Donald Fagen, Candid and Vulnerable
"My personality, my identity, was very vague to me." 1993.
The interview took place in Manhattan, May 19, 1993. Without his partner in crime Walter Becker to deflect questions, Fagen was more candid and vulnerable than I had ever heard him before, or since. Always meticulous musicians, the last Steely Dan album had been Gaucho, in 1980. Moving relatively quickly, Fagen released his first solo album, the acclaimed The Nightfly, in 1982. Here are excerpts from our conversation about Kamakiriad, his futuristic 1993 solo album about a journey in a Japanese automobile with a bioponic farm attached, which I wrote about in the previous July 27 Critical Conditions post. Fagen also delves into the 11 year period between albums, of what people used to call "finding oneself," post-Steely Dan. The previously unpublished interview, conducted for a Newsday/New York Newsday feature story, has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
WR: WHERE DID THE NAME KAMAKIRI COME FROM?
DONALD FAGEN: I figured a few years in the future the Japanese would still be involved in auto manufacturing, and I wanted a Japanese name. I had some made-up names, but I wanted it to be real, so I bought a Japanese dictionary. The word "Kamakiri" means praying mantis, which I figured was a good name for a car, especially because as a 'green bug' it was especially good because it was an environmentally correct car.
WR: DID YOU WRITE OUT A STORY?
DF: No. I kind of knew the arc of the story, but I never actually wrote it out. I had a couple of songs from before. "On the Dunes" I had written in about 1983, and Walter and I wrote "Snowbound " in the mid-1980s. Aside from that, I wrote it in sequence. I wanted the introductory song ["Trans-Island Skyway"] to set the thing up. I wanted all of the other songs to sort of be about loss. The guy keeps losing things, relationships, really. At the end ["Teahouse on the Tracks"] he comes to a crisis, and has to make a decision...It's really an allegory, which is maybe kind of boring as a literary form, but it seems pretty good if you add music." (laughs)
WR: DOES IT DOVETAIL WITH YOUR LIFE OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS?
DF: Yeah, there's an autobiographical element to it. When The Nightfly was over, I was kind of floating, I didn't know what I was going to do. I think The Nightfly was the first step towards confronting some things about myself that I had never really paid attention to.
WR: WHAT KINDS OF THINGS?
DF: Oh, my childhood, my relationship to my parents, and why I was in the position I was. I think in those days [growing up], it wasn't like, 'I think I'll have a career in music.' In the sixties, it was much more fun to be in a band than to teach English at the graduate school level...But I don't think I really accepted myself as a musician. I sort of always felt like a dilettante, in a sense, and I had no way of really defining myself in society. My personality, my identity, was very vague to me. After The Nightfly was over, I had real trouble writing. Some people, when they're in a low period, find some way to transfigure that into art, but I couldn't figure out how to do it.
In the interim, Fagen took on what he calls "other jobs": music for the soundtrack of Bright Lights, Big City (1988), the New York Rock and Soul Revue project (roughly 1989-1992), appearing with Becker on a 1986 album, Zazu, by actress Rosie Vela, recorded by Steely Dan producer Gary Katz.
DF: It was fun, but I had to live a few more years and get some different experience, rather than just adolescent experience, so I could find a different kind of energy. Then I came up with this idea, and now I'm perfect! (laughs)
WR: DURING THIS LOW PERIOD, WHICH YOU'VE DESCRIBED AS BEING DEPRESSED, DID YOU GO INTO PSYCHOTHERAPY?
DF: I did psychotherapy with one guy for a while, then I switched to somebody else, and that really helped a lot. Although I had this musical life, like a lot of Americans, I think, my adolescence had extended into my thirties, and I didn't really develop in any sort of normal or gradual way. All of a sudden, I realized, all I do is make records. So I did therapy, and did a lot of reading, especially philosophy, modern philosophy.
WR: WHAT WERE YOU READING?
DF: I like the Frankfurt school, like Theodor Adorno, and went back and read some Marcuse, some social philosophy. I didn't understand a lot of it that well. . . Some people would call it a spiritual crisis, but since I am not really interested in any organized religion, or religious solutions, I was looking for secular advice. That didn't work out so well, but the combination of all the stuff I was doing finally did pay off. I came to an understanding of myself, and other people, too. It had to do with having lower expectations, and not confusing art with life.
WR: IT'S A GOOD THING YOU DIDN'T RUN INTO [CULT LEADER] DAVID KORESH DURING THIS PERIOD.
DF: Yeah, but I've never been prone to gurus. Even at my most despairing I would be a hard case for someone like that. I could never trust one individual person that much. And because of my natural resentment of authority, I react to authoritative commands with the opposite reaction, a kind of 'fuck you' reaction.
WR: WALTER BECKER PRODUCES THIS RECORD AND IS THE MAIN GUITAR PLAYER. SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE YOU WERE ESTRANGED FOR A LONG TIME, BUT IS THAT REALLY THE CASE?
DF: We didn't see each other too much for a year or two, maybe 1982, 1983. Then we started working together again. He came to New York for a few months, and we'd write some stuff together. Then I went to Hawaii [where Becker was living]. We have more recent stuff, too. We didn't follow through because, it was more me than Walter, I felt I was involved in a solitary project and had to bring it to closure, which was Kamakiriad, that Walter actually produced. We're talking about doing something together, although Walter also, fortunately I think, felt compelled to do an album by himself, which he's now in the final stages of. [Becker's first solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack, was released in 1994. Fagen and Becker are listed as co-producers.]
WR: HOW DID YOU GET THE FUNK GROOVE ON KAMAKIRIAD?
DF: I've always wanted a heavier funk groove, and with the technology changing over the years, I finally figured out how I would do it. I made models of tracks on a sequencer, then had musicians play to the models, and really, I asked them to sacrifice their styles to stick with my groove. We used first or second takes of all the players...When I got live tracks, drum track, guitar track, I just dropped out the model, and ended up with a live band that was essentially manufactured.
WR: ARE YOU INTERESTED IN VIRTUAL REALITY AND COMPUTERS?
DF: I'm actually kind of a low-tech guy. I see uses for technology, but can't really deal with it myself. Walter and Roger [engineer Roger Nichols] handle the tech stuff. I like the idea of inventing technology, it's very useful for metaphors. I read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, I always liked the way Robert Heinlein or Frederik Pohl would use this narrative sci-fi stuff as satire, or to make some point about the present...Since I don't have the slightest talent for writing confessional first-person, singer-songwriter stuff, it's a way for me to get personal, but be more objective, do it in a metaphorical way, really.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT SOME OF THE EARLIER STEELY DAN ALBUMS?
Some of the very first albums we were just developing, and some of it seems a little like failed experiments. Usually when I hear it, it's in a restaurant or something, and I don't like to listen to my voice, especially on the earlier ones. But Aja holds up pretty good...Katy Lied sounds pretty good to me, I always that that was sort of underrated, I thought that came out really well. Countdown to Ecstasy had some nice tunes, and a nice energy to it.
THERE ARE NEW LISTENERS FOR ALL THE STEELY DAN ALBUMS, AND THERE'S A LOT OF INTEREST IN THE BAND.
DF: I think the ironic attitude that Walter and I, that was part of our characters that we grew up with, are more part of the culture now...A point of view we used to think was a minority view, and in the sixties considered esoteric, became part of the culture and the way people communicate every day. People see it on TV, watch David Letterman, and see Saturday Night Live, [the irony] has been coopted, brought to the masses.
WR: THE SOUND YOU AND WALTER CAME UP WITH IS NOW AN ADJECTIVE: 'STEELY DAN-ISH.' HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
DF: It's flattering. People are always going to studios we like to try and get the sound, but I think we can do it in any studio. It has to do with the arrangement, the harmonic vocabulary that we use. And the mixing style, which frankly, it's just sort of an old-fashioned jazz aesthetic from the late 1950s: Everything up front, about the same level, no reverb, real clean, just like Rudy Van Gelder used to do on Prestige Records. That's the end of it, really, that's as far as it goes.
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I’m taking a very short break to travel and get some cultural refreshment. I hope to post something short, or at least a postcard (or selfie) from the road. Thanks, Wayne