Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'
Interviewing Steely Dan is no easy task. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen turned messing with journalists into an art form back in the Seventies. Rolling Stone checked in with Becker and Fagen during the final days of rehearsal for their upcoming 53-date Mood Swings American tour. It kicks off on July 19th in Atlantic City and runs through October 8th in New York. Select shows will include complete performances of Aja, Gaucho and The Royal Scam.
We spoke with Fagen first, and he lulled us into a false sense of security by casually answering our questions in a relatively straightforward manner. A couple of hours later, Becker called. He was a little less cooperative, though equally sardonic. The pair talked about choosing songs for this tour, the possibility of a new Steely Dan record, their aging fan base, what songs they're sick of playing and many other topics.
Are you guys in tour rehearsal right now?
Donald Fagen: Yeah. We've been at it for about a week now. We really just need to brush up, and then we added a few things.
Well, it's probably better if it's a surprise. But we did notice that we're doing all the songs from the Countdown to Ecstasy album. We're thinking now that we know them, which was kind of an accident; we'll just bring the whole album out during some of the shows. We'll probably just wind up doing it randomly.
You're doing Gaucho, The Royal Scam, Aja and now Countdown to Ecstasy. Why not do Pretzel Logic too?
I think we have almost all those songs. Maybe we'll have that one, too, if we add one or two more.
So you might do it?
I remember you saying once you don't love all those songs, though.
That's true. "With a Gun" is not my favorite. We'll see, though. Maybe we can alter it slightly in a way that makes it more palatable.
Is there a small part of you that wishes you stuck with another singer all those years ago so you didn't have to sing all night long on these tours?
There's a large part of me that wishes that we stuck with another singer. When Michael McDonald joined, I voted to make him lead singer, but I was vetoed.
You did have another singer on some of the first album, though.
Yeah, but no one thought Dave Palmer was a good match. I thought Mike would have been great, but it's probably good for him that we didn't force him to do it.
Do you have more fun on the Dukes of September tours because you can just focus on piano playing for much of the night?
I don't know about more fun, but there's less pressure, and that makes it easier and more fun.
The band seems to be in a nice groove now where you tour every other summer. I always know that if it's an odd-numbered summer, I can go see Steely Dan.
It's because we don't want to overexpose ourselves, and I can always find something to do in the alternate summer, so it works out pretty good. I'm either recording or going out with the Dukes or something.
Have you ever thought about just taking a summer off and relaxing?
I don't like vacations unless I'm writing something specific, but I usually do that in my spare time anyways. I get very anxious on vacations. I'm sort of always working.
You guys have had an odd career in that you stopped touring pretty early back in the Seventies, but now you tour all the time – even though it's been a decade since you last released an album.
Well, we had that all planned out, of course . . . In truth, our original bit was put together very quickly, and it got kind of frantic in the first couple of years of touring and making records. I guess we figured we'd be deceased at an early date, so we figured we'd cool it for a few decades.
It was a smart move. A lot of your peers burned out on the road in the Seventies, or they spent so much time in close quarters that they learned to utterly despise each other.
Yeah, that's true. None of that really happened, or at least not to a great extent. We kept the hate down to a slow boil. We didn't want that Rascals thing to happen.
I think a lot of bands like that just had terrible management.
A lot of it is bad management. They work the bands too hard. I also think the greed factor happens, especially revolving around songwriting things. Walter and I have always done the 50/50 thing, no matter what was the actual origin of the song.