Quantum Criminals: How Alex Pappademas and Joan LeMay Brought the Steely Dan Universe to Life

We sat down with the writer and illustrator behind Quantum Criminals, the new, expansive Steely Dan sweeping across the nation

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Quantum Criminals: How Alex Pappademas and Joan LeMay Brought the Steely Dan Universe to Life

If you are unfamiliar with the University of Texas Press’ American Music Series, then I implore you to get hip as quickly as you can. From Margo Price’s Maybe We’ll Make It memoir to Lance Scott Walker’s DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, the books coming out of the Longhorn State are unequivocally changing the landscape of music criticism and history. That’s where Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan comes in. In one fell swoop, it has become the essential Steely Dan book. And you should absolutely be reading it right now.

Written by Alex Pappademas and illustrated by Joan LeMay, Quantum Criminals delivers an extensive history of the band’s legacy—told almost exclusively through short studies on nearly every character named or featured across Steely Dan’s catalog. From the Expanding Man in “Deacon Blues” to Doctor Wu, Pappademas and LeMay leave no stones unturned in their quest to unlock every mythological quadrant of Steely Dan’s immense, decades-long artistic conceptions. Sleazy, Hollywood serpents be damned; Quantum Criminals gives a few pages to every major player and attempts to piece together the story behind them without skewing Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s initial vision.

Since getting an advanced copy of Quantum Criminals months ago, I’ve been returning to it over and over again. I’m an avid Dan-Head who often gets fully engrossed in the drug-stupor fantasticals and long-winded, night-soaked anthems of sex, booze and fleeting love. Last week, just a few days after Quantum Criminals hit the shelves, I sat down with Pappademas and LeMay to chat about their process, which included rigorous days of painting amid lockdown and forest fires, stumbling down non-Steely Dan rabbit holes and imagining a sequel book of just Walter Becker songs. Here is the raw, unfiltered, exclusive lowdown on Quantum Criminals, as we crawl like vipers through these suburban streets together.

Paste: How did the two of you become acquainted with each other’s work?

Joan LeMay: I was a music publicist for a total of 17 years, which is a long time. Back in the day, you used to pick up the telephone and cold-call people. So, however long ago, I was cold-calling Alex at SPIN and asking him to write about bands that I was shilling.

Alex Pappademas: Yeah, I was the reviews editor at SPIN and it was Joan’s job to harass me about new releases.

What did the decision look like when it came down to deciding that, Alex, you were going to write this book about almost every single character from Steely Dan’s catalog and then Joan was going to illustrate them?

Pappademas: It was Joan’s idea to illustrate the characters. These two things were simultaneously progressing, because I had been talking to our mutual friend Jessica Hopper about writing a book for [University of Texas Press], for the American Music Series. And the question Jessica asked me was: “What could you write a book about, if you were to pitch a book to UT?” And I was like, “I could write a Steely Dan book.” I had outlined it pretty intensely; I spent almost a year on this outline, which is really funny. And then, at some point in this process, Joan announced this plan that she had to do a zine called Danzine and she was going to illustrate all of these characters.

And Jessica called Joan and said: “That is a book.” So, I reconfigured everything that I was going to do around the much better idea of building stuff around all of the characters as the spine of the book. The arc of the book would be determined by the different people in the songs, the “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” approach.

How did you both find your way to Steely Dan’s catalog?

LeMay: I had been listening to Steely Dan since I was a literal baby, because my parents had very few records and, within that limited catalog, was all of Steely Dan’s catalog. My very first musical memory is being tall enough, at about age two-and-a-half, to grab the platter for Can’t Buy a Thrill and plop it on the turntable. I just have always had Steely Dan as the answer to “What’s your favorite band?,” which at many, many points in my life made no sense to others, given everything else that I listened to and how I looked and what have you.

Pappademas: I was much more of an indie rock, punk snob-type who thought they were not for me. That was how I came to it. It was almost like “Haha, I’m gonna listen to Katy Lied today, isn’t that funny?” And, as I write in the book, that is how they get you sometimes. You will try to come in there ironically, as a joke, like “I’m going to listen to these slick, cold, studio-yacht-rock practitioners” and then you never stop. That’s how it happens. And once you realize that there’s more going on there than you initially thought, then it becomes a full-on obsession. When I started working at a rock magazine in the ‘00s in New York, and it’s the height of everybody chasing the high of the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it felt like the only transgressive thing to do at that moment.

Green Earrings.

The thing I love most about this book, truly, is how it’s not a traditional biography, yet it is that in many ways. What fueled the decision to approach the legacy and mythos of Steely Dan from a catalog-spanning character study rather than anything else?

Pappademas: I was writing for a really long time before I wrote a book. And I think, like a lot of people who write as freelancers and write for magazines and write for the internet, I was accustomed to writing short, self-contained things and then writing 4,000 words outside of it. With both books I’ve written, I think I’ve made an attempt to break it down into smaller pieces, so it didn’t feel like I was taking on this gigantic mountain to climb. It was like, “You can climb the mountain in 10-foot increments.” It feels different than saying “Oh, I’m gonna climb 30,000 feet today.” From a practical standpoint, it was just about breaking it into smaller pieces.

Even when I was outlining the book, even before Joan came on board, I was thinking about it in broken-down, smaller bits and looking at it like mini-essays about key themes that I would then shuffle around and make into a narrative. And then, it became: “If each of these things is a little box, what can I put in the box of ‘Bodhisattva’?” I know there’s going to be this image of Donald as the Bodhisattva, so, with all of those things, what can I put in that space? What story can I use that to tell about Steely Dan? So, it ends up being about those live versions of “Bodhisattva” from the last ‘70s tour and what their touring experience was like and why they left the road.

[The book] is roughly chronological, but we broke chronology in a couple of places in order to tell the story efficiently, especially at the beginning. Like, “Brooklyn {Owes The Charmer Under Me)” comes later than it should. If you have something to hang [the narrative] on, it always helps, because then you don’t have to determine your own chronology for it.

Joan, you designed these illustrations in Portland, but you’re primarily based in London and NYC. What led you to the Pacific Northwest around the time you designed this book?

LeMay: I was living there full-time. And then I moved to London and then, in a handful of weeks, I’m moving to New York. Most of the paintings were done under lockdown and there was a time, near the beginning of when we were really doing the work on the book, that there was lockdown and there were fires in Portland that were really, really intense and really terrifying. And I can talk about them for a long time, but the greatest buoy gor me in that period of time, which was really, deeply hellish, was a friend of mine, the phenomenal artist Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields. She was in a studio at the same time as Fagan was in the same studio, and she talked to Fagan about the book and was like, “My friend is stuck in this one room. She can’t leave this room. She’s been in this room for 10 days because, if she leaves the room she can’t breathe. And she’s making a book about Steely Dan with this writer named Alex Pappademas.” And she texted me and said “Don says hi!” and I was like, “Yes! He knows!” And that was a big joy.

In a median sense, how long did it take you to start and finish each illustration that wound up in the book?

LeMay: I went bananas-immersive gangbusters, because that’s how I tend to approach things. I really tend to gravitate, artistically, towards projects where I do things in series. I’m not exactly sure what it is. Sometimes I would make three paintings in a day. I would sit down and paint and paint for 16 hours straight. I think I did all of the paintings for the book in about seven, maybe eight months. And they’re all gouache paintings, 18×24 or 9×12. I have no idea how to use Procreate. I’m only marginally proficient in Photoshop. I don’t know how to do things digitally. I’m a figurative painter. I had this room that I would paint in and have all of these paintings everywhere and just be surrounded by these dudes, which was delightful. It really was a scene.

Quantum Criminals.

Which character’s chapter, aside from Donald, Walter, Dave and anyone else affiliated directly with Steely Dan, did you find was the easiest one to assemble? And then on the flip side, which one was the biggest challenge?

Pappademas: It’s interesting, because I think I quickly realized that the characters were just going to be the way into it. Every time I tried to do something like project myself into the mind of one of these characters, or try to do something that felt like fiction writing, it turned into—what felt like—fanfiction. I don’t want to fill in the gap of ambiguity with something that everybody’s gonna be like “That’s not how I imagined it at all.” I don’t want to be competing with the narrative that Donald and Walter have created.

It was more thinking about “Who is this character? How are they using this character to say something? Let me look at my own book in order to answer this question.” It was hard to research Sayoko [Yamaguchi], the cover model from Aja. She is a huge star in Japan, but a lot of the information about her is not in languages that I can read. I was doing a lot of Google translating to figure out what her story was. I spent way too much time reading about the Eagles, with relation to Steely Dan. That’s the one essay in the book that I’ve taken a run at before, outside of the context of his book.

There was a book a long time ago, “Writers on Famous Rock Feuds,” and I was supposed to write a piece about the Eagles and Steely Dan and, somehow, I just went into a tunnel and didn’t complete it. I find the Eagles and Steely Dan relationship to be really interesting because it’s not really a feud. It’s more a nemesis relationship, like “We’re not so different, you and I.” And I’m fascinated by that.

Joan, flipping that question to you, then. What illustrations were more of a labor to bring to life than others?

LeMay: I would get into such a weird headspace some days where I would bust out—what I think are—some of the stranger paintings in there. The one for “Babylon Sisters” is really weird. The little spot illustration of Jerome for the “Mr. Steely Dan” chapter, that was hard. I wanted that to be so much more than it was, but there are no photos of him and I was painting an actual person. The only photo of him that I could find was this tiny, grainy black and white thing. I was like, “Fuck, I don’t want to make up a face for him, so I have to paint him from behind.” That was a frustration, for sure.


We see a drop-off in characters after Gaucho, when Walter and Donald reunite almost 20 years later. Is there something uniquely fascinating about that era, though, given its brevity?

Pappademas: Joan made a spreadsheet and there’s a lot more characters that we could have done. At the time, when we were starting, I was like, “No, I just want to do the ‘70s. I want to do everything up through Gaucho.” But then, I started listening to [Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go] a little more, just because it was the Steely Dan I knew the least well. Joan, when you did that spreadsheet there were probably 30 characters that left out.

LeMay: Yeah, there were so, so many characters. One of the things we were being cognizant of when we were planning this out was to try and be relatively equitable between albums. We could’ve gone absolutely bananas with depicting a ton of the latter day characters, but we also chose who I was interested in painting and who was going to be a good focus point for what Alex wanted to talk about. When we chose characters, it needed to be something that both of us were focused on in a way that served the entirety of the book. I spent a lot of time with Two Against Nature and with Walter Becker’s solo universe. I hadn’t spent any time with Circus Money, but I have now and it’s fucking great. I listened to 11 Tracks of Whack yesterday, twice. We obviously didn’t go into the solo records.

Pappademas: We apologize to anybody who was really stoked to see Security Joan or Morph the Cat.

LeMay: I still want to paint more of the cat.

Pappademas: I’m sorry I didn’t encourage you to do taht. The records that have really grown on me the most in this process, weirdly, are the ones that aren’t in there, the solo albums, 11 Tracks of Whack. The next book is just solo Becker. A commercial bonanza, you heard it here first. The songs of one guy from Steely Dan when he was not Steely Dan.

Hoops McCann.

My favorite Steely Dan song has always been “Glamour Profession.” So I adored the way you went into the history of drug dealer narratives and the use of coke in the NBA around the same time Gaucho was made. What backstory or greater culture resonance blew you away during the research period for Quantum Criminals?

Pappademas: That was right when the Chicago Bulls documentary [The Last Dance] had come out, so I was reading a lot about that period in the NBA. The photographer John Divola, who’s mentioned in the “Third World Man” chapter, I found his stuff to be really interesting and I hadn’t seen any of it. I am surrounded by books in this room and I would like to claim that I have read all of these books and absorbed all the knowledge in them, but I am a book hoarder first and a book reader second.

There would be moments when I would pick up something in a moment of being lost or confused or just feeling like my brain was glue from working for a long time. Joan was shut up in a house in Portland and I was working on this here in a garage during the sweltering hot L.A. summer days. Sometimes, things would get really slow and weird, and I picked up this book called Under the Big Black Sun, which is a collection of California art from 1974 through 1981, and I started paging through this and looking at it, and Divola has these amazing photographs of burnt houses.

He would go around to various abandoned structures, photographing houses out by LAX. There’s some airport expansion that was in the airport noise zone, so these houses had been eminent domain and nobody was living there, but they were cutting the grass. He started photographing these things and then he moved on to these beach houses in Malibu that the fire department would use for training exercises. They would set houses on fire and put them out and it was just, eventually, this really fucked up-looking house. But there would always be this framed window he would shoot early in the morning or in the early evening, so the light was perfect. I got obsessed with going down into that world.

For “Don’t Take Me Alive,” going back and reading all of Arthur Bremer’s diary, which you can find pretty easily online. But, just reading about all of those lone man, assassin narratives of that period—which I think Don and Walter were fascinated by and talked about in interviews around The Royal Scam—they were ahead of the curve in realizing, unfortunately, how much lone, embittered Americans with guns were going to reshape the culture in their own fucked up image.

There was a lot of ambient 1970s research and I think that was part of it. I wanted, as much as possible, for this to connect outward to as many non-Steely Dan things as I could. And then the challenge was to bring it back once that happened, because you can obviously go off the deep end with research—and I’ve been known to.

Alex, in one of your essay excerpts recently, you were talking about the ways in which millennials and zoomers are tweeting about the imagery that is synonymous with Steely Dan’s ethos. There’s this tweet that I’ve had saved for a long time, which I think is the single greatest Dan tweet ever typed.

I want to to know what both of your favorite Steely Dan-isms are. Which way that the zeitgeist interacts with the band nowadays cracks you up the most?

Pappademas: I think about my favorite bad Dan takes. There’s the one about watching your houseboat sink off the coast of Monterey. That’s in the book. I enjoy the slotting of Donald and Walter into pre-existing meme formats, like the shot of them looking creepy and they’re like “we noticed you across the bar and we really dig your vibe,” as if they’re coming on to you. I like anything that embraces their reputation, and their self-cultivated reputation for sleaziness, in a new era. The Oh, Hello! song based on “FM,” just making the subtext into text is fun.

LeMay: If Oh, Hello!, as a thing in the world, is a possibility to be number-one on any kind of list, I will put it there instantly. Thank you for bringing that up, Alex, because that’s my answer for super sure. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the Dan bootleg fashion. I own some, but not a bunch. I love, every once in a while, seeing somebody walking down the street with some Aja sweatpants. That’s beautiful.

Pappademas: I have a pair of Aja sweatpants and I wear them all of the time. I have to do it before when I’m getting dressed, or when I’m going out to walk the dog, whenever I’m grabbing things to wear outside when you’re not really putting it together. I have to put a little more thought into it so I don’t end up with a Steely Dan shirt and Steely Dan pants and hat. I have a Guacho hat.

LeMay: What if you do all three, though, Alex? What if you just triple it like a Canadian tuxedo, except it’s just full, incongruent Steely Dan?

Pappademas: I could go full double-wonderful, like, basically, that shot of Garth in Wayne’s World when they’re promoting all of those products and he’s dressed up in all Reebok. It’s like, “How much of a conversation starter do you want to be at that time in the morning?” Because people will talk to you.

LeMay: But, maybe, with that much of it, they might avoid you and be like, “Oh, this guy’s only got one thing on his mind.”

Pappademas: And it’s cocaine.

The Babylon Sisters.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Quantum Criminals is available now. You can purchase it here.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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