Steely Dan with strings at the Hollywood Bowl? 'For some reason we decided we were gonna do this'

Donald Fagen has a pretty good reason why 13 years have passed since the last studio album from Steely Dan.

“There’s been a paradigm shift in the culture,” said the singer and keyboardist, who along with guitarist Walter Becker spent the 1970s taking bitter notice of that decade’s excesses and hypocrisies. “And since one aspect of what we do is satire, you could never top what’s going on in reality right now.”

Yet if the “apocalyptic tone” of life in 2016 has made it hard to write new songs, it hasn’t kept Steely Dan off the road: Last week the jazz-rock group began the latest leg of a lengthy tour that Saturday will bring Fagen and Becker (and their crack 11-piece band) to the Hollywood Bowl, where they’ll perform with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to open the venue’s summer season.

To give a sense of what to expect, the duo spoke the other day from the dressing room of Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Mich., before a show. 

“More like the last resort,” Becker said after he picked up the phone.

That’s something I was curious about. Tonight you guys are playing a casino, but here in Los Angeles you’ll be at the comparatively swanky Hollywood Bowl. And last year you had a coveted spot at the Coachella festival. Do you think about these different gigs hierarchically? Or is it: A show is a show is a show?

Walter Becker: From a linguistic point of view, you can’t really take much objection to the notion that a show is a show is a show. And there’s not as much difference between them as you might think. There’s a lot of fans [at each], so there’s a familiar warmth to the reception.

Donald Fagen: Also, you know, a stage is a stage is a stage. I think Gertrude Stein said that.

I’d imagine a casino crowd and a festival crowd are probably equally determined to have a good time.

Fagen: We play a lot of casinos, and I don’t know what the percentage of fans to anonymous gamblers is. But it doesn’t really matter. The gamblers probably like it just as much as the fans.

The Hollywood Bowl says this will be the first time you’ve played with an orchestra.

Fagen: It’s gonna surprise us as much as anyone else, really. We talked to the arranger, Vince Mendoza, and we tried to give him some clues as to what might work and what might not work.

Given how famously protective you are of Steely Dan’s sound, I’m surprised you were willing to cede control of the arrangements to someone outside the band.

Becker: That’s why we haven’t done this type of thing before. I don’t know if we’ve ever been offered one, frankly. But for some reason we decided we were gonna do this one. I’m not sure why or why not. I guess at this point we feel like —

Fagen: We just like to live on the edge.

Becker: And we feel like our band is our band. It’s very solid; they can’t take that away. So basically you’re talking about some fiddle players et cetera.

Fagen: I told [Mendoza] to go out and buy a copy of “Agon” by Stravinsky.

Let’s talk about Coachella. Watching your set, I got the impression you were both a bit bemused by the experience.

Becker: I thought it was a great gig in the sense that the band played well and it was well received. I wasn’t aware in advance of what the whole scene would be like, and so that was something that I hadn’t expected.

Fagen: If there was any bemusement, it might have to do with the fact that we were growing up in the ’60s when the so-called hippie movement was happening. And it was funny to see all these kids wearing these designer versions of the Pocahontas costumes that the girls were wearing in 1966.

There might be a Steely Dan song in that observation.

Fagen: I’m writing it down now.

Your appearance at the festival came just as your early records have come back into vogue among the type of young acts that typically play there. But in a Coachella diary you wrote for Rolling Stone, Donald, you seemed pretty unenthused about the music you heard.

Fagen: Well, it wasn’t Coachella specifically. I think compared to the time when we started — actually, starting in the late ’50s through the early ’70s — there were so many talented people around, and so much good music, that I think it’s been a kind of decline since then, generally speaking.

Becker: There are times I think I’m hearing more interesting things again, to tell you the truth. Maybe we’re ready for that upswing we’ve been waiting for since Weather Report.

Does the rediscovery of your music mean much to you?

Fagen: It’s flattering, I suppose, if what you say is indeed true.

Becker: It’s good that people would hear it and get something out of it. Because what we were doing wasn’t so much an obvious outgrowth of its time, we didn’t quite fit in then, and we didn’t really try.

Fagen: Coming out of the jazz world, we were always kind of off the radar to some extent.

Becker: I think that helps us, though, to sound less dated and less campy, in a way.

Your shows definitely feel less dated to me than some of your peers’. Less rooted in nostalgia too. But the pressure must be on to indulge your fans’ memories. Is it hard not to give into that?

Becker: I don’t think we deny it. We don’t go out of our way to make a big deal out of it or to put it at the forefront of what’s happening. But it’s there; it can’t not be there. And to the extent that it is there, I think it’s satisfying for the audience — and it’s satisfying for us too. It’s satisfying to make the connection with people, especially given that we may not be the most socially affiliative people in the world.

I assume you’ve heard about Desert Trip, the new festival from the Coachella people with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan and so on.

Fagen: Yeah, I saw it advertised. There was some talk of us doing it next year.

What’s your take on that kind of proposition?

Fagen: Well, you know, a lot of these people are still very creative and still have the will and the charisma to make something like that successful. On some level for a musician, a job is a job, no matter what they call it. The Senior-delic Festival or whatever it’s supposed to be — we don’t care so much what it says on the sign out front.

You think about someone like McCartney, a highly visible public figure who engenders these very warm feelings in people —

Fagen: He’s a hail-fellow-well-met.

Right. In you and Walter I see little interest in cultivating that kind of personal renown.

Fagen: It just wasn’t that big a thing in the jazz world. You wanted to be successful, you wanted to get jobs, you wanted to do well. But the whole celebrity thing is much more muted in the jazz world.

And yet reading your Coachella diary, what struck me were the personal details — a window into a life that’s somewhat hidden from view.

Fagen: I suppose. I also put out this book a couple of years ago [“Eminent Hipsters”] that had one section that was a tour diary. I’m just trying to say what it’s really like — to be honest about it. Because people are interested in it, but it’s probably not like what they think it is.

Why the urge to tell them?

Fagen: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the time we grew up. The whole culture of celebrity that’s grown up since we started is very foreign to us. If anything, it’s funny — except when it gets not funny. It’s like Donald Trump. He used to be funny too, you know?

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

 

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