We parked ourselves in the hotel lobby, only for our conversation to be punctuated by reversing waste trucks with hooters blaring, stiletto heels marching purposefully across the marble-effect floor and the overheard cheery greetings from the three hotel receptionists at the desk.
Is Walt a hard taskmaster in the studio?
He can be, yeah. I remember once doing Flaunt I was four hours doing a bass track and we got to the end of it and he just said, "We'll leave that and maybe come back and have another go at it tomorrow." I was gutted, you know. You know what they used to say about drivers, when they get behind the wheel they change; Walter was like that. Once he gets behind the mixing desk he takes no prisoners. But he was a lot more relaxed on the new album mainly because he was at home and he'd worked with us before.
Is he particularly hard on the vocalist?
Not really, because he's got a lot of respect for Garry. They way that he tends to work it is he goes a lot for composites -- doing about three or four tracks and piecing them together and seeing what he's got. And then doing another three or four tracks, and he has the track sheets actually out there and the ones that he likes where he's got a word there he'll underline that and keep on going until he's got a full track.
Did he go his own way after you'd finished recording or did he socialize with you as well?
Usually once we'd finished he tended to get off then. When we did Flaunt we were in Sussex so we'd just go back to the cottage he was staying in and listen back to what we'd done that day. He's just like an observer more than anything else; he reads loads of books and for Christmas we all went home -- we had two days off, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day -- and we invited Walter to come back to Liverpool with us and he just said, "Oh no, I'll just feel even more out of it." So he went to London and stayed in a hotel and just went to the movies.
What other contemporary groups does he admire?
He gets a lot of stuff in. He's really curious about lots of things, anything that he sees that he can pick up on. When we were there he had a Sugarcubes album sent over.
Does he have a big record collection?
Yeah, a lot of jazz.
Has Walter inspired the members of China Crisis to go out and investigate any particular jazz artists?
Garry had been listening to Benny Goodman around the house and when I got over there I started picking Walter's brains and he gave me this Sonny Rollins CD, and I'd ask him about this and he'd say, "Yeah, go out and look for this, look out for that."
Did you originally intend to have Walter produce some tracks, and then Mike Thorne the others?
No, the thing with Walter is he approaches everything as a complete project, which isn't necessarily the way the record company looks at it. The record company had definite ideas on potential singles.
We wondered if it was coincidence that St. Saviour's Square and Red Letter Day, the first two singles from the album, were both produced by Mike Thorne?
Actually, single releases have a lot to do with... it's not just the band, there's the management...
You don't necessarily choose the singles yourselves?
It depends really. You can get involved, but at the end of the day, you want to get the record company totally behind you. They canvass everybody from radio promotion people through to marketing people, and even the reps go around and canvass in the shops.
Were you under any pressure to include anything on this LP that had commercial potential as far as the charts go?
Record companies are always looking at that. It's the easiest way for them to market the album. If you've got a couple hit singles on the album, it actually takes the album along with it. Whereas if you don'thave the hit singles, they've got to start thinking laterally, of different ways to market the band to sell the album. The easiest one all the time is going to be the hit singles, so that's what they tend to go for.
What was a typical Hawaiian studio day?
Mainly it started around one/two o'clock and we'd work through until about nine, because had his girlfriend and kids. We'd get one day a week off.
Very stable working hours -- it wasn't like you were going in whenever inspiration took over.
It depends if you were having a bit of difficulty over something. If something wasn't working, then maybe you'd leave a bit earlier, or if something was going really well, then you'd carry on a bit later.
Isn't Connie Reed who did some background vocals on the album Roger Nichols' wife?
Yeah. Roger's a real audiophile and he's got incredible equipment at home so she does songs of her own at home.
Was that part of the reason why you went to Village Recorders in L.A., because Roger Nichols is obviously very familiar with that studio?
We worked with Roger in the Village Recorder and that was partly because Walter didn't think they could really mix in Hawaii, so they wanted to go and do it in L.A. They looked around a few places, and they had to try and get a good price. They knew the people at Village really well and they knew what the room sounded like, too.
You spent about eight weeks doing Flaunt The Imperfection, but four months on Diary of a Hollow Horse. Did you plan to spend longer on this record? Because Walter said after Flaunt The Imperfection that he enjoyed doing it for that very reason. He had eight weeks and he said he had serious anxiety towards the end because he wanted to put some percussion on the album but time was running out. Was that partly the reason you dook longer over this one?
No, it was just we actually did preproduction over there in the studio and it was just the way it worked out. We spent 10 weeks doing Flaunt and 12 weeks in Maui and then two weeks in L.A. We went over by about two or three weeks on this one, so it was never preplanned that we were gonna take longer. Walter had a fixed idea -- he thought we might even finish early.
Was he the first person to work on it?
Yeah, Mike Thorney did the three tracks at the end. We did those in November/December. Walter didn't feel too happy about the idea of being told to come up with singles -- keep an eye onthe singles. He wasn't too happy about that idea, because he likes looking at it as a whole project. It's an album, and that's what he does.
Did you do an album's worth of songs with Walter?
Yeah. We did them again just to see how they would sound -- if the stuff Mike Thorne produced hadn't turned out to be as good as the Walter versions, we would've used the Walter ones.
I notice on Walter's production numbers there's additional musicians, for instance Tim Weston who was once with Dr. Strut.
Tim was the studio gopher on the tape op on I think it was the first Steely Dan album.
He was on Countdown to Ecstasy. He got a namecheck on it anyway. Is Walter still writing songs, do you know? Because after Flaunt he said he was inspired to go out and get a drum machine and a little four-track tape.
Yeah, he's got stuff set up in the house.
This was George Benson's studio you used, wasn't it?
Yeah, in Maui. Lahaina Sound.
Have you any idea how Walter's going to use the material he's writing in the future?
I don't know. That's the funny thing when it comes to business, he keeps it all under his hat. I know they had a little period where Walter was in touch with Donald and Donald came over to Hawaii and he couldn't stand Hawaii. He wouldn't go into it and he's not the kind of bloke that you push him on it. Because he'd just run you around the houses and just lose you and sort of change the subject.
Does Garry write the lyrics first and then you put the music to them after?
It's a very flexible working arrangement, really. Sometimes somebody'll come up with some chords or a riff and then we'll just sort of build on that and Garry'll sing along and just work something out. But then he always has lyrical ideas that he carries around with him. He takes a diary around and writes lines down and things that come into his head.
Which one of your songs has given you the most satisfaction?
(long pause) I think one of the most successful ones that we've ever done was when we did You Did Cut Me with Walter. I think we were all very happy with that one.
What about on the new LP -- anything that stands out?
It's very difficult when you've just finished an album, you need to distance yourself from it for a bit before you can start to be objective about it.
Do you still listen to your old material?
Oh yeah. What you tend to do is you never listen to it before you go into record or before you start your writing period because it influences whatever you're gonna do. The only time we maybe do it is after we finish recording the album -- we listen to all the other ones and see how that one fits in with the previous ones.
Was it Walter who suggested you go to Hawaii? I heard Eddie saying it was because of the cheap rates.
Walter originally said he wouldn't come back over to England. The record company wanted him to work here but he said no, it's too much to be separated from his girlfriend for that amount of time again, but what he didn't mind was working in Los Angeles. He and Roger wanted to work digitally, so he said there's a place down the road from where I live on Maui that we might be able to get, so he went down there. Apparently, it's hardly ever used and the idea of a three-month block booking meant he could get a good rate on it. As well as that the exchange rate was really good, and seeing as none of us live in London -- we all live in diverse places all over the country -- we would've been living in London hotels so you may as well be staying in a condo in Hawaii for the same price. The record company ummed and aahed and said, "Let's see some figures on it" and Walter came back with a good price and they had to say, "Ok, then, go" and the final parting word was "We don't want to see any great suntans when you get back."
Did you find it difficult to get down to work over there?
No. With having one or two days off, it made it easier. Sometimes you felt like we should have been working harder, but sometimes we thought it's going a bit slow so why don't we forget about the day off. But Walter always said, "Don't worry, it's all going OK."
Did he deliberately reduce his playing contributions to a minimum, because he was only on two tracks?
Yeah, he did have a guitar solo, but he got Tim to replace it. It was very strange...
Apparently, he's very slow doing a solo, isn't he? One bar an hour.
I don't know. We can only compare it with when we worked with him before. Roger actually reckoned he should put the solo on for the stamp, but Walter didn't seem to be confident about it, so he got Tim to replace it.
Which track was this?
Sweet Charity in Adoration.
I thought there was more use of saxes and flutes on Diary of a Hollow Horse than your previous album. Was that down to Walter?
Yeah, it was funny, actually, because there was gonna be brass parts on it and Walter had somebody flying over to Hawaii to do the charts, but the bloke couldn't make it. Walter just came in and said, "I see this as a sign fromGod. There ought to be no brass parts on this album, there'll just be sax solos." So he said all the brass parts will be played by keyboards and that was it, so we rang up Jim Horn, who Roger had worked with before on John Denver stuff, and he came over and doubled on recorder and Walter said, "Just bring everything and we'll just see how it goes." It's very much the way Walter will work sometimes -- just try and keep things flexible.
How responsible is he for the arrangements on the album, because they're credited between yourselves and Walter?
When we'd demoed this album the record company were coming up with different ideas of people to work with -- it's very difficult at the moment to get a producer who thinks the way that we do, because they tend to use a lot of samples and drum machines now. We just use acoustic drums, that's the way we go. Walter heard the demos and he rang Ed, because we'd had a few people whose names were tossed in the hat, and we were hanging around for something like six weeks waiting for people to come back with answers, but we didn't get any, so a couple of us said the least we can do is send a tape to Walter to see what he thinks about them. So we sent the tape off and Walter came back and said he loved it. He thought we were playing great, thought the arrangements were great, just a little bit of fiddling around here and there needed. He was really keen -- wanting to do it.
What other names were mentioned?
What record company people tend to do is pull out a copy of Music Week, see what's in the Top Fifty, see who produced it and then they start ringing round.
Walter's producing Rickie Lee Jones' album now, isn't he?
He was gonna start it as we were leaving, he was gonna take a month off and then he was gonna go over and talk to her. But all the time we were there he was trying to keep it under his hat. They were going to do it in Los Angeles, but they were searchin' around for a studio at the time.
If you're having such difficulty finding a producer who thinks they way you do, do you think it's likely you'll do another album with him?
You can only say that when they next album comes around, we'll see how we feel, talk about it. We definitely wouldn't exclude it, because it's the first time we've gone back to a producer.
How did you come to work with him first of all back in 1985?
Respect, more than anything else. I remember the first day that he came over, we heard the car pull up and we were rehearsing in Barwell Court. He got out and as he came in through the door I was trying to play, because you've gotta try and impress, but it was really difficult because my hands were shaking. But what happened was: we were touring with Working With Fire and Steel and we were in Warner Bros.' Burbank offices having lunch and they were talking about the next album saying "Did we have any idea who we wanted to work with?" and Eddie said, "Oh yeah, we want to work with somebody from Steely Dan. And he was thinking at the time Gary Katz or Michael Omartian or somebody like that. And so they said, "Yeah, Michael Omartian's a big fan" and they put the feelers out to see what's going on. We went back and started working on the songs for Flaunt. We spent the whole of the summer doing that, and somebody rang up from Virgin and said we've had this inquiry from Warner Bros., they want to know if you're interested in working with Walter Becker. We said yes, great. We didn't think it would get that far, but he came over and he met us and apparently he was nearly as nervous as we were, because he'd never worked with anybody else and hadn't done anything for four or five years.
Do you know what songs or what particular album it was that convinced him to work with you?
Fire and Steel. He liked the titles, and when he heard it there was a song on it called Papua, which is a real jaunty pop song with a little sequencer thing going through it, but it's actually about nuclear holocaust. We said Garry doesn't want to make the mistake of having a little pop tune with serious lyrics, because it detracts and Walter turned around and said, "I thought that was brilliant, the way you did that. That was the work of genius." He likes all that kind of stuff.
He was quoted as saying after Flaunt the Imperfection that he was attracted to China Crisis because the lyrics didn't make any sense!
(smiling ruefully) He said apparently that's the way that Donald used to do it. They'd go in and he'd just sing impromptu lyrics, just to get the feel of the vocal down. They didn't really seem to make much sense -- it was just the rhythm and the meter of them that mattered more than anything, but sometimes, no matter how obtuse they were, they'd just leave them in, because you just got used to the sound of them after a while.
Some of the session musicians who have worked with Steely Dan in the past remarked what a strange fellow Walter seemed to be. Did you have any experiences which would confirm that?
Not really. I think he's a brilliant fellow, I think he's really great.