The second part of my long Steely Dan interview from 1974. Final part tomorrow.
Steely Dan augments itself with additional musicians to go on the road. Their present strength is eight: the initial five plus Roy Jones on extra percussion and vocals, Jeff Porcaro on drums and Mike McDonald on keyboards and vocals. But these three are subject to change any time depending on their and the band’s commitments.
Fagen and Becker write everything together, both music and lyrics. One of them usually gets an idea, but they develop the idea together. They say they are not as prolific now as they used to be, mainly because Steely Dan’s success takes up a lot of their time. Unlike many musicians they don’t write on the road.
“We used to have nothing but time so we could write songs ad infinitum,” says Becker. “Nowadays we can’t do that. We can’t write in hotel rooms. When we get off a tour we spend a month or so writing material for the next album.”
“This band is in hibernation for certain parts of the year,” says Fagen. “Jeff Baxter goes and does some studio gigs or goes on tour with Linda Ronstadt, and the others do the same while we are writing. Then we all get back together again and make a record.
“Everyone is committed to Steely Dan before everything else, but while we’re writing the others have nothing to do. It takes a while to write an album’s worth of material, to I guess it gets boring for them just hanging around.”
“I like to think that we don’t have to be limited by the concept of the group,” says Becker. “If one of our people wants to play with someone else and there’s time to do it, then it’s fine with us.”
“If Jeff or Jimmy go off with another band, they’re touch more interesting musicians when they come back,” says Fagen. “They’re fresher with the experience of playing different kinds of music.”
“We keep hearing the others are writing songs for the band but they never show them to us,” says Becker. “For all I know they might take over. The only thing we’ve ever done which wasn’t an original was the Duke Ellington piece on the last album. It’s a great piece of music and we figured we’d revive it”
Both Fagen and Becker consider it was a mistake for Steely Dan to go out on the road immediately after recording their first album. Their early concerts, they say, were pretty disastrous due to under rehearsal.
“When we made the album,” says Becker, “it was really just a bunch of studio musicians getting together to record our songs. We really hadn’t played together and we were just getting to know each other properly during those first sessions. Right after it was done, there were offers of gigs so we just put the band together as best we could.
“Jeff and Jim had some experience on the type of circuit we were playing. All we knew about were the gigs backing up Jay and the Americans, which was a totally different trip.”
“Actually, Walter and I were complete novices as far as actual live touring was concerned,” says Fagen. “It took a while to find out what really happens at live shows.
“We’d been playing oldie shows, so for all our experience in theory, we didn’t know much about the actual practice. We weren’t show orientated because we were jazz fans and were used to seeing musicians kicking over their bottle of beer while they were playing a solo. As far as we were concerned the show was watching a guy play and that was it, strictly for enthusiasts.
“It was a new thing for us to be playing on a bill supporting Elton John. We’re still not a show band. We try to arrange the show so that it’s dramatic musically rather than visually.”
The group have yet to visit Europe, although there are plans for them to come across sometime this summer. There were rumours of a tour early this year, but it was never really on. Statements that the “cancellation” was due to the energy crisis were put out, but this was a cover up for the fact that they were too occupied with work in the States.
Nevertheless, they do want to come over, especially as their new album is doing well in the British charts. “It’s something we’ve been trying to do for a long time, but it’s been tough for us for a lot of reasons,” says Fagen. “There have been other commitments with other people in our band, and economically it hasn’t been feasible. An American band doesn’t make any money in England, unlike English groups coming over here and making a lot of bread to split back with. It’s a prestige thing to go over to England.
“I have a feeling, though, that European audiences would be more appreciative of our music. American audiences are fantastic but I don’t know what they appreciate.”
“You can’t tell what they’re into at all,” says Becker. “From the stage, you see people at the front and they’re obviously into volume, a self abuse trip. As for the rest of the audience we don’t know. We hope it’s the music.”
“People who take their clothes off are into rhythm and we’re into that,” says Fagen in all seriousness.
It seems the pair were taken by surprise with the success of their first album. They are also unanimous in their praises of ABC Dunhill for the way they promoted the record. “They were obviously keen to get a group like us on their label, though we’re not quite sure what they think we are even now,” says Becker. “They know we’re not the grass roots type of rock band.
“I guess we were pretty original and the album did well as a result. We played for six weeks constantly after it was put out, which must have helped. We were doing big gigs, stadiums, supporting other acts like Elton, the Kinks, Uriah Heep and the James Gang.”
Nowadays they prefer to play in concert halls and usually top the bill. Their visit to New York was for a show at the Avery Fisher Hall, not unlike London’s Festival Hall. Actually they were supporting the Electric Light Orchestra – but more of that later.
New York is the band’s slowest market, even though they all hail from the area. Evidently New Yorkers consider Steely Dan to have deserted them by going to California and are still not prepared to forget. Out West Steely Dan always top the bill, but they say they play “urban rock and roll” with an East Coast sound.
Certainly their music is more complex than the usual free sounding LA band. And this derives from their jazz backgrounds. “I’d been listening to jazz since I was a little kid. I always tuned into the jazz stations in New York when all the rest of the kids listened to rock and roll,” says Fagen. “When we met, we both realised we listened to late night jazz shows and be-bop music. I hated rock and roll.
“I thought I was the only person in the world who was into this little secret about jazz. As far as I was concerned Sonny Rollins was mine. John Coltrane was mine. Miles Davis was mine. No one else ever knew or cared.”
“Then we met and discovered we listened to the same disc-jockeys and had the same records,” says Becker. “That was a very strong bond. We do try to put some jazz into Steely Dan, but try to do it in such a way that people won’t notice.”
“The way you can hear it is in the harmonic progression, which is unlike any other band because they don’t use that many jazz chords,” says Fagen. “The solos we do are not the usual rock and roll blues solos using the six notes on the scale that any kid can do. Our solos are a little more sophisticated.”