Ian Anderson: Thick As A Brick But Sly As A Fox

 


By Jeb Wright

In 1972, the world was introduced to 8 year old Gerald Bostock, who became an overnight sensation when it was revealed that Jethro Tull’s musically complex concept album, titled Thick as a Brick, was based on a poem the young man had penned. Of course, it was all a ruse, a titillating story fueled by the clever sense of humor of Tull’s front man Ian Anderson.

The album contained an actual newspaper recounting the events titled The St. Cleve Chronicles and while most saw the story as a spoof, some believed it. Ah, humanity, always there to provide a cosmic laugh to their never bored creator.

The album reached the top of the charts and was lauded as being one of Jethro Tull’s crowing jewels of achievement. Now, forty years later, Ian Anderson has revisited Gerald Bostock updating us with five different possibilities of what became of the young boy over the last forty years.

The album, Thick as a Brick 2 is in the can and will be released as an Ian Anderson solo album.

Read on as Ian and I discuss the making of TAAB2 including the songwriting, the lyrical content, Gerald’s fates and how Anderson was talked into this undertaking by Derek Shulman, former member of Gentle Giant.

We also discuss why the album is not released under the Jethro Tull moniker and what the future holds for Tull.

Enjoy.


Jeb: Before we get to Thick as a Brick 2, I talked to Martin Barre recently and he told me that Jethro Tull was currently on ice.

Ian: That depends on what your definition of ‘on ice’ is. Last June, Martin, Doane [Perry] and I had talks about what was going to happen in the following year. I explained that, as I have been doing over the last ten years, I have been doing more shows under my own name, as opposed to playing shows under the name Jethro Tull.

Martin also has many projects that he has been wanting to do. I told him last summer, as I have done on many occasions in the past, “Don’t let this time slip by. You should really be grasping this opportunity.”

Life is too short. If you miss that chance then you will say, “One day I will get around to doing another album. I will get around to working with some other musicians.” Suddenly, you realize that time has gone on and you can’t play any more because you’re too old and cranky. The opportunity is then gone. I think it is really important that at certain times in their lives people start to explore other alternatives.

I’ve been doing that for a while and Martin has, to some extent, but I think this year, from what I’m hearing, he has a bunch of projects underway. I think this will be really good for him as an individual. It will be good for the psyche and the soul to strike out on his own.

The term ‘on ice’ is probably a fair enough description. We put a fine wine on ice that we will enjoy drinking at a later time. We put strawberries or lobster on ice because we look forward to enjoying them at some point in time, in the not so distant future. If by ‘on ice’ you mean a corpse in a mortuary, then that is not a good description.

Jeb: But there are no Jethro Tull shows scheduled.

Ian: I don’t have any Jethro Tull shows lined up – they are not a feature of the moment. All of the shows I have lined up in 2012 are Ian Anderson shows but I said to Martin that if we receive an offer, and it is really interesting, then I would give him a call. We are not going to go out and just cram in some Jethro Tull dates just so we can play the repertoire. For a lot of people, though, it does tend to be the music that they want to hear.

People will say, “We want to hear some different stuff. Play more of the old stuff.” They say that but the consensus, and what delivers to an audience, is the heavy hitters and the biggest hits. That’s fine and I don’t mind doing that, but I just don’t want to do it all of the time for what little remains of my professional musical life.

It is time to do a few more things. One of those things was to write something in a more conceptual context that is a bigger and more demanding performance and recording. There is no point in me thinking, “Well, maybe I can do that later. Maybe when I’m 70 it will all come to fruition.” It will be a lot harder when I’m 70.

Jeb: I was afraid Martin was saying Tull was over.

Ian: It is not for me to talk about Martin, really, but I do know that he does not like being in the studio; he does not enjoy recording. I can understand that because I kind of feel a little of that myself. Being in the studio, you’re so aware that you have to deliver something that is going to define who you are. You’re not always in that kind of mood. You’re under the pressure of recording and having to do your best and you’re under time constraints – it is something that is pretty demanding and stressful. The more you think about it, the harder it gets and I know Martin does not find that easy. It has always been low on his priorities to be in that position.

He probably looks back at the times in the studio and wishes he had been some place else. He was driven on by me, or by the constraints of time, money, practicality, geography – all of the things that come into play. It can add up to a not great experience.

I feel that the way I was going to approach this album would have made it much worse for him. It involved really doing a lot of work and preparation and being able to rise to the occasion over ten days of really solid work. No one could afford to drop the ball for ten days. We all had to keep the momentum and the enthusiasm going at all times. There had to be an emotional fervor that had to build and not be dissipated by any moments of self doubt, disappointment or wishing you were somewhere else, or wanting to leave a bit early that day because of some other commitment. We all had to really, really buckle down.

The other guys, I know from my experience of working with them, for all but one case, for ten years, that they are good at doing that. Like me, they sort of blossom under that extra pressure. I don’t think Martin actually really would have enjoyed it. While he was on the original Thick as a Brick, it was never my game plan to go into the studio and recreate something from 1972. I really wanted to work with musicians who would give it musically, a slightly different feel, even though we were working with the same sonic pallet of Hammond organ, glockenspiel, acoustic guitar, Gibson Les Paul and drums and bass.

There is no way that I would tell David Goodier that I wanted him to sound like Jeffery Hammond. I wanted him to sound like David Goodier. I wanted him to come up with his own ideas and interpretations as to how he should look at a particular piece of music and suggest what his bass lines should be. We could refine that together and arrive at something that was right. It didn’t really require a huge amount of input from me. David is a very easy and natural musician to work with.

I couldn’t afford to go into the studio and start experimenting. We needed to go in and be driven. For example, we had a keyboard player that we had for quite a few years, that if he were the one on this album, then I would still be making it because he still would not have decided what sound he was going to use out of the many potentially cheesy 1980’s synthesizer sounds he liked.

The whole point is that you’ve got to have people that live and breathe a certain kind of approach and I value that in the musicians that I work with.

I had time to get the people who are right for the job. By that I mean that are right for my job because it’s my baby. I’m the guy who wrote and designed the whole Thick as a Brick concept. The other guys didn’t know what we were doing in the studio. Literally, I would come in each day with another piece of music and they often didn’t hear the lyrics or even the melody line to a certain piece. I was the only guy who knew where it was going.

You have to trust your expedition leader as you trudge collectively into the foothills of the Andes, knowing that many of you may not return. You have to trust in somebody else’s vision, confidence and ability to take you somewhere that you haven’t been before. Some expedition leaders will bring you back safely and others will leave you dead in the ice.

Jeb: From the interviews we have done in the past I would not take you as an anniversary type of guy. I was surprised to see you embracing the 40th anniversary of Thick as a Brick.

Ian: No, I’m not an anniversary guy. When it comes to the whole essence of why you do something at a certain time it is, to be totally truthful, because of record companies who like things with zeros on the end of them. They like anniversaries and compilation albums. When Aqualung got to its 35th and 40th anniversaries there was some sort of reprieve in terms of remastering and playing it on stage.

I am actually uncomfortable with it. I am just not an anniversary and birthday kind of guy. It is not that I don’t think it’s important, because it is for many other people. I don’t want to be a spoilsport and not do it, but it is just not my instinct to do so. Another birthday is just another birthday. I just don’t really pay much attention to that. Whether it is the 9th of August, or the 11th of August, it is going to be the same kind of experience that I will have on my birthday. I don’t get into that sort of stuff but I realize that other people do. There is a little bit of compliance in my otherwise contrary nature that says, “Well, okay, we’ll give it a go.”

Jeb: Thus, Thick as a Brick 2. I still am shocked you did it.

Ian: To be pushed and cajoled into taking seriously the idea of making a sequel to Thick as a Brick is something that I never thought I would agree to. If you’d asked me this two years ago, I would have said, “No chance, absolutely not. I have given that thought in the past and I really don’t want to go there.”

The thing that changed my mind was that I realized that I really didn’t have to go there. I just had to jump forty years into the future and wonder what Gerald Bostock would be doing today. What would the St. Cleve Chronicle be like today? Suddenly, I found myself in a territory where I found myself much more at home. I found myself positioning characters and taking into account the realities of today’s changing culture and changing technology. It suddenly became an interesting concept for 2012.

Jeb: Go back to 1972 for a moment. When people did not get that the entire Gerald Bostock thing was not real you must have been floored. Also, did that make it more fun to revisit the concept 40 years later and update your own fictitious character?

Ian: I think we have to remember that it is well established when you present people, right off the bat, with the improbable, usually they will buy into it. They will suspend disbelief because they love to, willingly, enter into a fantasy. If that was not the case then there would be no Peter Pan, Father Christmas, Rocky Horror Picture Show and no walking dead. You create improbable scenarios and people step inside of it because they love the idea of entering into this impossible world. I guess it is kind of an antidote to day to day boredom and stress.

I think that is why most people went into the original Thick as a Brick and didn’t really worry whether it was a parody or not. Some people got the joke immediately and some people did not. I think my thought, at the time, was that it would be about half and half, in terms of the initial response of the album. I thought that most of the people who didn’t get the joke would get the joke twenty minutes later, or twenty days later, or whatever. Some people to this day, because they didn’t pay much attention to the album cover, or the lyrics, still think that was the album that was written by an eight year old boy. Some people will still believe that, but they are a very small minority.

In taking that fiction on today then, of course, I am continuing with the dialogue of the text that it is real because I think people will kind of go with that. In a couple of week’s time I am going to open it up on our website for people to write into the St. Cleve Chronicle with their own stories. I know there will be lots and lots of people who want to do that. Lots of people will send in their stories, some ridiculous, some serious and some probably too obscene to print.

People want to do that; they want to join in. I think that is kind of fun and relatively harmless. I will have some editorial help to make sure that we don’t have the obscene, or the unwelcome because there will be people who try to do that. As we all know too well there are people who love to bully and mess things up for other people by being cyber bullies, or trolls, or whatever you want to call them. I’m sure we will attract a few of those. You can’t be on Facebook without doing that. You can’t be in a chat room without being involved in that. You have to learn to navigate the particular place that you’re going to go. Most people do learn but some folks are more sensitive or unprepared for it, and they get severely hurt by it. I can understand that.

Jeb: Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant was the one who changed your mind about doing this sequel. How did he do it?

Ian: We were on our third conversation about this and I was trying to put him off gently about it. This went on for a year and a half. We were at a McCormick and Schmick’s seafood restaurant; I think it was very possibly on the outskirts of Chicago. Wherever it was, I was sitting there and he started ravaging on about Thick as a Brick 2 and I thought to myself, “Oh God, can’t I eat my clam chowder in peace?” One of us, I can’t remember whether it was him or I said, “I wonder what Gerald Bostock would be doing today and what the St. Cleve Chronicle would be today?” That was the moment when, suddenly, a little thing went off in the back of my head and I thought, “I really need to think about that.”

Over Christmas of 2010, I had a think about it. By January of 2011, I’d decided I was going to try a few scenarios that would explore different possibilities. In February, I wrote the album in about three weeks, along with a couple of pieces I’d prepared before that never really had a home. In the first week of March, I went to Munich to work with Florian Opahle , a German guitarist and John O'Hara, who is the keyboard player, to score it all out. We used Sibelius, the music composition software program. We had many, many pages of big, huge scores. I gave them to the other guys in the band and then forgot about it for eight months.

In November, we all scratched our heads and thought, “Ah, we’d better get that music out and see what this is all about.” There were some little changes that occurred in the rehearsal period such as additions and new inventions that kept it on boil. We recorded it and spent seven days rehearsing and ten days recording. We then handed it over to Steven Wilson to do the mixing, which he did exactly on schedule. The date had been predetermined nine or ten months before because we had some dates that we had to do and we needed to stay on plan. It had to be done on time and it was.

It was really exciting because deadlines loom and you know you can’t have any slippage and that you can’t get behind. This energy grows and it becomes quite exciting. We actually started off 36 hours behind due to some software issues in the studio. We got off to a really bad start and we really had to catch up. It was quite an emotional and physically demanding thing to do, working all of those hours to get these things done.

Jeb: Does Thick as Brick 2 follow in the footsteps of the original album, concerning songs running together and being a progressive rock piece?

Ian: Actually, yes, there are a couple of places where I make a deliberate nod and a wink to the direction of the original Thick as a Brick with some sort of musical styling. For the most part, it is new music and there are a number of themes that develop and work in different ways, in different parts of the piece. I’ve tried to keep with the same sounds.

It is not an album swathed in echoes and darkness, it is quite present and upfront. I was quite happy to make it a really close cousin of the original album, in terms of its sonic, but in terms of lyrics, and in terms of much of the music, it bears nothing to the original.

I wanted to find that good balance between a few reference points and a few little moments where you reach back through the years and touch something briefly, but as a composer and a musician, I have to be in touch with that fine balance. I don’t want to get out of kilter and end up making Rocky VII and I don’t want to, on the other hand, make something that has nothing to do with the original at all. You’ve just got to have that ten percent of its heritage. It has got to be there but I don’t want to make it too obvious.

Jeb: Is the plan to play both albums in their entirety? If so, that’s huge.

Ian: That is correct. It’s huge for one particular reason, which is called Side Two of Thick as a Brick, that’s the difficult bit. I am off the day after tomorrow to Berlin to do an orchestral concert but aside from that my time is being spent on doing the pre-production work and a lot of the pragmatic elements of touring, such as booking flights and hotels, which have to be organized.

Rehearsing the music is something that I’m just beginning to do. I don’t want to do all of that too early, as I will forget it again. I am just getting to the point where I’m turning my attention to the music. Side One of Thick as a Brick is pretty easy and the new album is pretty easy because it is fresh in my mind. It was designed from the word go to be more playable, concerning me not doing too many things at the same time is concerned.

The second side of Thick as a Brick has a lot of moments where I’m playing flute, acoustic guitar and vocals – they all coincide making it a really tough thing to bring to life on stage because you need to have help from the other guys and they’re busy doing their bits.

We have an extra person who will be an actor, singer and mime artist who will be involved in the theatrical presentation of the record. When we do the material onstage, we will make it not just a musical performance, but also include a bit of slightly whacky theater.

Jeb: Will you do them in chronological order?

Ian: I’m preparing for both eventualities. The idea is to play the original Thick as a Brick followed by Thick as a Brick 2. We will try it the other way around during the first two weeks of shows. All of the structure of the show has to allow for that changeability.

There will be shows this summer where we will not be playing all of either album because it is not a production tour where we have all of our lights and sound system – I am talking about some dates where there are multi acts on a festival or a venue where it is not practical to bring our production in. We have to do variations on the theme where there is a chunk of each album and maybe one or two of the repertoire pieces. For the most part, they are the full performances of the entire album. When we come to the USA in September, October and November, then those dates will make up the full production tour.

Jeb: You’re fortunate that Tull audiences are open to hearing 30 to 40 minutes of new music.

Ian: Some of them will and some of them won’t, but the point of this is that it is a brave, and probably foolhardy, attempt to solicit the patience, understanding and the willingness of a lot of Senior Citizens to sit through something that they may not have heard at all, or may not have any intention of listening too. It’s not going to be easy but I thought we should give it a go.

If you’re making a prog rock album that is a conceptual piece, and it is new, and you’re playing it all on stage; that is a lot. It is not like you’re Roger Waters and playing The Wall. When he does that then people know exactly what to expect. Then again, people are going out and doing their seminal albums, we did that five or six years ago with Aqualung. It is a pretty obvious thing to do and bands like to do that and audiences like to see that but it is about nostalgia. The older members of the audience like to relive it and the smaller percentage of the younger members of the audience like to see it because they can see something they never had the chance to see because they were not alive back then.

What I’m doing is a step beyond that because it relies on a new piece of music. One of the reasons that I don’t want to do it as Jethro Tull is because it would be demanding too much of the more rock oriented, beer drinking buddies who just come to a show to hear “My God,” “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath” and a few tracks from Benefit that I refuse to play. Rather than getting into an uncomfortable situation I thought this should be an Ian Anderson oriented piece.

Some people know who I am, but to a lot of people, Jethro Tull is the guy playing flute and standing on one leg. They don’t know that I’m Ian Anderson, or that I have a real name. There are some people who literally don’t know that, they really think that is my name.

For those who know it is a band name, and that the band consists of 22 people, depending on your definition over the years, then it’s a big extended family of musicians. The only one who has been there from the beginning is me. I’m the guy who writes most of the music and all of the lyrics.

I am often asked what the difference is between a Jethro Tull concert and an Ian Anderson concert. I have to say, in all truthfulness, from where I’m standing on stage, almost nothing at all. My part remains the same; I do what I do. The only difference is if I turn to my right or left and see a different guy playing a guitar solo.

All of the guys in the band have done shows as members of Jethro Tull. It is about having the right people for the right time. I don’t think I should feel awkward or embarrassed about it. It is a nice feeling to have this freedom to work with other people. Over the last ten to fifteen years, I have felt self indulgent enough to want to do that. I find enjoyment from working with other musicians and I do that quite a lot.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have played on tracks on two other people’s albums that they asked me to play on. I have a couple of more to do that I promised to do. I enjoy that. I enjoy finding a way to give something of myself to somebody else’s project. I am so used to being the guy with the project. It is kind of nice to be the hired hand. Well, hired in the sense that I am helping out; I never ask to be paid. I don’t really like the idea of getting paid to play a few bars of the flute on somebody else’s record. It feels like being a hooker. If you want to know how much it really costs to spend the night with me then you’d better save up your pennies. It is better if I just do this for love. I tell them, “I do this just for you.”

Jeb: Musically, this album must stand up as a great composition because it is related to one of the most intense works in your catalog. When did you know that musically, this project could do just that?

Ian: By the time we got to day two or three of rehearsal there was a lot of pressure on us. By that point, I felt very confident that we were going to get it to work. Up until then, it was just me playing a crude demo, or me and the guitar player strumming some odd lines. We rehearsed it live and we were trying to evolve the music in a way so that it would really be a live performance.

Day two of rehearsal is when we started thinking that things were really going to be okay. By day five or six of rehearsal, we were all feeling confident that we were going to get to the end of the album by the end of a rehearsal period and that was quite exciting. We knew we would then go in and record it, which was exciting in itself.

Many months went by not really being sure if this would ever come to fruition. Would it really be good enough? I was confident about the lyrics, the tunes and the melodies but I wasn’t sure how it was all going to jell.

You have to have faith in both yourself and your fellow musician’s abilities to pull it all off. It was little late in the day, which is why I didn’t want to mention that we had this project in mind and that we would be going out to play it on stage.

Once I announced that we would be playing all of Thick as a Brick live then I couldn’t go on and say we would be playing the follow-up because, at that point, there may not have been one. We could have got to the middle of December, last year, and still be struggling to come up with something good enough, which, at that point, I would have had to abort the mission. As it happened, it went to plan.

Not many things do go to plan. It is a struggle to stay to plan any time you’re in the studio but things do start going wrong. I can’t tell you the agonies I went through recording A Passion Play. Aqualung was not an easy album to make. There are several pieces of music on that one that we attempted two or three times and we just couldn’t get it right. It was a real struggle recording some of those songs.

I can’t really remember an album that went to plan. Maybe Songs from the Wood; that one went pretty much to plan. I am certain there was still some agonizing moment of getting seriously behind schedule, or finding some songs that weren’t clicking with the other guys. It is really par for the course.

This time around, it really has been one of the easiest albums to make. We didn’t have to throw things out or start again; it all went to plan. It is really rather unusual. Never in my life have I got to the end of an album and it all worked. It is all quite enjoyable.

I have been listening to it, on and off, since last December and it is equally unusual that, at this point, I am still listening to it and saying, “It’s really good.” It is a little unnatural, really. Usually, there are two or three songs on each album that I’m beginning to doubt and then six months later I actually begin to hate them. Sometimes, I learn to love them again, in the realm of them being a mistake.

Jeb: My last one is this: Do we get any hint of what Gerald has been up to the last 40 years? Has his life been good for him, or has it been tragic?

Ian: I look at a number of things that could have happened to young Gerald. I wrote a number of directions that he might have taken and I explore those directions and try to explore the idea that maybe, regardless of what path we take in life, and how we react to the various interventions of chance that cause us to go one way or another, maybe we all end up in the place that was preordained for us in the first place. Maybe there is some personal kismet, or karma, that will bring us to a conclusion in life, regardless of what we do in the middle. I do not prescribe to that idea in real life, but it is an idea that I find interesting and like to write about.

The essence of the concept here is to look at five possible ideas that he might have arrived at in terms of his life, his career and his ups and downs.

There were several things that I decided not to make him because they didn’t seem to be enough there on which to build a musical identity. I thought about making him an astronaut. That idea fell apart because I thought no matter what I did it would be too close to David Bowie.

Another reason is because I had actually become quite close to a couple of astronauts at that time in my life. I didn’t want to make Gerald an astronaut because I would be touching on some pretty tricky personal moments. I didn’t want to exploit what I knew, on a personal level, about a couple of astronauts that I know. I have always been careful about this because I never want to betray people’s secrets and because of those two issues, I had to stay away from the astronaut.

I decided not to make him, which was the most obvious thing to make him, a politician. I thought this precarious young child would grow up with debating skills and some pompous view points and turn into a politician. It was so obvious that I thought I would just make a brief reference on the album cover.

His other guises are a minister of the faith, a corrupted evangelist, and an equally corrupted investment banker, who gets huge bonuses for playing with other people’s money. He is a soldier in his middle age, involved in the repatriation of injured and dead soldiers in the wake of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. He is an ordinary man. He is a shopkeeper who plays with his model train sets who has a childless marriage and has a devoted wife who cooks for him. He lives a very modest and un-ambitious life. There is no shame in that. In a way I’m trying to speak up for those who do not have huge ambition or direction in life. They’re happy to settle for their comfort zone. That’s okay and I’m trying to tell people that’s okay, of course, I may be making a little fun of it with certain stereotypes but I’m certainly not trying to be cruel.

Some of the stuff is upbeat and humorous and some of it is pretty dark. It gets pretty dark when you’re doing a song about someone whose sexual orientation leads him through the disapproval of parents and he ends up being a rent boy on the streets – that is pretty dark and horrific.

I’m trying to cover areas that are both the ups and downs of life. We all could have gone there. Using some elements of my own life and experiences, I can use some of the ‘what ifs, maybes and might have beens of my life or, perhaps your life.

The album is also for people who are in their teens because they are at that point where they are making decisions on these things. In a way, this album is for them. It shows the myriad of possibilities that are ahead of them and that they have to be prepared for them and you’ve got to be thinking about them. You have to make wise and informed decisions to the best of your ability because you’ve only got one chance to make them.


Jeb: What about Bostock’s creator? How have you changed over the same time period?

Ian: I’m fatter, older and happier and a grandfather…but I’m always a playful child at heart.


Jeb: I really can’t wait to hear the music on this album.

Ian: It sounds great from what I’m telling you. Don’t expect too much; I’m just a good talker.

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