The Steely Dan vet mulls his savvy new solo album, the state of the art and his weakness for smart, funny, neurotic characters
By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
For Donald Fagen fans, it’s an early Christmas. He’s back with a new solo album, a mere half-decade after the last one. Sunken Condos is everything fans expect from the Steely Dan co-founder, keyboard mainstay and lead vocalist: wry humor, a look at relationships, a sense of unease and superb sound, with playing by a crack set of players. It dovetails with the Dan’s R&B-laced post-reunion sound, even if partner Walter Becker sat this one out.
Michael Leonhart, who plays trumpet with the current touring edition of Dan, co-produced the album with Fagen, and it’s clear the duo had a blast. They’ve covered all the bases for fans past and present, analog and digital: One version was mastered for iTunes, another for the clear-vinyl double LP that will come out as well (though fans of 5.1 surround mixes shouldn’t hold their breath, as Fagen has soured on the format). “It doesn’t matter anyway. Everybody listens to it on those terrible computer speakers anyway,” Fagen said, only half-jokingly.
Fresh off a summer tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in their Dukes of September revue, which combined their respective signature songs with R&B classics, Fagen and Leonhart got on the phone together to talk about how all this happened.
Why now? When is it time to do a Steely Dan album or a solo one? As someone wrote online, “Another Donald Fagen album? He just did one six years ago!”
Donald Fagen: [Laughs] It’s really just when I have enough songs to fill up 50 minutes or so.
Stream Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos
Do you purposely keep them the length that vinyl albums used to be?
Donald Fagen: I didn’t have any more. This is all I had.
Michael Leonhart: We could have gone one more. But the 50-minute mark, that’s a good length, that’s a good meal.
Where does the decision come from to make this a solo album? There’s some of Steely Dan’s touring band in there and there are other outside players.
Donald Fagen: I wrote the songs by myself. So when I say “Hey, Walter, what do you think of this?” there’s no answer. So I have to figure it out myself. They’re more subjective. When I write with Walter, we end up a little more journalistic, a little more objective. When I sing them, I’m sort of posing as these different characters that may be different from myself. On this I’m also posing as these characters, but they’re a lot closer to myself. It’s more personal.”
How does touring with the Dukes of September influence this work? You’re revisiting your older work, you’re revisiting R&B classics and you’re working on other musicians’ songs.
Donald Fagen: I don’t know if it has that much influence over writing and stuff. It’s more of a release for me. It’s more a way of getting a kind of energy out of it so when you come home you’re ready to go in a writing mode or recording mode.
Michael Leonhart: We’re doing a lot more older soul and R&B stuff. So much of it is based around R&B changes in songwriting that I find myself in a different kind of pocket than in Steely Dan.
Donald Fagen: Maybe, on some unconscious level. I do have to look through a lot of old material when we’re choosing songs, going back to the 50s and 60s. Maybe it rubs off in a way. In a way my interior writing life feels different to me somehow.
You wrote a tribute to Levon Helm on your website about the swing and swagger in his drumming. I feel a lot of that swagger in these songs.
Donald Fagen: It’s the distance between old-school drumming and what you might hear these days. That really goes back to the ’30s or ’40s. Drummers used to play in a much more laid-back style. With this record what I did is I had these demos. After I wrote them on a piano, I put them on GarageBand, the Apple program, and sequenced them in a crude way. When we were touring, Michael has always played the trumpet. But he gets behind the drums sometimes and I hear him playing. I really liked his feel. He actually has what you’re talking about. He has the shuffle and layback when he plays. I said, “You should play the drums for me.” When Michael and I began to collaborate and he was going to co-produce, I said, “Look, take one of these demos, put some earphones on and play the drums to it. Let me see what it sounds like.” It came out great, and he ended up playing the drums on every track. That’s exactly what you’re talking about. He comes out of the jazz world, too. It’s no accident that his groove is just like that.
Michael Leonhart: I came to Levon’s music through his daughter, Amy. We’d been writing songs and I was playing drums, and she said, “You sound like my dad a little bit.” I’m not anywhere near the drummer that he was, but there’s a sense of space where you hit in the pocket, the syncopation and the feel. Donald has been a huge fan of Levon’s forever.
Donald Fagen: His drumming is like you hear on Chicago blues records, the guys on Chess Records. Steely Dan was heavily influenced by that. Chicago blues drummers, you’ll never hear a more laid-back pocket than those guys.
I always appreciate it when an artist grows and the lyrics reflect the changes in life. There’s that self-awareness in “Slinky Thing” where the singer is with someone younger and hipper and he doesn’t fit in.
Donald Fagen: We started with “Hey Nineteen” and we were only in our 30s. It was very obvious there was a generation gap then. If you wanna be honest, you have to write about that kind of stuff, about where you are, age-wise and everything else. (If not) it gives you kind of a cognitive dissonance, kind of like the Rolling Stones giving you that creepy feeling.
It almost sounds like you’re giving advice to a friend or a lover or even another musician with that line about “upgrading your stuff.”
Donald Fagen: It’s the guy’s girlfriend. She’s got this guy who is fixing her computer or something like that. I’m definitely living in a world that’s pretty alien to my own sensibilities.
You’ve always had a reputation for sterling sound, and this record has it as well. How comfortable are you with technology?
Donald Fagen: I’m always comfortable with computers. The engineer we started out with, Roger Nichols, was a computer specialist. Before computers even had knobs on them, he’d show us how to program stuff. I have some of the earliest sequencers. I learned how to sequence on those. I’m comfortable with them, but on the other hand, in the ’70s, Roger started bringing in these computers & and we started getting into programming drums. It got out of hand. We were paying more attention to the technology than to the actual music. One day we just quit: We said, “We’re not going to do this anymore.” I try to minimize that. I don’t have an aversion to it. I still have to deal with it. I don’t like it, but sometimes to achieve the results I want I have to deal with it on some level. But I won’t start a record with a bunch of machines & I purposely never learned how to use Pro Tools. I know I could just sink into that and never write another song again.
Michael Leonhart: One mic on the guitar, great playing, it’ll do. It’s not this “Let’s have way more than we need.” There’s economy and patience. The technology should be used as little as it can be used.
Donald Fagen: A lot of people I know & there’s all these myths that people live by vis-a-vis technology, stuff you have to do to sound like the Beatles or this group or that group. It’s total bulls—. I’ve never been in any room where I couldn’t make sound good with a decent microphone and a simple, straight-wire sort of setup. It’s absolutely ridiculous. A lot of those records from the ’30s sound just fabulous. It’s absurd the lengths some people go to.
Michael Leonhart: Good taste can never be undervalued.
Donald Fagen: You’ve just got to have good taste to know the difference between something that sounds bad and something that sounds good. But most people don’t have a clue.
You often have a song about an unusual woman, be it “Peg” or “Josie.” This time you’ve got “Planet D’Rhonda.”
Donald Fagen: I know. They’re all so terrible! They’re all so irritating!
It’s a theme you return to fairly regularly.
Donald Fagen: It’s the most interesting thing in the world, women. I’m most interested in people who are smart, funny people and are neurotic. Whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s about the problems that come with being smart and funny. Usually it’s something creepy that happened to you as a kid. That’s what makes you so interesting. On the other hand, because of the neurotic stuff, if you wanna be friends with them or if you want to have a romantic relationship, you just have to deal with that. That’s fine with me. I’m used to it because most everyone I know is like that. I live in New York.
You’ve had two solo albums out since the last Steely Dan album. Obviously you’ve been touring with Walter. What’s the status of the group?
Donald Fagen: No update really. We’re gonna try to get together on a theme for an album. Last time I was free he wasn’t free; he was working on one of his albums. Right now it’s up in the air, but we are planning on setting up a tour in the near future.
Are there songs you set aside for that band?
Donald Fagen: If we get into Steely Dan writing mode, maybe I’ll hold this one or that one back for Walter to see if it works. But that didn’t happen this time. I just kept (the songs) for myself.”
How do you negotiate the music industry now? You’ve come up through vinyl, 8-track, CDs, 5.1 surround sound and now digital downloads.
Donald Fagen: I think they’re issuing it on fairy dust this year. You’re just gonna have to grab it out of the air.