Steely Dan Co-Capt. Finds Freedom on ‘Condos’

By Russell Hall
Music and Musicians

Two years ago Donald Fagen decided to wipe the slate clean. His first three solo albums –1982’s The Nightfly, 1993’sKamakiriad and 2006’s Morph the Cat –had been tied together by unified themes, based on stages of Fagen’s life. For his new record, Sunken Condos, Fagen cast aside such constraints. “Those first three albums, which appeared at roughly 10-year intervals, ended up being a trilogy more or less,” he explains. “I’m done with that now. I felt freed up this time because the new songs didn’t have to refer to earlier material.”

Fagen has earned the right to go in any direction he pleases. As co-founder of Steely Dan, his jazz-infused efforts with musical partner Walter Becker constitute some of the most sophisticated to scale the pop charts. The duo’s decade-long run in the ’70s and early ’80s includes such hits as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen” and “Peg.”

In 1981 Fagen and Becker disbanded and embarked on solo careers, but they reunited in 2000 with Two Against Nature, which earned four Grammys. Three years later, Everything Must Go was released to less fanfare — but there have been no albums since. “Walter and I haven’t been able to come together on a bunch of songs lately,” explains Fagen. “But we still talk about recording.”

For Sunken Condos, Fagen recruited a team of ace musicians that included much of his touring band, including Michael Leonhart, who co-produced. Superior musicianship, intricate arrangements and insightful wit abound, all tethered to sharp funk grooves. With typical irony, Fagen chose an album title that contrasts with the upbeat sound.

“It’s a play on a Debussy piece called ‘The Sunken Cathedral,’” he says. Fagen revealed his thoughts on the new album, his creative process and his least favorite Steely Dan tune.

Did you have a concept in mind for the new album?

Not as much as with Kamakiriad. There, I was truly following a concept. This time I tried to do the opposite. I was trying to write freestanding songs, and free myself from the autobiographical thing. Even when they all started having a certain character, I didn’t try to match them up. But I do like to get 50 minutes of music that’s a good blend. Once I had 50 minutes of music I felt was worth recording, I said, “Let’s do it.”

Did you want a consistent style?

I wanted everything to have a good groove. Although it isn’t dance music, I wanted the songs to have a dance feel. I like albums that have a top-end groove that makes my body feel good. When I arranged the songs, I purposely built that in, no matter what the subject matter was. Sometimes there’s an irony you can achieve by balancing the groove and lyric, by creating tension between them. “I’m Not the Same Without You” is a good example. That song sounds festive but the lyrics are pretty dark.

Did you give the players freedom?

I generally don’t give the players instruction, initially. It’s more about casting the right person, like a movie. I try to hire musicians who already know what to do. You risk stifling someone if you give too much direction. They get nervous and start thinking too much. You don’t want to frighten anybody. Problems sometimes arise when people do six or seven takes, where they’ve got most of it but you need a little more. People get tired. You have to know when to give them a break, even when they’re saying, “Let me do one more.” You say, “No, just stop. Come over here and have some coffee.” Then they’ll go back and nail it.

How do you know when to do that?

The biggest tip-off is when they start rushing, when they start getting ahead of the beat. That’s what people do when they’re tired, nervous or thinking too much. I can hear it immediately. They’re not laid back anymore. It’s a mechanical thing that your brain does. They’re not in the groove.

Which is tougher to create, a solo or a Steely Dan album?

About the same. There’s a bit more pressure making a Steely Dan record. I think both Walter and I feel there can’t be any songs that fall below a certain level or below people’s expectations. I don’t feel that same pressure working on my own, although I suppose I do apply the same standards.

How does the songwriting differ?

There’s more variety in the subject matter when Walter and I work together. The songs are more journalistic, in the sense that because there are two people, they aren’t as personal. When I’m singing Steely Dan songs, I’m taking on the roles of various kinds of characters. When I’m writing by myself, those characters are closer in spirit to who I am.

Do you always write on acoustic piano?

Almost always. I rarely work on the road. Generally I write at home on a Yamaha upright. Right now I don’t have a grand or even a baby grand. I prefer to work on uprights, and I’m not sure why. I’m an on-and-off smoker, and I like being able to put my cigarette on the piano and get a nice burn mark on it. I think there’s something romantic about uprights.

When do you know you’re onto something promising?

Something lights up in my brain. It has to do with originality. I feel like I’m saying something that’s maybe been said before, but not exactly in the same way. That’s true of both the music and the lyrics. When there’s something fresh about it, that’s when I know.

Which songs are most fun to perform?

The later Steely Dan stuff, more so than the earlier material. Walter and I had a better grasp of what we liked by then. We were just kids when we started. We learned how to write better, play better and arrange better as time went on. I like doing “Babylon Sisters,” and “The Caves of Altamira” is fun to sing. And I love doing the 21st century stuff like “Godwhacker” and “Gaslighting Abbie.” But I can’t do them too much because audiences don’t know them as well.

Do you think Steely Dan’s hits have always been the best songs?

I think it’s been arbitrary, the songs that became hits. I like some of them. I’m sort of fed up with “Reelin’ in the Years.” But then again I think that’s because it’s not very sophisticated. It was kind of an early attempt to do what we do. I never had much to do with choosing the singles. That was the record company’s prerogative. I tried to stay out of that.

Could a band like Steely Dan gain a commercial foothold today?

I’m not sure. We slipped in at a special time, when people were willing to play unusual music on pop radio. FM radio was really big then — it was the alternative media — and the disc jockeys could make up their own programming lists. If something sounded novel, instead of banning it they’d likely play it. It was a completely different scene. We were lucky in that regard.

Are you at a good place in your career?

I’ve been having a lot of fun the past couple of years. I really enjoy playing without worrying so much about whether the audience likes every tune. In the past there was that inner voice, saying, “Ah, they aren’t going to like this one.” Now I just don’t care so much about that. I’ve given up and surrendered. I’m going to do what I like and hope some in the audience will like it, too.

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