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Progressive Rock Interviews

Ian Anderson

Interviewed by Jason Hillenburg

Interview with Ian Anderson from 2014

MSJ:

After releasing no new material for nine years, you've released two new albums in less than four years. Would you say you feel creatively freer?

It's not so much creatively freer as it is just the logistics of making records, the rehearsing, and recording. It depends on the availability of the people you work with. It's a bit difficult if you've got a drummer who lives in Los Angeles and a guitar player who's always on holiday. They were living a long way from the rest of us, so it's kind of easier with the band where they are now. They tend to be, you know, kind of around. [laughs] It has to do with logistics and, I suppose, it has to do with the ability of people to learn, rehearse, just their general work ethic. Some people are easier to work with than others. Not to condemn any members of the previous 28 members of Jethro Tull, but everybody's different in the way they do things. I guess the guys that I've been working with the last few years managed to make a good match with my way of working, so I can count on them to do their homework, turn up fully prepared, and work hard, work fast, and not noodle about because, particularly in the past, there were certain musicians who just fiddled around endlessly or think, "I'll just work something out in the studio,” and they just haven't got it. It takes so long to do things and that's just wasting a lot of time and money while everyone else stands around waiting while they decide what to summon, for instance, from the vast array of keyboard sounds. It just becomes an endless parade of noodly noises and the choices are bewildering, so you've really got to think and understand your instrument and know what it is, the right voice, that you're looking for in the same way as if you were writing an orchestral work, you've got to choose the right voices for orchestral instruments and choose your writing and arrangement in a way that makes use of those voices. You've got to think about it ahead of time. This is going to be a piccolo line! This is going to be a clarinet line! You've got to make your mind up that you go into the studio with the job of rehearsing and recording. If you put things off, if you don't do your prep and you just come in not being quite sure what to do, I can't be bothered with that. I like people who make decisions. I like people who understand music, make decisions, stick with it, and say, “let's get it done. Let's nail it, let's play it like we would on stage, not fart around in the studio trying to make our minds up.” We try to write, rehearse, record, and the music is written and arranged with this in mind - that we can rehearse and record it like we're playing it live on stage.
MSJ: From an outsider's and fan's perspective, I have to say it has always seemed like you want to work in a very focused and concentrated way, so I'm not surprised to hear you say that.
I think it also has to do with an innate dislike of working in recording studios. It's not something I've ever really enjoyed. Once you're in there and you're doing it, just give it your best. You try to inhabit that world as pleasantly as you possibly can. But getting into the studio and starting up, especially in today's world of ever changing digital media that we work with, everything is just a learning curve. If you haven't been in a recording studio for a couple of years, you'll probably spend just a day downloading new software and firmware before fiddling around with all kinds of stuff to make it work. It's tedious, shall we say, but also a bit confounding because you've actually got to learn new techniques and, if you're trying to keep abreast with the latest technology, then you've got to be prepared to invest some time in learning the steep learning curve that comes with it. Not just downloading some update, but very often, completely new material or software. When we started the last album, it was not only with Mavericks as the operating system for the computers doing the job, but also the new Logic 10 which also required all new interfaces, so we had to acquire, fairly expensively, new Apogee interfaces, which, of course, required everything to make them work, like the right drivers. It was a lot of work setting things up. It's, at best, just annoying. At worst, you're scratching your head periodically for a few days.
MSJ: Hopefully you can find some way that it enhances the work, of course.
Well, I think what you're trying to do is get 24 bits of good audio and a performance from all of the musicians, including myself. It's not that things change with a view towards making better records. We were kind of there back when digital mastering of mixes and stereo mastering came about in the latter half of the eighties. Things were only going to get marginally better as we went from 16 bit to 24 bit mastering, but, of course, everything's dithered back to 16 bits for CDs anyway, which, I guess, for most fans of my kind of music is still what they listen to. Personally, someone gave me a CD, I sat it on my desk, and now I'm sort of scratching my head thinking, “what do I do with this thing?” I listen to digital audio on whatever it's on, whether it's a thumb drive, or loaded from a big server somewhere if it's a big file. I happily left vinyl behind in the eighties, other than having to master it, but in terms of listening, I never listen to vinyl. Very rarely I listen to a CD unless it's something someone gives me. "Would you listen to my CD?" And I say, “of course, I would,” and dutifully I do.
MSJ: How happy are you with the album's reception?
I would say I'm about as disappointed as I expected to be because the reality you've got to accept, as most of us do, even The Rolling Stones, that if you make a new album, it's going to ship a paltry five or ten percent of what it would have in your heyday in the 70s. That's the reality. People don't want new albums from old bands. People want to hear new old albums from old bands. In other words, it's best if you made an album that was stylistically a clone of some earlier material, then maybe people might like it, but it would still be an uphill battle. So I think you have to accept there's a huge resistance out there for something different, or just simply something new, even if it isn't a hundred miles away stylistically from previous works. There's a resistance - that's just the way that it is. It's been like that for a long time and increasingly so now. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying that it's done what I expected it to do - which is inherently disappointing.
MSJ: In the face of all these things you've talked about, how has that changed the creative impulse for you? Homo Erraticus is a very ambitious work and to write and record an album like that can only, in my mind, I can only imagine it's sustained by passion. I wanted to hear what you thought.
That's it - it's sustained by passion. If you get to my age, you know making another album could possibly be your last, so every year of extension of good physical health and the ability to focus, to undertake big projects like that, is a yen to treasure and to use as forcefully as you can for as long as you can. That's it really. It's simple. There's always that gentle reminder. If you've got an idea, don't put it off for a year or two because it might never come to fruition. It's best to just crack on with things when you feel the impulse to unlock that creative spirit.
MSJ: The lyrics to Homo Erraticus are littered with literary and historical allusions, sly nods to your past and often inventive rhymes. Do you put lyrics through frequent revision before they reach a final form?
I would say there's certainly a lot of revision, but there's some lines that go unchanged from the first writing down. As you go through, particularly when you compare one piece to another piece, you've got to go back and avoid repeated overuse of the same adjectives or the same little elements. It's okay to make references and reiterate things, but you've got to have it all under control. So, yes, there's a frequent need to go back and re-examine things in the context of the greater whole. There's a lot of working and reworking, but hopefully, by the time I get to the master recording, I'm not going to change it anymore because I've sung it lots of times in private, on demos, in rehearsals, so I'm pretty much locked down with everything.
MSJ: You've grown quite fond of Gerald Bostock as a narrative device. Is the distance he provides you appealing?
It's a useful tool, a useful writer's device, a character who can voice sentiments and thoughts that are perhaps not mine. It's quite useful having characters who can then be seen as the source of a description, an idea, a view, a belief. That's how it works in the world of literature, in the world of movie script writing, but in the wider world, when you have a character who says words, it's not necessarily the words of the writer. I don't know why that shouldn't apply to rock music. It's just a narrow understanding because if you hear rock or pop music and someone says "I,” "me,” "we,” then everyone assumes they are, heart on sleeve, expressing their own emotions and ideas. But why should that be the case? It's absurd really. It just seems to be a given - that's the way people write. They bleat on about their own emotions and sophistic ideas and expect we should be entertained by it. I think there's more out there, as a writer, to express through the eyes, ears, voice, and beliefs of other people. So creating characters in your songs and then inhabiting those characters as a performer seems to be a perfectly valid and, hopefully, entertaining thing to do, but it's certainly not the norm in pop and rock music.
MSJ: There's a scope and vitality on Homo Erraticus that, even at your sprightly age, suggests to me that your best work is ahead of you. What does the future hold?
It all depends on good health. I think once you're getting into those latter years of your life, you do depend on a bit of good luck to keep going on as reasonably long as you can. I would think that, in the months to come, I will gradually turn my attention towards some new project. I have two new projects that are currently on the go, but they aren't big things, like a new concept album. It's a few things that I'm working on that will involve my time until the first half of next year. In terms of a complete, new recording project, that will be something I don't get around to launching until January of next year just because of practical issues like time, travel, and tour commitments between now and Christmas. Something will come up and I've set myself a target like 9 AM on January 1st, which is what I did last year and two years prior to that, then I put myself on the spot. I rather like doing that because I made a commitment to myself to suddenly turn on the tap and have no preconceived idea what I'm going to do. That's just the moment I've decided I'm going to do it.
MSJ:
Has the album translated well to the stage for you?
Absolutely. It was designed to work well on stage, so if I've done my job properly as a writer and producer, then it should be an easy transition into live performance. I think for the guys in the band it wasn't hugely demanding for them musically to make that transition to performing live. It's just all the other stuff - the little speeches and theatrical elements, the timing of everything, the tight sort of moments when you're reprogramming, repatching, resetting the different sounds. It's a lot of stuff to keep remembering. For me, it's the choreography of  where to be on stage at a particular moment because lighting cues and video stuff are all kind of tied down to a definitive set of moments. You get all of that stuff down in rehearsals and then, during the first couple of weeks, fine-tune it a bit. There's improvisation because how you perform isn't written in stone. The sequential elements are written in stone, but the way you do it, and that means the improv bits, which everyone has lots of, they are where you go off and try something different every night, but you know, you've got to be finished sixteen bars later. It's anchored around very definitive arrangements, but we all get a chance to vary our expression. 
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find an audio interview of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
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