INTERVIEW / From nought to 40 in 11 years: Donald Fagen has been away a long time, desperately avoiding work. Giles Smith met him

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The Independent Culture
DONALD Fagen talks in a cautious New York drawl, with a smack of the lips at every pause, and it is clear from the hunched shape he makes on the hotel sofa and from his habit of staring hard at the table and tensely beating time with his hand on his thigh that giving interviews is, for him, a pleasure akin to having his fingers slammed repeatedly in a drawer. But Kamakiriad is his first album for 11 years, so there are questions which need to be answered. Like, what kept him? And what's a Kamakiriad?

'In the first song, the narrator is introduced and he tells you that he's purchased this car called a Kamakiri and that he's about to take this trip through the next seven songs. And this takes place somewhere near the millennium, maybe 10 years in the future. It's a steam-powered car, it's very clean, it's got a self-sufficient garden in the back to provide food and I envisioned it not moving very quickly, perhaps not more than 40 miles an hour . . .'

This is one of the rare occasions when the phrase 'long-awaited', as applied to an album release, smacks of more than just a record company's wishful-thinking. You could have raised an entire family in the time it's taken Fagen to get his act together, and doubtless a lot of people with scratched sets of Steely Dan albums will have spent these years doing exactly that. The seven records he made in the Seventies with Walter Becker set the benchmark for sly tunes at the edge of jazz, meticulously recorded and played by unfathomably competent session musicians. And they confirmed Fagen (who is widely believed not to have smiled since the late 1960s) as king of the sophisticated lyric. At one point on his visit to Britain this month, he was spotted wearing a tracksuit. A less likely garment for him it would be hard to imagine, unless it was a Minnie Mouse outfit.

When Steely Dan folded, Fagen released The Nightfly in 1982, a snazzy take on his Fifties childhood, full of period musical details and yet as timeless a pop album as anyone has made. Then he fell silent.

'After The Nightfly came out, I did have a writer's block for a while - but it wasn't that I couldn't write: it was that when I listened the next day to what I'd done, I didn't like it. I think there's a kind of youthful energy which Walter and I had which fuelled the compositions that we wrote in the Seventies. They just kind of flowed, unimpeded. But after a while, you run out of that sort of energy. Like a lot of Americans, my adolescence went through to my early thirties, but I had to live a little longer in order to have a different kind of energy and write something new.'

So while he waited, he did a bit of therapy - 'like everyone else in New York' - and he wrote a film score for Bright Lights, Big City, and he read the whole of Proust. And additionally he undertook a few film columns for Premiere magazine, one of which was an interview with Ennio Morricone. 'My tape-recorder broke, so I had this list of questions that I had written, and I wrote his answers in a notebook, scribbled them down as best I could, but when I got home, I realised I didn't know which answers corresponded with which questions . . .' Finally, in 1989, he ended up on stage with the New York Rock and Soul Revue, singing old R&B favourites and throwing in a couple of Steely Dan songs, and the prospect of making another album seemed less daunting.

He composed these new songs on a small, fastidiously tuned upright piano in the bedroom of his New York apartment. At first listen, the numbers sound like an extension of The Nightfly, as if Fagen had gone 11 years and not budged an inch. In fact, if you play the albums back-to-back, you realise that they don't run on without a break. The new album is altogether richer sounding, deeper at the bottom. The Nightfly picked up jazz band idioms and compressed them into compact pop. And though Kamakiriad has passages which snap crisply together, it is more interested in musical sprawls, the way that Steely Dan's Aja and Gaucho were. Which may have something to do with the presence of Walter Becker, reunited with Fagen as producer and bass-player ('nobody can make transitions from chord to chord like Walter').

Becker, too, lost a decade somewhere along the line, mostly to drugs. But together they will tour as Steely Dan in America in August and possibly in this country next year, playing the old ones. 'At one point in the early days we were going to put together a band that was modelled to some degree on the Velvet Underground. We auditioned a few girls to have the Nico role.' Fagen gives an abrupt laugh at this point, and then instantly freezes again. 'That didn't work out very well. But I guess that was the beginning of a long problem we always had which is that we could never find a singer who could express the right attitude. This went on for years, right up until we actually had an album recorded and I had my voice on the tracks, as an example of what a singer might do, and we still never found a singer, so I got the job.'

Ironically, for someone so fussy about recorded sound, Fagen's voice comes with an in-built electrical glitch. 'My engineer, Roger Nichols, says sometimes there's what sounds like an electronic distortion triggered by my voice, that must have to do with some sort of harmonic quality. We've never been able to figure out what that is. It only happens under certain conditions on certain notes. My voice freaks out the microphone.'

Rumour always was that Becker and Fagen's precision made them intimidating to work with, but Fagen says they were mainly intimidated. 'We had a hard time talking to musicians. That's where our producer Gary Katz came in. He had an easy social manner and he could relax musicians and talk to them about sports, which we didn't know about.

'I think the only thing we really demanded from a track was that it had a great groove. And it's amazing how few takes have that. The takes might be flawless in a lot of ways. But you listen and there's something dissatisfying because it doesn't have a certain forward motion.'

On Kamakiriad, the session workers hit a flow, the jabs and the sustained chords meshing and coming undone, the vocals banked up like Big Band horns across the top. 'I think Walter and I have an idea of groove that goes back to the Thirties and Forties - very laid back and sounds almost like the whole thing is going to crash every bar. It has this kind of falling over feeling about it that gives it a lot of tension and a lot of forward motion. And a lot of guys don't play like that now, don't play naturally laid back.'

Fagen presses himself stiffly into the corner of the sofa. 'It's sometimes hard to get musicians to really relax,' he says, apparently without irony.

Kamakiriad is released on 24 May.

(Photograph omitted)