For Steely Dan, winning some Grammy awards three years ago was good for a shout-out from comedian Chris Rock on the street one day, but not much else.
"I think it was sort of an ego boost for about two days," says singer and keyboardist Donald Fagen, "until people stopped recognizing you."
The Grammy -- for 2000's "Two Against Nature" -- did set a mark for Steely Dan's new effort, "Everything Must Go." Fagen and his partner, guitarist-bassist Walter Becker, started working on the nine-track album in 2001, incorporating many of the musicians who were part of their touring band the year before.
It also confirms that Becker and Fagen, who didn't work together between 1981-92, have re-embraced Steely Dan as an active creative concern.
"It's actually easier to keep going than it is to start up again after a long period," Becker, 53, says during a joint telephone interview with Fagen, 55. The two musicians first met while students at Bard College in upstate New York during the mid-`60s (an early band there included comedian Chevy Chase on drums); they formed Steely Dan in 1972, after a tenure as writers-for hire in New York City.
"If you do another album soon enough, you sort of remember what you did the last time through and you sort of build on the process from the last one. I think that helped us in general."
After logging `70s and early `80s hits such as "Do it Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" and "Peg," Becker and Fagen parted ways and did sporadic work on their own. A reunion for the 1992 New York Rock and Soul Revue tour led to a revival of Steely Dan and three U.S. tours even before "Two Against Nature" was made.
Becker says that the key to staying active now has been keeping a "local band" of musicians together at the duo's beck and call in New York City, allowing them to work on a regular basis.
"Before we would have to fly people around and work around difficult schedules and everything. It was a real undertaking to make a record," he explains. "Now we can work in smaller chunks. We'd go in and track for a couple of days, three days, and then you do the same thing three weeks later.
"We were able to do that over and over again and sort of build on what we were learning as we went along. We could see how the tracks were unfolding."
Combining barbed observations about relationships ("Things I Miss the Most," "Lunch With Gina") and socio-political issues ("The Last Mall," "Godwhacker"), "Everything Must Go" has plenty in common with Steely Dan's previous efforts. Jazz chordings intersect with pop melodies in deft and sophisticated arrangements -- the same kind of heady combination that the group staked its reputation upon three decades ago.
"I think every time, before we do an album, we have a discussion where we sort of consider the idea of doing something radically different," Becker says. "But so far we've never really locked into an idea we've thought was strong enough to let us do that.
Adds Fagen, "There's that sort of impulse to do something really nutty. But when we get down to it, the songs kind of take over and we gravitate back to a sort of classic instrumentation and sound."
Neither Becker nor Fagen is willing to predict whether "Everything Must Go" will equal "Two Against Nature's" Grammy-winning success. And, they add, they feel no particular expectation to do that.
"I think that there's the self-imposed pressure to come up with something that's good," Becker acknowledges. "For guys like us, that's much more important than any external pressure could really be. We've been allowed to operate unmolested on the fringes of the music scene, really. That's where we enjoy it most."