Something Else! Interview: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson, even as a massive four-DVD set of live Jethro Tull performances is set to be released next week, continues a well-received solo tour, highlighted by a June 30 stop at London’s Royal Albert Hall and then a string of U.S. dates.

He paused to discuss these on-going concert performances, his recent return to a legendary character from the Jethro Tull discography on Thick as a Brick 2, and the prospects of working with long-time Tull collaborator Martin Barre again.

Anderson also speaks frankly about the outsized personalities of early prog rock, and his predictions on whether that kind of furious invention will ever return to music …

NICK DERISO: Do you think that, ultimately, Jethro Tull got lumped in with the progressive-rock genre because there simply wasn’t an easy to categorize what you were doing?
IAN ANDERSON: That probably would be the case, if you look at the bigger body of work. It clearly isn’t all fitting comfortably into the term ‘prog rock.’ I think you could describe it as progressive rock music, because loosely speaking — as a very general term — that’s what it is. But I think you’ll probably find more definitions along the lines of folk rock, in terms of looking at the bigger picture of Jethro Tull’s repertoire and discography. It would appear probably more often that people would think of it that way. It’s something rock, and whatever that ‘something’ is, I still like the original term that comes from 1969: progressive rock. But that was with a small ‘p’ and a small ‘r.’ Prog Rock, on the other hand, has different connotations — of grandeur and pomposity. Back then, when we were doing Thick as a Brick, bands like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer were already gaining a reputation for being a little pompous and showing off with their music. I think that was OK. The reality is that certain members of Yes were quite humorous about it; they could laugh at themselves — as, indeed, Emerson Lake and Palmer privately laughed amongst themselves about themselves. They’d do that with me, too. There’s a ready understanding that what we are doing is a bit ‘Spinal Tap,’ in more contemporary comparative terms. I personally think the world is a better place for having Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes, because their music was quite elevated — great tunes, and some innovative playing. But, of course, it was to many people a bit excessive. I think some writers and some musicians found it pompous, because they were displaying their technical skills as musicians sometimes in way that made them seem like party showoffs.

NICK DERISO: You toured together, something that must have provided some insight.
IAN ANDERSON: It’s difficult sometimes when you think of performances back then, with the lengthy drum solos that didn’t really mean anything, the noodly guitar solos and so on. Sometimes, it just was a bit of showing off. I remember when Yes were on tour with us, it was kind of vaguely interesting to watch Steve Howe playing his party-piece guitar stuff. You knew that it was a collection of bits that must have evolved over all of his years as a guitar player, and it was just kind of showing off. We all have a bit of that that we do. I have a couple of things that I blatantly refer to as party pieces, because they are just a bit of fun — something you play when you are called upon to be the circus clown. (Chuckles.) Clearly, we all — Steve Howe, Ian Anderson — we have other things that we do in which we’re not showing off. We’re too busy with our heads down, and with furrowed brows, trying to play something that is really quite difficult. But that’s part of what was going on back then, and I think looking back on it that most of it was a pretty good experience for musicians and listeners alike. Some of it was a little bit overblown, but in the case of much of the music, it was absolutely spot on.

NICK DERISO: Did it take growing older, and accumulating more experiences, before you felt compelled to return to Gerald Bostock and Thick as a Brick? There’s so much within the sequel about life choices, and roads not taken .
IAN ANDERSON: In 2010, we had some of the inevitable remixing and remastering of the original Thick as a Brick album, and I thought about the possibility of playing it on stage and so that tossed out the possibility a sequel. When the eureka moment struck, it was late in 2010, based on the response to the simple question: Well, I wonder whatever happened to Gerald Bostock — the fictitious child poet who supposedly wrote the lyrics to Thick as a Brick in 1972? In response to that, I wrote down a number of possible scenarios as to what Gerald Bostock might be doing today. Rather than just pick one, I thought I’d pick six different outcomes to the young boy’s life and explore how he might have gotten to all of them. In that way, it’s a reference to the situation that we all face when growing up about making choices, and where we’re headed in life. Sometimes, we diligently think it through and apply ourselves to a thoughtful moment of life-changing decision making, other times fate, luck, or chance seem to make those decisions for us. That whimsical notion is what started me on writing what became the sequel. We recorded that in the back end of 2011, and we’ve been on tour pretty much since the release of that album in April of last year.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Jethro Tull's 'Aqualung' remains an album that’s simply bursting with strange, sometimes unsavory characters and blunt questions about faith and its earthly trappings.]

NICK DERISO: What’s next in the reissue series being overseen by Steven Wilson, which has also yielded a sparkling new anniversary edition of Aqualung?
IAN ANDERSON: There are actually three waiting in the wings for release, which Steven did last year. They’re all mastered and finished, and waiting to roll. The (1970) Benefit album comes out in October. Coming next in 2014 will be (1973′s) A Passion Play and Chateau d’Isaster Tapes (originally released as Disc 1 of Nightcap in 1993). That’s according to EMI, if they are still in business — which, of course, they won’t be. The material will be with Warner Bros. by then, and presumably they will honor the commitment to release it in remastered form. It would be silly not to, because there’s a profit margin in doing it, so I can be reasonably confident those things will see the light of day.

NICK DERISO: You’ve always had a problem, much like the members of Pink Floyd, with people thinking you are a person actually named Jethro Tull. I wondered if performing Thick as a Brick 2 as a solo act is only further blurring those lines.
IAN ANDERSON: It blurred the lines. But if it just said “Jethro Tull” on the tickets, people are going to come expecting to see the 20 best-known songs of Jethro Tull. Rather than disappoint those folks by then focusing on a more conceptual concert evening, I think it’s better to be more specific — even if it may blur lines or even confuse. I do try to spell out what it is people are going to see when they come to see the show. Of course, Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson — to a lot of people, they are one and the same thing. But I do think it’s important to let them know that this is very much a focused performance.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson remembers winning the heavy metal Grammy over Metallica to a shower of 'boos and hisses and gasps of disbelief.']

NICK DERISO: Are there plans write original work with Martin again?
IAN ANDERSON: There are actually no specific plans. He’s finishing the mastering of an album that he’s been working on. I haven’t heard it, but it’s what he’s devoted the last few months towards doing. He’s got quite a lot of dates lined up throughout the year. So, his projects — which we discussed back in 2010, I think — are reaching fruition, and I’ve set out to do some of my projects. When that’s done, we’ll consider the future, but I don’t have any plans right now to be recording another studio album with Martin Barre. He’s busy, and so I am, doing other stuff. We’ve been playing together for so many years that I think both of us probably feel — I would hope, understandably — that there are some things that you’ve got to sort out and do, while you still can. The worst possible scenario, really, is to sort of carry on doing repertoire — going out and doing that sort of repetitive thing until you die. It works for some folks, and they probably enjoy it, but some of us have the conviction that there is still unfinished business — while we still have our marbles and our musical expertise to go with it. (Chuckles.) I think fans will understand that it’s good that we are actually passionate about doing new things, and reinterpreting some old things — whatever it might be. The idea that you are sort of an old married couple that has to go on display? (Laughs.) Martin feels the same as I do: It’s nice to have a bit of a life of your own, and be recognized as an individual, rather than just as that bloke who plays guitar in Jethro Tull. It’s important to me, let alone him, that he’s recognized as an individual by name for his work over the years and his contributions to the sound of Jethro Tull. It’s good that he’s doing these things. I look forward to hearing the fruits of his efforts in the months to come.

NICK DERISO: You work with Martin on the original Thick as a Brick project was meant to poke fun at the era’s oft-derided prog-rock concept albums — a fact that was, unfortunately, lost by many. Were you disappointed that not everybody got the joke?
IAN ANDERSON: I think the fun of doing something like that is that you very deliberately try to create that bit of ambivalence. You’re not really spelling it out for people and making it too clear. It’s fun if they wonder. People have an endless fascination for imagination, and grasping impossible scenarios. They love the fantasy, the improbable. So, the idea of presenting a piece of music supposedly written by an eight-year-old boy — of course, it’s fanciful; of course, it’s ridiculous. People went along with it and, if they thought about it, they would I guess scratch their heads and wonder. But a lot of people just accepted it for what it was. They enjoyed it because they enjoyed the music and the words, without really analyzing it in any great depth. I don’t think you have to spell it out in 100 percent clear terms. It’s good to create a little of that kind of fantasy where you can’t really pin it down as to whether this is serious, funny, real, sad or a spoof. It’s all of those things. You try to make it work on more than one level. I guess if I’d been trying to pinpoint how I was hoping the outcome of that would be, it would be that 50 percent of the people who get the more humorous and surreal side of it, and 50 percent would take it for what it was without thinking too much. I suppose that’s the art of writing something like that. You make it not too clear, otherwise you’re taking away a lot of the fun for other people. You’re taking away the ‘I wonder what this really means’ kind of moment that makes stuff like that fun.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Jethro Tull's 'Thick As A Brick' ended up as one of the most distinctive prog albums ever — even as it tried to spoof the very idea.]

NICK DERISO: Much of that criticism of prog rock came from the American press, which has always fetishized the idea that rock ‘n’ roll must have an overt blues element in order to be authentic. The disconnect seemed to be with prog’s overtly European, or classical, influences.
IAN ANDERSON: Well, there was definitely a disconnect with ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine. They didn’t much like the Brits, whether it was Led Zeppelin or Yes or Jethro Tull, or whoever. ‘Rolling Stone,’ and quite understandably, is a celebration of things America. It played a vital part in the social context of being an alternative, news and current affairs publication — of being a more analytically, and grown up way, of looking at the evolving young American society. Of course, it featured a lot of music and, begrudgingly, did features on Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin too. But we were not the favorites, by any means. The editorial staff, I think, resented a little bit the British invasion. That’s the way that it was, for sure. A couple of other magazines around then took up what became around then a body-bruising instrument of torture, beating us over the head. The same thing was happening later, of course, in the UK — with the evolution in the 1970s towards punk, and a revival of very basic music forms. There was a backlash there against all of the blues-based and progressive rock-based music that had gone on a few years prior to that.

NICK DERISO: Were you surprised to see this backlash happen at home, as well?
IAN ANDERSON: It’s just part of what happens in the world. Allegiances change, tastes change. A new generation comes about and they want to listen to something that represents their growing years, not the stuff of their older siblings. It’s understandable. It didn’t particularly upset me. When the punk thing came about, it was in some ways quite a welcome return to basics. I went out and bought my own copy of the first Sex Pistols album, and the first Stranglers album, and I quite enjoyed them in a funny sort of way. It didn’t stop me from carrying on what I was going at the time. And many years later, the likes of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols admitted that they had actually been a bit of a Genesis and Jethro Tull fan all along! (Laughs.) It was just his way of coping with the theatrical side of the music — to embrace certain elements that would appear on the face of it to be very derisive, regarding the music that came before. In fact, Johnny Rotten definitely learned something from the presentation side. I’m not suggesting he was the Peter Gabriel of punk, but Johnny Rotten knew how from a theatrical point of view and a presentation point of view how to wind people up, how to put across an image, how to sell himself through body language. Johnny Rotten’s stance on stage was very reminiscent of the character on the cover of Aqualung — which he later on mentioned as one of his favorite albums, and a seminal piece of music that he grew up listening to. We’re all influenced by stuff, even if we don’t necessarily want to admit it at the time. It’s all part of the jigsaw that makes up 50 years of rock and pop, which we should all be quite proud of.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Well after Ian Anderson came to fame with Jethro Tull, he discovered he had been playing the flute 'embarrassingly wrong'.]

NICK DERISO: Do you see those days returning, when outsized personalities will be furiously vying for the heart of rock, as we saw during the prog-vs.-punk era?
IAN ANDERSON: I have to say that I think, these days, we’re wrong in expecting revolutionary, new changes in popular music forms. I think that’s a thing that people really have a bee in their bonnets about, always wanting to somehow raise the next pop group to the standards of something like the Beatles. Of course, we were there at a time when that stuff happened. It’s not going to happen again. Like it’s not going to happen again that there’s another Charlie Parker. It’s not going to happen again that there’s another Mozart or Beethoven. These things have moved on. To somehow imagine that we are going to have some kind of heavy new rock or pop music form that equals or surpasses the Beatles or indeed the rock bands of the 1970s, or ’80s or ’90s, I think that’s a mistake to think that that’s going to happen. We live in a world of reinvention, of reinterpretation. Out there, there’s a bunch of guys playing generic pop and rock music — all of which owes a great deal to what’s gone on before. Very rarely does anybody manage to put a stamp of originality on what they do. It’s not their fault. There’s just not a busting amount left to do that hasn’t been done before. It’s a lot tougher these days to be original in the world of rock and pop music than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when you could just conjure up a few notes and find a way to play them in a way that no one had ever done before. That’s impossible to do now.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

One Comment

  1. Maria Carr says:

    Will he be touring in Australia at all? I saw him when he performed at the Byron Bay Bluesfest a couple of years ago and would love to see him again.

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