For over forty years, you’ve known Ian Anderson as the front man and creative force behind legendary rock band Jethro Tull. Ever since the appearance of the band’s 1968 debut album, This Was, Anderson has been one of rock’s most prolific and thoughtful artists, putting out album after album of meticulously crafted songs and tirelessly touring the world, where he plays his music to adoring audiences of all ages. Anderson has always been one of my favorite artists; there are more than 10 different versions of the song “Aqualung” on my iPod. His complex lyrics and prog-folk-rock music are truly unlike anything else in the pantheon of rock history. And no one has done more for the public image of the flute than he has. The image of Ian standing on one leg playing “Bouree” or one of Tull’s other classic hits is so iconic it’s practically Anderson’s logo.
Currently Anderson is touring and performing Thick as a Brick 2, aka TAAB 2, the sequel to his eponymously named 1972 progressive rock album, which climbed to number one on the charts within moments of appearing on record store shelves. In the current show, which Anderson and Co. are bringing to three venues in New England in October, Anderson and his mates play the original Thick as a Brick in its entirety and then, after a short break, perform the new Thick as a Brick 2 in its entirety. The show is a dazzler—a feast for all the senses, as not only is the music superb, the overall production goes far beyond anything Anderson has put forth for quite some time. Tull fans and devotees of progressive rock in general will not want to miss this show. (To read more about TAAB 2, click here.)
There’s more good news for Tull fans, too. A DVD of some great (though previously available) live Tull performances has just gone on sale. And Anderson is hinting at the pending release of a “real rock album” in the not too distant future.
In this interview, which was conducted in the summer of 2013, Anderson talks about his new material, his approach to songwriting, how many pairs of underwear to bring on a world tour, and what fans can expect next from this brilliant and outspoken artist.
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DD: Ian, thanks for taking time to chat.
IA: No problem.
DD: I know you’ve been maintaining a pretty demanding tour schedule since TAAB 2 debuted last year, how are you feeling? All the parts still functioning as they should?
IA: Yeah, pretty well. I thought you were going to say I’ve been maintaining a pretty serious schedule since 1968 but yes, last year we started touring the Thick as a Brick production tours in April, so it’s just over a year we’ve been doing these shows. We have a few shows coming up in June and two in August which are more general “Best-of” repertoire, but I think we will have clocked up about two hundred concerts of Thick as a Brick 2 when we draw that to a conclusion in November this year. So yes, it’s been an interesting commitment to doing… to all the detail really of doing a show where everything is kind of in place every night. I’ve not done that before to this extent where there’s been an unwavering arrangement. I mean obviously there are little areas of improvisation that all of us have in certain bits and pieces throughout the show but, you know, bar for bar it’s the same every night really in terms of the shape of the arrangements. And everything has to be in place including the geography of where you are on stage at any one moment because of all lighting cues and video cues being programmed and events that have to run to… have to go like clockwork really. So yes, it’s an interesting way of doing shows, but I have found it very instructive really, in terms of once you have all framework in place you can really get into the detail and the nuances in terms of delivery and the way you perform it. It’s kind of an interesting thing to have done for two years of my life but at the end of this year, I shall never want to see that again for a while because it’s a lot of shows to do just on one kind of, you know, program content.
DD: For sure. You’re playing a few venues here in New England in October including, I think, at the rather cheekily-named Wang Theater (In Boston), do you remember your first performance in Boston?
IA: Yes, it was at a place called the Boston Tea Party, a club operated by Don Law, who along with Bill Graham was one of the first promoters to book Jethro Tull in 1969. And yeah, that was the start of a long relationship with that part of America really and I have to say it was an easy entry because starting off in New England was not too much of a culture wrench. I think if we’d started off in Los Angeles or in certain other parts of America it would have been… I think we would have spent about three weeks just trying to get used to the way things were. So yeah, it was good to start off with some degree of familiar culture, I think.
IA: Louisiana would have been a wrench. That would have been a tough cookie to start with.
DD: Prior to the release of TAAB 2 it had been quite a while since you’d produced an album of new music. Had you taken a hiatus from songwriting or were you writing songs but just not sharing them?
IA: Well we’d done quite a lot of material which was just individual songs that were new songs that we’d play from time to time during the last two or three or four years—these frequent little pieces that we’d done. But there were four pieces actually from TAAB 2 which began life as live performances and were re-written to incorporate into the TAAB 2 material. Actually, three of them were written for TAAB 2, one of them was written in a different context and then the lyrics and music were reworked because it was an easy shoehorn into the TAAB 2 material. We did have the benefit of playing quite a bit of TAAB 2 live on stage before we got into the studio. I mean almost twenty minutes of music were tried and tested as stage performances. We knew that they would work because we played them live first and only listening to the audiences that heard them, you know there was a positive reaction that gave me confidence that, you know, that was one-third down, two- thirds to go in terms of material. So I went into it fairly confidently, thinking I can come up with an hour’s worth of new material which will be fairly plausible in terms of taking it on the road. The bigger question was, could we do justice to the original Thick as a Brick, which was a very hard album to recreate live.
IA: Well, dare I say, an impossible album, certainly back in 1972, to recreate live with only five of us because there were a lot of overdubs that I did playing different instruments, many of which occurred at the same time so it was impossible to do that live on stage back then, the way it was recorded. These days we get pretty close to it, even though there is a missing trumpet and a couple of other little sort of effects things that it was impossible to do live simply because I don’t have enough hands.
IA: As far as the audience is concerned, we can say it’s note for note the same arrangement, bar a couple of little missing—tiny things that people probably wouldn’t notice anyway.
IA: I didn’t—until it came to the remixing of the original album, when I thought “Well bugger me stiff that’s a trumpet in there.” (laughs)
IA: I’d forgotten about the trumpet!
DD: Obviously you’ve got a different group of musicians and I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d like people to know about this current group. A couple of them have been touring with you before, but anything you’d like people to know about these guys that may not be apparent to the naked eye—or ear?
IA: Well, all of them during the last ten years or so have played with me and, indeed, have been members of Jethro Tull and [played in] concerts billed simply as Jethro Tull. They’ve all done all that repertoire, so they’re all pretty clued in on the bulk of the music and, you know, out of the twenty-eight members of Jethro Tull over the years, these are the current four or five other guys. There’s an extra person who’s really not one of the musicians as such, but he sings and dances his way through the show. But the other guys have all… they have a very extensive knowledge of all the Jethro Tull repertoire, so it’s comforting for me to know that I have people who can handle that huge variety. It would be fair, it’s not overtly critical, but it would be fair to say that many of the earlier members of the band would not be able to play that music, I mean it’s beyond them technically or beyond them stylistically, because although in their different ways they were fine musicians who contributed enormously to the band at different points, they wouldn’t have been able to execute those musical lines. You have to… these days, if you’re going to play the big picture from ‘68 to 2012 then you’ve really got to know your stuff and you’ve also got to be very disciplined at learning, rehearsing, preparing the music, before we get into the band rehearsal stage of things. Somebody’s got to come in having done their homework and be eighty percent sorted in terms of technical proficiency.
IA: That’s something that wasn’t always easy to have with some of the guys whose preparation was perhaps a little more… less disciplined maybe. They would have thought, we’ll sort this out in rehearsal or in the first couple of shows, which is a no-no. You don’t have paying punters come through the doors to watch you rehearse. I appreciate having the guys who have that work ethic. They really do prepare things ahead of time, which is good because the next show I have is in Iceland—in a little town in the north of Iceland called Akureyri—and when we get off the plane there we’ve actually got to know what it is we’re playing, which is a completely different set, you know, of best-of Tull material.
IA: Also we’ve got to prepare for our Icelandic [stage] guests, which means again it’s some material which we have to… we’ve all got to sort it out in advance, you know, we only have a half an hour sound check to run through these things once.
IA: It’s good having professionals. I think the thing is that rehearsal and preparation isn’t a penalty—it’s not something you should be feeling “Oh, god, I’ve gotta get up early and do this thing.” Everybody actually loves doing it. Everybody gets a kick out of deciphering a piece of new music that you’ve got to figure out, whether it’s a piece of old Jethro Tull repertoire that they haven’t played before or whether it’s a piece of music, you know, for one of the guests, a piece of music written by somebody else with which of course everybody’s unfamiliar.
IA: I think those challenges are part of what makes it fun. When you know that you can handle the bulk of the music then I suppose you get hungry to look for new challenges—or at least some musicians do. Some are perfectly content just to go out, do no practice or rehearsal, and just play the things they’ve played a million times in the past, but I think that’s ultimately a bit too convenient, really, isn’t it?
DD: Yeah, a bit boring maybe. Unlike the original TAAB and its successor A Passion Play, TAAB 2 is comprised of individual tracks, obviously with a theme that’s running through it. Did you consider writing another album-length piece with no breaks or do you think the time for projects like that is past?
IA: Well if you actually analyze what makes it up, the construction as you would buy it in terms of the DVD of TAAB 2, it has ID points but it is recorded as an unbroken, unedited piece of continuous music for fifty-three minutes, not just the twenty minutes per side of Thick as a Brick 1. It is a continuous-flow piece with lots of reiterations, developments, themes, harmonic patterns, which occur on and off through the music and repeat sometimes two or three times. There is a very conceptual structure to TAAB 2. The main difference is that in the digital age, releasing this for the first time on a CD or a DVD you have ID points so you can treat it as individual tracks. But I tried to make sure that when we recorded it we were able to create those little moments where the ID points were not going to sound like you were just dropping the needle in in the middle of a groove of music. When we came to remix and then re-release the re-mastered Thick as a Brick 1 album, I had to work all of that out in a way that we could create those ID points to break it into the sections which are probably very similar, if not the same, as the specially edited DJ copies we did for U.S. radio back in 1972. I suppose we pressed a few hundred copies of the original Thick as a Brick album which were banded copies, you know they had the “grooves of nothing” where you could put the needle in on a piece of silence and then a quick fade-in or an edit into the next section of music. That was for disc jockeys to play convenient three- or four-minute chunks of Thick as a Brick back then in ’72, when everybody had to play it off of a record—there were turntables with records sitting on them in the radio stations. So you had to make it easy, you know, they couldn’t just drop the record or drop the needle in. I mean, it would sound horrible if you just put the needle in in the middle of some flow of music—it would be an awful jump and a jar—so we made those special copies back then and that’s how it was done when we came to make the iTunes edited versions, where you could buy individual parts of Thick as a Brick 1 on iTunes in banded sections.
IA: Or on Amazon, for that matter. So with the passing of time you… it’s not that you construct the music particularly in a different way, but when it comes to the manufacturing or the final mastering and the manufacturing then you have other options that you have to consider. There are bands like Pink Floyd that took the decision they didn’t want to dismantle recordings like Dark Side of the Moon, they could only be available if you purchased the whole thing. I’m not that prissy, I think people in this day and age should have that option,. You know they’re familiar with the option from lots of other material including the works of Mozart and Beethoven. You can buy it in convenient, bite-sized portions. I think it’s perhaps a little arrogant to not allow people that choice when it comes to the conceptual rock music of artists like Pink Floyd. So I’m afraid I’m not a Luddite in that case, I’m more of a progressive who thinks we have to change our ways a little bit to offer people the option, but it doesn’t affect the way that I write the music in the first place.
DD: Right, and hopefully people will still be listening to it from beginning to end as they should.
IA: Yeah, well, I’ve finished writing a new album which I wrote in January of this year and that, too involves lots of reprises and variations on elements, but I chose to do it in a way where, whilst the music may still flow from one song to the other without any real studio silence, or any digital silence, put it that way, I have tried to make it slightly more effective in terms of song length and song structures, partly because it’s more of a rock album and therefore, in genre terms, I’ve tried for the most part to give sections of music a little more identity in terms of the structure and the arrangement, but I think it’s the way in which you work. There may be some people who listen to TAAB 2 or the next album and think “Oh, he’s running out of ideas, he’s repeating himself—there he’s using that chord sequence again!” or “that melody’s coming up again.” Of course it is, it’s written like that on purpose! [Laughs] That’s reiteration, that’s development, that’s the tool of the music writer. You take your themes and re-present them. It’s the form of the concerto or the symphony that you try to present certain ideas and let them develop. They show their face again perhaps wearing a different suit of clothes but it’s essentially and intentionally using some of the same musical ingredients. It may be complete repetition or it may be a very carefully worked re-use and development of an earlier piece that’s sitting there in real time ten minutes before. I have to say I enjoy working this way, I mean it’s tackling bigger projects and bigger ideas but if you’re my age what are you going to do? Are you going to sit down and peddle little three-minute, convenient song-length pieces until you die, or is it worth trying to bite into a bigger and perhaps more difficult piece of fruit? It’s a challenge, but I think at my age I’d rather go out tackling bigger things than just going out and doing best-of tours for what remains of my performing life. I’d rather give a crack to some more difficult ideas and musical structures. It’s my job to make those accessible—not in terms of only listening to the music but in terms of performing it live, where I have to find ways to make that entertaining as a piece of rock theater.
DD: Speaking of theater, it’s worth mentioning that the current show is quite elaborate in terms of its multimedia presentation, which is a bit of a departure from some of your other recent tours. I think people are going to very much enjoy the return to what some of the earlier Tull performances did so well, which is dazzling all the senses, not just the ears.
IA: Yeah, well, again, it’s structured the way that it is partly because of the real pragmatic issues of touring a show. You know if you’ve got to be able to jump on a plane and show up in Japan or something and play your show just as you did it two nights ago in Germany or wherever then it’s got to be practical, it’s got to be movable, it’s all got to be a lot of technology and obviously you can’t take with you vast numbers of props and scenery, so you have to kind of work with the elements that are available to you—things that you can travel with and work with. You know there is just one props case, you know there is a production case, everybody probably has one or two check-in pieces of technical stuff, of equipment, and their own personal belongings. Typically, we can get through from the entrance door to the baggage check-in area of an international airport without having to use trolleys or baggage handlers to get us there. We can physically roll our stuff through, and it’s all legal aircraft size these days, because again, this is the reality of the world we live in. It’s impossible to be doing things with air freight in this day and age. I mean it’s just impossible to do that—we’d have to have three sets of equipment and allow for the time lag in shipping things in air freight terms. Not to mention the problems of immigration and customs and importation, which is a technical and difficult problem. But if you take it in personally and carry it with you, you have to work within the rules of the airlines and the most draconian of them are the ones that set the bar for everything else, so we have to be able to shoe-horn everything into twenty-kilo conventional pieces of luggage, really. Some of them are hard-cased, sort of armored cases for very delicate pieces of equipment, but you know we have to work within a twenty-kilo maximum. In America that’s fifty pounds, being twenty-three kilos, which some airlines allow, but we have to be able to shed a few pounds in weight from everything to get it down to twenty kilos because of the airlines thaty will only allow that as a check-in piece. We have to work within the practical restrictions. It’s daunting but it’s a challenge. I kind of like the challenge. You know, if airlines decided we had to work within fifteen kilos it wouldn’t stop me from touring the world and doing shows. I would just have to tell everybody to only pack one change of underwear.
DD: Yeah it’s a bit of a puzzle to be solved, isn’t it? I wanted to talk to you about your lyrics. Certainly, one of the things that has always drawn me to your work is the fact that you use very thoughtful, highly poetic lyrics which are actually audible and not just in your recordings but in your live performances. In fact, in the TAAB 2 special edition DVD you perform the album’s lyrics without any music. I know in the past you’ve said that you’re not really a fan of poetry with a capital P, but clearly lyrics are more important to you than they seem to be to many other artists, and I’m wondering—is that because you have a tighter tether to your troubadour Minstrel roots? Is it that you have more to say? The TAAB 2 album deals with many important topical subjects in your own way—homelessness and televangelism and militarism. That’s something that I think has differentiated your work from the very beginning and it’s obviously something that I’m sure you take pride in. Where does that come from? What is it in your educational or self-educational background that’s enabled you to write such powerful lyrics?
IA: Well it’s probably partly because of keeping away from the traditions and the accepted icons of literature and poetry. As a child and as a young adult I didn’t read that stuff. I suppose I could have got hold of it if I wanted to but I really just shied away from things that I felt might unduly influence me. I really wanted to find my own way of expressing the very rich language of my birth rite. You know I’m British, we speak English, we have a huge history of poetic and thespian work which is, I think, not something I want to be influenced by and try to emulate or equal but in my own way, I’d like to make my own contemporary versions of structures of words that have meaning, where I use the tools of my trade. You know—simile, analogy, metaphor—these are the plumber’s tools. I show up for work with a tool bag and I don’t have wrenches and hammers and saws in there, what I have is the grammatical structure and the vocabulary of my language. I obviously couldn’t write songs in French or Italian, though there’s a fair bit of Latin in the forthcoming album for 2014. In fact I will have to spend some time with a Latin scholar just to check all of my Latin references. It’s stuff that’s out there, make use of it, don’t be afraid. I mean, the greater part of pop and rock lyrics has an incredibly small vocabulary.
DD: Yeah, “Be my baby, please” gets kind of old after a while.
IA: Well yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have great admiration for the people who have coined the simplest terms of phrase and given them life and put them into that small pantheon of musical and lyrical testimony to the creativity of people working in simple forms. It’s brilliant if you can do that. And some people can do it. They do it once or twice, don’t necessarily have a high output or are not able to repeat their best work. I suppose I’m more inclined to move on and use other words, other structures, other forms, other references. But there are some social, political, religious issues that will keep coming back to me. When I write a song, you know, I just try not to keep writing the same song over and over. So I shan’t be writing another song about the iniquities of investment bankers—been there, done that, time to move on. But you can bet your bottom dollar, pun fully intended, that there will be another pun that refers to issues of economics or world trade or something that touches on not dissimilar issues. But I hope I’m able to do it in a different way.
DD: I’m sure you had some people scrambling for their Latin dictionaries to look up “non est mea culpa.”
IA: Well, yes, that’s a tricky one because it’s actually an aberration. Non est mea culpa—technically it should be mea culpa non est. It is widely expressed with the verb in front of the noun but in true, traditional and classical Latin it should be mea culpa non est. But that doesn’t scan well. I tried singing it that way, I even recorded it that way and listened to it and thought “oh, fuck this I’m going back to the easy version” which is much easier to sing. If you’re going to sing Latin phrases you’ve either got to build the song around the phrase or you’ve got to maybe bend it a little bit. That’s just the one Latin reference in TAAB 2 but there’s quite a few in more recent material and I have to make sure it sings well. That’s part of the art of writing lyrics is that they’re not like poetry. Poetry you read off the page. Once in a blue moon, you hear performance poetry where somebody reads the words out loud but song lyrics are there to be sung and they are there to be performed and therefore it’s, I imagine, quite a different thing to write rock lyrics, pop lyrics, because it’s very much about how they sing, about how they come off the CD, the DVD, the gramophone record whatever it is—it’s got to sing. It’s got to sing well. Ugly phrases that may look fine on paper but just don’t sing well will remain ugly phrases. So they might be perfectly okay in the context of the written word but that’s not what I’m about. I’m not a poetry writer, I’m a song lyric writer. On which subject, I’m afraid, I’ll have to leave you because I’m five minutes behind—ooh ten minutes behind!—for my next interview. But delightful talking to you and I’m looking forward to seeing you in Boston before too long.
DD: Likewise. Thank you for your time, Ian.
IA: Brilliant, thank you, bye bye now.
This interview was conducted in the summer of 2013 and recorded with the help of the good people at The Studio, 45 Casco Street in Portland, Maine—Portland’s number- one resource for all things audio since 1981. Ian Anderson will be performing Thick as a Brick and Thick as a Brick 2 together in their entirety on two dates this autumn in New England: October 12th at the Wang Theater in Boston, and October 13th at the State Theater in Portland, Maine.