Ophelia Stimpson speaks to Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull and veteran musician…
‘Ian Anderson. Now he’ll be an interesting bloke to talk to.’ So said some of the more mature regulars at the pub when I told them I’d been offered an interview with the charismatic frontman of Jethro Tull. As far as I knew, he was ‘that one’ who successfully managed to incorporate the flute into rock music, with an appearance which wouldn’t look out of place if he were playing some sort of Keith Richard’s-esque cameo in Pirates of the Caribbean. So I gathered that there’d be a fair bit to him, but that was as far as it went. Apparently, though, if you don’t know about Ian Anderson then you ought to; in retrospect of the interview, I can vouch for this.
It was in 1972 that Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick (TAAB) – a concept album based on the fictitious schoolboy Gerald Bostock which humorously records his day-to-day shenanigans in one continuous 44-minute burst of progressive rock. And now, 40 years on, Anderson has returned with his creation of Thick as a Brick 2, which in a nutshell delves back into the concept of Gerald Bostock who would now be aged 50. So what’s changed? The first TAAB instantly became a number one Billboard Chart album; is it really worth trying to recapture Gerald’s fictional life so rooted in its context of 1972?
It was at the end of 2010 that Anderson was experiencing a sort of ‘private meltdown’ as regards to the resurrection of Gerald Bostock. Having been asked to create a follow up album on numerous occasions, and having rejected all previous approaches, Anderson finally felt it was time to resurrect the character which generated much of the acclaim still associated with his career today. But how to make it relevant? It perhaps takes less effort than one would think, hints Anderson – imagining how a life has developed over the course of a few decades is perhaps, in fact, perfectly natural. “As we baby-boomers look back on our own lives, we must often feel an occasional ‘what-if’ moment. Might we, like Gerald, have become instead preacher, soldier, down-and-out, shopkeeper or finance tycoon?,”
That’s all very well for our parents, I said, because they can map their own ‘what-if’ moments against the release of the original TAAB album. How can we young’uns relate to this sort of thing when we’re yet to know where our paths will take us? ‘Well, it can do you a lot of good, in fact’, says Ian. ‘Kids these days are bombarded with huge decisions at a very young age – all you need do is pick your A-level choices and already you’re sort of narrowing life down. The sooner you start to realise that, the sooner you can keep your options open or establish your preferences.’ This all sounds suspiciously similar to the speech from my 6th form open day. ‘I’m not trying to preach, and I’m not aiming my music at the youth alone. The point of this record is not to feed you a quaint little tale of a fictional person, the point is exactly to make many different people think.’
I said I found Ian’s reference to ‘thinking’ quite interesting; you can argue significant degrees of mental engagement seem like a foreign concept in today’s Top 40, where messages can be, well, insultingly literal. Ian picked up on this; “people don’t deserve to be spoon-fed – we’re an intellectual species, and if we dumb down music or any kind of art we become numb. You’re probably thinking “who is this silly old codger, making us think about stuff”, but someone needs to provide the antidote to all things ‘X factor’. None of us are stupid; I’ve had letters from prisoners in the USA telling me about how a certain nuance in my music has brought about a change in their intellectual outlook. If I can make people boxed into the label of ‘convict’ expand their mental horizons, I must be getting something right.”
The conversation then flowed by seamless association to the subject of challenge. Anderson’s career has spanned a generous 40 years thus far and it is by no means waning. “I think the important thing is to keep your mind open and active at any age. I don’t read music but I’ve played my flute with symphony orchestras in my time – I’d never be able to interpret music in the same way as traditionally professional flautists, but likewise they’d struggle to apply an intricate flute solo to a piece of rock music. When I meet such musicians, it is always fascinating to test each other and see what we can get out of it.”
I wondered about Ian’s thoughts on those making music from downloadable computer software in our current era of music. “I’m not refuting the fact that it takes talent to produce something good from computers. But the thing is, kids today grow up with computers – you lose that magic of taking the time to explore a new instrument. Computers are good because they creatively involve people, and creativity is always good, but I’m suspicious of music being made by people from software which has been assembled by someone else – it seems to me generic, and not music in real time.” There’s a lot to be said for listening to people like Ian Anderson – it’s easy to remain unaware and consign them to the passages of previous decades when actually their music is a lifetime craft. Anderson is an artisan, quietly and humbly producing a sound where he has paid strong attention to quality. He is not a part of history, but a stalwart of the present day.