Role Models: Donald Fagen
On the occasion of Donald Fagen’s latest non-Steely Dan effort, Sunken Condos, we sat down to talk about this new classic, and the previous ones.
You and Walter Becker are among the few songwriters to extend the vocabulary of chords.
Back in the days when they wrote standards, a lot of composers were using more jazz progressions, like Harold Arlen or Burton Lane. And jazz composers who wrote songs were into interesting changes. These days it’s not that way, because it’s now all guitar-based music.
What makes a melody great?
Melodies can be good depending on the context. You can have a simple melody, and if the harmony behind it is interesting, it can make a very simple melody really different. You can also have a complex melody. The more complex it is, the harder it is to sing, and then sometimes it can sound contrived. You could write a melody that would be fine on a saxophone but if you give it to a singer, it can sound raunchy.
Is it your feeling that a song, lyrically, can contain anything?
Yeah. Dylan opened up popular music so you could write about anything. He started using surrealism and wrote songs that showed the interior mind at work. Nothing like that existed before he started doing it, and we were big Dylan fans.
Was there ever content you tried but failed to get into a song?
Yeah, we failed many times [laughs]. We once tried to write a song about the Congress of Vienna. We never pulled that one off.
Does songwriting get easier?
No, it gets harder. It takes longer. When you get older, your mind slows down and you don’t have a lot of energy, and you’ve used up a lot of your ideas. You’ve really got to work to do it. It’s exhausting. You think sitting in a room and thinking things would be easy, but it’s not. I throw out so much stuff, that to get a few bars or a few good lines takes a long time.
Do you have any method for getting ideas flowing?
Take a walk. Go to a movie. The whole thing of seeing these giant faces and hearing loud music gives me ideas. I don’t usually get ideas when I go to a room with a piano and sit down to write. I have a list of ideas I got at random times.
Do you have any regular songwriting routine?
I mainly have three modes: writing mode, recording mode and touring mode. When I’m in the writing mode, I get up about 10 and write till about 7.
There are demos of you and Becker online, and it was always both of you singing.
Yeah, when we first started we were going to be the white Sam & Dave [laughs]. I took the high part. I think I was Dave and he was Sam.
Do you remember writing “F.M.”?
Yes, I do. I wrote that in California. There was a film called FM and we were asked to do the title song. And I said, “Does it have to have any specific words?” And they said, “No, it just has to be about FM radio.” We wrote that very quickly, I remember, in one or two days. And we also recorded it very quickly, too. Johnny Mandel came in and did the string chart. It was fun to meet Johnny Mandel.
Will you always make albums?
Yes, I’m used to it. I think 50 minutes or so is a good length. It’s not too long, but it’s long enough to be satisfying. I don’t know if anyone listens to albums anymore. I like it. For someone who enjoys sitting there listening to music, it’s a good length. It may be a dead art form though. I think songwriters like listening to whole albums.
Do you have a preference for major keys or minor keys? I think you have written more in minor keys but I could be wrong.
I think you could be right about that. I do think that minor keys have more opportunities for richness. But maybe that’s just because I am a depressive person [laughs].