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updated: 7/30/2013 11:57 AM

Catching up with Steely Dan before Ravinia gig

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  • Donald Fagen and Walter Becker bring Steely Dan to Ravinia Festival on Aug. 1 and 2 for "Mood Swings Tour 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day."

      Donald Fagen and Walter Becker bring Steely Dan to Ravinia Festival on Aug. 1 and 2 for "Mood Swings Tour 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day."

  • Donald Fagen, left, and Walter Becker bring Steely Dan to Ravinia Festival on Aug. 1 and 2 for "Mood Swings Tour 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day."

      Donald Fagen, left, and Walter Becker bring Steely Dan to Ravinia Festival on Aug. 1 and 2 for "Mood Swings Tour 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day."

  • Video: Steely Dan 'Kid Charlemagne'

 

America's quirkiest jazz-rock icons, Steely Dan, return to Ravinia Festival in Highland Park next week to present "Mood Swings Tour 2013: 8 Miles to Pancake Day."

In a recent teleconference with journalists from across the country, founding members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen shed some light on their thinking behind their tour name, fishing versus songwriting and how they hooked up with Kanye West.

Here's what you need to know:

About that tour name

To put it simply, "We made it up," Becker says, though Fagen has a more detailed explanation -- and it has to do with the 1960s television series "Route 66."

"We remembered how in those days they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like 'Who's Afraid of the Muffin Man,' things like that," Fagen said. "So, we decided we were going to have a subtitle for our Mood Swings tour."

Fagen said the band also liked reconciling "the classic space-time dilemma" with the theme.

Get that?

"In other words," Fagan said, "time versus distance ... like the Russian army's sergeant says, 'You will dig me a ditch from here to dinner time.'"

Where's the new music?

It's been about 20 years since Steely Dan, which formally came together in the early 1970s, took up touring again. But the band hasn't released an album of new material in a decade, since 2003's "Everything Must Go."

Is there anything new in the works? Becker said he can "almost smell it." If only fishing didn't get in the way.

"It's like every time we get together, we end up just going fishing," Fagen said. "Maybe it has to do with our age."

It's also tough to write on the road, unless you're bored.

"Usually (when) writing is done with Walter or not, it's when I'm really at home and have very little to do," Fagen said. "You need to be in a kind of stasis, I think, to do that."

"That's right," Becker agreed. "There's too much stimulus in any strange environment."

How they hooked up with Kanye West

Steely Dan occasionally get requests to sample their material from "hip hoppers" -- but Becker and Fagen were initially reluctant to oblige celebri-saurus Kanye West, who wanted a vocal track from the song "Kid Charlemagne."

"We usually say yes but we didn't like the general curve of the way that one sounded," Fagen said.

But then West sent a handwritten letter explaining how the song "meant a lot to him," and the duo couldn't say no.

"(West's version) was written about his father and his feelings for his father," Becker said.

"I didn't get that at all from the music," Fagen added.

Becker said he's "had occasion to wonder since then whether that's the same Kanye West."

"I think somebody took over the Kanye West personality paradigm and has been operating it randomly," he said.

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