My Interview with Ian Anderson

I finally succeeded in my multiple attempts to secure an interview with the great Ian Anderson – front-man and main songwriter for the legendary rock band Jethro Tull.

I chronicled my first failed attempt here on the blog. Its a funny and humiliating story.

The video-cast and full transcript is below:


I don’t usually do podcasts here on my personal channel, but about a month ago I got an awesome opportunity to interview one of my idols, Ian Anderson. Of course, Ian is the main creative force behind the British band, Jethro Tull. If you’ve never heard of Jethro Tull, then you’re either living under a rock or you’re under 18. Either way, I think it’s very sad. But Ian’s music that he wrote and recorded with the band is ubiquitous. It’s been a classic rock mainstay for 40-plus years. Ian was the first and really only guy to make flute a viable rock and roll instrument. So Ian is famous for a couple of reasons: He’s a great songwriter and performer, he sold over 50 million records, and he’s got that flute gimmick to boot.

I didn’t get to nearly all the questions I wanted to with Ian because I only had 15 minutes with him, but we did talk about the Aqualung remix that was released last year, remixed by the minor prog star Steve Wilson. A little shoutout to those folks on Twitter who follow me and gave me some questions to ask and apologies to Mike Sergeant, Shawlands and Jay who gave me some good questions, but I wasn’t able to get it to him. Probably the best one – If I had the balls and the time with Ian – would be to the ask him when he will be returning his Grammy for best prog rock in a performance. If you don’t get that joke, then that only means you are not a Metallica fan and/or not a Jethro Tull fan. Enough of me, let’s get to my completely unscripted and unedited interview with the great Ian Anderson.

Ben Sommer: Hello.

Ian Anderson: Hello, this is Ian Anderson calling to do an interview.

Ben Sommer: Thank you. Welcome. This is Ben Sommer. Ian, how are you?

Ian Anderson: I’m very well. Thank you.

Ben Sommer: Great.

Ian Anderson: Fire away

Ben Sommer: Well, I’m here with, to me, an idol and a legend, Ian Anderson, the front man for classic prog band Jethro Tull, and it’s kind of busy a couple of years for you, Ian. You’ve got an important remix of Aqualung that came out as well as Thick As A Brick too. I’d like to tackle the Aqualung remix first, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard it. Whether to expect a fully re-envisioned kind of creative remix as I’ve seen. The Beatles have had a couple of these types of albums come out. What I heard was a very measured, tasteful, and kind of just very updated modern-sounding version of the classic album. Was that kind of your hope? Or did you work with Steve Wilson, your mix engineer, to get that effect and you just dropped it in his hands? I mean, what was the process?

Ian Anderson: Well, the process was, first of all, getting the original master tapes converted to 24-bit, 96K digital audio, which was done in Abbey Road Studios. Luckily the tapes have survived pretty well over the years, although I did about ten years ago to make a backup analog copy of the master tapes because of concerns about how long they would survive, and also because I felt that there was a likelihood there would be other audio formats that would benefit from having access to the master tapes, and so, of course, these days, yes, we have 5.1 surround mixes to do as well as the stereo mixes. We placed that with Steven Wilson, who first of all tried to interact to see how he got on and how I like his work, and we then proceeded to do the whole album, and then we moved pretty quickly on from doing that, to doing the remix of Thick As A Brick, was completed last year as well, I mean the original album. So Steven has I think the natural deference when it comes to the general layout of the mix, the structure, the positioning of instruments and the stereo field, the general sonic quality, but his job is there to try and more or less recreate the original balance, but to try and give it sonic clarity a little bit more dynamic, a little more punch, a little more vigor which I think he did very well.

Ben Sommer: Yeah, agreed. A couple of things that were hallmarks of that album, the middle slow section Aqualung where it’s you against the acoustic guitar. I mean, you treated that traditionally. It was a very kind of far off, dry, kind of telephony reverb. That was treated respectfully, although I imagine you probably had the raw local track. Is that true to work with?

Ian Anderson: Yes, you would had the raw vocal track to work with, but a lot of the things on both Aqualung and Thick As A Brick were recorded with a certain quality or certain effect added. So in some cases, you would have had the option to change it a little bit. In some case, it was already embedded in the way that the music would have been recorded. Because I’m one of those people who like to make decisions as I go along. I don’t like to – the tradition among certain American record producers is simply to record everything flat with no EQ, no dynamics, no effects, and nothing at all. Just get the whole thing down absolutely dry as a bone.

And then chase the band out of the room and then spend days playing around adding things, changing the sounds with stuff, and that’s not my approach at all. I can see the music in a certain way, and as I’m working on it, both in the writing, the arranging and then the recording process. I’m defining the thing as I go along, so in many cases I have a vision of how I want it to be and I try and pursue that vision not to the point of giving myself no options when it comes to certain things, but at least in a way reducing the options because I thing the mixing should be pretty quick and pretty live and pretty spontaneous, and in a way you should record the album so that it’s more or less like putting up the faders and you’ve got all the dynamics and little changes you’ve recorded them that way.

So I’ve always been someone who likes to work in the studio with a monitor mix that was as close as possible to the final mix. Every time I sit and listen to it, I’m making this fine adjustments in the monitor mix in the studio while we are working on the album and so I’m kind of getting a feel for how I want it to sound at the end, and therefore I’m tweaking things and making those little changes as we go along, so that when it comes to mixing, I don’t want to spend more than two or three hours to mix a track, let’s say, of four or five minutes of music.
In real terms, to do a full album like this, you’re talking about five days’ work which is what it took me to do originally, what it took Steven Wilson to do, and because the breakthrough was about five days in the mixing, although there were few little things that he and I changed and worked on in the mastering process. Of course, there is always a final little bit of technical jiggery/pokery just to get the thing in shape for its manufacture, but in all, everything went to plan and it went pretty quickly which is the way I like to work. I’m not one of those people who want to spend months in the studio doing things and doing them again and remixing and remixing. I mean, that’s just a pain in the arse. You go off the boil.

Ben Sommer: Do you think that has anything to do with your roots? And this is probably I think more true back in the sixties and seventies, but bands were bands. They performed, they played, and they got a record deal and recorded something when they got a break because the technology was not there, and so is it maybe because your vision of how music should be was formed by performing live and so you recorded a product, although sometimes you can get creative and go off the deep end as you say. It’s still more or less capturing a performance.

Ian Anderson: I think the original Thick As A Brick 1 and Thick As A Brick 2 were both written and, well, certainly written, but particularly arranged in the ways that they would be playable live. I think particularly due to the way in which they were written spontaneously, very quickly and so when the band rehearsed them, they were rehearsed as live performances. It’s just with the original album, when I went into the studio, I did quite a few additional lines and overdubs and things that took my fantasy in the studio which made it very difficult to finally play live in that form because a lot of places, a flute and the vocals are happening at the same time, and of course, I can’t do that live.

Ben Sommer: Right.

Ian Anderson: I need someone else to help me if we are going to exactly recreate that. We have an additional musician or an additional performer on stage to allow me to, and us collectively to recreate Thick As A Brick 1 just the way it was on the record. They are on Thick As A Brick 2. I think there is only one note, one flute note, that coincides with the line of vocal that I’m able to dub that by just finishing across it earlier and taking a very quick breath. So I didn’t make the same mistakes when it came to doing the second one.

Ben Sommer: You can’t snort out an overtone while you’re singing.

Ian Anderson: Well, all of the problems of playing the flute anyway, so it’s quite an aerobic exercise doing the two-hour show because I only have about 16 bars in the hole of Thick As A Brick 1 and 2, and I’m not actually playing. So it’s a pretty big leaps for me. I’m singing or playing guitar and then the flute stuff, of course, is pretty demanding because you got to have quite a lot of wind power to get through all of that.

Ben Sommer: Yeah

Ian Anderson: So yeah, it’s something that does require certain physical conditions to be able to do it, and mentally you would have got to be very, very focused now to perform all of that. Not just me, all the musicians, we spent a lot of time separately and together to get to that performance standard that we need to achieve to be able to do it.

Ben Sommer: Okay. I want to get to Thick As A Brick 2. But first, I want to talk to you about your process. Now, I am a composer as well, and I want to know how you approach it. Just a couple of basic questions, you can elaborate as you see fit. Do you compose on paper? How did you learn the theoretical aspects of harmony, notes, rhythm or those things that you need to piece together with your initial inspiration? Just give me a glimpse into your process please.

Ian Anderson: Well, I don’t really have a designed and regular way of working. I like to do things differently according to the task at hand, and I don’t like a production methodology for making music. Sometimes it might come from playing a monophonic instrument like a flute and I’m just thinking of a melody or a motif, and then I’ll build upon this. Sometimes it’s lyrically, sometimes the title or just the subject material for a song. Sometimes you manage to do it all at the same time. It kind of runs concurrently in terms of lyrical ideas, musical ideas, and sometimes it’s just strumming a guitar and having an interesting chord sequence that suggests a melody, or after having going up with this kind of a nice little chunks of decision of chords and harmony and the melody comes later. It comes sort of on the back of that. So it’s different every time, and that’s what I think is, I mean, just the Kama sutra of songwriting. I don’t have one favorite position, you know?

I kind of like to vary it a little bit.

Ben Sommer: Got it, got it. Do you write on paper, notes and such?

Ian Anderson: No, I’ve always, since I began playing music, I mean, I was just a self-taught musician who didn’t read or write music, and although I speak the language of music and I have a broad understanding of the structure in music and I suppose some of the formal nature of music, but I don’t write the notes on a piece of paper. I’ve always really wanted to commit things to memory.

Ben Sommer: Right.

Ian Anderson: All of the other guys in the band use written music to some extent, with some a lot, and then they learn it once they’ve scored everything out. But for me it’s always really about trying to remember it, and if I can’t remember it, then I figure it’s probably not very good and not worth remembering.

Ben Sommer: Right. If you’re self-taught, were you self-taught by practice and learning what harmonies work, what conventions work and don’t work? Did you learn it all by osmosis, by playing and experiencing and seeing it? Did you mix that with any formal or other self-learning? How did you understand when to throw in a minor chord with a major key or any of the kind of the tricks that you learn in a music school if you didn’t study formally?

Ian Anderson: It’s really just by listening to other kinds of music, not just contemporary pop or rock music, but listening to the music of many different cultures and different periods of times, so I supposed I’ve just drawn on a whole number of influences, but particularly when I was in my teens and early 20s. But I’ve always been a music listener only from the point of view of trying to learn something from it. I don’t listen recreationally to music. I’m not one of those people who says to plug it into my iPod or cellphone or whatever just to while away the hours and trample or whatever, and I hate to have music on when I’m sitting on a car traveling because I hate to have music fighting through the sound of wind and noise and engines and car noise and tire noise and all the rest of it.

Ben Sommer: Right.

Ian Anderson: It’s just, to me, really is something I don’t want to do. I think if you’re going to sit and listen to music, you should do it with complete concentration and commitment as a listener, and it’s not convenient for me to do that very often. Most of the time anyway, I’m more interested in playing music than I am in listening to other people’s, and I think probably by the time I was in my early 20s, my hours spent listening to other people’s music had dwindled to very, very little, and I’ve never really maintained a record collection. I mean, sure, I probably got a few thousand songs that are audio files somewhere on my computers and so on, but it’s kind of a nice to have them, but I certainly have never felt it necessary in my life to have shelves full of vinyl albums or cassettes or CDs.

Ben Sommer: Right.

Ian Anderson: It’s just a clutter around the house. I mean, I have quite a lot of CDs and DVDs and various things on book shelves, but they are actually all my own work because either references or there are things that are kept for promotional purposes or Christmas gifts to the people who I don’t like very much.

Ben Sommer: Who’s that?

Ian Anderson: And please, don’t be offended, but I have to move on to my next interview because we’ve done our allotted time.

Ben Sommer: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Ian, and best of luck with your new album and hopefully I will talk with you next time.

Ian Anderson: Well, I hope so, and thanks for very much. It’s good to talk to you.

Ben Sommer: Thank you, bye-bye.

Ian Anderson: Bye-bye.