Part two of the interview records feature deals with two promotional appearances Donald made soon after the release of "The Nightfly." The first one took place in London with the BBC's Trevor Dann. For "Off The Record" he was interviewed by Mary Turner.
DF: Well, after 14 years of writing and recording together, Walter and I decided to more or less take a vacation from each other and do some separate projects. I had a few ideas for some solo albums and Walter's doing some production work for Warner Bros. We kind of left it open as to whether or not we get together again -- maybe a year or two down the line, who knows?
TD: Are you still in contact with one another, because for a time you lived very close?
DF: Yeah, we lived in the same building until recently. Yeah, I talked to him about a month ago and he's fine. We talk.
TD: Did you feel by the time you recorded Gaucho that the band was running out of steam, that you needed a new challenge?
DF: Yeah, I think that both Walter and I both thought that album lacked a little spark that maybe some of the previous ones had, and that's I guess another reason whywe thought it would be a good idea to refresh ourselves by doing some different kinds of things.
TD: What do you think the American public has made of the demise of Steely Dan? Are they disappointed that you may not work together again?
DF: I don't know, because first of all I don't do that much traveling around America. I'm mainly based in New York City, except if i go on vacation or something. I don't really get that much feedback. I think because many of the same elements are present in this album as on Steely Dan records -- I mean, it's my voice and the jazz harmonies are there -- at least musically it's not too much of a breakthrough. I guess it's kind of a continuation along the same tradition.
TD: Was the concept something that you felt you couldn't do within the Steely Dan format or was it in any sense provoked by the split?
DF: I don't know if it was provoked by the split. For some years, I've had the idea of doing a somewhat autobiographical type of albu, so I think it was more personal and subjective and therefore I think it was onloy proper that I do it myself, since I was basically drawing on my own experiences and so on, but it just seemed like because of the subject matter I should do it by myself.
Plays "New Frontier"
TD: All the songs seem to be about your life as a teenager in the New Jersey of the 1950s.
DF: Yeah, well, I'm 34 now and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician, and in exploring that I started thinking about the late '50s and early '60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm-and-blues and that kind of music, and that's the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late night radio and hipster culture connected with jazz and late night radio and hipster culture and all those things which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. That's basically what the album is about, that theme runs through most all of the songs.
TD: Tell me some more about this boring suburb -- it doesn't sound much like the Bruce Springsteen New Jersey.
DF: Well, actually, it was quite near there. It's a bit more inland, I think he lived in Atlantic City which is on the ocean, but I lived, well for at least part of the time, in one of those prefab-type developments where all the houses look exactly the same and it was quite boring really. There wasn't much to do. Of course, in the late '50s generally American culture was not popping; it was kind of a dull scene and to me jazz and black music in general had a vitality that I was missing in real life and it seemed more real to me than my life. It was a great escape for me.
TD: This escapism you talk about most eloquently on the title track which seems to be about a late night DJ.
DF: I created a character, the Nightfly, who's one of those late night jazz jocks broadcasting out of Manhattan, and he's sort of a compilation of a number of disc jockeys that I used to listen to when I was a kid. There was one called Symphony Sid, Mort Fega and a few other colorful characters who would broadcast out of Manhattan.
TD: Symphony Sid had a song written about him, didn't he?
DF: That's right, a very famous song that was his theme song. I think a lot of people know it, I think it was done by -- well, I can't remember the tenor player who did it, but a rather famous...
TD: It's just recently been redone by Joe Jackson. Jumping With Symphony Sid.
DF: Oh, really, I didn't know that. Yeah, well, he was one of the guys I listened to and there were a number of other ones. There was also a very famous monologist who didn't play music but had a kind of jazz-style rap, named Gene Shepherd, who is quite famous in the States. All these disc jockeys were on late at night and there was a whole atmosphere about them which I considered very romantic and after a while I developed a very romantic image of what these disc jockeys were like -- the studios they were broadcasting out of and it all basically went along with the kind of music they played.
Plays "The Nightfly"
TD: Donald, it seems that you were more influenced in this period by the jazz than rock and roll. Now that might seem strange because the rock and roll scene was still quite active in the late '50s, wasn't it?
DF: Yeah, well when I was quite young I used to buy Chuck Berry and Fats Domino records, but when I was about 11 or 12 I discovered jazz and I guess simultaneously rock became, I guess, a bit more commercial and I sensed that the vitality had switched to jazz. 'Course the jazz scene in the late '50s was particularly active: there were great musicians like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk all making really classic records so it grabbed my interest, so that's what I listened to at the time.
TD: What was the particular reason for doing Ruby Baby?
DF: I thought that the lyrics to Ruby especially had a certain naivete or innocence which fit in with the teenager's or child's viewpoint that I was trying to present on the record.
TD: Did you go back and listen to the original versions before you recorded your own?
DF: Yeah, well, that version I had was kind of a spinoff of the Drifters' version and I took that as a jumping off point to do a big rhythm and blues party arrangement, but yeah, I did listen to quite a few things from the '50s just to get a general atmosphere of the times in addition to what I could remember about the period.
Plays "Ruby Baby."
TD: How long did it take to record?
DF: For instance, this album took about eight months to write and then altogether about eight months to record. It does take a long time -- we pay special attention to the technical side of things, making sure everything is recorded properly. This album was done on a digital machine which is very state-of-the-art sound and actually being quite new they break down quite a bit, and that also added to the length of time that it tooks to make the album.
TD: I read somewhere a story about you and Rick Derringer recording a session for Gaucho. Now he, as we know, is one of the great session guitarist and apparently you had him there for hours on end recording one solo and in the end didn't use it because there was one or two notes out of place each time. Is that true?
DF: Occasionally a musician will come in and either he'll be having an off night or perhaps there's a stylistic mismatch, which is basically my fault, I guess, if I didn't consider that in the beginning. But most of the musicians who come in appear on the albums and generally they like playing on these albums because most session musicians' daily work is not all that exciting. They play for a lot of commercials and records which may not be the most interesting things to work on, so when they come to our sessions because we have, I guess, somewhat more interesting music to play on, most of them like it quite a bit.
TD: So when you get a Larry Carlton or Michael Brecker or Rick Derringer in the studio do you want them to play the dots or express themselves?
DF: The basic rhythm tracks are prearranged, in other words they're charted and they read the dots and the little lines, but if there's a solo I basically give the musicians a free hand and they just improvise.
TD: Now IGY is an unusual title for a song. What's the background to IGY?
DF: IGY was basically 1958 and, of course, in the States at that time there was great emphasis on technology and what technology held for the future and kids were encouraged to go into the science industries and all that. Since then we've learned that there are disadvantages to many of these new technologies, but the idea of IGY was basically a child's view of what the future would be like looking from the vantage point of 1958.
TD: For a long time now your lyrics have reflected a perceptive but ironic view of life and The Nightfly is no exception. A song like IGY is typical of your style, I think.
DF: Well, it is difficult at this point for me to write with a total lack of irony, but I did try to give a fairly honest viewpoint of what a kid thought about the future at that time. As I said, many of the things that we were told in those days that would come about because of technology didn't really pan out. Therefore I guess there's a bit of bitterness there, too.
TD: Talking of the technology, you are an accomplished keyboard player, synthesizer player...
DF: That's a matter of some opinion.
TD: (laughing) ... well, that's my opinion. But you don't see to have experimented very much -- certainly compared with European keyboard players -- with the new technological facilities which are available. Are you excited by all that?
DF: Yeah, actually we do use rather sophisticated equipment. I think our goals are a little bit different. Several of the tunes on this album were done for instance with drum sequencing equipment. What we try to do, though, is to make it sound as musical as possible. I'm not that interested in that very metronomic, mechanical type of sound, so we do use the equipment, it's just the objectives are different.
TD: I wondered what you might think of the European electronic music -- Kraftwerk, but more particularly the English bands who are beginning to makes waves in America -- Human League, Yazoo?
DF: I think it's quite interesting. I think because of my orientation some of the things sound a bit static both rhythmically and as far as chord motion goes, that is to say, they tend to hang on one chord in the standard funk style, and I like to be more intellectually engaged by the chord movement, and so on, which is part of the jazz tradition. So some of the things don't interest me as much as they might if they were even more experimental harmonically.
TD: How would you react to the criticism of your music which is expressed -- that it is too intellectual, too perfect?
DF: Well, we always tried to deal with subjects that aren't usually addressed in pop music, and I don't really think of them as being particularly cerebral or intellectual, but I guess they are a bit more literary, more like short stories than pop songs. On the other hand, a lot of the music I listen to at home -- and I think a lot of more enduring music -- is of much more innocent type. Old rhythm and blues also appeals to me quite a bit.
TD: Let's hear one of the more interesting lyrics on the album. Is there a hint of the Bay of Pigs in The Goodbye Look?
DF: I don't think specifically the Bay of Pigs, but it does take place in one of those Caribbean nations that were going through upheaval in the late '50s, I guess it's one that I made up, but it is similar to a lot of the actual historical things that were going on at that time.
TD: Before we hear this song -- and it is a clever lyric -- do the lyrics -- and I know this is a very obvious question to ask anybody who writes lyrics and music -- but do you write the words first or the tunes?
DF: Usually I have an idea for a general theme, I then write the music and then fill in the details of the lyrics afterwards.
Plays "The Goodbye Look."
TD: Donald, you haven't played live since 1974. Is there any chance of you taking this solo stuff on the road?
DF: Very doubtful. I may do some local club work -- I've been thinking of it around the New York area -- but I doubt if there'll be any kind of grand tour. The road life doesn't really agree with me. I'd rather concentrate on making records and so on.
TD: You seem to be somebody who feels they belong in the studio. I have this vision of you hating to close the door on the studio behind you.
DF: Yeah, I like the studio a lot. It reminds me of my parents' living room in the suburbs, they all have wall-to-wall carpets, very much like the room we're sitting in right now, and there's something very womb-like and comforting about them.
TD: So what does the future hold apart from possibly a few gigs?
DF: I just did a short piece for a film. It's a Martin Scorsese film called King of Comedy. It's actually just an instrumental which is performed by David Sanborn, a very fine alto sax player. It was written by me and co-produced by myself and Gary Katz and I guess that'll be out some time in January. I have a few other film things, nothing firm, that I've been thinking about and when I get back to New York I'll start writing another solo album.
TD: You mentioned Gary Katz, I should have asked you. It seems strange for somebody who loves studios so much, and who's such a perfectionist, that you need a producer at all. What does he bring to the project?
DF: He acts in a way as another pair of ears to refer to if you're not sure if something's working or not and acts as an editor in some ways. He also takes care of a lot of the administrative work, booking musicians and we're also quite good friends, so it makes it a lot more fun.
TD: Let's listen to another track, Maxine. Tell me about this one.
DF: It's basically one of those lyrics about first love during teenage years. It's once again about living in the suburbs and finding escape through romance. I used a bit of Four Freshman style vocal harmony on this one.
TD: And is there a Maxine who's married now with three kids living somewhere?
DF: Her name might not have been Maxine, but it may have been based on someone.
TD: Donald Fagen, thank you very much.
Plays "Maxine" to close.