Reelin' in the years with Steely Dan's Walker Becker

July 31, 2008 

  • WHAT: Steely Dan

    WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9

    WHERE: Ironstone Amphitheatre, Ironstone Vineyards, 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys

    TICKETS: $45-$230

    CALL: 728-1251

    ONLINE: www.ironstonevineyards.com

It takes a good sense of humor to stay with the same person for four decades.

True in marriages, true in music.

Since meeting at Bard College 40 years ago, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have had a musical alchemy together. The two men formed Steely Dan, one of the most popular and prolific groups of the '70s. Their distinctive jazz-fusion/rock-pop sound helped them sell 30 million albums worldwide and win three Grammy Awards.

But ask the duo's guitarist, Becker, if he knew all those years ago as a college student that he and Fagen would be linked together all this time and he laughs.

"Well, naturally, I assumed that," he said with a chuckle. "We figured, we'd probably keep doing this until we were 65 and then I'd move to Indonesia and get some aquaculture business going, raising jumbo shrimp. Donald will become a publisher of specialty magazines."

"But as of right now, we're at the absolute peak of our powers, the pinnacle of our powers. If we have shrimp now, it's shrimp cocktails. Heck, if we have cocktails, it's shrimp cocktails."

While the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees might joke about the future, there is nothing shrimpy about their past accomplishments.

As steady '70s radio hitmakers, the band's smashes included "F.M.," "Bodhisattva," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Deacon Blues," "Peg," "Babylon Sisters" and "Hey Nineteen." From 1972 to 1980, the group recorded seven platinum-selling albums.

In 2000, the duo took home three Grammy Awards for its release "Two Against Nature" and followed it up in 2003 with the acclaimed "Everything Must Go."

Becker spoke with The Bee recently. He, Fagen and their 11-piece band will play at the Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys on Aug. 9.

Q: How were you able to keep the relationship successful over all the years without burning out creatively or wanting to kill each other?

A: Oh, we wanted to kill each other. But each of us is waiting for a good opportunity when the other's back is turned. Each of us planning the perfect crime. It takes a while.

Q: You haven't always been known as a touring band. Have your feelings about the road changed over the years?

A: Oh, yes. When we stopped touring in the '70s, it was mainly because we wanted to spend all of our time making records, and the touring just took away from that. (Touring) wasn't that satisfying. We didn't make any money; in fact, we lost money. And the band was not consistently the way we wanted it to be. It was a different environment then. The main thing we wanted to do was put our energy in making records.

Now, it's a much more satisfying band in many, many ways. We have great solo artists. We have a huge repertoire of songs to choose from, so we're not locked into any song or set list. We have our own sound system that we bring to the venues. We have complete control of that.

Q: It's been five years since your last studio album. Can people expect another one in the future?

A: Yes, sometime between now and before the end of time. We don't have plans at this point, we haven't written anything. But when we get off of this tour, we'll think about it.

Q: You've also done a new solo album, ("Circus Money," released in June) 14 years after your solo debut. Why now?

A: I'm not sure. I felt like I wanted to write some stuff and make a record. We had just made two Steely Dan albums in rapid succession. I had ramped up to where I had particular ideas of how I wanted to do things. The rhythm section for the record is basically the rhythm section for the band.

Q: How is your solo music different than Steely Dan music?

A: The melodies are less ambitious. I don't have the vocal range or uncanny precision for pitches that Donny has. The songs are written in collaboration with producer Larry Klein. I don't want to say (the songs) are more personal, but they are more quirky. I could write whatever I was thinking about, without regard to if it was something someone else would want to sing.

Q: What strengths do both you and Donald bring to the group?

A: I think there is a way in which we reinforce each other; there are a lot of shared values and talents we have. We reinforce our ability to say, "That's great" or "That stinks." I think over the years, I've realized that's a big part of our ability to elevate through the '70s. We were able to say, "This is good, but not good enough."

I think there are obvious other ways have different talents. Donald has tremendous ability to bring harmonic interest into a tune. I have whatever unique charms I have; I'll leave it for someone to describe them.

Q: Your music remains popular on radio and with your fan

base. What do you attribute that loyalty to?

A: They like the kind of music we're making, and clearly we have -- for better or worse -- had the good sense to always do what we thought was the right thing to do. We may not have been right at every turn.

But overall, deciding in the '70s that we weren't going to tour anymore -- even when everyone and their wife begged us to tour, told us it would be the end of the world as we knew it, said it was the end of our careers -- ultimately, it produced more music for our fans. They appreciate that kind of integrity that is often ground out of people by the music business.

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