Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson: The Daily Vault Interview
by Bruce Rusk
Ian Anderson's name may not be on a lot of lips today, but his alter-ego in the form of the band Jethro Tull is a phenomenon dating back over 40 years whose work is recognized around the world. His songs are ubiquitous on American classic rock radio, and he’s still on the go at 64, staying busy touring both with Jethro Tull and as a solo artist.
Back in 1972, flush with success from their groundbreaking release Aqualung, the band recorded a concept album consisting of a single 45-minute track titled Thick As A Brick. Concept albums were nothing new, but in this case there was no lofty fantasy tale or deep philosophical exploration to the record. The concept was to parody the idea of the concept album itself. At the crux of the parody was the fictional author of the lyrics, an eight-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock. Jump ahead 40 years, and Ian has created a follow up (though not a sequel by any means). TAAB2, as it’s officially titled, explores not the album itself, but the fictional Gerald, and what paths his life might have taken over the decades past. I was fortunate to spend some time with Ian recently, discussing both the new and old albums and the future of Jethro Tull.
Daily Vault: My first impression with the new album was all about the sound. It sounds remarkably like the original album without copying it. The instrumentation and musical themes feel like they’re very much linked to the ’70s sounds of the original album.
Ian Anderson: One my goals was to create the same sound palette used on the original. We used vintage Les Pauls and Fender basses from the era. A real Hammond B3 with the rotating Leslies, a glockenspiel and an acoustic parlor guitar from the old days, to give it that authentic sound of real instruments played by real musicians in real time.
But the content is decidedly not a look back.
Indeed, the music is a stark contrast to the lyrical part which has no relation to the original. This is not a parody or a lark as the first one was, it’s often very dark and covers some very serious topics. There are of course some very deliberate nods and winks to Thick As A Brick, and even Aqualung, from a musical perspective. So the intent of the story is very modern, whereas the musical experience is meant to meld the new with the old.
So, lyrically more modern, then?
Yes, this is an album about today, it’s not a “what happened next” sort of thing that jumps from say 1972 to 1973, it's a 40-year leap with only the briefest of explanations of how we might have gotten here.
The opening track is called “From A Pebble Thrown.” This invokes the randomness of ripples of change.
It's about how over 40 years so many things have changed in our world, and how those changes affect the growth and maturation of a man, driving or pulling him in different directions. It deals with changes really -- technological changes, business and ethical changes, changes in morality, religion, and all sorts of things that form life-altering moments that might affect anyone who grew up over the past 40 years, or the next 40 years for that matter. The whole point was to look at the various decision-making moments that steer us from one thing to another.
At first blush it's autobiographical, but it's not really that as much as a collection of alternate possibilities.
The story is “Whatever happened to Gerald Bostock?” I could have written a linear sort of story, but one story line not as interesting as the many possibilities that could befall a person as they make life changing decisions. We start making these critical decisions that alter the course of our lives as a teen, when we're still ignorant of the world and subject to parental intervention, and peer pressure, and then there's just old-fashioned good luck or bad luck. Fate, if you will. I had many paths written out for Gerald but there only so much space on the album. I wrote down a lot more than I ever could use. Also I had to choose the ones I could bring into song. It was a pleasant process and not difficult as I had much to work from, with my own life and the experiences of friends and acquaintances to draw from.
I've heard it said that all songwriting is autobiographical.
Everything I write is in some way autobiographical. There's a little bit of me in every aspect of Gerald I wrote about.
Are there any pieces of these lives, these various personas that are particularly close to home for you?
Like I said, they are all part of me, but the gay version of Gerald has some particularly emotional weight. When I was 15 or 16, my father decided one day that I was gay, and was very cruel and harsh. It was hard time and he said some very hurtful things. It was different time obviously, and I was at a point where I had no experience at all with girls, or boys for that matter, so I had no idea what I might be. His attitude seemed to be drawn from the fact that I wanted to grow my hair long and wear tight trousers. That I was more interested in art and painting than football or whatever he perceived as manly pursuits. It really made me feel somewhat threatened regarding growing up and my own sexuality. As it turned out I didn't like boys, I preferred girls. And I guess it calmed him down when he found me at 17 or so with a girl with her skirts up around her neck. That’s my boy! And all that. We never discussed it again. His anguish as it were might have been brought on by other people close to us. No one talked about it back then you know. Fortunately as I grew up, my awareness of people around me included those who were gay, but it was perfectly normal to me, and perfectly acceptable. I always felt spiritually part of the gay community, with that family, even as I feel supportive of say, Christians and the church in general, in a spiritual sense, even though I'm not myself a Christian. You don't have to be a dinosaur to support paleontology [laughter], just as you don't have to be part of a group to feel kinship with them or share a sense of family and equality with them.
You've been unflinchingly harsh to the church over your career. One of the Gerald paths leads him to be a vicar.
My growing up was around the Christian religion, the Anglican church even though I was in Scotland, that my parents sent me to. In my teenage years I was increasingly a critic of the way religion was taught to me, and some of the content of that religion. And my alluding to corruption in the church was based on my years of observation of TV evangelists and the corruption inherent there with the way that the church will bully and coerce people to give up their hard-earned savings. And very often that money tends to disappear in the pocket of some rich person. The corruption and misuse of funds has been well reported and seems to go on unabated. I'm amazed and sometimes appalled at the way fear and coercion is used to extract money, and promises of salvation are offered in return. And the breadth of their influence is, well there must be 20 or 30 channels of evangelists on my satellite TV propagating this scheme on a grand scale. It’s a very worrisome situation and so prevalent around the world. It makes me angry and concerned and so I have taken more than a few shots at them over time.
The new album is an Ian Anderson album as opposed to a Jethro Tull album.
I put my name on it because it's really my baby. I created it and presented it to the guys who played extremely well and did a good job of it. I'm their leader and they trusted me to take them on this unknown journey. Clearly when something of more weighty and conceptual terms is presented they have to trust in the vision even if they don’t understand it, and they have to trust in their leader to deliver them safely them across the stormy waters. It's my gig. I'm the writer. I don't want to call it Jethro Tull, as I've never been comfortable with it as the name of the band. Unfortunately I didn't pick it and really didn’t have the good sense to try and change it before the point when it stuck. The trouble was it happened so fast and we were gaining recognition under that name and so there we were, and so it stuck.
So no Jethro Tull, and no Martin on this album. [Guitarist Martin Barre has been a part of Jethro Tull since 1969, the longest-running member of the JT family after Ian.]
This will be an Ian Anderson tour, and while we don't have current plans to tour as Jethro Tull, I'm quite confident there will be in the future. And if Martin is available and willing then he'll be welcome if he wants to be part of it. One of the reasons Martin isn't on this album is party the fact that there was no possibility of the other original TAAB musicians playing on it. These blokes have moved on and two of them aren’t physically up to the tasks of recording and touring -- we're getting old you know! [laughter] I thought well, all or none. To be perfectly frank, I doubt they could play some of this music. They, and I, all struggled to play the music of the original. It was right at the limits of our abilities. You have to stay on top of your game, you know. Practicing every day, doing a hundred shows a year and all that. If you don’t keep on it, you can't deliver that consistent quality.
In the case of Martin, he could have played this to be sure, but he doesn’t really enjoy working in the studio. It has been difficult for him, the recording process, because it's a lot of pressure and he doesn’t thrive under that pressure and never has. It’s always been like that for Martin in the studio. So, I didn't think he was up for that, but my excellent guitar player of 10 years Florian Opahle was. He is very instinctive and learns what I give him very fast, and he's up for the studio bit. I'm a bit like a football manager, I have to put the team together that will score the goals. So when it comes time for Jethro Tull shows, I pick up the phone for Martin and hope he can come along.
So you aren't retiring the Jethro Tull name?
Absolutely not. But, Jethro Tull to me means repertoire. It means the classics, the standards, the big hits. I'm sure your readers can appreciate that there is more to my life than playing the same limited number of songs over and over again. So when the opportunity is there for a solo acoustic tour or a symphony show or something different like this this album, I find it beneficial to attach my own name to it, as opposed to the limited repertoire of a Jethro Tull concert. It also means when I use my own name it helps to keep out the riff-raff. You know, the beer-swilling boys who only know what they hear on the radio and start screaming for “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” when I pick up the acoustic guitar. These guys are going to get testy when I launch into a full blown rendition of TAAB, so best to leave those people at home.
Forty years ago, taking on a concept album consisting of a single track was a bit ambitious. Did you worry about either falling flat or alienating the audience at all?
I knew what I was stepping into. It was a very conscious effort to write something that was deliberately a parody of the concept album as a genre at that time, as purveyed by peers such as Yes and King Crimson, Genesis and Emerson Lake & Palmer and people like that. We really wanted to have a bit of fun with the idea, and not to disrespect anyone, just to have a bit of fun with the over-the-top approach to a concept album supposedly written by a precocious eight-year-old boy. Hopefully people are willing to buy into these improbable scenarios, just as they would the idea of Peter Pan or Father Christmas or Robin Hood. It's escapism. It’s entering into a fantasy world. It’s what I invited people to do and in a way I think most people had fun with it, but many did not and took it far too seriously. Many didn’t understand that it was a rather surreal, English-humor-based fantasy. It doesn’t always cross smoothly from one culture to another. I don't think they quite got the joke in many countries in Europe and certainly didn’t get it in Japan for example. Even in the USA I think about 50 percent of the people got the joke.
You’re entering a slightly nebulous world when you start presenting fantasy, because if it's based on a cultural interpretation, people will derive different meanings in different cultures. Although, it’s probably less so today because of the universality of communications and the internet, and particularly social media. So it’s easier today, but even so I have taken care to present carefully planned and derived translations into Italian, Spanish, Russian, German, Czech and so on, of the new album, as I want to give something to those fans whose native language is not English, and who require slightly different interpretation so they can derive the right things from these lyrics. So we've done that. Now we'll see if my illustrious team of translators will be up to the take of TAAB1 when we remaster it! That's a big job. I suspect most of them will run from me as they spent many laborious hours perfecting the latest album.
Have you enjoyed the process of remastering the old catalog?
It's a bit nostalgic, and not so bad as I do very little of the actual work. Steven Wilson has done a lovely job with the remixing of Aqualung, and TAAB as well as the mixing of TAAB2. Strangely he has a wish to remix A Passion Play, which I've tried to ward him off of, but he seems intent on giving it a go.
An odd choice, but not surprising for Steven to key on that particular record. It's certainly not your most popular album, though there does seem to be a small but very loyal and, forgive the pun, passionate fan base for that record.
That doesn’t surprise me because there are always people who have a passion for all kinds of obscure or esoteric works. I've always suspected there a faction that embrace APP because they know most people don’t like it or don’t get it. I think it makes some of them feel a little elitist to be able to talk about or proclaim a strong affiliation with A Passion Play. I can certainly understand that, but I happen to be in agreement with the majority. It’s certainly not one of my favorites. A lot of work and effort it went into it in a very intense way, but it suffered from not having the humor or the overall vision that TAAB did. APP was very intense and very dark, and musically too extreme. And it's full of fucking saxophone! I really hate the saxophone. I don't know what possessed me to play that thing back then. So there's another reason I don’t care for it.
That’s interesting, since the saxophone was very prevalent for a while, particularly on one of my favorite albums, War Child.
I felt I had an obligation to learn it for some reason, the fingerings were much like the flute, but the sound is just awful, that honky vibrating waveform is just not pleasant to my ears. I had to give it up. So War Child was my last gasp on the saxophone, and good riddance.
Some time ago you were lumped into the “progressive rock” genre, for obvious reasons. But does that label mean anything in particular to you?
I’m happy to be labeled that! I have no problem in terming what I work in as progressive rock. It’s a wonderful term, the best possible term really. And it puts you in the best sort of company. Broadly speaking, it’s music that seeks to reach out a bit and break the boundaries of other influences, but anchored within the rock genre. The problem I had is in the early ’70s it became this thing people called “prog rock.” So when it became known as prog rock, it became synonymous with bombastic, rather selfish and self-indulgent and rather arrogant excesses in some cases. It’s the sort of thing we wanted to poke at in TAAB. This became part of the mechanism in contemporary music that drove a revival back to more stark and primitive styles of music -- the kind of aggressive, sort of homemade music that became punk rock in the ’70s. It was a reaction to the more ornate and more complex music that was at the forefront of the world of rock at the time. So, prog rock got a bad name, but these days it kind of different. Progressive rock lives, breathes and is no longer the dirty word that it was. There’s a new generation of kids these days that are really into it and are embracing that music, and new music such as progressive metal and some of the really good new progressive bands. It’s actually a lot stronger right now than it has been for some 35 years. People in their teens an early twenties are really getting into it for the first time and that's a good thing.
Any surprises on the new tour?
Not for me! Plan on hearing the original TAAB and TAAB2 in their entirety, or close to it.
[Author’s Note: My thanks to Ian for graciously spending time with this longtime fan, and to Maddie and all at EMI & Chrysalis for arranging the interview.]