Mary Turner: Hi, I'm Mary Turner and with me are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the guys that put together Steely Dan. They met in college in upstate New York and started writing songs together, but their lyrics and harmonies were too strange for the pop scene of the late '60s so they paid the rent by playing in the band with Jay and the Americans. Did you go on the road with them?
Walter Becker: Yes.
MT: Was it fun?
WB: Sometimes it was fun. Depending on where we went.
Donald Fagen: Tampa was foul that summer, wasn't it?
WB: So was Waldorf, Maryland.
DF: Waldorf, Maryland was no fun either.
WB: Stardust Motel. Remember the time they were playing up in Queens and Jay got subpoenaed. That was no fun.
DF: That's right, the guy with the gun. That was terrible.
WB: He was backstage, he was subpoenaed, that's a whole other story.
DF: We don't want to get into that, if you wanna know the truth, because we could end up with a horse's head in our bed.
WB: I used to look forward to playing. We had hopped up their songs considerably harmonically and rhythmically, so that it was more fun for us to play.
WB: We had modernized their sound, and I used to look forward to doing it and, of course, it paid the rent and we would work for like two, three weekends a month.
DF: I think that was the best band we were ever in.
WB: The nice thing about that band was that we were in the band and there were four guys in suits in front of us.
DF: Yeah, I mean, we couldn't play shit, but were were in the band. Ivy divy, pashoo pashois. It was nice. Nice.
WB: It was like being part of the Four Tops. We didn't look at their faces, we just...
DF: They had uniforms and things, I remember the guy who ran the Seven Seas Lounge at the Newport Hotel in Miami Beach used to complain about the way the band dressed, because Jay and the Americans looked really swell, but we were always not quite so natty.
MT: Then did you step right out of being in Jay and the Americans into being staff writers at ABC?
DF: Well, it was a long step because it was from New York to Cafifornia; it was a doozy, so to speak.
WB: Prior to that step we had been standing in a pile of legal entanglements (chuckling). That made it a very tough step.
DF: We had to call our attorney. But it all worked out for the best.
WB: Yeah, 'cause we weren't really doing anything particularly earthshaking musically. I mean, there's only so much you can do with "Only In America."
DF: Mainly we used to ride bikes in Prospect Park, that sort of thing.
WB: We were writing a lot but we had no vehicle for them, and Jay wasn't interested. He thought we were amusing. Jay was very tolerant towards us, as I think he indicated when he told "Rolling Stone" we were a couple of cocksuckers.
MT: (Laughing) A true fondness for you.
WB: Yeah, he really did like us. When we were offered a job writing songs and doing something besides playing "Only In America," it seemed like a nice idea for a change. Plus it would pay us whether he had a club gig or not.
MT: Donald and Walter got to LA through an old New York friend, Gary Katz, who'd just gotten a job for ABC Records.
WB: When Gary got to LA, the first thing he did after he got his job he said "I'll put my job on the fine for these guys." So they hired us; they figured, what the hell.
DF: And he still had his blue bathrobe on, too.
WB: (laughing) And his credit card. But they were very thrilled with Gary. The situation then was that ABC had the Mamas and the Papas, Barry MacGuire...
DF: Three Dog Night...
WB: ...the Grass Roots, Bobby Vinton, Tommy Roe, stuff like that. They didn't have a big underground thing going. Gary had a certain type of moustache that convinced them that he would be a good underground producer.
DF: Right, we were like the Cat Boy and All-Night News Boys of ABC Records.
WB: Yeah, we were the Grateful Dead of Beverly Boulevard. Very weird.
MT: Little by little they got a band together to play their songs. One of their guitarists they chose was Jeff Baxter.
Jeff Baxter: Here's what happened. Gary got a job as a staff producer at ABC Records. Howard Stark and Jay Lasker were running the joint, both really good guys. And Gary signed Donald and Walter as staff songwriters 'cause at the time Steve Barri was staff there and there was a real use for those tunes. 'Course they didn't know what kind of tunes they were gonna get and to quote Jay Lasker, he said, "Gary, you didn't tell me that I was gonna get a band with these two dummies."
So we had a band. Jay had a band. And he had to go out and buy a PA system, so we could rehearse in one of the storerooms. It was great, it was like being in a familfy. I remember when Howard Stark gave me a check for a thousand bucks. I went nuts! Wow! And he looked at me real serious and said, "Yeah, get yourself a nice apartment and find yourself a nice girl and put some money in the bank." I was flabbergasted. I said thank you very much.
But that was the attitude, they sort of took care of us, though they couldn't really understand what was going on. As long as Dennis Lavinthol said it was OK, then we were gonna do it. And we had a little room upstairs, an abandoned office where we brought a PA system and set up all our stuff. We did it just like a band -- we learned a bunch of tunes and then we went out to this club and played. It was really nice.
MT: The band they finally came up with had Donald Fagen on most keyboards, Walter Becker on bass, Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and Dave Palmer singing lead on some songs. Keeping it all together was producer Gary Katz. The old office they worked in was no more than fifteen feet square, it had no windows, white tile on the ceiling and bright fluorescent fights, and the only time they could have rehearsals was at night.
JB: They'd start around six 'cause I was working at repairing guitars and customizing them for people and we couldn't practice in the daytime anyway 'cause it was 9 to 5 in the office. So we'd go to our abandoned office around six 'o clock with some sandwiches and rehearse until really late. And I'd drive back in my '68 Ford Torino that I bought some nasty insides for and Donald would follow me 'cause Donald liked the way the car looked from the back. I had it painted wineberg and metal flake.
MT: The big success of "Do It Again" came as quite a surprise, and the new band had to go out on the road. So here's this bunch of guys who'd kicked around pop music for years; they get it together in an abandoned office at ABC Records and rehearse their music with strange lyrics. They make an album, put it out and whammo it's a hit. How'd they react?
JB: Went nuts. We started doing gigs. Ooooeee! Went on the road. On the road. Steely Dan. We had two road guys -- Warren Wallace and John Fahey. They looked a lot better than the band. As a matter of fact, we got panned at the Whisky A Go Go our first gig 'cause we didn't look good. The reviewer said that he wasn't sure about the music, (laughing) but he definitely knew we were the ugliest band he ever saw. So now we figured out what the LA music scene was like and decided we would take our music and go someplace else.
So we took our little traveling circus around and we played gigs and it was really good. We took this little show on the road and played a lot of places and everybody really liked us. I was amazed, especially in Texas. I couldn't figure that out. 'Cause the band that would open for us would be unbelievably raunchy and funky and loud and boogieing, and we get on and -- although I guess we did have that quality -- every once in a while we could really crank it up and rock and roll. 'Cause basically everybody liked to rock and roll. As much as everybody loves jazz -- and we all love to play that kind of music -- there's nothing like rock and roll for your soul.
(Plays "Reelin'ln The Years)
JB: The songs were great, and there was real dedication in the band. Everybody really wanted to play the best that they could and they always worked hard at it. And because everybody loved to solo -- and because there were good soloists in the band -- there was always room to solo. So we'd do a nice, tight piece and you'd be playing for about a minute and forty seconds, and then you'd go roaring into a set of changes, burn your brains out, get back into a solid groove and that to me ... People used to always look at us like there was something wrong with us -- not wrong with us -- something different, you know, because they couldn't believe you could stuff that much music into such a short space. I remember we used to open with "Boddisattva" -- that's on the flip side of the Steely Dan single -- at the Santa Monica Civic -- and there was so much happening in that song all the time, even when it didn't sound like it. And it got down to the point where Denny and I were getting down to just even the percussive things -- hitting on the guitar, just getting it right. It was wonderful.
JB: You know, I wish I could tell you some stories, but I'm saving some of 'em, some great stuff. Oh yeah, touring? (Chuckling to himself) Now this was a touring band -- this band knew how to tour. It was silly. The whole band was silly. We used to do some great tours; we used to open for The Doobie Brothers, Rare Earth, Sha Na Na. We always went on the road with real fun guys, and we had Dinky Dawson who was doing the PA ... and the guy who mixed our monitors was interesting. He mixed them so he could hear real well, and he'd get a nice sound that he liked and he'd take his violin out and play with us, throughout the set. Everything was really .... a little, kind of ... shaky.
MT: So touring was real tough for you guys, huh?
DF: Yeah, I often crumble. Very quickly.
WB: Donald has to sing and that's a tough thing to do. If you get a cold, you still have to sing every night. I've seen that happen to almost everybody that I've worked with -- that I've been on the road with. They have to sing every night and naturally their voices begin to...
DF: I've never had any voice training, nor am I inclined to take any and...
WB: It's like football players and their knees; it's just a matter of time.
MT: So it's not like you hate the rigors of the road?
DF: Well, I dislike the rigors of the road. As I say when we were with Jay, you had four guys fronting the operation with the uniforms on, that was OK with me. I enjoyed it.
WB: You were stiff sick a lot.
DF: Yeah, I was sick a lot, but it was OK. It's just I don't like to front a band, you know, have to talk to the audience, tell jokes.
WB: We were gonna get matchbooks and have a picture of Donald with the legend: Can you sing like this man? So we could get another lead singer. He'd just have to play the piano.
DF: I don't like the jock atmosphere of a traveling rock and roll band either...
WB: It's corny...
DF: It's corny, boring and silly.
(Plays "Pretzel Logic")
MT: By the mid-'70s, Steely Dan was changing. They'd started out as a group of guys building a band, but with each album, Donald and Walter brought in outside players to handle special parts. Then Jeff Baxter left to join The Doobie Brothers, he was followed by background singer Michael McDonald. What was going on? Here's Steely Dan's producer, Gary Katz.
Gary Katz: Donald and Walter's music was evolving and it was opening into more sophisticated and sort of an expansion of their old style. And they wanted the freedom to utilize as many styled players as fit the tunes that were then starting to be written. Jeffrey had an opportunity at that time 'cause he had been playing off and on with The Doobie Brothers as a guest, and to be a full-time member afforded him the opportunity to be on the road a lot, which he enjoys. He wasn't getting that with us and it didn't appear that he would. So he had the chance to do something that he liked and obviously, Michael had that opportunity, too. With Steely Dan, Mike was a background singer which was an ultimate waste of talent. There was no big blow-up or argument. It never happened.
(Plays "Dr. Wu")
GK: It's not a written chart for each player because the purpose of having the really good players that we enjoy working with is to be able to get their musicality that we hired them for. So they have this general idea of the song and they have a chord sheet in front of them, but I want their expression and their ideas -- as Donald and Walter do. So it's not like a rigid chart to say the least, but it is written out so that they know where it goes from section to section and what chords and so forth. Yeah, in that sense, it's structured out before we go into the studio. We do a demo, and we decide whether we like the way the song lays, if so, we write up chord sheets for that, if not, we make an adjustment, then write up a chord sheet. And when the players come in, we have this little ugly demo with just terrible electric piano sound and Donald's sort-of singing, and maybe Walter playing the bass line and chord sheets, and it's pretty clear what we're looking for. And then it's a process of going out and laying it down and hacking it out and getting what you like.
(Plays "Kid Charlemagne")
MT: A lot of bands make records quickly. They go into a studio and play, but Steely Dan sessions are long and sometimes difficult because Donald, Walter and Gary Katz are very demanding.
GK: You work with some people and you know what you can get and what you can't in anything you do. I know what a certain performance, as Donald and Walter do, what a certain song can sound like 'cause we've had it now enough times either on tape or by ourselves or by a rhythm track to relate to. We know what a song can sound like and if it's short of that, it's not good yet. So yes, it's boring on the 25th take, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, because we know what it will sound like and we like that -- I like that a lot, so I can endure it but it is boring sometimes. And very difficult for the performer if you continue to do it and wanting it better than he just did.
(Plays "Don't Take Me Alive")
MT: Does Gary enter into the creative process with you or do you get everyting written so you know what you're gonna do and go to Gary and go into the studio?
DF: Yeah, basically that's what it is. Everything's prepared by us and when we go into the studio, Gary's function is mainly to supervise things, make phone calls, that sort of thing. (Mary Turner laughs)
WB: That's not entirely fair.
DF: No, he's a third ear. Walter and I each have one ear apiece, I don't know if the public knows that, we both had accidents in our youth and Gary has a third one.
WB: A third ear, that's great. And I hope he'll remember that one.
MT: Siamese ears.
DF: If you please, or if you don't please.
WB: Actually, you can't see Gary's ears because of his hair, but if you could, you'd know what we were talking about.
WB:- No, the way we work with Gary, we have this kind of gestalt...
DF: Yeah, that's a nice word. You could use weltanschaung, but gestalt will do.
WB: What was I saying? German lesson? We have a kind of difficult to describe...
DF: This is a very German interview.
WB: Very Teutonic. So that we arrive at decisions in a very ... you know, we know what we're all thinking and we have the same objectives, pretty much so that not too many really bad discrepancies arise, because one person wants to go this way and someone wants to go that way.
MT: Are you pretty much in accord in your thinking then when you're in the studio?
WB: Not bad, not bad at all. I mean we've been...
DF: We have a few disagreements once in a while, but you know we've been together for ten years and it's been pretty smooth considering.
WB: What we usually do is we'll try it one way and try it another way and it's not hard to tell what works. It's sometimes hard to say in advance what's gonna work. That can be a problem, but we've gotten to be fairly extravagant in our recording techniques, so if something doesn't come out the way we had it in mind, we just do it repeatedly until we think that either it's a bad idea in the first place or it works out for us.
DF: Get it Tuesday and do it Thursday.
WB: We recorded "Peg" maybe five or six times with five or six dfferent bands.
DF: Yes, that's a good thing about not having a band because in effect you have a lot of bands.
MT: So on one album it could be ten different bands, huh?
WB: I think there was five different drummers on "Aja." There must have been five different bands on "Aja," on certain cuts?
DF: Uh huh.
MT: When you have a tune and you're ready to cut it, do you hear it in your head and go, "This requires Bernard Purdie, get him on the phone?"
WB: We make up lists of tunes and lists of who we think they require and then lists of who we're gonna get if we can't get so and so.
DF: And if it doesn't work, then we'll do it Thursday, as I say, with another band.
(Plays "Deacon Blues")
GK: (Referring to Pete Christlieb, the "Deacon Blues" saxophone soloist) He came about because we liked the saxophone player on the Tonight Show and we found out who it was, that's how exactly that happened. And we kept on hearing this one guy who was great, but never could figure out in the band who it was, so we called ... We had one player come down thinking it was him, and when it wasn't, we called the other one and it was Pete and he was great. And he played on other things, he played on "FM" as well. Pete's a free spirit, there's not much controlling Pete, which is exactly what we want. So you just run the music by him and he blows his brains out and it's great. He's just a great player. That is a very uninhibited session with Pete because he just wants to play, he just wants to hear it and he'll play it. And we like that spontaneity.
(Plays "Hey Nineteen")
MT: Making a Steely Dan album involves a lot more than just setting up tape machines and microphones. Here's Dick LaPalm, head of The Village Recorder, where they did "Aja."
Dick LaPalm: When you're dealing with people as creative as Steely Dan, the atmosphere itself has to be conclusive to creativity. We know the kind of cookies that Gary Katz, their producer, prefers and you can be sure we know when he's coming in, we're gonna have a lot of chocolate whatever they are. I know that Roger Nichols, their executive engineer, loves "Good 'n' Plenty", you know what they are? Little candies? Stock the refrigerator with "Dr. Brown"(soda), you try to make it as comfortable as ... you leave them alone. And let them do what they have to do, and if there's a problem, cover it for them as easily as you can. We try to keep the creative juices going all the time by anticipating a possible breakdown with equipment.
MT: And the answer isn't alway conventional.
DL: We were having a problem with the right speaker, that entire night, yes and no. It would work for 15 minutes and start cutting out, and in the end, it got to the point where we gotta do something so Gary Katz came up with the best idea. He picked up a can of cola and he just threw it at the speaker and it worked -- they didn't have a problem from that moment on. The next day, someone came in and said, "Dick, the Valencia cabinet on the 604NA is broken and the grill is cracked. What happened?" Well, someone in the Steely Dan session -- we think it was Gary -- and someone said, "No, it was probably Walter." They broke the cabinet but the speaker worked from that moment on and everyone said, "Wow, isn't that wonderful?". So you repair the speaker cabinet. Again, the important thing is keep the creative juices flowing.
MT: Your lyrics are always really good, but they're also sometimes very hard to follow.
WB: We're very much concerned with the sound of the words and the music. There are many instances when we're writing lyrics when we'll sacrifice literal meaning or linear storytelling effects for sound effects.
DF: Yeah, we get a lot of flack about that actually. They say it's hard to follow.
WB: That's the way we've been writing songs for a long time and I think that...
DF: I think, we've gotten to the point where we rarely sacrifice literal meaning for the sound of the phonemes. I think we've come to a point where we can compromise and come up with a lyric that's both meaningful and poetic as you will, or as you won't.
(Plays "Babylon Sisters")
DF: It is rock and roff, and if you just get too serious with it, then it s going to be pretentious.
MT: Do you have fun with it still?
WB: Oh, yeah, that's one of the nice things about rock and roll, it's a very light-hearted thing at heart -- at the center of it -- and I think most people who forget that come up with some of the most ponderous music I've ever heard in my life. It's really dreary-sounding stuff that happens when people get away from that basic idea that it is music that's designed to have an infectious beat. I would never describe our music as anything but rock and roff because of the rhythms that we use. It's a very propulsive, jubilant thing, and that happens to let you get away with certain types of black humor that would normally be oppressive to some people. I understand that some people are cheerier than other people but I don't care.
(Plays "Hey Nineteen")
MT: Some critics have said that using all those outside studio musicians takes away all the excitement of rock and roll.
WB: Well, that's a critical point of view and has to do with the belief that the great rock and roll is made by some primeval swamp savages mysteriously equipped with electric guitars.
DF: Who all live together.
WB- Right, they crawl out of the marsh and they can hardly speak any English and they come in and record "Hound Dog" and that kind of thing, which is not true. A surprising number of your rock and roll records that people think of as being groups are actually the same studio musicians.
DF: They bring in firemen if they need'em.
WB: I mean studio musicians are studio musicians in the first place because of their tremendous facility as musicians, by and large.
DF: And also when we work with these musicians, they know they're not gonna get a three chord commercial for "Uncle Ben's Rice" or something. They're gonna have some challenging progressions and some interesting rhythms to play and they know we're looking for an atmosphere for each tune. We're looking for them to come up with parts to cooperate with us, help us with the arrangement and take part in the making of the record, and because of that, they do a bang-up job which they probably don't do all day long 'cause they work nine hours a day. As long as we're together -- just the two of us -- and we don't have a working band, we're never going to have the kind of unified group sound that say The Band had for those years, or The Rolling Stones. It's a different kind of thing and I think we accept that. I think we look to our writing and arranging to keep a unified style 'cause we don't have a band.
(Plays "Time Out Of Mind")
WB: I never doubted this sort of thing would catch on...
DF: No, musically we're working with basic pop song forms, though we may distort them, they're still basic forms that are derived from a balanced structure that people have been listening to for years. The popular songs of the '30s and '40s, we use those structures and I guess that was originally derived from sonata form or something, and basically you have two themes, one which is repeated several times in a recapitulation and so on. We're pretty traditional as far as that goes and I think that's the reason for the popularity of it, aside from, of course, our own doubtful genius.
WB: It can't be all sweetness and light either. I'd like to go on record as saying that. I think by combining disparate elements, we often come up with something that'll appeal to a lot of people.
DF: We like to use something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
WB: In B flat.
(Plays "FM" to close)
Last modified on Sun Mar 16 20:12:23 1997