Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson Talks Prog Rock, Flute Magic, and Thick as a Brick

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Mr. Ian Anderson goin' Thick as a Brick on the flute.
In the heady early '70s, it was common for new fans to mistakenly believe that Jethro Tull, the band, was named after the flautist who balanced precipitously on one leg.

But the real Jethro Tull was an 18th-century English agricultural engineer and inventor while the wild-eyed, flute-wielding prog rock frontman is Ian Anderson.

See also:
-Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson Gets Thick as a Brick at the Fillmore Miami Beach, September 18

Nevertheless, the confusion persists, even four decades later. And over time, things have only become more confused, thanks to the band's frequent lineup changes and Anderson's habit of performing Jethro Tull material under his own name -- not to mention the fact that the flautist recently released Thick as a Brick 2, his surprising sequel to Tull's early opus, 1972's Thick as a Brick.

This week, performing as "Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson," the prog rock frontman will present a complete replay of both the original Thick as a Brick album and its sequel. But don't bother shouting out requests for "Aqualung," "Locomotive Breath," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Teacher," or any of the other gems from the Tull songbook. As Anderson takes pains to explain, his show is very precisely programmed.

Crossfade: Thematically, Thick as a Brick 2 seems to be closely tied to its predecessor. Are there striking musical similarities as well?
Ian Anderson: There are a lot of acoustic elements in it, just as there were in the original Thick as a Brick. It is a good partner to the original album. And indeed, it was designed to be very much a sequel with a familiarity between certain instruments -- like the Hammond organ, the Gibson Les Paul guitar, the Fender jazz bass -- that appeared on the original album and were chosen for this album.

I doff my cap to some of the original themes and ideas and bits and lyrics that were used on the original album. But it's a very delicate business to try and pay homage to something else without overdoing it to the point that everybody sees it as so obvious. My belief is that some of the people that listen to the album will recognize some of the elements, maybe four or five vocal references, four or five musical references. And that's it. Leave it at that. It very intentionally plants little flags that say, "Remember me."

So what's the status of Jethro Tull right now? Is the band on hiatus? Is there a chance that you'll reconvene at some point?
There is no real answer to that really. At the moment, I'm halfway through touring with a production of this album. And indeed, all the shows that are lined up for 2013 are all part of the Thick As a Brick tour. So, as of yet, there isn't a need to think through the answer to your question. [Laughs]

We haven't gotten there yet. So no, there isn't a policy to do shows simply as Jethro Tull, or not to do those shoes. I don't know what will happen next. I'm not beyond doing the Thick As a Brick performances. Next year, there will be shows in Australia, Latin America, Canada, some further dates in the U.S. in the summer, as well as some forays to Russia and a number of shows in Europe. It's only once we start filling in and looking at the other things that make up a year's worth of touring that maybe there will be some Jethro Tull "best of" shows here and there in a few places along the way. But there's no definite plan to do that or not to do that.

The new production seems like it might be quite complex. What kind of preparation is going into it?
I'm at home at the moment doing a few technical things, and we do sneak in a practice at some odd moments because we have to readjust it. We've done a bunch of shows in the last two months which have been comprised of multi-act festivals and shows where sometimes there's no technical side to our production due to a lack of facilities. So it's been a different setlist night after night for awhile. And now we're back to doing the production.

When we come to North America in a couple of weeks, we'll be back on the other stuff. So it's not like remembering to sing notes or remembering particular lines. It's a completely different order of events, the particular cues, the whole particular show-like performance things that we have to spend reacquainting ourselves with. You can't rehearse that without playing the whole show, so you have to try to put the little bits together in your head with the aid of various rehearsal tapes and so on just to get it all in place. We head off tomorrow to Poland and we have a few shows there and then Budapest, and then we come back for a few days and then we head off to play some shows in Israel and then we're off a few days and before we head off to the USA.

So I take it that you pretty much stick to the exact order of the album and integrate all the elements as originally recorded?
That's exactly it. The whole point was to try and play both albums as they were written and arranged without cheating. I really don't have any problems with the second album, because I wrote it carefully to avoid some of the little impasses I created for myself with the first album, where I ended up enthusiastically adding additional vocal lines, additional flute lines, additional guitar lines. It's impossible to do exactly what I end up doing on the original album. Because, every so often, everything's going on at the same time. I only have two hands and one set of lungs.

I can see how that could be a problem.
When all those things start coinciding, I have to make choices. Trying to find another flute player for example, was just not going to be possible or desirable because they would sit around for eighty percent of the time, doing nothing. So I decided on a performance person who can do a bit of singing, acting, dancing, and some of the vocal lines when my flute lines run over them or coincide with them. Consequently, we manage to play all the parts that are on the record. Our bass player sings a bit as well, so that adds an extra couple of voices that allow us to cover all the parts that were on the original album. On the new album, it's less of a chore, but to justify having another person around, I've given him some parts that allow him to have a presence on stage, which the audience seems to enjoy. I think it's interesting to have another person on stage that can be seen as an interloper.

For me, personally, it's been a joyous thing to have him well received and appreciated for his performance, and I think having the extra guy around is very useful. For the last two months, I haven't had that. We were playing the whole of the two albums. But I was on my own, and I had to leave out some of the flute lines and a couple of vocal lines here and there that were impossible to do simultaneously. But it seemed impractical to take someone else for a multi-act festival and not to have the audio-visual stuff to employ as it was written. Having someone there with so little to do would seem spiritually a bit disappointing for him. However, he's back on the payroll tomorrow.

So will we see a full-blown theatrical production?
It's a theatrical musical concert. It has elements of spoken word, and it has elements where some audio-visual stuff sneaks in. Sometimes it's part of the performance, sometimes it's the whole performance just because of where it falls in the show. There's a cinema screen on back of the stage that covers certain aspects of both albums and the set-up and certain other things that the story entails. It's not a rock concert, which is one of the prime reasons for never wanting to go out and do this under the name Jethro Tull. I know from experience that no matter what you do in the way of publicity or promotion -- or for that matter, what it says on the ticket -- people will come expecting to see Jethro Tull's greatest hits. So then the half-dozen beer-drinking buddies will come along and get pissed off because they're not hearing "Aqualung" and the hard-rocking, head-banging stuff they might have heard on classic rock radio over the years. So it's best to identify this in a slightly different way.

Obviously, it is Jethro Tull material. And all the members of the band have been members of the Jethro Tull in recent years. So they are part of Jethro Tull, but they're also part of the Ian Anderson band as it says on the ticket. So we do sort of mix and match, whether it's orchestral shows, string quartet shows, or acoustic shows. That's part of the flexibility and the fun. There are many different facets of the performance. And indeed, my music over the years. So there are a lot of different elements that are available. We try to focus on different conceptual formats for different tours to give it a little more of a cohesive nature.

At any rate, even though this album is billed as an Ian Anderson effort, it is quite different from the things you've done as a solo artist up until now.
My solo albums have tended to focus more on the orchestral and acoustic side of things. This is, I suppose, an album that fits into that broad genre of conceptual rock music.

But just to set the record straight in advance ... You still carry the Jethro Tull banner. Inevitably there will be those who come to the show expecting to hear some Tull material other than that contained on these two albums. So will you toss in a couple of favorites to please them?
There are two things that make it very difficult to do that. Firstly, there is the fact that once you start the show, you're going to play it through like you would any theatrical production or any classical symphony. You start at the beginning and play it all the way through to the end. And in the majority of the venues, we have a curfew. In other words, there's a certain time beyond which we may not play. That varies from venue to venue. But when we start to think about what happens if we play an extra song or two at the end, it could be a problem. And from an audience perspective, we're onstage an awfully long time and it may well be that they may well want to get the hell out of there and catch the last bus home as soon as it seems acceptable for them to do that. If on the other hand, there is an overwhelming demand for something extra, then we may or may not fulfill that expectation. Everything we play beyond the actual end of the show as it's written is putting us way beyond two and a half hours. So we are living at the mercy of the venues and their curfew policies and their union rules and all the rest of it, so there are circumstances over which we don't have any control.

So from what you're saying, we shouldn't expect any encores.
Normally speaking, when you consider an encore or encores, then you expect that you will do them and you factor them into the set anyway. You're playing an hour and 40 minutes, and then you're playing another ten minutes after that. But in this show, counting the intermission, you have something close to two and a half hours. When I go to a performance, I personally don't like sitting through anything longer than that. Regardless of whether it's a ballet or an opera, I'm groaning if I think there's going to be anything more than two acts and a short intermission. It's a long, long time to take it all in, and I get twitchy after an hour. I just want to get up and go, no matter what it is. So if I had to go see my show, I would find it very difficult to stay until the end just because I'm just not made that way. I find it really hard to sit in one place for a long time. Which is why I don't like flying very much, because I can't get up and take a walk halfway through.

And yet, here you on tour again. And in fact, flying quite a bit. After all this time, 40 years or more, why do you keep at it?
I think if you ask that question to the majority of people who do what I do -- something of a similar nature in terms of arts and entertainment -- then how they articulate it may be different, but the message will be the same: They do what they do because they have a passion for it and they don't want to be pulled off the football field because they've been on for 19 minutes, or because they're getting too old or they're still planning to score goals. They want to stay out there forever. They enjoy doing what they're doing, they enjoy the performance and the fans. They're doing what they've made a big commitment in their life to do. We musicians are a whole lot luckier than athletes. It's rare that a sportsman gets more than ten years. You're getting to your peak around the age of 20. And by the age of 30, it's probably over. The Olympic games is a case in point. You see people who have competed in two or three games, but there are no gold winners out there who have competed 40 times. It's a short life, so we're the lucky guys because we get to go on with less in the way of limitations. We can double, triple that professional lifespan when compared to an athlete.

You clearly seem to enjoy life on the road. I've had the good fortune to interview you three times. And it seems that every time I do, you're on your way out for yet another gig. Maybe it seems that way. But half the year, I'm sitting around at home, sleeping in my own bed. It's just because I'm away for a few days, back home for a few days, away for a few days, back home for a few days. The only tours that go on a little longer are those we do in the USA. Usually, I'm only away for a few days. Last time I was in Australia, I only played a few shows. I think there were only five nights I didn't sleep in my own bed. I flew there, played a show there that night, played another three, got on the plane and I was home 24 hours later. Even to play Australia, I'm not away for even a week. I only played four nights. Other people wouldn't do that. They'd go there, sort of make a little holiday of it, maybe arrive a few days early to get acclimated or get over the jet lag. I find that due to my own experience, that doesn't work for me. I'd much rather just bite the bullet. I get there, get the job done, and then get the hell out of there.

So you don't really take any time to enjoy the environs? No lingering on South Beach after the gig?
Life is too short. I'd rather spend some time at home than sit in the shade of the Sydney Opera House, however nice that might be. I only need to do it for ten minutes and then I'm on my way back to the airport. So I'm not really away all the time by any means. If you look at the date sheet, it may seem like a lot of travel. But other people do the exact same thing. Some people have to get on an airplane and go to work, but they're selling insurance. Or having some other travel related occupation, which may be more fun than mine. I don't enjoy the travel but I make it constructive. Wherever it is -- an airline seat or the back of a bus -- it's my office and I can be working all the time.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. Playing Thick as a Brick 1 and 2. Tuesday, September 18. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8:20 p.m. and tickets cost $40.50 to $73 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.

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The Fillmore Miami Beach

1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL

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