Interview with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull are a band that needs no introduction; and yet, not everyone realizes how prolific both Jethro Tull and their sure-footed frontman Ian Anderson have been over the years. With 21 studio albums, 8 live albums, and countless compilations and greatest hits collections, plus Anderson’s 5 already released solo albums (many of which featured members of Jethro Tull), Anderson has shown himself to be one of the most resilient musicians to come out of the progressive rock era. Incorporating a diversity of styles, including hard rock excess, progressive bombast, jazz, folk, and classical music, Celtic melodies, Middle Eastern flavors, and of course Anderson’s trademark flute stylings, Anderson and Jethro Tull have staked out a territory that is comfortingly familiar, yet uniquely their own.

40 years ago, Jethro Tull released their landmark album ‘Thick as a Brick.’ Written from the perspective of a fictitious 8-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock, the progressive rock masterpiece was in fact meant to be a parody of pretentious concept albums, but it was executed so artfully that it became a massive hit, influencing countless other artists. After years of turning down requests to make a sequel, Anderson has finally relented and created ‘Thick as a Brick 2.’ The album imagines what paths Gerald Bostock might have gone down in his life, and realizes them in grand fashion. Anderson is a man to whom compromise does not come naturally; ‘TAAB2’ reflects this, delivering an exacting artistic expression that could only be his.

Rock Edition was fortunate enough to get to speak with Ian Anderson about the new album and accompanying tour. Read on to find out more.

So, a lot of interviews today, eh?

Well, it’s that time of the year. With tours coming up and a new record coming out, my days are fairly filled for the next couple of months with the usual press and promo stuff. Wouldn’t you think, that in these days of the Internet, you could get that to work for you and take the place of a lot of the human interface. But in reality, whilst people will go visit websites and Facebook and all the rest of it, the personal touch is the thing that I guess most people want to hear and read.

It really is. I’ve tried doing interviews over email before, and it can work, but sometimes there’s no replacing having a real conversation.

Well, that’s it — it’s the nuance, isn’t it? Reading behind and between the lines makes it that much more fun for everybody.

Exactly. So is this new record a Jethro Tull album or an Ian Anderson album?

That’s usually not the first question — that usually comes about ten questions in to any interview these days. Frankly, it’s just not one of those things that I stop to think about. I’m so used to being out on tour as Ian Anderson, and still occasionally doing concerts as Jethro Tull, and it’s just — I have to look at the ticket stub and see what it says [in order] to know the difference. [laughs] From where I stand, I’m out there playing my music on a stage, doing what I always do. It’s not really an issue for me at all. If I’m going to make an album today, and it’s a really big project, a conceptual thing, and it’s got a lot of me in it, I don’t want to suggest that it’s a band effort. It’s my music. I suppose I’m having a little bit of a Roger Waters selfish moment, saying, “Well, this is my baby, and I want people to see my name on the cover!”

That’s fair enough. Wouldn’t part of the deciding factor be who records it with you and who backs you on stage?

Well, all the members of the band who play on this record have done concerts as members of Jethro Tull. Some of them have done a lot of concerts as Jethro Tull, because they’ve been playing in the Jethro Tull lineup for quite a few years. The noticeable difference, perhaps, from the perspective of someone reading the liner notes or whatever, [would be] that Martin Barre is not there. Last year, we talked at length about upcoming events, and Martin has got a bunch of other things he’s doing this year: playing with other people, going out on tour, and working on music for new recordings. We have our other projects that we do. The ‘Thick as a Brick’ thing is something that really does require one person to drive it on, in terms of the concept, the realization of it, the orchestrations, and the dynamics of the performance.

Of course, working with your fellow musicians is a really important part of it, and I’m very happy that the guys who recorded this with me are the instrumentalists that they are, because it’s a demanding piece to play. But, the essence of it is coming from me, and I don’t think, to be quite honest, that I could have made this record — it wouldn’t sound this way if I’d done it with some of the other musicians that have been a part of Jethro Tull over the years. Let’s be honest: some of them couldn’t have played it — [they] technically would not have been able to play it. Some of them would have struggled. Some of them just probably wouldn’t really have enjoyed it because it’s not their kind of thing. With Martin Barre, for example, he has a certain kind of music that he loves to play, and a bunch of the stuff that we have recorded together over the years, he doesn’t really feel a musical affiliation for, because he knows what he likes. It’s different if you’re writing a piece of music because the music has to be right, as opposed to writing music to impress or utilize your bandmates. There can be two different things. On this occasion, the music and the concept were the absolute driving forces, and I had to pick the musicians I felt would really be the right people to play it.

That makes sense.

That’s the way you do it. If you’re going into battle, you have to choose your fellow soldiers, don’t you?

Yes, you do. So, we may not know exactly what name will be on the front of the album, but we know it’s ‘Thick as a Brick 2.’

Well, you have seen the front of the cover if you’ve been to or You can go to either of those websites and see what the cover looks like. It is what it says; it says Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson plays ‘Thick as a Brick 2.’ That’s the simple message, and that’s what it will say on the ticket. For those people who may not recognize my name and need to be reminded that Jethro Tull is the entity that I have fronted all these years, then that information is there. But my name is bold and I feel that, as I say, it’s my baby and my project.

I understand. So it’s clearly a bit of a sequel to ‘Thick as a Brick.’ Tell me a little bit more about the concept behind it.

The concept began when I was yet again fending off the well-intended requests from record company type people who [would] say, “What about a sequel to ‘Thick as a Brick’?” I’ve been quite used to coming up with excuses over the years as to why that would not be a good idea. But when I was talking to a chap named Derek Shulman — he used to be the singer of a band called Gentle Giant in the ’70s, and he went on to become a record producer in the USA — he was trying to persuade me a couple of years ago to record a sequel to ‘Thick as a Brick.’ Over a few conversations we’d had, I’d gotten used to explaining that I wasn’t going to do that, until somehow the conversation we’d been having went on to just ponder on what would have happened to this little 8-year-old boy who’s the supposed lyric writer of the original ‘Thick as a Brick,’ and what would the St. Cleve Chronicle — the 16-page newspaper that formed part of the album cover — what would that be today? Then I started to get interested in it, thinking what might have happened to this little guy. What different paths might he possibly have taken in life, what would he be today, would he be a doctor, a dentist, a computer scientist, what would he be?

I decided to find a few possibilities and explore the characters. Not necessarily because it’s terribly important what a fictitious character does in life, but more because it was interesting coming up with the little pivotal moments that send people down this or that walk of life. [There are] so many little interventions that occur in everybody’s life that really change what’s going to happen. And I rather like the idea that perhaps somehow there is some fateful conclusion to life, where you kind of end up where you were going to be anyway. I don’t believe that, but I don’t disbelieve it either. It’s an intriguing intellectual proposition that, in spite of the myriad of events that befall us and cause us to deviate or change tack completely, maybe there is some fundamental pull that kind of takes us back to a certain inevitable conclusion. I like that. I don’t believe in God — I believe in possibilities and even probabilities, but I don’t feel compelled in a true believer’s sense. Same thing with issues to do with chance, karma, kismet, or whatever you want to call it: I don’t believe in it, but I’m intrigued by the possibility that it might be real.

I’m kind of using those notions as the concepts, so we see young Gerald develop as a soldier, as a corrupted evangelical priest, as a very ordinary man who runs a little corner shop and plays with his model trains. We see him as a despicable, selfish investment banker — who is obviously the subject of all of our anger and derision these days. We see him as a homeless rent boy, for whom life goes horribly wrong. I think the important thing is that we realize that all these extremes could happen to any of us! I know they could’ve to me, because I look back at my formative years, and there were radically different paths that I had in front of me, and I could have gone down any of them. But something stopped me, or changed my mind, or pushed me in a different direction. I rather like that idea, and we can apply that to probably everybody’s lives, and we can all look back and say, “That was the moment when I decided to do such-and-such, or became this or became that.”

[For instance], I wonder what would have really happened if I had become a policeman in Blackpool, when I went to sign on the dotted line as a police cadet at age 17, and they told me no. “We’ve got too many exam qualifications to be a police cadet. Go away and get a university degree, then come back and join the police force and we’ll give you a good job.” That’s what they told me, and they were probably quite right. So I didn’t become a policeman. And they didn’t let me get some work experience as an office boy in the local newspaper, because I went there fully wanting to be a journalist. Didn’t get that one either. I also worked in a shop, selling newspapers and magazines for a while. I could have become a shopkeeper! And, the moment when I first picked up a flute was just an absolutely chance moment, the sun coming through the window in a music shop when I was going to sell my 1960’s Fender Strat guitar to raise some money, because I had no money, and the sun fell on a shiny object on the wall, which sparkled and caught my attention. It was a flute hanging on the wall, and I just, on a whim, for no reason I could possibly explain, said, “Uh, if I give you the guitar, will you give me that flute and then whatever in the way of money?” And the guy said, “Yeah, 30 quid for the flute… 150 quid for the guitar…” So I walked out of the shop with a flute that I had no idea how to play, knew nothing about, and actually regretted it for about six months, because I thought, “I don’t know what to do with it, I can’t play it.” It was one of those whimsical moments.

So, lots of things like that I’m sure apply to everybody. They go back and think about their lives and that to me is quite intriguing, really. And I think it’s also intriguing for young people who face the reality of all the options ahead of them. They have to realize that making those decisions, or making no decisions at all and just letting events overtake you, is going to shape the rest of your life. That first time you shoot up with heroin, that first time you decide to pick up that crack cocaine, it’s good to just stop and think, “Wait a minute — can I really handle this? Or am I just embarking upon an absolutely suicidal cul-de-sac?” We all have to make those decisions, and hopefully most of us make them with a little thought and a little wisdom, as we grow older. But, you know, things happen.

That’s really interesting. It’s funny how, as you say, even if one doesn’t intellectually believe that something like fate, if you will, is possible, sometimes the evidence in favor it is just overwhelming. It’s like it could have happened no other way — at least, that’s what I got out of your story.

Yes, and the prospects of there being an infinite number of parallel universes where there are other Ian Andersons who didn’t play the flute. You know, there could be other Ian Andersons out there who are quietly tending some trees in a forest somewhere, and some other Ian Andersons out there who are maybe playing flute in a symphony orchestra rather than a rock band. Who knows? These are both intellectual and yet fundamentally rather whimsical questions, and therein lies a little humor, a little warmth, a [bit] of a fun moment, or 54 minutes in the case of this album.

But it’s also rather a dark album, because there are elements within the music that become rather serious and rather engaging in quite a grim way. There’s a song suite sub-titled “Wootton Bassett Town” which is about the repatriations of dead soldiers; men and women who come back from Iraq, or more recently Afghanistan, and were repatriated in coffins through the city or town, and everybody stops and watches this very public display of shared grief for family and friends. That’s something very profound. You stand there and can’t help but be struck by the overwhelming emotion, which is largely the futility of war. And when you think of all those coffins that have been paraded through that town in the last few years, and the current recent proclamations in our news media that the Taliban are slowly gaining again in strength, and that they aren’t going away; pretty much everybody is coming to the conclusion that when British, American, and other Allied troops move out of there by 2014, that it’s just a short time before it’s business as usual for the Taliban, and Afghanistan will be back to the fierce, tribal Islamic state that it was. Any attempt to change anything will result just as it did for [us and for] the Russians before, in the same shameful retreat. And all for what? It’s a sad reality.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been done. And certainly Afghanistan was a different kettle of stinking fish from Iraq, in terms of the reason for being there. Iraq was pure folly, an absolute grave error on the part of your ex-president and Tony Blair. I think most people would agree [it was] pretty much an unholy mess that didn’t have to happen. Saddam Hussein would have been much better off left tamed and finally gently deposed, rather than the bloodbath and the mess that ensued and is still not over. Afghanistan is a whole different ball game, and one that I guess, at the time, seemed like it was a gamble worth taking. But in reality, I don’t think it was ever a winnable war, and indeed it has become a war. It’s increasingly becoming a war between extreme Islam and the capitalist Christian rest of the world, and I don’t think we’re going to win that one. Those are crucial issues. What a terrible, terrible legacy this is for the lives lost in 9/11 — to think, what was the retaliatory result of going into Iraq, and more recently into Afghanistan? I mean, they’re different things, I’m not saying that they were both terrible misadventures, but nonetheless it’s a sad reality that all we have to show for it is more dead bodies. A lot of young American people who’ve lost their lives, and not a few Brits and other Allied forces that have been out in those theaters of war, all probably to no avail. It’s a very sad reality.

That’s very true.

So, it’s worth a song, isn’t it? It’s worth a song, but it’s not a fun and dance song. It’s a song full of mixed emotions, and I guess that’s what most of us feel about these things. Whether we’re patriotic, whether we’re anti-war, whether we’re pragmatic about it — all of us suffer those very mixed emotions, and anyone who says their emotions are not mixed, that they’re 100% sure, is just talking bollocks! [That’s] just someone who is so unbelievably wooly-headed as to think that there are absolute rights and wrongs. There are not; it’s a terrible mixed picture, and just an absolute dreadfulness which comes under that global heading “The Futility of War” — it is futile even for the winners. Strange irony, isn’t it, that in World War II the Germans were perceived to be the losers, [laughs] and yet the Germans are the only country in Europe, or really in all of the capitalist western world, that actually have an economy worth a light! Germany ultimately has shown, through the pride, effort, and work ethic of the people, that it’s a winner! But you wouldn’t have said that in the summer of 1945.

No, you wouldn’t. So, regarding the album — the release date is set?

The release date is April 2. This is very early to be talking about a new album — much too early for me. I didn’t want to be doing this until the end of February, but because EMI Records wanted to go with a special edition of the album as well, we had to prepare an hour of video material, and a huge amount of extra work went into it. And, because of the long lead times of print media, glossy magazines, etc., we were going to have to go out at the beginning of this month to some journalists and media with the news. These days, the Internet being what it is, it wouldn’t stay quiet for very long, so we decided we really had to go public on February 1, so we did.

When will the tours be?

We start in the middle of April in the UK; there are a whole bunch of tour dates that are currently up on As for the US tour dates, I know what they are! [laughs] I know where I’m going to be. It’s been pretty much set in stone for a while, but there’s been a few little tweaks and turns, and we’re just getting close to that point where we will be putting the tickets on sale for two American tours that take place between mid-September and mid-November.

Last year, Jethro Tull did an ‘Aqualung’ 40th anniversary tour, so I guess this is kind of like that, but for ‘Thick as a Brick?’

Well, it is, and that’s the only bit I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t really like these anniversary things, and the notion that somehow that’s the reason to do it. It would have been the case, I suppose, that we would have given a little attention to ‘Thick as a Brick,’ maybe played a bit more of it than we usually do. We usually play ten minutes or so of “Thick as a Brick” in many of our concerts — not all, but many of them. It’s never been, at least in essence, that far away from the Jethro Tull mainstream repertoire, but we’ve never played all of it, and I don’t think it was ever in my mind that I would do that again, until I had the definitive plan for a sequel album. Then, it seemed to justify the idea of doing all of ‘Thick as a Brick’ 1 and 2, and then I got excited about the idea of playing it all live on stage. But I don’t think the 40th Anniversary is such a driving factor for me in any of this — it’s just about that moment when the penny dropped and I thought, “Whatever happened to Gerald Bostock?” That, in essence, sums up my curiousity as to take a fictitious character and explore what might have happened to him. That’s when I got interested in all of it, and that was in the dying parts of 2010. It was January or February of 2011 when I said, “Okay, let me get out a piece of paper and a pencil, and let’s see what happens.”

So, on the tour you’ll be playing both ‘Thick as a Brick’ and the material from the new album as well?

Yes, we’ll be playing both albums in their entirety. I’m not sure which one we’ll play first — I think we’re going to try it out both ways. We’ll try the new one first, the old one second, and there will be a 20-minute intermission between the two. It’s kind of a theatrical show. There’s another performer on stage with me who’ll be helping out with some of the tricky moments when I can’t manage to sing, play guitar, and play flute all at the same time. I need an extra musician rather than just the five of us, so we have an extra body on stage who’ll bring a little more theatricality to the event, because he’s a singing actor. He’s not primarily a musician, he’s a thespian. It will be good to have another person on stage who can bring some elements of mime and dance as well as singing and general performance, to keep the thing buzzing. We’ll have some use of video as well. There will be an audio-visual element to the show, too. I’m not trying to make it some huge extravaganaza, but I think we can make it gently a bit more multi-media than a regular concert would be from me or from Jethro Tull.

It sounds like it will be pretty entertaining.

Well, it’ll be entertaining, if only because the chances are pretty strong that we’re going to fuck up! [laughs] It’s a pretty difficult collection of music to play, so on any night there will be a few bum notes for the people who are really paying attention. [laughs] We’ll get through it, but I think none of the band members are under any illusion that they can just coast through it. It’s a huge concentration for a couple of hours on stage to get through this material. We know, because we’ve just recorded half of it, and the other half we’ve played bits of, and the stuff we don’t really know — which is mostly the second side of the original vinyl album of ‘Thick as a Brick,’ that’s never really been played at all, for a long, long time — so all of us have got quite a big task of personal preparation and private rehearsal before we start our official rehearsals and production rehearsals with all the crew and sound and lights, which are immediately before the tour starts in the UK.

Yeah, it’ll be quite a bit of work, but I’m sure it will also be very rewarding.

Yeah, it’s always rewarding taking something out into the real world, and giving birth to something new, but it’s also a way of life, and [for] those of us who kind of enjoy our experiences of travel and performing, that’s probably the thing that always remains at the forefront of it — you actually love going out and being on a stage and performing. What you’re performing is perhaps secondary! It’s the joy of actually doing it at all that seems to always be the great attraction, the great lure. The great addiction, really, in terms of a lifestyle. I think if you do the kind of thing I do for a living, you probably don’t really want to do anything else.

Well, it beats heroin and crack, as you were alluding to earlier.

Well, it does! Having confronted all of the drug options when I was a teenager, I decided it was actually better not to start, rather than try to find a way to stop. I just grew up around an awful lot of people who were going through bad times. My early days as a musician seemed to be filled with people dropping like flies around me, and you can’t help but be moved by walking off of a stage, and Jimi Hendrix walks on, and that was his last concert. That’s something that I will always remember: should I — could I have said something? Could I have done something that might have changed the outcome of his next couple of weeks before he died? Of course, I couldn’t [have], but it’s always in the back of your mind, that somehow you didn’t attempt to intervene in the circumstances.

Clearly he wasn’t a happy man at that point in his life. He was frustrated, and faced a difficult concert, closing the Isle of Wight festival. He didn’t want to go on last — he was desperately trying to get on before us. We of course didn’t want to follow him, so it was a tricky moment. We didn’t speak to each other; I watched the first two or three songs the guy played, I thought, “It’s not going to be a good one,” and I left. That was the last time really most of us ever saw Jimi Hendrix on a stage. That’s a sad reminder of the fragility and the sometimes pointlessness of excess — which Jimi Hendrix, for example, allowed himself to partake in — a weakness that he had. In some ways, he was a very strong character, and in other ways incredibly weak, particularly when it came to the people that he surrounded himself with. Luckily, being a bit of a loner, I’ve never succumbed to peer group pressure, of any sort really, but certainly not in regard to the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.” I’ve always been an amused bystander while other people got themselves written into the history books.

Very interesting. Do you give yourself credit for other artists having recognized the virtue of using the flute in rock music?

Not really. It’s more the other way around. People often say that I’m the guy who brought the flute to rock music. I probably reinforced it to a huge extent, but it was already there before I started playing it. I can remember as a youngster hearing the flute being played in some catchy things which caught my attention. The flute was around and about. It was an instrument that was often used in a decorative way, in a sort of pretty way, and I found that a bit annoying. I really wanted to play the flute in a much more aggressive way, that paralleled the typical use of electric guitar, so that’s why I developed that kind of style. But I’m not sure that it’s had an enormous impact on other people. I do know one or two people who play that way, but… I guess it’s true to say they’re probably somewhat in the shadow of me, because that was a bit of territory that I staked out. But I’m certainly not the originator of flute in pop or rock music, I’m just the person who put it on a more solid footing, in terms of giving it an equality with the electric guitar, in the context of Jethro Tull.

Indeed! And so, in that way, doing something which really hadn’t been done before.

Yeah. But I think when people want that kind of a noise, there’s a temptation to say, “Play it like Ian Anderson!” And there is a sort of a trademark style, I suppose, that you could distill out of all the things that I’ve done. I had to do this recently, when I was playing on a couple of songs for other artists. One of them was for this Slovenian artist, who is female, and sings and plays the flute, and she plays very much in a kind of Ian Anderson style, if you know what I mean. That was really hard, because she’d already played some flute on this track, and for me to kind of find a way to sit in there and not just be duplicating or complicating what she’d played was actually rather hard. So I decided to play with a flute d’amour, which is pitched in a lower key and has a much more somber sound, just to give it a little more variation, so it didn’t quite sound the same as her flute playing. I used the same instrument, in fact, when I played on [another] song by the English band The Darkness. I used this flute to contrast with the lead singer’s high rock tenor and falsetto. I didn’t want to be in the same register as him with the high notes of the flute. You make those choices. But I’m still having to think that the reason they asked me to play on their song is because they’re looking for that Ian Anderson rock flute. But I don’t want to just give them the obvious thing — I’ve got to put a twist on it and make it fit the song.

And keep it interesting for yourself, too!

And keep it interesting for me, yes; but, I’m really a firm believer that when people ask you to “do what you do,” sometimes they’re oversimplifying or getting it wrong. The important thing is really that you serve the interests of that song when you join in with your instrument, and quite often less is more. When they’re looking for something a bit “special,” it’s very often because they’re not really thinking it through, and perhaps [one] needs to take a slightly different look at the job at hand. A bit like a carpenter walking into a kitchen and fitting some new cupboards in — you’ve got to see what’s going to fit in the room. Sometimes the person who’s asking you to install the new cupboards doesn’t necessarily know a busting amount about carpentry, so you have to tactfully use your artistry and your craftsmanship to present something that you think serves the interest of the song in the best possible way. Hopefully, I managed to do that, at least in part. They seem to be pleased with the end result, [based on] what I got back in an email the other day. So look out for a song called “Cannonball” by The Darkness in a couple of months time, when they release their new record. They’re actually on tour in the US at the moment.

Well, nice talking with you! I’m off to do my bit of rehearsal now. I try to do a couple of hours every day, and so it’s getting to that point in the evening.

Thank you so much!

Pre-order Thick as a Brick 2.

For upcoming tour dates, check out the official Jethro Tull website.

  • Patrick halet

    Hello,   Why not a French translation of TAAB2 ?

  • Gurmeet Multani

    I have been a Tullhead since medical school 1973 and continue to enjoy the music. My children have learned to  appreciate the music  and they are 21 and 22. With the variety of music styles and melody always intertwined what is there not to like. I look forward to the concert for  the Thick as a Brick 2 .

  • Tpinto59

    Can listen to Ian Anderson’s music endlessly

  • Salvatoresa2000

    Can’t wait to get TAAB2

  • tanatos

    Ian is brilliant.

  • Mark Banford

    I’m glad to know you.