Hit Repeat with Steely Dan and ‘Aja’

By Jon Bream
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Bruce Springsteen is doing it. So are Van Morrison, the Pixies and Steely Dan. Playing a classic album in its entirety in concert — along with random favorites, of course.

On tour this year, Steely Dan is rotating the three biggest albums from its 1970s warped jazz-rock heyday: “Royal Scam,” “Aja” and “Gaucho.”

To get Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to explain the concept behind their tour, along with their thoughts about “Aja” and all things Steely Dan, was as curiously challenging and oddly humorous as a Dan disc. On Wednesday, Becker, 59, called from New York while Fagen, 61, was on the phone from points elsewhere, stuck in traffic.

Q. How’s the tour going?
Becker: We’re at my favorite part — the break.
Fagen: Yeah, the break’s going really well.

Q. How do you like this approach of doing an entire album in concert?
Fagen: It’s been going pretty well. It turns out that the audience reacts differently when you play an album in sequence. They seem to really like it. Not only that, the band plays the music differently when it’s in sequence.
Becker: That was the real surprise, I think.
Fagen: They play as if the songs have little wings, little silver wings.
Becker: And as if their hearts have little wings, too, little golden wings.

Q. Whose ideas was it to take this entire-album approach?
Fagen: I think it came from management. We were somewhat skeptical to begin with. But it’s worked out real well.

Q. What stands out about “Aja” for you?
Becker: Let’s see, that’s the one with the girl on the cover?
Fagen: It’s the black one.
Becker: That one works really well for the purposes of translating the album sequence to concert. That one is the best combination of interesting and still ultra-coherent.
Fagen: That album is the most grammatic, in a certain way, so it works well onstage.

Q. Why did you choose “Aja,” Gaucho” and “Royal Scam”?
Fagen: Those are probably our best sellers.
Becker: Also, wouldn’t you say, Donald, the songs from those albums are best suited to the instrumental configuration of the band we have now?
Fagen: That’s true. Also, from the 1970s albums, those are the most evolved as far as style goes.

Q. Some fans might be disappointed to be getting “Aja” and not “Royal Scam” or “Gaucho.” Did you ever think of pushing the random or shuffle button during the show?
Becker: That’s what we do, actually. The “Aja” album is less than half of the show. At least half of the rest of the show is from “Royal Scam” and “Gaucho.”

Q. Do we get anything from your two ‘00s albums, “Two Against Nature” and “Everything Must Go”?
Becker: We haven’t done that so far this summer. But we’re up and ready to go with any of that stuff.

Q. Donald, how has Walter changed over the years? And Walter, how has Donald changed?
Fagen: He’s just about 40 years older than when I met him.
Becker: That is true. We’re not quite as tall and willowy as we used to be.
Fagen: We’re just a little sadder, I think.
Becker: We’ve always been somewhat introverted and depressive.
Fagen: I’m not saying we were that bouncy to begin with. We’re less bouncy now. Although we’re probably a lot bouncier than gentlemen of a certain age.
Becker: Our step is still springy.

Q. In the early years, Steely Dan was not fond of performing live. Now, live seems to be your bread and butter.
Becker: It’s very different now because we have such a knockout band. In the old days, our bands were sort of hit and miss.
Fagen: Depending on alcohol content.
Becker: The way the shows were organized, we didn’t have enough to make it that satisfying. Now it’s very satisfying. I get comments and e-mails from people, especially this last year, saying “I’ve never heard another band sound this good at venue X.” So I have a sense that what we’re trying to project is being projected successfully.

Q. The first time you played in Minneapolis was about 1972 at the Guthrie Theater.
Becker: With Taj Mahal.
Fagen: We were terrible that night, as I recall. It was weird to get blown off the stage by one guy.

Q. Well, you had a different singer then, David Palmer.
Fagen: That was maybe our fourth live performance or something.
Becker: Taj was a much more satisfying performer at that point than we were. And that’s, to some extent, why we packed it in in the 1970s as live performers, although we got much, much better than that. We never had the sense that it was as quite a successful thing as the records were.

Q. Why do you think Steely Dan’s music has held up so well for so long?
Fagen: I don’t know.
Becker: I think the way things have evolved has left us in a position that what we were doing — and are still doing — sort of stands out. We weren’t attuned to the particular ethos of the ‘70s. What we were doing was unusual in the ‘70s. So you don’t have the sense that it’s become dated as a lot of things have.

Q. What are your thoughts about doing another recording project?
Becker: We’re still in the talking stage. That could go on for years.

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