If you’re anything more than a casual Steely Dan fan, you know that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker can be notoriously tough interviews. As the founding members of one of rock’s most influential, forward-thinking, and ubiquitously long-running acts, why wouldn’t you be?
For the unacquainted, the Dan backstory goes something like this: Fagen and Becker met in 1967 at Bard College, where they bonded over a shared love of jazz. The two played in numerous bands together before picking up and moving to New York, where they found success as songwriters and touring musicians. They formed Steely Dan in 1972 and quickly made a name for themselves with their complicated chord structures, intricate harmonies, and witty, dry, and often narrative-inspired lyrics. The ’70s brought six studios albums, including the now-iconic Aja, as well as hits that spanned from 1972’s “Reelin’ in the Years” to ’77’s “Peg.” Becker and Fagen called it quits in 1981, following the epically troubled recording and release of Gaucho, which was plagued by legal woes, as well as an infamously intense recording process, fueled by Becker and Fagen’s exacting perfectionism.
The necessary solo projects followed, but by 1993 Fagen and Becker had reunited under the Steely Dan moniker. Early 2000 brought the first Steely album in 20 years, the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature, which was followed by Everything Must Go in 2003. And, as all good icons do, the band has found a whole new generation of fans in the process.
Last month, the fellas sat down for a conference call with a number of reporters in anticipation of their upcoming tour, which hits the Santa Barbara Bowl this week. The show is called Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day, and, fittingly, the conversation it spawned was about as ridiculous as the tour title. A few hand-selected excerpts are below.
REPORTER: This tour finds you embracing the best of all worlds; you have full-album nights, you have greatest-hits nights, and you have fan-request nights. Was that in response to fans or simply to stave off your own boredom?
Donald Fagen: Probably a little bit of both I guess. We like to kick the gun around.
Walter Becker: That’s right. We do, but not in the traditional sense, in a more modern kind of —
DF: I’d say metaphorical sense.
WB: A 21st-century kind of sense.
So, it’s been 20 years now since you guys brought Steely Dan back. What’s been the most rewarding part?
WB: Well, it’s great fun to play with a really good band. That goes without saying, but I think that’s the essence of it right there for me.
DF: We’re hoping to eventually win the Bunsen prize as a reward, but so far we’ve only been second runner-up.
WB: We won the flameout category two years in a row, but that’s a mixed honor.
Is more new material being discussed?
WB: It’s in the air. It really is. We’re just picking it up here and starting the tour, but I can almost — well, I can smell it.
Are there songs around that you’re showing to each other?
WB: No. It’s just a smell now. Next thing is then you taste it; then you start to feel it. You know how this goes, Gary.
DF: We have a bunch of songs, but it’s like every time we get together, we end up just going fishing. Maybe it has to do with our age.
WB: Remember the time that you were chased in by those mullet?
DF: Or by those blue fish? Jesus, that was bad. The weird thing is, I’ve only been fishing a few times, especially when I was a kid. The first time I went fishing I caught a box turtle instead of a fish, and the second time I caught a real ugly fish called a lamprey.
So, what comes next?
DF: I think a lot of musicians, jazz people; we kind of just don’t project that much into the future. It’s more about what you’re doing right now. For instance, when my father used to parallel park, he used to say, while he was doing it, “All right, I’m backing up now; all right, I’m pulling in; now I’m getting closer to the curb; okay, I think that’s it.” I think that’s one good thing that my father handed down to me is he lived in the moment.
Are there any new musicians you’re listening to right now?
WB: Yes, I love guys like Charlie Parker. He was only 35 when he died, so most of his work was almost like new.
Is there anyone in 2013 you guys like?
WB: I still like Charlie Parker. You’re not going to talk me out of that.
I read that Kanye West wrote a letter to you guys to get permission for your song. Would you mind going into that at all?
DF: Well, from time to time, we get requests for licenses from hip-hoppers who want to use part of an old song or something. We got a clip of something from Kanye West wanting to use a piece of “Kid Charlemagne,” and we thought it was … We usually say yes, but we didn’t like the general curve of the way that one sounded, so we said …
WB: Also, he was using a line of Donald’s vocal over and over again, which …
DF: We thought it was just too repetitive.
WB: Usually, you don’t give them samples with your voice on them.
DF: But then he sent us a handwritten letter, which was so heartfelt that we finally gave in and acceded to his request.
WB: Yeah, he basically said that this was a song that meant a lot to him. It was written about his father and his feelings for his father and …
DF: I didn’t get that at all from the music, but …
WB: No, I’ve had occasion to wonder since then whether that’s the same Kanye West.
DF: Maybe it was a prank.
WB: It could have been. I think somebody took over the Kanye West personality paradigm and has been operating it randomly.
After this many years together, do you guys still surprise each other?
WB: I think we do, as incredible as it may seem. It’s probably a tribute to either our short-term memory loss or to our low threshold of surprise.
DF: When you can’t remember what happened this morning, you’re always surprised.
WB: That’s right. I make new friends every day. I can hide my own Easter eggs.
Are you engaged online at all? Do you care?
WB: No, of course not. I thought Twitter was a joke until about 12 weeks ago, and really I thought it was like a gag or something, and then I find out that it’s not. I thought it was like the National Lampoon or the Onion or whatever.
Do you guys find yourselves rearranging older songs for the live show?
DF: We’ve been rearranging this stuff for many years. Actually, we’re sort of beyond that — we’ve gone back to the original versions.
WB: Which in many cases were already deconstructed versions of the original idea or of another song.
DF: In other words, we’re postmodern.
You guys seem to be having fun. You have a reputation for not enjoying interviews too much.
DF: We’re having a ball.
WB: That was just a bum rap. I don’t know what it is.
DF: It’s the Internet. It’s punk music man. Do you know what it is? It’s … [New York mayor Michael] Bloomberg.
WB: And Lindsay before that … [New York mayor from 1966-1973 John] Lindsay.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker bring Steely Dan and Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday, August 20, 7 p.m. See sbbowl.com for more.