Inside the Alternate Realities of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull

Could erupting Icelandic volcanoes be the premise for Ian Anderson's next concept album?

"It could well be," Anderson says with a laugh from his London home, noting that he must fly over Iceland on its way to the United States for the group's upcoming tour. "We do have to pray that volcano doesn't do any more than it's doing now. It's very realistic for us to have to consider the reality of what would happen if there's another major eruption of the sort we had back in 2011. It shut down airspace for a week . . . It's lingering in the back of our minds."

Such a possibility -- another concept album, not the volcano -- might not be such a stretch, given Anderson's propensity for writing album-length tomes based on childish poems (1977's Thick as a Brick) and books by amateur historians (this year's Homo Erraticus).

"Trying to use the reiteration of the development of a theme in repeated situations is no more difficult than writing a series of individual songs," he says in defense of the somewhat rambling Homo Erraticus. "Maybe it's easier for me because it comes naturally to me to work this way. I feel the long association I've had with developmental music that starts somewhere and takes you on a journey is something that's connected to me."

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Anderson's methods are something that connects with fans as well. While he's penned a number of hits for Jethro Tull, including "Aqualung" and "Bungle in the Jungle," Anderson's 1972 masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, revealed just how probable and powerful a concept album could be.

Starting with a poem by then-8-year-old Gerald Bostock, Anderson went wild, composing a treatise on civilization's floundering at the most important of times, while exposing the wanton corruption and misgivings of those thinking they were on the right path. Much of the outcry was layered with Anderson's coy sarcasm and wit, yet the far-reaching effects (and of course the popularity) of the album were quickly obvious.

Though it took 30 years, Anderson followed up and further expounded upon the narrative in 2012 with Thick as a Brick 2. Now, Anderson's added his third ring to the trilogy with Homo Erraticus. Here, Bostock reemerges as something of an assistant to Anderson in the composition of this new work based on an unpublished manuscript by an amateur historian no one knows. In the manuscript, Ernest T. Parritt examines key moments in British history, something Anderson keenly turned into a musical foray exploring -- through the delirium of a malaria victim -- a nomadic Neolithic settler, an Iron Age blacksmith, a Christian monk, and a turnpike innkeeper. Royalty, once again, remains fair game, as Prince Albert is targeted as well.

"I'm trying to put as much detail and layers of the onion as I can for people to unpeel as they want to. Or they can swallow the whole thing in one gulp," he says. "Obviously, it's too much for some people to make an effort. They just want to plug in their ear buds and move along. For those who want to read into it and see what further detail exists, there's plenty of it -- however fictitious it might be."

Having recently performed the new album in its entirety, Anderson now embarks on a more traditional tour, something of a greatest hits package with a few of the new songs added to the mix. That is, if the volcano agrees.

"We have to hope to sneak out before the ash cloud becomes too evident," Anderson says in closing. "Keep the fire extinguisher handy!"

Ian Anderson is scheduled to perform Saturday, September 20, at Mesa Arts Center.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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