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From MP3.com, March 2, 2006
Interview with Donald Fagen
By CHRIS ROLLS
As the singing half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen has injected a bohemian intellect into popular music for over 30 years. Back in 1982 Fagen released The Nightfly, a retro-futurist concept album chronicling adolescent fantasies about adult life. After a 10 year hiatus came the second installment in Fagen's solo career, Kamakiriad, a cyberpunk fueled exploration of mid-life. Now, after 13 years comes the final installment in Fagen's triolgy, Morph the Cat. This time out he explores the pinnacle of human experience: death. Depressing as the subject may be, Fagen disguises the album's ennui with his signature timeless cool and finely crafted jazz-come-pop.
Fortunately, Donald took the time to not only discuss Morph the Cat, but also influential black humorist authors, the sexiness of war-time, and how nothing interesting has happened in popular music since the invention of reggae.
Chris: So you have a wonderful new album out.
Donald: Oh, thanks.
Chris: It's has been 13 years since your last true solo endeavor.
Donald: Yeah, pretty much.
Chris: Why such a long wait?
Donald: Well, you know I had this... well, there is this oppressive Steely Dan gig that keeps getting in the way, and I have to make these Steely Dan albums and go on tour and stuff like that. And it's my day gig really, and so I don't get that much chance to do these solo things that often.
Chris: I see. I read a small piece that said this particular album was the final installment in a trilogy, and I'm wondering is that in fact truth, and if so, would this be considered your last solo album?
Donald: Well no, you know, it's true it's the last one of a trilogy; otherwise you'd have to call it something different than a trilogy. But yeah, it didn't start out as a trilogy, but you know, the first album was The Nightfly in 1982, and when I was finished with the second one, Kamakiriad, in '93, it had a kind of unfinished quality. It ended with a kind of a cliff-hanger, so I realized that there should be a third installment.
Chris: Could you describe that cliff-hanger?
Donald: Well the... the first album, The Nightfly, was sort of from the point of view of a younger person, maybe an early teenager, and Kamakiriad was... although it had a science fiction framing [device], it was actually about midlife. And, you know, now I'm 58, so this sort of looks toward the last years of life. But that Kamakiriad, actually the midlife album, ended with -- this guy was driving this sort of futuristic car--and ended up about to drive out into the unknown, not knowing where he was going, so it has this kind of suspenseful quality at the end.
Chris: All of your work with both Steely Dan and obviously your solo work embody a lot of ironic humor and cryptic lyricism -- it just seems to be a constant in your work. Do you approach each album with a set lyrical theme, or is the process a little less rigid than it appears?
Donald: Well, with Steely Dan I don't think we ever premeditated the theme really, although I think some of the albums do have a kind of... they reflect whatever we were thinking at the time or something about the time we were living in. But I think it's true that... I know when I made The Nightfly there was some kind of semiautobiographical intent. So that when I did Kamakiriad, I definitely had a kind of vague, vague storyline. You know, I don't like to be too rigid about it, but for these three albums, there was definitely... you know it's basically the theme was, the kind of... well it turned out to be sort of the three ages of man or something like that.
Chris: Your inspirations, are they always -- I mean lyrical inspirations -- are they generally taken from a personal perspective?
Donald: From my albums or Steely Dan albums?
Chris: For your work in particular.
Donald: Well yeah ... the main difference between the Steely Dan record and the one I do myself is that mine are a bit more personal and subjective and have more to do with autobiographical matters.
Chris: But with Steely Dan, you would consider it to be more of an external experience?
Donald: Well you know … Walter and I developed over the years this kind of collective persona, which kind of narrates the songs and this time around, it's kind of like Steely Dan is guys without girls. It's ... you know he has a lot of male defensive devices, and then once in a while, he breaks down once in a while and you see through his defenses and so on and so it's really ... you know that character has a lot of problems, he's kind of unrepentant about it.
Chris: The Steely Dan character?
Chris: That character, well the name I mean, it's widely known that it was taken from a William S. Burroughs novel.
Chris: Do you often draw upon literature for inspiration?
Donald: Well, when Walter and I met, we -- aside from having some musical favorites in common -- we were both jazz fans as, really as kids, which is kind of very unusual, especially for that time, you know, like since we were 10 or 11 years old, type of thing. But we also had some literary tastes in common, particularly what they used to call black humorist, which is not African American books so much but a dark humorist like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Berger, Philip Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov. And although these represent a wide variety of authors, they were kind of ... in those days kind of categorized as a type of literature, which before that time really ... no one had really categorized them that way, but it was very big in the early '50s and the early '60s.
Chris: Were you a fan of Philip K. Dick?
Donald: Yeah also...well, science fiction writers were part of that in a way, although in those days they didn't make science fiction with what they would call literary fiction. But indeed, Philip K. Dick as well as the books of Fredrick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and...Alfred Bester is another one I remember, and some of the Theodore Sturgeon stories. And just, a lot of science fiction writers really are satirists -- they just use the forum to satirize the present, really.
Chris: And those literary themes have carried over very well into your lyricism, both in your solo work and with Steely Dan, and that really seems to be something that's absent from contemporary popular music. And I'm just curious what your take is on...?
Donald: Oh, you know, reading is absent from a lot of popular culture altogether.
Chris: It is, and I feel it's reflected in popular music, and I'm just curious how you feel about the popular music industry?
Donald: You know, I don't have that much contact with it really. You know, I recently have been talking to some people from Warner Brothers… I've been in Warner Brothers since The Nightfly in 1982, and I think between... I guess in between albums I never get one phone call from Warner Brothers. Like, I have no contact with the company whatsoever unless it's to do something specific. So when an album comes out, there's a whole new bunch of people there because everyone else has been fired, and they're all young, you know much younger, increasingly younger than I am and don't even know who I am, so I have to reintroduce myself. It's, you know, that shows how alien I am to the whole process really.
Chris: The sort of "man on the hill."
Chris: Do you listen to any contemporary music?
Donald: Not that often. I mean, there's a few things I like if someone brings it to my attention, but I only listen to the same 40 jazz records I had in high school pretty much.
Chris: It's funny that you say you sort of have to reintroduce yourself. Your music has remained a constant over the years; it's instantly recognizable.
Donald: Oh, well thanks.
Chris: And I'm curious do you -- well it sounds like maybe you've answered this -- but do you consciously sort of shut out anything that's going on with contemporary music trends or...?
Donald: It's not really necessary, because I don't think anything has happened for 30 years or so.
Donald: Not really. You know there's a new kind of... you know they have different names for like crunk and stuff like that, or there's this kind of music, but you know aside from some fairly subtle things, and like, maybe they use a drum machine instead of drums or something. But that's really kind of the opposite of evolution as far as I can say so. It's really... I don't think there's anything really... I don't see any sort of major thing that's happened since maybe reggae music in the '70s that's really different.
Chris: So you wouldn't consider, say, rap music to be new?
Donald: Well, I mean it's more of a theatrical forum really... or poetry with music type of thing, which certainly isn't new. And the beats are basically funk, or something else, only played by machines, it's really not... it doesn't sound new to me. I mean, what's new about it?
Donald: I mean, they use sampling technology to put out a blip of sound, but it's really like an orchestral hit will be sampled and then so... you know and maybe they do... like if they appear very rapidly, that's something maybe an orchestra couldn't do, because it happens faster than an orchestra could play it but... it's not what I would call a really significant change or anything.
Chris: So no real validity to the art of sampling, in your opinion?
Donald: Well it all sounds so canned that it's basically... since they use drum machines and sequences for even the ballads now… people are used to it now, but to me, it also sounds like the kick drum comes in the wrong place, or it sounds wrong. You know like it's... there's really something wrong with the groove. Although, they're getting better at mimicking real grooves. To me there's always something, and the fact that it's unchanging makes it sound, it may be hypnotic, but it has no dynamics, and it has no shape.
And what's more, if you want to continue with the technical thing, as far as the other instruments are concerned, if you use synthesizers for all the keyboards and stuff like that, they're always out of tune, technically, and I can hear it. It's like the top end is always a little flat, and the bottom end is always a little sharp, because the keyboards aren't what they call "stretched." Like, when a piano tuner tunes a piano, aside from being tempered, they'll stretch the tops of the harmonics so they aren't flat on the top and sharp on the bottom. So they're... there's no groove and they're out of tune.
Chris: Have you adopted... well, I assume you haven't adopted modern synthesizers then into your work?
Donald: Well, I sometimes use synthesizers, but only in special situations… I'll play a Rhodes piano, which is tunable, or some other kind of, like a Wurlitzer piano, which is also tunable by a piano tuner, because I just can't take the out-of-tune quality of synthesizers.
Chris: What about in your recording process? Have you adopted any of the modern recording techniques?
Donald: Yeah I think Pro Tools for instance, the digital technology is really helpful at times, just because you can maneuver around easily and quickly.
Chris: Where was the bulk of Morph the Cat recorded?
Donald: Mostly in Manhattan . My wife and I went on a vacation to Hawaii in the middle of it, but I got bored and, you know, rented this studio and did some of the vocals there as well.
Chris: Did Walter Becker help out with this particular record?
Donald: Not on this one.
Chris: OK, I know the two of you tend to work outside of Steely Dan together.
Donald: Yeah, sometimes, but we were just on a kind of a break.
Chris: Are you going to be touring in support of this?
Donald: Yeah I'll be out in March and -- with my own band -- and then in the summer, I'm going to go out again, and then maybe toward the end of the summer, Walter and I will hook up and do some Steely Dan gigs as well.
Chris: Oh really! Oh that's very exciting. What could someone expect from your live performance of solo material? Will there be theatrics involved?
Donald: Yes, smoke bombs, the usual kind of -- no, I'm kidding. Usually Steely Dan, when we play, it's pretty basic, in fact we'll be probably ... my show will probably be even more stripped down, like usually, Steely Dan has a kind of fairly deluxe-looking stage set, and lights and stuff -- I'll probably have something a little more economical.
Chris: Interesting. Well I wanted to say that I grew up listening to Steely Dan in the '70s and listened to many of the albums. Well, my mother would play them for me. But it seemed like when I was a child, you were releasing albums quite often...
Donald: Yeah, that's right.
Chris: And I would sit and stare at the records, and I found myself pulling them out again as I became an adult. And there's this quality about your music that really sort of manages to transcend whatever is happening at present.
Donald: Oh, thanks a lot.
Chris: What do you personally feel it is about the music that gives it a timeless quality?
Donald: Don't know, it's hard to say. You know, I think as far as the lyrics, I think we've always tried to be honest and address problems like aging and you know...I think we didn't even start out pretending we were adolescents or anything like that, so we didn't have to keep that up. You know, maybe coming out of adult traditions like jazz and literary tradition kept us honest, I think, and so ... but on the other hand, the Rolling Stones still pretend they're adolescents, and they're in their 60s, and they survived very well, so I'm not sure.
Chris: Well you seem to be surviving well. Two Against Nature brought home a Grammy.
Donald: I saw the Rolling Stones the other day. They were great. You know, I mean, Mick Jagger was in incredible shape, he was actually very inspiring ... not only was he pounding around for two hours, but he seems to sing just as well doing that, as if he was standing still, which is quite miraculous.
Chris: You saw them live?
Donald: Mm hmm, in Madison Square Garden .
Chris: Are you friends with them?
Donald: No, I met Keith Richards a couple of times, but I'm not really friends with anybody, no.
Chris: With anybody?
Donald: Well, with any, you know, any like celebrity-type people for the most part.
Chris: Did the continued success of Steely Dan into this millennium, has it surprised you at all?
Donald: Yeah….when we got nominated for the Grammy and all that stuff -- it was quite unexpected.
Chris: So, back to Morph the Cat . What are the themes that dominate this particular record?
Donald: Mm hmm.
Chris: Is that something that, well, is on your mind?
Donald: Well yeah. I'm 58 as I say, and so you start thinking about, you know, I have so many years left, and so what am I going to do, what's important. My mother died a couple of years ago, so that was interesting, and then I'm a New Yorker, so 9/11 I think was particularly ... had a fairly intense effect, and I think it still does on all New Yorkers. You know, this kind of underlying paranoia in the city that was never there before, and I think it also tends to eroticize the society a little bit more, in that it's kind of a reaction to the imminent extinction.
Chris: Of the self or society?
Donald: Well just, you know, both. If they think ... when people think they don't have that much time left, and when there's a threat of war, or during wartime, I think it's kind of sexy.
Chris: And do you feel the same way about the sort of omnipresent paranoia and fear that's been injected into the American mind?
Donald: Mm hmm, yeah sure.
Chris: It certainly plays upon a lot of the literary themes that you mentioned earlier.
Donald: Yeah. I think especially like, for instance, in Milan Kundera's work, when he talks about Czechoslovakia during the communist regime he makes a point of saying, "I kind of eroticized the society," and that's different in many ways from what I'm talking about, but I think there's a parallel somehow.