Everything Must Groove

Interview with Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Interviewing Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen is a lot like playing a verbal pinball machine: their answers change direction with a comic, if disorienting, suddenness — deflecting the thrust of a question and bouncing up against an array of societal, historical, and musical references. For instance, when I asked them whether their latest album, Everything Must Go, reflects their impressions of the end of the world or is instead the big sayonara — the end of their career — they said:

Fagen: “Of course, as always, it's all in the listener's mind.”

Becker: “Certainly, the characters in the title song are celebrating the end of the old thing and perhaps the beginning of the new. That kind of, ‘End of the world office party.'' I think of it basically as a party record.”

Fagen: “The last office party.”

Becker: “Secretaries jumping up on the office copy machine.”

Fagen: “Did you see that movie, Secretary, by the way?”

Becker: “I missed that.”

Fagen: “It was called Secretary. It came out last year. It was on a pay channel. Kind of a bondage-and-discipline movie. Usually I don't go for that stuff, but this was kind of interesting.”

In conversation, Becker and Fagen act more like a pair of comedians than the fearsome pop composers they are. The musicians who worked with them to create such classic Steely Dan albums as Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho know how serious they can be. Becker and Fagen are two perfectionist, astute musical geniuses who never met a studio player they couldn't cut down to size.

Their pickiness is well known. Legend has it that during their heyday in the '70s and '80s, Becker and Fagen would record an entire album, become dissatisfied, scrap it, and start over. Drummer Rick Marotta tells of Fagen micromanaging his performance in “Peg,” finding the infinitesimal instances within a bar where the seasoned drummer would rush or drag.

Gear also came under severe scrutiny. For example, rather than merely tweaking the EQ for a better snare-drum sound, they were known to record as many as 52 different snare drums for a single song. As for guitar solos, they'd sometimes go through 20 guitarists before finding the magical combination of melodic judgment and instrumental burn that they required. Steely Dan albums such as Royal Scam and Pretzel Logic were marathon torture tests in which studio musicians were taken to their limits, only to be asked to give even more. Working with SD was a badge of honor and a brand of ultimate respect. Getting a recording credit on a Steely Dan album would elevate a player into an elite coterie of musicians. Your stock rose. Your name was gold.

Steely Dan's perfectionist impulses in the studio carried over into live performance. Becker and Fagen's contempt for the road eventually caused them to abandon touring; the band was never well suited to opening for bubblegum bands or mangy hard rockers. But when the group did tour, they approached it as an art, striving for the same sort of flawlessness onstage as in the studio. Such perfection was of course unattainable, but it didn't prevent them from trying. For a while in the '70s, they even toured with an elaborate high-fidelity P.A. rig devised by Dinky Dawson.

All in all, however, the road was a nightmare for Fagen and Becker. Fagen loathed rental cars. Becker disliked waking early in the morning in order to get to the next gig. They hated touring, and it showed; a Los Angeles newspaper once described them as “the ugliest band in the world.” For Steely Dan, touring was about music and not about smoke bombs, theatrics, adulation, or groupies.

But now, with 30 years of playing professionally under their belts (and millions of albums sold), things have changed — both onstage and in the studio for Steely Dan '03.

For one thing, endless fussing about what their sidemen play is out. “They are not very dictatorial, and they don't tell you what to play,” says SD road and session keyboardist Ted Baker. “If it isn't working, they might give you some suggestions. But it's never a directive. You're free to work out your place. They're all about where to lay your part into that groove matrix. It takes a lot of concentration to play with them night after night. I have to be at my sharpest. I know that they're listening and that they hear everything. They have x-ray vision — this greater sense of being able to hear all this stuff in the midst of everything else. It's incredible.”

As always, the musician's respect for SD remains. “Donald will sit down at sound checks and play standards,” says Baker. “He sounds incredible. Donald puts his body into it, and he is so attuned to the feel. He lays it way back into the beat, and you think it will sound too far behind. But it never does. That attention to feel is what makes him an incredible musician.”

“I found that Donald and Walter were not difficult to please,” adds longtime guitarist Jon Herington. “If anything, they understand that I am difficult to please.”

Everything Must Go is the follow-up to SD's 2000 Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year, Two Against Nature. Once more, Becker and Fagen break new ground. Instead of the elaborate digital recording systems they used in the past, 90 percent of this album was tracked on analog gear. The album also features a single band, not a collection of session players waiting for the axe to drop. That old-fashioned approach helps Everything Must Go sound more natural than most digitally tracked CDs that are released today.

Nevertheless, the chiseled Steely Dan style remains. The cutting humor, the grandly down-on-their-luck characters, the losers parading their “mighty hidey-ho faces,” and “God-whackers” quartering punishment are the new stuff of Steely Dan legend. Fagen plays glowing Rhodes piano throughout, and Becker's bluesy guitar bites and spits with consummate grace and taste.

Has Steely Dan mellowed? After many successful tours in the '90s, is the road now a place that they can call home? I sat down with the pair in a room at the plush Santa Monica Fairmount Miramar Hotel.

The new album seems to follow the credo of less is more.

Walter Becker: Our brain cells are dying off now. We have to be more economical. We have only so much to work with on a sheer cellular level.

Donald Fagen: Also, when you have a real rhythm section, because that sounds good by itself, there are so many subtleties that you don't have to do so many overdubs.

You used a single band on this album. Has it been harder to find musicians than it was in the '70s and '80s?

Fagen: Because we played live a lot in the '90s, there's been a process of natural selection, where we have these guys that feel the groove the same way.

Becker: The predominance of the drum machine, programmed groove — playing along with the click generated by a metronomically even time rather than generating your own time — has changed the way that people hear and play rhythm. In the evolution of jazz and pop music there are always shifts occurring in how people feel rhythms, in what place they feel the beat, and in how explicit certain parts of the time are. It's changed now, and that is one of the things we have had problems with. We're still trying to recreate a rhythmic feel that predates that, where the feel is generated by players and has swing and a lope through it rather than being completely even and symmetrical. And of course, insisting at the same time that it be hypnotically steady.

Steely Dan hated touring back in the 1970s. What's improved since then? Better musicians? Better technology? Better touring conditions?

Becker: All of those things. The enterprise of rock 'n' roll tours has been perfected way beyond what it was in the '70s. That was a real uneven experience in every imaginable way back then. We played places that were basically indescribable in many cases. Plus, we opened shows for people most of the time, so we didn't really have a chance to sound good.

Fagen: We were just little babies back then. We experienced everything in a different way.

Becker: You would've thought we would have liked it more, but we didn't. That's what nobody could understand.

Fagen: Because it fell so short of what we imagined it would be.

Becker: Our dreams were shattered on a nightly basis. Tune by tune. We figured we would sound like the Duke Ellington orchestra playing rock 'n' roll but we actually sounded like …

Fagen: Tommy James and the Shondells.

Becker: On a good night. It sounds much better now than it did almost all of the time. The only exception was the very last tour that we did when we were headlining. We had Dinky Dawson's custom P.A. That was a unique sound. A hell of a thing. Dinky built this system that was like a giant acoustic suspension speaker. It had a tremendous number of dome tweeters, Bose midranges, and then a monster 8-inch acoustic suspension bass system. It really had a sound.

Fagen: It sounded more like a hi-fi than a P.A. The downside was that it couldn't play nearly loud enough for an outdoor gig. But for the 3,000-seat movie houses we played, it was great. No one has capitalized on that since then. Dinky was a very talented mixer and he had a vision of how the band sounded.

Is there one particular gig from the '70s that stands out?

Becker: There are 50 that tie for first place.

Fagen: That first showcase we ever played was weak.

Becker: But no one saw that.

Fagen: People in the music business saw it.

Becker: After the album [Can't Buy a Thrill] came out, we played in a club for a week, then we were ready to hit the road. The first gig was in a hotel for industry in Seattle, of all places. And it was a disaster. There was a prayer meeting after the gig. I remember the guys from the record company had our singer and drummer in a huddle, telling them to “Buck up guys. It happens to the best of them! Any given Sunday!” Then the next night we opened our first real gig for the James Gang and it went great. It went so well, that the second night they wouldn't let us use their lights. [Laughs] In show-business fashion they said, “Wait a minute! Hang on! These guys, who are they?”

Can you compare road gear then and now?

Becker: Some things are not so different. The guitar amps are not that different. The bass-amp technology is not that different; it's a little more powerful, compact, and reliable now. The microphones onstage are not that different. The Rhodes piano is similar, and the horns are the same. There are some effects and controls that the guitar players use that are more modern than what we had then. And the P.A.s are radically different; they are more elaborate, large, complex, powerful, advanced and sophisticated setups — with the exception of the Dinky Dawson P.A. You couldn't swap it with today's gear, but it was incredible.

Do you find that today's shows are much louder and more powerful?

Becker: I have never seen a Steely Dan show, but generally speaking most shows are too loud, too rumbly, and there's too much bass. It may be that it follows that if the shows are too loud, then the bass will be rumbly because of uncontrolled resonances that are beyond the soundman's control. And the shows are also catering to the tastes of those who want it like that. For my tastes, most shows could be softer and cleaner, and it would be just as good.

Is obtaining a good live sound important to you?

Becker: We do as much as we can. We try to play places that make it possible to sound good. We have the best sound company and people that we can find. We listen to what they are doing and how they are conceiving things and try to make sure that we are in concert with them. To some extent, we rely on the expertise of mixers like Dave Morgan. You can never hear what the audience is hearing, because even if I go out in front with my little guitar transmitter during the sound check, that is not what the show is going to sound like. That's because nobody is in the hall and won't be until the show starts. Instead, you are relying on the judgment of the house mixer, and they do a great job.

Do you use in-ear systems onstage?

Becker: We have in the past. The only thing that's not so good about those is that you tend to feel that you aren't at the event, and that you are hearing it from somewhere else. In-ears cut you off a little bit from the immediacy of being onstage with musicians and playing. Most of the sound comes from the front monitors and the musicians' amps and the drums. The bass is pretty loud, and the horn players are right behind me so I can certainly hear them.

What do you like to hear in your monitor mix?

Fagen: When I'm singing, I need to hear my voice and piano and stuff like that. When I'm playing, I need to hear drums — mostly hi- hat — and keyboards. I got a guitar player next to me and the bass spreads well.

Becker: It doesn't matter as much to me as to Donald. Singing is so much harder than playing. I am trying to think why Donald gets the females behind him. Mostly he is hearing the vocals through monitors. But if I could have girls behind me instead of horn players, I'd have it, too. That is an interesting idea.

What does it take to play in your band?

Becker: The bottom line is that you have to play with a lot of feeling, personality, and soul. Along the way, generally speaking, you have to be well trained, a good reader, and versatile. You have to do lots of different things to play with us. We tend to work with people that we like to be with, too. Sometimes you meet someone who is a great player but that you don't want to see again.

In a recent issue of Onstage, Carlos Santana spoke of telling his band to hit the G spot during performance. What kind of pre-show pep talk do you give your band?

Becker: Our conversation is similar in subject matter, although different in tone.

Fagen: We say the same thing but we are probably talking about something else.

Becker: We are not talking about music.

Are there any proven problem-solving methods that you use when rehearsing bands?

Becker: There are a lot of little things that we do to nudge things in a new direction. None of them are surefire. Often we have players change parts: if we have two keyboard players — one on acoustic and one on electric — we might have them change places. The different guy playing the different part would change the way something felt. Or one of the guitar players changes his instrument. Sometimes you move the tempo around. Sometimes we start all over again.

Are there any particular songs that you enjoy playing live?

Becker: I love playing blues-based songs that have just the right level of enhancement; not necessarily 12-bar blues structurally, but tunes that are basically bluesy. “Chain Lightning” is great to play. “Josie” is even more fun, because it is sort of a blues song. It is structurally and harmonically strongly related to the blues, but it is not strictly just an altered blues. “Black Friday” is blues based, but it's not a 12-bar blues. “Chain Lightning” is an altered blues, with a 12-bar structure and some very interesting alterations. A tremendous amount of what we do is very blues inflected. There's a lot of bluesy stuff, and there are some standard 12-bar things. There are some on the new album. “The Last Mall” is basically an altered blues.

Do you think younger players care as much about the blues?

Becker: I imagine it's arcane to them, the idea that there is music called the blues, and that blues licks evolved that are an ultimate dialect you can use at almost any time. It adds a certain color and musical tension, as if somebody is talking and they suddenly go into a Brooklyn accent. Probably people who don't have a sense of the blues and what the connotations of that idiom are couldn't possibly understand the idea of playing blues licks over major-seventh chords. Solo playing for me is an outgrowth of listening to jazz and blues players like B.B. King or Freddie King or Hubert Sumlin. Plus the people who modeled themselves on those guys, like Eric Clapton.

With all your road experience, what advice can you give to aspiring bands?

Becker: It took us so long to get our band the way it is, I think I'm the wrong person to be giving advice. The route we took was circuitous. The most important thing is to enjoy it and always be straight ahead and strive for tone.

Does the live Steely Dan album, Alive in America, still hold up for you?

Becker: I wouldn't know. I don't listen to any of that old shit, those old Steely Dan records. I like to listen to records made in the year 1956. That was a really good year.

Ken Micallefis a New York-based music journalist. He wishes to thank Susan Markheim and Brian Tomasini from Azoff Music Management, Luke Burland, Bob Bradshaw, Wayne Williams, Skip Gildersleave, Ted Baker, Jon Herington, Tom Barney, and Keith Carlock.

The Gear of the Dan

Walter Becker's setup on the Two Against Nature tour, consisted of two Sadowsky solid-body electrics, a fairly complex effects rack/switching system designed by electronics guru Bob Bradshaw (customaudioelectronics.com), as well as Bogner Ecstasy and Mesa/Boogie Maverick amplifiers. Despite having a rackfull of effects at his disposal (including a Lexicon PCM 80, a Lexicon Reflex, two Roland SE-70s, a CAE Super Tremolo, and more), Becker says he doesn't use that many effects onstage. “The reality is that, most of the time when you are playing in a venue, unless it is a concert hall, there's already more ambience and diffusion and more repeats than you want,” he says. “So you're trying to get clarity rather than lushness.” (There was talk in the Steely Dan camp that Becker's setup would be changing for this tour, but no firm details were available at press time.)

Donald Fagen's rig is relatively simple (see Fig. A), consisting of a Fender Rhodes 88-key suitcase model piano going direct through an MXR Phase 90 phaser pedal. He also uses a Lync LN4 MIDI controller (now out of production) that's MIDI'd to a Roland JV-1080 module (which he sets to a jazz-guitar type of patch). “I am in big trouble now because I only have one and a half Lync's left,” says Fagen. At which point Becker retorts: “In other words, our performing career can't go on indefinitely unless somebody is going to resume manufacturing this keyboard.”

Ted Baker, the band's other keyboardist, uses a setup that features a Steinway baby grand piano (typically miked with two Shure SM82s) and an organ (either a Roland VK-7 or a Hammond B-3) through a Leslie 122 cabinet.

Drummer Keith Carlock plays a six-piece Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute drum kit consisting of either a 14" × 5.5" or 14" × 3.5" snare, a 20" 5 14" kick, 10" × 7.5" and 12" × 8" rack toms, and 14" × 14" and 16" × 16" floor toms. His cymbals include K. Zildjian 14" hi-hats, a K. Zildjian 20" Constantinople Medium Ride, and A. Zildjian 19" and 18" Custom Crashes.

Guitarist Jon Herington's rig consists of Gibson ES-335 and ES-336 guitars and a Fender Telecaster and a Hamer Artist Korina. He uses a Guytron GT100 amplifier with a Guytron 2×12 cabinet. He also has a Digital Music Corporation GCX Guitar Audio Switcher to control his stompboxes, which include a Boss EQ pedal, a Boss TU-2 tuner pedal, an Ibanez Modulation Delay pedal (for a delay or a flanging effect), an MXR Phase 90, a Voodoo Labs Tremolo pedal, an MXR DynaComp, an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver (both modified by Robert Keeley), an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and a Real McCoy Wizard Wah.

Although bassist Tom Barney normally uses (and endorses) Aguilar amps, he's opted for an Eden rig on this tour to get the sound he needs for the Steely Dan material. It consists of a Navigator preamp, a WT-1000 power amp, and four D410XST cabinets. He's playing ESP J-1005 LTD Deluxe and Celinder 5-string basses.

Jon Herington Plays Classic SD Solos

In the annals of '70s and '80s rock, the guitar solos of Steely Dan reign supreme. “Peg” (Jay Graydon), “Reeling in the Years” (Elliot Randall), “Third World Man,” and “Kid Charlemagne” (both Larry Carlton) feature some of the most well-known and hotly executed fingerings since Eric Clapton burned up “Crossroads.” Through the years, Steely Dan has hired a number of mighty guitar slingers to execute these renowned plectrum blowouts in concert. None of them, however, has been more successful (or enjoyed such continual road employment by the band) than Jon Herington.

“I figured out that I had two choices here: I could play this gig the way I wanted to play it, or I could try to second-guess what Donald and Walter wanted me to play,” says Herington. “They're very fussy, but they give you a lot of room. I think I got two comments the entire year I worked with them.”

Herington tried to maintain the essence of the famous recorded solos while adding something of himself. “I wanted to be true to what the fans loved about the original solos, but without constricting my musical instincts. I didn't want it to be a cover-band experience. Instead, I wanted to make it my own and communicate what I loved about the original tracks.”

“I would start with a sonic concept. [For instance] if the tone of the solo was important, I would go from that.” Like “Peg,” for instance. “That solo is so unique, it was hard to play,” laughs Herington. “I didn't want to treat it like an etude. I wanted to be able to improvise. I used the open-G string from the original, and I would play and explore ideas that somehow connected to it. And I would do it with a similar sound, so I could adopt the character of the solo without having to adopt every single note. Sometimes I would quote the beginning of the solo — it seems like part of the composition.”

According to Herington, part of the fun in playing Steely Dan tunes live comes from making such carefully crafted events sound free and spontaneous. “The most important thing is to trust my instincts. They're going to use somebody who comes across with strength and confidence. For me it's about keeping the big picture in mind, and not getting lost in some guitar-playing adventure that's my own agenda and not the music's.”