Donald Fagen and The Nightflyers, The TVD Interview

“I wish I had a heart like ice,” Donald Fagen—or rather his character, uber-hip yet lovelorn jazz DJ Lester—yearns in “The Nightfly.” The track is a high point on an autobiography-infused nostalgiAlbum of high points. The Nightfly, Fagen’s debut solo recording—which also featured classics “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontier”—was nominated for seven Grammy awards and released in 1982.

Fagen’s latest solo venture comes in the form of a touring band appropriately dubbed The Nightflyers. From July through September, the bunch will play in a myriad of venues across the US, as well as the Yokohama Blue Note Jazz Fest for a tour closer. The Nightflyers are new for Donald, more or less; he first ran into the twenty-somethings bunch—Connor Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Lee Falco (drums, vocals), Brandon Morrison (bass, vocals), and Will Bryant (keyboards, vocals)—on the Woodstock-area music circuit. Stepdaughter and musician Amy Helm, also based in the Woodstock area, had worked with them in the past. Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers’ current setlist mainly borrows from Donald’s four stellar solo albums—The Nightfly (1982), Kamakiriad (1993), Morph the Cat (2006), and Sunken Condos (2012)—with some innovative covers and Steely Dan classics, too.

Fagen first formed a reputation as vocalist-pianist and songwriter, along with his musical partner Walter Becker, creating the Steely Dan nucleus. Influenced by literature and jazz, science fiction and noir, and all things Beatnik, Fagen and Becker created one of the most cerebrally complex yet often-mass-marketable song catalogues in the American popular music of the 1970s. Consider for a moment the miraculous and sometimes twisted perfection of the band’s lyrics—no topic seemed off-limits for songs, and many dealt in the murky nether regions of human relationships—which can sometimes get creepy. Steely Dan’s characters, however dastardly or morally questionable their intentions were, always possessed a layer of relatable loneliness.

As a solo artist, Donald Fagen is perhaps under-recognized for the romantic view of life expressed in his music. Frequently and rightfully lauded for his impressive cerebral prowess, he is sometimes snubbed for the more emotional side of his unique aural persona—one that is ridden, however coolly, with noble feeling, steadfast mensch-ness, and a lushly detectable yet fittingly understated sex appeal. A persona that’s the sonic equivalent of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, decked out in a white dinner jacket—solitary, strong, sarcastic, and unavoidably ardent when it came to the gal he loved. Like Lester the Nightfly, Rick insisted he’d “stick his neck out for nobody.” He yearned for “a heart like ice”—but couldn’t swing it.

In conversation with Donald Fagen, and Connor Kennedy of the Nightflyers, we learn more about the current Nightflyers tour, their musical and lifestyle influences and inspirations, and Connor’s recently released solo album, Somewhere.

Donald, a great deal of your solo material features seemingly cynical characters who also possess an undertone of a romantic worldview, a worldview that I’ve found to be pretty popular in the great noir protagonists of literature and cinema—like Philip Marlowe.

That’s fair, that’s fair.

Do you envision yourself in this way too, as the protagonist of your own life experience, having a soft spot for what you love, despite your intellect’s best intentions?

I think that’s a very fair way to describe the music. It’s hard to say. I think it’s sort of egotistical to put myself in a position of having the same kind of bigger-than-life personality as, you know, some of the people in noir literature, like say, Philip Marlowe, something like that. But I am attracted to that sort of thing, and I always think that the best of noir literature—you know, “noir” is actually a word that is fairly recent. They didn’t call it that when it was written. But there’s something about that vision of life to me that seems true to real life, I think. I think you’re right—there’s a romance to it. There’s a cynicism to it, skepticism, and humor, also. So I think that’s become part of my style.

Yes. I was watching the film version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep again recently and Philip Marlowe seems like this knight in shining armor that’s trying to work his way through this muck of all these crazy and corrupt characters, even though he seems that he’s a bit cynical.

Right.

He does stand out as being the one guy who’s doing the right thing.

Yeah, it’s like Al Franken, you know.

Connor, how did you and the rest of the Nightflyers begin working with Donald? What were the origins of the tour? Steely Dan is notorious for auditioning instrumentalists and being very particular about the sound of solos—which makes the records really great. How did this process compare to your own?

Well, we’ve played with Donald as a band before. The four of us—myself, Lee Falco the drummer, Brandon Morrison the bass player, and Will Bryant the keyboard player—have been playing together a lot as my band, under my name, which is kind of how the four of us came together over the past few years. As a group, we’ve worked as a unit for different people.

There’s this Bob Dylan show that happens every year in Woodstock—the first time I played with Donald was there, a few years ago. Two years ago, I wrote to him and said, “Hey, how about for your numbers this year, we back you up for your tunes?” So that was the first time we worked with him, and it was a very different experience. He and I have known each other for about five years now, and we kept in touch, playing together from time to time at Levon Helm’s barn. Donald is Amy Helm’s stepfather. Sometimes we’d play a Steely Dan song or something else. This past fall we began talking more regularly about the idea of doing something, and coincidentally he was going to have the summer off from Steely Dan. He presented the idea of doing a solo tour and gathering other guys to see if everyone wanted to do it. Of course, we would—who wouldn’t?

How familiar were you with Donald’s solo albums beforehand?

I’ve been a pretty big fan of Donald’s work for a long time now. I think I was so big a fan that I didn’t even realize how big a fan I was; recently I’ve realized how much his work has been a mainstay of my listening habits for a long time. It’s a testament to the greatness of those records, that you can listen to them extensively and never really get tired of them. There’s always a new part of a familiar song to pay attention to; there’s a lot to go through there.

The Nightfly is one of my favorite records of all time.

It’s a perfect record. Sunken Condos, the last record he did, is great too. They all are.

How was the setlist for this tour determined? Will there be any new, unheard-as-of-yet songs included?

There are a couple of new arrangements, and a couple of new songs in the ring that we’re going to try, new songs that Donald has. Some new arrangements too—Donald did a totally different and very Donald-esque version of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” He put it in a minor key, and it kind of has this Egyptian-mystery sound to it. We’re having a blast playing that one. There are a couple of others floating around. But as far as the setlist goes, we took on a pretty big list of songs, and we’re really gonna try to mix it up and continue to expand on that list. Dig into the different catalogues of both Donald’s music and Steely Dan’s music, and hopefully keep trying stuff.

Would you describe the Nightflyers as a jam band?

Yes, I think so. We’re definitely opening some things up, and leaving some song elements up to the whim of the moment in some places of the show. It’s kind of a funny thing—I’m more versed in what you could call jam band rock. Some of my favorite bands are Little Feat and the Grateful Dead, and Donald’s got a jazz background where all that stuff came from. It’s an interesting dynamic, so we’ll see what happens.

Do you find yourself drawn to music from the era of classic rock? You’ve worked with Bill Payne of Little Feat, now Donald Fagen, and some other greats.

Certainly, I think that ’60s and ”70s rock—it’s pretty astounding that we’ve crossed paths with these people, considering their impact on culture and society, music and art. All of us are trying to soak up as much of it as we can and learn from it.

It’s such a great education, too.

It’s been pretty much a crash course in chords for me as a guitar player. Steely Dan’s music is a lot more than I-IV-V rock and roll.

I think the tone too of the Steely Dan catalogue is so great because it presents a bit of literary cynicism, but there’s always a sad romantic feeling detectable below the surface. It gives the songs, to me, some hope and beauty. And on your website, you’re described as a future cynic.

Yeah (laughs)—I haven’t decided if that means I’m cynical about the future or I’m predicting that I’ll be a cynic in the future. One of the two, or both those things. It could be a point of common ground.

It’s interesting that you’ve worked with Bill Payne, who’s also a keyboardist like Donald Fagen.

Yes. It’s funny, because I always think the keyboard players are the coolest guys in the band. Their contributions are always under-recognized yet more important than most things going on. Actually, Bill Payne just met Donald for the first time I think, at this Classic West festival in Los Angeles. Bill played with the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan was on the same bill.

Listening to some of Little Feat’s catalogue, like their great record Time Loves a Hero, I was reminded of the Steely Dan catalogue. A distinct jazz-bluesy vibe, lots of keyboards.

Yes, and that stuff totally comes from Bill (Payne), I think. Little Feat really got into that jazz fusion period that was happening at the time. Lowell (George) wasn’t so into it, I think. We just put on some Little Feat to listen to at our rehearsal the other day as we were packing stuff up. I think Little Feat is one of the most underrated rock and roll bands of all time, and possibly one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. When people talk about perfectly blended American music, they were really the trifecta of jazz, blues, and country, in my opinion. They managed to do it all with a totally unique identity. And they wrote complicated music, some of the hardest music that I’ve played.

It’s those jazz chords.

Yes, and the arrangements. There’re definitely similar traits between them and Steely Dan, which is possibly why I like them both so much.

When you all listened to Little Feat at your rehearsal— was it on vinyl? CD or Spotify? Are Donald and the band vinyl enthusiasts or record shoppers in general?

I am. I wish I had a better turntable and speaker system. Actually, we were having a conversation about how we wanted to hear The Nightfly reissue coming out on vinyl. Growing up in a time when nobody was really listening to records, I actually always had a turntable. It was always kind of broken, as is the one I have now. But I had the opportunity to sit in front of some great stereos of other people and listen to some old jazz records. I think I even heard some Steely Dan stuff too. I’d be interested to see how it would affect being a musician, in terms of listening to music and the way it was meant to be heard, so I definitely am a vinyl enthusiast.

Do you identify as a Woodstock-area musician? Or do you feel connected to Woodstock-centric bands from history like the Band?

I do, and I feel compelled to emphasize what I feel is least represented about Woodstock and should be more—there is an unspecified element to what it means to be a Woodstock musician. I think it comes from the freedom of being in such a quaint and welcoming place, which probably always has been that way. That’s why Bob Dylan and the Band moved there, specifically why Dylan moved there—to get away from the confines of what he was dealing with. The external pressure of the music business, which I think is something that’s been true in all of that music. The Band was a really diverse melting pot of musical styles, and I think that concept still exists in Woodstock. The people we’ve worked with there have been true to that as well.

Considering your solo material—how would you describe your compositional processes? Your album Somewhere was released recently. Production-wise, there are echoes of Tame Impala and Jim James—younger musicians who acknowledge the history of rock and pop music. I heard a bit of ELO and Beatles stuff, melodically speaking, in there too. I was really impressed.

Thank you. What I just said about Woodstock being this ambiguous artistic combination of styles and everything—it’s all in there. All this music that I’ve listened to and that I love, all my influences. I also try to let stuff happen naturally, as all of the songs on the record did. I trusted that there was some unifying bond between them.

Last month I spoke with Bobby Whitlock about his work on the Layla record and he said exactly what you just did, that everything on the album fell out in such an organic, natural way. And the unifying theme was the album itself. Which is partly why it’s so great.

Yes. If you think about it, those songs on Layla are pretty different, and a song like “Thorn Tree in the Garden” doesn’t seem to fit at first, but all together the album makes such a fantastic album. I can only aspire to that.

The track “Summer Days” on Somewhere is wonderful too with a great guitar solo. Kind of had a Neil thing going on. Do you have plans to tour that album?

I hope to, I hope it gets out to people. I knew I had to finish it before leaving on Donald’s Nightflyers tour. We rushed to get it finished and out, and I have faith that it will get where it needs to go. Maybe we’ll get to bring the live show of those songs to different places. It was great to perform it the other night in the Old Dutch Church with Amy Helm and the horns. I’d love to be able to do that in other places too.

How do you feel about the current state of the music scene, given that you’re influenced by a lot of older music?

I think there’s a lot of great music being made right now, and there are people who believe in what they’re doing. New artists who I’ve been into recently—I discovered Jenny Lewis by accident. I walked into one of her shows in Las Vegas when I was there, not knowing who she was, and I was totally blown away. I’ve become a big fan of hers. There’s also this great band Mild High Club, I don’t know what you would call them, kind of psychedelic. A lot of people compare them to Mac DeMarco’s music, which I get and also like some of, but I think this guy Alex of Mild High Club makes great records that are solid records.

Having listened to so many masterfully made records, it takes a masterfully made record for me to get into a new record at all. And I love taking that journey of putting on a record, listening to it all the way through, enjoying it, and wanting to put it on again. I think despite what music commentators discuss about what the mass populous is doing when it listens to music, to albums, it’s important not to lose sight of this format that works for so many people, a format which basically created a platform of art.

Donald Fagen Facebook | Tour
PHOTO: BON JANE

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