- 20 Sep 02
CHRONICALLY SHY, NERVOUS AND INTROVERTED, DONALD FAGEN IS NOT AT ALL WHAT YOU WOULD EXPECT OF THE MAN, WHO ALONG WITH WALTER BECKER, MADE UP THE NOW LEGENDARY STEELY DAN, ONE OF THE SEVENTIES' MOST SOPHISTICATED AND CYNICAL ROCK BANDS. HAVING SURVIVED OVER A DECADE OF "PSYCHOLOGICAL CRISES" AND INACTIVITY, HOWEVER, HE HAS NOW RE-EMERGED WITH A BRAND NEW ALBUM. INTERVIEW: LIAM FAY.
I DON'T know what kind of mental image you have of Donald Fagen, the Steely Dan ironist and progenitor of the ice-cool 1982 album, "The Nightfly".
I had envisioned a sort of world-weary, suave smoothie, acerbic, arrogant, maybe aloof but certainly articulate. This after all is a man whose music and lyrics are a veritable byword for sophistication and subtlety. Whatever you expect, however, what you get is Mr Bean, only without the savoir faire.
Fagen is both chronically shy and manically nervous. Answering a question, he not only refuses to look you in the eye but won't even stare you in the stomach. He spends most of the time gazing at a point somewhere around shoe level. And the level of his own shoes at that. His every sentence is a maternity ward of pregnant pauses and, throughout a forty minute interview, he exhibits his discomfort with a constant tap-tapping of the table with the palms of both hands.
His one attempt at pouring himself a coffee refill from the hotel tray was aborted in an embarrassing clatter of cups, saucers, pot and boiling liquid.
All of the above combined with a surprisingly stoney reluctance to say very much about either the Steely Dan days or his personal life conspire to make a journalistic encounter with Donald Fagen a chore akin to trying to pull teeth from a buzzing chainsaw. What follows, however, was rendered even more difficult by the fact that it was what is known in the trade as a "round table session" i.e. a mini press conference in which the artist talks to a small group of about four or five hacks.
They're never ideal but usually these set-ups are at least tolerable. On this particular occasion, unfortunately, we were joined by a Swedish gentleman, obviously from a specialist musicians publication, who had flown to London to ask Donald Fagen questions about only two things. Chord progressions and percussion patterns.
If I ever meet the bastard again, I will kill him.
First, let's reel in the years. During the late sixties, Donald
Fagen was a student at New York's Bard College and it was there that he met up with a guy called Walter Becker who shared his enthusiasm for pianos, literature and the music of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Having graduated, Becker and Fagen decided to try their hand at becoming a songwriting team, hoping eventually to emulate their other idols, Leiber and Stoller.
They wrote by night and hung around the foyer of the legendary Brill Building by day, touting their wares. Their first professional job came when they were commissioned to compose the soundtrack for a 1971 Richard Pryor film entitled "You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It".
Things really started rolling for Becker and Fagen when they hitched their wagon to an emerging young producer by the name of Gary Katz. The trio gelled quickly and over a period of months, they began to define a distinctive style and sound with the emphasis on jazzy pop melodies and sharp, sardonic lyrics. A fully functioning band was formed (initially with one David Palmer on vocals) and a name was found in the, er, shape of a rubber penis, Steely Dan III from Yokohama, in William Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch".
Steely Dan's 1972 debut album, "Can't Buy A Thrill", was a huge success, its detached, polished cynicism finding a perfect echo in a particularly turbulent era of American politics. Fagen himself was sufficiently confident to take over all singing duties on the '73 follow-up "Countdown to Ecstasy", and there also began a revolving door membership policy which in subsequent years saw some of the world's most notable session players take up temporary residence within the Dan compound.
They disliked touring and instead concentrated on intensive studio work which during the next seven years produced the LPs "Pretzel Logic", "Katy Lied", "The Royal Scam", "Aja" and their 1980 swan song, "Gaucho".
Burnout and the inevitable "personal problems" eventually brought about the demise of Steely Dan. Walter Becker hit the coke, hard, and there was also a serious car crash and a messy legal case involving a girlfriend who died from an overdose and whose mother then decided to sue him for introducing her to drugs in the first place. Eventually, however, Becker dragged himself out of the mire and has since built a reputation as a producer par excellence, whose credits include Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis.
Donald Fagen's wilderness years are a little more difficult to navigate. Narcotics played a part here too but, he insists, to a much lesser extent than with Becker. In 1982, he released his first solo outing, "The Nightfly", an elegant collection of songs about "growing up absurd" in the late fifties and early sixties that is still an enduring favourite with deejays everywhere.
Despite such a fatal endorsement, however, it's an album that has weathered the past decade impressively well.
After "The Nightfly" though, Donald Fagen seemed to virtually evaporate off the face of planet rock. There were occasional sightings - he wrote the soundtrack for the film "Bright Lights, Big City", he also briefly had a movie-music column for the American version of Premiere and there was a Becker/Fagen reunion of sorts on Rosie Vela's 1987 album "Zazu" - but essentially he was missing in action.
Fagen freely admits that compact disc re-issues of Steely Dan material financed his years of inactivity ("you won't find anyone who applauded the introduction of CDs louder than me," he says), but adds that his lengthy hiatus was enforced rather than chosen. "I basically went through a sort of psychological crisis", he explains, his table drumming speeding up a little. "I'm a person who is kinda prone to nervousness and depression, and there were long periods when I was just feeling (pause) numb.
"I had very little emotional resources to fall back on because all I've known since my teens has been music. That's all there was. 'The Nightfly' was my autobiographical album and that was about my childhood. After I'd done that, there was nothing left.
"I was a very compulsive, workaholic when I was in my twenties. I'd work every day, even on Christmas, because I was bored when I wasn't working. Right up to the end of 'The Nightfly' the only life I had was in the studio. I was in my thirties but I was still an adolescent because I'd never had a chance to grow up. I'd been compelled to do this since I was about eleven. Working was a way of avoiding having to do or think about anything else."
Specifically, what was he avoiding? "Everything in life aside from music and lyrics," he says, and then lapses into another of his silences.
By all accounts, intensive periods in therapy have helped Fagen but he visibly bristles when I use the word 'psychoanalysis'.
"You have to distinguish eclectic therapy from psychoanalysis," he stresses. "I didn't have any psychoanalysis. Eclectic therapy is something very specific. At the very least, it means that you have someone to talk to rather than bothering your friends with your problems. You can pay someone to listen to you. It's a great idea."
"Your utilising of sixteenth note rhythmic patterns on your new record is very dramatic, I feel?"
This probing query comes, I hasten to explain, from my Swedish friend, Lars Chord Progressions. Apart from inducing apoplexy in the rest of the assembled press corps, this questions lets Fagen off the hook of having to speak about himself, a task he clearly finds immensely distasteful.
Fagen's new album, his first for eleven years, is "Kamakiriad", a curious hybrid of sci-fi imagery, allegory-telling and Fagen's characteristically complex and glossy tunesmithery (albeit with some pretty dramatic sixteenth note rhythmic patterns). The album's science-fiction elements are not, he insists, "its essence", merely a structure which made the smashing of his writer's block a little easier.
"I'm not a singer/songwriter type," says Fagen. "It doesn't appeal to me to write first degree narrative. I'm much more interested in telling a story. The narrator in 'Kamakiriad; shouldn't be seen as me. But there are a lot of autobiographical elements in the character. 'Kamakiriad' is an allegory which is not very appealing in literature but it works in this case because I've kept the songs as songs and avoided being didactic or boring.
"What I like about science fiction is both its optimism and pessimism. These are things that appeal to people who know about depression. I like the style in which it allows you to work. You can invent technology which is useful as metaphor. It also allows you to talk about things which might be personal or autobiographical but also to keep a certain detachment by science fictionalising it."
Walter Becker was drafted onto "Kamakiriad" as producer, bassist and guitar soloist. "I needed someone to help me with all this so I called him," states Fagen. "We've always kept in touch, even though he lives in Hawaii and I live in New York. We're older, we're closer now. We never used to fight but we do now which proves that we're better friends.
"We were kids when we were in Steely Dan and stuff was hard to discuss. Now, we discuss everything. It's really great to have someone in your life with whom you've shared so many years. It's like a marriage. I feel kinda lucky."
Fagen and Gary Katz are still also tight friends. "We're partners in a studio called River Sound on the upper side of New York," he explains. "We both use it and rent it out when it's free. Gary was kinda automated out of his job on 'Kamakiriad'. The technology has changed so much since I last recorded so I can now build my own models of tracks so he doesn't have as much to do anymore. We still mess about in the studio though."
Stylistically, the new album is almost a direct sequel to "The Nightfly" and Fagen makes no apologies for the fact that he listens to very little contemporary music and assimilates less.
"I don't have a car and I've only ever listened to the radio when I'm in the car so I hear very little radio," he says. "I don't listen to much music at home either but when I do it's Stax soul or seventies' funk, Sly, George Clifton. I'm aware of some rap but the thing that appeals to me most are those collegey, trashy bands. I like that kind of know-nothing stuff. They just do stuff 'cause they like the sound of it. Because of their naivety they come up with some really quirky chord changes."
Shit! He shouldn't have said that. Here comes the Swede again with some more points of order about his specialist subject. Ten minutes later, when his questions are beginning to bore even his own arse off its hinges, the conversation turns to dance and rap acts using Steely Dan samples.
"I've only heard some," admits Fagen. "De La Soul did one and Ice Cube. It doesn't bother me. Because music is just reduced to digits in digital recordings, it's also just reduced to information and information wants to be free. I understand the aesthetic sensibility of an artist who wants to borrow or steal or base his stuff on older work. Although I wouldn't do it, it makes a kind of sense to me. But unless it's transformed into something interesting it's not of much value. I liked the De La Soul tune that used a sample from 'Peg'. But as long as they pay for the usage, it's fine by me.
"My favourite thing though is where you hear easy listening covers of Steely Dan songs. I like those elevator music versions. They're funny."
Donald Fagen's career as a journalist was short-lived. His column in Premiere lasted only a couple of months and he only ever carried out one interview. It was with Ennio Morricone and, five minutes in, Fagen's tape recorder broke down.
"It was always going to be difficult," he recalls. "Ennio Morricone doesn't speak English so we were communicating through a translator. Then, my tape machine wouldn't work and we couldn't find another. I had to write down all his answers by hand. So I had his answers fine but when I came to write it I couldn't remember my questions so I had to piece it all together. Very hard work."
Thankfully, these days Fagen has returned to his original day job. He kicks off a major American tour in July of this year alongside Walter Becker and, yes, it will almost certainly be billed as a Steely Dan tour with a set that will include re-worked versions of some of their classic songs. Japanese and European tours will take place, "barring accidents", next year.
"Walter and I stopped performing in '74," says Fagen. "We found touring not very satisfying, especially under the harsh conditions of the time. For the most part, we were the opening act on other people's tours so we never got proper sound-checks or anything. We opened for a lot of heavy metal acts and stuff like that. Travel conditions were bad and we always seemed to be playing in gymnasiums which I never liked.
"We finally got our own show in '74 but by then we felt we had run out of material and we needed to woodshed and write for a while. Walter and I thought we'd just concentrate on writing for a while and then put a new show together but, I guess, inertia and (pause) stuff kept us in L.A. a lot longer.
"Walter is right now in the middle of a solo album so when we tour that material will be available. We'll also play 'Kamakiriad'. And we'll do old stuff but re-arranged. One thing I don't want it to be is a nostalgia thing or a re-union tour. It'll be me and Walter with a full band of all star musicians so it would be a bit coy not to call it Steely Dan. People will call it that anyway. But playing Top 40 arrangements of old stuff would be boring to me. We haven't waited twenty years to do that."
Donald Fagen's record company minder gives us the "one minute left" nod. And just as The Man From Muso Hell threatens to gobble it up, Fagen himself takes the initiative.
"You know what I miss more than anything else?" he asks. "Pianos in publishers and record companies offices! I know they haven't had them for years but it still depresses me every time I walk in. No piano, it's so depressing. Walter and I started writing before they had cassettes and we couldn't afford a reel to reel recorder so we were at the end of that era where writers went in and played their songs on the office piano. There's something very charming about that. I really hate that all that's gone."