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Steely Dan on Making New Music: 'We've Been Talking'

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Yeah, but you've stood the test of time. When you first got big, acts like Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night were selling out stadiums.
Yeah, we used to open for those bands. But we don't play arenas anymore, generally speaking.

Right, but those guys are in county fairs now.
We play county fairs too.

Not the same kind of fairs as Three Dog Night.
No, we play nice fairs. They have sheep-breeding contests and things like that. I enjoy those. It's fun. Sometimes the audience is all farm animals. That's cool, too. Sometimes it's hard to tell these geriatric people apart from the the farm animals, actually. It's all assisted living.

Do you see yourself doing this in 10 years?
I really don't plan that much for the future. It's the only way of life I know, and I enjoy it. I think Walter and I both consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this for a living. We have always felt lucky to be able to do this for a living.

But from 1974 to 1993 you didn't tour at all.
Yeah, but we were always . . . I guess we're from a generation where our fathers gave us these kind of workaholic personalities. They told us we had to work for a living. When we were in the studio, we worked hard every day. I had a serious workaholic disorder. I'd make the band band come in on Christmas and stuff like that. I've always just been working on music.

Is part of your reluctance to record new Steely Dan songs due to the simple fact that it's hard to top what you created in the past?
I don't know. I think it's hard because we're generally humorous in a way. I think it's the same trouble that comedians talk about. The reality now is funnier than the fiction. I mean, just the way the government acts. You read about it in the papers every day, and it's so absurd that it's difficult to make fun of it, or it's so horrible you don't want to make fun of it.

I think a lot of people don't realize just how funny your old songs are.
Yeah. I still think some of them are pretty funny, especially in rehearsal, like we're doing now. I'll print out lyrics to something and I'll go, "Hey, that's pretty funny."

Hey Walter. Thanks for doing this. I already spoke to Donald, so…
Walter Becker: What did Donald leave out?

Quite a bit, and I want to go over some of the same stuff with you.
No, no. See, I don't want to do that.

You want all different questions?
No . . . Yeah, actually, we were sort of scheduled to do this at the same time. I don't know why it ended up different, so I'll answer what I can, OK?

Sure. Let's start with the tour. How are you approaching the set list this time?
Well, the tour was a big success. I mean, we went everywhere, and as far as I can tell we probably sold more tickets and pleased more people with our music, including ourselves, than we ever did before. That's the view looking back for me after the tour is finished.

And how do things look before the tour?
Before the tour? I don't know. Jeez. I don't know.

Can you tell me the process of sitting down and figuring down what songs you want to . . .
We don't do that sitting down.

So you stand up and do that?
We stand up and do that, standing around the mic at soundcheck.

How do you determine what song to open . . .
I don't know. I'm never sure about that.

Donald told me you guys might play Countdown to Ecstasy straight through.
I don't know that "thinking" is the word. There's been a rumor going around that we might do that. Wouldn't that be cool?

Yeah, definitely. I'd love to see that.
Yeah, I'm thinking about it. I guess I'm with him – what he said.

Are you opposed to doing Pretzel Logic?
Am I opposed to it? You have to appreciate the fact that as a guitar player I'm not opposed to anything. If I were singing them, I would be opposed. Then it would be different.

Are you going to sing any songs on this tour?
We've been talking about it, yeah.

Which ones?
I don't know, but I'll tell you that whatever I decide to sing, it's gonna be fucking good, man. It's gonna be a great show.

 

It seems like you guys hit the road every odd-numbered year.
We took a blood oath to do that back in the oddest year of all.

By getting off the road so early into your career, you really built up a demand to hear your music live. It also helped to preserve Donald's voice. So many of his peers can't really sing a note these days.
They can't even work. They can't even walk. That's what Lee J. Cobb said in On the Waterfront.

Just look at Bob Dylan. His voice is pretty shot.
Really?

I love the guy, but it's not in great shape.
Well, I'd like to quote Jack Nicholson in Rolling Stone. He said that as long as Bob Dylan is alive, he will be the greatest living songwriter.

I totally agree, but that doesn't mean his voice is in great shape.
I don't know . . . Wow. Wow.

So, are you thinking about recording any new Steely Dan songs in the future?
I don't know, man. I heard that thing about Bob Dylan and now I'm thinking of playing it pretty close to the vest. I mean, hey . . . shit . . . God . . . wow.

Ha! Well, Donald was saying that he was thinking about recording new music at some point.
Donald, Donald, Donald. Always Donald. Yeah, whatever Donald says, he's right. Yeah.

But you're the other half of the group. What are your thoughts on the matter?
A group is . . . Yeah, I am half the group. Is two people a group? We're sort of a duo, like Peter and Gordon, more than a group.

Well, the White Stripes were a group. There's just two of them.
Oh, what an unfortunate example.

They're obviously very different, but . . . 
Jesus Christ. Go ahead and tear my heart out.

Not a fan?
Well, I don't really know what they do. I mean, I haven't heard much of it, to tell you the truth.

Do you think being a duo has been helpful in that there's just the two of you, so it's never two against one or something?
I have to think. That's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure, because I haven't been in that position as well. The thing is that it's a lot easier to deal with the stage costumes. When one guy does something, then whatever he does sets the other guy up. You get a third guy in there and you gotta have cadets' uniforms or something. I don't know. It's a weird problem.

Historically speaking, most rock duos wind up despising each other.
That's just the ones we know about. I have a feeling there were many, many successful rock duos that just didn't get attention. That's the fault of the rock press. They are always playing up controversy, scandal, aggravation and irritation.

We're definitely guilty of that. Drama always makes a great story.
You know what Tolstoy said – lemme see if I can get this right. Maybe he said the opposite, so don't hold me to this. Maybe it was [Alexander] Pushkin. Don't hold me to this. But he said something like, "All happy families are happy in the same way and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own, unique ways."

So if you were to guess if there's ever going to be a new Steely Dan album . . .
There already are. Are you kidding me?

I mean one in the future.
Well, I hope so. Jeez!

Why has it been 10 years?
It seems like I've heard this question before. That's my answer.

Do you still enjoy playing live? Is it as fun as it used to be?
It wasn't so much fun back then. It's like anything else. Some night it's fun. Some nights, it's not fun. Most nights it's jolly good fun, I must say. Now, in the Seventies, I'm not sure sure I cared about whether it was fun or not. There were obviously good performances, but it was harder to guarantee a certain level of quality.

Did you face lot of pressure in the mid-to-late Seventies to tour?
Well, I wouldn't say we "faced" it. It just came and went, like in a moment. It just blew right past us, because that's the only thing that we didn't do. They couldn't make us tour, but there was hardly anything they could make us do.

There wasn't pressure. We were in a very special situation, because it was the Seventies. There was actually still some vestiges of artistic license. We also had our producer, Gary Katz, and he was protecting us from anything like that.

I would think that helped the group in a huge way. You guys didn't expend all your energy on the road, and you were able to pour all that into the albums.
I think that was part of what we were thinking at the time. That was probably the biggest factor, in a way, because what we cared the most about was making records. 

Is part of the group's reluctance to make new music just the worry that your back catalog is so beloved and perfect, that topping it is very daunting?
We're not reluctant to make new music . . . It's a whole other type of process that starts off more like, "What do I want to do now?" or "What does it seem like I'm doing now as I look at myself and see what really interests me?" 

To be reluctant and to confront our adolescent output, it may be somewhat daunting, but that's not the way I feel about it. I doubt that Donald feels that way, but I don't know. What did he tell you?

He said that you often talk about it on plane rides, but you haven't gotten around to it yet.
Yeah, maybe the problem we have is that our plane is too fast or our gigs are too close together. Maybe they should put us up in the air and make us fly around until we come up with something. We could refuel in the air and everything. That'd be great. I'd love to see that on YouTube.

Are you thinking about making another solo record?
Oh, yeah, I'm always thinking. But I don't know . . . Yeah, I am.

Has the collapse of the music industry meant that your royalty checks have gone way down?
I don't know. Actually, I've never seen one. That's part of the process that happens below the level of the threshold of my awareness.

But you must see your bank statements and have some idea.
No, I've never. I really don't. I just tell them to tell me if I run out.

I imagine that touring must account for a huge percent of your income.
Well, it depends on how you figure it. I remember I was talking to a Haitian cab driver here in New York. I told him that when I was down in Haiti I heard about how when dinnertime came the mother would give a couple of pennies to the kids, and they'd go to the village and buy four pennies' worth of oil to cook dinner. He was quiet for a while and then he said, "But that was a strong penny." 

He was right. That's what we used to have. It was a penny, but it was a strong penny. So it's hard to judge. It would be an ambitious calculation with my skills. Maybe you could have that guy – what's his name, with the "Vampire Squid" quote?

Matt Taibbi.
He could figure it out. And if not he, the guy who wrote the book on the Federal Reserve . . . William Greider. 

Are you dismayed by the state of the music industry? Kids are just stealing your songs from the Internet left and right.
That's how kids are. They really don't know what's right or wrong.

But does that bother you?
Well, they're not my kids. I mean, what can I say? I'm glad they like it. I'm glad they like our music and are listening to it.

Even though you aren't getting paid for it?
How would I know that? What kind of mercenaries do you think we are? And with that, I gotta go back to work, because we're supposed to be rehearsing. I hope I helped, though.

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