What do studio perfectionists do when the record biz fades? Take their show on the road ...
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
The worse things get, the better Steely Dan sounds. The songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen stand as the definitive account of urban decadence and decay in the 1970s. The duo first met as students at Bard College and went on to sell more than 30 million copies of their acerbic, jazz-tinged character sketches. Their deft skewering of the ways in which classes, genders and generations interact in America has always been matched, and emphasized, by their impeccable musicianship.
With the dollar fading and gas prices skyrocketing, we caught up with Steely Dan as they prepared to hit the road. The band's Think Fast tour launches June 8 in Florida and runs for two months, including six nights at New York's Beacon Theater. They promise the show will dig deep into the Steely Dan catalog: "It's a pretty fun book to go rolling around in," says Becker.
The same week the tour kicks off, Becker releases "Circus Money," his first solo album since 1994's "11 Tracks of Whack." He says the project was inspired by his interest in Jamaican dub music, and that using the reggae setting on his keyboard and computer drums "worked well as a heuristic device for generating songs." The results, though, are populated by the usual array of smart, confused city dwellers and backed by the complex yet smooth chord changes unique to this pair of songwriters.
In separate conversations from their homes in Los Angeles (Fagen) and Hawaii (Becker), the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers discussed Steely Dan's past and future. Although they're as unsentimental as their songs might indicate — "It's painful for me to listen to any of my recordings," says Fagen — they sound genuinely excited to get out and play their classic songs again, and the feel as if perhaps the times have caught up to their music.
"In the '70s, you were either a jazz player or a rock player, and it was hard to find someone who could do both," says Fagen. "Now we have some guys in our band who grew up practicing Steely Dan tunes."
MSN Music: For the last decade or so, Steely Dan has toured quite extensively, but in your early days, you were known for never going on the road. What made you decide to start playing live so actively?
Donald Fagen: It was mostly just circumstance. Back in the early '90s, I was involved in this tour called the New York Rock and Soul Revue. At the same time, Walter was producing one of my solo albums [1993's "Kamakiriad"]. I was doing a couple of Steely Dan tunes in the show, and I asked if he wanted to come out. He played on those, and we got a great response. We talked about it and decided the next year to go out, and it was very successful and that was about it.
Why were you so reluctant to tour previously?
Walter Becker: Touring in the '70s was just a big clusterf--- for us. On any given night, half the band would be drunk. We lost money on every show we played, and we were always the opener, so it was never our own sound. It was just so unrewarding in every way, and we felt it was seriously cutting into our time writing and recording, which was time spent being productive, where this was just a big wank.
Fagen: The band had been put together very quickly. We had been hired by ABC-Dunhill as staff composers, with the idea that we would write tunes for their roster, Three Dog Night and whoever. But we really weren't that good at it, and we secretly wanted to make a record of our own. So we called in some people we knew from sessions on the East Coast, and we did the record.
But then we got thrown out on the road to support the record. The band didn't really congeal, we didn't even really know those guys that well. We were out for about two years, and the truth is that, by the end, we had a pretty good combination — we had Michael McDonald, Jeff Porcaro on second drums — but the experience just wasn't that good, so we decided to concentrate on the recording.
So how is it different now?
Becker: Twenty years later, touring is much more organized, lucrative, the technical problems have been solved. There are a lot of venues that lend themselves nicely to an evening out to hear music for people of our age, and you can just worry about playing the music. It was just a free-for-all back in the '70s, but now it's a smooth, oiled machine. It's a way different experience now, and it's real, real fun.
Do any Steely Dan songs take on a new meaning as you go back to them a few decades after recording them?
Fagen: Songs always change with the times. There are a few things that are so dated that we don't do them and a few where I don't even understand the lyrics myself.
Whenever there are problems with the economy, "Black Friday" seems to work. "Kid Charlemagne" was written to comment on the end of the '60s, but now it still works as a story, as a kind of picaresque tale, even if people don't get all the references.
Becker: All these years later, "Reelin' in the Years" has a little extra mojo on it. Many of these songs have aged surprisingly well, for us as players and apparently to some of the audience, too. Part of it is that we hadn't been playing them continuously for 30 years, so we're not sick of them.
Walter, "Circus Money" is your first solo album in 14 years. Were all these songs written at one time, or had they kind of built up through the years?
Becker: These were really all written within a year, specifically for this album. I think you sort of daydream about possibilities for albums as you go along, somewhat aimlessly, and at some point you gain some kind of traction and find some organizing principle.
I knew I wanted to write and to record, but I didn't want to make a Steely Dan album at that point, and I knew Donald was working on a solo album anyway. I was hanging out with Larry [Klein, the album's producer] and he said, "You ever want to make an album?" And I said, "Well, yeah."
Donald, any thoughts on Walter's album?
Fagen: Walter is very secretive. He hasn't played it for me. He was going to a few months ago, but then he went back in to remix it, so I haven't heard one tune yet.
Steely Dan represented such a unique voice in pop music. Do you see anyone out there today offering the kind of perspective you did?
Becker: I don't think other people have ever been ambitious to do what we wanted to do, I suppose because most people are not that interested in jazz. And starting in the late '70s a kind of neo-primitivism — the Ramones, Clash thing — became the dominant aesthetic paradigm, which works against any jazz elements.
There are lots of people that are as original, as true to their idiosyncratic vision, as we are, but not in the same flavor.
Fagen: There are some smart people out there. Martha Wainwright is good — it's far away from what we do musically, but she writes good songs. I play on her new record. The guy who goes under the name Eels [Mark Oliver Everett], he's smart. Almost every single song is about death, but that's OK with me.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the decline in recorded sound quality, especially in digital formats. Steely Dan was always known for an obsession with sound. Is this something that you still pay attention to or care about?
Becker: I care about it. Obviously, MP3 is a compromised sound format. On iTunes, if they wanted to, they could use higher-quality files; it would just take longer to download. But I think that will happen, and that people will have more choices, not fewer.
I enjoy hunting around on iTunes and searching out stuff, but if I find something I like, then I'll go buy the CD and have higher-quality files to download.
Fagen: MP3s don't sound so good, they compress the recordings and I can hear it. But, then again, CDs — though they've greatly improved — they don't sound as good as a perfect vinyl pressing, either. It's like everything else in life in the 21st century — the gradual degradation of everything. I'm kinda used to that.
If there was any good music to listen to, it would be different. People are so inured, they can't really hear detail anyway. They've been brainwashed by listening to drum machines and to synthesizers that don't play in tune. Everything gets coarser and coarser — so maybe it's good that sound is getting lower fidelity, so people don't notice.
Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.