Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, co-founders of Steely Dan, wrote life's soundtrack for anyone who attended college in the 1970s. Their music was adored by dorm-bound jazz heads who sought contemporary music but didn't want to give up the sound of horns and an acoustic piano. In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I interview Mr. Fagen, catching up with him just before the start of Steely Dan's world tour last Saturday. My outtakes from our conversation are below.
In addition to original melody lines, slinky riffs and sophisticated harmonies, Steely Dan's appeal rests heavily in Fagen and Becker's lyrics. They are complex and random, in a poetic way. At times, lines seem joined just for the sake of hearing them bang against each other, like row boats roped close together.
Steely Dan's music hits jazz fans particularly hard. This may be due partly to the '70s cutlure, when jazz was played too loud and too fast by many fusion artists. The music also tends to be personal. Back then, you owned something called a stereo. Which usually meant a receiver, turntable and a pair of heavy speakers, You had to burn the plastic ends of cables to expose the wire to attach your speakers. You also needed to know how to balance your turntable's tonearm once the cartridge was attached. And then there were the many milk crates of LPs—heavy and highly organized. Music at college was a physical experience, and you were intimately involved with the records you owned.
Steely Dan was part of that scene for those who cared about music. Fagen and Becker's recording technique was pinpoint sharp, and a good stereo system teased out all of the texture. But for years, most people had no idea what Donald Fagen or Walter Becker looked like—or whether Steely Dan had a consistent band personnel. They never toured, and were reportedly highly introverted—the equivalent today, I suppose, of computer hackers.
When I told friends of a certain age a few weeks ago that I had interviewed Donald Fagen, their email answers were remarkably similar: "Fagen? A God. So envious." For years I've wanted to tell Mr. Fagen how much I appreciated Aja and how it got me through the Boston Blizzard of '78. I finally had that chance a couple of weeks ago. Talk about closure.
Here are the outtakes from my Wall Street Journal interview with the 63-year-old Donald Fagen:
Marc Myers: Sorry to hear about the passing of Roger Nichols [pictured], your long-time engineer. For the average listener, what did he bring to your albums?
Donald Fagen: Thank you. Roger was able to execute the kind of production we were looking for in terms of sound. From the beginning in the early 1970s, Walter and I were looking for the hi-fidelity sound that you didn’t hear too much in rock music at the time. Roger was familiar with the jazz records that Walter and I used to listen to growing up. Roger taught us about recording—what mikes to use and so on. The ideal engineer for all of us was Rudy Van Gelder. The technique he used was simple but not that easy to get down in a studio. A studio isn’t live. It’s kind of dry and clear. [Photo at top of Roger Nichols by Ashlee Nichols]
MM: Who specifically named the band after a sex toy?
DF: It was a spur of the moment thing in '72. We needed a name quickly. They had an album cover made up, and Walter and I were both fans of William Burroughs. We would have come up with something else but we went with it. Now, of course, we’re stuck with it. I like it, though. It’s a good name. We weren’t trying to shock or anything. In those days you didn’t think much about those things. It's not like today, where every inside joke is immediately exposed.
MM: Do you see a lot of people under age 45 at your concerts?
DF: We don’t care as long as people come [laughs]. We’re sort of free of audience influence. We want everyone to have a good time. We figure that the both of us are our ideal fans and figure that they’re going to like what we like. Who says audiences know more than we do about what’s good?
MM: Did you have music training before or after Bard College?
DF: I took some piano lessons but I trained myself by ear. I did it the way jazz musicians used to learn—by slowing down jazz records and playing along until you figured out what they were doing. At first I used to imitate Red Garland [pictured]. Of course, I never achieved that level. Then I listened to Bud Powell and Bill Evans. I liked Horace Silver but not a lot. I was so snobby in high school. I didn’t like funky jazz that much. I never bought Blue Note records. I thought Alfred Lion had too much influence over the music that was being played and recorded. Now, of course, I like those albums.
MM: Do you and Walter Becker still care what each other thinks?
DF: We’ve had our moments. Between 1980 and 1985, we split up. The break wasn’t really anything personal. We just ran out of steam. A few years later we started writing again. Our relationship is based on entertaining ourselves.
MM: Which poets did you read?
DF: In high school I was heavy into W.B. Yeats. I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Yeats. I read all of his works. I also liked William Blake. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I had older cousins who were jazz fans and sort of beatniks. I’d see these slim volumes of Ferlinghetti's laying around their house and I’d pick them up.
MM: How do you come up with such imaginative word combos in your lyrics?
DF: It’s mostly intuitive. I grew up in New Jersey and traveled into New york a lot. I went to public school, and the way kids used to talk got into the songs. It's demotic slang. Walter and I enjoy making up our own slang. We'd make up slang advertising slogans.
MM: For example?
DF: For example, in Josie [from Aja], a street gang uses a weapon called a "battle apple." I don't know what that is, but it sounded better than anything else we could come up with.
MM: What else did you read?
DF: Walter and I enjoyed reading science fiction as kids. Writers like Alfred Bester, Fredric Brown and Robert Heinlein. They were mainly writing satire under the guise of science fiction. They created this alternate reality that's sort of like this one. They all had a sense of humor. Frederic Brown, Theodore Sturgeon and Frederik Pohl also were great science fiction writers. Cyril Kornbluth, too. They got you to think expansively.
MM: Was Horace Silver a major influence?
DF: How do you mean?
MM: I hear Peg in Outlaw and Aja in Moon Rays. Or am I hearing things?
DF: Interesting. There was no thought of that.
MM: What about the intro to Rikki Don't Lose That Number and Silver's Song for My Father?
DF: There was never a conscious thought about picking up Horace Silver's intro. We wrote this Brazilian bass line and when drummer Jim Gordon heard it, he played his figures. As for the piano line, I think I had heard it on an old Sergio Mendes album. Maybe that's where Horace heard it, too [laughs].
MM: Do you still enjoy Woody Herman’s Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow from 1978?
DF: Very much. We were invited to the session back then, and it was a lot of fun meeting Woody and the guys in his band. I thought the charts of our songs were smart.
MM: Among rock musicians, you have perhaps the strongest affinity for jazz and jazz musicians. Is it the outcast thing?
DF: Being an outcast is secondary. The primary motive is the music and freedom. Walter and I started out as hardcore jazz fans. When we were growing up, there were still late-night radio shows. Walter and I were both insomniacs. We'd find these jazz shows on the radio and go into them. We were 10 or 11 years old.
MM: What were you listening to in the late '50s?
DF: I was buying Chuck Berry records at the time—or I had my mother buy them for me. Around the time rock went vanilla I discovered all these radio shows. So I gave all my rock records to my younger sister and only listened to jazz. I loved the mystique of the nighttime radio scene. You’d see these pictures of Coltrane, Monk and Miles—these dark blue photos on album covers. After a while I subscribed to Down Beat. When I was 13 or 14, my cousin started to get me into the Village Vanguard, where I saw Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Count Basie and so many others. [Owner] Max [Gordon] got to know me and let me sit near the drums and nurse a Coke.
MM: What about a Donald Fagen jazz album?
DF: I’ve always thought of my style as quirky. I always thought I could do something the way Thelonious Monk does, where he has his own eccentric way of improvising that wouldn't require great speed. But it seems the more I practice, the worse I get. I started late, and muscles and reflexes don't develop properly. Fingers four and five don't work so well. [Photo of Thelonious Monk by Herb Snitzer]
MM: You're married to Libby Titus. What’s it like for two Type-A songwriters to be married to each other? Do you fight over the piano?
DF: [Laughs] Libby got out of music years ago to produce. She was producing some live shows in small venues when we met. She's no longer producing.
MM: I wonder why her albums are no longer in print? They're quite good.
DF: Yeah, I think so.
MM: Your upcoming tour schedule looks like a triathlon. Is touring as arduous as it looks?
DF: At this point I’m used to traveling. We travel well. We have a chartered plane for a lot of it. And nice hotels. I’m 63, so I get tired. On these tours, you tend to do a lot of sleeping. You don’t go back the hotel and cut loose.
MM: Sometimes you don’t seem comfortable on stage. Is it boredom? Stage fright?
DF: I’ve never been comfortable as a lead performer. I never wanted to be a singer particularly. But we couldn’t find anyone to be the lead singer who had the right attitude to put over the material. We tried. At one point we asked Loudon Wainwright [pictured] but he was underwhelmed by the idea. The music needs that smirky feel. I just do it without thinking.
MM: From the creator’s standpoint, what makes Aja magical?
DF: That’s for the listeners to decide. We just make ‘em.
MM: But isn't there something special there?
DF: The only thing I can say is that we used a lot of session musicians then. We were hiring session musicians who we thought were right for the material. Right around that time, in the mid-‘70s, there was a style change, a paradigm shift, in the way session musicians were playing. Younger players had started to add more jazz flavored stuff in their playing. In the early days, it was hard to find a player who was familiar with r&b's backbeat and could negotiate jazz harmony with ease. And a jazz player tended to play much looser than we required. But by the mid-‘70s, there were players like Steve Gadd and Larry Carlton who could do both. They had no trouble playing jazz chords and also had a very rhythmic sense.
MM: Aja is very much a jazz album.
DF: Well, I don’t really label them. When I think of jazz, I think of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The change in our sound had to do with the musicians we were using more than what we were doing.
MM: What haven’t you ever told anyone before about the album Aja?
DF: Wow. Well, I know that halfway through we decided we wanted to go back to NY and do some tracks with some of the people we knew in the city. We felt that although there were great musicians in L.A., we were missing a little bit of soul from the days we were doing New York sessions. Half the album was done in L.A. and half was done in New York. We brought Larry Carlton [pictured] back with us to New York to supervise. Other than Larry, we used New York players. It gave the album soul. We were able to use Paul Griffin and Don Grolnick on keyboards and engineer Elliot Scheiner—guys we knew from the early days. Also drummers like Rick Marotta and Bernard Purdie.
MM: You seem to take special pleasure in singing Hey Nineteen. Why?
DF: I know the audience likes it, and also it’s maybe a little simpler than our other stuff. It’s easy to sing. I don’t have to think about it that much. By the way—getting back to something you said earlier—if I seem uncomfortable on stage, it’s because I am. Not being a trained singer—I mean, I have had some coaching over the years—In order to sing what’s not the easiest stuff to sing, because I’m basically singing a lot of horn lines and stuff like that. I have to really concentrate. You know, I’d really rather be playing in a way. But I’ve come to enjoy the singing part as well.
MM: You seem to be playing different characters up there.
DF: Everyone has a stage persona. It’s hard to escape that. I don’t really have an act. That’s just it. Sort of what you see is what you get. I sort of have to psychologically prepare myself to not give a shit—what I look like and so on. Then I just go out and do it. That’s just it. I just grew up that way. I can’t help it.
MM: In your band, is Michael Leonhart related to the jazz bass player Jay Leonhart?
DF: Yes, Michael is his son. We have two of his children in our band. Michael is the trumpet player and his sister Carolyn [pictured] is one of our singers.
MM: Will the Steely Dan catalog finally be remastered with today's technology? What’s holding it up?
DF: You got me. They don’t really communicate with me. As the years go by, you kind of lose touch with that stuff. We have always been very careful with the mastering process.
MM: But you’d be open to it now?
DF: Yeah, sure.
There are three solid instrumental albums of Steely Dan's music: No Static at All (various artists), The Hoops McCann Band Plays the Music of Steely Dan and Woody Herman's Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow.
JazzWax clip: Here's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker performing FM...