Since he began his fruitful collaboration with Walter Becker back at Bard College in 1968, Grammy award-winning musician Donald Fagen has steadily distinguished himself as one of the smartest and most imaginative contemporary songwriters. As Steely Dan, the innovative duo lays claim to an impressive catalog of hit singles that somehow manage to stay fresh despite their everlasting ubiquity on classic rock stations across America. For whatever reason, people still can't help cranking up the volume when My Old School comes on for the millionth time, to say nothing of indispensable classics like Caves of Altamira, Sign in Stranger, or the soulful Dr. Wu.
After some long "dark ages" without any live performances, Dan fans have been elated in recent years to find Fagen and Becker touring on a regular basis, now backed up by a rich eleven piece band. Tonight they kick off a six night stand at the Beacon Theatre with the Bill Charlap trio opening; ticket prices vary but are worth every penny.
It’s been about 40 years since you started working with Walter. Have you two done anything to commemorate the anniversary? Not really. You know, we went on tour. The band’s kind of an ongoing project and we’re always trying to improve it and we’re out on the road right now. We’ve done two shows so far on this tour, both in Florida, and the band sounds so great this year. We’re doing some things we never did before and it’s still a lot of fun. It’s amazing. I turned 60 in January and amazingly it’s still a lot of fun.
How is this tour different from the past few years? Well the good thing about the past couple years is that the band’s been together for a while so it’s really turned into a band; everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing, everyone grooves together. It’s also got a great spirit; some of the younger guys grew up listening to Steely Dan records. You don’t have to really say anything to anybody, they just know what to do. We try to keep it fresh and take some of the older things and rearrange them and do some of the new stuff we’ve put out on the last couple albums.
It’s been about five years since the last Steely Dan album. Is there any inclination to make another? Yeah, we’re talking about doing another album. We have some ideas. When we got into [the music business] it never had this careerist atmosphere that it does now. We were just college hippies trying to have some fun and make some interesting music and I think we basically have the same attitude toward it. We’ve never had any deadlines. When we have something we think is respectable enough to put out that’s when we do it. Now it’s like a job for people; that definitely wasn’t what we were looking for. We wanted to make a living, but basically we just wanted to have a band and make some records and it was all about quality and fun, you know? It was a different world, really. There wasn’t this whole phantasmagoria that we live in now.
So there’s going to be some sort of collaboration going on after the tour? Well, we’re just talking about songs, basically, and we have some ideas about musical direction. It’s very intuitive; we’ll know when we get back to town and start fooling around.
Do you have any theories about what’s made your collaboration with Walter so fruitful? We share a lot of the same interests. We met at Bard College in the late ‘60s and we were both jazz and blues fans as kids, which was kind of unusual at the time; I guess it still is. At the time there were a lot of different kinds of music and it was all novel at the time; soul music was basically invented when we were in high school and that grabbed our attention. And we just combined all those things into the kind of music that we like.
On the other hand, we were both also interested in literature. At the time, I guess we were of the generation that began what they used to call black humor, which they now just call humor. It was a kind of dark humor that was typical of the upcoming writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Bruce Jay Friedman and, on a more sophisticated level, Vladimir Nabokov, who was a big influence. We were both fans of those people and I guess our world view was kind of shaped by the subculture which we were a part of. Now the whole world sees everything the way we did back then, but at the time, coming out of the conformist ‘50s and so on, it was sort of unusual, I guess. But it’s not anymore.
There was a long period where Steely Dan existed as just a studio band and the impression was that you didn’t like playing live. I guess that’s changed? For a long time we had been trying to get a band together. And we finally got a record contract still without having a band, really. So we got together a bunch of guys we knew who were competent but we had never spent any time together. And when we went out on the road various problems developed. They were all very enthusiastic and had a lot of energy and all that and the band had all that going for it, but it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when we dreamed of starting a band. So after a couple albums we decided to let everyone go and employ studio musicians to try to realize what we had in mind. And that made it difficult to tour because studio musicians for the most part didn’t want to go out on the road. And we ended up just making records.
The first couple nights at the Beacon will be opened by Bill Charlap. Yeah, rather than get someone we don’t really know - especially since we don’t know too much about popular music anymore anyway - we’re taking it as a great opportunity to have some jazz musicians come on and open. Bill played with us in the studio a couple times and he’s going to open. And we have the Sam Yahel Organ Trio opening for us in the south and a few other places. There are some other jazz artists opening on the west coast too. I think it’s good; a lot of people over the years told me they started listening to jazz because they starting hearing some jazz artists soloing on our records. So I think it’s a good thing to do.
My older brother is one of the many fans always hoping to hear Dr. Wu live. Why has that become such a rarity? We tried it out in sound check a couple times last year and it sounded okay. It’s mainly that I don’t like the way it feels on stage. I think a lot of those songs have aged really well and aren’t dated at all. And if the words still seem relevant in some way or can be recast to make some kind of sense, we rearrange it - if the music seems dated. That tune feels dated to me and it’s difficult for me to sing if I feel, you know, that it’s not There’s something about the curve of the song that doesn’t work dramatically on stage for me.
Do you have any pre-show rituals? Not really, no. We don’t pray in a circle or sacrifice virgins or anything like that. Basically it’s a routine. I was a little nervous coming out to do the first show because we have some new songs we hadn’t done before. And I’m a little nervous about talking to the audience and that kind of stuff; Walter helps with that because I have a lot of anxiety about that. But it worked out okay and it seems like we’re getting in the groove now.
I was surprised to see more than one Bush/Cheney bumper sticker in the Jones Beach parking lot when you played there with Michael McDonald. I was surprised because I had a different impression of Steely Dan’s fan base. Do you have any sense of who comes to see you guys? I really don’t. I have no idea about the political make up or anything. I know a lot of them are really loyal, I can tell that from the audience reaction. But I don’t like to visit the fan sites because there’s something creepy about the whole thing to me. I remember when I was a kid I was a big jazz fan and later on there were a few popular singers and groups I liked but I was always interested in the music; I never made a fetish out of their personal lives. I never really got that, you know? I appreciate whatever they do to keep the interest in the band and all that sort of thing but it’s really not part of my world.
You’re playing in Georgia tomorrow. Can we expect more open letters from the Chicorydee Inn? [Laughs.] Those things just seem to happen; we don’t really plan them. We’ll have to see once we’re on the road longer. Those things come out of being bored in hotel rooms and on planes. We’ll have to see if we can get into some trouble later in the summer.
Did you ever hear from Wes Anderson on your soundtrack suggestions for The Darjeeling Limited? No, but Owen Wilson did make a public reply that was very elegant and funny. Nothing from Wes Anderson. I actually suggested to Walter that we start doing little critical monographs on other directors but he thought it would be too repetitive. And I understand; I don’t like format either. Once you start getting into a format you get stuck sometimes. But I was ready to start giving advice out all over the place to various artists. I think we’ll come up with some other crazy thing instead.
Did you end up seeing The Darjeeling Limited? I did see part of it in a hotel where we were staying and the part I saw was pretty dull. I didn’t see the whole thing. Generally speaking I like Wes Anderson, though.
At the beginning of the year you released a box set of your three solo albums. When you did the first one did you already have a trilogy in mind? No, but as I was finishing The Nightfly, it occurred to me that it was the first part of something.
In hindsight, what themes do you think you were exploring in these three albums? Whenever I’ve lived through enough, or lived long enough, I tend to collect enough songs that basically show the few years that I’ve lived through. They tend to cover ten or twelve year segments. The first one was kind of about being a teenager, really. I made it when I was in my thirties looking back toward adolescence. I wrote the second one when I was forty-something, and it was basically looking at the ten years previous. And Morph the Cat, also, looked at the recent years. It’s basically about three phases of life. Some might see it as a pretentious thing to do with CDs or record albums or whatever they call them now, but why not?
Some artists release work on a regular basis; it seems like your output is more irregular. Why do you think that is? A lot of it has to do with the fact that during that time I was making Steely Dan records, which I’ve always seen as my main gig. And that’s a whole different thing because it’s a collaborative project. And the other thing is that I just don’t make an album until I collect enough songs. And I guess I have to live for a while before I have enough to say. Luckily I haven’t had to put out albums just to make money, having had this backlog of royalties from the Steely Dan albums from the ‘70s. That gave the leeway to just look at it as a bona fide artistic enterprise. It’s a labor of love kind of thing.
You reside in New York, right? Yeah, both of us basically live in New York.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the real estate market has been forcing a lot of beloved places to close. I think that’s a shame, but that’s been happening for a while. New York City is becoming an enclave of the rich. The transformation from when I was young has made it into another city. There’s not much left of the New York that I knew. It’s become part of the phantasmagorical world I was speaking of previously.
It seems like it's becoming more and more suburbanized and losing more of its character at a faster rate. Yeah, well it’s become kind of this virtual world. We more or less live in a virtual reality now, made up of images and bits of brainwash that have congealed over the years. And that’s what life’s become, unfortunately. It’s very hard to find anything real; it’s hard to find a crevice to get a handhold these days. But, nevertheless: Excelsior! We march on.