I have a critical nature, in the sense that when I look at something I often look for the flaws.
At first glance, this quote might suggest that Donald Fagen is a negative person, and perhaps he is – I’ve never met him. What I do know is that I love his music, and the music he's made over the years with Walter Becker, under the name Steely Dan.
In one sense, when he speaks of looking for flaws, Fagen could be speaking about the idea that comes up all the time in any art-form – that without pain, or flaws, or loss, or imperfection, there is no art. A perfect relationship offers very little to sing about, unlike a broken heart.
However, I think I prefer to look at this quote as a reflection on the way a raw idea is turned into a rough representation then, after close attention to the flaws, it reaches a state approaching perfection. Anyone who has ever listened to a Steely Dan song or any of Donald Fagen’s solo work will immediately recognise the attention to detail. Even if the kind of music Fagen writes and performs isn’t quite your bag, what's indisputable is that he values perfection as much as if not more than any other single element. Whether he’s looking for the perfect production, the perfect chord, or the perfect phrasing, he’s always looking. Steely Dan concerts are renowned for the quality of the mix, and I’m sure it’s because Fagen would settle for nothing less. Famously, on the classic 1977 album Aja, finding just the right drummer for each track was such a priority that six different drummers were employed on seven tracks.
The editing process isn’t a single step. It’s a long process, where you get to the end, then turn back to the first page and begin again. Over and over, looking at structure this time, consistency of voice the next, a particular character after that, then how that has affected structure. Yes, by all means we should strive for perfection, but as well as admiring the greater shape and form, we shoudn't forget to look for the flaws.