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Don't call him Jethro: An interview with Ian Anderson

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When Ian Anderson comes to UB’s Center for the Arts on Nov. 4, don’t go expecting a typical Jethro Tull experience.

His latest release, “Homo Erraticus,” will be performed in its entirety during the first half of the show, which, if the strength of the songs is any indication, promises to be an evening worthy of its own place alongside anything found in the Tull catalog.

The singer/songwriter/composer/virtuoso flautist has set forth on an immersive voyage through the evolution of human history viewed through the wandering eyes of his old friend Gerald Bostock, whom fans will recognize as providing the lyrical basis for both 1972’s “Thick as a Brick” and its 2012 sequel.

Rather than engage in an elaborate deconstruction of the album’s concept, I’ll simply say that it demands to be heard without any prior information. Anderson’s musicianship and intellectual sensibility are flourishing at an optimal level here, and I think it’s only fair that the listener devote as much attention to breaking it down as he did to piecing it all together.

Few releases will activate your heart and mind more in 2014.

I had the esteemed pleasure of speaking with Anderson last week about the album and I came away with nothing but gratitude knowing that there are still artists dedicated to engaging listeners on a cerebral level.

That’s right, kids. Even as society descends further down the rabbit hole of cultural bankruptcy, intelligence still reigns supreme.

Question: You wrote in the liner notes of the album that the name ‘Jethro Tull’ didn’t mean that much to you when you initially began using it. How do you feel now that you’ve become synonymous with that title for so long?

Anderson: It just happened to be our name when the promoter created the marquee that week, so we stuck with it. When I became aware that we were named after a dead guy, I thought of it as unoriginal and even disrespectful to his legacy in many ways. That was a part of English history I wasn’t familiar with, so the fact that he invented the seed drill never entered into my mind. In my twilight years, I’ve preferred to throw my own name into the mix and be myself within the context of the labeling. Most fans consider me and him to be one and the same, so it will forever be a part of my legacy.

Question: What does “Homo Erraticus” have that you feel separates it from anything you created under the Jethro Tull moniker?

Anderson: Well, the content is mainly a reflection of today’s society, so, of course, it’s going to be a little different. As a songwriter, I’d like to believe that there’s an apparent lineage between the old stuff and this album, because I was the constant throughout each incarnation of the band. It’s my voice and my writing, but the material draws from modern times as opposed to Jethro Tull’s era.

Question: How did Gerald Bostock become the vehicle for your songwriting this time around?

Anderson: The Bostock character is really a writer’s device allowing me to express ideas and notions that I wouldn’t put forth myself. He can say things that I can’t, which makes him my alter ego in many ways. In classic literature, many playwrights would include a character whose voice echoed many of their own opinions about the world, and that’s essentially what Bostock does for me. He served as the catalyst for both “Thick as a Brick” albums, so using him again also helps with continuity.

Question: Much of the album features a modern quality while still maintaining your affinity for traditional English sounds. Did you have an idea before heading into the studio as to what you wanted it to sound like?

Anderson: I wanted something that was upbeat and ‘rocky,’ but I’ve always been inspired by everything from medieval and folk to church and rock. I was never into anything overtly derivative of traditional rock or blues. Instead, I prefer to put my own sounds within a rock context. Nothing about the album was deliberate. It just fell into place in a very organic fashion.

Question: You’ve spoken about “Homo Erraticus” signifying ‘The Wandering Man’ while evoking themes of migration and the realization that we’re all immigrants. How did you initially become drawn into that concept?

Anderson: Our early ancestors were the real inspiration, because the Homo Sapiens survived due their ability to recognize the need to migrate to survive. Other species were total failures given their inability to adapt to climate change. Climate Change is really one of the great dilemmas facing future generations, because finite resources and surviving at the expense of others will catch up to everyone at some point. This isn’t just my opinion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised this discussion on numerous occasions, but it’s up to the people to do something about it.

Question: “Enter the Uninvited” features quite a few references to television shows and other pop culture staples. Was there something about those particular shows or did they just fit the song well?

Anderson: I was looking for examples of American culture invading England and those just happened to be lyrically viable. Things such as Time Magazine and Coca Cola are major items of popular culture that are instantly recognizable around the world. As your president discusses D-Day today, we shouldn’t forget how the Americans were aligned with us during WWII, because we’d otherwise be speaking German today. The appreciation of American culture is always influencing my critical lens of the world.

Question: What was behind the idea to break the album up into three sections?

Anderson: It’s another writer’s device, really. The album is essentially framed as the demented ramblings of someone under the influence of malaria in 1928, so we divided the story into Pre-1928 and future predictions. Mostly, it’s a sub-detail for people who love that sort of thing, but I’m more interested in capturing the rhythm, groove, and feeling of the music on stage.

Question: What is it about the quality of progressive music that you believe has contributed to its comeback on many levels?

Anderson: To be honest, I’m not really a listener of today’s music. Early on, I was into classical and folk more than anything else, but being a professional music always made me avoid listening to anything for fear of being too heavily influenced by anyone. The only time I ever intently listen to anything is when I get asked to sing or play on someone else’s album, because then I have to completely concentrate on what it is they’re trying to get across. I’m not one to listen passively, so I have to give all music its proper degree of attention.

Question: While making this album, were you thinking about how the material would translate into the live setting?

Anderson: It really goes back to me writing at 9:00 a.m. and thinking about how playable the songs would be live. Once I had the band in the same room, everything just fell into place. Hearing the songs played live is a logical follow-up to the “Thick as a Brick” tours from a few years ago, so everything fits together nicely.

Question: Visuals have always been an important part of your stage show. What kinds of things do you have in-store for the upcoming tour?

Anderson: I have a lot of video content featuring images, both abstract and literal, that add something to the lyrics of each song. Not everything is expressed in a literal mood or context, so shooting them took a vast amount of time to complete.

Question: How did you decide which Jethro Tull songs to include in the second set?

Anderson: The second set takes on a ‘Best of’ form, so it’s often difficult to choose something that makes everyone happy. We’re talking about 350 songs from the catalog. Of course, there are the obvious ones like “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” and “Songs from the Wood,” but it could be a full-time job trying to narrow it down 12 or 15 songs to satisfy everyone. With the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, I’m sure we could guess which songs they would play and be correct, but, with Tull, it’s much more difficult.

Ian Anderson plays the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Nov. 4.

See http://www.jethrotull.com or http://www.ubcfa.org for details.

"Homo Erraticus" is available now.

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