Bass player for iconic group steps into his own
By Michael Senft
The Arizona Republic
Throughout the 1970s, Walter Becker was the silent partner in Steely Dan.
He played bass, handled production duties, wrote songs and served as a musical foil to his longtime friend, Donald Fagen. But to many fans he was the “Oates” to Fagen’s “Hall.”
That changed when the band reunited 15 years ago.
As the group began touring regularly (for most of the ’70s, Steely Dan was strictly a studio unit), Becker started stepping out. He released the solo 11 Tracks of Whack in ’94, testing its response by performing occasional solo tunes onstage and even taking vocal turns on older Dan tunes that Fagen had previously sung. His growth as a singer in the group was fully realized in 2003 when he lent his rich voice to “Slang of Ages” on Dan’s album Everything Must Go.
And almost in anticipation of this summer’s Steely Dan tour, Becker has returned with his second solo album, Circus Money. The disc is Becker’s first work completely independent of Fagen, yet it still retains the blend of the snide humor and criminal subject matter that marks Steely Dan’s finest work. But mixed with the jazzy arrangements is a heavy reggae influence.
“Before I made the record I got on this thing of listening to Jamaican music — reggae and the stuff that came before it, rocksteady and ska, which are similar to reggae but slightly different,” he said. “I spent a long time listening to that and became completely fascinated with it.
“Everything on the record is influenced and inflected with Jamaican beats and rhythms — the way the guitars, bass and drums interplay is completely different than American rhythm and blues.”
Working intermittently over the past two years, Becker found his second solo album much more relaxing than his previous studio work.
“The first time, the main novelty was singing. I had to learn how to interface my vocals with the mood of the songs,” he said. “Because I had such a good band this time, the problem solved itself.”
Don’t expect to hear anything from Circus Money during this summer’s tour. Becker is adamant that Steely Dan won’t be performing any of his solo material.
“The trouble is that touring in the large venues we’re playing, it’s hard for people to experience completely new material in a satisfying way,” he said. “It helps for audiences to know the songs before the show — especially with the added tension of wondering, ‘Will they play my favorite Steely Dan song?’ I’d like to get a band and play this stuff live, though, maybe just play some shows around New York and LA.”
He will be taking a few turns on the microphone during the Phoenix show, however.
“I’ll be singing a couple songs,” Becker said. “There are songs that Donald doesn’t sing or doesn’t want to sing. But they are great songs. Now we’re able to revisit songs like “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” or “Monkey in Your Soul” live.”
He’s also unclear as to whether Steely Dan will return to the studio anytime soon. But fans can still expect to see the band on the road regularly. Indeed, it seems that the band is now touring with the same regularly it recorded albums in the ’70s, while its studio output has slowed.
“You have to understand that while we love playing our music, a Steely Dan show is basically a money-laundering operation now,” he said. “Basically we sell tickets to take the money that needs to be laundered. Then we wash it. When the money comes back it’s all cool.
“And while we’re doing that, we figure we might as well play some songs. It’s only been moderately successful, though. We don’t have a lot of fans who need our services any more.”