Ian Anderson,
The TVD Interview

“That’s vinyl. That’s what it’s all about—trying to get the best of a bad job.”

It’s a fine thing to draw the rancor of one of rock music’s innovators. I mean that sincerely. While it is difficult to know if Ian Anderson was simply being cantankerous or if he truly feels that vinyl is the purview of right-wing political extremists… it doesn’t much matter. And it is unlikely that his fans will notice or care. It’s never been about opinion with Anderson—it’s always been about the music first and foremost. Vinyl as a format is as much about knowing your limitations as it is about enjoying them. Anderson enjoys neither limitations nor conventions, which should come as no surprise to…well, everyone. 

Ian Anderson’s agnosticism towards vinyl is consistent for a musician who thought nothing of treating rock music as bizarre pantomime/symphony. Nobody thought of playing the flute with the gusto of electric guitar until Ian Anderson came along; never formally trained, Anderson was just as ragged and brilliant with the flute as any of his contemporary “guitar gods” were with their instruments. With Jethro Tull, Anderson did everything he could to exorcise the fey from the flute, making it something fairly menacing and, even, metal. (Don’t let any Metallica fans know I said that.) He continues the tradition in 2014 with his latest opus, Homo Erraticus.

To his well-deserved credit, Ian Anderson has done little in past years to rest on his laurels. His feelings about the world in which we live and the people who inhabit it are evident in this TVD interview as they are in his new album, Homo Erraticus—the “wandering man”—a pre-and-post-apocalyptic musical tome that, like its creator, dwells somewhat obsessively on the present (and ongoing) conundrums of immigration, climate change, and mindless conflict.

Yet it’s the past that is the vehicle for the story. The sound of Homo Erraticus is almost startlingly Tull in its instrumentation and in its Biblical overtones. “It’s not Thick as a Brick 3,” Anderson proclaims. Yet the concept album marks the third coming of the character of Gerald Bostock, who first appeared in Jethro Tull’s 1972 opus, Thick as a Brick and, in 2012, Thick as a Brick 2. Today, Bostock has a blog and a Facebook account and a Twitter handle, so it could be said that Anderson’s characters and stories—while rooted in the past—have not resisted the future.

Anderson is about to embark on a yet another world tour in Europe this summer and the US in the fall. We were lucky to chat with him as he was preparing to bring his music, both new and old, to audiences worldwide. 

One of the things that is so interesting to me about British composers of your era is that once conscription ended, so many of you went to art school. I’m curious to know how your particular art school experience shaped how you approached music.

Well, I think it’s definitely the case that a lot of people, certainly back then during the mid-‘60s who found their way through the art school rituals as it was for many folks who were looking for direction in life that was outside the normal prescribed career options at school. There were many of us, and we all seemed to find our way into music. I can’t think of many people who’d been a success in pop and rock music whose education was music college, whereas if you look at the art college… of the folks who made it, it’s almost hard to think of people who weren’t at art college. It seems to have been a breeding ground in Britain at that time for the world of pop and rock music. I think that went on through the ‘70s and ‘80s as well, since there was certainly a number of other bands I’m aware of who began their musical meanderings whilst studying the painterly arts.

So, it was a common practice. For me, I was already playing music in a school band with some school mates; during the time I was at art school, music became the more realistic option for me rather than ending up becoming and art teacher since I was studying fine art, not commercial art. Being a rock musician definitely had its attractions rather than ending up a middle-aged art school teacher at some seedy boys school in the middle of England.

That appreciation for art and, certainly, literature bled into your music, as you’re known for your very cerebral songwriting. Even now, in between touring relentlessly, you manage to write complex works like Thick as a Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus. Did you ever imagine you’d be writing music like this for so long?

Well, the people who I listened to as a teenager were not usually the contemporary pop and rock bands of the time. They were more blues and jazz musicians that I listened to in my mid teens. I was used to the idea of my musical heroes being men of my father’s age. I was used to the idea if I became a musician, that is what I’d be. I just made a natural assumption that I’d end up an old guy playing music, so there’s nothing strange about that for me! And nothing strange about the idea that musical heroes should be as old as your dad, and usually black instead of pale pink as my father was, coming from the wild and wooly north of Scotland.

I think that’s a common theme as well, that we all aspire to be as good as what once was. Is that what compels you to eschew exclusively “best of” touring like so many of your peers?

Well, I have done lots of tours for many, many years where the set list is basically repertoire from over the years. But if I’m doing something that’s more project-related, like some orchestral string quartet concert, or an acoustic concert, or a concert with a major concept album involved—like Thick as a Brick or Homo Erraticus—of course, that takes up the bulk of the performance. Although, there are always some elements of the favorites that are stuck in as well; the tours that we’re playing in the USA later this year are, in fact, 40% Homo Erraticus and 60% is the “best of Jethro Tull,” a selection of music covering many years.

So, I don’t leave that out, it’s just that this is an opportunity for me to try to interest an old audience in new music, and we all know that’s very, very difficult to do. Generally speaking, audiences do not want to hear new material from old, established bands—they just want to hear the hits. We know that, we’ve always known that. Nothing wrong with it; it’s sentimental, it’s a little bit comfort/blanket treatment for folks who like to delve into their past and reassure themselves of what it is they know they like.

But, it’s good if you can use that opportunity to entertain them—and that’s the key element—you’ve got to entertain people by playing new music. It’s much easier to entertain them if you make it theatrical and you present it in a fairly big and colorful way… they’ll stay entertained, at least for an hour. That’s important to me—to make it entertaining. That’s my job to figure out how to make it entertaining, because new music is a little beyond the comfort zone of most of the older fans.

And yet, the works that you’ve released in recent years—especially Homo Erraticus—is sort of a comment on that. It takes the listener through post-Ice Age Britain, through past lives, and into a “reborn” future. What interested me is that two of the songs of “Revelations” comment on 2013 and 2014 and essentially skip over 1970 until then. I’m curious about this gap and about your particular focus on the present.

Well, we all know about the recent history about ourselves or even our parents’ generation, so there doesn’t seem a lot of point in dwelling too much on that, so I’m jumping ahead to scenarios that are, perhaps, a result of information that started to become apparent and be analyzed of scientists of various disciplines since the ‘70s. So, climate change as we know it today is a scenario borne out of work done—much of it, anyway—in the ‘70s and then into the ‘80s once ice core samples were being analyzed and scientists realized that we were talking about global heating rather than global cooling. In the ‘70s, the consensus seemed to be that we were probably headed towards another ice age.

But, the scientists then got it right in the sense that ice ages have been many, and the idea that there will never be another one is really preposterous, isn’t it? Something will happen in terms of Earth’s climate that will produce another ice age to some extent, and that may come before the effects of global heating get as bad as we might expect a hundred or two hundred years from now. We might be plunged into another mini-ice age if that big magma chamber in the central part of Iceland goes up; we could be looking at blackening out the skies for some period of maybe months or years to come. Climate change may not be one hundred percent what we think it’s going to be. But we are one hundred percent sure that if you’re a climate change denier, it’s possibly because you don’t like the idea of giving up your air conditioning or two motorcars, or your use of finite resources to which you have become so dependent on.

So, I think no one can really seriously think that nothing is happening out there. Of course it is happening, and it would be happening even if there weren’t man-made involvement. Climate change would, sooner or later, be driving human migration and the future of humanity, indeed. We must remember that 65,000 years ago, when our ancestors came out of Africa, it was climate change that drove homo sapiens out into the northwest and the northeast. Climate change is, essentially, what shaped our species of surviving hominids and human evolution.

The other guys weren’t so adept at handling climate change, and they died out, the Neanderthals being the last ones to go… we were born out of climate change, and the changing of geopolitical boundaries, will change apace in years to come as people are forced from areas that are not sustainable to find some sort of opportunity to survive elsewhere. Whether you have the Mexicans and South Americans knocking on your door in even bigger numbers; or, in the event of global cooling, those awfully nice Canadian neighbors may come knocking instead. We can be pretty sure things are not going to remain cozy and convenient in the terms of geopolitics.

Again, we have these pretty good ideas that there are going to be some climate changing geological events that are going to occur, whether it’s in the next fifty, hundred, or five thousand years… it’s difficult to know when, but it’s not going to be that long in terms of human lifespans. Somewhere in the next two or three or four generations, I think there’s quite a likelihood for what seems to be the ongoing rumbles, whether in Yellowstone or in central Iceland. Of course, there are other areas of the world to worry about, too.

In trying to work out the overall theme of Homo Erraticus, I got the apocalyptic themes. But is it simply a way to discuss your feelings about climate change with your audience?

Well, they are indeed my concerns, but I’m not really trying to alarm people or worry people. I just want to make sure that people are aware of the degree to which change will affect their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren… it’s a good idea to prepare for that, in the same ways that you think about what you’re going to leave them when you die—like granddad’s old watch, or that nice old hunting rifle sitting in the barn. Whatever it might be, it’s a good idea to think about this stuff.

What are we going to leave to the generations who succeed us, and I don’t think we want to leave them with a nasty surprise. I think it’s much better that people grow up with an awareness that things are going to change. It doesn’t mean having a survivalist mentality and digging a hole in the Midwest and filling it with firearms and ammunition or cans of Campbell’s soup. It does mean, however, that you’ve got to think of some basics in regards to morality in regard to fertility and in regard to how much you impinge upon the sustainability of people in your area, given finite resources that we know exist.

I think that people should be thinking and talking—in a cheerful way, not a bad way—whether or not they should have another child, whether they should buy another car or install air conditioning out there in the garden shed. I think these are things that have to do with personal ethics, morality and stuff we should talk about and think about. Some people say, “Well, sod it, I’m going to have ten children because I just want them.” Other people are going to say, “You know what, I think we’ve got one or two and who could possibly want more?” I personally sit on that side of the fence having two children, a boy and a girl, and it seems to me that was as much as anyone has a right to hope and pray for, and if you get lucky, that’s fine. But we come from a part of the world where the average fertility rate in northwest Europe is 1.5; it’s a little higher in the UK and France, but that’s for very specific reasons of cultural changes in our society in the last fifty or sixty years.

Because of these over-arching themes in Homo Erraticus, it’s obvious to me that you mean for it to be listened to as a complete work. Given that I write for a magazine that has a focus on the album format, I have to ask: do you prefer the seamless digital format for your longer works or do you still sequence and write for vinyl?

I’ve never had any liking for vinyl; it was the only option there was when I started recording. As you can imagine, during the early ‘70s, we had the option to listen to music on eight-tracks and cassettes. Then in the ‘80s, it was CDs and cassettes and vinyl records fell away by huge numbers. But at least people had an option.

First of all, the option in the ‘60s was vinyl. The option in the ‘70s was vinyl or cassette—you could make a choice. In the ‘80s it was, arguably, vinyl, cassette or CD. At the end of the ‘90s, we started to see the advent of the MP3. These days, when we release this new record, we have to think of five different formats we have to release in. Yes, vinyl is still an important thing to a few people who love to have that physical reality; I’m not sure that they ever play them, but they like to hold it and cuddle it and look at it. So, vinyl is an option and obviously the simple, straightforward CD; then there’s the CD/DVD package where you present them with 5.1 surround sound and 24-bit stereo masters; then, of course, there’s the downloadable formats which are, essentially, MP3; and then for those audiophiles that still want to digitally download our product, we make that available in 16- or 24-bit audio files for folks who want to download that.

We’re talking five different formats, and it’s all about giving the consumer choice. It has nothing to do with my preferences for listening to music, because I know what they are, and they will probably surprise you because for convenience’s sake, most of what I listen to is in an MP3 format. Although, of course, when I’m working professionally then I’m dealing with 24-bit audio whether at 48k or 96k sample rates, then that’s what I do for a living. But if I just want to listen to something to learn a piece of music, or should I feel in the unlikely mood where I just want to listen to music recreationally, then it’s certainly going to be an MP3 file. I can pretty much say that’s been the case since the advent of iTunes, for example. I’ve probably bought and re-bought everything I was ever interested in musically in MP3 format. I have much of that sitting on my old iPod.

I was just curious with you having been in the studio as much as you’ve been, and working with that super-high quality audio, if the analog format had any value for you, and it sounds like perhaps…

Not at all. It’s utterly, totally impossible to get a perfect vinyl cut. You are always going to have—however pristine the equipment, however careful you are—there’s always gonna be that little bit of dirt that gets in there—that speck you can’t even see—that gets into the grooves as you’re recording or stamped and pressed… getting a perfect vinyl cut is an illusion. And you are going to have to make compromises when you cut vinyl—that’s always going to be the case. Compromises in terms of the final master mix are going to have to be made if you’re going to cut vinyl; you’re going to have to be very careful with a number of factors that will, to some extent, compromise the audio quality. That’s vinyl. That’s what it’s all about—trying to get the best of a bad job.

But you don’t have to worry about that if you’re presenting the format for CD, then you don’t have to worry about too much at all, so long as it fits onto the eighty-four minutes or thereabouts that a CD can take. If you’re doing digital downloads, you don’t have to worry about doing too much of anything other than accepting that a compressed file like an MP3 is going to be lacking some dynamic range, it’s going to be lacking some frequencies, it’s going to be suffering to some extent from that inevitable compression. But it’s a very small compromise to make compared to the compromise of listening to vinyl.

Vinyl, to me, doesn’t do anything in terms of listening quality. It will just irritate me with turntable rumble or the odd scratch and crunch and click that’s going to be in there—and there’s nothing you can do about it; it’s going to happen. However, if you’ve got a good vinyl cut it’s satisfying, I suppose, to know that you were able to technically do it. But as a medium for listening, there’s nothing that is has to offer whatsoever except a rather, to my mind, a more obvious compromise than presenting people with an MP3 file—especially the MP3s of relatively higher quality. That MP3 is going to sound better than the vinyl any day of the week.

But there are those people who love vinyl. They’re probably all climate change deniers—it’s the same group of people! Probably if you examined the home record collections of any member of the Tea Party, that curious element within the Republican party of the USA, I bet they all listen to vinyl. [Laughs]

Ian Anderson’s Homo Erraticus is available now. On vinyl.
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