By Devon Wendell
Recently I had the opportunity to have another exclusive interview with my former boss, mentor, and obsessed music lover Donald Fagen. (To read my first Fagen Q & A for iRoM, published in April of 2009, click HERE.)
This time, we discussed his new solo album, Sunken Condos (Reprise Records) – released on Oct. 16 — as well as jazz, the recording process, film makers, and much more.
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Devon Wendell: Hello Donald. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me again. First tell me about the development of Sunken Condos.
Donald Fagen: I wrote some tunes. I hired Mike Leonhart to record them, help me out and keep me company. End of story.
DW: Michael Leonhart co-produced, did all of the vocal and horn arrangements with you on Sunken Condos, as well as being one of the album’s engineers. Explain the musical chemistry between you and Michael.
DF: He also played the drums. At sound checks on the road, he’d sit down and play a bit and I noticed he had a soulful, old school feel . So I gave him a couple demos to play to. They sounded so good, he ended up playing on every track. Then he started calling himself Earl Cooke Jr.
DW: Speaking of engineers, Sunken Condos is your first recorded project without the “Immortal” Roger Nichols behind the board. Was it strange working without his unique presence and contributions?
DF: Actually the second. Walter and I learned a lot from Roger, so the tradition continues.
DW: Your previous three solo albums were autobiographical. Would you say Sunken Condos is too or is there another concept behind it?
DF: I started out thinking I’d just write a bunch of free-standing tunes without the pressure of the whole personal thing, more like a Steely Dan album. But the way it came out, it might as well be another in that series. It was good to start out that way though.
DW: After being a part of Two Against Nature, and working for you in general, so many people asked me if “Gas Lighting Abbie” and countless other songs were code for some strange drug. So many people assume your lyrics are about drugs, even when they’re clearly not. Why do you think this is?
DF: Melancholy adolescents (and adults with that sensibility) tend to be fixated on drugs and the connection between drugs and musicians’ lifestyles. So when they’re confronted with language they don’t immediately understand, they figure it’s drug-related. “Gaslighting” is a slang term taken from the classic film, Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she’s insane so he can get her money. For example: “You piece of shit, all this time, you’ve been gaslighting me?”
DW: Okay….so which of your new songs are about drugs?
DF: Well, there was a song on Morph The Cat that mentioned a made-up pharmaceutical called Chronax that was prescribed for the time-travel challenged narrator.
DW: I think I was prescribed that in the ‘90s…(laughing)…When I first met you many years ago and discovered that we shared very similar tastes in music and culture, I assumed that, like me, you were either oblivious to, or shared the same disdain towards music on the pop charts as do I. Is this true or have you learned to appreciate the Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas of the world, or should we just stick to Bud Powell?
DF: Actually, I like the odd chart hit. But generally speaking, stick to Bud.
DW: In our previous interview, we discussed our obsessive love of jazz. We jazz lovers tend to go through periods in which we become hooked on a particular recording or set of recordings, no matter how many times we’ve listened to them in the past. Right now, for me it’s those classic Miles Davis Quintet sessions on Prestige from 1956 (Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’). What are you stuck on right now?
DF: I like surfing the net for old records I may have missed. Hank Mobley, stuff like that.
DW: Yeah, I just found a few Hank things I missed with Lee Morgan on Savoy. So many rock, r&b, and “mainstream” artists like Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart are recording straight ahead blues albums with covers by Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, etc. Have you ever considered doing something like this? “Weather In My Head” is certainly one of the bluesiest tracks you’ve ever recorded.
DF: I love good blues. I once thought about doing an all blues album until I realized that they’re all pretty much blues anyway.
DW: What’s the worst thing you could imagine doing musically in the future?
DF: I’ve already used up all the worst things I could ever do.
DW: When writing a song, what usually comes first for you, the lyrics, melody, the groove, or does it all come to you at once?
DW: With Your Dukes Of September project (With Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald) there seems to be a totally different side of you not heard or seen when performing solo or with Steely Dan, almost as if you become this wilder alter-ego. It feels like you’re playing hooky from school. Tell me about your role in that group. How do you feel your personality and artistic choices have changed with The Dukes compared to what happens with Steely Dan?
DF: I’m evolving at a really astounding rate of speed into something way cooler than what I was before.
DW: With Steely Dan, your solo projects, and The Dukes Of September, there’s always a lot of funk in the music. This is certainly the case on much of the material on Sunken Condos like “Slinky Thing,” “Good Stuff” and your version of Isaac Hayes’s “Out Of The Ghetto.” Tell me about some of your funky influences both now and in the past.
DF: In the mid-sixties, the sort of jazz I liked seemed to have reached a dead end, partly for socio-political reasons. At the same time, soul music (and eventually funk and reggae) became the center of the creative motion of that time. Walter and I were both drawn to that stuff. Also, funk reminds me of early Stravinsky. And Igor rules.
DW: Yes, he does and Igor’s certainly got the funk! Throughout your career, who are some of the strangest acts you’ve shared the bill with?
DF: I think the question should be: Which acts were forced to share the bill with us? We opened for the Beach Boys, Slade, Frank Zappa, Sha-na-na, the Doobie Brothers, the James Gang, Elton John, Chuck Berry, Uriah Heep, you name it. When Walter and I worked for Jay and the Americans, we used to open for Frankie and the Four Seasons a lot. They were good.
DW: Do you feel the average classic rock fan who comes to see you live will walk away with a curiosity to learn something about jazz through hearing it in your music and the newer live arrangements of older Steely Dan classics?
DF: Not the average classic rock fan, no.
DW: Do you and Walter have something up your sleeves for the future?
DF: Liver spots.
DW: There are not only film references in some of you lyrics such as in “Gas Lighting Abbie” and “Bright Nightgown” but also very strong visual and cinematic qualities to your lyrics and music. Tell me about some of your favorite films, film makers, and actors and how they’ve influenced your song writing.
DF:I became a bit of a film creep in high school. I lived near Princeton N.J., where there was an art theater, the Garden. So I got to see all the great films that were being imported, the Fellini films, Truffaut, Pietro Germi. I liked John Schlesinger’s movies, like Billy Liar, and all those great British films of the time. I don’t go to the movies so much now.
DW: Me either. I guess we’ll both be sticking to Fellini, Truffaut, and Bud Powell for the most part. The state of the music industry is pretty bleak and ambiguous right now. Do you take dealing with the music business as seriously as you did when you were younger and has it become harder to make money without touring?
DF:We never took it seriously. How can you? The best you can do is try to have some fun with it and not become bitter just because you were robbed of most of your money.
DW: Oh great, so there’s some hope….(laughing)… It seems as though you’re (both with Steely Dan and as a solo artists) one of the few artists left who makes albums meant to be listened to all the way through, from start to finish (like a book) while countless other music stars just record filler with a few designated hits for download and quick radio play. Do you consciously attempt to create records that unfold like a great novel or series of short stories?
DF: Well, I don’t think I have the sort of rigor – a big word in academia – to create some ideal, seamless work of art. With me, everything’s intuitive. When I write 50 minutes of decent music, it’s time to record. It’s a nice length, 50 minutes.
DW: You talk a lot about New York City in your songs. Many old New Yorkers feel that The City has become an overly gentrified playground for the very Anglo-Saxon rich and lacks the grittiness of the Travis Bickle days of yore. How has The City changed for you and tell me how those changes have impacted your song writing.
DF: I respectfully disagree. There’s not only Anglo-Saxon rich, there’s rich bastards from every ethnic background. And, yeah, that’s just what I need, a fleet of Travis Bickles cruising around town dispensing grittiness at every corner.
DW: Good point and in that case, you may want to avoid moving back to LA anytime soon… Honestly, do these interviews make you miserable? If so, I owe you a few dogs at Rutts Hut if I ever make it out of LA alive.
DF: I prefer the beef barbecues. But thanks.
DW: Okay, it’s a deal, a few beef barbecues for you and a couple of dogs for me. Thanks and meet you back in Clifton soon.
To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.