Well aware of his ensemble’s legacy, the oeuvre spanning more than five decades, and never averse to playing the gems that are strewn across the long array of his albums, Ian Anderson is nevertheless loathe living in the past. Quite the opposite. In this time of cholera, when lesser collectives seem to wind down their innovative ways and head for safer waters, the Scottish veteran delivers a new record – uncompromisingly and even defiantly entitled The Zealot Gene – which is not only almost as strong as the best song cycles he’s ever written but also, unlike the musician’s works of the last ten years, is credited to JETHRO TULL, thus breaking up his solo patch. The paradigm shift alone would be enough to emphasize the platter’s importance, yet what’s more impressive is its profoundness on many a level: quite a reason to speak to Ian again – as our previous documented chat took place when Anderson’s latest personal path had just started – and we got rather deep into the spirit of things, to an extent that our conversation stretched twice the allotted time.
– Ian, the new album’s cover is a yin/yang kind of thing: black-and-white, with black in white and white in black. Did you design it like that or it’s just my imagination?
Well, I deliberately shot the picture as a self-portrait, because I wanted to illustrate particularly the title track, which is about the extreme populistic streams of political and social divisions that are aided and abetted by social media. Some people might think that the model for the song is Donald Trump but, in fact, it’s about six or eight people whose names immediately come to mind as populist national leaders – whether they are operating within a pseudo-democracy or whether they are in a more or less dictatorship position. As always it’s not just as simple as saying, “Oh, it’s about this person”: I’m talking about the degree to which things tend to be full-on emotions one way or the other, and the middle ground, the moderate position, tends not to be most people’s favorite. Politically, I’m a moderate. People might say that I sit on the fence, and I don’t go one way or the other, but I would always say that on the fence is a great place to be: you’re sitting up there and you’ve got a good view of both sides, and if you decide you want to jump off the fence, it’s with the benefit of consideration and some degree of analysis. So I’m a professional moderate in my world; that’s why I’m quite happy to be in shades of grey rather than in black-and-white. But to illustrate the title track of the album, I chose to shoot [the cover] by, first of all, lighting it that way but to increase the effect in terms of processing the image.
The stark contrast images abound in many, many, many parts of our culture, literature and, indeed, some spiritual lessons as well. But, yes, of course, yin and yang… (Thinks.) I wouldn’t have chosen to use that symbol, because it’s been used so many times in so many scenarios that I think it would just be rather imitative to do that. But I have seen it used in connection with people’s albums covers before, so I was going to look for some [other] graphic way. And since many of JETHRO TULL albums feature a picture of me – because that’s what I suppose people associate with the band because I’m the guy who writes the songs and produces the records, and mixes and masters them, and does a lot of the album artwork, and so on and so forth – this one also features it, and I think it captures the essence of, again, particularly the title track. But if I was doing it again, I might be a little bit more abstract about it and not use the picture of me, but it’s done and dusted, and that’s the way that it is.
– Funny, but this cover reminded me not of a JETHRO TULL album but of your solo record, “Walk Into Light” – which also was in black-and-white.
And so is this. (Reaches for a camera at the side table.) It is a Leica Monochrom digital camera that won’t shoot color – the sensor is only black-and-white. I began photography, when I was I guess about ten or eleven years old, and there, of course, was only black-and-white film by and large; then, color film, when it came along, had pretty horrible colors. And so, all the way through the film era, I tended to shoot in black-and-white; and when digital photography came along, the very first digital cameras were only in black-and-white, because sensors were not capable of producing color at that very, very early stage. So I probably end up with 50 per cent of the photographs I ever take as black-and-white images. I have a preference for the simplicity of black-and-white where you focus on composition, you focus upon shapes and form. When you get out into the real world today, you are bombarded with so much color! And so much of it is confusing and disagreeable if you’re in a city landscape, because everything is advertising and colorful signage – a mishmash of conflicting colors that really offends my eye – and so I’m inclined to shoot in black-and-white if I’m in a city; whereas if I’m in a countryside, there’s a 50 per cent chance I’m going to shoot in color. If I’m shooting a particular subject – a person or an animal – a good chance is I will end up shooting in color, and the final photograph will be in color, but I’ve always been attracted to the simplicity and directness of black-and-white, particularly in documentary photography – so called “street photography” in modern parlance. Some of the great photographers of the period when film was still the only option: that’s my great preference in terms of looking at other people’s photographs.
– Do you ever think of your songs as snapshots of life?
They usually begin as snapshots in my head because, having had education in drawing and painting [Ian studied at Blackpool College of Art. – DME] and, to some extent, in photography, most of my songs are based on visual images. Usually, anything that I write about, I’ve got a picture in my head – not always but 80 per cent of the time, and I’ve worked that way since pretty much the beginning – and then I set about taking that picture and translating it into some musical and lyrical context. I’m using music as a way of creating, I suppose, a musical picture, as a way of my being able to always reference what that song is about. And when I’m on-stage performing a song live, quite often that picture is in my head.
– You also flesh it out with your observations and musings, and “The Zealot Gene” has a lot of biblical references that, to me, seem more like archetypes applied to our current situation.
Yes, it’s exactly that. I decided I was going to write an album where each song would be about a different strong, or extreme, human emotion, so I started off by writing a list of words, just single words. Some of them were nice things, positive things, like “compassion,” “love” – be it brotherly love, eternal love or erotic love, or spiritual love – “companionship,” “dignity,” “respect”; and then I wrote bad stuff, like “anger,” “rage,” retribution,” “vengeance,” “jealousy”… And I looked at my list of words, and I thought, “Mmm, all of those words look like things I remember reading in the Bible!” And so I made a big search of the Bible to look for examples of where those words came into play, and I copied and pasted some elements of text and put them on a single page, which was a reference for me to just keep going back to when I was writing songs, and then those words translated into pictures in my head that I could write a song about. So, for example, in the song Mrs. Tibbets I’m referencing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot and Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, and I’m seeing the picture – I’m seeing in my head the picture of what that might have look like, and then I translate it into something different, which is turning around to face the carnage and destruction: I’m talking about someone turning around to look at the burst of the world’s first nuclear weapon detonated in anger in Hiroshima.
So it comes from some place: it’s a picture and then it turns into something completely different, which is an analysis of a piece of relatively new history. Most of the songs I’ve taken to put them into more contemporary real-world terms, apart from the song Mine Is The Mountain which I kind of left in a biblical context historically and in terms of the subject material. But the Bible is a fascinating source of information and sometimes inspiration, and sometimes it’s truly damn scary. As a child, some of it really frightened me, you know; it took me a long, long time before I was able to walk into a church and feel comfortable. These days I work in the church, frequently, because I do fundraising concerts for churches and cathedrals, and to me it’s a great place I love to be in. I was in the Vatican just three or four days ago – I was in Rome to do the annual Vatican Christmas Concert – so there are things that I’m relaxed about now but that would have scared the shit out of me as a teenager or as a young man.
– Would many of your listeners understand that “Mrs. Tibbets” is about Paul Tibbets who dropped the bomb, if you didn’t mention “Enola Gay” there?
I’ve no idea. As for Paul Tibbets, he was defiantly, to the end, making excuses for what he did. I mean he was in an impossible position: even if he did harbor doubts, he was hardly going to be honest with himself, let alone other people. He was amongst the many who still defend that action as being something that ultimately saved lives in the longer run: they argue that bringing the war to an end would save hundreds of thousands of lives – American and, indeed, Japanese. But I would argue that taking the top two meters off Mount Fuji would have achieved the same thing, would have demonstrated the power, the enormity of the weapon – it wouldn’t necessarily have had to be dropped on the civilian population to see what it would do. But in order to prove what that weapon would actually do in the real world, they had to drop it to see if it really would kill tens of thousands of people – which, of course, it did. They equally try to defend the firebombing of Dresden or Hamburg, or indeed the Germans’ bombing of London or Coventry, but these things were inhumane acts, because they were directed at civilian populations, and certainly Paul Tibbets was in charge of a mission that he fulfilled as a true patriot under orders, and I’m sure his mother was very proud of what he did. But I still think that, ultimately, President Truman, who was the man in charge at the time, should been indicted for mass murder, posthumously, because it was an absolutely hideous thing to do.
I know lots of Americans still defend it to this day, and many other people in other countries will defend it to this day, but I don’t think that end result justified that use of a weapon. The war could have been ended by, as I frivolously mentioned, taking the top two meters off Mount Fuji, but in reality they could have dropped it strictly on a military or an industrial base away from civilian populations: ideally, there would be very few casualties on the ground if they’d chosen the right time of day or right geographical location. They really did want to kill a lot of people – that was absolutely intentional. And in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was about killing women, children and old men – it was murdering those people for the sake of proving the power of the U.S. And it was an act of retribution, particularly after Pearl Harbor: I think that’s stuck in everybody’s mind, just as when George Bush went into Afghanistan and in Iraq. It was not quite a knee-jerk reaction, but it was a retribution after the Twin Towers, and the end result could have been achieved, as indeed it finally was, in terms of getting bin Laden, by means quite the opposite of the ones that totally failed, particularly by the U.S. but by the other allies in Europe too – failed to do anything. We didn’t achieve what we set out to do, and tens of thousands of people lost their lives to do what? Just postpone the Taliban taking over and turning women and children back into a subservient third tier of society. But that’s all by the by, and I am just a guy who writes songs: I’m just fooling around, so don’t take me seriously.
It doesn’t matter to me whether people follow the detail and understand the references; they just listen to the tunes and don’t really listen to the words. They hear them but they don’t really listen. They don’t really analyze the words or pay attention – it’s just verbal sounds, you know. And I understand that, because I listen to music too that way quite often; I listen to somebody singing a song and I have no idea what they’re singing – quite often I don’t really think I care! For many years, I heard a song on the radio by EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER, recorded solo by Greg Lake who was the man behind that song, called I Believe In Father Christmas – I heard this cheesy kind of Christmassy song time and time and time again, year after year after year – and I thought it was okay, but I never really listened to the words until Greg came to be a guest on a couple of cathedral concerts that I was doing some years ago, and we played it, and then he died and I decided to honor Greg by playing his song, with me singing it, in the last few years. And I had to not only read the lyrics but understand them – understand what the point of the lyrics was – and get into the music, and I eventually realized: “Wow! They’re great lyrics! It’s a really good song!” (Laughs.) And I was guilty of not paying attention to it in the way that it deserved until I had to stand behind a microphone and sing it to an audience, and then it was: “Oops! This is a good one!”
We all listen to music in different ways, and there is no correct way: it’s what works for you. But I give people the options: they can look at all the detail, they can read the lyrics, they can listen to music, they can stream it, they can download it, they can buy the final album, they can get the Blu-ray and the DVD in surround sound – it’s really up to them how they want to listen to it. It’s up to them. I’ve done my bit: I presented the music and I leave it to other people to make what they can of it or what they want to make of it – that’s their right. If they pay their money to buy the record, they can enjoy it the way they want to enjoy it.
– But being a great lyricist, you still try to get your message through, don’t you?
(Pauses for thought.) Well, yes. But I think you don’t have expectations that people are going to give it that kind of attention. That’s one of the reasons that I decided, in the pandemic year, to compile the collected lyrics of all of my songs, because I thought, “I’m sure there’s a lot of people that listened to this but never actually read the lyrics, and if they go online they’ll find incorrect versions of the lyrics…” (Laughs.) Some of them are quite hilarious because they’re completely wrong. And so I decided to put it all together in one place, all three hundred and something songs, to very, very carefully listen to it and correct it, and edit it, because I wanted people to have that option, that they can listen to the music and they can read the absolute, authentic, a hundred per cent correct lyrics. I hope people will. I called the book Silent Singing because that’s what it was like when I was listening to all the music to transcribe it to write the book. I had to listen to the songs typically four, five times each during the process of first draft, second draft, corrections and final proof. When I’m reading the lyrics and playing the music live, I’m kind of silently singing along with myself.
– You had to listen to your own songs? Don’t you keep notes and drafts of your lyrics in paper form as mementos?
Sometimes I do. I have some of the lyrics in notebook and things, but most often they were scribbled on a piece of paper, crunched up and thrown in the wastebasket. In fact, I was once in the recording studio and I saw something in the wastebasket, and I picked it up and (imitates flattening out the paper) unwrapped it, and it said… What was it called?.. (Drums fingers on the desk, trying to recall.) Um, I can’t remember the title now, but it was Cat Stevens, the word “steel” was in it: “wings of steel” or something like that – it was a song about an airplane essentially [“Freezing Steel” from 1972. – DME] He’d been in the studio before and obviously recorded this song, and he had the lyrics, presumably, on the music stand and was reading it, and in the end (imitates crumpling the paper) and threw it in the bin. (Laughs.) I read it and thought, “Oh!” and threw it back in the bin again. I wish I’d kept it because it would be a nice thing to have kept, but the reason I didn’t keep it is, I was quite a fan of Cat Stevens but I didn’t think it was one of his best songs. Maybe, if it would have been a different song, I would have flattened it out and put it in a frame, and kept it. But anyway, yes, some of the lyrics I do have in the original handwritten form and many of them I don’t.
– You mentioned “Mine Is The Mountain” earlier. Is it a response of sorts to “My God” from “Aqualung”?
Well, I wasn’t really thinking consciously about it, but yes, it is. What was in my head was the degree to which humanity personifies God. I mean in many religions we turn God into something that we can understand, in human or animal form. Depending on Hinduism, Norse Paganism, Christianity, Old Testament, whatever it might be, we all have this need to reduce God to something resembling a wise old man with white beard and long flowing hair. We need to do that – we can’t cope with, perhaps, the more abstract Allah of Islam, because we’d like to give it a human form, and of course, in Islam it’s forbidden to try and depict either Allah or even His prophet Muhammad in visual reference or imagery, which I really respect, because we can’t know the form of God. We want to make it easy for us – we’ve always done that. And so I was thinking about a painting that Salvador Dali did [Christ of Saint John of the Cross] where he depicted Christ on the cross, looking down on Christ from the viewpoint of God, and Dali got into really big, deep shit for doing that because, as a painter, he was making himself God in people’s crude criticism! I’m not a fan of Dali at all, but I was touched by the way which that picture, for me, meant something about Christianity that I found strong sympathy with. In a sense, I was taking the idea of Moses going up the mountain and having to come back with some tangible proof: in order to continue his role in taking his people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, he needed to come back with something.
And in this song, God is a bit pissed off with having to prove something for somebody’s glorification, which is why in the last line I say, “And now, for God’s sake, kindly leave me alone.” I’m speaking with the voice of that humanized God – not my God but other people’s idea of God; I’m deliberately trying to do this to really talk about the degree to which we created God in our own image, and then we demand things of Him, we pray saying, “Please, do this or do that” – we’re always asking for something, you know. And that’s not my idea of what I think the deity is about. I’m, broadly speaking, more inclined towards the notion of pantheist, rather than being Christian or Jewish, or Islamic, or having any other faith. I am more thinking that the deity, the power of the Creator if you like, is something that is evident in everything around us – particularly, in everything that’s alive, even the Omicron variance of the SARS virus. Of course, a virus is not really alive as such, but we have to accept that there’s a whole lot of stuff out there – sharks that will bite our legs off, wasps that sting us and stinging plants, and sabertooth tigers, and angry animals that will try to eat us – that is part of the essence of Creation, and we are just another example of that. I find it very difficult to get behind any existing organized religion, but my cultural background, my heritage is in the Christian church of Northwestern Europe, and so I see the Christian church – as I do other religions – as a gateway, as one of a number of possible portals into the true spiritual world. And so I have a great value placed in the religion of my birthplace and my culture; I’m a supporter of Christianity but I’m not a Christian.
– As far as I can see, the pandemic didn’t influence “The Zealot Gene”…
I wrote the songs in 2017. I wrote all of the songs – all of the lyrics, all of the tunes – back then.
– …so I assume there’s a lot of new songs, written during the last year and a half, where you reflect on our current state of affairs. Should we expect a new, Covid-inspired record any day soon?
That’s definitely not something that is in my sphere of interest to right about, no. In not too many days from now, on the 1st of January, at nine o’clock in the morning, I will begin work on a new project. I have no idea what that project is going to be yet, and that’s exciting: putting myself on the spot – with what I come up with. I’ve got a release date for the album discussed with a record company, and I’ve got to get on and work. And it may well be that in the first months of the next year that everything, the result of the huge increase in infections may cause our concerts to be cancelled or postponed yet again, so I could end up with quite a lot of time available for working on a new album. Otherwise, looking at the dates sheets, if it did all happen the way it’s supposed to happen, I still have lots of days when I can finish the album – writing, making some demos, sending stuff to the band and booking some time in my rehearsal studio, and some time in other recording studio to record the songs. I’m confident about getting it all done this year.
– And you have an ongoing project: the JETHRO TULL box sets that, unlike many other similar packages, are quite affordable. How important is it to you to keep it this way?
I think the Warners work to a price point that achieve meaningful sales: if you make it too expensive, you’re limiting it to relatively a few people; if you make it too cheap, you’re going to lose money or make no money. And the whole point for one of those three majors – Warners, Sony and Universal – is that they have enormous catalogue assets and they may generate small profits, but the profits that they desperately need in this digital age, because the income the record companies used to derive 30 years ago, 40 years ago is not there anymore to the extent that it was. So anything that can make a modest profit – they’re going to do it. And this is of great value to the fans: they benefit from getting catalogue made available to them in this way, whereas 20 years ago none of the major record companies were going to be motivated to do that with catalogue, because it was only a small profit. Now they desperately need this small profit, so they’re going to do a great job. It’s the same with all of the majors and even some of the boutique labels to do their own special projects and put out some limited catalogue items.
The box sets are for serious fans who want a lot of material, so the box sets usually consist of anything and everything that we can find around the process of making a record and put it together in a way that has got some added value for people. I have to give the credit for the box sets to Tim Chacksfield at Warner Music: he’s the guy who is the project manager for all these things, and he puts a huge amount of work and effort into finding, compiling and organizing the box sets. I personally don’t have that energy, I couldn’t face going back and remixing all these songs again (laughs) in surround sound and whatever. I’m grateful to have Steven Wilson doing the remixing and other associated tracks, demos and live recordings that are part of some of the box sets, including the next one, The Broadsword And The Beast; I’m very grateful to have these people doing that hard work for me, because I don’t have the energy or the interest to go back and do it myself. You know, been there, done that – so I’m very happy to have those other folks doing such a great job to make it available to fans in a detail and in an attractive package.
– I didn’t buy the “Thick As A Brick” set that started this series when it came out, and I can’t buy it anywhere now – it sells for some $600 on eBay! – and I’m not alone who want it. What about reprinting the first box sets?
Well, the thing about the box sets is that usually the analysis that the record companies do shows a finite number of records to be pressed – as a limited edition, if you like – and beyond that they have no intention of reprinting, and the reason for that is very simple. It’s not because they don’t want to but because you’re waiting for nine months to one year to get things pressed in a very few pressing plants that are left in the world. And these days every artist with a new album – pop artist, classical artist, rock artist – wants to release their album in vinyl, and the waiting time to get vinyl pressed is horrendous! You can’t just say, “Oh, you know what? I think we’ll print another 5,000 copies of Thick As A Brick!” (Laughs.) You’re never going to get the press in time. And in terms of manufacturing CDs and boxes with cards and heavy stuff, the setup time to do that is quite elaborate, so they tend to be thought of as one-off projects, and once they’re done – they’re done.
If there was a huge demand out there, people like you might make their thoughts evident to the record company, and they might think, “Ooh, maybe we should print a few thousand copies more.” But the unit price is very sensitive to the volume that you produce, so if you start off by making 5,000 or 10,000 and then you want to print another 500, the 500 are going to cost three times as much as the average price of 10,000 – you can’t just go back and reprint to the cost-effective price. Same with T-shirts. I printed a few hundred “Jethro Tull Christmas Concert” T-shirts, and they were quite expensive! They were almost double the price of the T-shirt as if we would normally print them for other purposes, and they would be used on several tours and sold as mail order; but we only printed – off the top of my head – about 300 T-shirts, so if I went back and said, “You know what? I want another 20 T-shirts of that design,” they would probably cost me four times the price! (Laughs.)
It’s the same with all these issues. In the old days, to print extra copies, they were always being reprinted if they were sold out, but I don’t think that’s possible in physical manufacture these days. You’re going to look at the reality of what you think the market is for a product, and then you will try to make sure you satisfy that market with a very small margin of extra. But you’re not going to produce twice as many if you think you could sell, because if you don’t sell them, you’re sitting there with all the manufacturing costs and, again, overall the project can lose money. So you’re going to be careful. That’s the reality of selling records, and that’s why I don’t do it – that’s why I have a record company who make those decisions and take those risks. They’re the people who should know how to do it. I don’t get involved in this kinds of promotional decisions.
– The latest TULL reissue was “A”: the album that started as your solo record only to become a band effort. In my view, it was good because it allowed you to expand the group’s possibilities. But do you think “A” changed people’s – and maybe, your own – perception of the band? I mean it changed your sonic palette, so to say.
It did a little bit, in the sense that the precursors to the songs that we released on the “Broadsword” album were recorded in 1981, and I was playing keyboards on all of them, because we didn’t have a keyboard player. You see two of the musicians who played on the “A” album made it very clear in the beginning that they were coming in as guests. Eddie Jobson had no intention of joining JETHRO TULL, he was just simply there as a guest on that one album, and he did one period of touring with us. And Mark Craney, who came along with Eddie – he was Eddie’s new drummer back in America – also came as a guest but he did then stay on and do some further shows with JETHRO TULL after, I think, Eddie had finished doing the live shows with us. But I think it was never considered that it was a longterm line-up of JETHRO TULL; I certainly didn’t think of Eddie as being the band’s new keyboard player into the future – literally, he came along to play on that one album, and that was it. Dave Pegg was the bass player, and he’d never actually made a record with JETHRO TULL at that point; it was his first time of recording with me. In fact, Martin Barre, when he came to work on the album, it was only to play on one or two tracks; it’s just that we all got on very well in the studio, and it was quite exciting, and so Martin ended up just staying and playing on all the tracks. But that was not the original intention: at the time I made the record, I was still thinking it was a solo album, and the musicians were coming in to do what they were doing.
It was only when the record company heard it and said, “We think it should be a JETHRO TULL album – that would be our advice,” and I accepted their strong suggestion. But I think I rather regret it, because it meant that these people were seen as being the new JETHRO TULL band members, and the old guys, particularly John Evans and Barrie Barlow, were sort of cast into the wilderness, and that was an uncomfortable thing, so I basically feel I should have continued to strongly argue for “A” being a solo album. But then Peter Vettese came to audition, and he ended up being a keyboard player for some of the demos and tracks that were finally released on the “Broadsword” album, but sonically, yes, it was part of an age of the final development of analogue synthesis at that period of time before things were switched to being digital. So if you listen to the “Broadsword” box set that comes out, you’ll hear a lot of songs where I’m playing keyboards and, maybe, in some places it has that (half-sings) big, fat analogue sound – a bit like Eddie Jobson’s Yamaha CS-80. So yes, it had its part to play and, unfortunately for me, playing keyboards on the backing tracks, I very often didn’t play flute on those demos, and some of them have no flute on at all – and it would have been interesting, I suppose, if they’d been the songs on the “Broadsword” album, there would have been more flute added to some of them, but we just have to imagine what I might have played (laughs) if I’d actually added the flute. But I was being busy with both hands on the keyboards at the time, and I’m not really a keyboard player at all; I was writing the songs using keyboards so I could play what I was writing.
– You have always been generous with releasing previously unheard material. Don’t you think it demystifies the magic of your songs to an extent?
Yes, it does, and I am wary of doing that, and I discussed that with the record company in regard to all the additional material around “The Zealot Gene,” and they felt that there were quite a meaningful percentage of the fan base who really did want to know what these songs were about and how they came into being, and hear the original demos. It’s… (Hesitates.) I’m kind of of the mind that, in a way, it’s best to give just the final material and let people discover it for themselves and think about it in their own, different way. But that is the case anyway for those people who choose not to buy the physical copy and the booklets, and all the rest that comes with it; they will just stream it on Spotify, so a large group of people who will listen to that album have no idea what the hell it’s about or what the lyrics are about, because they don’t really listen to lyrics. So everybody is going to go into it in their own way, and I think you have to scatter all the different approaches, which is why after discussions with the record company, I said, “Okay, I’ll give you all my demos. Okay, I’ll give you all my notes and paperwork for my original documents, and all the lyrics, and all the information, and the chord sheets that I sent to the band, and all that stuff.” It’s not because I think it’s important; it’s an option – people can read it if they want to, and they don’t have to read it if they don’t want to.
– But why there’s a need to create new stereo mixes? I can see the point of surround sound that you couldn’t create back in the day – but stereo? You were the original producer, so what was wrong with your mixes? Records are the product of their time anyway, so why try and correct history?
Erm, because the clarity… If you take the original analogue multitracks and convert them to digital audio, to 24-bit audio, you can probably play them just once before it falls to pieces, so you got one chance to get that digitally encoded. You have to bake them in an oven for a certain period of time at certain temperature and humidity in order to try and make sure the oxide sticks to the tape. And that digital multitrack master, depending on whatever software you’re using – in the case of Steven Wilson, it’s Logic like I do; some people use Pro Tools, and so on – you can then work with. [Wilson] will listen to all of that, and he will listen to all the places where he can remove some low-frequency hums that aren’t really important to the music, he’ll hear some little clicks or noises that he can digitally remove, those milliseconds of sound, and he can clear up the tracks where there is no music – in a vocal, for example: there’s a pause between vocal lines, so you can get rid of that “ssss” – that general analogue noise – and can get a much more transparent-sounding mix. It’s more the way that human ear would hear it if you were in the studio at the time. So silence is real silence – but, of course, as music is going on most of the time, it’s just it becomes more transparent, not so cluttered with all the extraneous noises of analogue recording. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, with a fresh pair of ears you can listen to that music and maybe take another look at it and highlight certain things, certain frequencies, things that are possible in the modern digital age that were not really so possible in the time of analog recording. So I think you can end up with a clearer, cleaner sounding mix, but Steven doesn’t change the balance of the mix very much; in stereo, he recreates pretty much the mix that I did 40 years ago – it’s just that it is a cleaner sounding mix but, maybe, with a little more emphasis here and there on certain things that, perhaps, you can do in the digital world more easily, and at his discretion. So I think there’s a very good case for doing a stereo remix, but I don’t want to be the guy who does it: I’ve been there and done that once, and I don’t want to go through it all again.
– Thing is, a mix is a very subjective thing, and I heard fans complain about Steven’s variants: they’re not ready to accept remixes done by anybody other than you, the ultimate authority on that.
Hmm… I can understand that. On the other hand, most people think that Steven’s mixes are a big improvement on the original, and I can understand that too. Steven and I, we talk about these things, we talk about the original mix, we talk about how things are going – it’s a discussion, but I’m not sitting in the studio telling him what to do. His starting point is to recreate the stereo picture – where things are set in the stereo image – and the balances pretty much as they were: that’s what he does. But he’s slightly fine-tuning something and, as I said, getting clarity from the original recordings; he doesn’t do huge changes – he’s very discreet and gentle about the degree to which he changes any of the balances, so they’re very similar to the original mixes.
– And still you delegate some of this work to Jakko Jakszyk.
Well, there’s been occasions where Jakko’s done things for me because Steven’s not available or doesn’t want to do it. Jakko is, of course, the guitar player and singer with KING CRIMSON, so he’s been doing a lot of other stuff, and he’s got an album of his own [Secrets & Lies] that has been recently released, so if I ask him to do something he might also be too busy to do it, and I may have to find another remix engineer sometime in the future. I don’t know. We will see. As of now, I hope you have a happy – regardless of what religion you are involved with – Merry Christmas! (Laughs.) Everybody is invited to the Christmas! It’s something I’ve always felt strongly about: regardless of your own religious beliefs, the color of your skin or your headgear, Christmas is about people coming together. But at the back of it, I still remember that Christmas is, fundamentally, a religious festival. I was reminded of that when I was briefly saying “Hello!” to the Pope four or five days ago, and the reason for being there is, actually, something that’s a big part of Christian worshippers’ belief. But as I said, I’m not a Christian by my faith, so I enjoy both the religious festivity of Christmas and the secular festivity of Christmas, which is just about people having fun and being together with family and friends. That’s why I can always say to anybody – Jews, Muslims, Hindus alike – “Merry Christmas!” (Laughs and waves.) And hopefully, they will understand.