Ian Anderson's Idea of Rock-n-Roll is More Complex Than You Know
Press Image of Jethro Tull from a 1977 Concert
Rock music is not typically thought of as a vehicle for profound commentary. Granted, the music of classic rock acts like Pink Floyd and Yes provide meditative grooves that are just as deeply poetic as they are good to listen to while stoned, but the progressive rock of Ian Anderson (whose band Jethro Tull was also a product of 60's England) is just as whimsically laced with satire and gobbledygook as it is overtly didactic. His latest album, Homo Erraticus, is the third entry in his Thick as a Brick Trilogy, which includes Thick as a Brick (released by Jethro Tull in 1972 and hailed by Rolling Stone as "one of rock's most sophisticated and ground-breaking products") and Thick as a Brick 2 (released by Ian Anderson in 2012).
The three albums make use of the narrative character Gerald Bostock, who light-heartedly flaunts archaic and cryptic verbiage while commenting on sociology and geopolitics. And while it can be argued that occasionally obvious political commentary is not a trait of profundity, the conceptual scope of the album -- to say nothing of its excellently orchestrated musical aspects -- is testament to its greatness. Anderson will be performing his latest album as well as a selection of Jethro Tull's greatest hits at Segerstrom Hall on September 18.
OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): What was your inspiration for using Gerald Bostock as a narrative device?
Ian Anderson: Well it's always helpful when you can kind of have a back story. You can come up with a theme, a concept, whatever you want to call it, but then it's nice to give it a bit of a narrative that takes you back into the way of an explanation as to what it's there for. So, it's part of the building of the layers of an onion that people can peel back if they want to. Otherwise they can just swallow it whole, but for those who want to kind of look into the different levels of this album, they can peel back those layers and get into a little more depth and a little bit more of a fictional background, which is kind of amusing but not for everybody. But that's what I'm here for -- to give people options. I don't want to force people to swallow a bitter pill, so I have to sugar coat it a little bit for those who just want to take it, you know, first appearances.
Was the idea of using a character inspired by any other works?
I suppose in the sense that, you know, the idea of having a nom de plume, someone that you hide behind for whatever reason. In the case of John le Carré, he started writing under the name John le Carré because as David Cornwell he was still an unlisted member of the British Foreign Office (i.e. he was a spy) working in Berlin, and so when he wrote his first novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he obviously couldn't write it under his own name, but had a nom de plume, so that was his reason for doing it. In my case, I use a nom de plume or, if you like, an alter ego to be between me and the audience because Gerald Bostock can say things that are not my views or opinions. He can speak for himself; he can express things that aren't necessarily the way that I think. There is an assumption out there with pop and rock music that if you write something, lyrically, that you must be singing about yourself, and yet if you are a movie director or writer, if you're Quentin Tarantino, we don't suppose that he actually goes out and murders people or does all the things the characters in his movies do. So, it's a bit simplistic, in a way, to assume that rock music writers would be necessarily always singing about themselves, wearing their heart on their sleeve. I don't see why they should. And, I rather like the idea that you can write and create characters as you would if you were writing a novel or writing a movie script. So, that's kind of what I like to do.
Photo of Ian Anderson by Carl Glover
Much of your music and many of your lyrics are reminiscent of a sort of Old World style of storytelling. What draws you to this vernacular?
Well, I'm a fan of the English language, and it's a very rich language. It's got a lot of ways to express things. It may seem to some people a little old fashioned in the way that I express things, but that's because that's the nature of that song. Other areas I use the modern vernacular, when it is appropriate to a particular song or a particular character and his voice. I try and fit the way I write, to some extent, to specifically what each section of music is about.
Your lyrics and the themes are quite rich and, at times, fairly obscure (including Latin expressions and the names of many historical people and places). To what extent do your listeners comprehend all of the references as opposed to just getting into the music? Well I've no idea; it's up to them, isn't it? They can enlist the aid of Mr. Google and Mr. Wiki just as I do when I need to find out about something. In fact, in doing the research, and checking my facts and lyrics and expressions -- you know, lots of things that I would go and use references on the Internet to find out what I was talking about and make sure I wasn't committing any odd blunders -- when it came to the Latin, I enlisted the help of a Latin scholar to check some of my Latin and make sure that we used the correct expressions, and that's what, as a researcher, you have to be prepared to do that bit of work. It's relatively easy to do that, so I figure it's just as easy for other people if they find something they don't understand or they see a reference and they want to check it out, it's easy enough to go and do that with Google or Wikipedia, you'll probably get the same answers as I did.
Ian Anderson's "Homo Erraticus"
Do you notice patterns in terms of which countries' listeners take the time to refer to Mr. Google and Mr. Wiki? America as opposed to England as opposed to Russia, say? I think there's a tendency that native English-speaking people are likely to be a little lazy and kind of think that they already know it, and if they come across something they don't understand, they just gloss over it and move on; whereas I think perhaps the more dedicated fans in countries where English is not their first language are more likely to make the effort to understand it and try to get into the details. It may well be that in countries like Germany and Spain and Italy, or Russia, you mentioned, there are fans who are really into the lyrics and they're more likely, I think, to make the real effort to understand what's written. And for that reason, to some extent, on this occasion anyway, we did some Italian and German translations. With Thick as a Brick 2, I did Italian and German and Czech and Russian and a few others as well, but I think this time around, I think there are actually three: German, Italian, and...I think there was a Czech translation as well, but I didn't personally commission that. That was something done by a fan, but, yeah, these things exist and obviously they're only as good as the person doing the translating. In the case of the German and the Italian translations, I was very involved with both of the translators (in working with them) as I was two years before, doing Thick as a Brick , I worked with all the translators extensively -- sometimes in person, sometimes just by lots of lengthy e-mail communications in order to explain to them some of the nuances that made it easier for them to find more poetic translations rather than just literal ones that might actually be wrong -- that didn't convey what the lyric was about. You've got to be very careful, as my old Latin master told me, he said, "Paraphrase, boy! Paraphrase!" Because if you just take a literal translation, you sometimes lose the essence of the meaning, so you've got to be prepared to paraphrase when it gives a better if looser translation. It's very often the case that the more dedicated fans in non-English speaking countries will sometimes be more interested in the lyrics.
"Thick as a Brick 2" by Ian Anderson
Gerald's observations about the modern world are quite bleak. In the song "Cold Dead Reckoning," you suggest that there could be hope for humanity. I think you've got to remember that whatever I've written, I'm carefully balancing humor with sometimes very stark, sometimes frightening words, but I try and keep the whole thing generally upbeat because it's my belief that you can get people to pay attention to serious stuff if you give them a bit of a smiley face; then they will come to you. But if you lecture them with rather downbeat and perhaps rather bleak scenarios, then they will become bored, they will fall asleep, or they will leave the lecture room. So, best to have a smiley face and lure people in and kind of get them feeling a little bit warm and friendly. Humor is a part of making people relax a little bit and then you can maybe get them to pay attention to the serious stuff -- if you don't scare them away in the first place. There's a general level of humor, whimsical humor, which is attached to a lot of my lyrics, and that will be evident in much of this new material, but of course we are talking about some big issues, you know: issues of immigration, which is a hot potato, politically, in most of the countries of Europe and, indeed, in your country, too. I don't like to talk about immigration; I like to talk about migration because it's all about people moving, which is the history of our species.
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