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Donald Fagen’s Stealth Pop

©Robert Sebree
Donald Fagen (©Danny Clinch)

The Steely Dan vet mulls his savvy new solo album, the state of the art and his weakness for smart, funny, neurotic characters

By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music

For Donald Fagen fans, it's an early Christmas. He's back with a new solo album, a mere half-decade after the last one. "Sunken Condos" is everything fans expect from the Steely Dan co-founder, keyboard mainstay and lead vocalist: wry humor, a look at relationships, a sense of unease and superb sound, with playing by a crack set of players. It dovetails with the Dan's R&B-laced post-reunion sound, even if partner Walter Becker sat this one out.

Michael Leonhart, who plays trumpet with the current touring edition of Dan, co-produced the album with Fagen, and it's clear the duo had a blast. They've covered all the bases for fans past and present, analog and digital: One version was mastered for iTunes, another for the clear-vinyl double LP that will come out as well (though fans of 5.1 surround mixes shouldn't hold their breath, as Fagen has soured on the format). "It doesn't matter anyway. Everybody listens to it on those terrible computer speakers anyway," Fagen said, only half-jokingly.

Fresh off a summer tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in their Dukes of September revue, which combined their respective signature songs with R&B classics, Fagen and Leonhart got on the phone together to talk about how all this happened.

MSN Music: Why now? When is it time to do a Steely Dan album or a solo one? As someone wrote online, "Another Donald Fagen album? He just did one six years ago!"

Donald Fagen: [Laughs] It's really just when I have enough songs to fill up 50 minutes or so.

MSN Music: Stream Donal Fagen's "Sunken Condos"

Do you purposely keep them the length that vinyl albums used to be?

Donald Fagen: I didn't have any more. This is all I had.

Michael Leonhart: We could have gone one more. But the 50-minute mark, that's a good length, that's a good meal.

Where does the decision come from to make this a solo album? There's some of Steely Dan's touring band in there and there are other outside players.

Donald Fagen: I wrote the songs by myself. So when I say "Hey, Walter, what do you think of this?" there's no answer. So I have to figure it out myself. They're more subjective. When I write with Walter, we end up a little more journalistic, a little more objective. When I sing them, I'm sort of posing as these different characters that may be different from myself. On this I'm also posing as these characters, but they're a lot closer to myself. It's more personal."

How does touring with the Dukes of September influence this work? You're revisiting your older work, you're revisiting R&B classics and you're working on other musicians' songs.

Donald Fagen: I don't know if it has that much influence over writing and stuff. It's more of a release for me. It's more a way of getting a kind of energy out of it so when you come home you're ready to go in a writing mode or recording mode.

Michael Leonhart: We're doing a lot more older soul and R&B stuff. So much of it is based around R&B changes in songwriting that I find myself in a different kind of pocket than in Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen: Maybe, on some unconscious level. I do have to look through a lot of old material when we're choosing songs, going back to the  50s and  60s. Maybe it rubs off in a way. In a way my interior writing life feels different to me somehow.

You wrote a tribute to Levon Helm on your website about the swing and swagger in his drumming. I feel a lot of that swagger in these songs.

Donald Fagen: It's the distance between old-school drumming and what you might hear these days. That really goes back to the '30s or '40s. Drummers used to play in a much more laid-back style. With this record what I did is I had these demos. After I wrote them on a piano, I put them on GarageBand, the Apple program, and sequenced them in a crude way. When we were touring, Michael has always played the trumpet. But he gets behind the drums sometimes and I hear him playing. I really liked his feel. He actually has what you're talking about. He has the shuffle and layback when he plays. I said, "You should play the drums for me." When Michael and I began to collaborate and he was going to co-produce, I said, "Look, take one of these demos, put some earphones on and play the drums to it. Let me see what it sounds like." It came out great, and he ended up playing the drums on every track. That's exactly what you're talking about. He comes out of the jazz world, too. It's no accident that his groove is just like that.

Michael Leonhart: I came to Levon's music through his daughter, Amy. We'd been writing songs and I was playing drums, and she said, "You sound like my dad a little bit." I'm not anywhere near the drummer that he was, but there's a sense of space where you hit in the pocket, the syncopation and the feel. Donald has been a huge fan of Levon's forever.

Donald Fagen: His drumming is like you hear on Chicago blues records, the guys on Chess Records. Steely Dan was heavily influenced by that. Chicago blues drummers, you'll never hear a more laid-back pocket than those guys.

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I always appreciate it when an artist grows and the lyrics reflect the changes in life. There's that self-awareness in "Slinky Thing" where the singer is with someone younger and hipper and he doesn't fit in.

Donald Fagen: We started with "Hey Nineteen" and we were only in our 30s. It was very obvious there was a generation gap then. If you wanna be honest, you have to write about that kind of stuff, about where you are, age-wise and everything else. (If not) it gives you kind of a cognitive dissonance, kind of like the Rolling Stones giving you that creepy feeling.

It almost sounds like you're giving advice to a friend or a lover or even another musician with that line about "upgrading your stuff."

Donald Fagen: It's the guy's girlfriend. She's got this guy who is fixing her computer or something like that. I'm definitely living in a world that's pretty alien to my own sensibilities.

You've always had a reputation for sterling sound, and this record has it as well. How comfortable are you with technology?

Donald Fagen: I'm always comfortable with computers. The engineer we started out with, Roger Nichols, was a computer specialist. Before computers even had knobs on them, he'd show us how to program stuff. I have some of the earliest sequencers. I learned how to sequence on those. I'm comfortable with them, but on the other hand, in the '70s, Roger started bringing in these computers & and we started getting into programming drums. It got out of hand. We were paying more attention to the technology than to the actual music. One day we just quit: We said, "We're not going to do this anymore." I try to minimize that. I don't have an aversion to it. I still have to deal with it. I don't like it, but sometimes to achieve the results I want I have to deal with it on some level. But I won't start a record with a bunch of machines & I purposely never learned how to use Pro Tools. I know I could just sink into that and never write another song again.

Michael Leonhart: One mic on the guitar, great playing, it'll do. It's not this "Let's have way more than we need." There's economy and patience. The technology should be used as little as it can be used.

Donald Fagen: A lot of people I know & there's all these myths that people live by vis-a-vis technology, stuff you have to do to sound like the Beatles or this group or that group. It's total bulls---. I've never been in any room where I couldn't make sound good with a decent microphone and a simple, straight-wire sort of setup. It's absolutely ridiculous. A lot of those records from the '30s sound just fabulous. It's absurd the lengths some people go to.

Michael Leonhart: Good taste can never be undervalued.

Donald Fagen: You've just got to have good taste to know the difference between something that sounds bad and something that sounds good. But most people don't have a clue.

Bing: Steely Dan music, videos and more

You often have a song about an unusual woman, be it "Peg" or "Josie." This time you've got "Planet D'Rhonda."

Donald Fagen: I know. They're all so terrible! They're all so irritating!

It's a theme you return to fairly regularly.

Donald Fagen: It's the most interesting thing in the world, women. I'm most interested in people who are smart, funny people and are neurotic. Whether it's a man or a woman, it's about the problems that come with being smart and funny. Usually it's something creepy that happened to you as a kid. That's what makes you so interesting. On the other hand, because of the neurotic stuff, if you wanna be friends with them or if you want to have a romantic relationship, you just have to deal with that. That's fine with me. I'm used to it because most everyone I know is like that. I live in New York.

You've had two solo albums out since the last Steely Dan album. Obviously you've been touring with Walter. What's the status of the group?

Donald Fagen: No update really. We're gonna try to get together on a theme for an album. Last time I was free he wasn't free; he was working on one of his albums. Right now it's up in the air, but we are planning on setting up a tour in the near future.

Are there songs you set aside for that band?

Donald Fagen: If we get into Steely Dan writing mode, maybe I'll hold this one or that one back for Walter to see if it works. But that didn't happen this time. I just kept (the songs) for myself."

How do you negotiate the music industry now? You've come up through vinyl, 8-track, CDs, 5.1 surround sound and now digital downloads.

Donald Fagen: I think they re issuing it on fairy dust this year. You re just gonna have to grab it out of the air.

Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.io

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5Comments
Sep 6, 2013 12:21AM
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Hi Donald,
I want to express my inestimable admiration for your many great albums both as a member of Steely Dan and for the solo albums that both you and Walter have produced.

I'm shocked to read that you have 'soured' on the 5.1 channel format.  I have to agree with your point, in part at least, about the "cheap computer speakers".  I prefer the DVD-Audio format, but my speakers are actually pretty respectable in terms of sound quality.  I don't place the surround speakers to the sides of the listening position as is done in cinematic reproduction, or by less imaginative or creative thinking people who possibly believe that they are the true vanguard for recognizing that they are listening in three dimensions (what ?).  No I do not.  I place the 'surround' speakers where they should be if I want them to simulate a band of musicians. 
Best to put them in the front of the room with the other speakers (perhaps all against one wall?), as they should be, to create an even better illusion that the musicians are in front of me, not around me, which the multi-channel format does for several reasons better than stereo. 

I had tremendous hope that you and Walter might reproduce Aja and at least a couple more of the earlier Steely Dan albums remastered in the DVD-Audio format similarly to the DVD-A
version of Gaucho.  

I greatly prefer the multi-channel format because of the way that the best DVD-A discs are mastered.  Music, reproduced on 5.1 channels can produce higher fidelity than any other format.  Each musical instrument (particularly with solos) can reproduced virtually alone, on
their own speaker, and doesn't share another speaker with other instruments nearly as much
as does a 2.1 channel or a conventional stereo audio system.  It's for this reason in particular that a well mastered DVD Audio album will always outperform it's musical equivalent in stereo.

Please reconsider producing Aja, and one (or maybe two, maybe three?) of your preceding stereo albums!  I think that maybe Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, or Pretzel Logic in the 5.1 channel, high bitrate DVD-Audio, format would be the ultimate in sound quality. 

The finest example of this is the state of the art DVD-Audio version of Gaucho.  I read that some of the master tapes for the AJA album have gone missing or have been stolen, but I would do anything to bend your ear a little or- to be otherwise able to convince you to -please- do whatever it takes to get AJA, at least, reproduced in the 'Gaucho format'. 

Hoping I speak well for others, we'll 'hold our breath' if necessary, and I hope you'll hand us the equivalent of a scuba air regulator in the form of at least one (Aja), or more Steely Dan albums in the fantastic DVD-Audio format.

Don't believe that the only people who like the DVD-A format only listen to cheap PC speakers, placed around the listener in the "3-D" configuration, which is yet more still... garbage!

Oct 17, 2012 4:54AM
avatar
Fabulous to hear Donald reflecting on his latest work - Sunken Condos is like drinking Wild Turkey on the rocks - mellow, slips down easily and smoky. One of the few people in this world who I'd say is original in everything he does.
Oct 10, 2012 10:06AM
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“First Dive to Visit Fagen’s Sunken Condos”

 

Jim McPartland

 

 

 

I’ve had trouble doing anything but listen to Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos since it streamed yesterday, 10/9, one week before its official release.

 

I’m on eight times straight through so far.

 

Like fine wine, it gets better with each listen. And like most of Fagen’s material, it’s very complex with lots of musical intricacies. Sunken Condos is a mixture of jazz, blues, rock, and 70’s funk—and Fagen has never been in better form.

 

Sunken Condos is Fagen’s strongest solo material EVER.  Better than The Nightfly—and I LOVE Nightfly.

 

It surpasses Steely Dan’s Grammy Award winning Two Against Nature. And as good as Walter Becker is at contributing to Steely Dan, Fagen proves he is and always has been Steely Dan’s driving force.

 

THIS IS GRAMMY AWARD MATERIAL!!

 

Donald made a great choice having Michael Leonhart co-produce. Michael ‘gets it’ and his horn playing/orchestration are powerful. The recording is ideal- typical for perfectionist Fagen.

 

 

 

A pass at the songs-

 

1) Slinky Thing- funky- love the horns and xylophone- an older guy chasing or with a young chick and doubting himself.

 

2) I’m Not the Same Without You- love the melodica, which Donald uses more on Sunken Condos than any at any other and handles it like a madman--- very upbeat-- and optimistic about a break up- think the opposite of The Things I Miss the Most from Everything Must Go. Great vocals! Takes all of Steely Dan and solo efforts---shakes ‘em up--- and pours out one of the best songs he’s ever written.

 

3) Memorabilia- great muted horns, sweet and soulful. More great vocals. The gals do a great job of complimenting Donald.

 

4) Weather in My Head- very bluesy- more outstanding horns/backing vocals- super nice guitar solo- B.B Kingish- I assume its Jon Herrington.

 

5) The New Breed- reminds me of Gaucho’s My Rival--- organs--- freakin’ great horns- and more melodica. More vocal harmonies. Donald’s voice as strong as ever.

 

6) Out of the Ghetto (Isaac Hayes cover)- very funky—think War’s Slippin’ Into Darkness. “I took you out of the ghetto, but I could not get the ghetto out of you.”

 

7) Miss Marlene- THIS SONG TOTALLY ROCKS- a little I.G.Y., a little Ruby Baby. Vocal blend is unbelievable- takes the best of SD-- give me the chills—another totally great guitar solo by Herrington.

 

8) Good Stuff- TOTALLY FUNK-EEEE! Love the off key piano- more out-freakin’-ragous muted horns-- melodica-- xylophone---backing vocals--can’t wait to see lyrics on this, sounds like a Sopranos episode, both lyrical and musically--- “East Patterson”-- reprise of  “There’s a special satisfaction when a job comes off so right- better break out the good stuff, the boss wants to party all night.”

 

9) Planet d’Rhonda- Jazzy- “somewhere between 19 and 38”—sweet with more outstanding vocal arrangement—AND yet more Herrington guitar. Think Chain Lightening--- stretchin’ out, like Donald said “Have at it, Jon”. “My friends say ‘Jim, you’re on a deadly spree.’ They just can’t understand that D’s my vitamin XYZ.”

 

 

 

 

 

I guarantee the reviews will praise Sunken Condos, proving you don’t get old—you get better. I don’t know what’s gotten into Donald, but it’s ridiculously good. Sunken Condos is an epiphany for Fagen, like vintage wine that has fermented for hundreds of years, is opened and will be enjoyed for many here.

Oct 9, 2012 7:29AM
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