The Ian Anderson Interview
As much as he has tried to distance himself from the very idea, Ian Anderson is once again treading the conceptual waters. For 2012’s Thick As A Brick 2, he resurrected the original piece’s protagonist Gerald Bostock in the modern age as a man of the times, exploiting capitalism, fighting wars and succumbing to an ordinary life, leaving the what-ifs, maybes and might-have-beens at the door. The story beyond TAAB2 is that Bostock became Anderson’s road manager (!) and the itch to write got under his skin. This likely pertains to both Bostock and Anderson.
Anderson was “approached” by Bostock with lyrics for a new album project. In this instance, the precocious poet’s lyrics are based upon the explorations of Ernest “Teddy” Parritt, a colonel in the British Army who had served extensively in India in the early 20th century. Even with Bostock’s “involvement,” Homo Erraticus is not a third installment in the Thick As A Brick saga. That and other topics such as touring plans to promote the new album, upcoming Jethro Tull reissues, and the Grammy the group won in the 80s fill my fifth interview in 12 years with Ian Anderson. As always, he was forthright, witty, detailed and entertaining in his views on a most extraordinary musical career.
I guess at the top of the agenda this year is your new album, Homo Erraticus. You’ve been touring so actively behind Thick As A Brick 2 for the past year, how did you find time to work on this one?
It was written at the very beginning of 2013, when we had a little break for Christmas and New Year, so the first of January 2013, at exactly 9:00 in the morning, I went out, as I promised myself I would, to start work on a new project. But, again, I promised myself I would go into that process with a completely empty head, without any preconceived ideas about what I was going to write. You know, by lunchtime I had a little theme, which became a recurring instrumental theme throughout the album, and beginnings of the first song in terms of generals of melodies and chords. By the next day I had some lyrics and the day after that I had the conceptual bullet points, if you like, for the whole record. And I just then worked on for about two or three weeks to complete the project, writing usually for three or four hours every day and always in the morning.
How did Gerald Bostock become involved?
The back-story is that he, having left his temporary employment as tour manager back in 2012, decided to do some writing and stumbled upon an old book in the village library, which detailed the ramblings of a malaria-ridden British colonel in the 1920s. And Gerald decided to take those words from an unpublished book and reconstruct them as lyrics for a rock album. That’s the back-story.
To be clear, this is not Thick As A Brick 3, or in the parlance of our times, Thick As A Brick In 3-D or anything like that. This is a completely different thing than Thick As A Brick, but you are using Gerald Bostock as the lyricist. That’s the connection, right?
That’s the connection, yes. It’s not part three of a trilogy. It’s simply that I think sometimes when writers write they have some characters that they maybe bring back in to another story or another context. They’re like old friends dropping in for a cup of tea, but they don’t necessarily have to overstay their welcome or dominate the procedure. So Gerald is just a writer’s device; something for continuity, an old friend that the fans can recognize, even though he’s now middle-aged and a big cranky.
The story goes that Homo Erraticus is based on these unpublished manuscripts by amateur historian Ernest T. Parritt, and he examines these key events — I’m reading this from a press release — of British history with a string of prophecies, stretching to the current day and the future. I mean, there’s a lot going on here. Basically you have it broken down into Chronicles, Prophecies and Revelations. I’m just wondering — are Parritt’s writings, and conversely Bostock’s lyrics, are they a reflection of any sort of philosophy or set of beliefs?
They most certainly are. They’re a reflection of his way of looking at things. But he doesn’t speak for me. He is a man with his own opinion. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it…I mean, again, this is a writer’s tool. He’s a character that I can use to say things that perhaps I wouldn’t say, whether I believe in the same things or not; it would be inappropriate. If you’re writing rock music, lyrics, and you start sounding as if you’re preaching to people or presenting something from a viewpoint that may cause people to think you’re a little bit too clever, then I can suitably disguise these words as the words of Gerald Bostock. That’s what he’s there for. He’s an alter ego that doesn’t really have to be either a reflection of me or indeed someone who perhaps is credible as a real person, because of course, he’s fiction.
So, what exactly is the message behind Homo Erraticus?
It’s the story of all of us. We are the hunter-gatherers, and we’ve been for thousands of years. We go where the grass is greener; where there’s better opportunity to better ourselves. We go in search of the woolly mammoth. We have to feed our starving women and children on the barge. We go where the work is; where the game is. The woolly mammoth for our hunter-gatherer ancestors was the real woolly mammoth to be found in central Europe or even as far northwest as the British Isles after the recession of the last Ice Age. Maybe the woolly mammoth in Victorian times was to be found in India. The East India empire that was built around the trading was an expansion of Britain’s trading fortunes, where people went where opportunities existed to make money, to succeed, to achieve things. The woolly mammoths, if you were wearing tight trousers and had long hair in 1969, and you went into New York and your name was Led Zeppelin, then the woolly mammoth was the U.S. rock audience you seduced, pillaged and plundered. The woolly mammoth is different things for all of us. But we are essentially hunter-gatherers.
Immigration in your country and mine and all the countries of the Western world is a hot political potato, and one that I think people need to be thoughtful about, educated about, and decide how best to balance the requirements to be hospitable, to be human, to be welcoming, to be moralistic with the reality, which is growing year by year, certainly decade by decade, when for many people in many countries they are going to have to put up a sign that says, “No room at the inn. No vacancies.” And the displacements of populations in years to come is the result of inevitable climate change. If you have to be in deniable about it, I can only suggest you take a strong aspirin and just sit in front of the television and pretend it’s not happening. But if you want to consider the long-term realities of huge numbers of people moving wherever they can at great cost to themselves in terms of money and risk to life, they’re going to go where they think they have the better chance. That of course is happening already across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, where migrants sail and possibly sail the dangerous boats to get over to Italy or anywhere they can land, and hopefully be not sent back. It’s happening now. Imagine a scenario 50 years or 100 years from now, where it’s not just a boat with 50 people on, but perhaps 50 boats with 100 people on, every day. It’s going to be a very, very difficult scenario, and people are going to have an enormous moral dilemma to face when they consider what they can and ought to do. But you’re OK, you’ve just got Mexicans and the Canadians to worry about.
Basically, it’s about survival then. Is that putting it too simply?
If you’re trying to find your own woolly mammoth and somebody stands in your way, you’re going to stand on heads to get your share of what’s out there. We are a pretty brutal species. And you know, we don’t exactly have a great track record about being gentle and understanding when we march in on somebody else’s territory. Maybe one day we feel a little bit guilty and let them build some casinos.
Yeah, no kidding. I noticed that Ryan O’Donnell is singing a few lines on the record and when I saw the Thick As A Brick 2 shows in 2012 and 2013, I surmised the reason you had him on stage was to allow you to play more flute, perhaps hit some of those higher vocal notes that you can’t hit anymore, and, of course, bring the whole theatrical aspect to the show. But having him on the record is altogether a different issue. I take it you like having a second voice in the music. Is that correct?
There are certain songs, I have to say, that I don’t really enjoy; one or two of them slipped into this particular projected set list for this year. And those are songs I will give him a prominent role in because I find it quite annoying. I don’t want to mention names, but there’s one or two songs that I feel — I know they’re very popular with audiences — and we haven’t played in well, hardly ever. There are one or two of those, and I think, “Well, OK, let’s see how Ryan works out.” He might enjoy singing them and the audience might enjoy hearing them, and I’ll just play flute parts and sing a few lines here and there to keep him company. That’s one way of dealing with the situation. The other thing is that, as a theatrical performer, he brings another element visually to the show. But in order to justify that, obviously I’ve got to give him a bunch of lines to sing. So when he performs on stage with us in this coming year, he’ll be singing quite a few lines that he doesn’t sing on the new record as well as some of the “best of” Jethro Tull material in the second half. So the new material I’m trying to be, you know, fair to him and give him some stuff to do. But on the record, just in a way, prepare people for that. Whet their appetite a little bit — he sang a few lines on four or five songs.
And you’re also doing a few spoken word passages on Homo Erraticus as you did on Thick As A Brick 2, for which in my opinion you are more than well qualified. Have you ever read books on tape as a sideline or done spoken word poetry shows or anything like that?
It’s something that I have to do from time to time. I do use spoken word in a radio broadcast or in voiceovers for documentaries. I mean, I’ve been asked to do that a few times. It’s not something I make a living out of; I just do it for fun once in a while. But the spoken word is the language of conveyance that I’m using right now. It’s the way that I put across ideas and thoughts and notions, which can either be improvised or they can be scripted. Right now, as we do this interview, you can tell probably from the sound of my voice and the articulation of my speech that everything is very, very carefully scripted indeed. And you just happen to be asking the right questions.
I’m glad that’s working out.
I would love to see one of the documentaries you do a voiceover for because I’m sure it would make the documentary all that much better. I was looking at your touring schedule that you have coming up here — you start in the U.K. in late April, and you’re going to be covering Europe through the summer. You’ve got a few dates over here in America. I see the closest one to me is in Oakland — hopefully you’ll add an LA date — and that’s in early fall. Then you’ll be back in Europe till the end of the year. Now will you be adding more dates as you go on? How’s this all going to unfold?
We have a whole bunch of dates in the U.S.A. in September, October and November, and some of them are on the website and most of them are appearing — well, quite a few go up this coming week.
What can you tell me about the show itself that you’re taking out on the road this year?
It’s a concert in two halves, with an intermission, as we did with the Thick As A Brick tours. There are certain elements of last year’s, the last two years, of touring, which we’re following on with in terms of it having a certain form, which seems to work and I think the audience will kind of like the fact that it’s, the ones who went to those shows, they’re seeing something new in terms of all new material but it has a certain kind of a structure to it which they will recognize. The video material is more abstract in a sense of context for music. Sometimes it is more illustrative of the music and that will apply to the second half of the show, which is the “best of” part of the show, mostly my favorites, apart from one or two that I don’t like very much. But at least I’m being honest with you. I don’t mind playing them; the bit that I don’t like, unfortunately, is the lyrics. I’ll tell you one of them — it’s called “Teacher.” A lot of fans in America, they really like the song “Teacher.” The problem is, the problem is for me, that my manager back then, Terry Ellis, was convinced I’d written this song about him. And in spite of the fact that I said, “No Terry, it’s not about you at all, it’s just about some fictitious creepy guru-like character who wants to manipulate the vulnerability and gullibility of people who fall into the clutches of manipulative personal gurus who want to teach them.” I said, “It’s not about you at all.” But he was convinced it was about him. I don’t know why he got that into his head. But he wouldn’t accept my protestations to the contrary. He was convinced it was a song about him. And that just kind of really worried me because I thought, “Golly, if he thinks this, what do other people make of it?” And so forever, this song was just one that I really didn’t like. I mean, I know we recorded it twice — we did two different versions of it — one for the U.S.A., one for the U.K. But I think, well we may well have played it but it certainly never featured extensively in any tours, and if it did it was probably only in the first … probably back in 1970 or something. It’s a song that none of our fans have heard before, but I’m aware it’s a popular song. And it’s got some good kind of instrumental stuff in the middle, some nice flute-y things, some keyboard things, some guitar things, so that bit I’m going to enjoy. It’s just the lyrics that I squirm over. I will mumble them into my fears.
You have visions of Terry Ellis every time you sing it?
I have suspicions in the way that people kind of take possession of a piece of music and, of course, people do that with songs, even with my songs. I get letters sometimes from people in prison or even in a mental institution saying, “I know you wrote this song for me.” And people do, even in the less mentally challenged arenas of life, do believe, they associate with a particular song. They know I didn’t write it for them, but it speaks for them. And so I’m aware that that happens, but when you get that coming to you from somebody that you have a very strong, personal relationship with — and I do to this day with Terry Ellis. He’s an old friend and, happily, more so again in the last couple of years. I just find those sort of things a little awkward, because they do touch a personal nerve, as it were, and I don’t feel comfortable when I think that someone has come to believe that this is really their song. I mean, it’s not happened to me, I don’t think, with other people that I know. Except in maybe one or two occasions … where I’m probably singing about my relationship with my wife, but it’s only in fairly general terms and usually focusing on some other aspect of domestic life. I’m sure she knows that those things are about her, but we don’t talk about it. We don’t need to. They go unsaid.
In my review of Thick As A Brick 2, I said it was probably my most favorite record you’ve done in 25 years. And it got me to thinking — have you considered revisiting other past concept pieces you did with Jetro Tull, like A Passion Play or War Child or either one of those, for example?
There are some little snippets of A Passion Play in the new set list, in the best of area, which we, again, haven’t played in 30, 40 years or something like that. A little bit of (A) Passion Play sneaks in there, and there is a possibility of something from the War Child album, but I just can’t fit in every album. I can’t fit in one song from every album into a one-hour set; it’s impossible because we have so many albums and so many songs — some of which I guess warrants there being more than one song from a given album, like “Aqualung,” “My God,” “Locomotive Breath.” That’s three, for a start, from one album. The other albums, from This Was through Stand Up through Benefit through Aqualung through — Thick As A Brick I leave out because we just had two years of doing it — a little bit from A Passion Play, some stuff from, possibly from War Child, and we move on to Minstrel In The Gallery maybe has one, but probably that won’t happen, then Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll, the title track from there, the title track from Songs From the Wood, and we go into probably taking a jump then to the Crest O f A Knave era. And then after that, probably we’ve run out of time. So I don’t really go into the 90s with any of the vinyl albums recorded simply under the name Jethro Tull. But it’s always possible; you never know. The thing about the best of set list, although there has to be an accompanying set list, we will start off with something in the U.K., and it may well be that by the time we get to the U.S.A. we’ve changed a couple of the songs and originated some new video material to illustrate those. So the set list doesn’t have to be exactly the same every night.
Actually, what I meant when I brought up those two albums was if you ever considered doing sequels to those, since they’re both conceptual pieces.
Oh I see what you mean. No. No.
I read on your website that War Child and A Passion Play had a connection and there was talk of a movie with a screenplay. I was just wondering if that was anything you had every considered revisiting and finishing up.
There is another connection, which is the mysterious Chateau d’Isaster tapes, and when A Passion Play is released as a big box set later this year, June I think it is, then that comes out in a big new glossy edition complete with a bit of music that wasn’t on the original album and also all of the Chateau d’Isaster tapes as they were recorded, because that was a whole double album, a whole double album that wasn’t released.
Is Steven Wilson involved in that?
Yeah, he did the remixing of that last year, so we’re just finishing up the artwork right at this moment, with the Warren brothers, who inherited the EMI projects, so that’s on schedule for release this year.
So this will be a 5.1 mix of A Passion Play?
It will indeed.
I love what Steven Wilson has done with your stuff. I think Aqualung is one of the best 5.1 mixes I’ve heard, and I listen to a lot of them. Will he, after A Passion Play, be going into other titles as well?
I believe he’s indicated a willingness to do War Child. I think he’s on the cusp sometime soon.
That’s one of my favorite albums by you. What about a 5.1 mix of Homo Erraticus? Is he going to do that as well?
Well that’s already being done. We have four different formats of Homo Erraticus to be released. There is a simple CD and a jewel box, you know, in a plastic case; there’s the CD plus DVD, which contains the 5.1 surround, the 24-bit stereo master and some video of the making of the album; then there’s the double vinyl set that contains Homo Erraticus as two separate vinyl records split between four sides; and then finally there is the 64-page coffee table special collector’s book, which contains two DVDs and two CDs. So it contains the original demos that I made in a hotel room in Barbados in March 2013 as well as also spoken word interview material of the band reflecting on their recording the day they first heard the tracks when I took them to play them the not quite finalized mixes, but the first time they heard the finished work and we recorded comments — suitably edited down because it lasted for nearly three hours, so they had to get it down to about 40 minutes. There’s a whole lot of stuff there for the fans. Some of it’s a bit anal, like the hotel demos, is a bit like watching me in the shower. You know, it’s pretty embarrassing stuff. It’s the way that I outline these songs for the guys in the band and send them back from my holiday as MP3 files over the Internet, and it was my, just by sending copies of the lyrics and the chord sheets and these little sketchy demos that I made. So I thought it might be fun for people to hear that. And not many people do get to see me in the shower. This is the chance to get up close and personal and see me lathering my gonads in the musical sense, I mean.
(Laughs) That’s good to know.
That makes it OK.
This is your second solo album in three years, which leads to the inevitable question — and that is: Is Jethro Tull, as a working band, done and over with?
Jethro Tull as a band is 28 different people in the last editions of Jethro Tull where the guys are playing with me now on stage. With the exception of Ryan O’Donnell, the other four musicians have all played as members simply of Jethro Tull. It’s being called Jethro Tull, so they’re as Jethro Tull as anybody else. And arguably the time that David Goodier and John O’Hara have been playing in Jethro Tull probably is, from memory, almost the longest of any player to play with Jethro Tull. I think Doane Perry, after obviously Martin Barre, but Doane Perry as drummer, he had a long stint. And Andrew Giddings had quite a long time playing keyboards. But after those come David Goodier and John O’Hara, and, of course, Florian Opahle has been playing with me for about 11 or 12 years now, and Scott Hammond has been playing with me for about four years now. So these are guys that are part of a regular touring band.
To me, Jethro Tull is, historically speaking, a band of many, many different people, all of whom I think have played a very important part in the band. But in a way, what it means to me most is repertoire. Jethro Tull is the repertoire that I have written, arranged, recorded, produced, mixed, engineered in many cases, as well as having some played the flute and the guitar and the all rest of it. So to me, it’s repertoire, most of which I’m very proud. And that is where I think I see the Jethro Tull identity out there in the world. I’m sure you’ve read, as many people will have read, for many years, my expression of regret that we were named after a dead guy by our agent back in 1968 is my personal shame and embarrassment because I didn’t know that that was the case until a couple of weeks later because I didn’t pay attention in history class in school, which is why I resolved in later years that I should try and brush up on my history. If you do a Google search on Jethro Tull, you’ll find Jethro Tull, the inventor of the seed drill, the 17th century agriculturalist, he rates only once in the top 10 Google searches and it’s at No. 3. I feel a little bad about that. I think in a way, after all these years, it’s really time that he should come top of the list really, not that that’ll happen in our lifetime, let alone his. I just think, it’s kind of a mark of respect for me to say, “Hey, thanks for letting me steal your name and identity,” but in a way it’s kind of time to pass the respect back to him, which is why, as I’m doing to you now, I’m making these expressions of regret and a little shame. I think, in a way, if we were named after a lot of other dead guys it probably wouldn’t have been as bad. We could have been called Admiral Nelson; we could have been called Genghis Khan because it actually was a prog rock band in Hungary, called Gengis Khan back in the ’70s. Uriah Heep — there’s another appropriation of a name, albeit a fictitious character name from a Dickens’ novel. But these are the kinds of names you should feel a little squirmy about because they are just a knock-off. They are just a rip-off. It’s, you know, for 45 years I’ve been playing in the musical equivalent of a fake Rolex. It’s a knock-off. It’s a knock-off, and I should be rapped over the knuckles for startling unoriginality and laziness for not paying attention in history class.
In short, to answer your question, essentially no. I don’t see there being an album released simply called Jethro Tull, unless it’s of material already recorded. But there will be a Jethro Tull album released later this year or early next year, but it’s an album of music of classic Jethro Tull repertoire played by five people — but not five Jethro Tull members. It’s a string quartet and me. And so that is a Jethro Tull album because the repertoire is all Jethro Tull. Well, a couple of his pieces by J.S. Bach, but you know, nothing in Jethro Tull fashion. So there we have the way in which Jethro Tull continues to live to this day, but it is with existing material, which is being released under the Jethro Tull band. I think it’s safe to say that any new material that I write from here until my doomsday, you know, is probably going to be released under my own name rather than simply the name Jethro Tull.
We spoke a couple years ago and you told me you were having your Roger Waters moment by kind of stepping away from the whole Jethro Tull thing. And the way you’ve explained it, I can completely understand. I actually got into an argument with a guy in high school who claimed your name was Jethro Tull, which I’m sure you’ve heard many times over the years — people calling you Jethro Tull, which must have been a bit of a pain. So I guess if you’d had your druthers, would it have been called Ian Anderson Band or something like that?
It was actually called Ian Henderson’s Bag of Blues back in … that was probably the name; either that or Navy Blue. Navy Blue or Ian Henderson’s Bag of Blues. Henderson, not Anderson — they misprinted my name on the billboard outside the club we were playing at. But yes, that was just before. That was the week before we became Jethro Tull. So yes, some of these things were a bit embarrassing.
Are you currently in touch with Martin Barre or Doane Perry at all? Are you talking to them at all?
Oh, I’m in regular touch with Doane Perry because he answers my emails. The last email I sent to Martin Barre asking him to help with some identification of some band members or some people that were in a video with us back in the ’70s, I didn’t get a reply. It’s not that he never replies, but Martin’s always been sort of bad with communication, which is just not his strong point. And unfortunately, other people say the same. They send him emails and they go into a black hole. He’s always been a bit that way. You know, he gets rammed — sometimes he replies if he feels like it; otherwise, he pretends he hasn’t got it. So I’m not in regular touch with Martin at all, but I keep in touch with him via other people and in terms of what he’s been doing and, of course, on his website.
Whenever possible, we try to make a point of featuring Martin and what he’s doing in terms of … for instance, if I’m doing interviews, or we put stuff, links on our website to Martin Barre’s website, things from his new album, and so on and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, all the members of Jethro Tull, including Martin, they should feel that they can use the Jethro Tull website by simply making a phone call or sending an email to me or one or two other people that they can approach to say, “Hey, any chance you could mention my tour or this track I’ve just played on,” or whatever it might be. And from time to time, we do exactly that with Jethro Tull band members, as well as some of the special guests that I’ve had on shows and tours. We make a point of being friendly. The Jethro Tull website is there to serve our friends and family in the sense of musicians, and that’s the way it should be. And of course, Martin Barre should be top of the list in regards to that.
You do a wonderful job with your website. I know you got on the whole dot com wagon pretty early on, and I was reading all the bios of past members, so I commend you for that. I’m sure you know the Grammys were on recently, and along with all the usual hullaballoo, is the inevitable article about Jethro Tull taking the Grammy away from Metallica back in 1981. First of all, after 25 years, you must be tired of hearing this, but secondly — I’m just curious — have you and the members of Metallica ever sat down and just had a giggle about the whole thing?
I’ve never actually met any of the members of Metallica, so I can’t really comment on that one at all there. As it so often happens, your paths just don’t cross. And Metallica being from the world of heavy metal and doing the things that they do, we’ve never been on the same lineup together on a festival or anything like that, so I’ve just never come across the guys. I’ve listened to their music, watched them on video, paid quite a bit of attention to what they do. In a way, they and Black Sabbath, a generation apart, they epitomize the essence of heavy metal. I think they really are the sort of the top of the tree, of that music genre. In terms of musical and songwriting excellence as well; it’s not just about being louder or darker than other people. It’s about coming out with some good songs and being able to play them pretty well. So therein lies the strength of Sabbath too. They weren’t the world’s greatest musicians, but they were very effective musicians in putting across a genre with huge authority and having some pretty good songs, and that’s the same deal for Metallica. So sure, Metallica, I have a lot and admiration for them. But it’s not really my kind of music.
I still think you deserved the Grammy and I’m personally glad you won it. We talked about this before and you told me you were just happy to get the Grammy, and if there was no other way for you to get it, then why not.
Well, that’s right. If they decide to have any more new Grammy categories, which of course, there seems to be a bewildering array of, then I’ll only continue to hope against hope that one day I’ll find out there’s a new category in the Grammy Awards for Best One-legged Flute Player. At which point, I’m in with a chance.
I would say that you have a really good chance at that. And you should actually go that year that that category comes up.
Hey, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.