For Steely Dan it was twenty years between Gaucho and Two Against Nature. The wait this time was only three years for the new one Everything Must Go. Neil Strauss interviews Becker and Fagan for the NY Times:
- Were you surprised, after making all those jokes about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to actually get voted in?
DONALD FAGEN That was really the happy ending we were looking forward to. And we did end up sending a case of honey mustard over to Jann Wenner. So I wanted you to know that he was properly paid off.
Is it strange that, 30 years after the bulk of your work, suddenly you’re getting so many awards and accolades?
WALTER BECKER I think that’s a pretty typical pattern. We’re getting a lot of credit just for surviving and for persisting in doing more or less the same kind of music, which depending on who you talk to is either considered a kind of integrity or a failure of imagination or both.
But for you, your style came out of nothing except yourselves and your specific musical backgrounds and tastes, so it makes sense that you’d stay in that pocket you invented.
BECKER That’s true. It’s such an unusual kind of music. It’s an indicator of how much music has become like fashion that people genuinely expect that you’ll have some whole new approach every time out.
You do, however, sing, “Let’s roll with the homies” on the new album.
BECKER That’s exactly right. We may not be in the mainstream of musical thought, but we’re willing to co-opt any catchy expression that comes along, however silly.
What made you decide to sing for the first time on the album?
BECKER I’ve been offering to sing for years. But the songs that we write have too great a range for me. So this time through, as we were getting to the end, I realized that we had a song that I could sing. So I called my own bluff and did it.
Did anyone try to stop you?
BECKER Well it certainly wasn’t anything they were expecting, and it was an easy song to sing.
Have you ever heard a popular band that you felt was a Steely Dan rip-off?
FAGEN Not really. Sometimes people remark that we had a big influence, but I don’t really hear it — at least not in pop music. I think we’re more of an influence on composers of advertising jingles and perhaps smooth jazz groups.
And how does that feel?
FAGEN Well, “I shot an arrow in the air. Where it lands, I know not where.”
Do you find it strange that your music has been so popular and original, yet it hasn’t influenced many imitators or created its own sub-genre.
BECKER I’ve always imagined that it has something to do with the fact that our music is such a diversion off the main avenue of rock ‘n’ roll styles that you almost can’t imitate it without it coming off badly. Or maybe people just don’t want to. The fact remains, and this is more true than ever, that jazz is considered some sort of bizarre alien influence in rock ‘n’ roll.
One of my favorite Grammy moments was when you both came to the press room after winning the Grammy for “Two Against Nature.” People who weren’t familiar with you expected you to be gracious, and instead they got stand-up comedy.
FAGEN We think of our records as comedy records to some degree. There wasn’t really any model for that sort of thing, with the possible exception of Frank Zappa. But when we first started, people thought our style belied the actual content of the lyrics. So they thought we were just some sort of sincere California band. I guess that’s the secret of subversion.
The Grammys were also interesting because “Two Against Nature” was just as taboo in parts as the Eminem record, but because the lyrics were cloaked in a more adult-sounding music, nobody really noticed it.
FAGEN It’s easier for us to sneak it in, I guess because of the various pop forms we use — and the fact that we’re so old — nobody cares.
The previous question was asked of Mr. Becker.
BECKER I think also it didn’t have the adolescent in-yo-face kind of flaunting of aggressively presented subject matter.
But the subject matter can be even scarier coming from adults, rather than younger artists, because kids will be kids.
BECKER I think using the word adults in regard to Donald and I always should have a footnote of some sort. Clearly some of the processes have taken place, but not others. I don’t know why that is.
On our family trip to Hawaii last summer we dug the Dan something fierce:
- When we were in Hawaii last summer we listened to a lot of Steely Dan, one of the few bands the whole family – from (at the time) 2 to 43 with a couple of teenagers thrown in the middle – could mutually appreciate. The teens dug the rocking guitar solos (Skunk Baxter, Rick Derringer, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, and Elliot Randall who did the great solo on “Reeling In the Years”) and black humor lyrics, the baby liked the beat, and the oldsters (43, 32) loved the songs, long since burrowed deeply into our psyches.
But there is something else about the Dan I haven’t heard much mentioned: in a relatively brief ten-year career through the ’70s, the band completed an archetypal journey from adolescent to middle-aged musical taste, i.e. from skewed, melodic, sometimes hard-edged rock (Cant’ Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied) to sophisto-jazzy dance beats (The Royal Scam, Aja), to elegant cocktail jazz (Gaucho). In ten years they acted out a musical life…..
I look forward to hearing the new one.