Ian Anderson, the wide-eyed minstrel flautist that fronts the progressive English folk rock band Jethro Tull, has always been a staple in my life. As a very young boy, I was attracted to his searing vocal attack on songs like “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath,” but it was later in life when I started to appreciate the melodic acoustic renderings of the band, and Anderson’s keen arrangement skills. As I started to delve deeper into the Jethro Tull catalog, I found influences of blues, folk and Indian music. Ian Anderson took me on a journey around the world through this music and that same journey still continues to this day.
Getting a chance to speak with this highly intelligent, proper Englishman was an honor that can’t be put into words. As you will find by reading through Anderson’s well thought out and highly descriptive answers, he is a man that is confident and in touch with his beliefs. It was very difficult to edit what was said, simply because each word was chosen wisely for the purpose of a full and complete explanation. I chose to include almost every word that was spoken, in hopes that Anderson’s spirit and vibrancy might shine through.
Our conversation begins with Anderson discussing his current tour in support of his live performance of the Tull classic, Thick As A Brick, in its entirety, as well as his latest release, Thick As A Brick 2.
Dr. Music: My son and I saw you perform a few weeks ago. It was the first time that he got a chance to see you, and it was a wonderful experience. It was memorable for me because I was able to take my son. As far as memorable shows for you, I think of the riot at Red Rocks, or the Isle Of Wight when you played between The Moody Blues and Jimi Hendrix. Is there one particular gig that’s most memorable to you?
Ian Anderson: No. There are lots of shows that I remember, but not necessarily for the right reasons. There are memorable shows because bad things happened; people died, or something really bad happened. Those are the ones that, unfortunately, tend to stick in the mind; whereas a show that is good, or just okay, blends in with a whole host of others. Hopefully, the majority fit into that category. But, geographically I suppose there are, because I travel around the world and there are places I remember because of the very individualistic nature of the venue; like Ephesus in Turkey, the ancient Roman amphitheatre where St. Paul preached, not very successfully. And, some of the venues I’ve played in Germany in years gone by which began their lights as amphitheatres built for the Nazi rallies in the late 30’s. I have a feeling of privilege to have played in some of the great amphitheatres of the world. The sort of places where you know there were lions on the loose backstage 2000 years ago, then it’s a sobering thought that you’re just part of a long lineage of people that’ve tried to entertain the baying crowds.
Dr. Music: On the current tour you’re playing Thick As A Brick, the classic Tull album, and your latest Thick As A Brick 2. Why did you choose to revisit Thick As A Brick?
Ian Anderson: Thick As A Brick was always one that was a bit of unfinished business at the time because we curtailed the second tour in the U.S.A. back in 1972 with a, on my part anyway, a huge feeling of disappointment. It’s so difficult to perform that music to an audience who were restless and wanted to hear loud, consistent rock and roll music. It felt a bit like unfinished business to go back there one day and try it again. It took me 40 years to work up the courage and, happily, it’s been working out pretty well during these last two years. Not only have we managed to deliver it in a more entertaining form, but the audience seems to have, generally speaking, shall we say, matured a little bit in their behavior.
Dr. Music: I think of Thick As A Brick 2 as a Jethro Tull album, but it is billed as an Ian Anderson album. What was the decision there, to not have it as a Jethro Tull release?
Ian Anderson: The majority of shows in the last few years have been under my own name rather than simply as Jethro Tull, and that’s because I’m very often doing things that are more project performances and recordings where I’m specifically doing a thing that I don’t think I want to have confused with generic Jethro Tull performances of “best of” repertoire. I mean, the majority of bands, let’s say The Rolling Stones, go out there – you know what their set list is gonna be, don’t you? You do. You’re gonna pick it with certainly 80 or 85% unerring certainty. I don’t want to be like that. I want to keep people guessing. I want to be doing something that’s a little bit more challenging to me, and potentially to the audience too. When I’m doing that, I think it’s important that I don’t just call it Jethro Tull, otherwise people, understandably, will expect the generic “best of” shows.
At this point in our conversation, Anderson began to express his dislike for audience noise and interruption. I think this portion of the interview is of great importance because it sums up Anderson’s attitude and approach toward musical performance in general, which helps define his character quite well.
There’s no point in shouting things out at me from the audience because I don’t take requests. I’m there to do a job that I designed over previous months and weeks of rehearsal and presentation, so I’m there to do that gig. If you go to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and they start playing, and you start shouting out halfway through, ‘Play the 5th! Rock and roll!,” you’re gonna get some pretty nasty looks from the conductor or the members of the orchestra, and more than half the audience. I don’t really see that it should be particularly different if you’re going to a rock concert. I think there are some standards of culture, behavior, maturity, that ought to apply whenever you sit down and watch and listen to something that’s been very carefully arrived at. I think it’s very boorish and very philistine to shout and whistle and hoot and make noises. Maybe you think that’s in your culture. I think it’s a sad reality, but I don’t accept it. I feel that I ought to try, for everyone’s sake, to move toward something that’s a little bit more refined. I’m unashamed about that. I do it with good grace. I do get people once in a while, maybe once every two or three weeks, a show where somebody shouts or whistles something, but it’s happily very very rare these days. Whereas a few years ago, and certainly 40 years ago, I couldn’t hear myself sing or play anything because there was whistling and shouting and hooting. It was pretty upsetting actually, back then.
Dr. Music: I’ve read that you have another conceptual album planned for 2014. Is that true? Can you talk about that?
Ian Anderson: I can talk about it a little bit. I started writing a new album back in 9am January the first of this year, just as I had intended that I would do. I went in with a completely blank sheet of paper, which these days of course means an open document on my laptop computer, and started work. After about three or four weeks I had a pretty much complete album of material, lyrically and musically, and a couple of months later I made some demos for the other musicians, and we’ll start work recording that in December of this year for a release a week before Easter in 2014. Immediately after which, we start a UK tour. Tickets are already on sale. It’s a commitment that I can’t undo. It’s gotta be done and delivered on the due date. And it will be. It will be, because I have to.
Anderson would, later in our conversation, go on to explain the content of what he has written, which became quite revealing in nature.
I had decided that I would make an album which would be much more of a rock album, and made myself accept that declaration that there would be very little acoustic guitar in it. I would concentrate, really, on playing the flute as a musical instrument. In fact, there are just two little places, for about a minute each time, when I will play the acoustic guitar. The rest of it is much more of a rock album, with more of a full on kind of a sound. It’s just something I suppose I haven’t done for a very long time. Usually, the acoustic side of things plays a prominent part in what I do. I used the instrument for writing almost all of the music, so it’s very much at the heart of it all, it’s just that in performance terms and for recording I don’t see me playing very much of it at all.
Dr. Music: If you met somebody that had never heard Jethro Tull music, what would be the first song that you’d play for them?
Ian Anderson: Umm… (slight pause) “Stairway To Heaven”
Dr. Music: (laughs) You know, that’s the best answer I could’ve imagined, actually!
Ian Anderson: Well, you know, in a way, “Stairway To Heaven” is a good example of that era of British music. It combines some elements of very Americanized rock and roll, blues, but it also has an airy, almost sort of medieval kind of English feel about it. I think Led Zeppelin are one of the groups, and in spite of their origins being very much blues and rock based, they really did increasingly start to use more eclectic and folky forms of music as the basis of a lot of their later work. I think that’s a good introduction to Jethro Tull, because that’s exactly where we come from at about the same time. I think there is quite a tangible link there between some of our peers and us. I always felt, in a way, closer to Led Zeppelin musically than I did to, perhaps, Yes or the early Genesis. Zeppelin had a rough edge. They had a rawness and an attack, which was something I always wanted to keep in touch with as well, not just to get too musically clever, or too musically precise. So, yeah, I would say first song listen to “Stairway To Heaven,” and then maybe listen to something from, I don’t know…. the title track from Songs From The Wood.
Dr. Music: Wow! That’s exactly what sums it up for me with Jethro Tull. “Songs From The Wood” would be exactly what I would play.
Ian Anderson: Good.
Dr. Music: It’s obvious that you love to write. On the Jethro Tull website, you even give us your take on a lot of the biographical Jethro Tull books that are out there. Have you ever thought about writing your own memoir, or even a fictional novel?
Ian Anderson: Of course I’ve thought about writing a fictional story because, in a sense, it’s just an extension of writing lyrics. But, I’ve so far discounted it because I, first, think you have to have the talent. Equally, you gotta have the skill. And, there are those people who write their first novel in middle age and have a huge success, but they are relatively few and far between. The majority of novelists have many spectacular failures before they achieve any recognition, so, it’s a tough world out there. I don’t think it’s something I see as very likely, but it is quite likely that at some point I will write a book, maybe not necessarily a book of fiction, but a book about stuff – perhaps a little more philosophical on the subjects of religion, ethics, or whatever it might be. I might try that at some point. But an autobiography, I don’t think I’m going to do that, because that means telling tales. That means spilling the beans. That means betraying personal relationships with people. Even if they’re people that I don’t necessarily hold dear, I’m not about to tell you secrets that would embarrass them. Without that, it would be a very, very dull book indeed. I’m just not made of that stuff. Obviously, we all like to read a good spicy biography where Keith Richards tells us what size penis Mick Jagger has, but I’m afraid I’m just not made of that stuff.
Ian Anderson will be performing both his composition THICK AS A BRICK in its entirety for the first time since 1972, and his new album, THICK AS A BRICK 2 at the Star Plaza Theatre, 8001 Delaware Place, in Merrillville, Indiana, on October 20, at 7:30 PM. Tickets range from $55 to $75, plus service charges.
The Theater phone numbers are (219) 769-6311 and (773) 721-4600, or visit http://www.starplazatheatre.com.
You can see Ian Anderson’s full tour itinerary at www.jethrotull.com.