One might assume someone with the studio studiousness of Donald Fagen – a man who infamously brought in seven session guitarists to attempt the solo on Steely Dan's "Peg" – would be approached to produce other people's albums every other week. "Not so much," the singer-keyboardist tells Rolling Stone. "And the manufacture – because that's what it is – of much contemporary music is a pretty boring job."
Naturally, Fagen only bothers with an outside collaboration if the chemistry is instantaneous. Enter Austin singer-songwriter Peter More, a previous member of Brooklyn folk-rock act Oh Whitney whom Fagen met (and later jammed with at a hotel restaurant) while vacationing in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. After playing together a few times, an intrigued Fagen offered to produce More's debut solo LP, Beautiful Disrepair, set for release on June 29th.
"The guys in the band, aside from being fine players, each had a great sense of fun and a strong musical personality," he says. "Pete is mostly Texas with a Mexican twist; Jose and Diego come from Latin backgrounds; and drummer Adrien's parents are global expats. Although the Texican thing wasn't in the foreground of my experience, the music had a smart, savvy edge, and I got hooked. It's an American dish, but it's served with hot sauce."
More admits he "wasn't exposed to a lot of Steely Dan growing up" and "didn't have any expectation" when they met. "We were invited to jam with him at a New Year's Eve show and played a few songs together," he says. "We talked a bit after the show and I never felt starstruck – he was just a really smart and funny guy that happened to be ripping on the melodica that night."
The crew later returned to San Miguel and began work at guitarist Ken Basman's home studio. Recording in bursts over the next two years between Fagen's touring commitments with Steely Dan and supergroup the Dukes of September, they racked up sessions in Woodstock, New York and More's hometown of Fort Worth, Texas before mixing in Manhattan.
Utilizing Fagen's expertise with vocal harmony and clever arrangements, More fashioned material that veers from folk balladry ("Caddis Moon") to country ("Country Love Song") to sauntering soul-rock ("lead single "In the Basement," which mutates halfway through into a wild guitar solo). "Most of the groove and time signature changes came about spontaneously," More says of the latter experiment. "We had been playing long sets at a residency down in Brazil so we got used to trying out new rhythms and interpretations of songs. I think that's how it came about on 'Basement' when we got in the studio, trying a couple rhythmic ideas behind the guitar solo."
Beautiful Disrepair marks Fagen's first major production credit since helming late Steely Dan bandmate Walter Becker's 1994 solo LP, 11 Tracks of Whack – and the circumstances behind those sessions were quite different.
"It was similar to making a Steely Dan record, except that I had to be more of a supporting player, as Walter was when he helped me produce [Fagen's 1993 solo album, Kamakiriad]. "It took a while to get used to Walter's studio, which was all the hell up on the side of a volcano in Maui. He'd gone all da kine, big time."
The "supporting player" helped shepherd More's musical ideas in the studio, impressing the songwriter and the band with his uncanny ear for pitch. He became, More says, their "cool uncle" – a description to which Fagen doesn't object.
"I guess, to them, I am a pretty cool uncle," he says. "In the studio, I feel like one of the kids, but I've gotten used to the idea that my inner life is somewhat of an enigma to the youngsters. I grew up in a very specific time and subculture, during the American Fifties and Sixties. It was a fast-moving, exotic, stylized adventure. There was all sorts of spooky, scary nonsense and, every so often, explosive truth. At least, that's how it seemed at the time."