Posted July 19, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Steely Dan: Mood swings and other things

Steely Dan, Credit: Danny Clinch
Steely Dan, Credit: Danny Clinch

We recently participated in a conference call with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, who took the opportunity to have a bit of fun with the questions that a group of journalists asked about their upcoming tour, Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day Tour. The guys just came out of rehearsal for the tour, which will conclude with a seven-night residency at New York Beacon Theatre, and seemed to be in particularly good spirits.  Here’s some of that conversation.

What does the name Mood Swings 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day mean?  Have you and the bipolar all-stars considered Paxil?

Donald: Considered Paxil?

Walter: No, I’m not in the mood anymore.

Donald: Paxil is kind of an antiquated drug by now, isn’t it?

Walter: It probably is.

Donald: What is it for?

Like an antidepressant, antianxiety drug 

Donald: What’s that got to do with our tour?

It’s called Mood Swings and there’s a bipolar all-stars, so I was— 

Donald: That’s a whole different diagnosis.

Walter: Maybe Lithium would be more appropriate.

How did the name Mood Swings: 8 miles to Pancake Day come about?

Walter: How did it come about?  We made it up.

Donald: In truth, we put up Mood Swings, that was the easy part. Then we were reminiscing about the old television show Route 66 and we remembered how in those days they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like Who’s Afraid of the Muffin Man, things like that.  So, we decided we were going to have a subtitle for our Mood Swings tour.  In fact, we’re thinking we might change the subtitle every few weeks.

Walter: In a way, you may have wasted your question in that we may do exactly as Donald says there. The other thing is 8 Miles to Pancake Day is—this is a reconciliation of the classic space time dilemma, in other words, time versus distance.  In other words, like the Russian army sergeant says, “You will dig me a ditch from here to dinner time.”

Donald: That says it all really, I think.

It looks like on the set list you’re embracing the best of all worlds. You have full album nights, you have greatest hits nights and you have fan request nights.  Was that in response to fans or was that to stave off your own boredom?

Donald: Probably a little bit of both I guess.  We like to kick the gun around.

Walter: That’s right.  We do, but not in the traditional sense, in a more modern kind of—

Donald: I’d say metaphorical sense.

Walter: Twenty-first century kind of sense.

What changed in the touring landscape to turn Steely Band into a touring act over the last 20 years?

Walter: Everything has changed.  First of all, we were just beginning to headline shows in the ’70s. We were usually in the band with like eight people or something that was earning $3,500 a night tops. Plus, you were playing under extremely variable circumstances and so on.  So, it was a completely different type of experience.

Donald: Also, most of the time in the touring in the ’70s, we were opening for The James Gang or some other band.

Walter: Also, we had this stupid bet.  Remember the bet?

Donald: What was that?

Walter:  The bet about the—you don’t even remember.  This is how bad it was.  We had a bet that was based on picking a winner of a sporting contest and the loser of the bet had to wear this really powerful little office clamp that they would use to hold a big stack of papers together throughout the show for the next ten years for every show we did.

Donald: That was a turnoff.

Walter: I’m not going to tell you who won the contest, but that was a mistake.  I think that contributed to a lot.

Donald: That’s such a ’70s story too, isn’t it?

Exactly.  And the venues have gotten better too?

Donald: The venues and the menus and the hotels and everything have gotten better.  So, now it’s much more fun to play.  I’m glad that we turned into a big-time touring band later in life.  It’s almost like we planned it out that way.

This reunion of yours has lasted 20 years now. When you guys got it back together again, did you have any sense that you thought 20 years down the line this would still be something you wanted to do?

Donald: I don’t think either of us plans that far ahead actually.  So, I would give that a qualified “No” as John Daly used to say on What’s My Line.

Walter: That’s one of those questions although it presupposes its own one-word answer, but in the process, the question is all about the question, not the answer I guess.  So, isn’t it ironic?

Donald: It calls for kind of a hypothetical situation.

Walter: Yes, you have to go along.  Once you’ve gone along with the formulation of the question, then—

Donald:  It’s kind of like if you were born a girl, how do you think life would be different?

Walter:  Right.

When you started if the reward that you were after as it was talked about, was it more just the experience again, the journey of it or were you—

Donald: I guess like a lot of musicians, and this isn’t—I’m not making a value judgment or boasting or anything, it’s just that I think a lot of musicians, jazz people, we kind of just don’t project that much into the future.  It’s more about what you’re doing right now.  For instance, when my father used to parallel park, he used to say, while he was doing it, he’d say, “All right, I’m backing up now, all right, I’m pulling in, now I’m getting closer to the curb, okay, I think that’s it.”  I think that’s one good thing that my father handed down to me is he lived in the moment.

Walter: And plus parallel parking, which I’m assuming you knew how to do that at one time although that must—

Donald: Actually, I never quite got the hang of the parallel parking.

Walter: It’s tough.  You were sort of still—

Donald: Cancel out that whole story.

Walter: Basically you were just trying to stick it to the old man obviously with all the advice, all that help, all that guidance, to not learn how to parallel park is—

Donald: One thing he did teach me that to get a really good shave you had to shave first in the normal way and then against the grain.

Walter: That’s why you had that rash when I met you.

Donald: Wait, cancel that story out too.

Do you have a particular moment like live where you’re playing that you feel the most excited or rewarded by in the songs that you’re currently touring with and also on the album?

Donald: That’s another one of those hypothetical questions that’s a little difficult too but let me think for a moment . . . I do like the opening part where we don’t have to do anything until the band plays.

Walter: That’s great, and the end too is also very good.  It never sounds better than when you’re hearing them recede in the distance as you head for your chariot . . .

That makes it sound like you don’t enjoy the actual playing yourselves as much.

Donald: No, that’s not true.  You were talking about a kind of hierarchy of feeling.

Walter: That’s right.

Donald: That doesn’t necessarily—there’s no syllogism that—

Walter: It’s just sensationalism, Donald.  Don’t let it bother you.  [Journalists] do this all the time, okay?

You’ve been on the road for so long and when you take all these great players out, does any songwriting or anything come out of sound checks or all these gigs?

Donald: You’d think it would, wouldn’t you? I have a really hard time writing on the road.  Usually writing is done when I’m really at home and have very little to do.  You need to be in a kind of stasis I think to do that.

Walter: That’s right.  There’s too much stimulus in any strange environment.

Donald: Or else you’re just sleeping.

Walter: Yes. The best part is really sleeping of life, I mean.

Donald: I think actually the time when you could be writing songs, you’re actually sleeping on the road.

Walter: Probably true.  That’s probably why the only song I’ve ever written on the road was that one called “Dirt Nap.”

Usually writing is done when I’m really at home and have very little to do.  You need to be in a kind of stasis I think to do that.

Are there songs around that you’re showing to each other?

Donald: We do have some songs that I’m just remembering now.  We have some songs that are really good ones that we only half finished back in like 1984.

Walter: That’s true.

Donald: We keep threatening to work on.

Walter: We actually did finish a couple of those and—

Donald: We have a bunch of things.  Put it this way—any other band in the world would have long ago finished or mixed or whatever these old things that were lying around [and release them with a] great ta-da fanfare, but we just don’t play it like that.

Walter: That’s not the way we roll.

Donald: It’s not the way we roll.

Don was quoted as saying that Everything Must Go was underrated.  I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit and how much material you’re playing from that album.

Donald: We don’t play any of that piece of  . . . Are you kidding me?  I do think it was underrated in a sense, but that’s just my opinion.

Could you explain your point of view a little bit?

Donald: The songs were very consistent in their quality and that the quality was good. It had a very kind of lively quality in that it was almost all live tracks. And it had a nice band quality about it that played really well. I thought some songs on it [were] really were sort of relevant.

What about that?  What about the fact that it completely described the landscape, the desperate landscape in which we now all live?

Donald: As a song, Everything Must Go more or less was very … about what was going to … the economy.

The recession certainly happened.

Walter: And not just the economy.

Donald: Yes, about a lot of things.  I thought it was a really good record.  Also, I think part of the reason is that the previous record, Two Against Nature, which I also felt was really good, that had a built-in PR talking point which was that it was our first album in 20 years or something and then when the next one came out—

Donald: No one cares about the second album.

Walter: In a way, that’s an artifact of the—I hate to say this—please don’t take any offense anybody, but journalism and the mechanisms of disseminating information propaganda and hype and all of that will always latch onto the ready-made story that can be spoon fed.

I read that Kanye West wrote a letter to you guys to get permission for your song.   

Donald: 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—

Walter: Also, he was using a line of the vocal over and over again of Donald’s vocal, which….

Donald: We thought it was just too repetitive.

Walter: Usually, you don’t give them samples with your voice on them.

Donald: But then he sent us a handwritten letter which it was so heartfelt that we finally gave in and acceded to his request.

Walter: 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—

Donald: I didn’t get that at all from the music, but—

Walter: No, I’ve had occasion to wonder since then whether that’s the same Kanye West.

Donald: Maybe it was a prank.

Walter: It could have been.  I think somebody took over the Kanye West personality paradigm and has been operating it randomly.

Given your long working relationship, how easy or difficult it is for the two of you to surprise each other at this point whether it is writing or performing and how important it is for you to surprise each other?

Walter: I think we do that all the time actually and incredible as it may seem, it’s probably a tribute to either our short-term memory loss or to our low threshold of surprise.

Donald: When you can’t remember what happened this morning, you’re always surprised.

Walter: That’s right.  I make new friends every day.  I can hide my own Easter eggs.

Donald: Also, because you find when you get older that there are not many people who understand your references anymore so that we’re the only audience we have pretty much for our cultural references and so on.  Like no one remembers the TV themes we remember anymore because they’re just too old.

Walter:  If you say Fondly Fahrenheit to somebody, they’re not going to know what you’re talking about.

Donald: Or if you hum the theme song for Hawaiian Eye, you’re not going to get a good house on that.

Are you guys a fan of any of the high-res formats like SACD or Blu-Ray audio?

Donald: It’s too bad they don’t have any good music anymore to play on all those new formats.  Maybe they should have a moratorium on inventing new formats until someone has done some good music.

Walter: No, we think that many of those formats are not substantially different than the previous formats and you couldn’t possibly—

Donald: When they invent a format that sounds as good as a nice clean piece of vinyl played on a good turntable then someone should let us know.

When they invent a format that sounds as good as a nice clean piece of vinyl played on a good turntable then someone should let us know.

Upcoming 2103 Tour Dates

July 19

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August 1


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Atlantic City, NJ – Revel Ovation Hall

Canandaigua, NY – Constellation Brands – Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center

Toronto, ON – Molson Canadian Amphitheatre

Cleveland, OH – Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica

Kettering, OH – Fraze Pavilion

Louisville, KY – Louisville Palace Theatre

Detroit, MI – Fox Theatre

Milwaukee, WI – Riverside Theatre

Fort Wayne, IN – Embassy Theatre

Highland Park, IL – Ravinia Festival

Highland Park, IL – Ravinia Festival

Indianapolis, IN – Murat Theatre at Old National Centre

St. Louis, MO – Peabody Opera House

Omaha, NE – Orpheum Theater

Denver, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Salt Lake City, UT – Red Butte Garden

Boise, ID – Idaho Botanical Garden

Portland, OR – McMenamins Edgefield

Redmond, WA – Concerts at Marymoor

San Francisco, CA – Americas Cup Pavilion

Reno, NV – Reno Events Center

Santa Barbara, CA – The Santa Barbara Bowl

San Diego, CA – Humphrey’s

Las Vegas, NV – The Pearl

Los Angeles, CA – Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE

Los Angeles, CA – Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE

Austin, TX – Bass Concert Hall

Houston, TX – Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

Grand Prairie, TX – Verizon Theatre

Kansas City, MO – The Midland Theatre

Tulsa, OK – Brady Theater

Memphis, TN – Mud Island Amphitheatre

Atlanta, GA – Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre

St. Augustine, FL – St. Augustine Amphitheatre

Orlando, FL – Hard Rock Live

Boca Raton, FL – Mizner Park Amphitheatre

Clearwater, FL – Ruth Eckerd Hall

Charleston, SC – North Charleston Performing Arts Center

Charlotte, NC – Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre

Raleigh, NC – Red Hat Amphitheatre

Bristow, VA – Jiffy Lube Live

Philadelphia, PA – Mann Center for the Performing Arts

Boston, MA – Wang Theatre

Boston, MA – Wang Theatre

Bethlehem, PA – Sands Event Center

Mashantucket, CT – Foxwoods Resort Casino

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater

New York, NY – Beacon Theater


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.