The following article originally appeared on Time Out New York in 2008.
No matter how well-balanced an artistic partnership is, someone always gets more of the glory. In the case of Steely Dan, that someone is Donald Fagen, the group’s longtime keyboardist-frontman. But his songwriting partner, guitarist-bassist Walter Becker, has just as much to do with the group’s signature combination of mordant wit and burnished jazz-pop. The new Circus Money, Becker’s second solo disc and first in 14 years, allows Dan fans to hear just how much he adds to the mix. As he prepared to rehearse for the upcoming Steely Dan tour—which hits Beacon Theatre June 13, 14, 17, 18, 20 and 21—TONY met with Becker to discuss, among other topics, his love of classic reggae, his preoccupation with down-and-out types and his feelings on the Yacht Rock phenomenon.—Hank Shteamer
I actually spoke to Donald Fagen when he did his last solo record, and I thought I’d start by asking you a question that I asked him: What can you do solo that you can’t do with Steely Dan?
Well, the main difference, to tell you truth, is that there are a lot of things I can’t do solo that I can do with Steely Dan because of Donald’s voice and what Donald brings to the equation. But the one thing I can do on a solo record is anything I want any way I want to do it. And at a certain point, you sort of need to exercise that and say, “I’m gonna work now,” “I’m gonna knock off for a couple days,” “I’m goin’ home now,” “I don’t like that song,” “Let’s write another song,” “Let’s fix this song,” and not necessarily have to do it as a collaboration with somebody. Now, of course I did collaborate with Larry [Klein, producer], but he was extremely masterful and minimalist-style in the sense of when it came to say, “I disagree with this or that,” he would say it, but he would usually wait for the right moment to say it, and only say it once, and it had real resonance.
It was a long time into your career before you did make a solo record. Do you remember what set off your need to do that? Was 11 Tracks of Whack [Becker’s 1994 solo debut] brewing for a long time?
No, I know exactly what it was. I was producing an album with Rickie Lee Jones and it took about eight or nine months to do, and she’s great, a great artist; I love working with her and learned a lot from her. And one of the things that I learned was—you know, I’d produced a few records and I was planning on producing a few more. But it occurred to me that it would be more fun to be the artist than to be the producer. And I realized that and I said, All right, why don’t I just do this? So I was living in Hawaii and I ended up building a studio and all the infrastructure and so on, so I could just do whatever I wanted.
Do you write songs specifically for your solo albums or do you write songs and say, Maybe this would work with Steely Dan, or maybe solo?
There are some things that I write that I know are personal in a way, or the gag is so obscure that it’s just for me, and there’s other things that could basically be for anybody or be anything, at least until the lyrics start to get written. Once the lyrics start to get written, then you pretty much know that you’re writing it for yourself or for anybody else, or for some particular somebody else or for Steely Dan.
I wanted to ask you about singing in particular. The impression I get is that in the beginning of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was sort of a reluctant singer, that you guys were more songwriters. So I was wondering if you were a reluctant singer too.
When we first started to do this kind of stuff, and when Donald and I were writing songs and showing them to people, I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder. I liked to sing. Donald was sort of playing the piano and hunched over the piano and didn’t sing as loud. It was only when we actually really got in the studio and I heard his voice and heard my voice that I realized what a great singer he was and what a shitty, out-of-tune singer I was. Now, at that time I was smoking two or three packs of Camels a day. Not to say that I still don’t have problems with that, but I just didn’t have that pitch thing down. And when you get to the point of recording, that really counts. And I saw that Donald had a really cool style, and that he could do all kinds of fancy intervallic things, and as we later discovered a little further down the line, he could create these stacks of harmonies that really added a lot to what we were doing. And not everybody can do that; he can do it partially because of the precision and repeatability of what he does. He can double his own voice because he basically sings the song the same way every time: He has a perfect picture in his mind of what the song is going to be.
So it wasn’t so much that you were reluctant but just that you thought he was better?
Well, I thought he was much better, and if I had thought I would’ve been able to do it, I would’ve pitched in. Because it’s hard, and if you think about how many tracks of vocals there are on some of these songs and how high the high parts are on some of them, it’s a lot of work. And there’s basically two kinds of singers: One kind is “Boy, I sound good,” and the other kind is “Boy, I sound terrible.”
And you’re more…?
I’m certainly more “Boy, I sound terrible.” Actually, that’s not true. I guess I’m basically in the “Boy, I sound terrible” category, but there are things that I like about what I do that I think are good and that I enjoy.
What are some vocal moments—not necessarily lyrics—but vocals on the new record that you’re proud of?
Well, overall, Larry sort of hipped me to the fact that I didn’t have to belt the songs, which, incredibly enough, came as news to me. It had always been hard for me to sing softly, but I was able to do it. I think “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” came out well, “Upside Looking Down” and the first song, “Door Number Two,” I thought was pretty good because it was a very minimal sort of job that I knew had to be done a certain way, and so I was happy with that.
That track in particular demonstrates what you were saying about not belting. That line “Three bars / Three cherries,” it’s very soft and muted; it’s almost like a spoken kind of thing.
Right, exactly. And the lyrics of that song were meant to be delivered in a sort of ruminative way such that you were considering things, considering possibilities, you know…
On “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” and some other places, I hear a little bit of a Bob Dylan inflection, and I’m wondering who your vocal models or heroes are.
Bob Dylan at one point was such a great singer, and I’ve listened to his stuff over and over, so I’m sure that there’s some of that in there. You know, I got a lot of inflections and stuff from various blues singers that I listened to when I started listening to blues after I’d been a jazz fan for a couple years. You know, they were all so different, but what they had in common was that they had a lot of little melismatic turns and little expressive things that they did, and scoops and things like that, so I’d say that blues people who were well known in the day—and even the more primitive guys like Robert Johnson or someone like that—you get rhythmic things from. And aside from that, I don’t really have some particular person I think I can emulate; I’m just sort of trying to get away with what I can with the range that I have.
With songs on the new album like “Door Number Two” and “Darkling Down,” there are these themes of down-and-out characters or characters that are self-deluded, and just kind of an underworld feel. And I know that’s been something that Steely Dan has been covering since the beginning. When did you discover that the demimonde was an important or attractive world to draw from?
I think when we started writing songs in Manhattan, that basically was happening right on the sidewalks on Broadway. And it was very funny and very amusing and later, in conjunction with various pursuits of mine and/or of ours, it sort of drew me further and further into less likely places. So “Darkling Down” was just sort of a recollection of some particularly wild runs that I had been on. So at this point, it’s just nostalgia for the feral life. But it seemed obvious to us at some point that it was kind of an attractive mode of sort of Raymond Chandler/Damon Runyon–esque—where you would be moving vertically up and down from Colonel Sternwood to the guy that ran the gambling place. And also there’s a tradition—to the extent that people say writing is about other writing—there’s a tradition of writing that way, from Edgar Allan Poe, of concerning yourself with the sort of ne’er-do-wells.
It seems like you have a lot of fun creating these types of characters. Selfish Gene on the new album reminds me of a lot of Steely Dan characters like Jive Miguel in “Glamour Profession,” just these kind of caricatured portrayals. Where does that come from?
I think [the idea is] to take one sort of mood and magnify it and isolate it and purify it in a way that doesn’t really represent a particularly well-rounded portrait of somebody. “Selfish Gene” and “Darkling Down” both have sort of manic moods to them: In one case it’s a very arrogant mania and in the other case—you could say it’s another kind of arrogance—but it’s a sort of more down-and-out, as you were describing, kind of mania. I think that to the extent that some of these characters are caricatures, it’s because you want to take one aspect of a possible self and just blow it up.
You were mentioning that “Darkling Down” has an autobiographical element. Is that something to look for in your music?
No, not generally. I think it’s more akin to the idea that I always imagine that novelists take personality traits and wardrobe suggestions from people that they had dinner with that night and then just borrow them for a character that has nothing to do with them. So it’s really just borrowing props and locales or stuff like that more than an attempt to really describe my life.
Of all the songs on the album, I don’t think “Darkling Down” is the one I would’ve thought was autobiographical. “Downtown Canon” seemed to me to be the most autobiographical.
At a certain point, I wanted to have one of these [downtown] lofts, and generally speaking, one imagines having a certain kind of romance. So in a general way it was real, but the details were all just whatever we came up with.
That song has a certain cynicism to it, as if it’s the law of the universe that relationships fail…
I do think that it’s true, and it would jibe with my experience that there are certain relationships that you have when you’re very young that only go so far only because you just need to do something different; you need to do more. You’re not ready to plant the flag at that point. You have to go and meet more people and try other things and do other things. And thus I guess I do have a sort of fatalism about the romantic ambitions of very young people. And that’s not always true; some people do meet their true love and play it out that way.
It seems like that’s a big Steely Dan theme, too. A lot of times listening to Circus Money, I thought of “Haitian Divorce,” for one, because it’s kind of a reggae tune—
Yeah, that’s right.
But also in the sense of describing a relationship that has really high highs but then sinks down way low and just becomes a mess. Is that something that you maybe share with Donald Fagen, this idea that these young romances or romances at all are doomed? You seem to be kind of fascinated with that.
You know, speaking about this particular album overall, if it were the case that Larry Klein and I hoped to subtly adjust the history and dynamics and affairs of men and women, would that be so wrong? Are things so great that they couldn’t use a little tweak, you know? And another thing that I would say is that perhaps being fatalistic about things or being cynical about them in a way expresses the deepest kind of optimism: that you’re still disappointed that things are the way they are. And I don’t know if it would really be better that things did work out for long periods of time. I’ve had long, stable chunks of my life, and other sort of flighty things, and it doesn’t seem to matter which is true at any given moment as far as my creative life or imaginative life. I know that when Donald and I moved back from L.A. to New York, all we wanted to do was write about L.A. And when we moved from New York to L.A., all we wanted to do was write about New York.
So it’s not necessarily a reflection of where your life is at…
I’m saying that it’s something that you’re constantly considering wherever you are in your life, because the dream, of course, is of the stable, intrauterine type of relationship, but even that relationship ends the same way, you know? You’re kicked out. And that’s the impact zone. That’s where all the fun is. That’s where the stuff to write about is.
At the end?
Yeah, happiness in and of itself and stasis and stability, it doesn’t generate as much juice as subject matter. It might be fine to live in that space and write about something else, but to actually write about that is very hard, I think.
Well, it seems like there’s happiness in your lyrics, but it’s happiness built on a really shaky foundation.
On “Junkie Girl,” from 11 Tracks of Whack, for example, there are these contented characters, but you can see right through them.
Right. Yes, I think a lot of happiness, a lot of what we think of as ourselves, our personalities, our hopes and dreams are basically more “as if” than not.
You were talking about the L.A. theme, and “Three Picture Deal” is definitely an L.A. story, while “Door Number Two” is a Vegas kind of thing. Since you’re from New York and seem more comfortable here, why are L.A. and the West in general such fruitful themes?
I think Vegas is obviously because it’s so ridiculous and because of the gambling metaphor, the interpolation of chance into the orderly affairs of men. And L.A. is interesting in a different sort of way. I’m much more comfortable there now than I was when I actually lived there. But then again, L.A. is more like New York now than it was when I lived there. You know, L.A. still seems like either the proving grounds for the future of American society or the reductio ad absurdum of it, or some combination of those things. And its particular kinds of excesses and the fact that shallowness and superficiality and trends are so utterly, utterly powerful there is fascinating. I can never believe how much time and energy and money and talent and everything else is being poured into horrible ideas. And not even different ones—the stolen horrible ideas or stale horrible ideas or so on and so forth. It’s just a remarkable thing. And it’s very, very funny.
And by satirizing it—from a Steely Dan song like “Glamour Profession” all the way through “Three Picture Deal”—it’s almost as if you wouldn’t necessarily hope to change it; you’re just glad it’s there as a great source of material.
That’s right. [In the case of] “Three Picture Deal,” Larry has produced more than a few female vocalists, so there have been times when he’s been approached by somebody. And the same sort of thing happens to me, but with less frequency: it turns out that a certain Miss X just happens to have her CD or her portfolio in her bag at that moment. But the core idea for “Three Picture Deal” was I wanted to write a song where the verses were basically three pictures, and it had to do with the pictures. So it was one of those sort of too-clever-by-half, postmodern song-exposing-its-structure type of things, you know? Architecture where you can see all the beams and the pipes and all that. So it just happened to come out, and it’s the most fun to write about in a way: stuff involving the crassness that is so abundant in general in America, and in particular out there, that it’s a never-ending source of delight, really.
Can you give a nutshell breakdown of the division of labor in Steely Dan? It’s hard for an outsider to know who’s responsible for what.
Yeah, I think that with most partnerships that run for a certain amount of time—and ours has run for a pretty long time—the division of labor is very ad hoc. So whatever needs to be done, sometimes I’ve got something to start with, sometimes Donald’s got something to start with. Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so. And so over the course of the partnership, I think we’ve done all sorts of different things different ways, and probably that still is changing in a way, because if I can speculate on Donald’s behalf, I think there is a level of perfection, polish, sophistication, and abundance of detail and structural stuff that he wants to hear in his music that I sort of ran out of patience to do. My attention span is not that good anymore, and I sort of believe—and maybe the lyrics somewhere say this—that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And one of the real dangers of doing the kind of thing that we do, where people let you do whatever you want and you have money, is burnout. You go too far; there’s no one there to stop you; you keep going; you keep working on things. So I have to learn, and even sort of create artificial boundaries so that doesn’t happen. And nowadays because of computers, because of a variety of things, there’s an unlimited palette of techniques that you can use. And if you don’t rule certain things in and certain things out—put it this way, it’s helpful for me. I tried to think back to what we did in the ’70s with what we had available, and why in some ways that was an optimum sort of setup. So there’s something, for example, about the fact that either you get a track that day with your band, or everybody goes home with their dick in the dirt, that helps you get tracks. It helps for musicians to know that it’s either going to happen there and they’re going to know about it and be on the record, or not. And not that they’re going to play some stuff and you’re going to take it home and fiddle with it and fool around with it. I like to get as much as I can in the tracking session. If I had the resources and the time and the fixed cast of characters and a bunch of other things, I would try to record everything live. If I could sing well enough, especially. But with other people too, I just think that ultimately that’s something I aspire to, because it’s the most joyous experience in music-making, when everybody’s playing together.
In terms of comparing “Selfish Gene” to Jive Miguel, is it correct to assume that if I hear something on Walter Becker’s solo album that reminds me of Steely Dan, that you must’ve written that Steely Dan line? Or could either of you have written a line like that?
I think either of us could’ve written that line, and honestly, I have no recollection of who did, or which one of us wrote a lot of the stuff. This morning I was looking at a text file of some stuff that Donald and I wrote about this sort of golem character that’s on our website (steelydan.com/golem.html) and we had gone past this part that we had published and I couldn’t remember who wrote what, and I’m still stumped as to who wrote this particular last chunk. Because he had sent me a thing and I know I continued it, but I can’t remember where I picked it up. So I would say that there were some cases where we just made up a name, like Chino or Daddy Gee [from Steely Dan’s “My Old School”] or Jive Miguel from Bogotá, just a postage stamp’s worth of a personality or an idea. So “Selfish Gene,” although it’s a very similar thing, the psychology of the character is elaborated on much more, hopefully; I mean, that’s basically what the whole song is about. And also, it alludes to the other meaning of Selfish Gene in the sense of “the selfish gene,” right?
What is that?
Someone wrote a book about the selfish gene, and it has a lot of corollaries, but basically the idea is that sometimes a particular animal or organism will express its genetic proclivity in a way that it’s to the detriment of that individual creature’s life. Like for example, for a male spider to mate with a female spider that’s going to eat him in the next moment. Or if a certain creature has to do things to help various parasites which eventually destroy them, but then that parasite carries its seed somewhere else. So there’s that sort of thing. There was a whole theory going around at one point about how the biological imperative of men is to spread their seed as widely as possible without regard to how many of them turn out, whereas the biological imperative of the female is to conceive, give birth and keep a particular male involved in order to help support that. Because she’s only got a few shots, whereas the male has got a million shots at reproducing, right? So the character Selfish Gene is someone who’s preying on that disparity.
So I’m pretty positive you guys are familiar with this whole Yacht Rock thing…
I wanted to ask you about it because I think it’s kind of strange and interesting that you guys are involved with that. There’s this whole idea of smooth music, with the Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins and people like that. What is your feeling about being lumped in with that, and do you feel it’s accurate?
That’s just basically a gag, and I see why we would be lumped in with it. There are a lot of reasons why we would be lumped in with it, and yet there are a lot of—I mean, for example, to take someone who’s probably the furthest from where we are, like Christopher Cross, okay, who’s just doing these very simple songs; he was doing them I’m sure with some of the same musicians that we used, in some of the same studios with some of the same sonic goals in mind: a very smooth or shall we say polished product. And we ended up doing that—or maybe I should say we started out doing that, because it was our perception that if you were going to use jazz harmonies, it had to sound tight, professional; nothing sounds worse than sloppy—than kids playing jazz, you know what I mean? And so we sort of felt obliged to do that because of the kind of music we were doing. And so I think it’s great. I think it’s very amusing, the idea that all of these people knew each other, and I suppose, you know, we certainly knew Mike [McDonald], we worked with Mike, and we knew the Eagles, not as well, and the idea that we were sort of battling with each other in various types of feuds and situations, I think it’s pretty funny. I think it’s great.
But when you hear a comparison like that do you ever wonder if people are actually listening to your lyrics and picking up on the idea that these songs are actually very cynical?
Yeah, I do, and I think our idea was to some extent that it would work either way. In other words, the songs would work whether you got to that level of the lyrics or not. And that’s the way it actually seemed, like when “Do It Again” was a hit, people didn’t even know what the words to the song were, but they knew the song, they knew they liked it, and they knew the mood of the thing. And later on I guess some of them found out what the actual words were. And I think the ironic relationship of words to music and so on, you have to figure that some people are going to be more in on the joke than others, or that the complementary nature of the sounds is going to be more important that the paradox between the lyrics and the sounds.
So you do actually consider that to be a paradox: smoothness of music versus dark content?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, the way it seemed to us at the time was that with music, it’s very hard to find something that hasn’t been done before. Similarly, writing text, writing words is the same thing. But once you put the two together and you can relate them in all sorts of weird ways, it opens up a whole new range of effects that you can get to. And particularly we were influenced a lot in that by black humor, where the writing was simultaneously often very sad and tragic and very funny.
Are there some writers that you can think of?
Certainly Kurt Vonnegut was the best of the bunch, and Terry Southern, Thomas Pynchon—whom I didn’t read until a little bit later. There are a lot of things in Borges, for example, that are completely ridiculous, where you’re just along for the ride and at some point you realize, What?!? Like the story about the guy who’s attempting to rewrite Don Quixote from memory, right? You’re pretty far into that one, as I recall, before you realize exactly what is being suggested. So when you get to the point where he says that this guy was so much greater than Cervantes and here’s what Cervantes wrote and here’s what this guy wrote and it’s exactly the same, right? You know, there was a lot of that in the air, whether it was Gurdjieff or Timothy Leary—people who simultaneously had something they wanted to say in earnest and who presented themselves as hucksters, realizing that the difference between the two was not very great, really.
Do you ever get a kick out of the idea of hearing a song as dark and strange as “Deacon Blues” on classic-rock radio?
Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing! So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.
So you do view it as like a Trojan horse?
Yeah. In a way, yes, that’s right. Especially at the beginning, because certainly there are many other people that have aspired to that before us, but it’s still the greatest thrill you can possibly have.
Just listening to [Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback album] Two Against Nature, it seems like it’s almost getting more perverse with songs like “Gaslighting Abbie.”,
[Laughs] Well, perhaps we may have stayed too long at the fair. I don’t know, could be? That is a pretty sick song.
I know there’s a call on your website for suggestions on how to market the new record, and I know it’s being sold in MP3 format and so on. How is it different for you to release an album in 2008 than it was in 1994?
I vastly prefer the situation now, because I think things are a little more wide open, and I think the expectation of a conventional type of success that had existed up till a certain point—where people go out and buy a lot of records and you make a lot of money and you live happily ever after—is sort of off the table in a way. And for me, anyway, you realize that you’re doing this not for any of those reasons and that what success means is essentially that people get to hear it. It’s a far easier and simple thing, because if people like it, it will propagate itself readily now. I hate to use that word that begins with a v that people use to mean this kind of propagation, and in fact I won’t use it. But I think that because of the way people share music now, and because I’m older, and because we get to do these tours and make money doing this, we have essentially another career that really is much more significant than economic success. You get to do it for your own reason, and when it came time to put the album out, I realized the only thing I really cared about was not signing another deal with the same bunch of clots that had been running the record business for all these years, and losing control of what I was doing. And anything else would have been fine for me: giving it away, any other sort of distribution. And we happily came up with a way that it’ll get to people who want to hear it, and it’ll be as simple as that. And writing with other people is very appealing to me at this time. So I figure if nothing else, an album like this is sort of a demo reel of what I can do musically and for people that may not have heard Steely Dan records, or may not have considered that either Donald or I are still doing this sort of thing. So hopefully—I mean, I’m already satisfied just with the fact that people are listening to it; it’s finished; [Laughs] I stopped working on it before I hated it; I had a delightful work experience with Larry, who’s a good friend and a great coworker, and perhaps most important, the band, the people that played on the record. To a tremendous extent the record was made in the ten days when we tracked it with the band. And it was because everybody came in and just did everything that they could and played their best and were really interested in the music, listened to the music, thought about ways to approach it. So it’s already pretty fulfilling for me.
You alluded to giving the album away. Are you comfortable with the notion of it being traded freely?
I’m sort of agnostic on the idea. Obviously what is, is. But I do like the fact that there’s more music out there and it’s easier for people to get it, and I myself can sit in my house and listen to things and download things in the best circumstances that have existed during my lifetime. So, personally, if I like something, I go out and buy it, and in fact I buy it over and over again, usually, because I give a copy away, or I have it in another house, or even I’ll have it on another computer and sometimes I’ll be too lazy to copy the whole bunch of things; I just buy it again. I mean, if I see that fuckin’ “I’ve already bought” window on iTunes again, I think I’m just gonna scream. “Yes, I already bought it; I wanna buy it again. Just take my money!” So I think there’s room for all of those things.
So there’s an ethics of supporting the artists.
Yeah, for me, it feels like a fair return for the good fortune that I’ve had. And also, I think it keeps the game going. Now, I’d like to see the situation evolve in such a way that people can have careers as professional musicians or professional artists, because we need that; we need people to know that they can afford to live lives and have families and live in a particular place doing art, doing music, and writing and so on. And so to the extent that that’s threatened by people just not paying for things—basically, I think we’re in an aberrant situation, which was created by the record companies charging too much and providing an inferior product. And when you charge too much, and when the quality doesn’t justify that price, especially, then you get a black market, and people start to sell it. So I think eventually the price of the thing will find a place where it’s cheap enough that you don’t think much of buying it and it’s not worth—I don’t even know what people go through to download music anymore illegally; I just never have been into that. I’m just too old for that. But I think that’s the important thing: Whatever shape it takes, it should be such that artists can live the lives of artists and be primarily concerned with writing. Whether they’re being sponsored by corporate barons or borrowing money from the bank or getting grants or fellowships or whatever it is, it doesn’t matter that much—the least interference and the most possible creative energy that can be unleashed and harnessed I think is very important.
You were saying that you’re an active iTunes downloader. What are some things that you’ve been buying over and over again recently?
Recent for me is a relative term. I think the most recent thing I’ve discovered is this singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who I think is fantastic. And so I’ve bought all of his albums for myself and for a couple of other people. And also this year I’ve been listening to a lot of 20th-century classical stuff. Now that’s a situation where, when you download an orchestral piece in MP3 format, then if you really like it, you have to go out and buy the CD because you really want to hear every little bit of juiciness of the sound on that thing. So I’ve been listening to a lot of that, and a lot of things I buy over and over again are just sort of classic-rock type of things or Bob Dylan records or particular tracks that I had here or there at some point, and now I want to play this song for somebody and I don’t have it on this computer, and I just grab it again.
Just as an aside, are you familiar with that book on 20th-century classical music by Alex Ross?
Yes, I started the book. I didn’t finish it, but that was one of the things that sort of facilitated me starting off listening to Schoenberg. But I quickly switched to Stravinsky as my favorite, because you know, Stravinsky’s music sounds so much better than Schoenberg’s, basically. But yeah, that book I thought was very, very delightful and amusing, and it’s on the pile of the other 750 books I plan to finish sometime in this lifetime.
Is Steely Dan touring more these days simply because it’s easier for you now?
That’s a lot of it. It pays a lot better than it did, which is to say that we’re not losing money every night the way we were in the ’70s. And also the band that we get to play with now is so great. I was asking [Steely Dan guitarist Jon] Herington the other day whether I should be proud or ashamed or a little bit of both that the band sounds so great when I lay out, and I didn’t really get an answer. But it’s just such a good band and magic stuff happens all the time, and there’s stuff that happens when you’re playing together where you get into a kind of group mind that’s very thrilling. I’m sure that other people experience the same kind of thing in all sorts of other realms, but for me, it happens when I’m playing with other people.
I know you were playing “Book of Liars” [from 11 Tracks of Whack] live with Steely Dan. Will you be incorporating any of the Circus Money stuff?
I don’t think so, because for one thing, I don’t want to feel obliged to try to represent that onstage in the midst of what is basically a Steely Dan show, and I think Steely Dan fans, rightly, there’s always a certain tension about, Are they gonna play this song or are they gonna play that song? And so I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is Steely Dan songs. And so I try to sing an old Steely Dan song live. I mean, there’s only one that I ever sang on one of the records [“Slang of Ages,” from 2003’s Everything Must Go], so I can do that one or I can do various other ones, and that seems the best to me. It seems right for the occasion.
Which brings up a couple of questions: One, would you ever do a solo tour?
“I don’t know” is the answer to that. I’d like to get a band together and play live, but I probably would do that for a while in one place and try to grow it in a stable environment with musicians in the town that they live rather than starting to schlep it around straight away.
And what about picking songs for Steely Dan shows? Do you ever want to play more uncommon songs but feel more obligated to do a greatest-hits type of show?
The format of the concerts that we play, the size of the venues and the sound and so on, is much better suited to familiar material than new material or less-familiar material, and you can’t blame the fans for that fact, because it’s hard to decipher lyrics you haven’t heard before or don’t know. So we do adjust according to how the audience reacts, because we want the show to be satisfying and good. And if there’s songs we really don’t want to play, we just don’t play them. And if there are occasionally obscure songs that we want to do, the audiences seem to be up for that, up to a certain extent: more obscure old songs than new songs. Because chances are they have heard them, back when they were listening to records and smoking pot and nobody could get up to change the record and skip the cut. Now they’ve got ’em all programmed in, so if they don’t like a song, they don’t listen to it.
Yeah, I remember you played “Don’t Take Me Alive” at Jones Beach a few years ago; that was one I didn’t expect to hear.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, that was one we sort of discovered a little bit later in the process, that had a sort of rousing rock-anthem quality. It’s interesting how some songs really lend themselves to performance in a big public venue and performance by a band and so on, and so they’re even more successful in that context than they were on the record.
Are there any songs that you’re just sick of altogether?
Yeah, from time to time, but it sort of changes. Usually it has to do with the fact that we’ve played it a bunch and/or how happy I am with what I have to play. I mean, very selfishly sometimes I don’t like the way I play a certain song or I don’t want to do that particular job so much. But it usually comes from having played the song recently. Because we didn’t tour for so many years, we didn’t have to play these same songs every night, so we’re not as burned out on particular songs as we might otherwise be, as most people are that have been around as long as we are that’ve had to play their first hit song every fuckin’ night. We haven’t had that; we’ve been lucky. We’ve stretched our audience’s indulgence and fondness for us to the point that it can still be fun for us.
Do you think that we can pretty much expect a yearly Steely Dan show and maybe another album?
I don’t know about yearly tours. I don’t take it for granted that the business of touring in this way is going to continue. And this is the third year in a row for us, we’re in uncharted territory, so I don’t know about that. But there’s so many other things to do: I mean, you just get into a little club or place in town and play periodically. We have a very stable band that’s mostly New Yorkers, which I think was an important thing to try for because it makes it easier for us to do things. And we can jump up and—for the first time last year, I think it was—the winter before last, we did a few gigs, just like four or five gigs in a row. So there’s lots of different ways we can do it. I’m certainly not counting on it becoming a summer routine. I don’t think it’s gonna work that way.
But is there another album in the works?
Not right now, but it could always be. I don’t know what Donald is working on, and he spends more time working than I do. I spend more time goofing off and listening to reggae records.
I was actually going to ask you what your favorite reggae records are. The new album obviously draws a lot from that style.
The stuff from the ’70s, basically. Some of the early rocksteady stuff, which I don’t know that much about, especially just the very slow-tempo, laid-back tracks and their dub permutations, things where the rhythm section had the Barrett brothers in it. There were four or five rhythm section teams that seemed to perform interchangeably, and it seems like they were just making records all day. So basically anything that’s got that slow, steady, patient beat; lots of space; weird bass parts coming in weird places. I like all of the ’70s beats, all of the permutations, from the sort of one-drop things to the four-on-the-floor things like [Circus Money’s] “God’s Eye View,” the Black Uhuru things. I like all of that stuff: just very heavy, deep, dank dub. It sinks into a certain part of your brain and affects you in a certain way that I notice some people get and some people don’t. Some people are just bored with it and to them it’s just like, Oh, they’re just playing the same thing over and over again, or, Where are the changes? Or, This is silly, or whatever. But to me, it has some profound physiological sort of resonance.
And as a bass player, you enjoy vamping in that way?
Oh yeah, for me the rhythm section is where it’s at. That’s the most interesting part of that whole kind of rhythm music, funk music and all that. And the bass players and drummers are so good and their approaches are so unorthodox, they’re so delightfully skewed from the things they used as their models. It’s almost like you imagine there was some kind of static on the radio and they didn’t figure out where [beat] 1 was the same way, you know? Somethin’ like that.
All right, two more quick questions: Do you have an iPod?
Yes, I have many.
What kinds of stuff do you put on them?
I just reload ’em from time to time to include whatever is the most recent stuff that I’m interested in, plus the base stuff—a lot of Jamaican stuff and a lot of jazz. And some have more of one thing on them than another thing because I’ll be going somewhere and I’ll want to give somebody something or play something for them, and I’ll just end up having a couple. I had a couple that have digital outputs; I experimented with that for a while and it works pretty well. It’s remarkable the sound quality that is actually in there, just sticking a set of headphones in; it’s pretty satisfying sounding. But you can look beyond that. So, yeah, I definitely have iPods.
Do you listen to your own stuff on them?
No, never, unless we’re rehearsing for the tour and I’m trying to remember how a song goes.
Okay, one more thing, and this is just more of a fan question: Can you give any insight into what the [Steely Dan] song “Gaucho” is about?
The idea of that song was sort of the relations of commerce superimposed on the relations of the human heart, let’s put it that way. With some interesting fashion touches and local color. That’s basically what you’ve got there.
Fair enough. Okay, sorry to keep you so long.
It’s perfectly all right. Very happy to talk to you.