Donald Fagen: He’s Undeniable
Musician singer and songwriter Donald Fagen is known best as lead singer and one of the creative forces behind the Grammy winning band Steely Dan. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and their long list of hit songs included “Peg”, “Hey Nineteen”, “Deacon Blues” and “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” Fagen has also had a strong solo career and has just released his fourth solo album, “Sunken Condos”. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios with co-producer Michael Leonhart to talk with Ron Bennington about the new album. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Sunken Condos is the new album. And it is an album that you could say, just press play, let the whole thing play down. You guys have set up a mood in this album that is that kind of old school album.
Donald Fagen: What would be a new school? You put it on and take it off?
Ron Bennington: Well now, they’ll just play a single song, or everything is a mix tape. So I don’t know if people sit down and listen to albums.
Donald Fagen: I don’t know either. But, yeah, back in the day, you know– as the kids say– it was fun. Everyone had some good sounding speakers. You’d sit down and put out and album and if it was a good one, for forty five or fifty minutes you’d really get into it and it would have an interesting listening curve.
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Putting together the new album, Sunken Condos:
Ron Bennington: Well you guys produced this together– Michael Leonhart is in here with us also. How about the sequencing of this? Did it take awhile before you decided how the tracks were going to play out?
Michael Leonhart: There were really only two options near the end. We had two different sequences. We kind of knew what would come first– how to start it off. Typically there’s usually– the second and third song might be flipped for the sixth and seventh – but it wasn’t that hard to sequence it.
Ron Bennington: And you guys put this together on the road? Most of the writing took place on the road?
Donald Fagen: Not really, actually I have a hard time writing on the road. Usually in between tours, I’ll sit in a room with a piano and have a regular daily schedule and I’ll usually have some notes and either some music or some lyrics written down. I’ll look at what I’ve got and just start hacking it out you know?
Ron Bennington: What is it about keeping that schedule? Cause a lot of people just kind of let the muse show up whenever it does.
Donald Fagen: Well for me, I’ll get ideas at random moments, and that’s what I’m talking about notes for– that’s what’s on my notes. But after that, it’s a combination of serendipity and discipline.
Ron Bennington: You’ve got to have that craft, though, to be able to work at it.
Donald Fagen: I do, yeah.
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Donald talks about touring with three different bands:
Ron Bennington: For years you didn’t tour and you didn’t play live, and I think in the last couple of years, I’ve seen you with three different bands. I’ve seen you with Steely Dan, saw you out with the Dukes of Septemeber, and I saw you with Levon’s band. Every show is different from the one before. Is that kind of helpful to the creative process?
Ron Bennington: Well that’s the funny thing about seeing you with Levon, because that wasn’t totally expected that you guys would have meshed, and it worked out great.
Donald Fagen: Actually I think we had more in common than might be apparent because we both like blues and old r&b and soul records and that kind of thing. So, yeah, we used to talk about that stuff all the time. I think we basically like a kinda old school kind of feel and all that, and so, we actually knew a lot of the same tunes. What I didn’t know was, I don’t know too much about country music or some of that southern stuff that he knows. But black music– I know quite a bit about it.
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Touring in Japan. Steely Shodan:
Ron Bennington: And because your schedule now, I guess is busier than it’s ever been in your life. And you’re playing all over the world?
Donald Fagen: Well Monday we’re going to Japan with the Dukes. I guess in the summer I’ll probably go out with my partner Walter again with Steely Dan. so yeah, all kinds of stuff happening.
Ron Bennington: Isn’t it interesting that Japan would have a market for the Dukes. It’s such an American sound.
Donald Fagen: Actually I think the Dukes is not that surprising. Because Japanese people are great historians of art and music, American art and music. They love old school stuff including fashion, soul music…
Ron Bennington: There’s that– I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them– I got obsessed with them on the internet. They’re called Steely Shodan. (Donald and Michael laugh) And it’s this show band that does all your stuff and it’s really fun to watch. Have you seen those guys?
Donald Fagen: No but I’m going to sue them. (Laughs) How do you spell that?
Ron Bennington: The great thing about them is….they have these Asian girls filling in…
Donald Fagen: …Cool….
Ron Bennington: Check em out. [plays Steely Shodan]
Michael Leonhart: Hey the guys trying to imitate…
Donald Fagen: Hey they’re better than we are (laughs). His head is tilting….
Ron Bennington: ….yeah right he’s doing the whole thing…
Donald Fagen: That’s creepy. Alright it’s starting to creep me out, okay?
Ron Bennington: It is really weird and it seems like he’s doing it phonetically. I’m not exactly sure if he has the language down.
Donald Fagen: Yeah, that would be my guess.
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Donald and Michael talk about Donald’s lyrics:
Ron Bennington: In this album, one of the things about you always, too, is not just the music but the lyrics. And in stuff like Slinky Thing, where the narrator is kind of this creepier guy, than I think that you are….
Donald Fagin: well….
Ron Bennington: You’re not saying one way or the other (laughs). So many singers would stay away from those kind of characters. But you– whether it’s your solo work, or Steely Dan– have always embraced that.
Donald Fagen: Well, yeah I think Walter and I were both kind of literary types in the sense that we read about. We liked fiction and so we always thought of the songs as little stories and usually, pretty much when I sing, I’m essentially portraying a character. On the solo albums maybe the characters are a little closer to me, but they’re still characters.
Michael Leonhart: But Ron, I don’t find that one creepy so much. How do you find…
Ron Bennington: …I’m saying nobody wants to be into that thing of being the guy who is seen that way.
Donald Fagen: Because he’s kind of a loser in a certain way? Although he does okay with the girl.
Ron Bennington: He does okay with the girl but everybody hassles him for it. And there have been– remember when Frank Sinatra was with Mia Farrow– even though he was Frank Sinatra it still opened the world up to bust his balls forever.
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The culture of aging in America; Seeing the Stones tour:
Donald Fagen: Yeah, that’s true. Right. You know what it is? Part of it is, I think, in rock and roll it’s kind of been a thing where people don’t want to be honest about aging. They don’t want to be honest about what happens to your body as you get older. In modern fiction writing, it’s quite common, like in a Phillip Roth novel or something like that. So its’ just a matter of being honest really and looking life in the face.
Ron Bennington: It’s an American public thing that we always want our sports stars to go out on top. We don’t want to see Muhammed Ali get his ass beat. And how long have they busted the Stones balls? Probably since the mid 60′s like are you guys still doing this shit? And you’re like what?? Nobody’s doing it better! Why do they have to apologize for being the Stones?
Donald Fagen: Yeah. I agree. Certainly when Mick comes out, some people feel this sort of cognitive dissonance because there’s this guy singing what is essentially sort of teenage songs. But that’s his medium. That’s a performance medium. It never really bothered me that much. It’s sort of part of a joke.
Ron Bennington: But also, in my case, if the Blues guys would had stopped touring, I never would have seen John Lee Hooker. I never would have seen B.B. King. So I have always been used to going to see older performers, because that was the only way you were ever going to catch anybody from that generation.
Donald Fagen: Oh also, I saw the Rolling Stones maybe six, seven years ago and I have to say they were great. I couldn’t believe Jagger’s energy.
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Donald and Michael on knowing when the album is finished:
Ron Bennington: Michael, for you, are there any songs that you come in….while you’re co-producing this, do you ever find yourself saying to Donald, look this is good but I know you’re better than this?
Michael Leonhart: Maybe not in those exact terms but yeah, that’s the nature of our relationship. I realized early on, he’s not going to put this out until it’s great. So this has to be great. I’m here not to kiss his ass but to be a sounding board.
Michael Leonhart: That’s any marriage (laughs)…but for the most part, we’d be working on instruments…you know lyrically this is someone that I can kind of stay away from it, because it’s a complete thought. But there will be words where he’d say, ‘we need something, we need something; it’s not going to happen today’ and we’d sit with it and we’d throw some things– one or two words– form, structure. That’s the process, to really throw it back and say okay this is good but how can we make it better. In the same way, I’d say ‘well what if we tried this,’ and he’d say nah, we can do better.
Donald Fagen: Actually I think we both surprised each other on different days. He’d say, ‘you mean that’s not good enough?’ and I would say, ‘eh, I think I could be a little better.’ And then it would work the other way too on another day. I would say, ‘are you kidding me I think that sounds great’ and he’d say, ‘well, I think I want to try it again.’
Ron Bennington: That is amazing though, that at a certain point, you have to decide you’re done. You’ve put in enough things, and you’ve taken out enough things, and does everybody have to say we think the song is done?
Donald Fagen: With this one it was easy– it was when we ran out of money.
Ron Bennington: Always a good sign to be on a budget. If not, you would go on forever.
Michael Leonhart: Maybe..but it’s also to me…the way that Donald works was very much like what I’ve seen in documentaries about Fellini, and Kubrick, where you’re looking for a shot and you will film it day in and day out until you know it’s there. And when it’s there, you do know. When instruments are in tune, when the groove is there, when the vocal is there, it’s undeniable.
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Touring the new album:
Ron Bennington: Is there going to be a solo tour for this album as well?
Donald Fagen: Yeah we’re thinking about it, I know that we’re supposed to do a tune on Letterman’s show on November 15, and I’ll see how the album is doing when I get back from Japan. We’ll decide then.
Ron Bennington: Well I can’t imagine that there’s a Steely Dan fan that’s not on board for this album because it is– and I do say throwback in the style of, you expect greatness from albums and this is one that delivers. Thanks so much for stopping by and I’ll hope to see you guys next time through.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.