The Lost Interview: Walter Becker

photo: Danny Clinch

Striding purposefully against a tide of huge musical movements in the 1970s, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen meticulously constructed songs that, from the opening Fender Rhodes shimmer of ‘Do It Again’ on Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, bristled, pulsated and swooned with exotic drama, complex arrangements, razor-sharp humour, glacial jazz inflections and unearthly melodic sensitivity.

This was followed by Countdown To Ecstasy (1973) and Pretzel Logic (1974) but, by 1975’s Katy Lied, original band members such as guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter had left in frustration at Becker and Fagan’s decision to confine their activities to the studio. Such was their perfectionism they now laboured with a diamond cutter’s precision using an ever-changing cast of elite session musicians as human tools, often demanding over 40 takes of a single overdub. After 1976’s Royal Scam, renowned jazz musicians such as Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Wayne Shorter joined Becker and Fagan to record Aja, their fusion masterpiece. Personal, business and legal problems combined to obstruct the creation of 1980’s Gaucho to the extent that Becker and Fagen suspended their partnership for over ten years.

While Becker played briefly with the UK’s China Crisis and relocated to Maui to get off drugs, Fagen released 1983’s The Nightfly, finally mending his rift with Becker when his former colleague joined him in the studio to produce 1993’s Kamakiriad. Fagen returned the favour by co-producing and contributing keyboards to Becker’s solo debut 11 Tracks Of Whack, which showcased his grittier, often pained voice on soul-baring compositions such as ‘My Waterloo’ and ‘Junkie Girl’. This collaboration precipitated a Steely Dan reunion that produced the Grammy-scooping Two Against Nature, followed by 2003’s Everything Must Go. The Dan found huge audiences when they decided to tour, able to play six nights at New York’s Beacon Theatre should they wish.

It was the occasion of Becker’s second solo album, Circus Money, that led to a lengthy telephone conversation one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2008 for a piece that was commissioned and written but never appeared. The album had turned up as a beautiful surprise, highlighting Walter’s long-time love of reggae music. Circus Money was three years in the making with co-writer and producer Larry Klein (responsible for 2007’s Grammy-winning Herbie Hancock album River: The Joni Letters). Walter sticks to bass and vocals while Dan touring drummer Keith Carlock plays with the sensitivity and controlled power of Jamaica’s finest, firing up skeletal grooves to be embellished by keyboardists Ted Baker and Jim Beard plus guitarist Jon Herington. The icing on this simple but exotic cake is a stellar gaggle of inter-changing singers including Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Tawatha Agee (of Mtume fame) and Cindy Mizelle busting out of the conventional backing vocalist role to underscore or respond, Jamaica-style.

In the past, reggae has been dealt insensitive, cloddish blows by white musicians fancying a dabble after Eric Clapton opened floodgates with ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. The reggae-lite posturing of the Police tarnished roots to the extent that it now took a brave man to use the music in concise song structures. Circus Money shouldn’t have come as a major surprise to Steely Dan devotees when it’s considered how many musical strains they explored to create what Walter called their “disco-jazz-space-funk-muzak with a little bit of reggae.” In the 1980s they considered making a whole Steely Dan album based on Jamaican rhythms. It turned out that Walter had immersed himself in reggae’s frighteningly complex network of producers, session men and studios with the same compulsion with which he had devoured the literature and jazz that informed the songs he started writing in the late 1960s with Bard University buddy Fagen. He understood and felt the music enough to make it work as a crucial ingredient in Circus Money, and lovingly revealed his ambition to work with original Jamaican multi-tracks with the venerable Trojan, who were then interested in a Becker-compiled retrospective (which business wrangles obviously must have prevented).

On the album, the reggae influence ranged from dominant one-drop grooves to subtly insidious touches, underpinning a captivating collection of songs also imbued with jazz strains under lyrics as eloquently convoluted as anything he had done with the Dan, except maybe more personalised. With highlights including the emotionally-intimate ‘Paging Aubrey’ plus gloriously-melodic Dan-style anthems such as Hollywood-bashing ‘Three Movie Deal’, brilliantly evocative ‘Bob Is Not Your Uncle Any More’ and the stinging title track, the album showed a voracious musical voyager still striving to learn new styles, explore new territory and break his expected mold. Most importantly, he was obviously having a blast.

After first pretending to be a New York record dealer presenting me with a unique opportunity to purchase a “pristine copy” of the soundtrack to Casino Royale, the genial Becker talked at length about his new album, reggae obsession, songwriting methods and the New York City that will always imbue his music. We even brushed on Steely Dan, due to embark on a lengthy US tour the following day.

How did you get into reggae…The bass?

Probably the first reggae records I heard were a couple of Jamaican records that were hits in the States like Desmond Dekker’s ‘The Israelites’ and Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which were like what-the-hell-kind of music is that? I never really got the context for that, but when I heard the Wailers doing ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ and heard that drummer and bass-player, it was like, “Holy mackerel, these guys are the greatest!” Hearing it for the first time I didn’t realise that there were a lot of other people that played more or less in that style, that left spaces where they left spaces and so on.

Reggae is built on the rhythm and you’ve caught that rhythmic essence. So many other bands have failed miserably…

Thank you. It’s just such a deep subject; the roots and cultural backdrop of Jamaican music, the organic progression involved in recycling tracks and reusing rhythm. In the end, after listening to a lot of Jamaican music exclusively for a long time, when Larry Klein got involved and we started to actually put the songs together, the Jamaican influence became a deep structural element that would be there without necessarily waving the Jamaican flag at you. The way that I normally write is using a midi sequencer as a sort of a scratch-pad, putting together the tracks based on a stripped down version of the offbeat guitar rhythm that’s on about all of the demos. It became a simplified way of writing. Often if you’re writing a song on a midi sketch-pad or something you get sort of hung up trying to figure out what the parts are gonna be and how they’re going to relate. You just automatically use the relationships that you would use in a reggae thing; some of their tempos and their elements and so on. Space is one of the great things about Jamaican music; where you expect to hear a strong beat you often hear a space. They’ve changed the whole balance of where the accents lie.

The way you use the backing singers recalls the I-Threes’ interplay and jousting with Bob Marley.

Yeah, definitely. That was something that Larry and I talked about going with before we wrote any of the songs; the idea of using the girls almost like a Greek chorus, making them an integral part of the dynamic of the song, using that call and response technique and things like that. Give them a more interesting relationship to the material than, “Okay, here come the girls on the chorus”. We do that too but….
We were very lucky; some of the overdubs were done in California but the real tracking which pretty much determined the record sounded pretty complete and satisfying right after when we cut the rhythm tracks in New York. We just wanted people to play that way. We had wonderful female vocalists on both coasts.

It’s great to hear Tawatha Agee again. In the early 80s she sang with Mtume, including a marvellous single called ‘Juicy Fruit’.

Oh, I got to check that out! She’s touring with Steely Dan this summer. She’s wonderful. Her and Cindy Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery were just fantastic in various combinations.

Can you talk about how the musicians came in on your songs?

I was frankly very moved by the energy and the level of commitment that the guys in the rhythm section brought to this thing. I sort of did it a little differently to how Donald and I have done things in the recent past in the way that I took each musician aside, showed them all the songs, played them some of the Jamaican stuff that I was thinking about that might be something that they might want to be aware of for their own parts and stuff like that. We rehearsed a little bit, not a whole lot. Mostly it was me and Keith and Ted Baker who rehearsed, then Jon came in at the end and Jim Beard, the other keyboard player. Jim just came in and had not rehearsed with me but he’s just a magnificent musician and added so much to the tracking. Those guys really gave a lot and made the thing happen and had tremendous energy and enthusiasm for it. I did everything that I could to make them feel as though we were creating the record right there and then.

Despite the Jamaican influence it‘s still a very New York-sounding album. You once said that all the Steely Dan albums are New York albums. This one seems to take it further, especially the elegant jazz playing on tracks like ‘Door Number Two’.

I know what you mean; my model for that has always been the way New York was in the ‘70s. (By the mid-‘70s, Steely Dan) had been living and cutting tracks in L.A.. Then (for The Royal Scam) we decided to do something different and track with some New York musicians. There was a studio on Seventh Avenue called A&R which had a great big room with a fantastic sound. It was a favourite studio for a lot of people. I loved the way that, in LA, the guys would come in and set up so and so’s equipment, plug in all the stuff and the guy would come in and sit in a chair and pick up his instrument. In New York Bernard Purdie would come wheeling in his kit off the street however he had brought it. The guys came with the mood that they were in that day and they brought it right into the room with them. These were musicians who had worked together for years and years and known and loved each other but they’d get into fights in the intro of the first song! They’d already be on each other’s case: “Alright Mr Metronome, you’re so steady, why don’t you play it?” This kind of thing. Just the intensity they brought to what they were doing and the way they were playing it was so much a part of their everyday real lives. That’s what I associate with New York. There are wonderful musicians on the West Coast as well but they tend to be a little bit better behaved with a work ethic, you know what I mean? More laidback.

How do you find the gentrified, cleaned-up New York City of the 21st century? Do you agree with many who feel that the city has lost its edge as high rents drive out the artistic community?

It’s certainly true, like the dignification of 42nd street is one of the things that people complain about but, on the other hand, the downtown part of New York has changed so that New York University is so big and there’s so many students and young people living there it’s almost like a college campus. I think that’s cool, I like that. It’s a different kind of energy. It’s much livelier. The real problem that I see in Manhattan has to do with affluence. Basically, the rent. This is the ground zero of the financial invasion of the world. It’s insane.

Probably my favourite song on Circus Money is ‘Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore’ (the album’s rootsiest groove with dub flourishes and classically acerbic Becker lyric). Taking that as one example, please can you say how it evolved, musically and lyrically?

I’ve been waiting for somebody to say that because it’s certainly one of my favourites! I wanted to try the idea of using a repeating bass figure cycled through the chord changes with a triad on top which stays the same most of the time and additional chord changes buried under that triad in combination with the melody. So you have the static quality of the repeating bass line, the triad on top and melody and chords underneath which would carry the song through that steady runoff.

That was probably one of the clearest ideas that I had of trying to use something. At one point when I started thinking about doing this I thought maybe I should just get some Jamaican instrumental tracks and write songs over the tracks. The trouble with that was very few multi-tracks exist that I was able to find out. I spoke with Steve Barrow who runs Blood & Fire as I figured he had a pretty good handle on the sources and what the scene was with Jamaican music. I realised that I’d be limited to their chord changes and harmonies and that helped me decide not to do that. One of the ways that I thought of how you might deal with that is doing exactly what I did on ‘Bob Is Not Your Uncle’ using the triad on top and writing the other things underneath it. It was one of the more fun tracks to write, and one of the more overtly Jamaican inflected ones.

How did its lyrics evolve?

I sort of had that gag line “Bob is not your uncle any more” for a starter. When I started working with the riff and the mood of that riff. What happens a lot for me when I’m writing lyrics is if I get music that has an evocative mood to it I can just start writing. That’s pretty much what Larry and I did. If you start writing without worrying too much about where you’re going stuff just sort of happens. For me with writing now the fun part is trusting your instincts to tie together seemingly disparate elements so that if something emerges it’s for a reason and it is deeply connected on some psychological level to what you’re thinking and what you’re meaning even though it may just be a detail about the house that the guy lives in or what the weather’s like.

That’s quite a leap from when you and Donald were trying to launch your songs in the Brill Building.

We never did quite fit into the Brill Building thing. Lord knows we tried! I think that for both Donald and myself, and also for people like Larry who’ve been writing for a long time, eventually you get to a place with writing where you know that you can do it. You don’t necessarily know how you do it but you have a certain feeling and confidence that things are gonna emerge and you just let that happen.

It has been 14 years since 11 Tracks Of Whack but that also displayed a reggae element.

14 wonderful years, ha ha! There was some reggae but that album was sort of an experiment for me as an artist and singer that was more satisfying in some ways than in others. One of the things that I realised as a result of the experiment was that when I started I wanted to do it with a small group and have a consistent group on all the tracks but I just wasn’t able to pull that off for one reason or another. Partially because I had never gone through the process of doing vocals on tracks and I didn’t know quite how to do that. I learned a lot in that process. Also, some of the brooding quality that held Whack down a little bit, shall we say, or characterised it, is not so apparent on this new record. I think that has to do with the difference between me working by myself, because I did most of that record by myself in Hawaii with just the engineer up there, and working with Larry, who was very helpful because he brings a lot of good ideas and instincts.

How does your relationship with Larry compare to working with Donald?

It’s definitely similar in some ways. I think there’s obviously a lot of humour involved that makes working together more fun; a sense of not taking yourself too seriously. Good things grow out of humour. Writing together is a sort of a bi-product of hanging out together and talking and sharing ideas, observing things and having those common experiences and so on.

You’re still striking out bridging musical forms like reggae and jazz on the new album but now you’re going on tour with Steely Dan playing your greatest hits!

Yeah, as it turns out! With Steely Dan, because of the band we have…We have four horns and tend to do the later, jazzier tunes more than the earlier rockish tunes. When we do the earlier tunes we often enhance the arrangements in a way so that they move around a little bit from key to key and are more fully developed in their arrangements than they were when we first did them. It’s all happening in one particular quadrant of the universe! I used to describe what we did as disco-jazz-space-funk-muzak with a little bit of reggae. It is a sort of a polyglot thing. We’re used to dealing with that kind of thing and trying to make some sort of seamless thing out of it so it doesn’t slap you in the face like [stern voice], ‘Now we’re going to have a great jazz musician play a solo over a triad for four minutes’, y’know?

Maybe after being blown away by hearing Steely Dan revisiting their old hits some punters might be prodded to go and buy your album; one feeds the other?

Yeah I think so. I also think that for all of the chaos and uncertainty that exists in the music business, which I wouldn’t want to minimise because I think it’s very problematic in the sense that young musicians starting out are not sure if they’re going to be able to have careers as artists and that some of those careers are going to be sustained. That’s a real problem; the fact that there is so much music available because I can sit in my apartment and shop online and listen to music I’ve never heard before. Music is distributed the way it is as widely as it is and shared; no right-thinking 58-year-old guy like myself expects that this album is gonna make me rich and famous and move to Hawaii and live happily ever after. What I do want is for people to hear it and I think that the environment is great for that. We’re distributing things and at least making it possible for people to listen to something. They can listen to a little bit of it before they buy it or buy the one song that they like. For me in the stage of the career that I’m at it’s very productive and so I can think of going forward from this point. Maybe I don’t wanna make a whole album’s worth of songs for once? Maybe I just wanna write a couple of tracks, make those records and learn from the whole process of making those two tracks and build on that. Then I can distribute those two songs as downloads or whatever.

That’s very different from the cut-throat ‘70s reggae scene where one producer would release a track then next day it would be out on another label with someone else singing on it, pressed up in a garden shed.

There’s something really fascinating and organic about that sort of process too where, liberated from the restraints of the usual commodification, things can happen in a different way. It may not be fair to some particular guy who wasn’t getting paid but the chances are that they weren’t gonna pay him anyway! Ha ha!

Reggae is possibly the most difficult musical genre in the world to try and nail down a definitive collection.

I know, and you don’t even know where the tracks came from originally in many cases. You don’t know who played on them. People say, “Who are your favourite artists?” I go, “Gee is King Tubby an artist?” I mean, he is but he’s not the guy who played on the track, he didn’t write the song and yet his mixes are most definitely his statements.

Who’s your favourite reggae bass player?

Certainly Aston Barrett [of the Wailers] would be one of them. In a lot of ways, the Barrett brothers were the best team. They were a prototypical team in that they expressed the fundamental element of the style, sort of the opposite of what happens in soul music where the bass player plays a very carefully put together part and the drummer sort of blows around it. Flabba Holt was a great bass player. Obviously Robbie Shakespeare… In a lot of cases it’s hard to know exactly who it is! I gave up on the idea of trying to really know for sure who’s who. There are so many. You don’t hear any reggae records from the ‘70s which hasn’t got a great bass player.

It’s quite a courageous move releasing a reggae-flavoured album in the US because it never took to the music in a big way.

It was certainly not like it was in the UK. It’s an interesting parallel to the early blues stuff that people in the UK were more widely exposed to than we were in the States. Eric Clapton and people like that built their styles from people like B.B. King and Freddie King and all of the other blues stylists of the electric guitar. Similarly with reggae. I’ve found over and over again that UK listeners obviously had a tremendous advantage in what was available to them and what they heard and what they grabbed onto. I think it’s considered more of a novelty thing in the States rather than as a mainstream source of musical culture.

Do you think there’s different attitudes in the States and the UK to Steely Dan?

That’s harder for me to tell actually…It may be. I’m not sure.

Over here there’s the scholarly fans who dissect the lyrics whereas others leap around singing Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.

I think that we’ve sort of invited that kind of thing by trying to make sure that things would work on both of those levels, especially in the early days.

Talking of Steely Dan, the first album I picked up on was Countdown To Ecstasy in 1973, which remains my favourite.

I know, I kind of think so too. I like the other stuff as well but that was the unique one. That was the only one that was really created by a band, where we had the band guys in the band actively participating in contributing ideas to the arrangement. We had played together a little bit in public. That album was fairly unique amongst our albums.

We only really had that band for another 15 minutes before it started to deteriorate and we all started to do different things. When we were writing they were just bored out of their minds so they were off doing all sorts of different stuff, playing with other musicians. It just became diffused a little bit and eventually we realised that we had grown and we didn’t have that much in common any more.

And now, in many people’s eyes, you and Donald are up there with the great songwriting duos like Lennon and McCartney and Jagger-Richards!

Well, I certainly wouldn’t complain about the bus ride if that’s where it’s gonna end up, ha ha!

photo: Sandrine Lee
Interview by Kris Needs