Sunday, May 14, 2017

Steely Dan interviewed in 1975, 1976 and 1977

Here are three interviews with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from the mid 70s, when they were producing some of their most excellent music. They talk songwriting technique and what they look for in the musicians for each session. And true to form, they never take themselves too seriously.

Starting in April 1975, at the time of the album Katy Lied, the first interview appeared in the NME and was based on a meeting in California with the writer Richard Cromelin.  Having moved to the west coast from New York, the two are clearly still adjusting to the change in lifestyle.
"It's about 10 or 15 years behind," says Fagen of suburban San Fernando Valley. "We're going to have to relocate. Our heart is still on Second Avenue, and that's what we like to write about. Our lyrics are basically experience combined with a little fantasy."

Becker explained how he and Fagen like to make each song original: "We'll set up a framework, no matter how bizarre it may be. I'll come up with an idea and he'll come up with a scenario and we'll decide what we think the song is about, and which part of the exposition of what is happening is in each verse and get a title together. And no matter how strange the idea may be, we just go along and hope that we can finish the song."

They met at Bard College, where Fagen was "the dean of the pick-up band syndrome". Turns out there were several bands at the college and Fagen was the leader of all of them. Mostly, this appears to have been because the other musicians were not at his level. "We were writing tunes where some of the chords were not triads, and you couldn't use your capo that much. It was hard to get what we wanted in those days, so it didn't come out in utter magnificence," Becker said of the duo's early collaborations.

They tell the story about how the various band members were recruited, especially Denny Dias, who at this point, in 1975, was the only remaining member from the original band. Apparently Fagen and Becker hooked up with Dias's band and "we used to chastise and abuse them," Fagen recalls. "They all quit. So there was Denny and we'd ruined his band. He had no place else to go."

They also explain how, after some initial success with Reelin' In The Years from the first album, 'Can't Buy A Thrill', the threat of obscurity loomed dangerously near. The next single, Show Biz Kids, from the second album 'Countdown To Ecstasy' was, in Fagen's words "a brutal failure". They followed it with an edited version of My Old School, which saw even less action.
The resounding commercial success of the third album 'Pretzel Logic' and the single Rikki Don't Lose That Number, was consolidated in 1974 by a world tour. But Fagen still felt that "We've more or less abandoned hope of being one of the big, important rock and roll groups. Our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times. and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part. And at other times it's too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody."

Becker and Fagen also talk about the sound problems during the recording of Katy Lied that forced them to remix the album and delayed its release. They also address the question of the departure of former member Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter. Skunk, they claim, was only missing from the last album because he was on the road with the Doobie Brothers.
But it's clear they were not content to rely on the same musicians for each album, and wanted to push their session players to stretch themselves. Becker talks about how Rick Derringer was initially freaked out by what was expected of him on the track Chain Lightning. "Then he realised he needed to do something a little different from what he normally does."

click on the image to read the article
June 1976
The NME's Steve Clarke encountered Becker (then still only 26) and Fagen (28) a month after the release of 'The Royal Scam', announcing that the band was ready to tour again, including dates for Britain in 1977 (when in fact they didn't come to the UK again until 1993!). Becker even talks about who will be in the touring band. Denny Dias is the only one who has the stamina to stay the course with The Dan, he says. "He's willing to indulge us a little more than our old compatriots," said Becker.

Both deny being difficult to work with and lead the interviewer a merry dance when he asks what some of the songs are about. Becker denies Kid Charlemagne is about a dealer, more "a man of science. Someone who makes consciousness expanding substances of the most dramatic sensational type no longer in vogue."

(Indeed, it's about Augustus Owsley Stanley, the famous king of the LSD manufacturers). 

At one point, Donald Fagen states that the lyrics on their recent albums have a bit more maturity. When Clarke suggests Steely Dan songs are intentionally obscure, Becker counters that "it seems to us that people are intentionally dumb." Fagen adds that, "You can only do so much with a song, and because we are probably more literary, we use more literary techniques."

Paul Griffin plays the piano solo on Sign In Stranger and also receives a writer's credit on The Fez. This came about because, according to Fagen, "He wrote the main theme". Becker disputes this, saying "I wouldn't call it the main theme. He wrote a melody that is featured. At least he says he wrote it."  They gave him a credit "in case later on some sort of scandal developed".

'Don't Take Me Alive' is very much a song of these troubled times, writes Clarke about a song that still resonates with the times today. Fagen says of the song: "In Los Angeles and through the world in general, terrorism is a way of life for a lot of people."

They feel little affinity with anything else that is going on in rock in '76, though both express a fondness for Single Bed by Fox. They also enjoy The Eagles, Phoebe Snow and Van Morrison. They say comparisons between Steely Dan and 10CC are ridiculous: "Last time here we were being compared to the Doobie Brothers."

Talking of which, former Dan back-up singer Mike McDonald, now livening up the Doobies, told Clarke that Becker and Fagen wished they were Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. "That's essentially true," says Walter. 
 Click on the images to read the articles.

December 1977
Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe writes about the second coming of Steely Dan, following the release of the stylistically different but nonetheless peerless masterwork 'Aja'.

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