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Steely Dan

The Steely Dan Interview: Paul Cashmere Talks To Donald Fagen

By Paul Cashmere
Sun, 08 Apr 2007 02:54:41 +1000

1n 1972, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, a couple of college friends who had been playing around in various bands, decided to form their own group. The name they chose was Steely Dan. It was a joke name. It came from the term for a dildo in the William Burroughs book 'Naked Lunch'. Becker and Fagen thought it was funny. Afterall, every other band they had been in only lasted a few months, so it wasn't as if the joke would last forever. Or was it? Steely Dan became one of the most successful acts on the planet, and here they are 35 years later and still called Steely Dan.

Of course, the band name now has smothered the terms original meaning. Steely Dan now means some of the most innovative music ever made.

The jazz influences of Becker and Fagen intertwined with the most vibrate era in music and Steely Dan produced bona-fide hits which today still stand up as some of the greatest moments ever in rock.

Look down the list of their hits - 'Do It Again', 'Reeling In The Years', 'Hey Nineteen', 'Peg', 'FM', 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' and 'Josie' are still played every single day on radio, 30 years after they were first recorded.

For 2007, Becker and Fagen have decided to take Steely Dan back on the road and for the first time ever, tour the planet.

This means Australia is about to get its very first taste of Steely Dan on home ground.

In a lead-up to the announcement of the tour, Donald Fagen spoke with Undercover founder Paul Cashmere.

Paul Cashmere: This is the first time to Australia for Steely Dan. I should start by localizing the interview and talk about a town called Muswellbrook which is mentioned in your song 'Black Friday'. That was recorded some 30 years ago and on this tour you will be playing right there in the Hunter Valley. 'Black Friday' was about the end of the world.

Donald Fagen: I think we had a map and put our finger down at the place that we thought would be the furthest away from New York or wherever we were at the time. That was it.

PC: And hence Muswellbrook made the lyrics of a famous American song. It's great to see Steely Dan touring in the 21st Century. This really is a true world tour you are about to embark on. It's the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.

DF: Yeah, we've done Europe before but we have never been to Australia.

PC: Touring was rare for Steely Dan after 1974. What was behind the decision at that time to become a studio band?

DF: It was a combination of things. We had been on the road for a couple of years. Touring in the 70s was a lot more uncomfortable than it is now. Sound systems weren't so good. That was very frustrating. For the first year we were on the road we were mostly opening for heavy metal bands. You didn't have control of the sound system and a lot of times you didn't get much of a sound-check. Our band was thrown together pretty quickly. The band did have a lot of energy. We had a lot of fun playing together. Personal problems developed pretty quickly. It just wasn't that great of a touring situation so we decided to do what we most wanted to do. Get our compositions on record and write music.

PC: For this tour you will be including solo works from yourself and also Walter's solo album.

DF: Yeah, we are going to try to throw everything in there. Last year we were touring with Michael McDonald opening. He used to be in our band in the 70s so we were doing a lot of stuff together. A lot of his audience was there. We were doing mainstream stuff and hits and stuff. This year we are going to try and mix it up with album cuts, some of our own stuff and have some fun.

PC: You've done your solo albums including the recent and brilliant 'Morph The Cat'. Congratulations on that record.

DF: Thanks a lot.

PC: Do you have a different philosophy when recording a Donald Fagen solo album as opposed to a Steely Dan record?

DF: Yeah, I try to bar Walter from the studio. That's a joke, that's a joke (laughs). Its actually very much the same although I think it is the same when Walter does an album on his own. The songs tend to be a little more personal and less journalistic than when we work together. It is possible that the keyboards are featured more. I guess I think more from the point of view of the keyboard when he's not there.

PC: It mildly amused me that when Walter did his solo album '11 Tracks of Whack' you were the producer. It was Steely Dan anyway.

DF: Also on my second album 'Kamakiriad' Walter was producing. When we produce each other it is more that we are trying to get what we want.

PC: For radio people of which I was one for many years, the origins of the name Steely Dan were very much talked about. How easy was it to decide on the name of a band based on the term for a dildo?

DF: At the time we had been in a number of bands that lasted anywhere from three days to a couple of months. We figured that it was just another name that we were going to use that would probably never be noticed by the public at large. It was really a kind of a joke and an in-joke really. It caught on and here we are.

PC: Little did you know at the time that you would be questioned about it in the year 2007.

DF: Yeah, really. But now it has become the name of our band. It has overwhelmed its original meaning.

PC: Steely Dan's first album was a massive success worldwide. The songs 'Do It Again' and 'Reeling In The Years' are still staple of classic rock radio today. The album consolidated your position as a professional musician in its day. How did the success affect you though?

DF: Walter and I, I don't think we followed the curve of successful bands. I think we were both a bit more interior people. We were both more writers than performers even though we can play instruments and I can sing. We didn't exactly immediately freak out or anything. In fact, there was something pretty uncomfortable about the whole touring situation. We actually dropped out after a couple of years. Maybe the fact that we only toured for a couple of years in the 70s is what makes our band vital now. We didn't blow the whole thing in the 70s.

PC: The cast of Steely Dan over the years has been a who's who of musicians.

DF: We've had a lot of great players in the band.

PC: Michael McDonald 1974.

DF: Yeah, mid 70s.

PC: Toto's Jeff Pocaro, Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter. I look at the list and this is the 'A' list. Were they the 'A' list when they joined Steely Dan or did the Steely Dan position contribute to their success and credibility?

DF: When we started certainly not. Jeff Baxter we picked up from him doing sessions in Boston. Jeff Pocaro was the drummer on the Sonny & Cher TV show. Mike McDonald was just a kid doing demos down the street. When we had some success in the studio we were able to get some players to play on the record who already had careers, like Wayne Shorter.

PC: By 1975, 'Katy Lied' became the first of the studio years and Larry Carlton played on that record.

DF: Larry Carlton was a session player in L.A. at the time. He was a well known session player. I think when he was a kid in L.A. he was the guitarist on a children's show under the name of Larry Guitar. He probably wouldn't like me to mention that, but nevertheless, there it is.

PC: Which do you prefer, the name Larry Guitar or the name Tristan Fabriani?

DF: Ha ha, yeah.

PC: That was a funny name. It was your name when you were a part of Jay & The Americans.

DF: We were the bass player and keyboard player in their waning years. They hired us as musicians.

PC: A little known Steely Dan fact is that you once played in a band which had Chevy Chase on drums.

DF: He was a fellow studio when Walter and I were at college in New York State. He was a pretty good drummer.

PC: And Barbra Streisand once recorded one of your songs.

DF: That's true. She did one of our songs when we were working on trying to be songwriters in midtown Manhattan.

PC: Let's talk a bit about the 'Aja' album. That was a big album when a big album meant big sales. It was also one of the first albums to be certified platinum. When you were recording that album did it feel as special as it turned out to be for music fans later?

DF: I think we liked the material we had. You have to understand that Walter and I came out of the jazz world mainly as fans when we were kids. We never really thought about music from the point of view of having hit singles. We were mainly interested in progressive music. We were always trying to evolve. I think that by that point we had gotten into something pretty interesting by combining rhythm and blues and jazz. Around the same time these session musicians in L.A. had also become much more independent. Rather than think of their jobs as tools of producers, they had become much more independent just trying to be more of themselves as musicians. They were becoming much more jazzier. I think all of that contributed to that album.

PC: After that came 'Goucho' which was the last album before you called it quits. Very few bands go out on top like Steely Dan did. How tempting was it to go one more record after that album?

DF: I think that album did come out at a point when we did think that we had run out of steam, in 1980 or so. We kind of decided to split up, at least temporarily. I had a solo album at the time. It just turned out that we didn't get back together for some time.

PC: With the solo record, when bands break-up, often the artists become very prolific with their solo career. You went the opposite way. It was a decade before the second solo album came out.

DF: Yeah, after I made that first one I felt I had to make an agonizing reappraisal of my talents (laughs).

PC: Then it was like 20 years between Steely Dan albums until 'Two Against Nature' was released.

DF: I see the whole thing as an artistic enterprise and Walter does as well. It is really about having something to say and being able to say it. In the 80s there was really nothing I had to say if you want to know the truth.

PC: One of the tracks from 'Two Against Nature' is "Cousin Dupree". There have been a couple of letters flying around from you and Walter in recent months. What has been the outcome of the 'You, Me and Dupree' debacle.

DF: We feel that the idea for the 'You, Me and Dupree' film was that the writer probably got the idea for the film from our song. There is a guy named Dupree who lies around on the couch all day and annoys the family he is staying with. They didn't even bother changing the name. We knew it was almost impossible to prove. Instead we started to torture the people who made the movie by writing a psychotic letter to the actors.

PC: Have you had a response?

DF: Sure. Owen Wilson wrote a very funny letter in response saying that he had never heard of us and anyway he was too busy making his next picture 'Hey Nineteen' which I thought was a very elegant response.

PC: The last Steely Dan album was 'Everything Must Go' from 2003. Are there plans for another Steely Dan album?

DF: We haven't really spoken about it yet. We've been on the road a lot. I'd been working on my solo record and Walter is just finishing his. As long as we are together there is always the chance we will make another one.

PC: The tour starts May 5 in Memphis in Beale Street. That's a cool way to start off a tour.

DF: Absolutely. Then we are going to New Orleans right after that.

PC: And then down to Australia for not just the concert halls but also the wineries.

DF: Yeah, it should be fun.

Steely Dan World Tour dates

u n i t e d s t a t e s

May 05 - Beale Street Music Festival - Memphis, TN
May 06 - New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival - New Orleans, LA
May 08 - Seminole Hard Rock Live - Hollywood FL
May 09 - Barbara Mann PAH - Ft. Myers, FL
May 11 - Chastain Park Amphitheatre - Atlanta GA
May 12 - Hard Rock Live Orlando - Orlando FL
May 14 - Ruth Eckerd Hall - Clearwater FL
May 15 - Ruth Eckerd Hall - Clearwater FL
May 17 - Mohegan Sun - Uncasville CT
May 18 - Chevrolet Theatre - Wallingford, CT
May 21 - Beacon Theater - New York NY
May 22 - Beacon Theater - New York NY
May 24 - Tower Theater - Upper Darby PA
May 25 - Tower Theater - Upper Darby PA
May 26 - Borgata Casino Event Center - Atlantic City NJ
May 29 - Bank of America Pavilion - Boston MA
May 30 - Bank of America Pavilion - Boston MA
Jun 01 - Turning Stone Casino - Verona NY
Jun 02 - Seneca Niagara Casino - Niagara Falls NY
Jun 04 - Freedom Hill - Detroit MI
Jun 05 - Toledo Zoo Amph. - Toledo OH
Jun 07 - Wolf Trap - Vienna VA
Jun 08 - nTelos Wireless - Portsmouth VA
Jun 10 - Beacon Theater - New York NY
Jun 11 - Beacon Theater - New York NY

e u r o p e
Jul 05 - NIA - Birmingham UK
Jul 06 - Aintree Pavilion, Liverpool, UK
Jul 07 - Hammersmith Apollo - London UK
Jul 09 - Forest National - Brussels Belgium
Jul 10 - Le Grand Rex - Paris France
Jul 13 - Stuttgart Jazz Festival - Stuttgart Germany
Jul 15 - Zitadelle - Berlin Germany
Jul 19 - Molde Jazz Festival - Molde Norway
Jul 21 - Pori Jazz Festival - Pori Finland
Jul 23 - Falkoner Theater - Copenhagen Denmark
Jul 24 - Stadtpark - Hamburg Germany
Jul 25 - Museumplatz - Bonn Germany
Jul 28 - Piazza Lucca - Lucca Italy

j a p a n
Aug 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24 - Billboard Live Tokyo - Tokyo Japan
Aug 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, Sep 01 - Billboard Live Osaka - Osaka Japan
Sep 03, 04, 05 - Billboard Live Fukuoka - Fukuoka Japan

Sept 8 - A Day On The Green - Sandalford Winery
Sept 11 - Entertainment Centre - Adelaide
Sept 13 - AIS Arena - Canberra
Sept 15 - A Day On The Green - Hunter Valley
Sept 16 - Entertainment Centre - Brisbane
Sept 18 - Entertainment Centree - Sydney
Sept 20 - Rod Laver Arena - Melbourne
Sept 22 - Auckland - Vector Arena
Sept 24 - Christchurch - Westpac Arena
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