Saturday, October 5, 2013

Searching for Gerald Bostock: An Interview with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

Photo courtesy of

Although Progressive Rock fans have a special place in their hearts for “Gerald Bostock,” the fictional child lyricist behind Jethro Tull’s 1972 landmark Prog Rock lampoon, Thick As A Brick, nothing was heard from the little scamp in the four decades following the album’s release. That was until Gerald’s creator, Tull frontman Ian Anderson, decided to explore what the precocious young poet might be doing today. The idea led to the creation of Thick As A Brick 2 – Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?, which presents a series of intriguing what-ifs on the whereabouts of the now-middle aged character. And in keeping with the spirit of the original Thick As A Brick, there’s plenty of awe-inspiring songwriting and musicianship to help tell the tale.

Far from a man who would simply put a bunch of songs on a CD and call it an album, Anderson (who released Thick As A Brick 2 under his own name) sought to make the experience truly worthy of its groundbreaking predecessor. Released in April 2012, Thick As A Brick 2 is available in two distinct formats: A simple jewel case CD with an 8-page page booklet, and the “Special Edition” with a CD, audio-visual DVD and 16-page booklet. The DVD contains (among other goodies) 5.1 surround mixes, videos covering the making of the album and interviews with the musicians. Also on the DVD are the pages of, the online update of the fabled St. Cleve Chronicle newspaper featued on the original album, and multilingual lyric translations in Italian, German, Spanish, Czech, Polish and Russian.

Backed by a group of longtime collaborators including brilliant 30-year-old guitarist Florian Opahle, Anderson has spent the better part of 18 months touring in support of the album, which is currently being paired with the original Thick As A Brick in a special live production that sees the music legend performing both albums in their entirety. Anderson’s show hits Boston’s Citi Performing Arts Center on October 12. Ticket are available HERE.

Well-spoken with a sense of humor so dry it actually cracked during the course of our conversation, Anderson phoned me on October 3 for a free-flowing interview on a variety of topics including the current tour, the next album…and why Taliban soldiers should consider needlework.

With Thick As A Brick so identifiable with Jethro Tull, why did it come to be that the sequel was released under your own name as opposed to it being a full-fledged Jethro Tull project?

It’s interesting that folks have a bit of a hurdle to jump in sort of grasping this, but Jethro Tull is the name of the band that I have been a member of, and that band has consisted of some 28 people over the years. Really, whether I call it ‘Jethro Tull’ or go out as ‘Ian Anderson’ these days for me depends on whether or not I’m just playing a generic ‘Best of Jethro Tull’ show, in which case it’s fair enough just to say ‘Jethro Tull’ on the ticket. But if it’s something a bit more specific, like the production tours of Thick As A Brick or perhaps an orchestra tour or string quartet concert or an acoustic show, then I tend to use my own name because I want to make sure that people understand that this is not just ‘The Best of Jethro Tull’ because they might get a little bent out of shape if they come along expecting to hear six tracks from the Aqualung album, and in fact they get all of Thick As A Brick instead. They might understandably be a little miffed, so I try to make sure we brand these concerts in a slightly different way. I’ve been trading quite legally all these years because I own the copyright and the name ‘Jethro Tull’ for the purposes of musical entertainment, [but] Jethro Tull is a 18th century English agriculturist who invented the seed drill. He’s in the history books. I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed and a bit guilty that our agent named us after him in February 1968, and in some ways feel maybe it’s just time to move on and spend the last few years of my very active life being myself rather than having this slightly misappropriated name attached to someone whom I think really should be left to lie in peace and enjoy his reputation as the founding father of contemporary farming, which is what Jethro Tull was.

People think of ‘Jethro Tull’ as a bloke who stands on one leg and plays the flute. Fair enough, but I think ultimately Jethro Tull should be remembered in the historical context of the real Jethro Tull rather than a Wikipedia entry. [Our entry] usually sits way above his if you do a Google search. I feel a bit bad about it, really.

The real Jethro Tull

One very crucial part of your current production is your guitarist, Florian Opahle, who wasn’t even born when Thick As A Brick came to be. How do you think he has impacted the proceedings, and what does he bring to the table as a musician that perhaps wasn’t there in earlier incarnations of this material?

I think he brings a very Germanic kind of quality with him, which is that of discipline, organization [and] the ability to prepare things. When it comes to performance, he gives it both precision and a lot of emotion, so he’s a very European kind of guy. I wouldn’t say that he’s necessarily a better guitar player than [longtime Tull guitarist] Martin Barre or other guitar players that I’ve worked with over the years, but he’s a very good guy for working with when you have to learn new material, change arrangements and be very much able to prepare things in your own time and in your own space, which in his case is Rosenheim in Bavaria. When he hops on a plane and meets us at Heathrow Airport or wherever we’re going, I know he’s done his homework. He’s a pretty good guy; I’ve worked with him now for about 11 years. He’s performed as a guitarist in some Jethro Tull concerts here and there when Martin Barre was ill-disposed or didn’t want to do a particular tour, as happened I think a couple of times in Russia, India and places he’s not very fond of. The other guys in the band [have] all played as members of Jethro Tull during the last years, and they know the repertoire and they’re a good bunch of guys to work with. We’re probably a very mature group of men who know just how to spend a lot of time in each others’ company without things getting stressful or tense or upsetting to each other. That very often happens with bands, as you could imagine.

You’ve released a great number of albums over a long period of time. What do you think has specifically enabled Thick As A Brick  to endure? Looking back, what were the magic ingredients that made that album work to the point where we’re talking about it 40-plus years later as part of a current tour?

I think it’s a classic album of the Progressive Rock era because it set out to be not only a parody of the ‘concept album,’ but to use that comedic mask as a way of presenting something quite serious. It is essentially about the passage from childhood through puberty [and] the rather misguided idea of a child aged 8, 9, or 10 as to what adult life may be about. I took it quite serious as a piece of written work; it’s not all joking and fun and games. It’s presented in a whimsical, humorous way, which I think is part of our tradition of British humor, which in post-war years became quite a factor in radio and then later in television. [This is] something parallel with the beginnings of Jethro Tull [and] the kind of humor that we employ. Comedic masks are often ways of just drawing an audience in, and then you give them some hard-hitting and sometimes quite dark messages. That’s what I tried to do. In the way that we perform it onstage with the use of video and additional people, it’s part of creating a context for that music to work in that keeps people interested through what otherwise might be rather complex and difficult music. The trick is to present it in a way that keeps them engaged. I think I’m better at doing that now than I was in years gone by. And I have to be good at it again in 2014 and 2015 when I present the new work. It’s very important that I write and record the next album in a way that’s also going to be very stagable and make it interesting for the audience.

What do you know about the direction of your next album at this point in time, and where the next chapter will be for you?

Well, it’s something that I set out to write last January, starting at nine o’clock on January 1. That was my target start point, and indeed that’s what I did. I wanted to try to write it in the period of three weeks or so and get it wrapped up in terms of the detail of the arrangement and, of course, all the lyrics and some of the elements of the presentation. I really wanted to get it put to bed before I had to start another year’s active touring around the world. I had to work to a deadline. The starting date for recording is the 10th of December, and we have a couple of weeks prior to that to rehearse. We will finish up around the 20th of January, when I hopefully will be mastering the album to deliver it for an Easter release, or just 10 days before Easter, in 2014. It’s something that is well-established, but we’re just getting to that point in the next few weeks when all the guys in the band have got to go back to those demos that I sent them last March and think, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got to learn all this stuff now.’ (laughs). It’s a scary reality we’ll be descending upon them during their long travel days on the bus during the next three or four weeks as they can see those dates in the year planner looming ever closer.

Photo courtesy of Leighton Media

Thick As A Brick 2 explores how Gerald might have turned out after all these years. How do you think you've changed most in the years between the two albums?

Well, a couple of inches around the waist, substantial hair loss and a few other physical realities that you can’t do anything about. But changing in terms of basic personal philosophy, really surprisingly little. I’m often surprised and maybe even a little worried that a lot of things I feel and think about today are actually not so different to the way that I was when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I think the time that you’re most shaped by your environment [and] by your experiences tends to be that period of passage from child to man. I think the early teenage years particularly are very important, and [that] as parents, we give our children the best possible and easiest ride through that difficult time of coursing hormones and a lot of peer group pressures from others to participate in things that perhaps are not ultimately going to be the best course of action. Sometimes, parents underestimate the importance of their role to be friends and guiding influences rather than just authoritative parental figures or, worse, to not really be involved at all.

I found the “All Too Commonly Asked Questions” section in the press area of pretty amusing. There are questions you get asked a lot, but what’s a question about this current tour and production that you haven’t been asked that you’d love to discuss?

To be fair to most journalists and inquisitors within the broad media context, they really do ask a lot of the same questions, but they also ask quite often some very specific things to make it a very broad discussion. Most of the time, I’m quite happy to do interviews because they don’t all turn out to be just the same. They sometimes start off just the same, but hopefully you as an interviewer and I as an interviewee manage to kind of steer it somewhere else and touch upon things that aren’t quite as samey. I don’t really have any specific, ‘Oh, no one ever asked me that before,’ [but] people don’t very often touch upon say, for instance, my sexuality. That’s always kind of interested me because they assume I’m just a centered kind of very ordinary, straightforward traditional heterosexual guy and a married man with a couple of children, but we’re all a little more complicated than that. I personally always think of myself as having some female attributes and aspects of my personality which are very much part of what I do, and so perhaps being someone who on the one hand might be found combat handgun shooting and on the other hand might be playing a girlie instrument like a flute or sewing some buttons on my shirt in the kitchen [while] making a sort of delicate pudding or something. We’re not simple creatures.

I think the sexual thing’s quite interesting, especially because I play in a lot of places where people do just think of men as men and women as women. I don’t think we’re as simple as that. I would love to get your average Taliban guy and dress him in a nice frock and maybe some high-heel shoe things and teach him to knit or do embroidering because I think it would be good for the soul. It would be good just to point out that this terribly sort of old fashioned and rather right-wing view about men and women as two essentially different species is just complete nonsense. We all have a bit of the girlie about us, and most females – thank goodness – know sometimes when to wear the pants and exercise a bit of authority. For example, Margaret Thatcher. For example, Angela Merkel. For example, Hillary Clinton, who might well become your next president. It’s good that some of the girls know how to play the guys’ rules, too, just as people like me have to remember that we represent maybe 90 percent male stereotypes, but there’s 10 percent of us that’s a little bit iffy, and I don’t mind that at all. But I’m not, as far as I know, gay. I’ve never tried it, but it’s probably getting a bit too late now. (laughs) But if the offer’s right, I’ll certainly consider it.

(laughs) I wholeheartedly thank you for taking this conversation to an unexpected area! I always appreciate that.

Well, I am in fact going combat handgun shooting with a number of IED victims from the community of injured servicemen when I’m in Long Island next week. Ultimately, I’m not enough of a man to get up there and shoot a gun at a person in defense of my country’s interests or in defense of global democracy. I wish I was, but the nearest I can get to it is trying to give a little comfort and solace to some people who’ve had their legs blown off and are much more men that I, sadly, would ever have been. I’m kind of facing this stuff quite often, and it’s sort of part of what keeps me sane and, dare I say, a bit grounded because you realize how fortunate you’ve been in life and how much other people have suffered for things that they sometimes aren’t really in control of. Anyway, I shall think of this when I’m going bang bang bang on the special range designed for homeland security that I’m visiting next week.


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