Donald Fagen: I guess writing is my strongest suit and if I have a self-image that'd be the first thing I'd say. When Walter and I started Steely Dan we had been looking for a singer for years and never came up with one. Since I was the only one who could sing in tune that responsibility was given over to me, and I've continued to do it. Basically, I enjoy the writing end of it more.
MT: I'm sure you've heard this a dozen times before but the album sounds very Steely Dannish. What was Walter's contribution to Steely Dan?
DF: Walter and I developed the sound together over the years. I think I learned a lot from him and vice versa. I don't think there would be any way to separate how much of the style came from either of us at this point. Also, the album has many of the same musicians and my voice so obviously there's not that much difference until you start looking at some of the details. Basically, it's the same sound.
MT: Will you work with Walter again?
DF: We sort of left it open. How this album came about is after 14 years we just decided we needed a vacation from each other and I also had this idea to make an album that had a specific concept which would necessitate doing it by myself, since it was vaguely autobiographical. We left it open, we'll see what happens.
MT: The concept is ... well, let's examine the liner notes. It's about someone of your general height, weight and build who grew up in a city close to where you might have lived.
DF: (chuckling) It was cute when I wrote it.
MT: Did you ever want to be a DJ?
DF: I don't know if I ever wanted to be a DJ. I admired DJs, especially jazz jocks who came to me from Manhattan. I lived about 50 miles away -- these jazz jocks were very romantic figures to me. They would fill the night with the kind of music that I liked and they talked in these what later became FM-style voices, very slow, cool, reassuring and it was kind of a lifeline to urban life to someone living out in suburbia in New Jersey. I spent a lot of time listening to the radio, at night especially.
MT: You said the LP is autobiographical. Were all the songs written in the last year or so?
DF: I started thinking about the reasons why I became a musician and looked back to that time in the late '50s and early '60s when my attitudes were being formed -- the whole jazz/hipster ethic in general. I sort of came upon this figure of late night jazz jockey to represent the ethos of the period, built all the songs around that and tried to look at the world from a kid's point of view in the '50s and '60s.
MT: How does a young kid get into jazz? It seems like jazz was one of your primary influences. You and I are about the same age. And I remember tuning into Hot Rod.
DF: Where are you from?
MT: I grew up in Baltimore. But jazz wasn't even in my circle of knowledge.
DF: I think there was a minority of kids who listened to jazz. That same minority had a lot of other likes from many of the other kids -- it has to do with the kind of books your ready and hipster ethic, and it's quite a complicated subject actually. I was one of those kids and jazz, science fiction, Jack Kerouac and all these totems of the late '50s were very important to me when I was growing up. It gave me a sense of identity which was in contrast with the rather bland world -- at least, that's the way I perceived it -- that I grew up in.
MT: The first single is IGY. How'd you find out about International Geophysical Year?
DF: Well, I lived through that. IGY was 1958 and this was a worldwide project, and it had a lot to do with the emphasis on science and technology in schools at the time. International Geophysical Year was stressed to students as an example of how science and technology could change the world. I tried to give a kid's-eye view of how the world looked at the time through that filter of science and technology. 'Course, some of the things in that song came true, some didn't. For instance, anyone can get a Spandex jacket...
MT: Ninety minutes, New York to Paris?
DF: Yeah, that never happened. The undersea railway to Paris. But who knows what the future holds? Maybe any day now they'll start that project.
MT: Do you like recording as well as writing?
DF: Actually, I've slowly been losing my interest in the writing and recording aspects. As soon as I get the idea I feel like I should be finished somehow and the rest is basically a job, filling in the blanks. Periods of recording are often punctuated by great performances by musicians, which gives you the impetus to keep going.
MT: Do you think the time will come when musicians won't be needed, but one master synthesist could replace a band or even a whole symphony?
DF: Yeah, that happens already. When people who make commercials found out about synthesizers, this was like VJ day for them. They could get one guy with expertise in synthesis and he could sit there and do the whole thing himself. I think Van Gelis does whole scores for movies with a battery of synths in a recording studio, which is a problem you don't see addressed very often because it does displace musicians. It's become quite a problem for studio musicians, because a synthesizer can replace instruments.
MT: I'll bet the Musicians' Union will be jumping on the bandwagon pretty quickly.
DF: Yeah, they have these discussions about it, but there's not much they can do because a producer can always say, "I didn't want a string sound, I wanted a string-like sound," because he has creative license to do whatever he wants. There's no way to determine when a musician's being displaced, so they have these talks at the Musicians' Union where they bring in a few producers and they both give their point of view but nothing's ever resolved and I don't see how the union can get what they want as far as this goes. It's a difficult problem, though; it is a problem for a lot of studio musicians who don't get the calls that they used to.
MT: You weren't planning to be a musician professionally at this time, were you?
DF: No, actually it wasn't until I was in college that I decided to be a musician. For one thing, the type of music that I liked I wasn't quite good enough at. I really admired jazz musicians and wanted to be a jazz musician, but some of us are cut out for that and some of us aren't. I just didn't have the technique, although it's improved a lot over the years. I still don't think I could quite cut it in the rarefied place where jazz musicians live. You have to be quite a fine musician, but I brought what I knew to the music. There are some compensatory factors. Technique isn't everything.
MT: Are you going to do any kind of video for this album?
DF: I'm not going to be in a video, but there's two very talented English animators who are doing an animation to New Frontier.
MT: Oh, I'll look forward to seeing that, that'll be neat. How about TV appearances or anything else?
DF: No, I'm too scared. I think I'll pass on that, actually. I've been asked to go on a couple of shows but I just ... too much pressure.
MT: It is kind of scary.
DF: There's millionsof people looking at you. Also, as you can tell from this radio interview, I tend to let a lot of dead air go by. You have to have a certain amount of training and professionalism or else be a natural raconteur to feel comfortable on television.
MT: But that's a hard dichotomy because you are a performer.
DF: Yeah, but that's very controlled, though. No time limit, no dead air problem -- it doesn't have to be spontaneous. I just feel uncomfortable in those kinds of situations.
MT: I don't blame you, I'm just thinking of people who've bought your record...
DF: Yeah, that's a problem. I'll have to try and think of some kind of alternative media, I guess.
MT: You could hire a ringer.
DF: That's true, I could get Richard Gere or someone to impersonate me. I'll make a good impression.
MT: Maybe Warren Zevon.
DF: Yeah, or Warren Zevon.
MT: Stardom is something that's never even tantalized you at all, I get the impression?
DF: No, there's a lot of disadvantages to being in the public eye. A lot of responsibility. I just tend to avoid that kind of thing.
MT: It seems to be the motivation for so many people.
DF: That's true, you know. Coming from a jazz tradition, to me the music has always been thing most important thing. Jazz musicians, especially in the late '50s, rather more cerebral musicians like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were very idealistic people and they were my idols when I was young. To them, the music was the most important thing and though my music is quite commercial, I still have retained that feeling about the music being the most important thing and some of the other perks don't interest me.
MT: I'm real disappointed that you're not going to tour.
DF: Yeah, well, we can go to Chinatown and tour Chinatown.
MT: Ok, all right. Let's go.