“It marked Jethro Tull as being quite different to most bands… Led Zeppelin didn’t do comedy. Well, not intentionally”: Ian Anderson kept up the silly and sarcastic on solo album Homo Erraticus

Ian Anderson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2014, Ian Anderson brought back Thick As A Brick’s Gerald Bostock on his sixth solo album Homo Erraticus, complete with the silliness and sarcasm naturally attached to the character. Ahead of its release the Jethro Tull leader told Prog about the importance of giving other musicians their space, the difference between solo and Tull work, and his pleasure at remaining an “amateur flute player” throughout his career.

For a product of Ian Anderson’s fertile imagination, Gerald Bostock has come a long way. At the age of eight he was the lyrical wellspring for the whimsical milestone of early 70s prog that was Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. Forty years on, we learned of the five multifarious fates that may have befallen the child prodigy on Thick As A Brick 2. Two more years later, Bostock is back, and this time it’s for real. Sort of.

“I suppose TAAB 2 examined all of our lives,” says Anderson, as he sets the scene to his new opus, Homo Erraticus. “How did we get to be where we are now? Did we end up where we imagined we might have done? Or were there twists and turns and interventions of fate along the way? That was the subject there, but I decided that Gerald should come back, not just as a subject, a couple of years further down the line, but as the writer of the lyrics for the new album.

“So we have a back story about how Gerald, in his retirement years as an ex-Labour politician, took up writing, and discovered some wordy tome written by a country gentleman [one Ernest T Parritt] who, in his rambling state of delirium following contracting malaria back in the 1920s, wrote all this stuff down. Gerald pored over it and decided it would be the basis of some suitably absurd and actually very factual lyrics.” That old plotline.

Anderson’s inventiveness as a creator of expansive and imposing musical landscapes is as fecund as ever on Homo Erraticus. The album sets out to address the complex “hot topic,” as he describes it, of the time-honoured (and sometimes dishonoured) subject of the human diaspora. But, fear not, it does it with intricately Andersonesque tunes, expressive flutes and the other tools of his unique trade.

“It’s all based on history,” he declares. “It starts in 8000 BC — or BCE [Before Common Era] as we have to call it these days — just after the last Ice Age, and it ends up some 40-odd years into the future from now. So it’s a potted history, primarily about the UK and Europe. It is, essentially, the story of migration, the movement of people, in each and every direction; and as Gerald says, ‘We’re all from somewhere. Somewhere else. Get over it.’”

At the same time, the flipside of the modern argument is also represented. “I wanted to make it a little crazy, a little fantastic, while delivering something of a message that I think we all need to take to heart,” says Anderson. “It’s not to say that I’m one of those people, or Mr Bostock is, that necessarily think ‘Everybody come on in here, let’s have absolutely free access.’ There comes a point where our children, or our grandchildren, will be facing the awful dilemma of having to put up that sign saying ‘No room at the inn, no vacancies.’ 

“I’m not the guy that has to face that awful moral dilemma; I can merely talk about it and postulate the frightening reality of years to come, which is that we’re going to become very selfish people. [But] perhaps no more selfish than those who came here in the first place, to cross the landbridge from Europe after the last Ice Age and got here first. Those who came second had a fight on their hands.”

Musically as well as historically, Homo Erraticus charts an epic path, with plenty of ingredients familiar from Anderson’s 46-year recording catalogue in Tull’s name and his own, but perhaps never quite in this iteration. The artist himself smiles at all of its stylistic subdivisions.

“It’s folk-prog-metal, which wraps it up apart from the church music influences, the classical music influences and a certain amount of Latin, which you’ve got to get your tongue around in terms of some of the titles [which include Puer Ferox Adventus and Tripudium Ad Bellum]. But yes, prog excess, in the extreme.”

We all get in the studio at the same time. It’s done really as live as it can be. Even guitar solos which is terribly exciting and nerve-racking for the guitar player

TAAB 2 had Anderson postulating on whatever might have happened to Bostock in adult years, in a range of possible outcomes from evangelist preacher to fat-cat banker. But Gerald, it turns out, answered some very different callings. In semi-retirement after his political career, it turns out that he then spent an incongruous and ultimately ill-starred sabbatical on Ian’s payroll.

“That’s right,” he confirms. “Gerald was a tour manager [for Anderson’s solo tour] for much of 2012, before I had to fire him. You know,” he adds darkly, “once a Labour politician, always a Labour politician.” The ever-eloquent frontman proceeds to expound his political ideology which, while “a bit left of centre,” disapproves of dyed-in-the-wool Tory-hating for its own sake.

“A good Tory is a pragmatic socialist,” he says. “I did think of asking Tony Blair if he’d like to become tour manager,” adds Anderson mischievously. “There are lots of Labour party folks that have actually been fans.” He recalls former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon as one that fell at his feet. “The great thing about being a rock musician, especially after all these years, is that you’ve touched the hearts of lots of people.

“But you’ve got to remember that you’re not the only girl in town. If they’re a Jethro Tull fan, the chances are they’re probably a fan of at least 10 other or 20 other bands of that era that they grew up with, that they take possession of, and that’s what fans do.” 

Back with the Homo Erraticus plot, Bostock — once again semi-retired in St Cleve, in the west country with his wife, warmly referred to as The Old Bag — revisits the authorial muse first hinted at in the poetry of his pre-puberty. This time, the addled historian Parritt is his source. If it all sounds Pythonesque, that was very much in Anderson’s mind, just as was the case when Tull pricked the prog bubble with the original Thick As A Brick.

“It’s quite important to me that you come up with some lyrical content that’s never been done before, not in the context of rock music. So I’ve got a few things in there that we touch upon that are words that make me smile a lot, because I know that some fan in some far-off land will be immediately turning to Mr Google to find out, ‘Watney’s Red Barrel, what’s that?’

“That’s one of many, and of course one that’s harkening back to the Monty Python sketch of some time ago.” (“There’s an excursion to the local Roman ruins where you can buy cherryade and melted ice cream and bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel.”)

The extensive Homo Erraticus tour that will start winding its way across the UK at the end of April promises to be an audio-visual adventure, and another link to Tull’s oft-misunderstood satirical edge. “It’s something we did quite a bit back in the 1972-73-74 period,” says Anderson. “But this was long before high-tech production; it was very low-tech, am-dram kind of silliness. A bit Pythonesque, in its schoolboyish humour, and the colourful nature of the presentation.

“But it’s something that, back then, marked Jethro Tull as being really quite different to most of the other bands, particularly our British peers. I mean, Zeppelin didn’t do comedy. Well, not intentionally. And sometimes ours wasn’t intentional either, in the sense that, as always, you can’t get it right in every country.”

But the shows will have some familiar friends in the setlist. “The second half of the show is the best of Jethro Tull – it’s repertoire that’s mostly fairly familiar to most fans, and one or two things we’ll slip in that they may remember, but probably haven’t seen us play live on stage before. On this occasion, we will decorate it with a bit more video content and theatricality.

“But the first half of the show is indeed the new album. That’s the bit that I suppose is the bigger challenge, certainly musically and delivery-wise, because you’ve got to conceive of the way to make it work live on stage. And it shouldn’t be rocket science, or an almighty leap, because we did rehearse and record the album as much in a live performance way as we could.

You have a box that says Ian Anderson, and another box that says Jethro Tull, but inside both boxes it’s the same old cornflakes

“It’s done in the traditional way – we all get in the studio at the same time and we learn all of the lines and we move and change things around, and then once we’ve got it right, we record it. It’s done really as live as it can be. Even guitar solos, played live in the studio, which is terribly exciting and quite nerve-racking for the guitar player.”

This leads to a question that’s not exactly the elephant in the room, maybe more of a modest zebra, because Anderson has acknowledged it before. But, as he knows, it will seem strange to some devotees that he’s doing the entire Homo Erraticus project under his own umbrella, not Tull’s. “Primarily, it’s about repertoire,” he explains. “I think if it’s going to be a ‘Best of Jethro Tull’ tour, and it’s all repertoire that people are familiar with, then that might reasonably be called a Jethro Tull concert.

“If, on the other hand, it’s more of a project thing, a tour or a concert with a symphony orchestra or a string quartet, or an acoustic show, or a concept production tour like this one coming, then I think I’d rather use my own name, only in as much as it’s a point of difference.

“We’re sort of branded on the supermarket shelf under different titles, and I think that’s probably quite a good idea. You have a box that says Ian Anderson, and another box that says Jethro Tull, but inside both boxes it’s the same old cornflakes.

“We have to remember that concerts that have been just Jethro Tull shows have included a total of 28 different band members. So it’s a huge extended family of musicians who’ve been in and out, sometimes back in then out again, over the years. The only common factor is me. I’m the guy that writes the music and stands at the front and dodges the bullets.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jethro Tull concerts and tours in the past. I just sometimes have to look up at the theatre when I arrive and say ‘What am I called tonight?’ and hope it’s only one of the two possibilities.”

Homo Erraticus features ample helpings of Anderson’s flute trademark, but not to the point of repeated scene-stealing. “There was supposed to be a lot of me playing the flute, but I have to say that as always, once I start working on arrangements, I’m thinking very much of trying to feature different musicians in different places, and give them the opportunity to come up with some of their own thoughts about their parts.

“I don’t want to overly direct them, and I don’t want to take away all the moments that could be given over to somebody else. There’s an awful lot of words, and melodically it’s quite tricky music. There’s a lot of intervals and constructions that make it quite a challenge to get all the words together without tripping over yourself.”

Does such a word-packed challenge ever result in drying on stage? “I’ve occasionally not exactly dried, but gone into gobbledegook,” he says. “I suppose if suddenly in that flash of a second, you think ‘I don’t know what’s coming next,’ you just become Stanley Unwin with attitude.

“The times this most often happens to me, because it will happen a couple of times a year, it’s because I’m watching somebody in the front row who’s mouthing all the lyrics, who knows every word, along with me. I become transfixed, and of course if they suddenly stop or do the wrong thing, I’m thrown. So absolutely don’t watch the person who thinks they know all the lyrics.”

Thus, a few years shy of half a century since he started along a very individual road, Ian Anderson continues to hoover up new information and influences as greedily as ever. “My whole belief is that as a musician, there’s always something you can learn, every time you pick up your instrument. I’ve really got to feel that today I did something I couldn’t have done yesterday, and I’m positive that that is the case.

“It’s why I do it for me. I don’t necessarily think all of this translates into pleasing all of the people all of the time, which it certainly can’t. I’m very happy to have an audience there and people to smile at me or applaud, but that’s not the main reason for doing what I do. 

There was supposed to be a lot of me playing the flute, but once I start working on arrangements, I try to feature different musicians in different places

“My profession in life, if it’s not too much of an irony, is to be an amateur. I have a passion about musical expression, and so that’s got to be the main reason for anybody to do it, whether they’re getting paid for it or not.

“If you’re a lowly flute student learning to play your first little bits of grade one flute or whatever, you may go onto become a professional musician, but the chances are almost overwhelmingly large that you’re not going to. But that’s no reason not to start, and it’s no reason not to carry on and push yourself to the limit. Do it because you love it.

“For roughly 150 days of the year, I am an unpaid amateur flute player, and I have a lot of fun doing it, because I can go and make lots of mistakes and play wrong notes in my learning about something new to play. That’s terribly important, I think.”

Paul Sexton

Prog Magazine contributor Paul Sexton is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author who started writing for the national UK music press while still at school in 1977. He has written for all of the British quality press, most regularly for The Times and Sunday Times, as well as for Radio Times, Billboard, Music Week and many others. Sexton has made countless documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2 and inflight programming for such airlines as Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. He contributes to Universal's uDiscoverMusic site and has compiled numerous sleeve notes for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other major artists. He is the author of Prince: A Portrait of the Artist in Memories & Memorabilia and, in rare moments away from music, supports his local Sutton United FC and, inexplicably, Crewe Alexandra FC.