Steely Dan: Inside the College of Musical Knowledge, Part II

Welcome back to our Steely Dan interview with Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker. This is Part Two. For Part One, please go here.

Videos by American Songwriter

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, 1977. Photo by Henry Diltz.

When you’re working on a song together, how do you go about it?

FAGEN: In recent years we usually start out with me on acoustic piano and Walter on guitar. And when we have something it’s transferred into some kind of sequencing program so that we have something to work with that sounds a little like a track. And Walter usually works the computer (laughs).

BECKER: That’s true.

How conscious is your process when working to create new music?

F: Sometimes it’s not conscious at all. Sometimes it comes just from messing around with a cassette recorder on. And other times there are effects you hear in music that you try to store up in your mind. And you think about what this effect will sound like in a different context than you found it in.

 A sound effect?

F: A certain tension or atmosphere of a certain harmony and/or melody. Even down to the timbres. For example, there are things in Duke Ellington’s music I know I’ve used. He was amazing at coming up with original pieces of sound. Because of the guys in the band, the ways it was arranged, the chord progressions and the melodies, and the ranges that he put the instruments in. For instance, you will hear something in there and you will come to a certain place when writing a song, and I’ll play a certain thing that might remind me of that. And then I’ll see what would happen if I used a similar progression or somehow assimilated that effect right here in this context.

 Do you work on the lyrics at the same time as the music?

F: Generally. We have an idea of the rhythm of the melody and sometimes the melody itself.

B: Usually we have the melody by the time we write the lyrics.

 And you always write lyrics together?

F: Yeah. Almost all of them.

It’s hard to define what distinguishes your lyrics, yet they are so distinctive to your songs. Part of it is the singabilty; how beautifully they work within what is often complex music. But it’s also a mix of conversational language enriched with unusual words and phrases. The lyrics are always somewhat unexpected, and not conventional. Yet they always feel so right, and very often funny.

F: Mostly it has to do with what is the most entertaining. If you can come up with something that’s funny in some way or tells the story in an amusing way, that’s best. Or little details. Someone will come up with a detail that is very telling about the character. It might be more like writing stories than actual lyrics.

Speaking of characters, one of the great aspects of your songwriting is your use of characters. Some seem mythic, others seem like real people, but none seem phony. Can I ask about a few? How about ‘Kid Charlemagne’?

B: It was kind of an Owsleyesque figure that existed in our minds eye. I think he was based on the idea of the outlaw-acid-chef of the 60’s who had essentially outlived the social context of his specialty, but, of course, he was still an outlaw.

How about the guy in `Gaucho’?

F: ‘Gaucho’ was a very sick business altogether. We must have been in a very strange mood.

B: That was an experiment in the same way that ‘Royal Scam’ was an experiment in a type of narrative voice, or, in this case, a first-person voice. It was obviously a demented lyric. It was another one of those things where the tone of voice, like in ‘West of Hollywood’, is almost as interesting as anything else about it. I think that was an early example of that.

Living in L.A. as I do, I like that you wrote a new song about West Hollywood though you are on this coast. ‘Babylon Sisters’ is also a classic L.A. song – with that great opening line, “Drive west on Sunset to the sea…”

B: That can be a long drive, depending on where you start.

F: That song is another Bernard Purdie special. He knew how to make the songs move, and he also had the technique. He had an almost polyrhythmic approach to the song. He started playing a shuffle against a straight eight. Which is pretty unusual to hear. Well (laughs), maybe not from a band, but to hear that from one person.

B: Unfortunately we hear that from the band all the time (laughs). That is a very spooky song. I still like that one a lot. Some of them I don’t like. That one I do.

The character of ‘Aja’ is interesting, as is the narrator. And that song is astounding. It’s more extended and expansive than a usual song. What led you to ‘Aja’?

B: It is actually two songs that we put together. One of the instrumental sections was a chorus from a song we had written previously. It was called ‘Stand By The Seawall’. The little chunk in the middle. ‘Aja’ is a song with a little suite in the middle of it, and some of that were parts of that song and other miscellaneous bits and pieces that Donald had laying around in his head – things he was going to write and never did and it just got assembled that way. A lot of our songs have spare parts from abandoned or incomplete songs, and that’s one of them.

And how about ‘Surf and/or Die’ from your solo album, Walter? 

B: It was something that actually happened in Hawaii where I lived. Based on a true story. I think actually what happened was that I started writing a little poem about the fact that this guy left a phone message for me that I didn’t pick up until after he was dead. And I had this other piece of music, and I just kind of welded them together.

Do you plot out a story before writing a story song together?

F: Yes, but sometimes we might not know how it ends.

B: You get the general idea and then you see where it takes you. I noticed on the songs we just wrote, for example, by the time we were finished with the song we’ll have a couple of pages sometimes of lyric material and ideas and conceptual stuff about the character and the situation that we didn’t use. Either lyrics that we rejected, or just back story, if you will.

F: Yeah, sometimes we’ll have two or three pages of junk we came up with as notes about a story or character.

F: it’s just like a short story writer or a novelist would work in some cases to develop an elaborate backstory and a set of impressions that you then draw from –

F: The reader doesn’t have to know the whole back story, but we have to know it –

B: We have to know it to write the song.

It’s makes sense that you work this way, because these stories are so rich and real seeming, as in ‘What A Shame About Me’, which is like a little short story with a surprise ending.

F: Yeah, that’s kind of like a five minute play.

B: That started with the title for the song.

F: That’s kind of a renovated blues idea. I think the ending of it was the last thing we wrote.

B: We had ourselves on the edges of our chairs until we got there (laughter). We just didn’t know what was going to happen.

F: We thought it was just too obvious for the guy to just go up with the girl –

B: I would say, generally speaking, that songs on this album, we didn’t know how the stories were going to end until we got there. Wouldn’t you agree?

F: Yeah, pretty much.

To be funny in songs can be tough, because jokes quickly get old. Yet your songs such as ‘Cousin Dupree’ are funny without being jokey.

B: Well, when Donald and I started writing together way back when we were in college and for several years after that, the songs that we wrote were humorous but in fact they were too humorous. They sort of, unfortunately, suffered from that very problem that you’re describing, that they were just too jokey and sounded like novelty songs.

But we realized that that was a liability and so we developed over time and sort of tempered that idea. We honed into the idea of things having humor in them, but a certain kind of humor and a certain amount of humor, along with other stuff. Because we were both definitely interested in humor as a central element of what we were doing, but we didn’t want to write Tom Lehrer songs.

F: ‘Cousin Dupree’ is a song we had from a while back. That one sort of had been kicked around for a while. At one point we were talking about writing some country songs, and I think that one came out of the list of ideas for country tunes. Really parodies of country tunes.

 Musically country?

F: Well, we were thinking of doing that at the time but we didn’t. Although ‘Cousin Dupree’ does have a kind of rockabilly, Chuck Berry-ish quality to it. It’s mainly the lyrics that are country.

It’s hard to imagine you writing country music, because the kind of expanded chords you use are never heard in country. Years ago you referred to the “Mu chord”, which is a major triad with a major second in it. Musicians also know of another Steely Dan chord – Did you consciously choose to use these chords, and are they still part of your vocabulary?

F: Well, I think both of us have maybe been to the College of Musical Knowledge since then (laughter). So we know a lot more about harmony now.

Those chords that we used then were some of the more interesting chords that hadn’t been used that much in beat music at the time. So, yeah, I think we still use those chords –

B: But there are so many others –

F: It’s not like we ever said, “I’m going to use this Mu chord here” –

B: That was just a joke. We made that up just for the songbook. We never referred to it, before or after that day, as the “Mu chord” –

F: No, we never did, we never did.

B: It was just an invention. [To Donald] Do you know what he means by this other chord, this “Steely Dan chord”?

F: Yeah, it’s a minor seventh with a sharp five.

B: Yeah, right.

F: It is a major chord, but with the third in the bass, you can call it a minor seventh (laughter). It’s really an inversion of a major chord with an added second –

B: Right. And no third.

You’re famous for getting the tightest rhythm tracks possible. Musicians now have machines which can create that kind of precision, but they rarely get the soulful grooves that you create. How do you do it?

F: It comes out of the arrangement a lot. And the drummer. And in the last couple of years there has been a certain manipulation of the rhythm track. We started with live drums on every song.

B: But then we edit. Essentially it’s an editing process.

F: Yeah, it’s not only a live drum track, but actually a live band playing. We have a quintet or sextet.

B: Some of the later ones we did with a trio. Sometimes on some of the larger sections I wouldn’t play.

F: Walter was actually producing when we were having the bigger bands. I was playing outside and Walter was inside –

B: Ordering take-out food (laughter).

 The horn arrangements on this new album are remarkable. Are they part of the original conception of the song?

F: It’s usually one of the last things we put on. Of course, you listen to a track and say, “Oh, we can have horns do that.” Generally speaking it has to do with where you need a kick in a song. And I think that’s good, because it keeps it kind of minimal that way. So you don’t overwrite. Sometimes just a little horn goes a long way.

That to me seems a key to your production and arrangement style, that you have a lot going on, but everything comes in at the right time, so that you can hear all of the separate components.

F: Yeah, that’s the advantage to working on tape.

B: We try to avoid the abuse of the bourgeois football technique. Where guys are just playing chords and holding them. We want more emotion in there, more contrapuntal movement –

F:: More air in the production. There are a particular bunch of guys, especially guitar players, who just want to play a chord and hold it through the bar. Which is something we try to avoid. Because it weighs down everything. F:

It’s also common to sustain keyboard pads through the bar, which is something you never do. And that does create a feeling of space in the music.

F: Yeah. In fact, because we don’t do that much, then when we bring in the horn section, then it can serve as a little pad there or sustain section. You can do it at the end of the song without gunking the whole thing out.

To keep that space, are you also pretty sparing when it comes to the use of reverb and echo?

B: Certainly by comparison to other people I think we are. We are shooting for a different end result than what a lot of people are. In general, people, when they are making rock and roll records, want a big, powerful, sort of massive sound. And we’re thinking more in terms of being able to clearly hear the details. We’re more influenced by good sounding jazz recordings of the late 50’s and 60’s and some subsequent things as well. So I think our things tend to be a little drier and clearer sounding and more upfront in general.

Unlike most bands who develop a distinctive sound over a series of albums you had your sound complete from the first album. Did you two discuss what you wanted to do, in terms of sound, before you accomplished it?

F: We had been working at studios a little bit, and by the time we made that first record we had met Roger Nichols, and Roger was also a hi-fi buff and had a very compatible concept, and certainly we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. And Roger knew how to do it, essentially.

B: Roger was totally into doing whatever we wanted to do in terms of experimenting. We knew early on that he was the guy for us. It was essentially working on the Steely Dan albums with Roger where we first had the opportunity to go in and fool around with things, try different stuff, play around with equipment, mix a record, and so on.

Do you have favorite keys to work in, and do you feel that each key has its own character?

F: Yeah, I do, in a funny way. I don’t know if I can define it, exactly. With different keys it’s almost as if they each have different smells (laughter).

B: There is some kind of complex, synesthetic effect that each key has –

F: Yeah. At least in relation to other keys. I’m sure if something was in D and then it was in E, I don’t know if that would make as much of a difference if you heard it out of context. But if you heard the D one first and then the E one, then you could compare them.

B: And forgetting about if keys in the abstract have some kind of color, if you are working on some particular musical instrument, they certainly are quite different.

F: Also the way that keys affect range and inversion. That’s not anything intrinsic to a key, but it does affect the way it sounds.

As the lead singer, do you gravitate towards certain keys that best suit your vocal range?

F: No, I just usually make sure the highest note of the melody falls within my range.

B: Or very near so.

F: If not, then we decide if it’s possible to have that be some kind of background part, so that we can get up higher. Sometimes we’ll take the melody and say that it is going to be falsetto or a girl singing. And that’s cool. I’ll sing the lower part.

B: Sometimes the verse needs to be in a certain key or not below a certain key, because we are modulating a lot up to the chorus, and that would place the chorus too high.

F: In ‘Two Against Nature’, we liked the verse in a certain key for my voice and the way it sounded on the keyboard. And we actually had the chorus in another key, but it didn’t work out range wise for my voice. We tried to get the same effect by putting the chorus in a different key.

B: Often we’ll have a series of possible different key relationships between verse and chorus, and we’ll have to decide on one that is the best in terms of ranges. Sometimes there will be two or three modulations in one song. I know that was the case on ‘Two Against Nature’.

F: Right. We wanted the effect of the chorus to have a little lift in a certain way. What is it?

B: The verse is in A flat and the chorus is in D.

F: The first relationship we had was similar. Maybe it was a third up. We knew we wanted that kind of thing, but the first thing we had just didn’t work out from a range point of view. So we searched around for something that sounded pretty much as good that was singable.

The harmony vocals on the album are wonderful. And more than ever you have a lot of counterpoint harmonies going against melody.

F: Yeah, I think that is one of the things we are doing a little different in the vocal parts. Because we used to do more block harmony. Now this is more interesting. I guess this is our classic period because we are going back to counterpoint.

B: (Laughs) It’s our Baroque period.

F: Primitive counterpoint it might be, but counterpoint nonetheless (laughs).

You finished this album in 1999 to be released in 2000, which ensures that there will be good music in the next millennium. Any thoughts as to how your music applies to the next century?

B: Well, we’re still confused about how our music applies to the current century (laughs).

We have been fortunate enough to do something that has always been out of the mainstream and yet have an audience for what we do. And I hope that continues to be true. I don’t think what we are doing fits neatly into the context of what’s happening now anymore than it did in the early 70’s when we started doing it. We were fortunate at that time that radio was as wide open as it was that people doing something like what we were doing could sneak in there.

F: We sneaked in a window of a couple of years when radio was willing to play something that didn’t sound like something that had been played for the last 40 years.

You are one of the only bands who seem to never have been influenced by any trends.

F: You know what it is, we’re influenced by music from the last century.

B: We’re influenced by trends but they are only trends that we know about (laughter). They’re secret trends.

 Will there be more Steely Dan albums after this one?

B: There could be. It depends on how long we live.

F: Depends on the sales, really.

B: (Laughter) It depends on demand.

F: They’re not going to let us make another one, you know, unless somebody buys it.

Having listened to it thoroughly in both New York and L.A.. I can attest to the fact that it sounds great on both coasts.

B: (Laughter) Well, that’s really nice to know, but it’s really the middle of the country we’re worried about. If you find anyone in the middle of the country that likes it, please let us know.

Leave a Reply

Kate Mills Says It’s Ok To “Fall Apart”