Were you inspired by anything new when you recorded your new album, Morph the Cat?
I basically listen to the same 40 albums that I listened to in high school, near Princeton. I had much better taste then. I was a kid jazz fan. I only like seven or eight of the greatest artists: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk … And I like big-band arrangers, like Gil Evans. There’s a band called the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra that I used to like for the arrangements.
How did they influence you?
Most pop music, nothing much happens; you’ll hear something, and it’s repeated. I like when there’s some development. The jazz arrangers of the fifties and sixties really knew how to develop a piece of music.
Your first solo album, The Nightfly, was inspired by fifties jazz disc jockeys. Which ones were your favorites?
Symphony Sid was very popular. Mort Fega was probably the best all-around jazz D.J. Ed Beach on WRVR would do this very scholarly afternoon show, and I’d listen to that when I came home from school. But the figure of the Nightfly was based more on a guy who didn’t play jazz records, Jean Shepherd. He was a monologuist who used to just talk and tell stories and say funny things. He was a social satirist.
One song on Morph the Cat, “Brite Nitegown,” was inspired by W. C. Fields. Are you a fan?
Yeah, especially the movies he wrote and directed himself. It’s a Gift is one of my favorites.
Did he have an impact on your lyrics?
He had an impact on my life. He understood that most of life is just, you have to have the appearance that you know what you’re doing.
A couple of songs on Morph the Cat are futuristic, as was your last solo album, Kamakiriad. Were you into science fiction as a kid?
Yeah, I was actually a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. That was the golden age of science fiction; all the great writers were active then.
Who first blew you away?
Well, I loved C. M. Kornbluth, I loved A. E. van Vogt. I liked the guys who were really social satirists. A lot of these guys came out of the Socialist movement of the thirties, and they had a very funny way of criticizing society. I really learned a lot from them.
Did you steal from any of them in particular?
Certainly Alfred Bester. He was a New Yorker. His first novel, The Demolished Man, got the rapid flow of life in the city, which I think is still present. There’s something about the flow of Alfred Bester’s prose that I think affected the way Walter Becker [the other half of Steely Dan] and I write lyrics.
What else besides science fiction?
When Walter and I met, we had a constellation of enthusiasms, really—science fiction, jazz, black humor, novels by Thomas Berger, Terry Southern, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut especially. That certainly influenced the lyric writing. We also liked comic songwriting, like Tom Lehrer. He was a piano player and songwriter who wrote these grim, funny songs. And then we were both fans of Frank Zappa and the Fugs.
You once said Zappa was the only model for the comedy of Steely Dan.
The only comic rock and roll I remember was Frank Zappa, really. The Fugs were comic also, but their music was so primitive. I remember the Fugs used to play free in Tompkins Square Park in the sixties, and at one point they were really the kings of the Lower East Side.
What’s your relationship with easy-listening music?
We’re actually accused of starting smooth jazz. Which I don’t think is exactly true. A lot of the effects we got were intended to be comic, like “Hey Nineteen.” We were in our thirties and still saddled with these enormous sex drives and faced with the problem that you can no longer talk to a 19-year-old girl because the culture has changed. That’s set against an extremely polite little groove. And then the chorus is set to jazz chords, and when you play them on electronic instruments there’s a flattening effect, a dead kind of sound. And it’s scored for falsetto voices, which adds to the effect. To me, it’s very funny. Other people think it’s nauseating.
Have any movies been important to you?
I loved all those Swinging London movies, stuff like Georgy Girl, Tom Jones, Billy Liar. I was a very big Harold Pinter fan in high school, so I liked The Caretaker and The Birthday Party.
Did any of these films influence your writing?
Well, they were also quite satirical. In the late fifties and the early sixties, you had Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the Smothers Brothers, Beyond the Fringe, all these Peter Sellers movies. It was a kind of political criticism, and a lot of it emerged here as Saturday Night Live. I went to Bard College with Chevy Chase. He and a couple of other classmates were doing video skits there that were very similar to some of the English comedy. I guess I’m from that generation that used comedy to satirize the Establishment.