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Backstage with Ian Anderson

The Jethro Tull frontman chats about his new world tour and his Roger Waters moment

Tushar Menon May 03, 2012
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Ian Anderson

At the age of 64, Ian Anderson, the vocalist, flautist and mastermind of Jethro Tull decided to revisit one of the band’s most popular pieces of music and compose a sequel. Although it has a vastly different lyrical tone, Thick as a Brick 2 (TAAB 2) sits very comfortably alongside its illustrious predecessor. Anderson has embarked on a year-long world tour to promote the album.

I met Ian Anderson before his sold out show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Over the course of an hour, Anderson talked, among many other things, about his creative impulse, the much maligned album A Passion Play, and why long standing Tull guitarist Martin Barre was not involved with TAAB 2.

How has the tour been going?

Well, the tour has been going fine apart from inevitable technical issues because it hasn’t been that long since we recorded Thick as a Brick 2 (TAAB 2) so it’s pretty fresh in our minds, so it didn’t take an awful amount of time to get up to a performance level with that. We did play it in the studio as it would be played live on stage. So all the wrinkles had been removed from the arrangements so it would work both as a recording and pretty much translate directly to a live performance. That wasn’t a problem, but the revisiting of TAAB 1, apart from the fact that some of the guys, many of the guys, in the band weren’t born when that was recorded made it a little more challenging.

We’ve been struggling with the software. There are a certain number of audio artefacts in places where there are spoken word parts that it just sounds a little rough. All of that is a little annoying. It makes you quite tense on stage. Once it’s stable and running, everybody will just enjoy it more, not having to worry about the tech issues. It’s like taking off in a Jumbo Jet and knowing that a couple of your hydraulic systems have already failed and you should be able to fly to where you’re going, but you’re never going to relax on the flight. Certainly I wouldn’t, even if I was a pilot, but I’ve only flown a Boeing 737 and taken off once and landed twice at Heathrow Terminal 5”¦ and then when I got out of the BA flight simulator, I was a wobbling bit of jam. The 150 passengers I had behind me didn’t complain! (laughs).

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All these years later, to do a concept album [TAAB 2] and to perform it in its entirety is a big risk to take. I’m more confident that it will be well received in America and Europe than it would have been 40 years ago. I think people have a greater degree of maturity and understanding about performing arts in a theatre space. I wouldn’t want to take this on tour as an arena show because it will be back to ”˜rawk and roll’. I’m more likely to get away with it in a concert hall, in a theatre with a seated audience in the kind of venue where you might see a stage musical or a classical concert.

TAAB 2 is the first concept album you’ve released since A Passion Play in 1973. It was one of Tull’s most poorly received albums. Yet, much of what it was criticized for (long songs, self- indulgence and complexity) could be said of Thick as a Brick. Why is it, then, that Thick as a Brick has become a classic while A Passion Play has remained more obscure?

The pressure under which A Passion Play was made didn’t make it an enjoyable experience. Everything had to be conjured up, written, rehearsed, recorded in a very pressured state of temporary relocation to the UK. We had been away for most of ’72 and between tours we were living in Switzerland but three of the guys really wanted to come back. Rather than break up the band geographically, I decided to side with those guys so we went back to England.

It was also, perhaps the musical density of the album [that weighed it down] with lot of annoying saxophones and octave dividers. Steven Wilson, the main man in Porcupine Tree, who remixed Aqualung wants to do A Passion Play as well, and I think it might be a step too far. My advice is, don’t. But if you really want to do it, then I ask you to be unafraid to just hit the delete button on some of the things that are going on there because it’s just too much. It would work so much better if some of the density of the arrangement was removed and you just got to the nub of the melody and the crucial elements. I just got too carried away. It’s my fault, nothing to do with any of the other band members at the time.

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Thick as a Brick was also a complex album musically in some places but I think it stayed a little more leniently arranged. I was doing some of these things live with the band, so it had a live feel to it, but it got a little complex in some places where I thought , ”˜wouldn’t it be nice to double up on that vocal, or sing that harmony or add another flute doing this’. I got a little carried away with Thick as a Brick, but nothing like as carried away as I did with A Passion Play. I should have been seriously restrained, forcibly with paramedics and attendants when it came to recording A Passion Play. It got too adventurous with the detail and the arrangements, and that’s what I don’t like about it. I do think there are some good songs in there- I would just happily leave out all the saxophone parts.

How did you feel about it just after it was recorded, but before it was released?

There was a sense of relief because we had managed to deliver the album in spite of the false start. We just weren’t making progress and after two weeks of working there we were just so far behind schedule and it just seemed that it would have so much dirty laundry attached that it seemed better just to scrap it and start again to try to get new momentum and impetus. That’s what A Passion Play was- it was the very quickly conceived concept album which was half written with ideas in mind to make it into a movie script.. At the end of it all, there was a sense of relief, but also a sense of foreboding that it was going to be very difficult to play live on stage. Doing something as grandiose and conceptual as A Passion Play was frustrating for me as well as for the audience. It wasn’t a disaster, but it just wasn’t clicking.

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