ATLANTA — Esoteric and Steely Dan are practically synonymous.
For more than 40 years, the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been pleasantly confounding music purists with their labyrinthine jazz-pop – and even more pleasantly confounding journalists in interviews.
Steely Dan is in the midst of a tour with an eyebrow-furrowing title and on some dates, the band is playing one of its classic albums in its entirety before providing some “selected” hits.
Prior to the launch of their tour last month, Becker and Fagen spent an hour on the phone with journalists and responded to questions with unusual jocularity, but frequently veered into unrelated tangents that were, if not anything else, amusing.
Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Q: How did the tour name,“Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day,” come about?
A: Becker: We made it up.
A: Fagen: In truth, we put up “Mood Swings,” that was the easy part, and then we were reminiscing about the old TV 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.” So we decided we were going to have a subtitle for our Mood Swings tour.
Q: What changed in the touring landscape to turn Steely Dan into a touring band? You’ve put out two albums in the last 20 years, but have been touring regularly.
A: Becker: 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 in it or something and was earning $3,500 a night tops and plus you were playing under extremely variable circumstances and so on. So, it was a completely different type of experience.
A: Fagen: Also, most of the time in the touring in the ’70s, we were opening for The James Gang or some other band.
A: Becker: Also, we had this stupid bet. Remember the bet?
A: Fagen: What was that?
A: Becker: 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 10 years for every show we did.
A: Fagen: That was a turnoff.
Q: Is it true that Kanye West wrote a letter to you guys to get permission for your song?
A: Fagen: Well, what happened is from time to time we get requests for licenses 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.” We usually say yes, but we didn’t like the general curve of the way that one sounded.
A: Becker: Also, he was using a line of the vocal over and over again of Donald’s vocal, which … Fagen: We thought it was just too repetitive. Becker: Usually, you don’t give them samples with your voice on them.
A: Fagen: But then he sent us a handwritten letter which it was so heartfelt that we finally gave in and acceded to his request. Becker: Yes. 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 … Fagen: I didn’t get that at all from the music, but … Becker: No, I’ve had occasion to wonder since then whether that’s the same Kanye West.
Q: In select cities, you guys are doing special set lists, whether it’s full albums, greatest hits nights or audience request nights. How did you guys go about deciding which cities would get the special set list and why not all the cities? Why not do it that way?
A: Becker: I believe it was at the request of some of the promoters, the local venues.
A: Fagen: I think they sent survey questions to the fans or something and what they want to hear and we just do what we’re told like robots, really.
Q: Given that we live in this high-tech modern age, Donald, I’m wondering do you do your own tweets?
A: Fagen: No, I’ve never had a Twitter account. So, it must be a fake. I don’t have a Facebook or a Twitter. In fact, now I don’t even have a website. I used to but I canceled it because it took too much time.
Q: Walter, how about you?
A: Becker: Do I have a Twitter account? No, of course not. I thought Twitter was a joke until about 12 weeks ago, and really I thought it was like a gag or something, and then I find out that it’s not. I thought it was like the National Lampoon or The Onion or whatever.