Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull Talks “Thick as a Brick II” – Interview

I’ve been a life long Jethro Tull fan, so when I got the chance to interview Ian Anderson I jumped at the chance. Anderson just released his follow up to “Thick as a Brick” forty years later. “Thick as a Brick” is my favorite concept album and part 2 is a worthy follow up. Anderson is out on the road touring the new album by playing both “Thick as a Brick 1 and 2” in their entirety. I can’t wait to see that show live this November.

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 Zoiks!: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this with us. It’s been 40 years since you released “Thick as a Brick,” and correct me if I’m wrong, but that album came out because people considered “Aqualung” to be a concept album when it really wasn’t, so in response you came out with the ultimate concept album which was really just a parody of the prog rock bands of the time, yet the amount of effort you put in to the entire package, the album cover, the newspaper, the poem written by the fictitious eight year old boy, forty-four minutes of continuous music, then a theatrical tour, how well do you remember that entire process and do you know where that initial idea came from?

Ian Anderson: Well I remember the process very well indeed because it was a definite starting point where I had to come up with an initial opening line, an opening chord sequence, and I can remember I did that during the latter part of the “Aqualung” tours in 1971, and we got into ’72 I had just literally the opening thirty seconds of the album, of the “Thick as a Brick” album, and then every morning I would write the next three or four minutes and meet the other guys after lunch at the Rolling Stones rehearsal studio in south London and we would learn the next three or four minutes of music, and I repeated that for essentially about ten days of writing and rehearsing and tried, although unsuccessfully, to keep up with the lyric writing process cuz I was a bit short on lyrics and in some cases we went through so the other guys had maybe not a lot of idea where I was headed with all of this, but they trusted their leader to have a direction and a master plan and it all kind of work out. But I guess a lot of a time they were scratching their heads thinking what is this he’s asking us to play, but yeah I remember the process well and the process was not too dissimilar to how I forty years later wrote “Thick as a Brick 2” in the space of a couple of weeks of writing alone at home and then making some simple demos, some scoring it all out, and Sibelius, the music composition software program and handed all the stuff to the guys and seven months later after we’d finished being on tour for most of 2011, we went into the studio and had seven days rehearsal, ten days recording, five days to mix and master, and low and behold we had “Thick as a Brick 2,” but as always it’s making it sound easier than it was. You know, you have to have a certain amount of inspiration, a certain amount of confidence I suppose in yourself to deliver the goods and maybe that seems at the beginning a tall order, but once the process starts, the inertia that you might have felt disappears and the momentum builds and you find all these things coming fast and furious as the creative juices flow, which on a good day they still do.

 Z!: Jethro Tull was one of a handful of bands, that they didn’t sound anything alike, but they were all labeled progressive rock, what are your feelings on having your music labeled by a specific genre and has your opinion changed over the years?

IA: Well luckily it’s not my job to give a name to what I do, and I’ve always felt that musically speaking, there is a product line really. Think of me as a giant cornflake, my breakfast cereal brand is essentially two broad ones, one is Ian Anderson, one is Jethro Tull. Within the sub genres of that, you have different elements. There’s Jethro Tull the folk rock band, Jethro Tull the blues band, the Jethro band, the slightly more ethnic band, with Ian Anderson it could be orchestra work, acoustic tours, there’s all these sort of different brandings on the supermarket shelf, but I think people know what I do and what I write whether it’s under my own name or under the name Jethro Tull, they have a pretty good idea that it’s going to be something perhaps not just genre rock music, and I hope that over the years I’ve managed to establish an expectation that people should come with a broad mind and not think that what they’re going to be delivered with on stage is always just going to be the same repetitious record tour which much as I enjoy playing a lot of those songs, I do too require sometimes a bit of a change and try something different or give a little emphasis to a different part of our record tour, hence the different ways I build concerts and present myself to the audience.

Z!: Yeah I was gonna ask you about that. Why since “Thick as a Brick” was a Jethro Tull album why is this one Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson this time around?

IA: Well again I’m trying to get away from the idea that if it just says Jethro Tull, I think there’s a greater expectation from more people that it is gonna be a collection of Jethro Tull’s greatest hits that would in the last twenty years, I guess, Jethro Tull concerts will be a little bit like that so that’s fine, I have no problem doing that and it’s very enjoyable to play some of that great Jethro Tull material, but if it’s something that’s a little more project related, if it’s me playing the orchestral versions of songs of symphony orchestras then I really don’t want to call it Jethro Tull because I think we’ll have some of the beer drinking buddies show up whistling and hooting and hollering and really annoying me and the members of an orchestra who actually really do need to hear what they’re playing and not be disturbed by people who think there is a football event or something. So I try and choose the right billing for the right, for the different occasions and this is one where I felt a new project that is “Thick as a Brick 2,” plus the performance of “Thick as a Brick 1,” the guys who played on “Thick as a Brick 1,” three of them haven’t played musical instruments for a long time, two of them are not in the position to play music because they’re not physically capable of doing that any longer through age taking its toll I suppose and physical injuries, but so no question ever turning back the clock and having the band members from 1972 perform when there is absolutely no way they could do that, and so I think it’s time to move on, I’m still relatively fit and capable so I’m more than happy to do these things, but at this point in my life I think I’d rather be noticed for Ian Anderson when it comes to special projects and not just be trotted out records for each concert tour each years. Sometimes you have to take on a project and do something a little different and indeed this is or be it even now the guys in the band are all people who play, just members of Jethro Tull at one point or another in recent years, they’re all very familiar with the music. 

Z!: How long have you had the idea for “Thick as a Brick 2” bouncing around in your head and what made you decide to actually go for it?

IA: Well at the end of 2010 I decided I had the notion of an idea that would allow me to make an album for the present day that wouldn’t be steeped in nostalgia but would be a jump forward and so early 2011, I started writing a number of scenarios as to what might have happened to the fictitious child poet Gerald Bostock, what might have become of him, and narrowed that down to five choices and came up with about five musical themes which I explored via very varied lyrics and scenarios, but musically speaking it’s quite a delicate weaving of a number of themes to come into play from time to time with variations, repetitions, developments, reiterations, improvisations, we try to make it a grown up album for grown up people, but it’s still I think one that does have its appeal to the new generation of progressive rock fans who are people in their teens and twenties rather than in their fifties and sixties. It seems to be working out that it’s appealing pretty much across the board from the results that I’ve seen so far and from the response of audiences to the 35 concerts or so that we’ve now done with only about another 165 to go before the fall of 2013 after which I shall think of something else to do for a living. 

Z!: You put a tremendous amount of effort into the total package for both albums. The original had the newspaper, now it’s become a website. This time there are seventeen tracks but clearly it’s meant to be listened to as one continuous piece of music. I’m only 32 years old so I didn’t get a chance to see the original tour, but I have heard about it. Is this tour as theatrical as the original one was?

IA: I would say perhaps rather more so although it derives its theatrically from the use of audio-visual stuff which of course didn’t exist back then in the way that we can use it today. I mean we did start working with projectors and screens back in 1973 and again in ’75, but this one is a lot better researched and obviously benefits from newer technology and an additional performer on stage who is from the theatrical world of song dance and mimes. He’s gonna help me out with another dimension that is somewhat difficult to do when I’m busy playing flute and guitar most of the way through and singing so I have another performer to be someone I can bounce off too in my more physical moments. I would say it’s at least as theatrical, but that was always intended that it should be that way because I wanted to do “Thick as a Brick 1,” the original album with “Thick as a Brick 2” as a full performance piece that would in a way obviate the need for the audience to keep the applauding between sections or indeed even to have expectations of an encore because it is pretty complete at the end, and two acts plus the twenty minute intermission, I think most of the audience wants to get the signal that they can leave. They run screaming to the exit doors never to return so we don’t plan on doing encores and when we do have to do them there’s always a bit of an “oh god,” so much nicer when we can just draw a line under it and we’ve done the job, but we have had to play an encore on some occasions and it’s rather like a bit of gluttony really somehow it seems, so I prefer to think the whole thing stands alone, we take our curtain calls and bows, and show everybody a good night and hope that they will disappear as fast as possible cuz it’s past my bedtime, and I have to get up at 6am the next morning to get up and get dressed and get packed and get going, traveling to the next city, so you have around about 10:45, I’m hoping, keeping my fingers crossed, they’re gonna let me go cuz I need to get packed up and head on back to my hotel room.

 Z!: How have the crowds been? You mentioned separating the names Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson so they understand what they’re seeing, but have a lot of Jethro Tull fans come and been asking for “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” and all that or has it been what you expected?

IA: Well it does happen sometimes, but it’s not something that they voice. They’re not shouting out otherwise they’d be thrown out on their rears if they start shouting out things in the middle of the concert like this. It’s not that kind of a show, we don’t invite audience participation in that way, and there’s never been a hint and in spite of having played in lots of notoriously, I mean places that make New York City look like an old person’s home in southern Florida, I mean, you play in places like Liverpool and New Castle in the UK, you play concerts for Italy for example, you would normally expect people to get a little mouthy, a little carried away, but they instinctively realize this is a different sort of a show and no one calls out, no one whispers, nobody interrupts, you can hear a pin drop in all the quiet places which is great because as a performer you can deliver, you can create a nuance and the dynamics because you just instinctively know, as the audience do, this is not the kind of a concert where people are going to whistle or start shouting out. God help us all if anybody does, I should be mortified, and indeed so would most of the audience because they would realize how much a place it would be to start shouting from the audience during the middle of a performance. I mean you wouldn’t do that if you went to see Swan Lake ballet, would you? You wouldn’t go to see Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony perform so for god’s sake treat me with the same respect and accord.

 Z!: I mentioned earlier that the album had seventeen tracks, but clearly it’s one continuous piece. Why break the album up into different tracks?

IA: Well on iTunes it is broken up into tracks and indeed the re-release of Thick as a Brick 1, I just completed that about three weeks ago breaking that up into a number of separate pieces that can be in the modern age snacked upon like fast food if that’s what people want to do, but I did that back in 1972 for American radio because we had to create some banded versions where we separated it all into bits so that radio could play the bits, and been there done that, and this time around I’m doing it again. The new album was written a little more deliberately where the different themes and elements could be separated although there is no digital silence anywhere on the album. There is some noise going on for 53 minutes and some seconds, but nonetheless, there are ID points to allow people to navigate around the album so you can consider it as an album of elements if it was a classical piece of music, you would talk in terms of movements, but that would be a little grandiose when it comes to mere rock music so I just talk about musical sections, things that have some identity, continuity perhaps of rhythm or harmonic solidarity or definitive set in a particular key. We try and treat it in the way that is, our lives as the musicians too, the sense of separation people have a few seconds here and a few seconds there just to gather their resources and focus on the next bit because it is a lot of music to recall, to remember. We’re not working from printed scores, we have to have all of this in our memories, and it’s a memory you have to draw upon very quickly, we’re talking about ram, we’re talking about instant access to information that we can really quickly pull down because you’re working all the time on the limits of short median term memory, you have to recall this stuff and recall it very very quickly, and I’m talking in milliseconds when you’ve got to remember what’s coming next you don’t have time to stop and think very often, but I had to try and build some of those moments into the way we arranged it or the way I arranged it and the way we recorded it so I need to know that the others have got this precious little moment whether it’s just a couple of seconds or whatever it might be where you can actually think okay this is where I am, the next thing I have to do starts on this note or starts with this particular rhythm or whatever it might be, and we’re all there to be a safety net for each other, but it’s a pretty tall order memorizing all this stuff and happily, much of the time we do. We’ve only had one or two train wrecks since we’ve been playing it so it’s not looking too bad at all.

 Z!: How long did you have to rehearse for this tour?

IA: Well we have seven days of rehearsal and two technical dress rehearsals if you’d like when we put it all together, but you have to remember that we’d only relatively recently recorded “Thick as a Brick 2” so that was all pretty fresh in our minds and that was very much written and arranged and even recorded in the studio very much as a live performance. There wasn’t a bursting amount to do on that, we could all get back to performance level pretty quickly, but most of the hard work was on “Thick as a Brick 1,” the original thing, because we hadn’t, I’d not played most of it for forty years, and the other guys hadn’t played it at all, well they’d maybe played ten minutes of it here or there when we’d played some little excerpts from it, but that was far and away the bigger concentration and everybody, when I say we did seven days of rehearsal, that’s seven days of performing together in rehearsal, everybody comes in and in this kind of a band, you show up ready for work, you don’t come in sort of thinking well what are we gonna do today? You gotta be almost at performance level when you show up for day one of rehearsal otherwise you’re gonna look pretty stupid.

 Z!: I know that most artists are more concerned about looking forward, but do you ever look back at what you’ve accomplished, and I’m not just talking about success, but the actual pieces of music, and think about that, how do you process all that?

IA: Well of course I not only think about it, but I perform it, because it’s a great joy to play music that you’ve written perhaps thirty, forty years before. In fact, when I’m at the Montreal Jazz Festival in a couple of days time, apart from playing the “Thick as a Brick 1 and 2” production tour, the next day I have a work show to a small invited audience where I’ll be playing some of the pieces of music from very early albums and that something I’m quite looking forward to cuz some of those pieces I haven’t played for a few years and some of them I played perhaps only a few months ago in 2011, but either way it’s kind of nice to go back and revisit that material because it’s part of who I am, it’s the words and music that I have written. It’s all something I feel quite close to and I look forward to doing, but with the overall challenge of sometimes getting my teeth into another project that doesn’t have much to do with that older repertoire so I get to enjoy both sides of my musical activities, the more historical benchmarks of music that I have to live up to and the newer things that are perhaps challenging because they are indeed new.

 Z!: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. 

Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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Ian, The Giant Cornflake. LOL!

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