Donald Fagen Interview-Keyboard Magazine, 5/06

I had the privilege of interviewing Donald Fagen for Keyboard Magazine back in 2006 after the release of his third solo record “Morph the Cat”. It was the first of a few features I did for Keyboard. Here is a scan of the article as it appeared in the May, 2006 issue, comprising part of our interview and some musical examples:

Donald Fagan Keyboard Magazine Feature–May, 2006 issue

It’s time, however, to release the full, unedited interview, all 4500 words of it, typos, explicatives deleted—all of it. I’d always wanted to ask Donald about his harmonic approach, his jazz influences, and of course what he keyboard he soloed with on “Do it Again”. I also stammered through the anecdote of the first time I played with him at a rehearsal for the NY Rock and Soul Review in 1992, where he broke into “My Old School” on Rhodes, I came in on B3, he stopped the band and yelled across the stage that I was rushing. I was. That anecdote does not appear below.

Musical examples:

Full Inverview:

SH: (quoting the press release): “Morph the Cat is just your average soulful and sexy masterpiece about love, death, and homeland defense…”

DF: Oh, I didn’t say that, so… That was some guy, who wrote that after an interview, or something.


SH: It’s a pretty complex, post-modernist, apocalyptic thought, you can sort of hear that a little bit in your last three solo records, the trilogy, as it were, assuming it is a–

DF: What’s the question?

SH:  The question is, “The Nightfly”, “Karmakiriad” and “Morph The Cat”, is this a trilogy?

DF: It didn’t start out that way, but, I guess When I was working on Kamakirian I guess finished it I kinda realized it was a kind of a cliff-hanger, so it, and it ended with this guy driving his car into the unknown, so I should conclude it with a third one probably, and so when I had enough songs for the third one Walter and I took a break from touring, and so I figured it was a good time to do it.

SH:  Were you writing songs the whole time while you were touring with Steely Dan?

DF: Yeah, you know, when he had a few months break here and there, you know, I’d write a couple of tunes.

SH: For us in the music world event a solo record from you after thirteen long years is a , at least it is a real event, at least for mortals like me, and the record is musically so well organized and so deep. How is it sonically, or conceptually different from the Steely Dan stuff you’ve been working on?

DF: Well, you know, just sometimes I’ll write a song, and I’ll come up with an idea, and it’ll just seem more personal, or more subjective, and so I’ll put it away, you know, and sometimes I’ll just show something to Walter and he’ll say “That’s more for  you.”

SH: So you have ideas you’ll save?

DF: Exactly, exactly.  And musically speaking, I don’t really think about that so much.

SH: I hear so much of your own personality, too.  A lot of fans expect that “Fagen” sound, they expect you to be a certain way. Does that affect the way you write new music?

DF:  I never think of it for a second.  I’m afraid I never think of the audience for one second.  It’s the truth. I only try to entertain myself.  I write what I want to hear, and I hope other people are also entertained by it.

SH: I love the story I read that when you were a staff songwriter at ABC, and looked around and said I can’t write any songs for Three Dog Night or Dusty Springfield, my stuff is too hip,  I don’t know if someone told you that, were you trying to break new ground?

DF: Well, I don’t remember ever saying that, but, we tried to write pop songs, we just weren’t very good at it, and they all sounded like they were stolen from some other radio song.  There are guys there that I worked with, I remember this songwriting team, this guy named Potter, something and potter, they wrote a lot of songs that were, quite good pop songs. But you know, we just didn’t have the knack for it, and we’d always ruin them with something in the lyrics that would be too strange, or too outside, we just couldn’t think of anything that would go there and make sense that was normal sounding.  Takes a real knack, and I think Gore Vidal once said Shit has its own integrity, and uh, we didn’t have that kind of integrity.

SH:  You were able to create your own market, though, and you outlasted everybody.

DF:  Yeah, we had a different kind of shit, we had some kind of integrity.

SH:  Getting back to the record, it sounds to me like your putting even more heart and soul, within the hip slick Steely Dan-ish, Fagen-ish framework, do you feel like this is more heartfelt and lyrical statement and less cynical than some of the Dan tracks?

DF: Walter and I never try to be cynical, I think we’re realistic.  This may be less subjective in the sense that, I think when Walter and I write together there’s this kind of collective persona that becomes the narrator, which I impersonate, so there’s a little more distance between us and the narrator, and on my albums maybe the narrator’s a little closer to myself.  It’s also a persona, but it’s maybe a little closer to me.

SH:  “The Nightfly” was a very personal album about childhood. Yours?

DF: Yeah, they’re more auto- or semi- autobiographical.

SH:  It seems like you’re also rediscovering an R&B or soulful side…., I don’t know, there’s something new in this one, that I didn’t hear in Karmakiriad.

DF: That’s for other people to judge, I just try to play.

SH: But they also had that fabulous through-composed quality, like on “Aja”, you know, I love that.

DF:  Oh thanks

SH: ”The Great Pagoda of Funn” is the new “Deacon Blues”, the way the sections repeat, how the material comes back, the long outro…

DF: The more I write, I try to go for some kind of development, you know, even if it’s just a more of a pop type structure, I still like to get some kind of development in the structure or the solo or something to make it so you’re not just hearing a repeat.

SH: So, now that you mention solos, how great is it to have long solos in tunes, especially trumpet solos?

DF: Yeah, (trumpet player) Marv Stamm did a great job.

SH: Stamm, and (guitarist) John Herrington too. You don’t solo though, right?

DF: Actually I do one solo…

SH: Right, on the melodica…

DF: Yeah, a little bit. One day I gotta do a record where I play more solos.

SH: What I love about the solo sections, and you do this on “Aja” too, is when you start the solo section and then change the progression, so there’s new harmonic material under a new solo, you’re not just blowing on the changes of the song.

DF: Right, I think that’s maybe from listening to a lot of big band records where the arranger would do something different under the solos, that’s true.

SH: Cool. So, you know Keyboard Magazine would love you to talk about technology, I didn’t hear a lot of obvious technology in “Morph The Cat”, obviously there’s great recording technology, seems like maybe you’re back to organic instruments, is that true?

DF: Yeah, pretty much…

SH: Is that part of the “post-modern” vibe, a back-to-roots approach?

DF: I’ve pretty much stuck to the same instruments all along. I like tunable keyboards, so I try to stay away from synthesizers except for special effects. With some instruments I think you get a good simulation with synthesizers, like mallets or that type of thing. But generally speaking, when you’re using a full keyboard there are a lot of tuning problems on untunable instruments.  Even if they have some kind of “stretch” program, I hear the harmonics on the top and the bottom, flat on top and sharp on the bottom. It bothers a lot of singers too.

SH: One of the things you always do is you’re able to achieve a great feel with your players in the studio. I always notice your rhythm section concept, the groove is always well-defined and really present. Do you tell your players what to do?

DF: I drug the rhythm section,

SH:  Good.

DF: 2 mg of CRONAX<??>  and send them back to about 1956, and it’s a piece of cake.

SH: Yeah,  especially players like Keith Carlock,  young players these days who have grown up listening to Steely Dan and emulating Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie., so we all practiced, we’re ready for you now!

DF: Some of the guys, like John Herrington, I know he says used to practice along with Steely Dan records, so he was ready.  I didn’t have to tell them that much, they get a chart, and do a rehearsal.  I did have a chord rehearsal for the keyboards and guitars just so they could come in and not have to just see the chords for the first time.  But aside from that it was pretty easy.{????<check the tape>}

SH: You’ve had a lot of great keyboard players Victor Feldman, Paul Griffin, Warren Berhart, yet somehow they all end up sounding like you. Is it your writing, or your musical direction…?

DF: I just kind of see what they’re doing, sometimes the voicings are written out and then I’ll play them my version of what they’re doing, or what I play, and they kind of not imitate me, but amend what they’re doing to feel more the way I play.  I tend to play a little more laid back than modern players plays, it comes from growing up b/c of [?]I listened to more fifties style, the players then just played more behind the beat, I listened to a lot of black players from the fifties especially have a more laid back way of playing, I just—that’s just the way I hear it.  That’s usually the main thing, just getting the guys to lay back a little more.

SH: Your songs and your harmony are obviously rooted in your piano style.  Do you write at the piano?

DF: Most of the time, although, there are times when I don’t, like I remember having to do a couple of horn arrangements on a train. I could do it in my head and then check it on the piano later, but it helps to be able to hear it in your head a bit.

SH: Do song ideas flow from your piano style?

DF: Yeah, I like to write at the piano.  I remember this was this, when I was at school, this macho thing about not using the piano to compose, and I never understood that very much.  I didn’t see the point, really.

SH: Do you demo tracks in your home studio, do you have any kind of set-up to do that?

DF: I actually did some kind of really cheesy demos in [Apple’s] GarageBand, and that was about it.

SH: Your arrangements don’t sound like there’s any computer synth or sound technology.  Doesn’t sound like anything started with a loop either—

DF: There was one where I used a sequence, had everybody listen to a sequence which was “Mary Shut the Garden Door”, and they had it in their phones, just as kind of a guide. But on the others, we just played.

SH: You couldn’t come up with a lot of those parts on a machine, a lot of the intricate shuffles that Keith comes up with for example.

DF: Yeah, I’d rather have Keith define the feel, exactly. He can define a groove that’s better than anything you can possibly get on a sequencer, and I just don’t have the patience to deal with it at this point.

SH: So what’s the secret formula for your trademark phasey Rhodes sound?

DF: The trademark is, first you try and find those little orange boxes, I forget what they’re called, and if you can’t find the little orange boxes [MXR Phase 90s] from the late sixties, and if you can’t get them you go get the big orange boxes from a slightly later period, and—

SH: Phase shifters—

DF: –they’re just phasers, that’s all they do, and you use two of them, so they’re stereo, and you keep ‘em on a slow pace, and that’s about it.

SH: Sometimes the effect is like you’ve got them on a trigger pedal–

DF: It’s all random.

SH: That’s cool.  And on some of the tunes, obviously, the Rhodes is straight.

DF: Right.  I like the phasers, because they even out the signal, for some tunes, especially if you want it to sound a little more like an organ tone, or you need to sustain things a certain way, with a kind of compression, they’re useful, it makes it less boring, because you’re hearing some modulation or something.  It’s a nice sound.

SH: So the stereo thing, with the two of them, that’s the secret, ‘cuz you can hear it with the headphones for sure.

DF: Yeah, they modulate with each other—

SH: They’re not exactly locked in together, so you don’t get that predictable back and forth sweep.

DF: And it’s random, so it’s not like some kind of synthesizer.  On the attack sometimes you get some random nice little whops.

SH: That’s why I though there might some kind of a wa pedal—

DF: No, no, it’s more often than not you’ll get some kind of interesting thing happen on the attack.

SH:  That’s really cool.

DF: You gotta kind of whop the keyboard, too. [???]

SH So who’s the real recording geek, is it Walter (Becker)?

DF: More than I am, for sure.

SH: And you’ve got [engineer] Roger Nichols, too, for years.

DF: Right, and Elliot ()

SH: So you guys have been pioneers for like thirty years now,

DF: Well, we just try to get a good sound, and I think towards the end of the 70’s it was kind of an accident, really, in that we were having trouble getting tracks, and so we asked Roger Nichols if he could manufacture a drum track, and he did.

SH: That’s where you got the Wendell?

DF: Yeah, he ended up invented the first full frequency sampler.

SH: The Wendel gets a credit on one of your records, right?

DF: Yeah, but really, it was out of desperation.

SH: Please settle a long-standing question for me and my friends:  What is the instrument that plays the long keyboard solo on “Do It Again”?

DF: Do It Again, was there was this instrument in the studio we were using, it was a, some kind of a Yamaha portable organ that had one of those strips on it.

SH: Were you thinking of Herbie Hancock at all when you did the solo?

DF: No, I didn’t even know Herbie Hancock did that at the time.  It just happened to be there, it was ’71, ’72, it was a fairly recent model Yamaha organ of some kind.

SH: That’s very cool.  It sounds like a synth of some sort.  So I’d like to talk about some music theory, and first talk about some musical influences.  Who would you say your biggest musical influences are?

DF: You have to be more specific, I have a lot of—

SH: Let’s talk about jazz., I know Ellington…

DF: Well, yeah, I listened to a lot of Ellington, I listened to a lot of big bands when I was first getting into jazz, I was pretty young, maybe ten or eleven, and I started to listening to jazz, and I would ask my parents to take me to concerts, out in Westbury, or places around NJ, and so I got to see some bands while they still existed, I saw Ellington around that time, I saw Stan Kenton Band had [something] around that time, Maynard Ferguson had a fantastic band around ’61 or so, rhythm section had Frankie Dunlop, Jackie Bayard….I saw…well, anyway, it was that kind of progressive big band—I saw Count Basie, too.

SH: At some point you went back and investigated some of the Ellington stuff, too, right?

DF: Yeah, I also started buying, well, I got this three record set from Columbia that went back to the 20’s, and really I started researching Ellington, and took a look at those pieces, and even Jellyroll Morton. I started looking at the history of jazz arranging, and at one point in high school I actually, I saw this ad, at that time we lived in Princeton NJ, and I saw that at Princeton High school there were these adult courses, like housewives taking, and there was a jazz course given by John S. Wilson, the NY Times critic, so I signed up for that and in the evening once a week I’d go to this course, and it was all these housewives and me, and I was like 15 or something, and he had these stacks of  these 78 records, and play these fantastic records, this collection that you couldn’t get at this time  anywhere, and I was the only one who used to raise my hand, the women were there to, they didn’t know what was going on, so he started giving the course just to me, because he knew I knew who he was.

SH:  That’s great.  So you weren’t there to meet the women…

DF:  No, I’d say, “Yeah, have you heard that new Roger Kelloway record? And, it was quite amusing actually, and so I heard a lot of music there, too, and got to hear other bands like [Kansas City] Territory bands, and he had all these great records, and he would tell me what to buy,  and I brought my allowance—whatever allowance I had at the time.

SH: Right, so you’d be out listenting to Benny Moten.

DF: Exactly

SH I hear, I mean, I know this is kind of a geeky thing to even think about, that sort of Ellington layering in your writing,  I had a composition teacher who called it the strata.  If I could make the jump to the first tune on the record, take the modal lick, the g7 thing at the beginning, and then at the end you’ve got the blues lick on the muted trombone, which is contrasting mode—you’ve got lots of  bflats. And I notice you do this in a lot of your pieces, you develop layers, and even though you can’t really identify what they are theoretically, they exist well together–a sort of layering strata and to me that’s pure Ellington.

DF: Yeah, that’s true, he does that great.  And it’s also Stravinsky, who was great at making little musical cells.  Stravinsky was great combining parts, what a jazz guy would call riffs, in a really complex way.

SH: And you could have a riff that works with the horn line and the vocal line over it, but it’s not really counterpoint, it’s not really evolving harmony, it all just exists together.

DF: Yeah, I’m not really good at counterpoint—

SH: Yeah?

DF: I actually I used to cut my counterpoint class, so I never really got the full counterpoint thing. But I think it’s more the way that Count Basie, or Kansas City, they used to just improvise, that’s the way I do it. In fact, I think on “Bright Nightgown” I had the horn section there and I had 2 or 3 interactive riffs written down, and from then on I just started making them up on the spot, I had them do a couple of other pieces which I then integrated on the spot. It’s really a kind of an old fashioned way to do it.  Kind of a dumb way, really but—

SH: Well, Territory bands, they didn’t have charts, they would just riff, I don’t know how they did it–

DF: It’s Kansas City style—

SH: And apparently Lunceford that’s how they did it too, they just knew a lot of their parts, that’s how they got that wall of sound that developed where they just all moved together.

DF: Yeah it was really a swing style play of putting riffs and arrangements together.

SH: So you’ve taken swing style and applied it too modern pop rock harmony and composition.

DF: Yeah, pretty much.

SH:  I need to ask you specifically about “The Last Mall” [on “Everything Must Go” by Steely Dan], just for my own head, a blues form but it’s got a major 7, there’s only one other composer I’ve heard who’s ever done that and that’s Duke Ellington, “Blues in Orbit.”

DF: Well, there’s other, no there’s other in the forties I think, you’ll hear it in be-bop, you’ll hear it in a  Charlie Parker blues that starts in a major 7, goes through the cycle—

SH: That’s the Blues for Alice—

DF: You’ll hear it in certain…

SH: But it’s not so stark, this is like you’re laying on the one chord for a long time.

DF: That’s true, usually if they did they’d go through a cycle of chords, or–

SH: They’d go through the ii-V-I, and the I would be the major 7 but here you’re like really laying on the I.

DF: You know where you’ll here it? You’ll hear it like there was an arranger who used to arrange for Billy Eckstein’s band in the beginning of the bebop era, I think his name was Valentine, and think he was maybe in the trombone section, started using major 7ths, and through the late forties and fifties you’ll hear these black big bands who used to like to use major 7ths like you’ll hear it in some Bobby Blue Bland  arrangements,  done by [unintelligible] Joe Smith or something like that, and he used to also use this like major chord, major 7th blues, but it’s not that they stopped–after the fifties you stopped hearing it, but I always loved that sound, I especially the way when like Bobby Blue Bland records had the standard B.B. King style guitar soloist sounded over the major.

SH: Right. Yeah,

DF: It’s a great sound—

SH; Well you use it in your first—/????????

DF: Yeah I like that

SH: I want to ask you about the music business.  I think there’s a quote from you, I think it’s from  your press release, you have “no concern about releasing ‘Morph the Cat’ at a time when the music business seems as uncertain as the world itself.  Do you think the music business is more suited now to music that defies classification, like yours, do you think you’re going to have an easier time?

DF: I dunno.

SH:  You might, I mean, Steely Dan has been pushed aside to smooth jazz a lot now, I notice that on iTunes your single is categorized as ‘Jazz’, with the new technology, with the internet and the way of marketing you can put five different labels on your stuff without having to move from bin to bin in the record store, maybe that’ll benefit you.

DF: I dunno ,we just put ‘em out. It’s up to other people which bin to put ‘em in. I mean in the 70’s there was some problem with that when we first came out, because of some of the players in the band, it was more easily categorized as rock‘n’roll perhaps, we never really worried about that.

SH: To what do you attribute to the staying power of Steely Dan? It’s been 30 years!

DF: I’d like to say that we’re maybe more honest in the way that we approach it in that we address the real life things like aging, and social problems and political things and there’s humor in it, and so on. You know, I saw the Rolling Stones the other day, and they’re still essentially posing as adolescents and they’re in their sixties, and they’re still around, so it’s hard to say.

SH: Can you move to the piano?  I think your big contribution to piano is that three-note chord in the right hand with the bass note.  You get the structure and the bass and they sort of  [unintelligible]

It’s more of a guitar thing, it’s almost like moving a structure….like chords led over A flat


SH: There’s no third in that chord.  What is that, is that E flat major, or is it E flat…

DF: Well…in classical music You’ll hear this in Stravinsky, or in (unintelligible) early part of the century (unintelligible) Bartok, I guess maybe, jazz maybe you didn’t hear it so much, you know, Herbie Hancock, or Wayne Shorter

SH: Now you hear it all the time in pop music.

DF: yeah.  You know who (wrote?) these kinds of chords that Walter and I used to listen to was Laura Nyro, she used to kinda


DF: (unintelligible)

SH: It’s a kind of a piano player thing

DF: It’s very comfortable

SH: She probably writes (unintelligible) and she writes on guitar, too.

DF: right.  Then she also

SH: Bruce Springsteen writes on piano and guitar, too.

DF: so it’s maybe a kind of a—

SH: it’s a very sparse

DF: guitar-y kind of thing.  I thinks it’s a way of imitating guitar.

SH: Well what comes to mind is your rhythm on New Frontier which is kind of like (sings)

<….Lots of playing and unintelligible talking…..not of particular substance but part of a musical example using the riff from “New Frontier…>

SH:  so tell me about the “mu major”:

DF: It certainly isn’t anything original. Steven Sondheim made a career out of it

SH But you use it to change major harmony.

DF:  Yeah, it’s a way to spruce up a major chord, without making it into a major 7th. When you want a triad, but it would sound out of place to use one. When you’re using a lot of 4 or 5 note chords the 2nd is neutral

SH: And you can also play it without the third, and it gives you the intervals of the fourth

DF: Right

DF: SHoenberg criticized Stravinsky, saying that added note chords were like candy and had no structural purpose. They would pretty things up but were a poor excuse for substance, and he’s right!


DF: I like candy

SH: But you can take the “candy”, make it a middle note and make it move, make it a common tone and go to another chord.

DF: Exactly, in other words, it’s all about context, and what at first may sound like candy can be given meaning by what comes before or after, and then all of a sudden it’s not candy.

SH: That’s Stravinsky.

DF:  Yeah, that’s Stravinsky. So, I think really it’s a false criticism, really.

It doesn’t take into account that music has a dimension in time. It’s like taking it out of the bar, and saying “that’s pretty.”

SH: It also doesn’t take into account that this (g-a-d) is the same as this (a-d-g), but the later sounds different. The actual voicing is important, and you might have to write it out to make the distinction.

DF: I know, and Shoenberg was so full of shit anyway!


DF: Alright, one more question.

SH: First of all, what’s your favorite digital piano? Anything rock your world?

DF: I’m looking for one, any favorites?

SH: So what’s next, another SD record?

DF: Well I’m just thinking of going on the road.

SH: With your band?

DF: Yeah,  I’m just trying to deal with that, daily.

SH: Excellent, thanks.



About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
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4 Responses to Donald Fagen Interview-Keyboard Magazine, 5/06

  1. Barry B says:

    Thanks for posting this. Love the idea of him taking night classes in jazz w/ a bunch of Jersey housewives. Right outta “Mad Men.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I always wondered how exactly he got that phaser sound. I knew it was stereo and that the two sides were out of phase – I thought it was some fancy pedal, I should have known it was simply two Phase 90’s.

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