Jethro Tull has been around now for 45 years. 28 musicians have been in the band but only one calls the shots: Ian Anderson. The image of Anderson, on one foot, playing the flute, is one of the more iconic images in all of progressive rock. He’s incorporated jazz, folk, blues and classical into his seamless mix and continues to tour globally with fans—Grateful Dead style—following him around the world. The current album, Thick As A Brick 2, imagines what might have happened to its original 1972 protagonist, Gerald Bostock, decades later.
The conversation below was almost adversarial in that I had interviewed beloved Tull guitarist Martin Barre earlier in the year, and he was clearly upset over not being asked to participate in TAAB2. I knew Anderson, who is one of the more articulate, intelligent, philosophical and literate rock stars, could take my incessant grilling, so I went in with a mission. To his credit, he was a good sport and handled me with patience, professionalism and with a profound zen-like wisdom.
How do you know when to get rid of certain guys and get other guys? You’re a crafty individual both in business and music, no?
Well, it’s not as cynical or crafty as “getting rid” of guys. I have relationships. You come to enjoy oftentimes passionate friendships with other musicians whom you find productive for a while but sometimes you go into it knowing this is not going to be forever. It’s exciting—intellectually and emotionally—to play with certain people. No one is under any long-term marriage contract to make it a union for life so it’s not really a question of deciding when to get rid of them.
It’s mutual. To drag on beyond the point to where it’s not fun and productive is not the best thing to do. Working with me, you can use that relationship to further your career. But then move on and do other things! Don’t get stuck in a rut by thinking you have to stick around me forever because I can manage quite well without you. I’ve given that advice to more than a few people. I’m not a guy who hires and fires like buying a new member of a football team. I’m a band leader in the tradition of Frank Zappa or John Mayall. I don’t think it’s fair to say we “get rid” of people just because they play a wrong note or something. We’re not that mean.
Unless you’re James Brown.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention James Brown amongst the good band leaders. He had a very bad reputation amongst his musicians for being exactly the kind of guy that maybe you’re alluding to. Another one very much in that vein is Van Morrison. He fires people when he gets bored with them!
I love the lineup from ’95 to ’05 of you with Martin Barre, Jon Noyce, Andrew Giddings and Doane Perry.
I think on a purely musical basis, it was a more flexible and adept lineup. Martin was at his best, continuing to develop. They were polished on stage, too. I don’t think, though, they quite had the fire in the belly for recording. At least a couple of them were never at their best in the studio. I think the pressure got to them.
That’s not something I feel I would want to say because it would suggest somebody wasn’t up to the mark. I never betray my friends, musicians or otherwise, by criticizing them. Some people enjoy the stage but tremble at the knees when they walk into a studio where it’s for real—a test, if you will—with the resultant pressure. I feel the pressure too as a producer, musician, composer and arranger. The buck stops with me. But, nonetheless, the adrenaline rush of building momentum is one that overcomes the trepidation. So I can see it from both sides.
Why wasn’t Barre or Perry part of TAAB2? The fans were up in arms about it and it caused no small amount of controversy. You told Pat Prince of Goldmine magazine it was a scheduling conflict but Martin told me that…
I did not use the phrase “scheduling conflict.” Back in June of 2011, on a few occasions, I met with Martin and Doane to talk to them about 2012. I explained I had been working on a new project which was probably going to take up most of my 2012 time, that it was a conceptual project; that I did not want to pursue it under the Jethro Tull banner. We then discussed what those guys might be doing in 2012. The talks were well-scheduled and we all agreed they would pursue other avenues that they had, mind you, already been thinking of. That’s hardly a “scheduling conflict.” It was a plus, a bonus; it was finally time to do some other things on a personal basis. Particularly for Martin. He’s actually a year older than me. We’re not guys who can go on forever. Martin and I have talked over the last few years about him pursuing some solo projects. It’s not anything unusual or even particularly new. Look, I have no intention of being drawn into a sparring match here. There is no conflict. It’s just people doing their own thing. Maybe Martin might have felt, in some way, snubbed, not to be asked to do Thick As A Brick 2 and, if so, I can understand that, but there was plenty of notice for Martin and Doane to think about pursuing actively their alternative personal plans. Martin, as you probably know, is out and about doing tours as we speak. Doane is recovering from a health issues.
How often do you keep in touch with them and other ex-Tull musicians?
We’re in regular touch and chat about this and that. In fact, I’m sort of disappointed if a couple of days go by and I don’t get an email from one of the 28 musicians I’ve played with over the years in Jethro Tull. I’d like to think I’m on pretty good terms with most of them. In fact, looking down my emails as I speak to you now, I can see yet another email from an ex-musician who was once in Jethro Tull. Ooh, he’s inviting me to a, well, I should have a degree of discretion; let’s just say it’s an important private function. I rather like when I get these… Wait, hang on, let’s see, here’s one… Two, two ex-musicians, three, another musician who once came to work with me very briefly and decided not to pursue, ooh, hold on, here’s another two, and this is just today’s emails. I kind of like the fact that we have this big extended family thing going on that I’m a part of.
Speaking of family, I’m a paid-up member and supporter of an entity called “Population Matters.” I’m very concerned about people’s attitudes towards birth control. I’m one of those people who believe we all should be entitled to have a child or two… But stop at two! Let’s try and put the lid on population expansion. We’re already at a point where we can’t feed the planet. There’s no real possibility of increasing our food production for years to come in this topsy-turvy climate change world. This is something that actually matters to me. I have two children. I have two grandchildren whom I hope to have a hand in fostering. So that’s okay. I’m on target. I’m a responsible inhabitant of the planet Earth. I’m in that place where we can see minimal or no population growth as a direct result of my personal seminal fluid.
But I have my extended family, 28, wait, two of them, sadly, have passed on, so 26 surviving Jethro Tull mates who I’m kind of proud of.
So you would not be adverse, then, in the future, to possibly playing again with Martin Barre?
Absolutely not. In fact, in one of the last conversations I had with Martin, I was talking to him of doing a little acoustic outing with just the two of us! We’ve never done that before. We’re all too used to the media-whipped frenzy of a Jagger-Richards will they/won’t they kind of thing…
Well, this then, is the Jethro Tull equivalent. There’s a magic when you and Martin play…
My point was going to be that it’s not the Jethro Tull equivalent! There isn’t that kind of a friction or bust-up. Jagger and Richards have had longstanding bad blood between them. No no, I don’t see it as an equivalent at all. Can we move on? We’ve done this one to death.
On the new album, you almost go back to the original two Jethro Tull albums: less rock and more of other genres like jazz and folk.
Well, there are some elements of jazz and blues at work in much of what I’ve written over the years. I’m a very eclectic musician who draws upon a number of different musical genres to try and integrate them into the musical mix. Jazz and blues are certainly part of that mix. What they have in common is improvisation. That’s the element that I think I take with me through my musical life. But I’m more drawn instinctively towards folk music and classical music. By folk, I don’t just mean the music of Great Britain or the United States; I’m talking about ethnic music of different cultures in different parts of the world. I’m more drawn to that as being something earthy, [heartfelt], built upon tradition, never changing.
I’m less concerned with recreating historic folk themes or identities in the way we imagine they were done originally. I’m more passionate about folk music as an evolution based upon tradition of a culture. As far as classical music is concerned, classical is music of the head! It is the conscious skilled authority of learned musicians plying their trade. I’m drawn to that: The potential marriage of heart and mind, which seems the ideal music to pursue, combining the intellectual part of the process with the emotional.
Finally, would you consider TAAB2 a metaphor for how our generation has changed through the years never knowing the kind of person we’re ultimately going to be?
Not only would I consider it a metaphor, but it was designed and written very specifically to be, if you like, a metaphor for the lives of all of us who might look back and think how we might have done this life differently. “Oh, if I’d only married the girl next door. Oh, if only I’d taken up that offer of a full-time position. Oh, if only I’d have been a football player or professional bungee jumper.” Still, that said, TAAB2 is not just for us old folks. I really try to put in there some of the notion that it might amuse or kick-start a little thought for people in their teens or early 20s who are very much in that firing line of decision making where things are coming thick and fast with potential changes in life. It’s easy just to go with the flow, and some people do. Nothing wrong with that if you want to be relatively passive and let things wash over you and end up on whatever beach the tide and wind take you to. Some of us, though, want to swim against the tide. It’s good to encourage people to do that: taking seriously responsibilities not only for their own future but for friends and family who have played and will hopefully continue to play a part in their lives. Sometimes you have to make decisions on doing the right thing and sometimes that might mean accommodating the wishes of your parents!
The album, in the end, is all light-hearted conjecture, really, but one can take out of it what one will. There’s a good chance I’ll be showing up on your doorstep to perform it within the next few months but, if you’re talking a few years down the road, you’ll just have to talk to my doctor.
Ian Anderson’s new album, Thick As A Brick 2, is available now through Capitol/EMI. For more information, go to j-tull.com