Today, Donald Fagen, one half of legendary '70s rock outfit Steely Dan, releases his fourth solo album. It's called Sunken Condos, and if you're a fan, you know what to expect: bitterly ironic lyrics, the apocalypse as viewed by the most cynical lounge lizard left lurking on two legs. Or something like that. Trying to pin down Fagen's idiosyncratic perspective is no easy task, and he'll offer no help, side-stepping like a crab.
Complex connected with Fagen to talk about the album, New York City, and being sampled by Kanye West.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
What’s on your mind in 2012? What’s informed this record?
It’s a bunch of songs that I’ve been working on between tours for the past couple years. I was trying to get away from the autobiographical thing, but it turned out that I couldn’t get too far away. But I convinced myself that it wasn’t part of that, which freed me up to write different kinds of stuff.
Was that the impulse to get away from it in the first place?
Yeah. I wanted to write free-standing songs, but I guess when I write them myself, they all end up being about what’s happening now. What’s happening now is that I’m getting older, and older, and older.
That was a theme on the last album, too.
Yeah, but that was when I was younger, even though I was older—now I’m even older. Things are dropping off, like my elbow. I have to pick it up, put it in my pocket, and keep walking.
I realized the word 'ghetto' has been associated, for many decades now, with the inner city, and I decided to reclaim it for the Jews.
Why cover Isaac Hayes?
While I was writing this group of songs, I happened to hear an Isaac Hayes tune. I realized the word “ghetto” has been associated, for many decades now, with the inner city, and I decided to reclaim it for the Jews. So I changed a word or two, added a klezmer arrangement, and that's all it took, really.
Hearing that word come out of a white mouth changes things.
Well, yeah, especially a Jewish white mouth. Then, when you talk about the mean streets and poverty, you’re talking about Warsaw, instead of the Bronx.
Sunken Condos is not part of the trilogy that you wrapped with Morph the Cat, it’s more free-standing.
I started out with the idea that I would just write songs about whatever I want, but it turned out that what I wanted to write about was myself. You can’t run away from yourself. That's the lesson I’ve learned.
Is each album a lesson in yourself?
When you finish a record, do you find yourself itching to start another project?
No. When I finish, I want to go on the road, actually. Which we're doing at the end of October—the Dukes of September will be going to Japan, and then we’re coming back, and depending on how this record is doing, I might go out with a little band of my own, behind this record.
Would that be your first time in Japan?
No, I’ve been there many times with Steely Dan.
How is Steely Dan received by Japanese audiences?
We’re very popular in Japan. It’s a different kind of audience though, because it’s a different culture, and you don’t get the kind of energy back throughout the performance that you do here—they react to it more like an audience who would listen to Mozart. They’re quiet, but at the end, they go nuts. They save it for the end.
Is the quiet unnerving?
It is. But I know now what to expect, so it’s not so bad. Unless they’re drunk; the last time we were there, we did this series of club concerts on Friday and Saturday nights. The audience was drunk. They were boisterous.
The culture has a reputation for alcohol consumption.
I can attest to that.
You have a number of songs in your catalog that encourage copious drinking.
I wouldn’t say we celebrate it, but we certainly name-check it.
I'd like to ask you a few questions about rap.
I don’t know much about that, I’m sorry.
Steely Dan songs have been sampled a number of times.
Many times, that’s true.
And to great effect, songs that are very popular among the rap community. The bass line from “Black Cow,” for instance.
That’s one of the big ones.
And more recently, Kanye West sampled “Kid Charlemagne.” Are you approached by the artists? How does that work?
It's changed over the years. In the beginning, they used them without asking, and then, there were lawsuits, so they started asking for licenses. Now, when they sample, they almost always ask for a license. Our management will make a deal where we get part of the composing royalties.
Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes, and frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said “No,” at first, and then he wrote us a hand-written letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father, and he said, “I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it’s a very personal thing for me.” My mind doesn’t work like that—I would never use someone else’s stuff if I was writing something personal, but I guess that’s how he was thinking about it. It was such a good letter that we said, “All right, go ahead,” and we made a deal with him.
What’s your take on the practice at large?
I’d prefer that they do something creative with it, that’s my main thing. I don’t have any moral objection; I just prefer that they do something interesting, rather than something that’s ugly.
Something beyond a repetitive loop?
If they really make something new out of it, then that’s cool, it doesn’t bother me. I like that tune, ”Deja Vu.” And I like that Ice Cube made a track from “Green Earrings.” That was pretty cool.
The 40th anniversary of Can’t Buy a Thrill is coming up. Do you ever listen to that album?
I don’t. I particularly don’t like the early tunes, maybe because I don’t like listening to myself sing. Especially the early stuff; I was at my most incompetent.
Over the years, I took some lessons and stopped doing some things that I didn’t know I was doing.
Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes, and frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said 'No,' at first, and then he wrote us a hand-written letter that was kind of touching.
The music still holds up. You can check.
Thanks a lot. I’m going to have to take your word for it, because I’m not going to listen to it.
Are you fearing November 2012?
Fearful, no, not really. I mean, you know, I lived through a Nixon presidency and a Reagan presidency and George Bush I and George Bush II, so I’m not fearful. I’ll tell you one thing, though: In the '60s, when I was going to school, I wasn’t very political. I figured that the kind of sexually-repressed, uptight, fundamentalist-types would die off, because they were old people. Soon they would die off, they would be gone, and the younger generation could enjoy their utopia. But as it turns out, they kept reproducing, and those same guys with those terrible haircuts are there every year, and now they’re younger than I am. I can’t figure it out.
Do you feel like your solo stuff is more explicitly political?
Oh, no. I think there’s an implicit political stance in Steely Dan. Even though we don’t write explicit political material, it’s there.
I'm thinking of Morph the Cat, with the airport security references.
Yeah, that's true. And there's “Mary Shut the Garden Door.” That's a very paranoid song, a little political, too.
Has the paranoia of post-9/11 New York worn off?
Well, not for some people, obviously. But the '60s are the most paranoid decade in my memory. For me, the paranoia then dwarfs now. Growing up with the daily threat of nuclear catastrophe—it was hammered into children every day. That was the worst.
A color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale—none of this compares?
Nah. There's nothing like your father building a fallout shelter in the backyard. Or a special radio station to tune into—all radios had this little triangle on the dial—that you would tune to when the bombs started falling. It was treated like a sure thing.
What do you still love about New York?
Well, it’s certainly not like it used to be, because Manhattan—where I live—has been virtually emptied of any class, except the upper-middle class and wealthy people, so it’s way different. But it’s still a city where you go outside, and there are people walking down the street and they're yelling at each other and girls crying on their cell phones. In one block, you see more life than you will see in any suburb for a year.