By Bruce Pilato
Sound & Vision
It has been 44 years since Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s jazz-tinged pop band, Steely Dan, soared to the top of the Billboard chart with timeless hits such as “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ In The Years.” Soon after its initial pop success, the band gradually morphed into a sophisticated studio driven band that blended a hybrid of jazz, R&B, rock and pop with such albums as Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Gaucho.
Then in the early 1980s, the band simply stopped making music. Both Fagen and Becker went their separate ways and recorded solo albums. Still each could be found on the other’s solo projects and eventually in 2003, they reunited.
The band has remained together since then, this time it is focusing most of its energy on touring. Donald Fagen & Walter Becker will return to the road in October, with a performance at the Auditorium Theater on October 8th (2016).
A few years back I had the great fortune to sit down with Donald Fagen for an interview. We discussed the long and colorful history of band and what makes up the distinctive “Steely Dan sound.”
Here is some of our conversation:
Explain the Steely Dan “sound”
Donald Fagen: Walter and I never thought Steely Dan had a specific sound. To us, it came very naturally, so it was a conscious thing.
Can the same be said about your songwriting?
Donald Fagen: Yeah right., When I sit down to write a song, I find certain harmonies appealing and I have a blues-based way of singing. For me it’s very natural to come up with those kind of songs.
The gap of time between the Steely Dan albums seemed to get longer and longer as the group when on. Was that because it was harder to live up to the standard of the earlier records?
Donald Fagen: No, I don’t think so. The gap between Katy Lied and Gaucho was three years and that was because we both moved from California, where we had both been living, to New York where we both started out. The move took a while and we were both getting settled and we both took a long break from writing. That is what accounted for that.
Then In 1982, you embarked on a solo career and the band was inactive for a decade, despite the fact that you both worked on each other’s solo records.
Donald Fagen: Yeah, it sort of worked out that way.
I came across lots of old albums in flea markets with your name on it. Things like Navasota, and the first Terence Boylan record…
Donald Fagen: Oh wow. Yeah, well Walter and I started out working as studio musicians. And as songwriters as well. In fact, the first we actually went in the studio together was on that first Terry Boylan record. That was our first professional recording, with the exception of a few demos.
Did you and Walter tour with him?
Donald Fagen: Well, we did a few casual dates with him. He went to school with me. He and his brother John Boylan went to school at Bard College with me and Walter. I see John and Terry occasionally. At Bard College they had a group called The Ginger Men, which was quite a good group, actually. When that broke up, Terry went on his own and made a few records.
You and Walter were signed as staff songwriters at ABC Records, which eventually led to the formation of the band, right?
Donald Fagen: Well, yeah. Gary Katz who we had been working with, got a job as a staff producer at ABC Records. He kind of brow beat the president of ABC Records into hiring us as staff songwriters. In New York we used to do a lot of projects with Gary, none of which ever got off the ground. But, when he got hired as a staff producer at the label out there in LA, he sent for us.
So, explain the transition from being staff songwriters at ABC to being Steely Dan signed to that same label.
Donald Fagen: Well, we were supposedly writing songs for ABC artists, but in reality, we were spending a lot of the time doing more personal material. And we needed a vehicle to display it. The logical thing was to get a band together. So, we called up some musicians we knew and we got it together rather quickly. Originally, we had a singer named David Palmer who was on the first couple of albums. Although he was a good singer, we felt he couldn’t quite get the attitude over we were looking for. So, I ended up as the singer having never really had any experience as a professional singer. And that led us to the particular situation I am in today.
You never had any real intention to be a performing artist, did you?
Donald Fagen: Well, we set out to put a band together, but I never set out to front a band. That happened by default, really. We toured with that band for a few years, but then we mainly became a studio band after that.
Did you get a lot of pressure from ABC Records in the beginning to tour?
Donald Fagen: Yeah, at the time. When we started out we had those hits like “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ In The Years,” so, I guess that is what pushed us out on the road.
Would you say you are a musician first or a songwriter first?
Donald Fagen: Well, I think my strongest suit is being a songwriter. How I am considered, however, I really don’t know. I am not really sure how I consider myself.
Were you self-conscious when you first started singing with the band?
Donald Fagen: I started singing by default because there was no one else we felt could convey the attitude we had. Although I don’t have the greatest voice in the world, I am able to get the attitude across, and that is the most important thing.
But, then the label started leaving you alone once it was clear you could do better if you focused on making those amazing studio records?
Donald Fagen: Yeah, well, we were unhappy with the band, although there were good musicians in the band. But Walter and I never really hung together with them, and we started working with other musicians as well. So, it seemed like a logical thing to break it up. Also, those records took us quite a long time and the rest of the band members just sat around.
So, once the touring band of the early 1970s had been disbanded and you focused on being a studio band, did you ever have a desire in the late 70s and early 80s to return to the road?
Donald Fagen: Well, we did try putting Steely Dan back on the road in that period with studio musicians, but economically, it turned out to be a disaster. It would have cost us more to go out than we could have taken in, so the idea was abandoned. We had 2 or 3 rehearsals, but we decided not to do it.
Do you think there is a misconception, that you are 80% of Steely Dan, mainly because you are the singer and front person, and that Walter has never gotten his just due with the public and music industry?
Donald Fagen: When we started out, he had a bunch of songs and I had a bunch of songs and we just put them together. After a while, we sort of leveled out this way of working where he or I might have a musical concept and we would kick it around a bit. Then, he and I would get together and work on the lyrics. I don’t think either of us ever wrote a song independently.
As much as the music is amazing, Steely Dan songs remain compelling because of those character-driven lyrical scenarios. Is one of you more responsible for that?
Donald Fagen: No, I would say the lyrics are really 50-50. We sync up ideas to write songs — he would write a line and then I would write a line.
I interviewed Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame, who played on your Gaucho album. He explained to me that as much as he liked working with you and Walter, he felt the recording process was too clinical, and he would have preferred a more free-flowing environment. Do you think there could be some merit to his comments? Maybe the process is too structured and this might cause a loss of artistic energy?
Donald Fagen: Um, I think about it. But there is not that much we could have done about. We had 42 musicians on Gaucho! I see making a record as something completely different than playing live. If you do it right, you shouldn’t lose any of the energy. Occasionally, you will, but, I try to keep the energy level up. I think over the years have gotten some great performances by some of those musicians.
It is interesting to see the progression of Steely Dan as band. You started out doing Top 40 radio tracks, then the music became more more intellectual and started to have a real bent toward jazz, and then coming around to making modern R&B music….
Donald Fagen: Well, that is true. Aside from our obvious jazz influences, we were also influenced by a lot of the bands that were big in the ’60s, such as The Beatles, and so on. The Byrds, and Frank Zappa to some extent. As we continued recording we gradually gravitated toward that music we grew up with, which was jazz and rhythm & blues. We didn’t really think about it that much. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I really don’t think about it. When I write a song, all that is important is that it is pleasing to me and it’s good music.
Wasn’t there a 60s pop band you and Walter were involved with?
Donald Fagen: Yeah, we use to back up Jay & The Americans, and we also did a lot of shows with the Four Seasons.