As improbable as it might sound, Ian Anderson has been leading his fellow members of Jethro Tull for the better part of half a century now. Throughout, it’s been Anderson’s singular voice and presence as both a composer and performer that has provided the focus for countless fans even as his pronouncements and appearances left some others, including a seemingly endless stream of critics, confounded or confused.
Still, what remains is the music, a rather impressive backlist of titles, many of which are widely considered classics of modern rock, including Aqualung, War Child, Heavy Horses, and the disc that put Anderson and company firmly on the map in the US, Thick as a Brick.
Now, in an unprecedented move for Anderson, that groundbreaking work has spawned a sequel—aptly titled Thick as a Brick 2—which went on sale today.
Recently Anderson took a few moments from rehearsals for a lavish world tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of Thick as a Brick and the release of its successor to talk about Brick and its sequel, touring, critics and so very, very much more.
Well, to begin, congratulations on the 40th anniversary of Thick as a Brick.
Very kind of you; I’m not really an anniversary guy. I just react to people who love to have a zero on the end of things. So, it’s just an excuse to tackle something with a bit more gusto and a bit more of a a bit more of a challenge, I suppose.
How does it feel to be getting back into playing that rather huge piece?
Well, playing the original Thick as a Brick, the first half of it is fairly straight forward. The second half, it gets really tricky, because there’s lots of places where I’m playing two acoustic guitars, two flutes, singing—all at the same time. And, obviously, I can’t do that when I’m doing that live.
So, I had to make choices at places where some of the flute lines, we have to imitate those as a keyboard line, or in some places where there’s vocals [and] a prominent flute line, then I have to give the vocals to somebody else. And that somebody else is a young chap named Ryan O’Donnell, who recently starred in the Pete Townshend theatrical production of Quadrophenia that was out and about on stages a couple of years back. John O’Hara, our keyboard player, was the musical director who worked with Pete Townshend to realize the live theatre stage presentation of Quadrophenia. And Ryan was one of the main actor-singers in that.
I met him, liked him. We had a couple of little get-togethers. And so he has various, various jobs in our show, including acting, mime, dance and song, to flesh out some of the places where I’m a bit stuck with too many jobs to do at the same time. So, yeah, an extra hand onstage is useful.
Has all of this been a bit like a homecoming for you, or has it been more of a journey of discovery?
Well, it certainly doesn’t feel like a nostalgic trip. Because I think, once you start playing
First of all, there’s probably a good 15 minutes or so of Thick as a Brick that we have played in many—not all—but many concerts over the years, so we’re quite familiar with a decent chunk of it. But the rest of it is something that kind of slots into place. Each day I try to run over some of the parts and there’s nothing really difficult to play. I mean, there are a couple of places that are fairly testing from a flute-playing perspective, but nothing that I can’t quickly get back to in terms of remembering what it was and how to play it.
It’s just that, when you put the whole thing together as a continuous piece of music, there’s a lot to focus on. If you miss a cue, then it’s a train wreck. So, we have to have our wits about us, really, from start to finish.
And playing the new album, Thick as a Brick 2, or TaaB2 as I call it, is a little bit easier because, first of all, it’s more recent in all of our memories, and, secondly, perhaps was written very much as a live performance that we could play live onstage. Even down to thinking, “Okay, at this point, there’s going to be a guitar solo where I’m going to be here onstage, guitar players going to be there, somebody else is going to be there.” Even to the point of writing the music and rehearsing it, you start thinking of it as a stage performance, in terms of how you’re going to perform it. Geographically, where are you going to be on the stage during this bit?
Those things might not sound important, but they’re part of the expression, part of the outward, giving sense of the performance. And so, that’s kind of easier.
As I say, it’s more about remembering everything in the right order. And with six of us onstage, there’s a pretty reasonable chance that, at any one time, somebody has completely screwed up. And your job is to try to listen hard enough to say, “Wait a minute. That wasn’t on the record!” [Laughs]
How hard was it for you to recapture Gerald’s voice, particularly after all of these years?
It’s not about capturing his voice, because usually I’m actually singing about they’re portraits of people. So, quite often I’m not singing in the voice of a character. Sometimes I am; but sometimes I’m singing in the third person, a bit more objectively, painting a picture, and wanting to share that with you.
So, it’s not about capturing a voice—it’s capturing a snapshot of things today. This is not an album about something that happened 40 years ago. This is an album that is about today, the differences we have in the world today that weren’t there 40 years ago. The futility of two major wars since then—I think we were still in the tail end of Vietnam, then—but certainly in terms of the more recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to bring those elements into today’s world through the notional alternative of the young Gerald’s growing up and career possibilities, that takes us to a very vivid description of today.
So at least half the album, lyrically-speaking, is talking about here and now. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to go back to write a sequel in the sense of “What happened in 1973?” I’m skipping out most of that bit. I’m just jumping 40 years in the future because I want to make an album that is applicable to people of teenage, or maybe early 20s, years who are faced with major life-changing decisions, just as we all were [at that age].
And so, while some of us older folks can look back on some of the pivotal moments in our lives, some much younger people have to face those right now. So I tried to write an album that works for the 16-year-old and the 60-year-old.
Are you at all concerned about how TaaB 2 will be received, whether by critics or long-time fans?
Because I have an intellect, and I am determined to use it before I die, and since many people spend an awful lot of time watching The X Factor and dumbing down music in general, then it’s good to have one or two small voices here or there that present the clarion call of the thinking man’s music—as well as sticking their heads above the parapet, being prepared to have them shot off by the carping critics who think it doesn’t have street cred, or is a bit too fanciful or bombastic.
But, tough shit. I’ve got a brain. I’m going to use it. You don’t want to listen to it? Stay at home. [Laughs]
I know what I’m saying sounds a bit contentious, but it echoes the very opening words of Thick as a Brick back in 1972: “I really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” It is laying down a bit of a gauntlet, and I’m prepared to lay that gauntlet down again right now.
And I know, with a certain sense of irony, whilst doing that, the reality is there’s a lot of open ears and willing minds and hearts that are welcoming this proposition of a kind of a progressive rock album for the new millennium. It’s not as if I think it’s going to fall on entirely deaf ears. I know that, yeah, I’d be guessing probably 50% of people who would have ever have counted themselves as a Jethro Tull fan will find this to their liking. And the other 50%, you know, probably the beer-drinking bozos who kind of just go for the big rock riffs and never see beyond that, or the people who like everything in convenient song links tied up in a nice bow and prefer the idea of, I suppose, my music being Deep Purple with a flute, they might not like it.
So, I guess 50% of the people will find it perhaps not quite what they were looking for, and the other 50% will. But let me put it this way: If 50% of the people who listened to or bought Thick as a Brick back in 1972 were to buy this on iTunes or Amazon, that would be, by today’s standards, a very, very big selling album.
But it won’t because, of course, not that many people are going to buy it. They may approve of it if they hear it. But they just may never get round to hearing it, because we live in a different world—one where marketing and promotion is just as expensive as it always was, and record sales are probably, on average for most artists that are still around, probably 10%, 15% tops of what they would have been 40 years ago—as many bands, like the Rolling Stones, have found to their record company’s cost.
They make a new album. It just serves as a loss leader to promote the old catalog. That is marketing and promotion in these years. We’re faced with the realities of records that actually, in terms of paid downloads and in terms of physical sales, are only going to sell a fraction of what they might have done back in the heady days of big unit sales of major albums. Those days have gone. They won’t be coming back.
Or if it does happen, it’ll be the exception to that new rule.
Well, it’s not that people aren’t hearing them. People are hearing more music than ever before in the history of planet earth. Everyone walks around plugged into their MP3 player or their Smartphone, or they’re listening in the car, or whatever it is. People are listening to music in a different way. It’s something that surrounds them as a kind of comfort; it filters out the headaches of life to have some favorite music just pulsing away in the background. You’re not really listening to it; you’re just hearing it. It’s an aural comfort zone that you create for yourself to de-stress your daily life.
So people hear more music than ever before. It’s extremely convenient; it’s just around you everywhere. It’s so, so easy to find.
But to listen to it in the sense of actually sitting down in a darkened room with your headphones on, or a couple of stereo speakers and your best buds by your side as you listen and marvel to the new Jimi Hendrix release? That’s in the past. I don’t think people do that anymore. And even when Thick as a Brick 1 and 2 are released in their vinyl edition later this year, there’ll be some people who go out and buy that, and there may even be some who sit and play it. But I think most of them will never put it on a turntable. They’ll simply want to have it, just because it’s [all about] having a piece of pristine, shiny plastic that’s never been played. And, frankly, a week ago I would have said, “Bloody idiots, wasting their money on a bit of black plastic! Total rubbish, sand and vinyl, blah-blah-blah.”
But in fact I cut the vinyl just last Monday [i.e. the 12th of March, 2012] at Abbey Road Studios in London. And I have to say that, 40 years down the line it’s the best vinyl cut I have ever heard. I AD’d it next to the 24-bit master, and I thought, “This is unbelievably good!” The only thing that ever gave it away was the tiny, little bit of dust or whatever in the grooves. The occasional little click or noise artifact that you would hear that, I guess, just serves to remind you that you really are listening to a vinyl record. But, in terms of dynamics, in terms of low end/ high end frequency response, the transience, the almost complete lack of any distortion, I just couldn’t believe it.
And it’s 53 minutes and 40-odd seconds long. It’s one of the longest vinyl albums to be cut. And it’s unbelievably good, and it’s only about a decibel and a half down on normal operating level. I mean, amazingly good job, actually done on the same old lathes that were used to cut the Beatles records. But, with today’s digital technology, and the better understanding of how to do these things—plus, cutting it on a copper master, rather than into soft lacquer—you can do this job really pretty well these days.
I mean, it’s taken me 40 years to get a vinyl record that I actually thought, “Wow, that’s pretty good!” [Laughs] Bit of a surprise, but it made me actually rethink the whole scenario of vinyl in this day and age. But whether it’s enough to send me out to where every specialist suppliers might be able to sell me an up-to-date fantastic quality turntable, I’m not sure that it would.
I think I still have one, somewhere. I was told that my old Shure V15 cartridges and styluses that I’ve had since the '70s, today avid collectors will pay up to five, six thousand dollars for one of those cartridges. Add to that the SME tone arm, and the Techniques turntable and all the rest of it, you’ve probably got eight to ten thousand dollars of kit just on your turntable alone. [Laughs]
So, yeah, it’s an expensive habit being an audiophile. It’s probably cheaper to seriously get into crack cocaine—just as enjoyable and half the cost. [Laughs]
No wonder it’s all kept in the original wrapper. After putting that much into a system, you almost can’t afford to risk that investment by playing anything on it. [Laughs]
Exactly, kept in its record sleeve, and never taken out. Yeah, I kind of like the idea that you have something, and you just don’t use it. It’s like having guns—they’re really nice things to have and to hold, and to dismantle and put together again, and clean—really great things to have. But just try not to use them.
I’m serious. I love my guns. I love my automatic pistols and rifles, when I was allowed to have them in the UK, before all the draconian firearm laws prevented civilian ownership of automatic weapons. But, I love my guns.
But, God forbid that I ever have to use them.
We’re still allowed to have our hunting rifles and our shotguns. We’re just not allowed to have military or police hardware in the sense of automatic weapons, pistols, assault rifles, whatever.
But what I’m getting at with all of this is that you don’t actually have to use things. I mean, it’s really nice having a penis. That doesn’t mean you have to run around using it all the time. [Laughs]
My wife’s on the other side of the office, going, “Rrrrrrrrrr!” [Laughs again] I’m only doing it to see if she ever actually listens to what I’m saying when I do interviews. It’s the odd word like, “penis,” that will suddenly cause her to, dare I say, prick up her ears.
Look for the second part of this extended interview with Ian Anderson later this week, only here on TMR.