Wond'ring Aloud: A Conversation with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson
As the creative mastermind behind Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson is often considered one of the most distinct musicians of the past 50 years.
As the creative mastermind behind legendary [folk] [progressive] [classic] rock outfit Jethro Tull, vocalist/songwriter/flautist/guitarist Ian Anderson is often considered one of the most influential, important, and distinct musicians of the past 50 years. Indeed, many of his songs, including “Aqualung”, “Locomotive Breath”, “Bungle in the Jungle”, “Minstrel in the Gallery”, and “Songs from the Wood”, have become staples of the era, celebrated by countless fans over the last several decades. In addition, his lengthy, intricate epics, such as Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, and “Baker Street Muse”, showcase a level of musical genius unmatched by most peers or successors.
This past April, Anderson released his remarkable sixth solo effort, Homo Erraticus; in addition, he and Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, no-man) just put out a robust special edition of A Passion Play. We recently spoke with Anderson about both records, the difficulties of modern recording, and his outlook on music both past and present.
The new album involves Gerald Bostock, which makes me think that it connects to Thick as a Brick in some way.
Well, only very loosely. The Gerald Bostock character is a nom de plume, like an alter ego who gets to express opinions and thoughts that aren’t mine. He’s a writer’s device, a writer’s tool. It’s what we do, we writers, don’t we? So there you go. He’s just a connection for the fans; a bit of continuity that gives the album a position relative to previous efforts, but he’s not part of the story as such. He’s just a conduit.
Oh, okay. I noticed that this release, as well as Thick as a Brick 2, features a few spoken word passages. What made you decide to include them?
When I write words, they convey rhythm and cadence even before they find a melody. They still imply something to me that makes melody writing fairly easy. Sometimes I choose to leave things spoken because spoken language can also have its rhythm and cadence. It’s not poetry or theatre, and I’m not an actor, but I think that sometimes spoken word has solemnity and a point of theatricality depending on how you deliver it on stage.
I agree. So where do your concepts come from? How do you get your inspiration?
I started writing Homo Erraticus at 9:00AM on January 1st, 2013, and I deliberately had no ideas in my head about where to go besides an instrumental bit of introductory music. After lunch, it led me to a melody and a chorus and the title “Doggerland”. I just wanted to write about the Doggerlands because nobody else had (laughs).
The next day I asked myself, “What am I doing? What’s the way that this can naturally evolve?” and I decided to explore migration in a broad way. First was the movement of people and then the movement of ideas, which is the story of all of us. Not only did we specifically migrate to greener pastures for sustenance, wealth, and fortune, but we also migrate our aesthetics.
That’s very profound. I wonder how complete the music is by the time you bring it to the band. Do you create detailed demos for them to model, or does everyone try to contribute equally to a group effort?
I put the detail into the demos that I sent them back in March of 2013, with all the lyrics and instrumental passages, and the verses and chorus, too. The key elements, I guess. I give them a basic template and allow them to fill in their thoughts in terms of, you know, inversions of chords and leading notes. It’s a bit like giving people a bunch of dots to put together, and they can join them together in a way that gives them some personal input. For example, the bass player has to work to produce a certain continuity and flow.
We tend to sketch out the piece during the first hour of rehearsal and then put flesh on the bones. That’s in coordination with the players; sometimes I don’t have to tell them to do anything or agonize over harmonies and the specifics of what they play. It all has to go together, so there’s always a need to alter parts to make sure that we don’t have too much compounding of unison notes. We try to choose the harmonies intelligently so that they aren’t always rich and clever; they can be ambiguous and open.
It sounds like a very intricate and meticulous process.
Yes. We might want to avoid the major third if we don’t want it to sound happy and cheerful, so there’s some ambiguity with using an open fifth or by adding a ninth or a sixth or a seventh. We’re avoiding that major or minor third that dictates a certain mood in Western music. Those are the sort of things that we have to figure out to see what works best.
You’ve released two albums within the last couple years, but prior to those you haven’t released any solo work in quite some time. Where did this sudden burst of productivity come from?
Part of it was logistics; for most of the '90s and the early part of this millennium, [Jethro Tull’s] drummer, Doare Perry, was based in Los Angeles, so getting him over just to do a quick recording or some one-off concerts in Europe was really impractical. Traveling several thousand miles repeatedly can be quite a grind, as well as very expensive¸ so it was best to put it by the wayside for a while. We thought it was easier for him to send his parts over as digital files, but that’s not always the best way to work since you can’t be in the same room with the other musicians.
Really, I wanted to wait until I had a UK-based drummer to work with and felt comfortable with, and Scott Hammond, who’s been on the past three or four years of work, is certainly more easily available since he lives in Bristol, which is only an hour’s drive from where I live and work. Having musicians close to home makes life easier for recording.
That’s a good point.
The other reason, I suppose, is that, considering my age, it’s probably better to crank on through these bigger projects while I still have the energy and most of my marbles [laughs]. It’s still quite important to focus on that stuff.
They say that people who are involved in artistic pursuits—well, not that they necessarily live longer but that they live with a longer span of productive brain activity. We’re less likely to fall prey to outside factors and general senility because we keep our brains going. Musicians and painters and playwrights and actors don’t have to give up as they get older like some people do, such as people in sports.
We can have a longer professional lifespan, but we still need very finely tuned senses and memories and abilities to communicate. Those are the things that we keep alive as long as possible.
Exactly. It’s crucial to the survival of an artist. I’ve noticed that like many musicians in the field, you’ve avoided the “progressive rock” tag for many years, yet you seem to embrace it now. Why?
Well, progressive rock is what we began doing, according to the definition that began around 1969. It’s a good enough name for music that draws upon other backgrounds and influences and steps outside traditional American rock 'n' roll and blues. It’s a good enough title; I was perfectly happy being referred to as a “progressive rock musician” back then.
But around 1972, it became shortened to “prog rock” and a rather negative attitude quickly got attached to it. Journalists were quick to mock it, and it did eventually get above its station. It got a little bit too pompous and self-indulgent and arrogant with bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I suppose they spearheaded that road to oblivion, but I think that Jethro Tull was a bit more rough and ready and less, well, precious than some of the others.
That’s a wonderful distinction between the two terms.
Of course, around ’72 and ’73 I did very deliberately try to enter that fray, so the music became more involved and detailed and highly-arranged. Some of it worked quite well, but then some of it didn’t. Perhaps it was too dense or too busy.
So I don’t think I am “prog rock”, although sometimes I jokingly refer to myself having “prog” credentials. I think that “progressive rock” is a more fitting title for what I do; it’s looser in its interpretation, and of course the alternative is “folk rock”, which has also been attached to Jethro Tull over the years. I occasionally write music that you might find is strongly influenced by folk, but it’s not by any means the norm. It doesn’t come close to occupying the majority of the music I’ve written over the years.
There’s definitely a negative connotation associated with the “prog” category. I’m glad you brought up your work in the early ‘70s, as I’ve always wanted to discuss with you what I, like many fans, feel is your greatest achievement yet: A Passion Play. It didn’t receive as strong a response as its predecessor, Thick as a Brick, so I wonder if you think that it was too ahead of its time?
Probably not, no. I think it was maybe too dense or demanding for some people, but I think it was ultimately very satisfying for people who like to listen in a very attuned and intent way. Casual listeners may’ve found it to just be a welter of noise and detail. My mistake with it was that I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me by including so much detail and density in the arrangements.
If I was to write that music today, I’d probably ease up on a few elements. At the time we, and especially our drummer, Barriemore Barlow, found it difficult to play that sort of straightaway music. He liked to cram every bar with as many odd phrases as possible, and it all tended to get a little busy. As a producer, I should’ve been more forward about keeping it more direct and simple. You work with the musicians you work with, and sometimes I was at fault but then they could be equally culpable [laughs] with the parts they play.
Have you noticed that the reception to it has changed significantly since it was released?
Oh, I think that for some people it’s become easier to grow into, but I do often joke about how the more anal Jethro Tull fans like to claim A Passion Play as, you know, the best thing ever and they wear that statement like a badge of honor. It’s like they’re saying, “I like this so I’m more of a fan.” I certainly don’t think that those who like that record above all the others are more loyal or better or educated; it’s just their taste.
I’m more than happy with anyone who likes any of my work, even if their choice is something that I think is a little too simplistic and obvious or if it’s something very detailed and complex. Everyone has their own tastes. At the time I wrote it and arranged it and recorded it, I thought it was pretty good, so I’m pleased if others enjoy it, too.
I do wonder, though, if, had the reception to A Passion Play been more favorable, the next album would’ve still been War Child as it is today.
The next album was a bit of a follow-up in the sense that there was some common element that had been touched upon. Not so much in A Passion Play, but there was a movement I wrote that was based around A Passion Play and some elements of that found their way into War Child, as did a couple of pieces of music which were recorded for the precursor to A Passion Play, which was an album we attempted to make in France. It was recorded at the Château d'Hérouville in Paris.
Due to a number of reasons, it was eventually remixed and remastered into a new set with A Passion Play. It’s commonly been referred to as "The Chateau d'Isaster Tapes", I believe. Steven Wilson worked on it.
That’s also what prompted me to ask you about it. Over the years, Wilson has become a household name in the realm of genre production, remasters, and remixes, and I wonder if there are any other albums of yours that he’s working on.
I believe that he’s going to work his way into a couple of other pieces. He’s quite busy as a musician, and he’s now increasingly sought after to do remixes of classic albums, so I would anticipate that there will come a time when he tells Warner Bros., who currently have the rights to the catalog, “I’m sorry but I’m a bit tied up. I’ll do it, but it can’t be for another year or two.” I hope he’ll be able to keep doing it, but I certainly wouldn’t want to put any personal pressure on him to do that.
We have another guy as well, Jakko Jakszyk, and he puts the same kind of effort into it. He’s done albums by King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for example. He’s actually serving as the lead singer and second guitarist of King Crimson now.
Oh, really? I think they’re working on a new album now.
Yes, and a tour.
Do you see any traces of your work on modern music?
Well, I don’t really try to trace my influence on anything. I don’t really listen to music very much, I have to say, unless I’m somehow engaged with it, be it my own music or someone else’s. Recently, for instance, I played flute on a piece of music for a friend of mine. I had to learn about that piece of music, not only by listening to the words and the way he phrased things, but to also listen to the original recording by Richard Harris. It’s a song called “Macarthur Park”. So I had to kind of get inside the head of the writers of that music and try to understand what was going on from the original orchestration. It varies quite a bit on this new version, though, and in that sense I’m a very serious and ardent listener, but as a casual listening-for-fun kind of guy, no I’m not a music guy.
I occasionally listen to some classical music or some blues or jazz once in a while, but it’s very rare. I don’t sit on airplanes or trains or buses or cars and listen to music, and I hate to hear music with a lot of other ambient sounds playing, so hearing those noises would make it very disagreeable. I need a good listening environment, like a quiet room, and in those instances I’m more likely to switch on the news, anyway.
That’s a common outlook on music from musicians, I think. They’re so busy working on their own material that they don’t have the time or interest for others’ work. So how have the changes in the music business over the last decade or so affected your motivation to create?
I suppose that never really goes away, at least partly. It depends on practical issues, like having the time to do it, the wherewithal to do it in the sense of being in the right place to sit down and work on new projects but then the process remains the same. I think that I’m just better and quicker at doing it these days because it’s something I’ve carried out so many times.
Writing songs becomes easier rather than more difficult, but it’s still a hugely concentrated and consuming effort. I don’t view it with trepidation, though. I’m not afraid of writer’s block. Not everything will be great, but it’s usually at least passable, so to write okay standards of music remains easy for me, but to write good music is still, as always, quite hard. I do my best and see if I can get there.