Jethro Tull's unique sound — which eloquently combines Rock, Blues, and Classical music — continues to outlast Father Time and thrill legions of dedicated fans. Leader/singer/Rock flautist extraordinaire Ian Anderson performs the classic Tull album Thick as a Brick (and more, including Thick as a Brick II) at Riverbend's PNC Pavilion Saturday night at 8 p.m., continuing the legacy of Tull’s self-proclaimed “music for grown-ups.”
CityBeat was able to speak with Anderson this week about protests, social issues and his thoughts on performance art.
CityBeat: Why did decide to bring the flute to Rock music?
Ian Anderson: When I was a young aspiring guitar player in my late teens I became aware of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Richard Blackmore, who were the hot-shot guitar players down in London, and I decided maybe I should switch from guitar and find something else to play. The shiny precision of the flute, the ergonomics, the design, the manufacture — it’s kind of like a Swiss watch. It appeals to my sense of physics and engineering. For a particularly good reason, other than the way it looks, I decided I would give that a go. I learned to play it by trying to imitate the lines I played on guitar — solos and rifts. So I became the flute player in a Blues band and I was the only flute player in a Blues band, which gave me the difference that helped Jethro Tull stand out from the crowd.
CB: One of my favorites on Thick as a Brick II is “Adrift and Dumbfounded.” Can you tell me a little bit of the story behind that song or how it came about?
IA: Having been picketed a couple nights ago in Kansas City by the Westboro Church, the “Godhatesfags.com” people … I am seen as a fag-hyphen-enabler according to that unworthy organization. I don’t think I am a homosexual, but I am a supporter of gay rights and a lot of my friends and people close to me are gay people and I find that the prejudices and difficulties faced by young people, particularly in post-puberty, where they are sometimes questioning their gender and their physiology because some people are just born that way … so, it is a difficult time for relationships with parents and for society around you.
It’s difficult now. Back in the ’60s, it was really scary. So at the time when homosexuality wasn’t just a predilection but an actual crime, punishable by the courts by incarceration, being gay was a difficult position for any young person to be in, so I decided I would write a parent’s perspective of what that may be like — to lose a child through lack of communication and understanding with the parental, to lose that child to drugs and to, essentially, male prostitution.
That is an extreme scenario but it happens out there in the world. These are issues that face society today. These are issues that have faced society throughout the history of mankind. These days I suppose we are more able to talk about it and to examine the possibilities themselves. I always have to think when I was 15 years old and a little unsure of myself, maybe that could have happened to me. I try to use some of my personal history with my parents, with the lack of communication, particular on matters of sex. I try to extrapolate a little on my own limited experiences in that world.
CB: The Westboro Baptist Church never ceases to amaze me. How did you handle it that day?
IA: I was rather hoping to see them in the flesh. Unfortunately, I had my spies out. I had my spies out to try to keep an eye out because I tried to get a photograph opportunity with these people. Unfortunately, at the time, I guess they showed up when the audience was coming in or going out. When the audience is coming in, I am busy in my dressing room changing and tuning up my guitar. Afterwards, I am busy changing again and packing up my instruments. Unfortunately, I did not get to see them. That is very disappointing. I was really hoping to have the opportunity to have a nice smiling photograph with them and their evil representatives.
CB: Why did you choose this tour to play the Thick as a Brick albums in their entireties?
IA: When you are planning any kind of stage show, your first obligation is to keep it on a level that will engage people and keep it interesting for them and present them with a lengthy piece of musical work with a 15-minute intermission. You have to put your thinking cap on and try to construct everything to keep the audience with you, especially if you are playing a lot of music (with) which the audience is unfamiliar, you have got to make it work the first time around. It is not the result of hearing it many times so you have to make it a piece of working entertainment.
It seems to be successful because I have yet to see, when I go onto the second half of the show, any empty seats as a result of people leaving at halftime. Normally people stay until the end of the show and they seem to follow the momentum of the whole show. You get a personal sense of achievement when you present a large amount of relatively unknown music and you keep people engaged and enjoying the stage.
I don’t think many bands would attempt to do that. I can afford to do it because, a) I am prepared to take more risks musically and, b) I am really kind of doing it for me more than I am doing it for the audience anyway. I have always been a musician who has gone out there to make myself happy. You have to really have your own personal goals you achieve every night in performance. Primarily, I will say, it is nice you folks are here as well, but if you weren’t here, I would be doing this anyway. I am just doing this for fun.
CB: You have seen music change in the way it is recorded over many decades. Do you think it sounds better or worse today?
IA: Music has evolved in the terms of recording techniques over a period of about 60 years, hugely. It goes back to the early stages of monophonic and stereophonic tape recorders, which is what it was when I was a teenager.
When it got to the mid-’60s, it was becoming possible to create the simplest multi-track recordings, usually using two-track recorders, but bouncing back between the two to get a four-track sound. The very first Beatles recordings were made that way. By the time they got to Sgt. Pepper, they were recording with four-track and shortly on the heels of that came eight-track.
The first album I recorded was done on eight-track in 1968. That quickly evolved into 16-track and then to the most often used standard of 24-track, which continued through the late ’80s and even in some cases into the ’90s.
Frankly, the digital age really came about not in the ’80s or the ’90s but in the last 10 years, because that technology began to support 24-bit audio recording, which effectively mimics the human hearing to detect the difference between that and the original audio signal. We have 24-bit 96k recording, which is essentially all we need. We don’t need to advance upon that standard. We’d have to grow new ears before we could benefit any further resolution of earlier technology.
It is the same thing as when cameras hit the 10 mega-pixel mark … essentially equal (to) the very best film quality of film cameras in the last 50 or 60 or 70 years. We have now fairly commonly cameras that will deliver resolutions of 24 megapixels, which will be essentially much better quality you or my eye could fully appreciate.
We are there with audio and visual. We have now reached, during these last four or five years, human physiology would have to change for us to benefit from any increase of the resolution of the technology we are working with now. It is as good as it needs to be. We are there. We are done. We have reached the limit in terms of audio recording and digital recording.
CB: Was there a single incident that changed how you approached music?
IA: Well, I suppose a single incident was the first moment I played notes on a musical instrument, because I was aware as a small child of music as church music and music of Big Band Wartime Jazz, which my Father played on 78-rpm records.
It wasn’t until I was 9 years old and I acquired for a couple of dollars a plastic Elvis Presley ukulele and I strummed my first simple chord on the ukulele. At that point, even though the instrument was a rubbish piece, I could actually strum some little chords and sing along with it, and that was the magic moment of making music the first time.
I suppose that was the single most important moment of discovering music. There are a lot of people who never learn to play anything on a musical instrument and I feel like they are missing out on something. But some of them might be bungee jumpers and they feel like I am missing out on something, because I haven’t thrown myself off a bridge attached to a long piece of elastic.
CB: What is your ideal day look like these days?
IA: It depends if I’m on tour. My ideal day is to wake up around 7 a.m. and be driving rather than flying and getting to another city, another hotel by lunchtime, finding a Red Lobster or McCormack & Schmidt and (eating) some seafood or that sort for lunch and then having a rest and getting my e-mails in the afternoon before going to sound check.
That’s kind of normal practice. If I am at home, I wake up a little earlier, usually around 6:30 a.m. and I usually, again because of working in different time zones, it’s a good time to check e-mails from last night, generally prepare, shower, play with the cats, let the dogs out. If it’s the weekends, I have to go and feed the chickens.
In my ideal world, it would be a mixture of sitting at my office desk, playing a little bit of music and having a little bit of time to walk around the garden and sit and talk to my cats.
CB: What is the biggest difference in touring in 2013 versus 1970?
IA: The biggest difference is you can take a little stress (out) as you are touring easily because of more organization. Twenty years ago and 40 years ago, travel was a lot more disorganized that it is today. We can now be planning the next tour while we are doing this one.
Later today and tomorrow morning when I have a little time off, I shall be booking some internal U.S. flights for the next tour, looking at the various cities and suggesting to my U.S. travel agent some hotels I would like to get quotes on. Generally speaking, doing that planning exercise, when it comes to doing the tour itself, hopefully everything is in place. Everybody knows where everybody will be on most hours on most days.
You can take the stress out of things these days, where it was not so easy many years ago. We had to employ tour managers and people to carry our bags and people to herd us like sheep through airports. These days, people have their virtual boarding pass, which they can collect online from the booking reference code, which was on the tour itinerary, and they can print out their own boarding pass and head straight to the gate. I think things are easier these days, not because of the level of security we face now that we didn’t face 40 years ago, even 20 years ago. That makes lines a little more stressful and perhaps a little longer in the course of the day. We allow for two hours at airports from flight times to be safe these days, not knowing how long security queues may be or what indignities we may have to suffer to keep ourselves safe from the bad guys.
CB: Do you have any fond or crazy Cincinnati tour memories from the past?
IA: Probably with a Holiday Inn, Hilton or a Marriott or two. My bonds tend to be with what my particular life throws at me. The airport, even after all these years, is strangely familiar. I have been tracking the evolution of the airport from the late ’70s — when we were accosted by the children of God, doing their evangelical work, trying to hand out bibles and stuff — all the way to today. Airports quite often have that sense of déjà vu, even that nostalgic memory for me — certain hotels, certain venues of course, iconic venues we still play today.
CB: What was your favorite live performance ever?
IA: It is probably the show in an American venue near Washington D.C. called Wolf Trap. It is my favorite because it is the one I am going to be doing tomorrow and the one I have to focus on and prepare for.
Past shows are in the past. I don’t dwell on those. I don’t have favorites. I don’t have preferences, except for a couple iconic venues, as I suggested. My favorite show is the one I am about to go out and attempt to do because I always have to think it could be my last. Walking on stage is not a God-given right; it is a privilege to be able to step out there into the spotlight another time. I just take each show as they come. My next show is always the best show of my life.
CB: What can the fans expect here in Cincinnati this weekend?
IA: They can expect all they like, but it won’t vary one iota in delivery to them. Their expectation may be many and may be varied, but we try to make a point of emphasis to play Brick 1 and then Brick 2, then a long call of classic repertoire.
We have a very tightly organized show. If anybody starts shouting out during the quiet moments of the show, they will be studiously ignored. I don’t even have time to admonish them. It happened to me last night when I came on stage, I was astonished to hear two female voices shouting at me in one of the spoken words sections with a delivery of theatrical passion. You wouldn’t be considered cultured to be shouting and whistling during a Shakespeare play — please don’t shout and whistle during the performance of mine because I am here to do the work. You are here to listen and if you don’t like it get up and leave. Don’t start interrupting me.
Once in a while you get a drunkard out there that gets to shout at your band, but it happens so rarely these days and it strikes me as so being incredibly curious. I think our audiences do understand this is not a regular Rock show but a theatrical presentation (for which) they have to sit and let me do the work. That’s what I am there for. I may be 66 years old but I am there to do a man’s work for two and a half hours, where you can sit back and, if necessary, bring yourself a comfy cushion and maybe a sandwich because it is a long show.