At Home on the Highway: Ian Anderson on Thick as a Brick 2, Part Two

By , Columnist

Picking up right where we left off last time, Ian Anderson discusses the particular pleasures of playing live, the pleasant surprise some of his older songs hold for him, and what concert-goers can expect to hear—or not, as the case may be—from Jethro Tull on their impending tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of Thick as a Brick and the release of its sequel.

Do you see touring as a necessary evil of the business, or is playing out something that you believe has a real purpose, and even enjoy doing?

Oh, no evil at all! It’s always been the big prize, you know?

I started when I was only 16, 17 years old, that was the first time I played in public, and it was a thrill. It was something that was really both a big challenge, a big payoff if it went well, and a huge frustration and disappointment if it didn’t. But it’s always been the main event.

For me, what being a musician is about is communicating music in that live context — especially when what you play, and what I have played, has always had an element of improvisation about it. So that’s a key part of why it continues to be exciting, even if you’re playing music that you’ve played hundreds, or even thousands of times before. It’s never going to be the same on two consecutive nights, and there is everything to play for whenever you walk out there and play something, whether it’s the first time you’ve played it or it’s the two thousandth time you’ve played it.

So, absolutely no evil attached to that. It’s what I do. And I like, once in a while, being in the recording studio and making a record.

I was sitting in the sun earlier this morning, listening—I was going to work on some flute lines in Thick as a Brick in preparation for rehearsals starting tomorrow—but it was a nice sunny day and I accidentally hit the wrong button on my MP3 player and found myself playing back another track that I’d recorded a few years ago. And I sat and listened to that, thanking, “Wow, that’s actually pretty good.” And then another one happened to come up next and I to listen to that, too, and thought, “Wow, this is great, too!”

Sometimes, there is that feeling of going back and listening to some of my own work that I haven’t played for a while, and suddenly realizing just how good it is. [Laughs] I’m quite often pleasantly surprised that quite a lot of it stands the test of time very well. For me, in terms of my judgment, these are songs that I haven’t played live on stage, or hardly ever, so the particular tracks I’m talking about just jumped out at me. I thought, “Wow, these are not songs I’ve listened to in a long time.”

Ian Anderson and Band for pt 2.JPG

Well, might that lead to some inclusion of some of those songs, or perhaps other tunes that you’ve rarely or never played live, in future shows?

Well, we’ve always tried to include a few of those from time to time in concerts. Whether it’s an Ian Anderson concert or Jethro Tull concert, we try and find some slightly non-standard repertoire to throw in there. But, usually when I do a lot of that, then it’s more likely to be as Ian Anderson. When it just says “Jethro Tull” on the ticket, then I think there’s a bit of an obligation to play more of the best known, classic repertoire of our songs, rather than extending too far into the devious and weird.

But, yeah, it’s nice to do that once in a while.

Given that you don’t want to over-balance things with too much new stuff at those shows, will we be hearing anything besides the two Thick as a Bricks on this particular tour?

No. They will make up two hours of music. And add to that another 20 minutes of intermission, and we have a pretty long concert by anyone’s standards. So these two lengthy works form the whole theatrical presentation, and to tag on something that was… I have absolutely no intention of throwing in a couple of encores or whatever. I mean, at the end of the evening’s performance, after the curtain calls, the final bows, then, believe me, the audience and the musicians will be running screaming for the exit doors. There’ll be nobody saying, “Hey, play Aqualung!” They’ll just want to get the hell out of there! [Laughs] Catch the last bus home. Try and get an early bed.

Ian Anderson and Brand 2 for pt 2.JPG

In other words, you expect that everyone will be a bit exhausted by the end of the show.

I hope pleasantly so, yes. It’s a bit like… can you imagine the awfulness if you had some really good, energetic sex, and at the end of all of that, suddenly, somebody says, “Oh, wow, let’s just do that right again!” [Laughs] I mean, the immediate thought is, “Can we just leave 24 hours, maybe, as a reasonable gap?”

I think there’s a time when you recognize, if you’ve finished an eight-course banquet, and you force down the last morsel of food and swig it down with a glass of port, that you would just be horrified if someone brings out some glistening, gleaming, fatty pig on a huge platter and says, “And just for a final course…!” [Laughs] No way, come on.

No, there’s a point where you’ve had a carefully executed banquet. That everything, from a taste point of view, everything blends with everything else and moves on to this and on to that, and you wrap it up and you finish the meal. And then it’s time to burp quietly and go home.

So, we don’t want to drift into those normal things of, “Hey, let’s play Aqualung again at the end!” I mean, I do that every tour. This is one of those occasions (we won’t be doing that)—it’s a different sort of concert. And I’m sure those people who want to hear the classic repertoire, they’ll just wait a little while and there’ll be another Jethro Tull concert tour where we do that, sooner or later—but not this year. I’m pretty tied up with these things.

Ian Anderson pic 2 for pt 2.JPG

What do you hope that your fans and new listeners get from the new disc?

As I would always hope, that they would be perhaps just made a little more curious to look up some of the things in the lyrics, or find some references (to them). These days, it’s not just perhaps thinking about it and going, “Well, I wonder what her meant by that?” These days, you can just jump in there and go and ask Mr. Google or Mr. Wiki and it will open some doors—well, at least some windows—on scenarios that, perhaps, a few years ago would not have been available to you.

So, I would rather hope that it makes people pick up the thread of something that I might say lyrically, and just—as I do—become a little bit more knowledgeable about the world, because all I’m doing is very often reflecting things these days that I may well have picked up from my internet explorations.

And that’s one of the good things about today’s technological age, (how it’s enabled) the gathering of knowledge, and weighing up of different knowledge.

But, of course you’ve got to be savvy; you’ve got to walk across that busy internet freeway with eyes wide open and looking left and right so you don’t get hit by the internet truck. You can be damaged if you’re not going out there with your eyes open, but it’s an OK place to be once you have developed that road sense. And I think, largely speaking, most young people do develop that instinct pretty early on these days. (Laughs) It’s their grandparents who are likely to get hit by the internet truck, and find their bank account wiped out, sadly.

Ian Anderson confessional pic.jpg

I’m curious, what do you get from doing all of this work?

Well, money is probably the last thing that I’ll get. (Laughs) Because, in this day and age—to actually recover the cost of actually making a real album with real people in a real recording studio; to pay your lawyer fees for negotiating a record contract; to pay for the art work to be done; the DVD authoring to be done; the editing to be done; and the mixing to be done, since I work with young Stephen Wilson to use his younger ears and his expertise in the digital domain to do the mix of this—there’s a lot of cost involved. A lot of musicians to pay a good couple of weeks—nearly three weeks of time—to rehearse and record it.

So, it’s very expensive to do. And in this day and age, I guess the best I could hope for would be that I might make my money back. It’s a bit like being a fish farmer for 20 years. I just about made my money back, and that was it.

But the joy of doing something, and succeeding, is—for me—not about creating vast income. I just don’t like to lose money by doing something. But if I can cover my costs, I’m pretty happy. And I should probably make a bit of money doing tours, and making the world a better place by treading the concert stage. (Laughs) So, we’ll see.

Now, why do I do it?

Why does anybody do anything? Why do people paint pictures? Why do people make movies? Why do people put themselves through any kind of artistic endeavor?

Usually, it’s something that you’re driven to do, and you don’t actually want or need to explain to yourself or anybody else. It’s something that possesses you. It is that sense of being driven, and I think, hopefully, people will find that in all walks of life and in all disciplines, whether it’s being a doctor or a lawyer, or a dentist or an engineer.

To be driven to do what you do well, and to succeed in your own terms, if not in other people’s eyes, there’s something we have. And if we didn’t have that, we probably, as a species, would not have been so successful. We are genetically programmed to strive for some form of success.

Ian Andereson thick as a BRICK-FACE.jpg

We hope you’ll return for the third and final part of Ian Anderson’s extended conversation with Bill Baker, when the topics shift from sex to politics and death.

No, really; this is one wrap-up you don’t want to miss.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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