After more than 40 years in the business, has Steely Dan lost its dry, dark sense of humor?
The answer to that query lies in the baffling title of the acclaimed duo’s ongoing tour: “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day.”
Any other questions?
More inquiries were put to Donald Fagen and Walter Becker over the course of a teleconference last month with reporters, which found the 65-year-old Fagen and the 63-year-old Becker in fine, irascible form.
“In truth, we put up ‘Mood Swings’ — that was the easy part — and then we were reminiscing about the old television show which was called Route 66 and we remembered how in those days they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like Who’s Afraid of the Muffin Man,” Fagen said, by way of explanation. “So, we decided we were going to have a subtitle for our ‘Mood Swings’ tour.”
Clarity isn’t something Fagen and Becker are particularly precious about, freely indulging in non sequitur asides and detours, often evoking a pair of college roommates trying only to crack each other up.
At any rate, the tour arrives in North Texas on Aug. 31, with Fagen and Becker bringing along further evidence of their acerbic wit.
They’ve dubbed their crack, eight-piece backing band (which includes drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and guitarist Jon Herington) the Bipolar Allstars, and their trio of back-up singers the Borderline Brats.
The set lists will pull from Steely Dan’s full catalog, up to and including 2003’s Everything Must Go, the band’s most recent studio album.
In a break with previous tours, some cities are being treated to multiple-night stands featuring run-throughs of entire classic albums like Aja as well as “hits nights.” (Sadly, Grand Prairie is not one of them.)
No new album is on the immediate horizon — unfinished and as-yet-unreleased material is “in the air … I can smell it,” according to Fagen — although he also allowed that there are pieces of half-completed Steely Dan tunes, some of which date back to 1984.
“Put it this way: Any other band in the world would have long ago finished or mixed or whatever these old things that were lying around,” Fagen said. “But we just don’t play it like that.”
What’s more, being on the road isn’t particularly conducive to the pair either creating or completing new songs.
“I have a really hard time writing on the road,” Fagen said. “Usually writing is done with Walter or not. It’s when I’m really at home and have very little to do. You need to be in a kind of stasis, I think, to do that.”
It’s the love of performance, then, as it has always been, pushing Steely Dan ever onward.
Whatever jokes the co-founders may make in conversation, they are deadly serious on stage, breathing new life into staples like Rikki Don’t Lose That Number or Deacon Blues, with a verve typically the province of bands half their age.
“Well, it’s great fun to play with a really good band,” Becker said. “That goes without saying, but I think that’s the essence of it right there for me.”
Another key component of Steely Dan’s enduring appeal is the bond shared by Becker and Fagen. Despite being musical collaborators for the better part of four decades with a rotating cast of sidemen, the two singer-songwriters admit there are still moments when the unexpected is made manifest.
“Incredible as it may seem, it’s probably a tribute to either our short-term memory loss or to our low threshold of surprise,” said Becker.
Fagen was more succinct: “When you can’t remember what happened this morning, you’re always surprised.”
As for what’s next, once the “Mood Swings” tour wraps in early October with a weeklong stint at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, Fagen and Becker are cagey.
“I guess like a lot of musicians, and this isn’t — I’m not making a value judgment or boasting or anything, it’s just a matter of I think a lot of musicians, jazz people, we kind of just don’t project that much into the future,” Fagen said. “It’s more about what you’re doing right now. For instance, when my father used to parallel park, he used to say, while he was doing it, ‘All right, I’m backing up now. All right, I’m pulling in. Now I’m getting closer to the curb. OK, I think that’s it.’
“I think that’s one good thing that my father handed down to me is he lived in the moment.”
“And plus parallel parking, which I’m assuming you knew how to do that at one time, although that must —” Becker interjected.
“Actually, I never quite got the hang of the parallel parking,” cracked Fagen.
That Steely Dan sense of humor — sharp as ever.