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Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo that makes up the classic rock band Steely Dan, have a reputation for being a tough interview. When we took part in a teleconference with a dozen other reporters — the guys were promoting their summer/fall tour Mood Swings 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day — we learned they were not cantankerous. Rather, they run an absurdist Abbott and Costello routine in response to any question they don't deem worthy of their time. They made mincemeat of reporters.
This made sense. The jazz-rock combo just demands the same perfection from journalists as it does from its own sound. For the 1981 album Gaucho, the two used 42 studio musicians and 11 engineers and took more than a year to record.
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The moderator told us to keep our questions about the music, so our first draft about drug abuse, therapy, and if they keep in touch with Chevy Chase (their one-time drummer) ended up in the wastebasket. New Times readers deserve the best, so here's one man's attempt to get something of interest out of Steely Dan, masters of the nonanswer.
New Times: You have a reputation for not enjoying interviews too much.
Fagen: We're having a ball.
Becker: That was just a bum rap. I don't know what it is. They can't accept the fact...
Fagen: It's the internet. It's punk music, man. Do you know what it is? It's Bloomberg.
Becker: And Lindsay before that, Lindsay.
Talking about newfangled things like the internet, are there modern musicians that you guys are enjoying right now or younger musicians that you guys are enjoying?
Becker: Yes, I love guys like Charlie Parker. He was only 35 when he died, so most of his work was almost like new.
Is there anyone alive in 2013 you guys like?
Becker: I still like Charlie Parker. You're not going to talk me out of that.
Fagen: Tony Rhodes is still going strong, and he's 84. Actually, there's a few things. I like Norah Jones. Have you heard of her?
Sure, she's great.
Fagen: But I don't think she's contemporary anymore, right?
Becker: That's a crusher running right there for Norah Jones.
Fagen: Well, Walter played me something I liked the other day; it was on YouTube. It was Carl Sagan [an astronomer who died in 1996], and it was a song about the cosmos. What was it called?
Becker: I can't remember.
Fagen: Something about a glorious something.
Becker: Right, right.
Fagen: It was good. It was digitally altered...
Sure. How about Kanye West? I read in an interview that he wrote a letter to you guys to get permission to use one of your songs. Do you mind going into that at all?
Fagen: Well, what happened is, from time to time, we get requests for license for hip-hoppers to use part of an old song or something. So we got a clip of something from Kanye West wanting to use a piece of "Kid Charlemagne" and we thought it was... We usually say yes, but we didn't like the general curve of the way that one sounded, so we said...
Becker: Also, he was using a line of the vocal over and over again of Donald's vocal, which...
Fagen: We thought it was just too repetitive.
Becker: Usually, you don't give them samples with your voice on them.
Fagen: But then he sent us a handwritten letter, which, it was so heartfelt, that we finally gave in and acceded to his request.
Becker: Yes. He basically said that this was a song that meant a lot to him. It was written about his father and his feelings for his father and...
Fagen: I didn't get that at all from the music, but...
Becker: No, I've had occasion to wonder since then whether that's the same Kanye West.
Fagen: Maybe it was a prank.
Becker: It could have been. I think somebody took over the Kanye West personality paradigm and has been operating it randomly.
Fagen: It could have been.
Becker: But anyway, that's the story. How about that?
That's a great story.
Becker: A real quirker.