What can you talk about with someone who has been releasing music for 45 years? I have read two books on Ian Anderson and his band Jethro Tull, seen a couple documentaries, and have listened to all of his music over most of those 45 years. I make no apologies (as evident below) in being a long-time fan as I believe Jethro Tull was about my 4th or 5th concert I ever attended back in my high school days in the mid 1970s.
I have seen him in recent years and have very much enjoyed the concerts. I am certainly excited about the next one in DC at the Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, November 6th. See you there!
Ian Anderson: OK, fire away.
DH: Alright, so let's get started with the new album, "Homo Erraticus", which might be one of my favorites among the many fine albums since "Roots to Branches" and beyond. But this one follows Thick as a Brick 2, which had brought back to life (fictional creation) Gerald Bostock. How did you decide to use Bostock in the writing of this album?
IA: Only in as much as he is a writer's tool… he is a non de plume, an alter ego if you like who can express opinions that are not mine in a voice which is not mine, which allows me to get away from just telling you about me all the time which would become very very boring, very very quickly. So he is a useful tool and I think as a performer I have to perhaps behave a bit like an actor. I have to undertake character roles even though some of the things I may be saying are not my views. We assume sadly, in rock music, that when people say 'I' and 'me' or 'we' that they are talking about themselves. That surely does not apply to Quentin Tarantino when he writes a directs a movie and it didn't apply when Shakespeare wrote his works, it didn't apply with most of the great works of literature or even the lesser ones. So even Dan Brown who invents characters, or perhaps borrows them from somewhere else, I'm not sure… but whatever it is, you know in modern rock music we think it has to be heart on sleeve and for more than one reason I am not Alanis Morissette, I am someone who does not want to sing about me all the time or even very much of the time, since I think that is is a fairly small fraction of all the things I have ever written in which I am talking about my emotions. Most of those songs are from very early on in my career.
DH: Yeah, and that makes sense. Most people start with 'coming of age' and contemporary themes when they are young. Now there are also quite a variety of musical styles on this album, even for you, which is generally par for the course. Are the arrangements worked out ahead of the time, and then fleshed out with the band? How did that work here?
IA: Well the writing process started in the first part of January in 2013 when I started at 9:00 am on the first of January and spent the next two or three weeks working on the essential elements of the album. I polished them up a bit a couple of months later and then made some demos to send to the band along with all the lyrics and chord sheets and everything. So they had pretty much the parts that they could peruse over the coming months until we went into the studio to work on the rehearsals and the recording. And at that point, the basic structures and arrangements they have and have written (them) all out. We can play through most of the music, but without any of the real embellishment in terms of parts, so that becomes the most interesting bit about rehearsal--you let people come up with their ideas, listen to what they have, and here and there you might redirect them a little bit in terms of sound, in terms of musical polish, you have to make sure they works with everything else. When people come up with ideas in isolation, they might be quite good ideas, but they don't necessarily work, like what the bass player has might not work with the chords that the keyboard player has. You have got to be, in that period of rehearsal, fairly flexible and since the guys work with a lot of written music and a lot of scribbling, penciling, and rubbing out going on and hopefully after a day of working on a particular piece--of trying to get three or four minutes of real time music brought up to recording standard every day. Then when the recording begins, ideally it is the same kind of schedule where you can try to nail four minutes or so each day and work to keep on the actual fairly detailed schedule of recording in order to deliver an album when you said you would do it.
IA: I suppose the fun part is working on the arrangements and the bit that is not fun and gets very serious is the bit where you are actually recording because you really do have to pay attention and concentrate with less time for joking around and frivolity when you are actually recording. The fun bit is the week before.
IA: Well it is not so much a job, but I think it is there to the extent that it is there and is done fairly knowingly and carefully to do for the listener what for what Beethoven does to me if I listen to his symphonies and think, 'oh, wait a minute, I've kind of recognized that idea from somewhere else'. It's kind of nice when people go back and revisit some elements of their early work because they are like old friends dropping in for a cup of tea. So whether your favorite novelist will make references to earlier efforts, whether it is a character or subject material, it feels good as a recipient of that to be able to make those connections. And I think that the fans by and large would like to do that too, but by and large you have to be careful not to overdo it because at its worst, it could be self plagiarism. At its best, it is carefully calculated little snippets that help people join dots together. The one word that sums it up for me is continuity. I would like people including myself to be able to look at what I might be doing now or ten years ago and make some connections with something perhaps from 20 years ago or forty years ago--if that approach is judiciously applied.
DH: Great. I also liked the Scottish roots I heard in 'Puer Ferox Adventus' with that chant vocal that reminded me some of Dick Gaughan among others.
IA: Well, it's also more of that early music thing when before there was harmony as we know it in the modern Western tradition. It was basically melody and sometimes melody against a drone. So in essence that is the nature of Celtic music,whether it is in Scotland or whether it is the music that came to us in Central Asia from what is well, from the period of five to seven thousand years ago in what now that enchanted land of Iraq, where are boys in boots have fairly recently vacated. But that is the heartland of that music that found its way into the ethnic forms of India and indeed, northwestern Europe. The bagpipes, if you like, from Brittany, northern France, Scotland and Ireland and of course the drone music of the instruments that formed the tradition of Indian classical music… So again, there are those definite connections. When I am writing something, I think I draw upon a lot of influences musically that may suit one piece and not another.
IA: The rest of that music definitely owes something to the traditions of church music that I grew up with in Scotland. So there are elements of that going on and in other places, element of things that are perhaps much more jazzy, elements of things that are perhaps are more classically styled and in cases like 'The Engineer' or 'The Turnpike Inn', you know, these are things that are drawing more upon the traditions of British folk music of two hundred years ago rather than one thousand years ago.
DH: You have rejected the term 'concept album' about some of your works, but of course this a song cycle I think it is fair to say, which creates a very different way of writing. Did all your songs go into this album or did you reject ideas that would not fit?
IA: No, I really just wrote what I needed to write because the whole thing was sketched out at the end of day one when I had the introduction to the first piece 'Doggerland' and some idea of the title that was there and some of the essential music for the verse and course along with some lyrics were there at the end of day one. So day two was 'where do I go with this?' and writing down the bullet points as they were of the scenario of the unfolding album. So somewhere around the second of the third day it was written out, so it was just a question of sitting down and saying 'ok what's next, oh it's that bit, we'll see what I can do with idea' and it was pretty much written around a skeletal bullet point reference. In fact, what is written on the album cover--the little synopsis of the various pieces, that is almost exactly what I wrote at the beginning, day two, if you like, of where was going to go with each piece, what it was based on, and what were the lyrical points I was trying to make. To me it was fairly important that I keep that as it was written and I included it in the album artwork, not to be clever or pretentious, but that is my working process. That is how it came about. As indeed on the coffee table book version of the album, the deluxe package, limited edition, all the original versions of the demoes are included as well. They were actually recorded in a hotel room in Barbados using my laptop computer, a travel guitar, and working extremely quietly so as not to annoy the neighbors.
IA: So sometimes I think the process of making a record like that is worthy of explaining because there are going to be a few, a tiny percentage of the people, who might listen to the music who are interested in how I came up with it. So for them as well as in a sense for me, as to remind myself of the process, it is quite good to have those ingredients as part of the way you present the music. It is not the important bit, but it is peripheral information that rounds it out into more of a worthwhile purchase for those that want more than just a CD in a jewel box.
DH: Absolutely, for fans like myself who want to dig into it, I do that all the time. Now you did not get to work with Steven Wilson on this album, but I think he has been a rather inspired choice for some of your remixes of older works and 'Thick as a Brick 2'. How did you two meet up?
IA: Well, I read about him online really, as someone who was working on remixes of I think it was 'Court of the Crimson King', their first album I guess it was. So when EMI and I were talking about doing a remix and 5.1 surround mix box set of 'Aqualung', I suggested they get in touch with Steven Wilson. I figured if Robert Fripp had given his blessings to Steven Wilson to remix and rework that early iconic King Crimson album, then Steven must be a guy to consider doing it. So they approached him and he did a couple of demo mixes for me and with my approval, EMI engaged him to do the 'Aqualung 'album. I was in the studio at times and we worked on various aspects of it. And then we went on to do the same with 'Thick as a Brick' and then he did the mixes of 'Thick as a Brick 2' and he subsequently has done 'Benefit' and the newly or about to be released 'A Passion Play' together with its unfinished predecessor, 'the Chateau d'Isaster Tapes'.
DH: Ah, right.
IA: And he just said yesterday… in fact I was doing a recording of questions and answers of all the bits and bobs of the 'Warchild' album. Steven, I believe is starting work next month on that. So it is a work in progress really, at some point I have said to him as well as the folks at Warner Brothers who of course have bought the EMI chunk that includes my work. At some point Steven will get too busy or get bored with it. There is an awful lot of work there for one person to be tackling all of that stuff. I can't see him doing this forever and it would seem like forever if you have got that far into the catalog, there is a lot more stuff that may not interest him. As a mixing engineer, it may not be something he's able to do because of course he is working for other people and most importantly working for himself and his career as a performing artist. I do have another person up my sleeve who I worked with on the 'Homo Erraticus' album, which is Jakko Jakszyk, who coincidentally and curiously is about to embark upon some tours with Robert Fripp and the original members of King Crimson who are going out to play the early King Crimson record catalog. Jakko is actually the guitarist and singer of the new King Crimson lineup. I suppose he is doing what Greg Lake did in his early days, playing and singing.
IA: Oh, we try to keep it interesting and there's lots of elements of folk music in not only my part of the world, but elsewhere which is nice to draw upon.
DH: It is, yes.
IA: It is music of the people, you know music that is less formal and academic, speaking volumes to me both then and now. I cast my mind back to listening to Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and J.B. Lenoir and a few other black American blues and folk-blues singers, acoustic blues performers were the people that got me into seriously thinking about making music myself. Surely this is folk music. We call it 'The Blues', but you know to me it is folk music, like when J.B. Lenoir is strumming his guitar and singing about Viet Nam and race riots in Alabama, that is absolutely as redolent as anything you might hear in English folk music about sexual tensions and issues that came up in historical times that are forever enshrined in traditional English folk music. Much of what I learned as a teenager from Black American blues very closely follows for me emotionally and in terms of subject material is very often quite close to the traditions of British folk music. I can't speak for other forms of folk music that I listen to since I don't speak their language. I don't speak Finnish, so as much as I love Varttina and other bands in Finland, I'm afraid I don't have the faintest Idea of what they are singing about.
IA: Its the same thing when I listen to Indian music with some music I don't know what they are singing about, but it is the quality of the voice and the emotion and the melodic nature of it that is appealing. But whenever I encounter folk music sung in English in another part of the world, then I always think that there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn and obviously some that can't. And no one strangely… and we haven't heard about returning soldiers, male or female, returning from Iraq and the middle east, singing songs filled with the anguish and their own experiences. It is kind of weird that it seems to be like where people don't go. For me, had I been on a tour of duty in such a place, I would feel compelled to try and find a way to work in song. And if not in song, to write about it or make it something that was something that was other than a diary recounting of events--something where you could do something more artistic. But strangely I don't know, by and large maybe people don't have the skills or develop the skills or they just don't want to talk about it because it is too awful and too personal. I mean I meet some from time to time and am engaged in some aspects of consciousness raising for the returning troops for your country as well as mine, in fact more so in your country. Of course, I have met lots of wounded and blinded and damaged vets that have returned from Iraq and Iran during recent years. Their tales are very harrowing and I can understand that they don't maybe want to talk about it too conspicuously, but in a way that is what music and other arts are there for--to allow you to get that stuff out rather than internalize it and perhaps destroy what remains of your life. Sometimes when can engage someone in that conversation you do sense some catharsis, maybe going through the experience of talking to a complete stranger, especially if it is one you can't see, such as damage involving deafness and blindness… You know it is very sobering and humbling when you hear what people have to say.
IA: But I still remain surprised that in the contemporary music world, we don't hear people using those experiences making them the folk music of today. Because surely tales of battle, of death and destruction, and pointlessness of it, they are the very much the subject of folk music of the past. But somehow it doesn't seem to have made it into the folk music of the present, but you might have a better clue than I do.
DH: Yes, you have given me sort of a challenge as I listen to you, in trying to listen more for this with what comes my way with newer folk music. And even the whole media coverage is more that way, too, to some extent.
IA: It is rather like somewhere where people don't want to go… I mean geographically, they probably did not want to go, but they went there to serve their country as in some previous adventures, it is all been seemingly for naught especially with recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan.…
We chatted a few more minutes on this topic and I wanted to make sure that I mention that his show in Richmond, Virginia on October 5th at the National Theater is dedicated to veterans. All proceeds from this concert go to support programs helping veterans, first responders, and to raise global awareness to the global threat from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). There is even a dinner the night before, so this is certainly a show to consider for those in the Richmond vicinity.