Steve Khan: Reflections on Steely Dan's "AJA"

[1]    How did you come to record with Steely Dan?
[SK]  During the "Peg" session for "AJA" here in New York, which took place on February 24th, 1977 @ A&R Studios at 799 7th Ave., I was recommended to Donald, Walter and Gary by engineer Elliot Scheiner. I knew nothing about Steely Dan, I owned none of their albums, and I only knew "Do It Again"; "Reelin' in the Years" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" from the radio. I knew from Don Grolnick, as he had played on "THE ROYAL SCAM," that he found the songs to be really interesting, and very different from your average Pop, Progressive Rock or R&B group.
    For the session, as always, I was happy to see drummer Rick Marotta, keyboardist Don Grolnick, and bassist Chuck Rainey. I'm pretty sure that Paul Griffin was there too. I remember that at the top of the chart, mostly a keyboard lead sheet, it said: Arranged by: Larry Carlton
    For that entire session, NO ONE(Donald, Walter, and Gary) said a single word to me - NOTHING!!! I knew that they were famous for erasing people, and that all they cared about was getting a good drum track - and, if necessary, they could replace everyone else. I was fully expecting to be erased! At one point, after all of that silence, and watching so much conversation with Rick and Chuck, I went into the control room, and quietly said to Elliot:

        "Is what I'm playing working? Do you they like what I'm doing?"

    To that Elliot said:

        "Yes!!! They love it!!! They would have said something to you if it was not working"

    So, that was that. After we finished the track, they asked me if I had any interesting colors for the Intro. Of course, I said, "Yes!" even if I didn't know what I was going to do. I broke out the old MXR Flanger and turned the Regeneration knob all the way to the right, something that I never had done before - because it's such a tasteless sound - and for some INSANE reason, they loved it - and that became the sound you hear at the top of the tune, and in an interlude somewhere else. That was the only time that they spoke to me!!!

[2]    Did you cut your guitar parts for "Peg" live at the tracking date, or were they overdubs? If the former, describe working w/ Marotta, Rainey et al.
[SK]  "Peg" was recorded with all the rhythm section players live in the room, at A&R Studios, 799 7th Ave. I don't know that any 'live' guitar part ever gets accepted as is, so I have to assume, though I don't remember, that I was asked to repair certain sections. The sound effect part in the Intro was probably an overdub.
    Working with Rick Marotta was always a total thrill for me. He was, in my opinion, New York City's greatest drummer for Rock and R&B....he made those genres feel 'real' and not like some "session hack" trying to play like that. He had the best feel and a huge sound.....what I might call a "big beat".....the only guy who rivaled the way certain L.A. drummers approached these areas of music. Of course, for us here, Bernard Purdie was another great one and totally unique. Michael Brecker said it best about Rick Marotta when he said, "Rick Marotta is the Elvin Jones of Rock!!!"
    Chuck Rainey is certainly great too. He was always a pleasure to see, and was totally about serving the song!!! That's the most important thing. You also cannot ever forget about Don Grolnick. He was just the best!!! He made everything feel beautiful. His feel, his touch, his sense of time. Most Steely Dan keyboard parts consist of whole notes and half-notes, occasionally an accent to catch, but basically, very simple. The 'feel' of R&B and 'Soul' music comes from the other instruments. So, when it comes to laying down 'big pillows' of beautiful harmony, no one was better at that than Don!!! Often under-appreciated by others, but very much appreciated by his fellow players, we all loved and adored him dearly!!!

[3]    Do you remember what your rig was at the time? Sounds like a Strat...
[SK]  My 'rig' was next to nothing. Probably just a Fender Telecaster Custom, and a small bag with some stupid pedals. I probably just went into an older Fender amp, though it could've even been an Ampeg? It was a long time ago.

[4]    How specific were Becker and Fagen about what they wanted harmonically and rhythmically? Were they the cruel taskmasters they're sometimes cracked up to be?
[SK]  To tell you the truth, on that session, they hardly said a word to me!! Almost nothing!!! I just played what I felt was right for the tune, it was so obvious. I thought for certain that they were going to tell me to "do something else!" They almost exclusively spoke to Chuck and Rick. However, as it was with most of the recordings I was to do for them, I never understood their process of getting a drum & bass track. It always seemed like the guitar and keyboard [played by the great Don Grolnick] were just guinea pigs for the drums and bass. They have thrown-out better tracks than most artists ever end-up with.
    I think the problem is that, for some artists, when people/music writers start labeling you a "genius".....this becomes much too heavy a cross to bear. I believe that, for Donald, this is the case. It becomes some deep psychological shit, but I think this is exactly why they could never finish anything, never let go of anything, never just say, that's enough, let's put it out. How does one follow-up on being a genius? Most of us don't have to worry about that. However, having the money (budgets unending) and the power of guaranteed sales, is a license for abuse. What they might waste on one or two days of recording to get a single track, most artists, like me, could make an entire record for that!!! When I would think about such things, I would end-up getting pretty pissed-off!!! It's absurd.

[5]    I know the rhythm charts for "AJA" were prepared by Larry Carlton and others. Would one of the arrangers be consulting w/ you guys in the studio proper while B&F oversaw things from the control room?
[SK]   The "Peg" chart only had Larry Carlton's name on it!!! And, Larry was not in town. By that time, I would imagine that he was sick of the whole process.....probably having cut various versions of the same damn tune with different drummers. And, I would imagine all versions were uniformly excellent. Especially if Jeff Porcaro had played on any of them!!! All we dealt with were Donald, Walter, and Gary Katz.....a most difficult Troika if ever there was one!!!

[6]    How much of the tune would already exist on tape at a Steely Dan tracking date? Would you be able to hear a scratch vocal or get a sense of the lyric?
[SK]  Again, we're only speaking about "Peg" so that track was done 'live'......I never heard any other interpretations of it. No demos, no nothin'!!! But, Donald would usually, at some point, sing a scratch vocal for us, IF he was feelin' the spirit.

[7]    I hope this isn't a touchy subject, but.... Did you take a crack at the "Peg" solo before Jay Graydon's was decided upon? I've heard it said that as many as ten A-list guitar players were recorded for it.
[SK]  Not touchy at all!!! What you 'heard' might well have been true, but I was never asked to play a solo on that track. So, whichever guitarists got the livin' crap kicked out of them for trying.....I wasn't one of them. Lucky for me! In New York, they seemed to gravitate to players like Rick Derringer and Elliot Randall for solos.

[8]    Would the directives from the control room come from Becker, Fagen, Katz, Nichols, or some combination? Did Donald and Walter have a good cop/bad cop thing going?
[SK]  Most of the in the studio direction came from Donald. He was often out there with us while Walter and Gary were in the control room. Though I wasn't paying much attention, because I had never met them before, I would imagine that Walter was going through a very, very difficult time during those years. He was pretty useless......but, to get a track past all THREE of them was next to impossible. If two liked it, one would veto it just to exercise his own sense of authority. It was all rather absurd and VERY frustrating for the musicians, because we concentrated so hard each and every take. At the "Peg" session, I don't believe that Roger Nichols was around. Actually, I don't think Walter said a word to me.....maybe not even "Hello!" I think that since then we have at least exchanged that much!!!

[9]    Were the "Peg" sessions in N.Y. or L.A.?
[SK]  The version of "Peg" you hear, the track, was done in New York. I would imagine that Jay Graydon did his solo overdub out West, and Tom Scott and his Lyricon too.

[10]    Describe working with Elliot Scheiner. He seems to have been one of the architects of the Dan's rhythm section sound.
[SK]    Elliot is a great, great engineer, and one with wonderful training, coming from the Phil Ramone 'stable' of young engineers of that time period. In those years, there were Phil's guys, and then there were the guys coming from the Mediasound school of engineering. Both produced great engineers. Elliot and I, as friends, have been through a lot together. I admire him greatly, and no one is more pleased for his success and autonomy than me!!! He's earned it all!!! He's great to work with, because he helps you to craft the sound and approach that's right for the song!!! The goal is always the same: "Serve the song!!!" That's all!!!
    I remember the first time, after doing some takes, that we ventured into the control room, and I remember being struck by how absolutely fantastic Elliot Scheiner had the playback sounding. To me, it was almost as if we had already made a record - it was THAT good! I had never heard something sound that clean and powerful coming out of small bookshelf size speakers. I can't be certain but I believe that they were using the Visonik David 100 speakers from Germany. That experience caused me to immediately run out and buy several pairs of Visonik speakers for my home systems. I still have them to this day, and even bring my extra pair of Visonik David 9000s to the studio when I am mixing my own albums. And, I still love them. Some people find them a little bright, but I really like them, because I know and understand them, and I trust what I am hearing. Be assured of one thing, the Steely Dan guys are true sound buffs, real audiophile nuts.

[11]    Any other thoughts or memories connected to this record?
[SK]    No!!! But, the truth is that prior to that session, I never even owned a Steely Dan LP. The only songs I knew were "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years".....and barely those!!! I knew nothing about them, because I was involved in my own music and writing. I had no idea that it was such a 'big deal' to have recorded with them. But, like other things, for all I knew, they were never going to call me again anyway. So, I tried not to worry about it too much.
    They were having trouble finishing the album "AJA" and they came here, to New York, to do some recording. And we did the track "Peg." Which apparently they had cut five times before. I remember seeing the arrangement that Larry Carlton wrote out for them. I just heard it and played, you know, muted guitar stuff. They said they loved it. That's all that I did. It wasn't any big deal.
    Because "Peg" became so famous, many people believe that I invented that kind of muted single-note guitar style. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us, here in New York, all feel that guitarist Jerry Friedman was the one who came-up with that style, and when asked how, he would always say: "I just did it because I had completely run out of other ideas!!!" When I left the "Peg" session that evening, I fully expected to be erased. But, miracle of miracles, they liked it. Go figure!
    Then the record came out, and people went crazy. I discovered an interesting thing. You can do something really inconsequential, but if your name is on the record, even on just one track, you might as well have played on everything. All people see is that you are there. So my stupid little contribution is as good, in a sense, as Steve Gadd's or Wayne Shorter's. Of course it's not, but in the eyes of John/Jane Q. Public, it is. It's really a strange thing.

[Photos: Bottom right: Jim Houghton('78)]