Forty years ago, Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick, the mother of all concept albums. It came on the heels of 1971’s Aqualung, which not only gave the band financial and critical success but was branded a conceptual piece by the critics.
In turn, Anderson – who rejected the implication – showed the critics what a real conceptual piece was. Thick as a Brick is one song, 44 minutes long, broken into two parts only because a listener had to turn the record over. The lyrics were, in concept, written by a precocious child named Gerald Bostock, dealing with the trials of growing up. It was practically “Joycian,” as an English major grad would say, before getting slapped. The album reached No. 1 on the charts.
In April, Anderson will release the follow-up, Thick as a Brick 2 and will tour both albums, back to back. The new album imagines Bostock as an adult, and the possible paths he may have taken in life.
If the reader can afford the personal aside, Jethro Tull’s was the interviewer’s favorite band in early high school, and first concert (the “A” tour). The circle is complete.
You’re touring Thick as a Brick 2 for 19 dates. Wikipedia said it would be for 18 months. Is Wiki in any way accurate?
Kind of. Basically [the tour] has the priority for the next 18 months until the summer of 2013. But it’s not going to only be the Thick as a Brick production tour. I’m sure there will be some acoustic dates.
I’ve already got a couple of festival shows that are not Thick as a Brick because it’s a multi-act festival and this is a production show with video. And there are some Christmas shows, churches, cathedrals, what have you. Also during next year I’m sure there will be some Jethro Tull concerts. But generally it will have the priority until the summer of 2013. At the end of all that, I think I’ll be quite grateful to do something else. It’s a long way away.
Of the dates coming up, any stand out?
There are quite a few coming up, apart from the UK tour that I’ve played lots of times.
There are a couple shows coming up in Iceland in June in a new theatre in Reykjavik, which I am looking forward to playing for the first time. We have a few other shows coming up in castles in the Czech Republic and some lined up in Spain in July, in the air-conditioned splendor of some nice theatres.
Even in the U.S. tour in September–November there are some dates I’ve never played before – and a couple of cities I’ve never played before. It’s always nice to have something [new] here or there along the way. That’s part of the joy of touring.
You’ve traveled more than 50 countries. Are there still opportunities along the way to shop, discover, sightsee – or is it just doing the show and hopping back on the plane?
Well, that really depends. There are sometimes opportunities for me, for about an hour at lunchtime, to walk around because I usually travel in the morning. And, in the USA, my wife and I travel together and we tend to drive because we don’t like to fly if we can avoid it, and we don’t go on the tour bus because I can’t sleep in a moving vehicle at any time, day or night.
We tend to drive during the day which means we hopefully get into the next city around lunchtime. But there are days when the distances are too great. So there have to be travel days – euphemistically called “days off” – and on those occasions it perhaps means you get into a city where you have the evening off, and the following morning, so there is an opportunity to see things and do things.
But so often, as in Potsdam (Brandenburg) last week when I was there doing an orchestral concert and I really, really would have liked to have a few hours to walk around and see the summer palace (Sanssouci) or things of that sort. But, sadly, because of press and promo, meeting some people, orchestral rehearsals and a show that night there was no time at all to be a tourist.
But in most cases I usually have about an hour at lunchtime. I try to walk the streets and get a flavor of the town. I’m actually more interested in walking around in the areas where people go shopping and live and work. It sometimes tells you more about a city and a culture than visiting a museum, art gallery or cathedral. But most of the times I just like to walk the streets. I’m just like an unpaid hooker. But I don’t get many offers anymore. Sad.
Maybe you just don’t know the right places to go.
Probably not, probably not. And I don’t tend to linger on street corners so it’s just not working out for me these days.
When you do get to be out and about, are you recognizable or do you move through the shadows?
Oh I’m not really bothered very often by that sort of thing. People will sometimes come and say hello.
These days, when I’ve been out and about, I’ve thought someone is coming to ask me for my autograph or I’m getting a particularly friendly reaction from a restaurant owner or somebody in a Starbucks, but it actually turns out they’re not interested in me at all. They’re interested in my son-in-law, Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes in “The Walking Dead.” So they tend to recognize him more often. “Oh, it’s him, from the telly!” They don’t always know his name but it’s always “that guy on the television.” I just pretend I’m his agent. Or his older lover.
So is it accurate that the original Thick as a Brick has never been performed in its entirety?
Well, we did it in 1972. We played a UK tour, a couple of odd dates and then we went off to do two pretty long tours in the USA in 1972. But since then we’ve never played it, other than 12 minutes, 15 minutes of it regularly in the Jethro Tull repertoire. I played it with a symphony orchestra in Germany a week ago. But in terms of playing the whole thing, no. Never played in the last 39 and a half years.
When it came time to revive it, was the whole album fresh in your brain or did you have to relearn any of it?
Well, it’s all very familiar, even though I’ve listened to the whole album probably only 20 handful of times in the last 40 years. I’ve been surprised at how quickly it comes back. The words tend to be on the tip of my tongue; that’s not a problem, even on the three-quarters of the album we haven’t played in 40 years.
The performance of it, the notation, the execution, is not terribly difficult to play. It probably was at the time but we were pushing our limits as musicians. It’s actually just memorizing the nuances of certain phrases and trying to put it all back together.
For me, it’s not about playing the flute; it’s about the guitar parts. There is a lot of acoustic guitar on the album and a lot of it happens the same time the flute’s playing, and I’m singing – all three at the same time, which is a complete impossibility so I have to share some of those elements with others in the band.
We’ve run through it a couple of times but I’m not yet at the point where I want to play it every day. We have seven or eight days of rehearsal, a couple production rehearsal days – I don’t want to overcook it. I want it to still be a little nervy, a little bit, um, testing when we start the tour. I don’t want to get too comfortable with it too early. And although it’s still fresh in my mind there are a few flute bits that I improved that I need to learn again. But that doesn’t pose difficult problems. Together it’s two hours on stage and most of the time I’ve got something to do. The other guys all have their little quiet moments where they can just pull off the freeway and take a breath and get back on it again, but it’s pretty much full-on for me all the way through. Even in the quiet places, I’m the guy doing the playing and the singing.
So I have to be realistic in the performance of both of these albums. There are places I have to offload to other people because it would be imprudent to try to do things absolutely nonstop and always be either singing or playing or, in some cases, having these difficult passages where there are two acoustic guitars, two flutes, vocals, all happening at the same time. But we get pretty close. It’s just certain lines in there that are really nice lines to hear, nice things that are part of the arrangement and it means they have to be shared amongst one or two other guys.
On the new album, are there breaks between the songs?
No, there aren’t. It is a continuous piece of music. There is no digital silence on the new album at all. But we live in the year 2012 and I think it would be unreasonable of me to expect to have it a completely unbroken piece of music, available on iTunes or a CD in your car and not have any ID points to be able to listen to bits again.
I’ve put 17 ID points on the CD. If you buy it from iTunes, it’s 14 separate sections you can buy. It was written and structured with that in mind.
I think it was Pink Floyd who made a bit of a complaining noise about the record company wanting to unbundle Dark Side of the Moon for iTunes and they refused to let it happen, on the grounds it was written as a complete piece and should only be played as a complete piece. It’s all very well having that viewpoint but it seems a bit precious in this day and age. We need to accept that people have a different cultural way of absorbing entertainment and the arts. People snack on the arts these days; they don’t banquet like they might have done 15 years ago. I think we have to accept there’s a different culture out there where people expect to dip in and out of things. And I can understand that because I do the same. I feel a bit naughty about it but nonetheless there are some bits of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” I’m going to want to hear every time and some bits I can do without more than once every couple years.
So, if you’re performing two continuous pieces, it’s balls to the wall for two sets?
It will be interesting to see whether the audiences use the little transition points between sections of the music to applaud or whether they sit quietly and just let one piece go to the next. What they do in the UK might not be the same as what they do in Germany or Switzerland or the United States. Different cultures tend to produce different results.
It doesn’t particularly worry me if people start applauding at the end of the section but I’m happy as long as there’s a place where I can give it a few extra seconds before moving on. There is nothing more awkward than having the beginning of a piece of music drowned out by people applauding by the previous piece, and you’re actually trying to find the right amount of space before you move on. You know what I mean if you’ve been to a classical music concert. There’s usually somebody who starts clapping in the wrong place, and people turn around and go, “Shhh! Stop it!” It does rather demonstrate their naivete that they really need to be sure the orchestra, the conductor, everybody is truly finished before they interrupt what is a space. There may be no sound coming from the stage but there’s a definite pause.
And it’s a pause where you want to hear a pin drop. I don’t think rock music should be any different, really. We should have the same sensitivity and the same luxury afforded to us. We can also have those little pauses and spaces where the sun can shine through the clouds, or storm clouds can gather in the background but we don’t necessarily have to hear thunder and lightning all the time.
Will there be encores?
No. The two performances of Thick as a Brick 1 and Thick as a Brick 2 will definitely conclude the show, for a number of reasons. For one, in most venues there’s a curfew, which means you have to stop at a certain time. And also from an artistic point of view I think you get to the point where you’ve completed the performance so to then trot out some repertoire, as in a standard concert, is rather unnecessarily. Everyone in the audience of any of these shows who has been to an Ian Anderson or Jethro Tull show in the past few years has seen or heard the repertoire.
I think, in this case, the whole evening should be used to bring them something they haven’t heard before. And an encore would be a bit of a surplus. So, no, after two hours plus an intermission I think it’s time to head for the hills and get the hell out of there. I think the audience might be making a run for the doors when we finish the last note!
As you’re suggesting, it must be rewarding to be in front of the well-heeled fans who don’t need to hear “Aqualung” to feel satiated.
It’s better for me to talk about this in advance and make it clear that we are doing a performance of two conceptual pieces and that is the sum total of the performance. If people are disappointed they are not going to hear “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath” or “Cross Eyed Mary,” my suggestion is they give this one a miss and wait for another concert where we will be playing that material, assuming I’m still alive.
The other aspect to all of this is if you’re going to do this kind of a show, which is pretty demanding, then best to do it while you think you still can. In a couple years time, the situation may change. I may not be physically or mentally as energized as I am now – because I am getting old. And so is our audience in some cases. You have to strike while the iron is moderately hot.
Anything else you wish to make sure we put into the interview?
Only that we have an evolving period of presenting this album. We’ve been piecing it out there the last few weeks and in the next month. Prior to the record’s release we’ll be introducing more elements of everything on our websites. If you go to JethroTull.com or IanAnderson.com you’ll get to a whole new, developing scenario of material, interviews, reviews of the album. We’ll soon be putting up the PDF pages of all the foreign language translations. The first few samples of tracks went up last night of tracks, and the opportunity for fans to write in and submit their own news stories to StCleve.com [the imagined newspaper on the original album cover] will be emerging in the next 48 hours.
So we’re constantly adding to the interface with the fans, and through Facebook and Twitter and so on. We’re kind of working the social media in a way that would never have been necessary or even technically possible a few years ago. I wouldn’t say in my case that I’m particularly enamored of having to go to Facebook or Twitter and put things on it because that’s not my style but, given that it’s something that virtually every major corporation these days feels obliged to do, Facebook is no longer a social networking site. It’s a part of the tool of marketing and promotion of every major corporation in the land.
Luckily, my track record on that particular subject is reasonably good for an older guy because I started getting computer savvy at the time when computers first became workable in the early ’80s. I’m just looking at an email that came to me right now, that popped up, from Mike Rutherford of Genesis whom I met in an airport the other day. He was mentioning some thoughts about going out on tour with Mike + The Mechanics but was a little worried about the economics and how to plan things, and not lose money.
I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, Mike. I’ll send you active spreadsheets and you can see how touring works. Because if you’re going to be hands-on and making informed decisions, you’ve got to think about budgeting. You’ve got to think about how to do this stuff. Don’t just go ahead and do it based on criteria that means you get a nasty surprise when your accountant tells you your three months on tour actually lost you a substantial amount of money. It’s good for you to make some informed plans.”
It’s one of those things that I can pass along to other people – my experience in budgeting for concert tours. I guess not that many people who engage in performance actively do that.
But I think they should because you need to be making the right decisions on how to present yourself artistically within the financial restraints that will be on you like they’re on everybody else on Planet Earth at the moment.
So Mike Rutherford will be getting a spreadsheet from me on how to budget for his tours. We’ll see if he’s pleased to have it or not. He may see it and decide to never again go on tour again in his life!
Ian Anderson’s touring calendar is rapidly filling up with the artist playing a series of U.K. shows in April followed by a run through Germany in May. Other stops include Iceland in June, Austria and Norway in July and Israel in September.
Arriving in North America in the fall, Anderson’s U.S. itinerary includes Durham, N.C., at the Performing Arts Center Sept. 29; Long Beach, Calif., at the Terrace Theater Oct. 20; Houston’s Bayou Music Center Oct. 27 and Chicago at the Chicago Theatre Nov. 2. For more information, visit IanAnderson.com.