At 64 years of age and with a career that’s lasted more than 40 years, Ian Anderson isn’t ready to put down the flute and retire in silence. If anything, the legendary musician is more ambitious than ever. Calum Robson has a chat with Anderson to see what he could possibly have in store for us.
Most people at the age of 64 have the thought of a cosy retirement in mind. Not Ian Anderson. The iconic flute-playing Scotsman is in his 44th year of his career and he isn’t planning a retreat into obscurity just yet. His work as the mastermind and soul of Jethro Tull could end tomorrow and it would be revered among the best of progressive rock discographies. But Anderson has big plans to go further. What better way to do so than risk the legacy of a classic Tull album by releasing a sequel and announcing a 19-date UK tour? Never one to take the easy route, Anderson plans to take ‘Thick As A Brick’ and upcoming new record ‘Thick As A Brick 2 – Whatever Happened To Gerald Bostock?’ on the road. 40 years on from the concept album, Anderson has no inhibitions taking on part two.
“I’m not about to apologise for having an intellectual position – that I’m presenting a concept album in the year 2012 and frankly I don’t give a toss whether people like it or not,” he says. “I’m doing it for me not them – just to see if I can do it at age 64. It’s interesting for me to take on a big project while I can because it may not be the case three or four years down the line that I could cope with something like this.”
Anderson is as determined as ever to push his own boundaries in the most challenging of ways. The outrageous task of creating a sequel to ‘Thick As A Brick’ is ambitious enough when you consider the esteemed nature of the ground-breaking record. The original ‘Thick As A Brick’ was conceived in reaction to the heightening pretension of progressive rock. Seeing that the genre was souring, Anderson cleverly took action. After many critics labelled Aqualung a ‘concept’ album, he took one step further, announcing that ‘Thick As A Brick’ would be a concept album with lyrics based on a poem by an eight-year-old schoolboy. Tull’s light-hearted poke at the intentional alienation and obscurity of prog would highlight the band’s humorous side.
“It was a deliberate attempt to create a sort of album that was a little friendly dig at our peers like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and early Genesis who were often making music in a very complex way and perhaps sometimes being – to put it politely – a little esoteric in terms of lyrics! I think Jethro Tull had two things that those other bands didn’t have – one was the sense of a more comedic theatricality and the other was the ability to laugh at ourselves in that context.”
The good-natured humour might have kept Tull’s feet firmly on the ground amidst the splurge of pretension that riddled ‘prog’. But that isn’t to say that the very concept of their fictional child poet doesn’t carry a deeper meaning. In ‘Thick As A Brick 2’ Gerald Bostock’s life is now considered. In a sea of opportunity, where would the child poet be now? It all sounds very reflective. But it’s without a rose-tinted vision of a bygone era. Anderson is in no way living in the past.
“It’s an album for today,” Anderson explains. “It’s not going back to some nostalgic view of 1972. It’s a sequel but it doesn’t really involve what happened next. It’s not like Rocky 5 or Bat Out Of Hell 7 – it’s a big leap to 40-years in the future. I suppose Gerald Bostock, the mythical character, serves as a metaphor for the lives of all of us who are looking back on our lives from age 50, 60 or whatever it might be. It’s thinking about all of the possibilities of things that might have befallen us or decisions we made consciously in a life-changing sense – perhaps considering those fortunate or unfortunate chance occurrences that took our lives in different directions. Gerald Bostock is a vehicle to get us from then to now and consider the way life has changed in those 40 years.”
It’s a point of thought that we can all relate to, and Anderson is certainly not exempt from it. In his early years, the Dunfermline-born flutist tried a number of career paths himself – applying for the police force when he left school and later trying out as a local reporter before founding Tull in 1968. Since his childhood his interests have been as varied as his influences. It’s through his love of cats that the conversation moves to a reflection of his own childhood.
“When I was a very small boy – eight or nine years old – I realised I had a preference for cats rather than dogs but I always had a preference for arts and painting,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly interested in football. I suppose I was a natural football player and sports person, but I wasn’t physically gifted in the sense that I was a big tough guy. I didn’t like being there with a bunch of other guys, who were usually a bit boisterous and tended to cheat! I liked music, drawing, pussycats and painting – I liked girly things! If somebody had put a pair of knitting needles in my hand I probably would’ve taken up knitting or embroidery!”
These diverse passions have developed since his effeminate days as a child. Online he’s written a lengthy guide for a curry eater, a page about endangered wildcats and dedicated a special section to Deep Vein Thrombosis, following his battle with it in 1996 that nearly cost him his life. Anderson’s interests stretch indiscriminately across a vast spectrum –much like his musical background. Moving from blues and jazz to classical and world music, the singer seeks out new things to taste a variety of sounds.
“I always try to expose myself to music from a very wide background,” he says. “I wanted to dip a toe into that very broad picture of musical styles rather than getting locked into a certain kind of music. It was the case with some past members of Jethro Tull who clearly had a great preference for a specific kind of music and weren’t really able or willing to cross over into the slightly more eclectic music that forms the broad catalogue of Jethro Tull.”
Over the years, 28 people have walked through the doors of the progressive act. Whether it’s as long as seasoned guitarist Martin Barre – who has played with the group since their first performance in February 1968 at Marquee Club, London – or as brief but sweet as the iconic yet eccentric bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, Tull’s history is rich with characters. But when the opportunity for change comes round, it leaves Anderson with tough decisions to make. The most recent of these decisions is putting the new album under his name and not including Barre. It’s all part of being leader and if anything, his attentive ear for perfection is arguably a trait that accounts for a lot of the band’s success.
“It’s like picking a football team,” he says. “You have to leave some folk out sometimes and the fans may understand that or they may not, but frankly that’s the job of the football manager. I’m the Alex Ferguson of the flute – I have to make some difficult choices sometimes!”
One man who can relate to this is Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who himself has been at the centre piece of the band for the best part of 30 years. He’s a character that Anderson has had pleasure working with.
“Bruce Dickinson is one of the really nice guys that is just so easy to work with,” Anderson says. “He’s such an easy-going guy. He was one of my guests at Canterbury Cathedral before Christmas and we did a couple of Bruce Dickinson and Iron Maiden things but in a slightly different way, as befitting performance in the most famous cathedral in the Anglican Communion!”