The 2008 Steely Dan summer tour is in full swing and, according to the itinerary on the band’s website, co-founder Walter Becker should be somewhere between Saratoga and Woodinville at the time of his early morning conversation with TMOnline's David Davies. “Between consciousness and unconsciousness would be more appropriate, I think,” he says, a little sleepily, sounding (not unreasonably) less than ecstatic at the prospect of another musician/hack interfacing opportunity. However, with talk soon turning to the recently revamped SD live show (“we’ve tried to optimise the song selection and make it flow a bit more organically”) and Becker’s newly-released second solo album, Circus Money, Becker is soon back to characteristically dry, wise-cracking form. Produced and co-written by Larry Klein – former studio collaborator (and husband) to Joni Mitchell and, more recently, the producer behind Madeleine Peyroux’s most successful albums – the set finds Becker giving full expression to his love for dub-reggae and, in particular, its propensity for a roomy approach to groove and instrumentation.
“I wanted that spacious, elongated time feel that you get on some Jamaican music,” he confirms. “I also wanted the same band as much as possible for the whole record. The aim was to have the band create the track, right there and then, rather than have them construct some sort of super-structure on top of which something else would be built.”
With keyboard duties shared between several players, Becker (bass, vocals and occasional guitar solos) and regular SD accomplices Keith Carlock (drums) and Jon Herington (guitars) provide the core foundation for a set that is arguably the most consistent Becker/Fagen-related release since 2000’s Steely Dan comeback, Two Against Nature. Lyrically, Circus Money eschews the (albeit sometimes oblique) socio-political reportage found on the last SD album, Everything Must Go, and Fagen’s own recent solo release, Morph the Cat, in favour of a more timeless cast of characters trapped in various predicaments of their own devising and/or misfortune.
“It was unusual for us to have commented [like that], or for Donald to have incorporated a lot of that in his Morph the Cat record,” admits Becker. “Traditionally, we haven’t done much of that, except in a very broad sociological sort of way. It certainly wasn’t an important thematic concern for this stuff. […] It was written at a time when I had been listening to a lot of Jamaican music and introspecting to a considerable degree. By transporting my imagination into the scene and musical mindset of Jamaican music from the 1970s, it took me to another place that, whatever else it was, wasn’t the contemporary scene.”
By virtue of the difficulties now afflicting the conventional recording industry, however, Becker did end up engaging with contemporary methods of distribution to ensure that Circus Money got the hearing it deserves. “These are desperate times, I suppose, for these labels in their minds, and I think they are very happy to be able to hunker down with the last few acts that they think might make them a billion gazillion dollars with a big radio hit, and to let some of the other serfs go free,” he says.
Self-financed and then licensed to various distributors via his own imprint, 5 Over 12, Circus Money hoves into view with the (yes!) extremely spacious and pared-back ‘Door Number Two’, thereafter taking in a gorgeously dry rumination on a failed relationship (‘Downtown Canon’), a razor-sharp take on weekend excesses (‘Somebody’s Saturday Night’) and a classic Hollywood satire (‘Three Picture Deal’). ‘Upside Looking Down’, meanwhile, is one of the most straightforwardly exquisite songs Becker has ever put his name to.
While he mulls the possibility of taking Circus Money on a solo tour, it’s back to the SD road-show. For a band that quit live performance in 1974 and did not play another concert for 19 years, Steely Dan’s recent transformation into a touring warhorse willing to contemplate Dylan-esque schedules has come as something of a surprise.
“The overall professionalism of touring now is a big part of the appeal,” says Becker, “along with the fact that we can configure a band that has such a size and range of instrumentation as to be able to recreate almost any song we have ever done. The only type we avoid to some extent is some of the older songs that are more based on simple triads – they don’t compare that favourably in many cases and don’t lend themselves to horn charts.”
As for the future, well, it’s gloriously open right now. “Maybe nothing happens next! We might do a few shows around the end of the year, but aside from that, I’m going to keep picking and grinning,” he says, improbably. “Maybe I’ll try to finish a couple of songs, and Donald may very well do the same, and I’m sure that various enticements will be brought to us to do this, that or the other thing.”
Circus Money is available now on 5 Over 12/Sonic 360. For more information, see www.walterbecker.com and www.steelydan.com