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Tuesday, February 29, 2000

The Steely Dan Q&A

By JOHN SAKAMOTO
Executive Producer, JAM!


NEW YORK -- The most organic, slow-motion reunion in rock history finally climaxes today (Tuesday) with the release of "Two Against Nature," the first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years.

Though Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went their separate ways after 1980's disheartening "Gaucho," they continued to weave in and out of each other's professional lives.

In 1986, they casually reconnected after doing some work on a long-forgotten album by ex-model Rosie Vela. Shortly after, they sat down to try to write some new material, including one song, "Snowbound," that would appear on Fagen's 1993 solo album, "Kamakiriad," and some other fragments that would resurface on "Two Against Nature."

In the early-'90s, they performed and recorded together in the loose aggregation dubbed the New York Rock And Soul Revue, which in turn led to each producing the other's solo releases (Fagen's "Kamakiriad," Becker's 1994 release "11 Tracks Of Whack"), and finally reuniting to take Steely Dan on a series of well-received summer tours.

We sat down recently with Messrs. Fagen and Becker at the Broadway offices of the firm handling the duo's publicity, conveniently located between a French cafe and a classy establishment boasting a three-foot-high red neon "Liquor" sign in the window.

Here's how it went:

JAM!: Even though you've produced each other's solo albums and you've taken Steely Dan out on the road throughout the '90s, it wasn't automatically assumed that there would be a new Steely Dan studio album. Did you always plan to record new music again as Steely Dan?
Fagen: I think it was actually the fact that we were touring, I guess from '93 to '96 in the summer, we started to get a little bored playing the old songs. We had some new material from our solo albums that we were doing, but we just started collecting ideas for songs, naturally, from being thrown together on the road and in the studio, so we started writing songs in '97. Mostly the album was written in '97, then we recorded it in '98 and '99.

JAM!: So the nine songs on "Two Against Nature" were all written in '97?
Fagen: Yeah, (but) as we've always done, we had fragments going back quite a ways, probably at least into the early-'80s. And so there were some pieces of things that came from earlier, but essentially they were all written in the past couple of years.

JAM!: Could you give an example of an older fragment that surfaced on the new album?
Fagen: Well, yes, actually, the material that forms the choruses of "West Of Hollywood."..
Becker: ... and the verses, too.
Fagen: The verses, too? Really? Yeah, You're right. And the verses, too, were kind of rewritten out of a piece that we wrote in the '80s that was actually a reggae of some kind. We just never were really comfortable with the way we sang in reggae metre, so we started fooling around with it and it seemed to work with our idea for "West Of Hollywood."

JAM!: What was the original "reggae" song called?
Becker: It didn't have lyrics.
Fagen: It never had any lyrics.

JAM!: So it was from the period in '86-'87 when you made an attempt to write together?
Fagen: Yeah.

JAM!: On "West Of Hollywood," Chris Potter plays some amazing tenor sax solos over some very formal horn arrangements. How does it usually work? Do you write the charts first, then he solos over them, or is it the other way around?
Becker: I think in the case of "Janie Runaway," there was already a horn chart on there.
Fagen: Yeah, we usually do the horn charts towards the end, but we also do the sort of outstanding solos towards the end of the process, too. But I think in this case, the horn charts were on ("West Of Hollywood") when Chris did his solo.

JAM!:It remarkable that he can sound as though he's playing with abandonment on one hand, while trying to keep the horn chart in mind, on the other.
Fagen: He's a very fluid player, and when he overdubs, he has no inhibition. It's just like he's playing live. The first time I saw him, he was playing with the Mingus Big Band. I'll always remember the thing about him was, he had this amazing brain-to-fingers thing happening. Just instantaneous. He can do whatever he wants, essentially. He's very fluid.

JAM!: Did you approach any of the players from "Aja" and "Gaucho" to play on the new album?
Fagen: Well, we recorded in New York, so we were trying to use mostly local people. Let's see, Hugh McCracken (who contributed some guitar on the "Gaucho" album), he's a New Yorker, and he played on at least one cut ("Almost Gothic"). Dean Parks (guitarist, who played on "Aja"'s "Josie" and "I Got The News") flew in from L.A. Otherwise, it was mostly local people, or people who've been on tour with us, or musicians we've met through those musicians.

JAM!: Did producing each other's solo albums help whatever transition you had to make to do a new Steely Dan album?
Becker: You know, I think the trickiest thing about doing the album is writing together, and what was really helpful in terms of writing together was having done it a few times in the past and started up and had some backlog of things to work with. Because a lot of times the way we end up writing together is we start with some little thing that we had from a long time ago, or we do a rewrite of something, or we have a sort of running stock of musical and lyrical ideas that we had been working on ...
Fagen: ... like a novelist or short-story writer. We have notes on lyrics and also notes on music, which are on cassettes ...
Becker: ... and the fact that this was a couple of times. I remember when we first got together in the '80s and we were writing together, having to start out from scratch, essentially, was hard. And we ended up writing quite a few things back then that we either began or that were compete songs with no lyrics. And in one or two cases there were songs we actually finished, one of which was "Snowbound" (from Fagen's 1993 solo album, "Kamakiriad"). Just having that available got us past the most difficult part. Once you've written the songs, you just sort of go in and do them.
Fagen: In the '70s when we recorded our first album, the stuff we had been working on for a few years before that sort of carried us through at least a few albums ...
Becker: ... at least partially. Songs on our second and third album we had written many years before. (Note: In fact, all of Steely Dan's studio albums contain material that was dusted off and reworked.)
Fagen: We had built up a kind of stock of good stuff. So I'm glad that actually we did those solo albums together so we had that material to draw on.

JAM!: Would you consider "Snowbound" a bona fide Steely Dan song, or is there a difference between how you approached writing and recording that, and the material on "Two Against Nature"?
Fagen: I think "Snowbound" has all the elements of a Steely Dan song, particularly in that we wrote it together, sitting in the same room. Most of the songs on that album ("Kamakiriad") I wrote myself and arranged a lot of it. But "Snowbound" was from that period from the '80s when we were writing some tunes.

JAM!: Did you revisit anything like "Second Arrangement" or some of the songs that didn't end up on "Gaucho"?
Becker: Well, "Second Arrangement," we have a pretty good recollection of. We looked at it at one point thinking we might want to play it live, and there were some other tunes from that period where we have tracks that we cut or that we worked on a little bit. But we weren't considering doing any of those for this record. The whole idea for us was to write new songs. If we wanted to go back and finish songs that we wrote in the '70s ...
Fagen: ... we probably would've done it before now (laughs).
Becker: Yeah, we probably would've done it before now.
Fagen: We looked at that stuff, because when they put out the box set (1993's "Citizen Steely Dan"), they wanted to have extra material or demos, and we looked through the stuff -- and it had the same faults it had in the '70s.

JAM!: If you listen to the last Steely Dan album, "Gaucho," what, if any, kind of connection would you hear with "Two Against Nature"?
Becker: Well, it would have to be a restaurant or a public place for us to be listening to "Gaucho."

JAM!: On first listen, "Two Against Nature" sounds like latter-day Steely Dan. But when you listen most closely, the rhythm section and the horn arrangements -- trumpet and trombone and clarinets -- all sound very different from, say, "Aja" or "Gaucho." You don't necessarily notice that on the first pass.
Fagen: Yeah, we were interested in using more woodwinds. We did it in the past. In fact on Gaucho, there are places where there are bass clarinets and flutes and so on. But we were trying to get a different kind of a horn sound, something different from the usual "soul horn" sort of idea, and maybe a bit of a lighter sound.

JAM!: Did your legendarily meticulous approach to recording also apply on "Two Against Nature"?
Becker: Well, because of digital editing and the possibilities now, the onus for doing that sort of thing falls less on the musicians than it used to. It used to be you were trying to get a really seamless-sounding track with no flaws and consistent energy and everything. And that was the toughest part, getting a drum track that was really perfect that you could live with and then you could overdub on. And there were times when the drummer would have to do a lot of takes to get something like that. Nowadays, you don't really need to do that, because you can essentially replicate parts of a track; if you liked the way the guy played the first verse. Having said that, for ourselves -- especially if you're going to be constructing things from the ground up using the drum track, which we did in some cases -- it has to be pretty good. So now we can sit there with tapes and stuff that guys have played on and dick around with it and get something we're happy with.

JAM!: It sounds like a long time, '98 and '99, in the studio. Was it a solid stretch of recording, or were you fairly casual about it?
Fagen: We worked pretty solid, I'd say. It really did take a long time. We don't work the kind of hours we used to, usually.
Becker: Yeah, long days were rare, late nights are very rare but ...
Fagen: .. .but we were working like every weekday pretty much, with very little time off.
Becker: We hoped that wouldn't happen, but I think we both understood exactly what we were up against, what the possibilities were.
Fagen: We hoped it would've gone quicker, as usual.
Becker: Part of it again is, in the same way you sort of build up a stock of spare parts and ideas and momentum from writing together, the same sort of thing happens from recording together. And doing the particular kind of thing we were trying to do, we really had to start from scratch on this record. We had new musicians and new technical tools that we were using, so with starting from scratch, as I say, it took as long as it did. I imagine if we continue, in the not too distant future we'll benefit from the momentum we've built from the past, and it won't take us this long.
Fagen: Yeah, probably only 16 or 18 months of five day a week, eight hour sessions.

JAM!: You both play on every track except one ("Negative Girl"). That certainly wasn't always the case. Are you more comfortable with your abilities now, or did you simply like your tracks better than what other musicians came up with?
Fagen: Both of those things.
Becker: Both of those things are true. And also because of the way we were constructing things and working with things. We would get something we like and we would say, 'Let's see what a guitar part sounds like or what a bass part would do', and we were always there to do it. Whereas other guys were working or weren't available or on a world cruise or something. So it developed from that fact -- we were there and we were experimenting with things.

JAM!: What does the title of the first track, "Gaslighting Abbie," mean?
Fagen: We've been asked that quite a few times in the last couple weeks.

JAM!: Would you like to make up a new answer?
Fagen: No, actually there's an actual answer. I don't even have to make one up. Apparently it's local to New York. but the term "to gaslight" comes from the film "Gaslight," with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she's going mad so he can get her money, I think. So it's really a certain kind of mind f---ing, or messing with somebody's head by ...
Becker: ... specifically by manipulating the external reality to make them think they're deluded.
Fagen: You know, like, "WHAT statue in the hall?," that kind of thing.
Becker: Right. In "Gaslight," I think one of the famous things is the guy keeps turning the lights down dimmer and dimmer in the house so she thinks she's losing her vision.
Fagen: And so I think it's become like, it's not that rare for a woman to accuse her boyfriend of "gaslighting" her. And almost always it's a man gaslighting a woman.
Becker: That's sort of the rich old tradition of gaslighting which we were invoking. Sometimes the old ways are best.
Fagen: It's really accusing someone of lying to you. Because when you're lying, you're basically altering someone's reality, saying, no the reality that you perceive is not right and in fact ...
Becker: ... or telling someone that they're crazy.

JAM!: You're trying to tell me people still use this term in New York?
Fagen: It's fairly current. The film is from, I guess, like the '30s or '40s (1944). Yeah, I've heard it a lot in the last couple of years.

JAM!: There are a lot of laughs in Steely Dan albums, including "Two Against Nature," though I'm not always sure if I'm supposed to be laughing.
Fagen: We're not sure, either. There were some really sad songs in there, too, but you have to make the best of it.
Becker: Even the sad songs have good laughs in them.

JAM!: So I shouldn't feel guilty about it?
Fagen: No, no, not at all.

JAM!: Something like (the first radio track) "Cousin Dupree," which is hilarious. There's a lot of sleazy talk in the lyrics, then out of nowhere comes the line "the dreary architecture of the soul." Is this what the girl is supposed to be saying to Cousin Dupree's drooling pick-up attempts?
Fagen: Yeah, she defends herself very well, I think. She says, I don't know what it is, maybe it's the skeevy look in your eyes or the dreary architecture of your soul. And of course Cousin Dupree doesn't really hear. He says, "Yeah, but what is it exactly turns you off?."

JAM!: It's surprising just how much of a blues influence there is on "Two Against Nature." So much of what you play is so sophisticated, you wouldn't naturally think to have that combination.
Fagen: I think we're probably white blues musicians. Or that's what we aspire to be.
Becker: Or maybe a fancy blues band.

JAM!: In blues there isn't usually that level of formal sophistication.
Fagen: There was in Bobby Blue Bland arrangements. In the early-'60s, a guy named Scott (trumpeter Joe Scott) used to do his arrangements. Or in Ray Charles, there are very sophisticated harmonies in regular blues. A lot of R&B tunes in the '50s, especially what they used to call blues ballads, they weren't 12 bar blues, but they were influenced by bluesy inflection and progression, and in fact Charlie Parker probably, I don't know if he invented it, but certainly a lot of his blues tunes used a lot of chord substitutions ...
Becker: ... yeah, they usually refer to that as a Charlie Parker blues ...
Fagen: ... yeah, in fact a Charlie Parker blues is a major seventh blues, two chords per bar, two chords per BEAT.
Becker: There are many, many different ways jazz musicians have elaborated on blues to maintain the strong, powerful structure and elusive quality that blues have, but enriching it harmonically ...
Fagen: ... Horace Silver. A very, very creative musician that way.
Becker: Similarly, looking at it from the other way around, there's a lot of ways in jazz music where musicians have superimposed blues licks and blues inflections over harmonically and structurally "not blues" material, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Fagen: That was Gershwin's technique.
Becker: You know, sort of reinvigorate the same stock of music that's gotten sort of far from a rootsy blues feeling. You can play blues licks over all sorts of tonalities, and they work, in an interesting way. Certainly for me as a soloist, that's one of the big things that I do.
Fagen: Gershwin, one of his great effects was just chromatic triads with some kind of blues lick over it, and you hear that in Horace Silver and various others. I think we do have a certain way of doing it that, maybe some of the things we do are original with us, but certainly we're influenced by a lot ...
Becker: ... we're both inspired by the general idea of playing off blues things against "not blues" things.

JAM!: You've played "Jack Of Speed" on previous tours. Is it the oldest song on the new album?
Becker: Yeah, not counting fragments, the "West Of Hollywood" sort of thing.

JAM!: Was it easier to record because you've played it on tour?
Becker: No. I'm sure there would've been a much easier way to record it, but we didn't allow ourselves to be lulled into something like that.

JAM!: Was it more difficult BECAUSE you had played it live?
Becker: No, it was just as difficult as it was simply because of what it is. The way we ended up defining the groove was in a series of stages, and we kept going back and changing things, some of the underpinnings of the things, as I recall. Why? Because we could.
Fagen: The easiest to record was probably "Negative Girl."

JAM!: Was it the easiest because neither you nor Walter played on it?
Fagen: Probably (laughs).
Becker: Yeah, we had the good sense not to pollute it with our own playing.
Fagen: I think part of it with that was, when you're not having to deal with a dance beat, which we like, we enjoy doing ....
Becker: ... it didn't engage any of our most powerful rhythmic fetishes at the root level ...
Fagen: ... right. It was a freer kind of tune, so the musicians were able to define the groove themselves, more than us going for something really specific. So it was easier. They should really all be like that, though. We just haven't learned our lesson.

JAM!: Was it the same thing with the rhythm in "West Of Hollywood." It's fast, it's not really a dance rhythm.
Becker: It's certainly not a dance beat.
Fagen: Yeah, although we took some pains to achieve the groove on that.

JAM!: There isn't a single rhyming couplet in "West Of Hollywood." I assume that was deliberate?
Becker: Yeah, we understood it was atypical in a lot of ways, that being one of them.
Fagen: We wanted the theme of the song to be reflected in the narrator's voice. Sort of chaotic, ambiguous, and fragmented.
Becker: Highly self-involved, self-referential.
Fagen: There are a lot of short-cuts in the story where he only remembers the really big important things. Or what he considers to be important.

JAM!: "What A Shame About Me," like most of the songs on "Two Against Nature," revolves around sex.
Fagen: I certainly hope so, for our sake.

JAM!: It also has a very cruel ending. (Note: The song -- which appears to borrow part of its melody from "I Can't Function," a tune that dates all the way back to Fagen and Becker's 1968 demo tape -- is about a beautiful actress who bumps into an ex-classmate (the song's male narrator), who turns down her overtures to go to her hotel and "make believe we're back at our old school.")
Fagen: Yeah, he shot himself down on that one. But you don't know what happens after. You don't know the after-story.
Becker: Was it (short-story writer) Deborah Eisenberg who wrote something that sounded like, "Any story can be either a happy or a sad story. It just depends on when you start telling it and where you stop"?
Fagen: Yeah, exactly.
Becker: Anybody's life story. But that certainly was one of the cruellest hoaxes perpetrated on audiences to date.
Fagen: Who knows what happens later, though? An exchange of phone calls?
Becker: Yeah, that was just his opening gambit.

JAM!: So maybe he becomes a little less noble later on?
Becker: Right, right. Or another way of looking at it is, collectively, we must all endure the tyranny of the disallowed.
Fagen: Or he succeeds in changing the definition of nobility.
Becker: That's right, that's right. He redefines, he dumbs down...
Fagen: ... yeah, he dumbs down, yeah.

JAM!: The title track has an odd time signature. Is it 6/4?
Fagen: Yeah, 6/4.

JAM!: I love the names in the lyrics. Madame Erzulie ...
Fagen: Some of those come out of voodoo lore.
Becker: Mostly from voodoo lore.
Fagen: Yeah, we may have made up a couple, but Madame Erzulie is a voodoo goddess (of love), and Lou Garue is as well. They're demons, spirits.
Becker: We may have anglicized some of those names a little bit.
Fagen: Like "T-bone Angie." That's really "petit bone."

JAM!: The line in the chorus: "Who's gonna break the shape of things unknown?" Is that you two?
Fagen: Pretty much. That's our little self-referential piece.
Becker: Well, our idea was, this was one of the first songs we wrote when we started this thing, so it was sort of a morale-booster for us, you know? And ...
Fagen: ... it's sort of an advertisement for ourselves ...
Becker: ... an advertisement for ourselves, sort of steeling ourselves for the task at hand, you know, by showing ourselves that we were able to overcome whatever obstacles or demons that plague us.
Fagen: ... and in fact being so arrogant as to offer ourselves to help OTHER people overcome their demons, as well.
Becker: Well, yeah. This is another blues tradition. This is a traditional kind of blues bragging song.
Fagen: Like "Back Door Man."
Becker: Which even involves, you know, a sort of traditional blues pantheon of the gods, a lot of the images invoked are from old blues songs....
Fagen: ... got a black cat bone, mojo's workin ...
Becker: ... and are also derived from the same African traditions. The guy at the crossroads ....
Fagen: ... Legba.

JAM!: I love the line in "Janie Runaway" where the older guy says to the young girl: "Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain/Possibly you - Janie Runaway."
Becker: Yeah, well, there's a little blackmail there. Not blackmail, just a really attractive ...
Fagen: ... travel opportunity. There's not much nobility happening in "Janie Runaway," I guess.
Becker: It all depends on how you look at it (laughs).
Fagen: An opportunity for young people?
Becker: Yes. I'd like to think that a suave man of the world offering to help a young, recently arrived visitor to this fair city ...
Fagen: .. kind of a May-December kind of thing.
Becker: Well, not necessarily. I always kind of imagined this guy as being somewhere in his thirties or something. You know, you go to some restaurant downtown and there's a bunch of guys at the next table and what's left of their pinstriped suits after a hard day's arbitrage, and somewhere towards the middle of the meal, you want to fling your mustard at them, after overhearing them.
Fagen: Yeah, exactly.
Becker: I always imagined him as one of those kinds.

JAM!: The phrase "jack of speed." Does that refer to death, or flirting with death?
Becker: I think that's essentially right. Flirting with madness, mania, madness, annihilation.

JAM!: Neither of you plays on the finished version of "Negative Girl." Did you play on demo, then wipe your parts out in favour of other musicians'?
Fagen: No, I think we just sat that one out.
Becker: That was in fact the only one where it was basically just the live track with the band playing.
Fagen: I think I might've been playing ... a lot of times I'll go out and I'll play the melody on the piano rather than sing it, because I feel I can be more precise with the phrasing. So I think I was playing the melody on the piano, which was just a cue track, and we never used it. We didn't actually end up playing on it.

JAM!: Are you saying it was a completely live track?
Becker: Well, it was two takes ...
Fagen: ... it was a combination of two takes ...
Becker: ... it was two takes that were edited together. It took a couple of hours to do that. And a solo was overdubbed on it. That was essentially it.

JAM!: Do you get suspicious of something that happens in two hours?
Becker: (Laughs). No, because if there's something wrong with it, we'll find out. No, seriously, if you work on something the way we do, where you're overdubbing and doing vocals on it, it has to be pretty good or else it's just too hard to work on it. It's like, if you're building a house, the foundation has to be pretty plumb or else complications build up as you go along. So even if you're just going to add vocals and stuff, you'll know with the basic track whether you really like it as you work on it, or as you get to know it better.

JAM!: Doctors pop up in both "Negative Girl" and "West Of Hollywood." In "Hollywood," you introduce "Doctor Warren Kruger," who never appears again in the rest of the song! Is that just part of the "narrative chaos" you talked about earlier?
Becker: That's right.
Fagen: Yeah, f--- that Warren Kruger! (Much laughter).
Becker: That's essentially correct. It's another narrative frustration, a narrative tension.

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