"Close Your Eyes And You'll Be There"

The following interview was recorded on November 29, 1989 when Walter Becker was out promoting his production of Rickie Lee Jones' "Flying Cowboys." D.J. (and ML subscriber) Jason Wright -- on-air talent on CBS-owned and operated "Oldies 103"/WODS, Boston -- was one of only twenty jocks granted permission for an interview; he was in the studio while Walter was on the other end of a phone looking out of a time window. All will become clear... Interview transcription by Brian Sweet.

Jason Wright: Jason Wright with you, and it will become readily apparent that I will have extreme difficulty in containing my admiration for the man I'm about to introduce. Much of this man's music and vernacular I've incorporated into my lifestyle and those of us who hope to be musicians can only hope to do justice to articulate and emulate the best. We all have our heroes, yours out there may be from the world of sports and politics, my heroes are musicians and this man is a musician's musician. I have to confess that this man shares the number one spot with Donald Fagen at the top of my list. His hit list includes "Do It Again," "Reelin' In The Years," "My Old School," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Hey Nineteen" and he's gone on to produce recordings for China Crisis, and most recently, "Flying Cowboys" by Rickie Lee Jones. Please allow me to welcome to the airwaves Walter Becker.
Walter Becker: That was a helluva welcome, Jason.
Wright: We try Walter. This is an absolute dream of a lifetime. I wanna get to the latest creation, "Flying Cowboys" by Rickie Lee Jones. From what I've been reading it seems that you had to draw on all your recording experience, namely that portions of Rickie's material was from demos. Where do you begin to sort through all that material?
Becker: Well, Rickie had a lot of stuff. And she worked on the tunes for this album, I guess, over a period of about four years. So every once in a while she'd check into a recording studio and commit some stuff to tape, and on most people's home demos the technical quality is not adequate to use in a real recording. But these were real well-executed demos. Often when an artist finishes writing a song and they do a demo right then, that demo contains the essential creative spark of that song. Years later it may be difficult of impossible to duplicate that. So in a couple of cases with Rickie's things, we just found that the demos were so good, that it didn't make any sense trying to recreate them. So we just polished 'em up a little bit.
Wright: I am sure that digital technology was a tremendous advantage in accomplishing this.
Becker: That's true. Although her demos were not digital -- we transferred them all to digital tape and in particular we used some digital EQs to try and create a kind of consistent sound picture from cut to cut, so that it wouldn't sound like a couple of new studio recordings and a couple of old demos. The digital equipment was very helpful in that way.
Wright: Is it the producer's function to provide structure and cohesiveness in a recording project?
Becker: It's the producer's function to provide whatever is needed to make the project happen, and I think in the case of Rickie Lee Jones, she had been writing for quite a while and she had multiple versions of some of her songs that were mutually exclusive, so we had to make some choices as to what material to use. Also for the stuff we recorded from scratch we had to decide on an approach-personnel and instrumentation and so on -- and Rickie and I did that together, but basically she is the overall cohesiveness to her album and it was my job to just make sure that got captured as well as possible.
Wright: Who contacted whom on this project?
Becker: In different projects it works in different ways, but in this particular case I had known Gary Gersh who was her A&R guy over at Geffen Records for some time, and I was aware that he had signed her and that she would be making an album at some point. When the time came, he talked to Rickie about the possibility of me doing it and then he gave me a call and sent me a tape.
Wright: Part of a producer's function in the recording studio is to extract a performance. How do you know when it's right? Cause when you're committing it to tape, you could almost go on forever, so how do you know when it's right?
Becker: Well, usually if it's right it's easy to know that it's right because it just kinda smacks you in the face with how great it is. Although I must say in the case of Rickie's vocal performances, she essentially produced them herself. She was primarily the judge in most cases of what was her best vocal performance. But in other cases it's usually pretty obvious when something is right there. It used to be that you were much more severely limited in terms of the tape resources and the number of tracks that you had available, so before you did another take with somebody you used to have to erase the previous take in many cases. Now you don't have to do that and so you can do a bunch of takes and then listen to 'em afterwards if you need to do that.
Wright: And with the digital technology somebody could have a home studio and if it was a relatively decent recording to begin with in analog, it could be very easily dressed up and sound aurally better with the digital technology and, of course, the producer and engineer's expertise.
Becker: That's true. As a matter of fact a lot of work now is done at home studios, which are essentially the same as the professional studios that we've been working in for years. Others are much scaled-down and even the semi-pro consumer equipment now is so good compared to what it used to do that you can do professional quality work on it.
Wright: Were there times when you yourself, Walter, had to pull on your own reins as it were, so as not to overshadow the project?
Becker: I don't think there was ever any danger of me overshadowing the project, but Rickie was certainly aware at all times that there were certain aspects of what Steely Dan records had been that she didn't want her record to be, and she made that abundantly clear to me at various stages during the project. So we were working with a common aesthetic direction.
Wright: You also work with somewhat of a regular ensemble of engineering people, namely Roger Nichols. Is it true he was a nuclear physicist?
Becker: Yes, it is true that he was a nuclear physicist. He used to work at a nuclear power plant in California when it first opened.
Wright: What advantages does that bring to the recording studio?
Becker: In the case the reactor containment is broken at the recording studio, Roger knows exactly what to do.
Wright: That's right, in case of meltdown call Roger, right?
Becker: That's right.
Wright: Would I be correct in saying that a great producer must be transparent?
Becker: I kinda think so. That's how I feel about it, and that's not always appropriate. There are projects where many successful producers who are known for a certain sound that they always get or certain style that they bring to things, but when you're working with somebody like Rickie she already has the style. She already has most of those ingredients, so what you really wanna do is just capture what she does as faithfully as you can and in an appropriate context. And that's what makes the best Rickie Lee Jones record in my opinion. So when you have an artist who has a powerful musical personality to begin with, it would certainly be a mistake to try and compete with that.
Wright: So she's approaching recording from a more spontaneous type of performance?
Becker: I think that the way Rickie likes to work is very casual and in the mood of the moment. That's what's really appropriate for her.
Wright: I was just reading the credits on the album cover. There's a host of outstanding session
musicians on here; Greg Phillinganes, I also noticed you played synthesizer bass. You put down the guitar and switched to the keys for this one?
Becker: Jeez, I did something, I can't remember what it was.
Wright: (laughing) How much of your producing talents do you owe to Roger Nichols and Gary Katz? Has anything rubbed off on you from them?
Becker: Oh, well, I think that Roger and Gary and Donald and I over the years learned how to do things by trial and error together, so I think that collectively we developed a lot of ideas and techniques that I continue to use and so do they.
Wright: I understand from Yvonne at Geffen Records when she notified me yesterday of this incredible opportunity, that we're working in a limited time frame...
Becker: Yes, our time window is about to slam shut.
Wright: There is a devoted legion of Steely Dan fans listening and some are so fiercely enthusiastic that they, yours truly included, even went so far one time as to have midnight reservations at Mr. Chow's. (incredulous laughter from the other end of the phone.) I'm talking devotion, Walter. Way back you and Donald Fagen were involved in Jay and the Americans?
Becker: That's true.
Wright: Now was this when Jay and the Americans were on tour?
Becker: This was 1968 or 1969, and yeah, they were on tour, but they were touring mostly little clubs. We weren't playing too many big arenas; we did play Madison Square Garden in an oldies show and we played a few larger venues on double bills with the Four Seasons. So this was kind of the beginning of the rock revival thing, and Jay and the boys were from that, as were Donald and I.
Wright: From that time after Jay and the Americans were you involved in a project called Ultimate Spinach?
Becker: No, I had nothing to do with that. I think Jeff Baxter had something to do with that.
Wright: Okay, so that was the Skunk connection right there. You know, from time to time on late night
talk shows -- as a matter of fact it was on the Tonight Show a couple of years ago -- Chevy Chase was a
guest and he made a passing comment that he played with you and Donald Fagen. Is that true?
Becker: That is true. Chevy Chase went to the same college that Donald and I went to, and he was the
drummer in a band that we had that played a Halloween dance one year.
Wright: No kidding, which college was that?
Becker: That was Bard College.
Wright: Uh huh. Myself playing the part of the devil's advocate throughout the rest of the interview.
Was the name Steely Dan adapted from William S. Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch?"
Becker: Yes, it certainly was. I wouldn't say it was adapted, I would say it was expropriated.
Wright: As you can tell there are some questions early on in the career of Steely Dan. Walter, I have to
know these things so that I can amaze my friends at parties.
Becker: All right.
Wright: The first album as Steely Dan was the soundtrack to a film called "You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It Or You'll Lose That Beat." We get to hear early Denny Dias on guitar, of course, but could you tell me who speaks the line "One more tomato before the gynecologist office?" Do you recall that?
Becker: Oh, God, I don't know, I can't remember.
Wright: Okay. Now early on Donald Fagen was not the only lead vocalist of Steely Dan. Is there a story behind that with Gary Katz naming Donald as the voice?
Becker: What actually happened was Donald kinda became the vocalist by default. I used to do some of the singing and I think Donald hated my singing, too. I used to sing a little flat, and as soon as was practicable I stopped singing and that left Donald. He didn't seem to appreciate as much as the rest of us how effective his vocal stuff was, how special it was.
Wright: Absolutely.
Becker: We had to convince him that he would be a good lead singer.
Wright: Am I understanding Steely Dan's lyrical content correctly when I say that it reflects the spicier side of life?
Becker: (long pause) Yeah, I'll go along with that.
Wright: Am I reading more into it than should be there, or am I picking up on it?
Becker: I think inevitably when you write something, you hope people will read more into it than what you intended... prerogative.
Wright: Staying along the lines of the lyrics, most people treat them lightly, but I have to say that there's a veritable plethora of double entendres that can be unearthed in Steely Dan music, which is why I feel that both you and Donald Fagen have created something that most musicians envy. Steely Dan can be played end to end and over and over -- it just never seems to get stale, very few musicians have achieved this. How is this done, Walter? What really makes Steely Dan click? What is it? What is the sound?
Becker: Gee, I don't know. I think it's a combination of Donald's voice and a particular jazz-influenced harmony writing and melody, and however you would characterize the lyrics -- I hesitate to do so myself, but there is definitely an approach there. We did work very hard when we were making those records to try and have good songs that were basically really good enough songs to put on a record. It always seemed to us that most people's records had two or three good songs and the rest of 'em were just okay. We tried to weed out the ones that were just okay.
Wright: I guess that's exactly what I was asking. There is not an ounce of filler material on any of your albums. I mean, it just incredible, you can listen to every song on every album. Throughout the anthology of Steely Dan albums, there seems to be an undercurrent theme of East Coast versus West Coast i.e. from "Pretzel Logic" there's "Barrytown (I'm presuming the Barrytown in Upstate New York), there's the "Boston Rag," then we segue a few years later with "The Royal Scam," but we're ending up with the jazzier "Gaucho" LP. "Aja" is in a class by itself -- I would need a month to kick that album around -- that is in a category all by itself, but due to the time frame I'm not going to touch it, but that is a reference piece in my book and most people's as well. However, getting back to the original question, is there an East Coast versus West Coast undercurrent? Is there a dichotomy?
Becker: Yeah, I think so. In jazz music in the '50s and '60s there was also a kind of East Coast versus West Coast theme going on, and I think Donald and I, having grown up on the East Coast and then moved to the West Coast, would have been remiss in our duties to the loyal fandom to not have played up this schism to the maximum extent possible.
Wright: The break seems to occur right after "Katy Lied." Everything from that back seemed to be a hundred percent East Coast and then after "Katy Lied" it started to get jazzier, a lot slicker which in most people's minds denotes West Coast, you know.
Becker: I think what happened to some extent was the moment we moved to Los Angeles, we started thinking and writing about New York all the time. The moment we started going back to New York to do things, we started thinking and writing about the West Coast. So I'm sure this is perfect outline for a suitable case for treatment or something, you know?
Wright: This is kind of a difficult question -- I don't know how you're gonna answer this -- if you only knew. Why do I feel so associated with your music?
Becker: I don't know. Do you associate it with some particular event in your life?
Wright: There have been times because it seems that your music has always been there when I need it. No matter what kind of mood I'm in. If I'm in a good mood I reach for the Dan, if I'm in a lousy mood I reach for the Dan.
Becker: I think that good music of any style has a kind of quality like it's always been there, like it's always been there, like it hasn't been written so much as discovered, and I would hesitate to put our records into that category, but I know that I feel like that about certain recordings and certain pieces of music. Jason, our time window is beginning to crunch my fingernails here.
Wright: All right. I guess the final question is: Is there still a Steely Dan?
Becker: Well, I guess somewhere in the hearts and minds of men, there will always be a Steely Dan.
Wright: Uh, huh. No plans for the future, I read briefly something about bouncing tracks via satellite?
Becker: No, that was science fiction, I'm afraid.
Wright: Okay. Well, Walter Becker it's because of artists like yourself that I've made the commitment to always reach a little bit higher and dig a little deeper, and anyone out there who is familiar with the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knows what I'm talking about. Approaching twenty-odd years ago when I first picked up on Steely Dan I said to a friend, "Can you imagine what it would be like to hang out with these guys?" Well, twenty years later, Walter, the dream has turned into reality, and to paraphrase a line you are one half of Steely Dan and I'm saying this, "Close your eyes and you'll be there/It's everything they say." Walter Becker, thanks for the music.
Becker: Hey, thanks so much, it's been great talking to you, Jason.
Wright: Thank you very much, Walter. (Plays "Hey Nineteen" to close.)

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Last modified on 1/10/2003