Steely Dane is not your average tribute band. Their fourteen musicians fill the stage with multiple keyboards, a horn section and backup vocalists committed to reproducing Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s signature sound.
That sound is perhaps more relevant than ever. Millennials and Gen Zers are exploring their parents’ music — including Steely Dan — and some music writers are heralding a “resurgence” of the band.
Dave Adler, the band’s co-leader, discussed the enduring appeal of Steely Dan with the Cardinal ahead of their “Holidane” Show at the Majestic Theater on Dec. 10. The show is at 8 p.m. with doors open at 7 p.m. General admission floor tickets are still available.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How many members are in the band currently, and how have their musical careers led to Steely Dane?
Well, there are 14 members in the band currently. Steely Dan has always been sort of a bellwether group. If you’re a jazzer or if you’re a rocker, both of those groups look at Steely Dan as sort of a thing to aspire to — a very high level of musicianship. Their music is difficult to play, and it’s very sophisticated and exacting. So anybody who is a musician for a long time generally holds up Steely Dan as some sort of bar as far as excellence is concerned.
When you’re performing live, how much communication and improv happens between the members?
There’s constant communication between the members when we’re playing live. We’re always very careful to set up so that we can all see each other. We’re constantly riffing off of what each other is playing. Generally, when we’re ending a song, we’ll vamp for a while and play the end over and over until I cue an ending for the band, and so we’re always looking to see where that’s going to be. We mix up solos. With this kind of music, you always have to be very vigilant and to be always looking and listening to the rest of the ensemble. You really want to play it right.
How often do you practice together, and where do you find the space for it?
We practice intermittently. [It’s] hard for us to find common times to practice because there’s so many darn people. We have to rent a studio to accommodate a large band and all these people. Just getting the band together for rehearsals is a real production. There’s just a lot of people, a lot of stuff that you got to figure out. We don’t have a regular practice schedule. When we got a show coming up, we try to get together and make sure everything’s cool.
Can you describe the process of arranging your music?
Our goal is to come as close to the original recordings as we can. So we’re cueing our arrangements completely off of the records. We do studio versions of songs. Also, Steely Dan does a lot of different live versions of things where they change things up or extend it, and some of those arrangements we’re also into. My co-leader, Dave Stoler, and the horn section leader, Al Falaschi, get together and write out the arrangements generally for the horns. But everybody’s got a different thing. I work a lot with the backup singers, making sure that the harmonies are okay. We get together and learn these tunes. The goal is if you close your eyes, you think it’s Steely Dan playing. We’ve luckily enough been told that we’ve gotten pretty close.
What goes into creating a setlist for your shows?
Well, my co-leader Dave Stoler and I don’t eat for a week and we go into a cave and we fast. No, I’m just kidding. But Dave and I generally put the setlist together. Sometimes we’re doing album shows where we’re actually literally playing an album and that’s the setlist. Other times we’re doing a greatest hits show, other times we’re doing more of a deep cut show. So that’s a whole process that Dave Stoler and I do over a period of a day or two where we just kind of email each other back and forth and we settle on something.
What albums or tracks would you recommend to a college student exploring the Steely Dan discography?
It all started with “Aja” for me. You can’t really go wrong as a student, as a young kid, getting into Steely Dan. Everything is fantastic. But for me, “Aja” was the gateway drug. Every song on that is just brilliant and accessible and easy to listen to and incredible. I would say check out “Aja,” that’s what got me hooked.
Are there any deep cuts that you’d recommend?
There’s so many. “Jack of Speed” is an amazing song, that’s off of “Two Against Nature.” “Your Gold Teeth,” “Green Earrings,” “Any Major Dude” … ”Green Flower Street,” that’s a solo off of Donald Fagen’s solo record called “The Nightfly,” that’s amazing. Gosh, “Sign in Stranger,” “Gaucho” from the record “Gaucho.” “Caves of Altamira.” There’s so many deep cuts that people would like. I’m learning more songs by them as I go, and I haven’t even heard all of them. Their catalog is insane, it’s just crazy how much material they did.
What do you think it is about Steely Dan that appeals to younger audiences?
There’s just some stuff about it that’s universal that I think everybody of all ages would like. I think that their music is so well-written and so well-produced and so well-arranged that anybody, of any age, who is into really well-done music that combines elements of rock and jazz, is going to be turned on by Steely Dan. Young folks, I don’t think that they care when the music was made or how old the people were. They just are responding to the fact that it’s just some of the best rock and jazz ever produced and it appeals to them, which I totally understand. It’s really timeless music, you know?
What has it been like to take the group across Wisconsin?
It’s been amazing. It’s incredible how many people are into that band. I mean, we play everywhere from Minneapolis to Chicago and all points in between. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing in Oshkosh or Green Bay or Eau Claire. Any of those places, people come out for this band. They just love Steely Dan. I think that they appreciate it because it’s the kind of music that’s hard to put it together. It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of effort, a lot of dedication. It’s not simple material. So I think people, when they see a live band that does it, it’s unusual, because there just aren’t a lot of Steely Dan tribute bands because it’s really difficult music to play.
I think that people all over Wisconsin who love the band really appreciate that there’s a group in their backyard that really fires on all cylinders. We’ve had offers to play all over the place, and we’re definitely a Wisconsin band, folks live here and work here and we’re not going anywhere. But we’re definitely high enough quality to be playing anywhere. And I think people respond to that and appreciate having that in their hometown.
You have a holiday show coming up at the Majestic. Do you plan to merge elements of holiday music with the Steely Dan sound?
Basically, if you take any song and put sleigh bells on it, it becomes a holiday song. So maybe we’ll do that. I guess it’s more of an attitude that it’s a holiday show. Music itself is pretty sacred, you don’t want to mess with it or change it or do anything like that. But you can pick songs thematically that have stuff to do with holiday or giving or love and stuff like that. We’re probably going to pick songs that make sense to play around the holidays.
Is there anything else you want to say about Steely Dane?
I’m personally just so honored to be in Steely Dane. These folks are incredible musicians, incredible players and I am amazed myself when I’m on stage playing music with them. I’m looking around and I’m hearing this and it’s just sounding so good and people are grooving. Just for me personally to be a part of the outfit is really special. I appreciate all of them very, very much. You know, nobody’s doing this for the bread. You take any kind of money and you divide it up by 14 plus a sound guy and a light guy and a bunch of pizza for the band, at the end of the night we’re walking away with bus money, essentially. But we just love the music so much, and we love playing it together so much, that it’s a joy. I’m really glad that young folks are interested in this music because there’s definitely a lot to be gained by listening to this music and enjoying it. It’s beautiful and it’s sophisticated. It’s made by real instruments and real people who really know how to play it. So I hope people come out, and I hope they enjoy it.
Hope Karnopp is the news manager and dabbles in music reviews at The Daily Cardinal. She previously hosted the Cardinal Call for WORT-FM and edited state news.