Dan in Real Life
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ‘keep threatening' to finish old songs, but sometimes they just go fishing
In the 1970s, Steely Dan became that decade's ultimate studio band, having decided in 1973 to quit touring to concentrate on turning out studio albums like "Pretzel Logic" (1974), "The Royal Scam" (1976) and "Aja" (1977).
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker became famous for their meticulous approach to album-making, casting a host of studio musicians to play specific parts on albums, sometimes recording upward of three dozen takes of certain performances in a quest to capture the exact qualities they wanted in their songs.
So it's ironic to hear Steely Dan's founding members Fagen and Becker say the greatest reward since reuniting in 1993 has been, of all things, playing live shows.
"It's great fun to play with a really good band," Becker said, as Fagen concurred. "That goes without saying, but I think that's the essence of it right there for me."
That much seems apparent, when one considers the studio output in the two eras of Steely Dan. From 1972 until 1980, when Fagen and Becker shelved Steely Dan after deciding they'd run out of creative fuel, they released seven albums.
Since reforming, they've made just two Steely Dan albums, "Two Against Nature" (2000) and "Everything Must Go" (2003). Meanwhile, Steely Dan has toured most every summer, including a 2009 run, during which, on different nights, the band performed the albums "The Royal Scam," "Aja" or "Gaucho" in their entirety.
The only new music since "Everything Must Go" have been solo albums from Fagen ("Morph the Cat" in 2006 and "Sunken Condos," 2012) and Becker ("Circus Money," 2008).
Clearly, touring now is much more enjoyable and satisfying than it was in early 1970s. And the compromises that had to be made back then had a lot to do with the decision to concentrate solely on album-making.
Fagen and Becker were trading answers to reporters' questions during a mid-July teleconference. The setting provided an opportunity to hear how the two interact. And as is fitting for a group that took its name from a strap-on sexual organ, it became obvious that Fagen and Becker share a sharp sense of humor and an ability to entertain each other.
Frequently answers would evolve — or dissolve — into the kind of humorous stories shared between best friends or in-jokes that probably hold more meaning for Fagen and Becker than the rest of the world.
One such example came when the pair was asked if any new Steely Dan music was in the works. Becker hinted that they might be getting that itch again.
"It's just a smell now," Becker said. "Next thing is, then you taste it, then you start to feel it. You know how this goes."
"We do have some songs that I'm just remembering now," Fagen said, recalling an aborted attempt to resume Steely Dan's career. "We have some songs that are really good ones that we only half-finished back in, like, 1984.
"We keep threatening to work on [those]," he said.
When it was suggested that the unreleased material must be good if it's been saved, the conversation turned.
"I guess that's true," Fagen said. "At least we think it's good stuff. It's, like, every time we get together, we end up just going fishing. Maybe it has to do with our age."
"Remember the time that you were chased in by those mullets?" Becker asked.
"Or by those blue fish. Jesus, that was bad," Fagen recalled. "The weird thing is, I've only been fishing a few times, especially when I was a kid. The first time I went fishing, I caught a box turtle instead of a fish, and the second time, I caught a real ugly fish called a lamprey."
"You caught a lamprey?" Becker asked.
"Yes, they have these big suckers on the front," Fagen said.
"You caught a lamprey in New Jersey?" Becker said in amazement.
"Yes, and after that I didn't go fishing for years because I thought, like, every time I went fishing, I would catch these really ugly exotic [fish]," Fagen said.
Any fishing now will have to happen during free time on the road, as Fagen and Becker tour through Oct. 8 with an eight-member band supplemented by three vocalists.
On certain dates, Steely Dan will again play the whole album of "Aja," "The Royal Scam" or "Gaucho" (plus select hits).
Either way, Becker noted, the shows won't be all that different.
"If you look at the different kinds of shows that we supposedly have, the fact is that they're more or less actually the same show," Becker said. "We just put the songs in a different order."