this March tour, I’m going to do a summer tour and then I’m going to hook up with Walter at the end of the summer and do some Steely Dan gigs, and chances are we’ll start talking about recording after that.
Q: Your new record is full of terrorists, death, ghosts, dirty bombs. Why so dark?
A: Well, you know I was born into paranoia, being a baby-boomer, hydrogen-war baby. We had to do these air-raid drills in school for years. We had to get under our desks, the idea being that that might protect you from some serious nuclear fallout. There was almost the certainty that there would be some sort of global nuclear war in those days.
I was amazed when the Soviets fell. That was like a whole reality that you’ve been conditioned to your whole life connected to the Russians, fell. To them, it was a great thing, but there was this other feeling that I had of, ‘Why was I so scared?’ It was such a defining thing in my life, and so much fear was instilled in me, which was part of what led me to be the way I am. Then there was this unfinished feeling of, ‘Wait, aren’t we going to have the nuclear war first?’
Q: One of your new songs pays tribute to Ray Charles. Were you a fan?
A: Oh yeah, I think everyone of my age and subculture was a huge Ray Charles fan. There was nothing like that around. When he first appeared, I was already a jazz fan, since I was quite young.
But you didn’t get to see jazz on TV much since jazz was heavily marginalized, but Ray Charles, because his was kind of crossover music, Ray Charles got on TV. He had hits and he looked so great and just seeing the way his body moved, he was so openly sexual. I liked the relationship he seemed to have with the Raelettes. It was very interesting to an adolescent.
Q: Who or what is Morph the Cat?
A: I needed a tune to kind of tie everything together. That was the last thing I wrote, and I liked this image of this ghost cat, or phantom cat, kind of descending on the city. I think originally, it was an anti-9/11 thing, where something good comes out of the sky and settles on the city.
But as I went, I realized that when something like that happens, there’s always a price to pay, so as I wrote it, he got more and more ominous in my mind. The music became ominous, so I think there’s a lot of ways you can interpret it in the end, because he narcotizes the citizens in a way, making them in the short term, feel good. I feel that, in a way, it signifies the kind of brain death of the public in a way that’s been going on for some years because of TV and advertising.
Q: Are you still satisfied being a musician?
A: Yeah, I love it. I guess being obsessive or introverted or something I’m in a bubble, so I can just isolate myself and sort of pretend that nothing’s happened since the late ’60s or early ’70s, and just have fun doing what I’m doing and even evolve within that context.
And I enjoy playing with other guys. I think that’s real and useful but you know, I try not to watch too much TV, and I don’t really listen to too much contemporary music.
Q: Do you have anything else coming up?
A: In spring, I probably will have to have surgery for my rotator cuff. That’s what you do in your 50s, right? I tripped over a cable in the studio and fell backwards and landed on my shoulder.