I recently caught wind of an exciting musical project based out of New York City—an album-length set of Steely Dan covers (roughly ten tracks) recorded in a disco or dance style with exclusively female vocalists. The project is called Steely Dance, and its presiding genius is Julian Maile, formerly a member of the original Hedwig and the Angry Inch ensemble and lately a regular at the longrunning Loser’s Lounge series of cover concerts at Joe’s Pub in downtown Manhattan.
Maile is working on the Steely Dance project as we speak, and he’s started a Kickstarter in order to pay for the mixing and mastering of the tracks as well as kick the singers a little well-deserved dough. If you are as eager to hear these tracks in their pristine, danceable glory as I am, be sure to drop by and send Maile a few bucks. Below are three sample clips to indicate what the final product of the songs will sounds like.
Yesterday I conducted an email interview with Maile to get a little bit of background on the project. As a preliminary question I asked him whether these tracks are remixes or what? Maile clarified that the term “remix” is inapt because “I’m starting from scratch, not using any of Steely Dan’s actual recorded sounds. The styles are not really set in stone, because it was kind of difficult to get The Dan material to adhere to a ‘pure’ expression of Techno or even Disco. …The genres are loosely: Techno, Disco, Italo-Disco, House, Reggaton, Dubstep and Techno-Shuffle. Hardcore proponents of these genres might not agree that the label fits: but there it is.”
Here’s the rest of the interview.
Dangerous Minds: Why choose Steely Dan for your project?
Julian Maile: Well, to be quite honest, in January 2012 I had just done a long weekend playing “The Music of Steely Dan VS. The Music of The Doobie Brothers” [Loser’s Lounge gigs] and while there was no clear winner, I enjoyed the difference between the two. Like two different pharmaceutical drugs…. Anyway, Dan music was on the brain—at the same time I was getting a new computer, after years of using an outdated one. I thought I should probably sharpen my skill set and play catch-up with the current crop of music software. One day I was testing a synth or technique or something, and I just needed a loop to play while I figured it out. For no reason I put down the chords to “Deacon Blues.” Later I listened back and realized I had made kind of a funny thing. It kind of made me chuckle to have all those major 7th chords zipping by at breakneck speed. It was really just to amuse myself that I continued down this path, with no real plan. Then one day I went to see a band at Santos Party House [in downtown Manhattan] and before the band there was a DJ playing some uptempo stuff. One of my friends asked me what have I been up to, and the music was so loud—she had to repeat herself. Then I said “Oh I’ve just been messing around with Steely Dan songs, adding dance beats and synths,…” “WHAT? I can’t hear you!” I repeated myself. She just looked at me, puzzled, and said: “Steely Dance?” I immediately kissed her and gave her a gigantic hug.
Now when I’m nearing the end of this project—I still have to get the songs mixed and mastered—I feel that I can answer Why The Dan. It’s because their music is un-coverable. Their personas are so intricately woven into the music, and that music is so goddamned well-recorded that people probably say “You know what? Fuck it—let’s do ‘Locomotion’ instead.” Which I completely understand… when I was playing the aforementioned Steely Dan vs. Dooble Brothers extravaganza, there was one intense guy sitting right in the first row watching everything onstage, turning his head at the tiniest detail. We were doing a Dan song and I was playing guitar—an iconic guitar solo. At the climax, just as I was hitting [this] famous lick, my hand slipped—you know, it gets hot on stage and sometimes you forget your sweatbands. I flubbed the end of the solo. Dude in front, who was watching me like a hawk the whole time, shakes his head, let’s out an exasperated “ARRGGHHHHH!” and throws up his hands in the air. His girlfriend calmed him down, and he glumly sipped his Sea Breeze, looking at the program, wondering what other masterpiece we’re going to destroy with our incompetence.
Now I’ve played a fair amount of shows, and the only other time this happens is when you play Beatle music for Beatle fans. The difference is “Beatle music” is covered all the time. Sometimes the covers are better than the originals—Donny Hathaway’s “Jealous Guy” is one example. There is absolutely no chance of this happening with the Dan. So it’s an impossible task, and with all impossible tasks—there is a special kind of freedom.
DM: When did you first get interested in Steely Dan?
JM: I first got interested in The Dan kind of late, as in, not when I was a sarcastic teenager. My aunt used to play their records, but my parents didn’t. Of course I knew the hits. Here is an example of my ignorance: one of the crappy jobs I had was working at a Mom & Pop used computer store on the Upper West Side in the Days Before The Internet. Except there was no Mom—and Pop was nuts. He would buy stolen equipment and re-sell it. He tried to hide it from the employees but everyone knew what he was doing. He would get paranoid and wave a gun around the store. Bear in mind—this is a computer store. One relatively calm day into the store walks a mild-mannered bespectacled gentleman wearing a tweed jacket. He wants to buy the fastest used 486 with the latest software. I’m just about to tell him that the 486 IS the fastest, because it’s faster than a 386—when my boss runs out of the back room, covered in cat hair. He had a very hairy cat—there was cat hair on all the display models. Anyway, he fawns and fusses over Mr. Tweed Jacket, and I’m brushing cat hair off my shoulders, when another employee—who was studying music conducting and knew about these things—whispered, “THAT’S WALTER BECKER.” A very distant bell rang. Oh yeah. Steely Dan. Later in life I regretted not saving his receipt or copying down the address in Hawaii where he wanted the computer sent.
DM: The Steely Dance project showcases the musicianship and songwriting skills of Fagen and Becker. Can you talk about the tradeoff of focusing on that, possibly at the expense of, say, the trademark sardonic quality of Fagen’s vocals or his lyrics?
JM: Well, it is definitely not easy to dance sardonically. To be sardonic you need a target, and if you are dancing sardonically you are probably making fun of someone else near you on the dance floor… which could result in a laser pointer on your chest.
So another good reason to use female singers in Steely Dance is because the sharp barb of the snarky comment can be deflected into the air by a Diva. Where a lyric sung by Donald Fagen with a beatnik sax accompaniment might be sarcastic or cutting, that same line sung by a drop-dead fabulous diva fighting for her rights in spandex tights with sweeping synthesizer and peppy kick drum—that same line might be transformed into something amusing or playful.
I think this is why I like Aja so much, because there are a lot of backup female singers on that record. And their presence, to me, kind of says: “Hey, people may characterize us as misanthropic smart-alecs, but we LOVE harmony singing!” And anybody who loves harmony that much MUST have a cordial, playful, good-natured vein in their body. And in their music. Except The Eagles.
DM: How is Steely Dan perceived in the dance/disco scene?
JM: Well, I myself can’t believe I’m actually sending emails and Facebook updates basically telling people that “Hey everybody, I like Steely Dan.” I suspect, or maybe it’s wishful thinking, there are crate loads of respect for Steely Dan in any music scene—among people who make the music. Not really for the lyrics—but the sound. A Dan record is very well-recorded, and well-arranged. The musicianship is top drawer and the grooves are solid. Sound guys are always using Steely Dan songs to test their equipment. One sound guy I met said that he thinks Steely Dan are the Stanley Kubrick of jazz-rock (!). I guess you could say that Steely Dan is music by professionals for professionals… but why should the professionals have all the fun?
DM: Tell me about some of the vocalists you’ve gotten involved with the project.
JM: I’ve gotten some fun singers to participate in Steely Dance: Anna Copacabana is a singer and go-go dancer that has her own variety show at Joe’s Pub. Amber Martin is a singer and performance artist who also does shows at Joe’s Pub. Cici James is a singer and a Trekkie who owns a science fiction bookshop in Dumbo. Most of the rest all sing at the Loser’s Lounge tribute series at Joe’s Pub.
Each is a Diva in her own way!
DM: I understand you’re working on a video. When can we expect to see that?
JM: Yes. We are editing a video for “Do It Again.” That should be live sometime around the holiday season. We are also in the planning stages now for a video of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
Here’s a little bit of tongue-in-cheek footage in which “Fagen” and “Becker” discuss some of the material that didn’t make it into Steely Dance (It’s an homage to one of my favorite rock docs ever.)