"SHOUT" FROM "ANIMAL HOUSE" If -- to quote a Steely Dan song here -- "the…
- Posted on Sep 1st 2010 4:30PM by Pat Pemberton
Paul Bergen, Redferns
Long praised by critics, the Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famers even have cred with the hip-hop community, with artists like Kanye West, Tone Loc and De La Soul sampling their work. Fagen recently spoke to Spinner about the tour, his plans to recording again as Steely Dan with Becker and why he's cool with the group's songs being sampled.
How did you chose songs for the tour?
It started out with Boz, Mike McDonald and I e-mailing lists of songs back and forth. And we had probably over 100 to start with. We had a long list and then a short list, then we wound up with maybe 30 tunes, maybe 21 or 22 of which will appear in the show.
You have a lot of soul stuff in there, too, right?
Yeah, we decided to do half personal repertoire and half covers of songs we each wanted to do. They're mostly from the '60s, some from the late '50s and a few from the '70s. We kind of grew up with this. It was the music that was our centers as we were teenagers. And as we became musicians, this was the kind of stuff we were hearing on the radio all the time, so it kind of formed us as musicians. We actually did this back in '93. We had a project called the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which went out for two years. And on the second one, Boz and Mike were touring with it, and we actually made a pretty good record -- it's kind of obscure and called 'Live at the Beacon.'
A lot of times, you hear, "Music is dead now." Does it kind of give you hope to know there is sort of a soul revival happening?
It's too bad that music doesn't seem to be evolving in some richer and newer way. But that's part of the cycle of empires, and we don't know exactly what moves that along.
If you could sing lead on one of Boz's or Michael's songs, is there one or two that you especially like?
'Lowdown,' I think, is a great song that Boz does. And Mike has a lot of songs. 'It Keeps You Running,' I think, is a great song.
Early on you didn't really like performing live, and now obviously you do. What changed over the years?
I never aimed to be a singer. When Walter and I started, we wanted to be players and songwriters. We were always looking for a singer to front our band. But it just never worked out for us.
We were always doing these demos, and we would sometimes sing together on these demos. But mostly I was elected because my pitch was a little better, and I sang higher. Somehow when we finally failed to find a singer, I was elected. But because I was so new at it, when we first started touring it took me a while to get into it. And I had a lot of trouble with my throat and stuff like that because I didn't really know how to sing, but over the years I took some coaching and that kind of stuff. And after a lot of experience, I finally got into it.
Chris Walter, WireImage
There are different varieties of soul music. But generally speaking, the chord progressions are fairly simple. It was always very professionally produced and had fantastic musicians playing it, certainly on Motown records and certainly on Stax records produced in Memphis and records produced in Muscle Shoals. If you just listen to the horn arrangements on any of the Stax records or Muscle Shoals records, there's a very sophisticated sensibility behind those records despite the fact that they might be using simple materials. And also the sound texture is very sophisticated. And the singing, of course, derives from the black church at the time, which is a whole thing unto itself -- which goes back centuries, really. So it may not be the kind of sophistication as you see in jazz harmony -- it doesn't have that -- but it's plenty sophisticated.
Have you heard of more people named Aja or Rikki because of your songs?
Occasionally, someone will say, "I named my daughter Aja." A couple of weeks ago, someone said, "I named my dog Aja." But that's pretty flattering that it meant enough for them to do that.
Do you get Rikki and Josie also?
We get some Rikkis and Josies too.
How do you feel about people sampling your songs for hip-hop?
Usually, if someone asks for a license, we say fine unless there's something really offensive about the demo they send us or if it's just musically horrible for some reason.
How do you feel about that whole debate where they're using someone else's music?
That's a matter between them and their conscience or them and whatever god they worship.
But you're OK with it?
I'm OK. Our records are still up there on the shelf for sale. It doesn't affect the original product in any way.
You're working on a solo project now, right?
Yes. I'm hoping to get it out next year.
Is there any more Steely Dan stuff on the horizon?
Walter and I have been talking about a concept we'd like to do. Walter is also working on a solo project, so maybe after those are done we'll get to it.
What do you think your career would have been like had you not met?
I've actually thought about that. I don't know if either of us would have had the confidence to go into a music publisher's office alone. A lot of the stuff you had to do to get your foot in the door, you needed a partner. Because we used to, like, buck each other up. We were both pretty socially inept. Together we could bounce off each other and make jokes and stuff like that. But on our own, I wonder if we would ever walk in the door.
You mentioned being socially inept. There's that great line in 'Reeling in the Years,' about the "weekend at the college didn't turn out like you planned." Did having that experience help the music somehow?
Well, it gave us something to write about, that's for sure. It's like the wound and the bow story, where all artists have some kind of a wound -- a suppurating wound of some sort -- whether it be psychological or physical, that makes them who they are.
I've read that you don't like to generally discuss song meanings. Is that true?
Well, I think it just kind of takes from the experience of the listener a little bit. Unless it's something really specific.
Is it good to allow them to interpret it for themselves?
Yeah, you know. Especially in some of the early ones, I don't think Walter and I even know what they mean because we were probably high at the time.
You didn't even like that first album, 'Can't But a Thrill,' that much. Is that right?
I don't think we refined what we were doing for a few albums. I don't even think we knew what style of music we wanted to play for the first few albums. And also, I was so unsure about singing that I also was like, you know, searching around for some kind of style. I really don't like to hear that.
It does sound so different from the others. It was almost like a different band.
Yeah, but you know, your first time out -- sometimes that has other qualities, like a lot of energy.
You and Walter never felt the need to have commercial hits. What kind of struggles did you have with the labels over that?
We started over at ABC-Dunhill [Records] -- we got jobs there because of some demos we did -- as staff writers for the label. Our job was really to write commercial songs for the artists on their roster. But we were terrible at that. All the commercial songs we wrote sounded like imitations of stuff that was on the radio at the time -- although so did all the other teams of writers they had working there. But it was great because they were among the last labels that actually had staff writers working. There were little offices with pianos and all that.
But because we had that "in" with the company -- we were actually working in the building -- when we said we wanted to make a record, they gave us a budget and said we could do whatever we wanted and never once interfered with anything we were doing.
That doesn't happen too often.
In fact, the only thing I remember having a fight about was an album cover. Something they objected to. But never with the music. So we were totally independent and have been ever since.