By Kevin C. Johnson
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took a break from rehearsals last month for a free-wheeling conversation with the media via teleconference.
The guys were promoting “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day Tour,” which comes to the Peabody Opera House on Monday. The band has been performing greatest-hits sets, fan-request nights and full-album concerts in select cities, with straightforward concerts on other stops.
“The fact is they’re more or less actually the same show,” Becker says. “We just put the songs in a different order.”
The show here won’t be a themed show. “If there’s something in particular St. Louis has in mind, I’d be glad to hear about it,” Becker said. “You could be the conduit through which they make their request.”
Here’s an excerpt from the discussion:
What does the name “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day” mean?
Fagen: “That was the easy part. We were reminiscing about the old television show, which was called ‘Route 66,’ and we remembered how in those days they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like ‘Who’s Afraid of the Muffin Man?’ — things like that. So we decided we were going to have a subtitle for our ‘Mood Swings’ tour.”
What changed in the touring landscape to turn Steely Dan into a touring act over the last 20 years?
Becker: “Everything has changed. First of all, we were just beginning to headline shows in the ’70s. We were usually in a band with, like, eight people or something and were earning $3,500 a night tops. And you were playing under extremely variable circumstances.”
Fagen: “The venues and the menus and the hotels and everything has gotten better. Now it’s much more fun to play. I’m glad we turned into this big-time touring band later in life.”
What has been the reward these past couple decades of having Steely Dan exist like this?
Becker: “It’s great fun to play with a really good band.”
Fagen: “We’re hoping to eventually win the Bunson Prize as a reward, but so far, we’ve only been second runner-up.” (Bunson Prize references a lyric from “What a Shame About Me.”)
Becker: “We won the flame-out category two years in a row, but that’s a mixed honor.”
Did you have any sense that 20 years down the line this would still be something you wanted to do?
Fagen: “I don’t think either of us plans that far ahead, actually.. So I would give that a qualified no as John Daly used to say on ‘What’s My Line?’”
Is new material in motion at all?
Becker: “It’s in the air. It really is. … I can smell it. Next thing is then you taste it, then you start to feel it.”
Fagen: “We do have some things that I’m remembering just now. We have some songs that are really good ones that we only half finished back in, like, 1984. We have a bunch of things. Put it this way: Any other band in the world would have long ago finished or mixed or whatever these old things that were lying around with a great ta-da fanfare. But we just don’t play it like that.”
Becker: “That’s not the way we roll.”
Fagan: “We think it’s good stuff. It’s like every time we get together we end up just going fishing. Maybe it has to do with our age.”
Is there any reason why “Pretzel Logic” isn’t on the list of albums to do?
Fagen: “Usually if we haven’t done it yet, it’s because among the songs on any given album, there may be a lemon in the bunch we don’t like to play.”
Are there modern musicians you’re enjoying right now?
Becker: “I love guys like Charlie Parker. He was only 35 when he died, so most of his work was almost like (new).”
Is there anyone in 2013?
Becker: “I still like Charlie Parker. You’re not going to talk me out of that.”
Kanye West wrote a letter to get permission for your song. Can you go into that?
Fagen: “What happened is from time to time we get requests for license for hip-hoppers to use part of an old song. We got a clip of something from Kanye West wanted to use a piece of ‘Kid Charlemagne.’ We usually say yes, but we didn’t like the general curve of the way that one sounded. … But then he sent us a handwritten letter that was so heartfelt we finally gave in and acceded to his request.
Becker: “He basically said this was a song (‘Champion’) that meant a lot to him. It was written about his father.”
Fagen: “I didn’t get that at all from the music.”
Becker: “I’ve had occasion to wonder since then whether that’s the same Kanye West.”
Fagen: “Maybe it was a prank.”