Walter Becker: Steely Dan man sees the light
Walter Becker talks to Adam Sweeting about his adventurous new solo album and the rollicking return of the band that made him
In the Seventies, Steely Dan's founding duo, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, were musical satirists, chastising an imperfect world with irony and black humour.
Their occasional interviews resembled clues from an insoluble crossword. In lesser bands, they inspired awe and reverence, laced with fear.
But nearly 30 years after the Gaucho album brought the curtain down on Steely Dan's original era, Becker and Fagen have thawed somewhat. The new millennium has seen a rebuilt Dan releasing two albums, the triple Grammy-winner Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go.
Previously allergic to live performance, they've become a regular touring attraction, playing shows that swoop across their catalogue - from oldies such as Showbiz Kids and My Old School to Deacon Blues, Hey 19 and beyond. Armed with a rollicking four-piece horn section and the brilliant lead guitarist Jon Herington, the 21st-century Dan is scintillating to behold.
As Walter Becker explains, touring has become vastly more attractive than it was 30 years ago. "We started touring with one guy who humped all the gear," he recalls, sitting in a small dressing room at New York's Beacon Theatre during Steely Dan's recent six-night stint. "We used to try to get our gear on to airplanes as baggage and try not to pay for it, so if stuff got bumped off the plane you were f---ed. But now we have trucks and crew members, and a giant swathe of rainforest has been cut down so we can do what we're doing."
As a bonus for Dan-o-philes, Becker has completed a second solo album, Circus Money. It has little in common with his first, 11 Tracks of Whack (1994), and derives its character from Becker's fascination with Jamaican music from the Sixties and Seventies. He'd spent years amassing Jamaican recordings. At first he planned to use authentic Jamaican backing tracks and graft new instrumentation and lyrics over them, but gave up that idea when multitrack tapes proved impossible to find.
"The Jamaican tracks were the starting point, but what you end up writing may be completely different," he says. "A lot of songs on this record don't sound like Jamaican music, and a couple have dub sections and repeats and a real Jamaican combination of elements. Downtown Canon was based on a very well-known dub track that goes by various names, but all we took was the tempo and the bass rhythm: the harmonies were completely changed."
Becker has few pretensions as a vocalist (he growls like a film-noir detective), but Larry Klein, his producer and co-writer, has provided guidance. "My singing could be worse, and it probably will be in time. Singing for me means singing as loud as I can. Larry said, 'Why don't you try not singing as loud as you can?' That was helpful."
Becker's songwriting has acquired a reputation for darkness and cynicism, but in songs such as Downtown Canon or Paging Audrey he sounds nostalgic or even sentimental. Nevertheless, reviewers keep portraying him as some sort of emotional pervert.
"I've wondered about that, too," he nods. "It's like reading a recycled review of [Steely Dan's] Royal Scam. For instance, the song Door Number Two has a gentle, musing quality, but the reviewer in Rolling Stone said it was about a game show host trying to seduce a contestant. This is stated as fact. I thought, 'Wow, where did they find a guy so literal-minded he'd believe that?'?"
Becker wanted to make Circus Money with live musicians, rather than resort to the obsessive overdubbing and re-recording that plagued late-Seventies Steely Dan albums. Jazz enthusiasts Becker and Fagen were trying to create their own version of classic big bands like Duke Ellington's, but circumstances made that impossible.
"We got more and more into a manufactured recording mode," says Becker. "I had nothing to do during this incredibly tedious process, except to think about things that were wrong with it, the biggest being that nobody was playing with anybody else and there was no musical ebb and flow."
So he and Donald had a frank exchange of views? "That's right, and to some extent each of us was persuaded by the other. Part of it is about letting things be what they are, and is good better or is perfect better? To me, good is better, and perfect is the enemy of good in this case."
It's 40 years since Walter and Donald first met at college. After periods in Hawaii and Los Angeles Becker is back in New York, though he finds the city increasingly hard work. Maybe it's time for Dan! - The Musical, a kind of Jersey Boys with more complicated chords.
"Well, sure!" Walter agrees. "Maybe in a few years. If this thing is gonna be bastardised and turned out like a five-dollar ho', then I certainly want to break in on that five dollars." Spoken like a true professional.