In April of 1972, Jethro Tull took everything that people either loved or hated about prog-rock and put it in a 44-minute album that was also, incidentally, a 44-minute song: Thick as a Brick. Sometimes seen as a parody of the genre that spawned it, the song "Thick as a Brick" was based on a poem about the complexities of childhood "penned" by a fictional eight-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock.
It's been 40 years since then, and unlike, say, Bart Simpson, Bostock has actually aged. Tull bandleader Ian Anderson's new solo album, Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?, explores all the alternative fates that his boy genius might have met. Anderson caught up with Rolling Stone as he prepares to tour both Brick albums in their entirety.
Your new album is all about how Gerald Bostock's life could have turned out. What would you have done if music hadn't worked out for you?
When I was in my teenage years, I went to sign up as a cadet entrant to the police force but was at the very last moment rejected, just as I was about to sign my name on the dotted line. I won't get into why that happened, but it was a moment where it could've been predetermined then that I was off to become a policeman. I certainly was very serious about it at the time. I also was quite serious about becoming a journalist, and so I tried to enroll as an office boy/gopher in the local newspaper. They didn't want me either, so that didn't happen.
I was quite keen on silviculture, the growing of trees, and that was something I gave a lot of thought to. Maybe I could've gone in that direction. But it just so happened that while I was trying to make up my mind, I enrolled in art school and there I began to develop my interest in music, parallel with my interest in the visual arts. I also worked in the lowly stages selling magazines and newspapers in a shop. I kind of like the idea of living a rather ordinary life as a shopkeeper, and I examine that possibility as one of the outcomes of the young Gerald Bostock growing older.
The album is credited to you as a solo artist. Of course, some people would argue that Jethro Tull has always been a solo project.
I can follow the argument. Jethro Tull has been a bit of a revolving door for a lot of musicians over the years. There's been, by my reckoning, about 22 or 23 members of Jethro Tull, if we count a member as someone who's either performed on a number of tours or performed as a member of the band on at least one album. And I quite like the idea of this sort of extended family over a period of time that, to me, are all folks that have all imparted something very positive to the band and who've at some point helped shape the music. But by the same token, the music is virtually all written by me and the lyrics are 100 percent written by me. In a way, I do feel a sense of ownership that nobody else can really feel.
I felt that it was better to have this [new album] be, at least in part, under my own name since it's not likely to meet with a great deal of commercial success anyway. I suppose an obvious comparison would be to Roger Waters going out and saying 'Hey, I'm the guy who wrote The Wall. It's my baby and I've got every right to go out there and perform it with whoever I choose.' I don't think anyone could argue against that. In some rather parallel way, I suppose that's the position for me – albeit I wouldn't be going out and doing Thick as a Brick this year if I didn't have what I thought was an honorable sequel to that.
I once read that you don't like loud music, and therefore you wouldn't be a member of your own audience. Is that true?
It's part of the truth. The whole truth is that I'd rather not be in any audience, whether it's my show or anybody else's. When I was a teenager, I really didn't like loud rock music. I listened to jazz and blues and folk music. I've always preferred acoustic music. And it was only, I suppose, by the time Jethro Tull was getting underway that we did let the music begin to have a harder edge, in particular with the electric guitar being alongside the flute. Those two instruments and the role of them playing together defined early Jethro Tull. I feel from where I am standing on the stage that we are not a loud band. But on the rare occasions that I find myself in the audience of a show that is, generally speaking, considered a rock show, within 20 minutes I am done. I just have to leave. It's just way too loud and I don't like loud music. At all. Never have. Never will.
I think you can be powerful, you can be dramatic, without actually being at ear-splitting decibels. Symphony orchestras manage to do that very well. Beethoven did not have recourse to a Marshall 200-watt amp. He had to make things big and powerful by virtue of skillful writing and mustering the orchestral voices in a way that made it sound big and powerful – but in decibel terms, you're talking about a Toyota Prius, not a 747.
I've heard you say that when new members join Jethro Tull, they find out that it's a job, not a party. Was there ever a time when it was a party?
There was one member of the band who I suppose was the more stereotypical rock and roll person, but three of the four of us in the early days were guys who just enjoyed being onstage and playing our music, When the show was done, we would go back to our hotel rooms and watch TV or read a book and have a pretty quiet and calm kind of life. We knew how to get up at 8:00 in the morning, or even earlier, to travel to the next place. So we were quite pragmatic in our approach towards the lifestyle of being on the road. But there was one guy who was a bit more of a party animal, and he was the odd man out. And after a while we felt that it was driving a wedge between us, on musical as well personal relationship terms, so he had to go.
At the 1989 Grammy Awards, Jethro Tull beat Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. Where do you keep that Grammy?
Well, for many years, I had absolutely no idea where it was at all. I think my son found it somewhere when we moved home a few years ago and said, "I found this in a chest of drawers that got moved." And I said, "Oh, that's the Grammy. That's where it went." And so we've had it again, since a few years ago. But if you asked me where is it now – I don't know! He's probably taken it or maybe he put it back where he found it. I don't know.