Remembering Steely Dan's Walter Becker: The lost interview

Dave DiMartino
Executive Editor

It was devastating news for family, friends, and fans of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker to hear of his passing Sunday, as the highly respected musician was a much-loved figure. Together with longtime musical partner Donald Fagen, Becker formulated a unique, intelligent, and unparalleled musical approach; made a band out of it all; gave it the name of a now-celebrated sexual aid; and found chart success, and considerable drama, in the years that would follow.

There has really never been a band like Steely Dan.

The years have been kind to Steely Dan. Their records have never gone out of print. They had hits, many. They had Grammy nominations; they had Grammy wins. They had scant exposure on MTV and thus never burnt out, culturally. Very few people actually knew what they looked like. Much like the Beatles, they completely stopped touring when they probably shouldn’t have. They only got better and more famous. The list of artists influenced by them continues to grow. They played at Coachella in 2015 alongside hipster bands that might as well have consisted of their grandchildren. None of them were exactly photogenic.

Walter Becker just died, and the Internet is buzzing.

It’s a great story: Their emergence as a pop combo in the early ’70s, chart success, band members out, leaving Becker and Fagen with a host of great studio musicians, and then the slow fade that followed 1980’s Gaucho. Many believed it would be the band’s last album ever, but, of course, it wasn’t. There was a mid-’90s tour, and a live set documenting it. There were two new albums that followed, including 2000’s Grammy-winning Two Against Nature and 2003’s Everything Must Go, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There was actually quite a bit.

And in that lengthy interim between, there were other things. Donald Fagen solo albums, all good, with 1993’s Kamakiriad bearing Walter Becker’s production credit; other Becker production gigs with artists like China Crisis, Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, Norway’s Fra Lippo Lippi, and the Windham Hill Jazz imprint; and a Walter Becker solo album or two.

So in July 1994, 11 Tracks of Whack, Becker’s first-ever solo album, was about to see the light of day. I sat down with him at Signet Sound Studios in West Hollywood for a chat that would ostensibly provide the material for a bio that would never emerge, but no problem. It was a warm and fascinating discussion with the man — one filled with humor, candor, and precisely that same mildly amused, detached persona that populated more than a few Steely Dan songs.

Heretofore unseen, it’s a fascinating look at Walter Becker, then and there.

Yahoo Music: Why has it taken so long for the world to get a Walter Becker album?

Walter Becker: All the years that we were making Steely Dan records, I was utterly satisfied with that. I never really felt there were additional things I wanted to get out of my system that I wasn’t able to get out of my system doing that. And then in 1979 or ’80, when I stopped doing that, I moved to Hawaii, and I was basically thrilled and delighted to realize and recall that there was an entire other world other than writing songs and making records out there. And I enjoyed that for a good solid number of years there. And only after a while, I started to think it would be fun to incorporate a little bit of this stuff back into my life. And as I was producing records for people, I’d sit there and think, “Well, this is their record, and I want to help them do it their way — but if it was my record, I’d want to do it this way.”

So I started thinking about writing some music and making some kind of record. Initially I had no preconceived notion of whether it would be instrumental or whether it would be vocal, so I wrote some instrumental music, and I realized that the additional possibilities that you get for making something interesting and striking and meaningful when you add words is tremendous. So I started writing songs, and pretty much by default I ended up writing most of the songs by myself, and I ended up being the singer for them. Because once I started writing them, the ones that came out well and I kind of liked were songs that nobody else was going to want to sing. Or sing well, anyway. It’s the same thing that happened originally with Steely Dan that led Donald to be the singer. 

Any fears on your end that this solo album will be perceived as the answer to the question of what exactly you bring to the Steely Dan mix?

That’s a hard question for me to answer in detail, because people always ask me about that. I actually, of course, know what I brought to the mix, but it’s hard for me to explain it to somebody. Basically we sat there and we wrote all these songs and made these records together. And one of the things that made it work was the fact that Donald and I were very attuned to aesthetic objectives and stylistic reference points and the fact that we had a very organic give-and-take with who did what. If someone came up with an idea, it wasn’t a big thing of, “Well, it’s my idea versus your idea,” or, “This is my song, so it’s up to me to say.” Somebody did an interview with Donald and me after Kamakiriad came out, and I remember this particular writer asked the two of us who wrote a particular line in a song. We thought about it, neither of us could remember, and one of us said, “We both did.” Obviously, there weren’t two guys holding a pencil there.

It’s interesting because both Donald’s Kamakiriad and your new album “sound like” Steely Dan, if you know what I mean.

I never know how people are going to feel about that. What if something sounds like Steely Dan? Most of the time when people say something sounds like Steely Dan, and I listen to it, it doesn’t. And I’m not even sure what they’re talking about. There are a few instances when I hear somebody — for example, that band that was called Danny Wilson — that I understood why that sounded like Steely Dan. Deacon Blue, I don’t understand why they sounded like Steely Dan — I mean, I understand the name. Poor China Crisis —­ people said the China Crisis record sounded like Steely Dan. I didn’t understand that, or whether these things are going to sound like Steely. I figure it’s OK to plagiarize yourself.

You’ve produced several artists since the Steely Dan days. How has that work affected the way you produce your own music?

I learned a lot from the various artists I produced. Either you see them doing something that you do want to do it, or you see them doing something the way you don’t want to do it. As result of that experience, as a result of the way my life is configured now, the way I want to spend my time — I kind of feel like I have less patience or interest in making these perfect little jewel-type things that we were trying to do with Steely Dan. I feel like the main thing is to get the spirit of the thing down there, capturing whatever was good about it the moment that you write it, as effectively as you can, and then presenting it in this more stripped-down kind of version. If it’s good, it’s on the album; if it’s no good, next. Obviously I haven’t spent 18 months doing little quick improvisatory things. But that was one of the design goals involved here: I wanted things to come out where it felt like it was still close to the spirit of something. 

You don’t regret spending all the time you spent polishing up the Steely Dan stuff, do you?

No, not at all. But I already did that — and now I have young kids I want to spend time with, and I feel like I’m a healthier, happier person when I don’t lose myself in those details. And I just think that, especially in the musical context of the day, slick is not good in a lot of ways now. People are turned off to slick-sounding things. I myself am. So I just kind of feel that something that’s a little more raw, a little bare, the bare essential elements of things — you need a groove and you need some sort of a vocal that’s good enough that doesn’t make you wince.

There’s a lot of things that you do [in the studio] that are strictly for yourself, because you’re going to hear the thing a thousand times — you’re going to hear it over and over in the course of the day that you’re working on it, right? — and you just can’t stand to hear that. It’s like a guy that’s sanding down a piece for something and it’s going to be inside and no one’s ever going to see it, you know, but you just can’t stand to know that you did this piece of s*** work in there. There’s a lot of that involved in record making — especially when you start with a sequencer, start with some drums, and then you add another thing, and another layer —­ once you start making all those layers perfect, it takes quite a bit of time and concentration to do that. However, when the thing is all finished, those things are so down there in the bottom of the pile, the substructure of what you’re doing, it didn’t really matter that you did that. No one else is ever going to hear that you did it that way. But that’s an aspect of craftsmanship in general that you do that. So anyway, I’m trying to get away from that, so I can have a life.

Your new songs seem to have a lot of surprisingly adult, “grown-up” themes. Has being away from the business so long made you reevaluate your adventurous past a bit?

If you’re trying to be honest about what you’re doing, if you’re going to write one song or one novel, it might be some sort of real abstraction from what your life is, but if you’re going to write a bunch of them, you have to come from a place of what your real life and your experience is. And I live in a situation probably similar to yours, in a house in a suburban setting with a family around me, taking the kids to school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. Plus, I’m at the point in my life when a lot of things that we associate with rock ’n’ roll I’m not doing anymore now. So I think to try to sustain some … and yet I feel as much as a secret agent with amnesia as I ever did. I can’t remember who I work for, but I know I’m spying on these people. I probably planted a bomb in their house, you know? [laughs]

Could you even imagine 15 years ago you’d be writing the sort of material you’re writing now?

I think it was a very significant stage of my development as starting out to be opinionated, and to have clear-cut stylistic rules — this is something that’s “in,” this is something that’s “out.” That was a really helpful thing for me and Donald, and something that we developed together. Sometimes I think about the songs that Donald and I started writing together when we first started, and how that evolved and got to the point that it was at when we started making records. You know, we learned from our failures — we learned things not to do, and we learned other things that did work. There were songs, we would write the same song over and over again sometimes, the same musical thing, and we’d finally end up with a set of lyrics or a melody or whatever part that made that thing work. I think that’s important when you’re starting out and growing up as an artist.

And then later on, after you’ve done that for a long time, sometimes you just have to do something different. And for me, I felt like I was in a luxurious position of being a 44-year-old “new artist” who had an immense experience of making records and writing songs for a new artist. So I could afford to indulge myself — without stepping in deep doo-doo.

Dave DiMartino is the author of Do It Again: The Steely Dan Years.

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