A Conversation With Donald Fagen & Michael Leonhart
Michael Ragogna: Guys, the new album Sunken Condos seems like a funk-based new beginning for Donald Fagen's music. Can you go into what your approach was coming into this creatively?
Donald Fagen: Well, I think the first three albums I did, which appeared at ten-year intervals, more or less ended up to be a trilogy. It didn't start that way, but I think I'm done with that now, so I wanted to start fresh. Of course, it did turn out to be more or less that a lot of the tunes are semi-autobiographical but I kind of felt freed up because they didn't have to refer to the material on the other three. I really started out to write freestanding songs, but the way it came out, they do have kind of a theme to them, I suppose. I guess I'll always be doing that. I can see that now. But yeah, it is different.
MR: And I have to say, your new song "I'm Not The Same Without You" is one of the cheeriest, most positive breakup songs I've ever heard.
DF: Yes, that's what I do. I don't like to be bored or depressed. I'm just a happy guy.
MR: [laughs] Michael, you co-produced the album. What were your duties for this project?
Michael Leonhart: Make a great album for Donald.
DF: Oh, you can be more specific.
ML: Well, the specific is that Donald gave me the demos, we helped bring all of the instruments to life, starting with the drums from the bottom up; Donald had the rhythm arrangements, the lyrics, and ninety-nine percent of the form together, and we filled in the details and refined and changed a couple of things. It's an extension of our musical relationship and our friendship; we kind of listen to one another. You have to abandon any preconceived notion of style and just go for what is good for right now with Donald, and that's the bottom line.
MR: Yeah. Donald, when you were approaching this record, did you have any plan or was it, "Let's just make the best record we can, period."?
DF: Yeah, pretty much. I guess with me, at this point, the style kind of takes care of itself. I just write them and sing them and they just come out a certain way. I don't have that much control over it, so you don't have to worry about that so much, you just have to get the pieces together in a certain way and it works out.
MR: Why "Sunken Condos"?
DF: I didn't think any of the individual songs had a title that worked for an album title, so I needed something suitably apocalyptic. I remembered there's a piece by Debussy called "Sunken Cathedrals," so I just updated it and came up with "Sunken Condos," which, I think, could be appreciated on different levels. You can associate it with the economic problems in the world now, the sociological problems in the world, and also my own personal situation. In other words, it's really about getting older and maybe facing some of the realities of life. I'm sixty-four now.
DF: Thank you. Congratulations for surviving, yeah. I'm not completely underwater yet.
MR: Yeah, that's sort of the metaphor, too, right? Now, you are the thinking man's jazzer, so to speak.
DF: Thinking man's thinking man.
MR: And this started way, way back right from the beginning with Steely Dan. I have to tell you, you had a very big influence on me.
DF: Thank you, I hope it was good.
MR: It was great. And I can remember when I was a teenager, on the day that Katy Lied hit the 52nd Street Sam Goody record store, me and the guy who turned me on to your music--a young Rob Stevens who turned into an amazing producer and engineer over the years--literally ran like five blocks at full speed to the store to get that album.
DF: Wow. I remember, I used to go to that store, too.
MR: Yeah, It's not there anymore. There's something wrong about that.
DF: There aren't any record stores anymore.
MR: I know, there's something wrong about that too. I missed having the large vinyl, and now I miss having CDs in a lot of ways, now that everything is downloaded.
DF: Yeah, it's something in the air now. You've got to suck it out of the air.
MR: In and out of the ether. Okay, let's get into a couple of songs on this album, for instance, "Miss Marlene." It's hard not to love her, why is that?
DF: Well, because when someone dies young, they're preserved for all time in their youthful state. She was a sensitive girl, she was unlucky in love, and she kind of lost it there and there was a terrible taxicab accident, and, you know, s**t happens, right?
ML: Also was a good bowler. Everybody loves a good bowler.
DF: Excellent bowler.
MR: Okay, what's going on in "Memorabilia?"
DF: "Memorabilia." Most of the songs are fairly simple, that one's probably the more complex lyric. It's about a young lady by the name of Ivy King who collects nuclear memorabilia from nuclear test sites in the fifties and she visits a man who sells this material...and in his back room, he has all this kind of stuff from the h-bomb tests in the South Pacific in the fifties. She's looking over all this great stuff and that's what it's about.
MR: It's a little relative to, you might say, "New Frontier."
DF: That's very observant.
MR: Thank you. And by the way, "I.G.Y."? Howard Jones has recorded it, and I've heard it sung by many others live. You wrote an incredible anthem with that one, and it's really well-intentioned. What a beautiful world indeed.
DF: Oh, thank you. Growing up in the fifties, that kind of formed my earliest memories. It was a very paranoid childhood, actually, because that's when the Cuban missile crisis and all that kind of stuff happened. There was talk every day about nuclear devastation and all that. So for better or for worse, that's part of my thing.
MR: You know what's interesting is that's what everyone remembers when they look back at the cold war from that era's perspective. But a lot of people forget that the eighties were a very scary time for kids growing up then since the rhetoric between the countries had ratcheted up.
DF: Yeah, for sure, for sure.
MR: So your songs "I.G.Y." and "New Frontier"--and the latter's video--were, of course, very timely and relevant when they were released.
DF: You know, the rhetoric now is pretty highly ratcheted.
MR: Yeah, just in a different kind of way, huh.
DF: Yeah. In those days, I guess it was not only possible but probable that there would be a nuclear war. Around 1955, 1956, when I was a little kid, your father was building a fallout shelter in the backyard and there was a special agency, The Civil Defense Agency. There was a special radio station called CONELRAD that would come on in case of a nuclear attack. It was in the air.
MR: Donald, "Weather In My Head," with its blues progression, has, to me, one of the best concepts of the project. "They may fix the weather in the world, but what can be done about the weather in my head?"
DF: Right, I've been trying to figure that out for years.
MR: Is that the reason for writing it?
DF: Nothing can be done, although I do take an interesting anti-depressant that's helped a little bit. But you know, essentially, you can't do that much about it.
MR: Yeah, but doesn't everybody have weather in their head?
DF: Yeah, everyone has weather in their head. You know who has the most weather in their head? Little kids.
DF: Michael knows because his son is three. They have very changeable weather in their heads.
MR: And now we label it ADD, ADHD, ODD, etc. How about they're just kids? There was a time when diagnoses weren't rampant, and kids being kids, it was just assumed they're going to be rambunctious.
DF: Right. But everyone wants everyone to be one thing now. I think the ideal now is like the four-thousand science fiction stories I've read in my life. The ideal now is to become some kind of android or a robot, and if kids don't fit into a certain pattern, then they have to make all of these labels up and then try to correct them.
MR: To what you said, I also feel like if one has a natural, emotional reaction to something, you're labeled "unstable."
DF: Right. In the fifties and sixties, it used to be cool to be unstable. If you spent a couple months in the funny farm, that was actually kind of a status thing. Now it's like forget about it, your life is ruined. You'll never get hired for a job. You can't even react to anything. That's wrong.
MR: Yeah, and it's unfortunate because my feeling is that it creates this air of not having honest reactions anymore. You can't take anything to a conclusion.
DF: No. That's why I still like New York, because you still see girls crying on the street and stuff like that, which is a little action.
MR: Yeah. Hey, Michael. What have you been up to other than working on this very fine project and the last couple of Steely Dan records?
ML: This one was the main focus for a while. I do my own music, I was out with Donald on The Dukes of September tour, I was writing some arrangements for the David Byrne and St. Vincent tour that just started, I'm doing this new Yoko Ono Plastic Band album next month, and some film scores. That's about that.
MR: What films are you working on?
ML: I can't say yet just because there are a couple of things that are still contractual, but there is one indie film and then one thing that's a larger Hollywood film.
MR: Nice, and good luck with everything, Michael. Donald, Isaac Hayes' "Out Of The Ghetto," that you covered on Sunken Condos, what gravitated you to that one?
DF: I guess while I was writing tunes for this album, I came across this old tune and I realized that everyone, for many decades, has associated the word "ghetto" with the inner city and the African-American ghetto, or the Latin ghetto, and I decided I wanted to reclaim it for the Jews. So we added some Klezmer parts and so on, and it's different now. It goes back more to its original use.
MR: You have Jon Herington and the Steely Dan horn section, and you have Freddie Washington. Who are some of the other folks playing on the album?
DF: Well we've got a couple of acoustic bass players. We have a man named Jay Leonhart, of whom Michael is a progeny, we have a man named Joe Martin, I don't know whose progeny he is, probably Mr. Martin's. We have, as you mentioned, Freddie Washington...I actually played some sort of synthesizer-type bass and so on.
ML: We've got Lincoln Schleifer.
DF: We've got Lincoln Schleifer, a New York local bass player. A fantastic bass player.
ML: Larry Campbell on guitar, Gary Sieger on guitar.
DF: Kurt Rosenwinkel plays a fantastic solo. Who else? The harmonica player...
ML: Will Galison on harmonica.
DF: And a bunch of other great people.
ML: Yeah, and a lot of great background singers.
MR: Nice. Donald you have a reputation for being an amazing audiophile. There are stories out there about how you've completely focused on, let's say, a guitar lead, and stuff like that. Does it get painful sometimes when you're listening to a playback of a rough mix or whatever because you really want it to be this great finished product already?
DF: Yeah, but you know pretty fast if something's going to work or not, so if something's not working, we move on quickly. The person who's playing is always suffering worse than we are, so we want to end it quickly.
ML: But also, Michael, if I may, what's interesting is that we didn't do rough mixes. We listened to stuff without compression and without reverb, and I learned quickly that Donald knows what it's going to sound like with the reverb and the compression. So it's not like we're attempting to make weekly rough mixes. It's pretty to the point and you know if it's working or it's not.
DF: It's a great way to work. I never figure I'm going to fix something in the mix. It's got to be there or not there. It's the notes and the grooves. I can tell right away.
MR: Well, every single record that you're associated with as far as Steely Dan and Donald Fagen solo albums, have parts that seem absolutely appropriate, like nothing else was even possible and I believe that was from a lot of the hard work that went into them.
DF: Yeah, there's a lot of preproduction. I made demos on a sequence to play with the arrangement. It took a while. It always takes me a while to get the right parts and make sure everything's working together. I think a lot of that comes from being a jazz fan when I was a kid, listening to a lot of big band records and Miles Davis records and stuff like that.
MR: What are you listening to from those days these days?
DF: The same records. I listen to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and Oliver Nelson and Coltrane and so on.
MR: Nice. Okay...Donald Fagen The Nightfly versus Donald Fagen the Sunken Condo owner. What do you feel are a couple of the major differences from that guy to this guy?
DF: I think each album is a really a portrait of the world that I was living in at the time, so it's really just a matter of every decade or so, you're a somewhat different person. I think the albums just reflect who you were at different times as you grow older.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
DF: Michael, why don't you take this one?
ML: Jeez. How long do you have?
MR: I understand, it's a hard one.
ML: It is a hard one. We're living in a strange time to play music with integrity. So maybe be patient.
DF: And it depends on what you want to do. Do you want to have a career and make money or do you want to be an artist? You have to choose. You might end up making money if you decide to be an artist, but you might not. If you want to have a career in music it's a whole different set of rules than if you want to be Lady Gaga. That's a different set of rules.
MR: Right. Do you feel like with all the social networking, American Idol and all of that, something happened in the culture where we're looking at music differently? Maybe the kids that are coming into it are looking at it not so much from an artist's perspective?
DF: I'll say. There are always exceptions, there are always people who are serious about what they're doing and really want to express themselves in some sort of artistic way. When Walter (Becker) and I got into it, it was a different time. We just really wanted to make a living playing music, I think that's about as far as it went. But at the same time, if an opportunity came along where we could make an album or improve our lives or something like that, we went along with it, but we never changed the music. If there's anything I'm proud of it's not the music itself but the fact that we didn't compromise on it.
MR: What's going on with Steely Dan in 2012?
DF: Today? I don't know. I haven't talked to Walter recently about what's going on. We'll probably be going out this Summer or the Summer after, but right now, I'm in a lot of different bands, so it's getting confusing. I'm also in this band The Dukes of September with Mike McDonald and Boz Scaggs, so we're going to Japan in a few weeks. I have to manage my time with all these different bands now.
MR: Has the Dukes tour been a lot of fun?
DF: Oh yeah. It's good because I only had to sing a third of the show, you know, and these other really good singers sing the rest of it. It's easier.
MR: Will there be a CD or DVD or Blu-ray of it in the future?
DF: Yeah, we're talking about that.
MR: Does this tempt you to want to do even more collaborations in the future?
DF: Well you know what I like? I've come to really like revues and shows where a lot of different singers come on and it moves really fast because they're not boring, you know? I actually started doing that with Mike and Boz back in the nineties and that's why we tried to get it started again a couple years ago. That's probably the most fun for me is doing that revue style. You get to play other people's material. You get to be a sideman, which is really fun for me.
MR: Right. I remember one of your albums had Phoebe Snow featured in it. I do miss her, I loved her voice.
DF: Oh yeah, me too. She was great.
MR: Donald and Michael thank you very, very much. Someday we have to do this again so we can have a whole show talking about sci-fi. I'm a sci-fi nut.
DF: Oh yeah, me too. Thanks very much.
ML: Thank you.
1. Slinky Thing
2. I'm Not The Same Without You
4. Weather In My Head
5. The New Breed
6. Out Of The Ghetto
7. Miss Marlene
8. Good Stuff
9. Planet D'Rhonda
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne