Interviewed by Karen Hetherington (Journalist/Writer/Contributor) Myglobalmind Webzine
Trying to grasp and indeed convey the essence of Jethro Tull is a difficult task which I’m not sure has been successfully accomplished in full biographies on the band, and is certainly impossible in few short paragraphs.
Jethro Tull first broke onto the music scene in 1967. The late 60s were a time, which, in my opinion was the most exciting and revolutionary in music history. A time which seen Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page playing the guitar with a violin bow, Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth and Pink Floyd playing music heavy with psychedelia. It seemed that everyone was looking for a new sound, the next best thing and something with an edge to make their mark on the industry. The music of these artists and many others of this era is undeniably timeless, however, Jethro Tull have stood the test of time and weathered the winds of change better than most. It was the introduction of the flute which gave Jethro Tull the sound by which they became instantly distinguishable. Their early sound was very blues orientated but their musical diversity became quickly apparent and seemed to have no boundaries.
Writing the vast majority of Tull Material, Ian Anderson has experimented with many different themes, musical styles, instruments and concepts throughout his lengthy career accompanied by some of the most talented musicians in the business. I would personally consider Ian to be one of the greatest lyricists in history and a great observer of humanity, his lyrics are insightful, thought provoking, inspiring and sometimes controversial. Anyone who has been privileged enough to see Jethro Tull perform will have experienced the theatrics and parodies which have accompanied their live performances.
Ian announced in 2014 that all future material will be released under his own name.
This year in the UK he is scheduled to play the Isle of Wight and Ramblin Man Festivals before embarking on something which is just a little bit different… The Jethro Tull Rock Opera Tour kicks off in the Anvil, Basingstoke on 8th September. This will be Ian Anderson performing the music of Jethro Tull..with a bit of a twist.. Long standing Tull fans will not want to miss this and if you have yet to sample the delights of Jethro Tull you really are missing out. They may be an acquired taste but if you don’t try it you will never acquire it. Give it a listen, you might just learn something…
As a massive fan of Tull since my perhaps misplaced childhood, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to chat with Ian about this upcoming project.
KH: Hi Ian, how are you?
IA: I’m very well thank you. My apologies for being late, I’m on a very tight schedule.
KH: No problem at all. I would like to ask you a few questions about the upcoming Jethro Tull Rock Opera, it sounds like an exciting concept but it’s quite hard to envisage how it’s all going to play out, I was wondering have the venues been carefully chosen to facilitate that certain type of a performance?
IA: Not really, no. Its more to do with what venues were available within a certain period of a week or so, there are some very pragmatic issues when you are putting a tour together, it has to do with the geography of different cities, different countries and what venue availabilities there are, so whilst you might have a broad target of trying to fit in a few things in a certain logical order, it doesn’t always work out quite the way you want it so you are forced into sometimes making some compromises about where you play and the order of events. No one likes being in a tour bus criss crossing themselves ever day going up and down three or four hundred miles in the wrong direction so we try and make it more geographically friendly when we go on tour but generally speaking it has more do with having a list of possible places and if your lucky maybe half of them come your way.
KH: Ok, I have read that there will be use of recitatives instead of formal introductions to songs, this is hard to imagine, what are fans going to see on this tour that they haven’t seen from you before?
IA: Well the whole point of doing this was to put classic Jethro Tull repertoire into a context where there was a timeline, there was a narrative, there were characters who would perform, and to link those songs together with that operatic device called the recitative – spoken or sung connecting short pieces that link the songs together and perhaps explain a little bit about where we are going with the next piece, so that’s why I call it a Rock Opera. Its perhaps a very tired, over worn and over blown term that’s been around for almost as long as I have, pretty much as long as I have as a professional musician so I think we are all a bit tired of the term rock opera but I can’t think of another way to describe what happens when you put a bunch of rock songs into a narrative form and join them together with that recitative device. I don’t know if you’ve been to an Opera. I’ve been to a few and I find them hopelessly confusing and whether they are sung in Italian, German or indeed English, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on unless I read the programme notes and then trying to read the programme notes and trying to relate those to what I’m seeing on stage is sometimes not that easy, so I’m trying to do this in a way that makes reasonable sense to people and they can follow what I’m doing with the classic Jethro Tull repertoire. There are five new songs as such, short songs, but about 85% of the evening is the best known Jethro Tull repertoire, whatever, that means, but clearly it includes many of the heavy hitters, those which people would generally agree were the most famous songs they would expect to hear in a best of Jethro Tull show.
KH: Well I haven’t been to an opera so this will be a first for me and I’m really looking forward to it.
KH: Do you ever see live performances as an opportunity to improve on a piece of music or a song that you are not entirely happy with?
IA: Well absolutely. Sometimes it’s not a question of just improving upon, but just for the devilment of it, seeing if you can do something a little different, you know sometimes taking a piece of music and seeing if you can give it a slightly different direction musically, it might mean changing the arrangement, doing an acoustic version, doing a much louder, heavier version of what was originally an acoustic piece, it could mean writing some additional elements for it. I have done all those sort of things with many songs I’ve written over the years just for fun, because it’s fun to take a song and extrapolate on the elements of that song lyrically and musically. I don’t very often change any lyrics but I do change the music quite often, however, on this occasion with the so called Rock Opera Tour starting in September, they utilise the original Jethro Tull repertoire in as faithfully as possible the original recorded form. I’ve got back to really try to recapture what the original recordings were about in terms of the instrumentation, the performances in detail, the elements of the arrangements, I’m making sure that sticks very close to the original form. The lyrics, however get changed a little bit, sometimes not at all, sometimes just a change of pronoun because of someone singing a line in character, sometimes it involves writing a new verse for a song or a new chorus as I’m having to make that song fit better the storyline which is the homage to Jethro Tull the original agricultural inventor but reimagining him in the present day or near future as a biochemist working on genetic modification and cloning and utilising new technologies to feed an ever increasing population.
KH: I can never imagine you retiring from music as you have been going so long but have you any other interests that would perhaps like to take time out and pursue further?
IA: Well I like sometimes to do some very simple pleasures that are just very quiet, getting away from noise and music. I’m not a music listener, never have been. I think since I became a professional musician I really very rarely listen to music for fun, other peoples music; it’s not that I never do it, but I don’t do it very often compared to other people. I rather like the sound of silence because if you do what I do for a living you find yourself surround by quite loud noise so it’s very restful to be back at home for a few days and take the cats for a walk or go and pot up my chillies in the greenhouse, water some plants…. I suppose I am becoming dangerously like Prince Charles in older age, I go and talk to my chillies, I play my flute. Luckily I have a new cat who joined us at Christmas. Hes only 7 months old and he’s besotted with the flute. When he hears me playing he has to come and find me and he has to sit on my knee, he really loves the sound of the instrument which is most peculiar because dogs and cats generally don’t like the sound of a flute too much, it is, I suppose to them the equivalent of me standing in rush hour traffic in Oxford Street. Not a very nice noise to be surrounded with, but he loves the flute and I always play the flute in the same place that my chilli seeds are germinating and I have a fond eccentric imagination that they respond better if I play the flute rather than just leave them to suffer in silence.
KH: You could be right, and your cat clearly has good taste. Whenever you decided to become a musician how long did it take you to start writing lyrics?
IA: Do you mean a professional musician?
KH: Yes, a professional musician.
IA: My first lyrics were written when I was an amateur musician but with my direction set on becoming a professional musician, so in other words I was about 18 years old….something like that, but I think that the time which I thought of myself as a lyric writer would have been the period from Aqualung onwards. I had been at it for about 4 years before I started to think of it as lyrics rather than just coming up with words or ideas that were generically pop or rock music lyrics. It was around 1970 that I started to think there was stuff going on in the world and around me that maybe I should reflect in the songs that I write. Aqualung was the point where I took myself a little more seriously as a lyric writer and thought about issues that were sometimes big and scary and of deep concern so it probably began with that album that I thought of myself as a lyricist, before that I had always been a bit embarrassed about writing lyrics and indeed singing them because I’m not gifted with a natural great singing voice. I’m not like Robert Plant or some of the classic rock singers like Lou Gramm of Foreigner, with these wonderful rich voices, they seem sublime and God given. For me it was never easy, I have always struggled to be a singer and it never came particularly easy to me, although I suppose by the early 80s I was about as good as I was ever going to get, but I probably pushed myself a bit beyond where I ought to have gone and done a bit of damage to my vocal chords from struggling and straining them a bit too much and not really having any real singing technique.
KH: I have always viewed many of your early lyrics as great observations of human nature, what are your sources of inspiration these days? For example for your latest album, Homo Erraticus?
IA: Well, it comes from talking to people, from keeping my ears and eyes open, reading newspapers, watching several current affairs and news programmes that I tune into whenever I have the leisure time … so that’s the source of my awareness of what’s going on in the world. I was horrified, absolutely horrified to read that The Pope rather defiantly and proudly proclaimed that he had not watched television for. I don’t know how many years and that he only read one newspaper for ten minutes each day, the same newspaper. I mean this is a man who is supposed to be spiritually leading around a third of the world’s religious followers, well, maybe in reality about 25%, but nonetheless you would have thought that the huge moral responsibility of that individual was to be aware of what’s happening in the world, not to be almost proud of being ignorant of it. I find that utterly, utterly astonishing and utterly reprehensible. I think you have a duty to know what’s going on if you’re going to be a person who interfaces with so many people as a spiritual or political leader. I think you should be well informed, well educated, constantly knowing what’s being said, what’s being done – good and bad. I’m horrified when I hear that The Pope doesn’t take that responsible attitude. So, I do try to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on but I’m not an ideal television watcher, listener or voter. I keep my mind open as well as my eyes and ears. I’m likely to be flicking the controller between the right wing Fox television, and the rather more liberal CNN, probably Russian Television gets a look in, Al Jazeera certainly does, Sky and BBC when I find it, they are certainly great sources of more independent broadcasting. When I read newspapers I will pick up The Guardian, The Independent, even the Daily Mail. I like to keep a broad understanding of what people are saying and why they are saying it so I’m very prepared to listen to others ideologically bleating.
KH: Ok Ian, I’m very aware we are fast running out of time here, I just want to ask you quickly – your schedule for touring seems pretty hectic right now and there’s going to be plenty of opportunities for the UK fans to come and see you. Have you lost any enthusiasm for it? Are you still enjoying touring as much as you did?
IA: Well.. I enjoy it, of course I enjoy it, I mean, I think if you’re a British Airways pilot in your 64th year you’re going to enjoy it even more as you know that very soon your job is going to be taken away from you.. as you are too old to fly and I think that is something we all experience as we get older that sometimes the things that we value, we know that they are going to come to an end sometime soon and we do get a renewed sense of enjoyment and a sense of gratefulness and appreciation of the great fortune we enjoy to be able to be doing what we are doing, so of course I enjoy doing it. The only thing I don’t enjoy doing is going away for long periods of time, I much prefer being able to play one concert or 3 concerts or 10 concerts but I don’t really want to do any more than that in one unbroken hit, I’d rather get home for 3 or 4 days in between short tours, that would be my ideal but of course it’s kind of difficult when you look at the bigger scale of touring in both North and South America. Its hard to make that economically work if you only go away to play 3 or 4 shows, you have be prepared to stay away maybe two weeks, and two weeks for me is a little arduous. I would much rather not be away for more than a week at a time if I can possibly help it, but that way I do find that a degree of reinvigoration occurs when you head off to the airport to play a couple of shows somewhere. It is always a great enjoyment and a good fortune to still be able to indulge in at my age, so I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing. Indeed, overall this year we will only play about 70 concerts, something like that as opposed to the usual 100, 110 that we have played in previous years so I’m beginning to slackened it off a little bit, just as I say so I can spend more frequent periods of time at home.
KH:70 is still quite a lot… Ian thank you so much. It was an honour speaking to you and I look forward to seeing you later in the year!
IA: Very good. Thanks for your help, good to talk to you.
Don’t forget to follow Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull on their website and social media channels (Facebook | Twitter | YouTube).