Ian Anderson is the lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of the pioneering classic rock band Jethro Tull. As a founding member, Ian and his musician friends created Jethro Tull in late 1967. As with a lot of young British bands in the thriving musical breeding ground of England, Jethro Tull was influenced by American blues and R&B. While establishing their musical direction, Ian made an important change by adding the flute into the sound of Jethro Tull. Shortly thereafter, they began to get noticed by their peers and industry executives. They eventually secured a record deal and began to create the Jethro Tull sound. With a few albums under their belt and many miles of road experience, Ian and Jethro Tull refined their songwriting skills and produced the seminal album "Aqualung". Containing mega hits such as: the title track, "Cross Eyed Mary", "Oh God" and "Locomotive Breath", the band officially became a household name. This catapulted them into major world tours as headliners in the finest musical venues and festivals. Jethro Tull did not rest on their laurels and continued a prolific output of great albums like: "Thick as a Brick", "Lining in the Past", "Minstrel in the Gallery", "Songs From the Wood", "Too Old To Rock And Roll: Too Young To Die" and many more. Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull still continue to create great music today. They have just released a new album entitled "Jethro Tull - The String Quartets", which features many of their great standards reworked into a classical format. 2017 will feature a world tour with the band performing many of their well known songs. I spoke with Ian about the new album and his career.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on the release of your new classical string quartet CD. It seems to be the perfect combination of mixing your classic rock songs in a classical music format. Is this a match made in heaven for you?
I.A. - It was something that grew out of a notion that I've had for a while - that maybe a dedicated string quartet album - to realize some of the classic (with a small c) Jethro Tull repertoire. I suppose that proving a point, that a piece of music, which consists on melody, harmony and rhythm - the three ingredients of what we call music - that they could be presented in a different way. They can cross styles and genre borders, and still work. In most cases and varying degrees, but by and large, I'd like to think that most of the time you could make it work. It doesn't seem to be a difficult and enormous task to do. I suppose that I've been doing that a long time with my own music. Coming up with different arrangements and things over the years. Sometimes taking a piece of classical music, and turning it into a bit more jazzy and rocky feel. I do have a backround in doing that kind of thing - taking my music and putting it in a more refined and exposed format of string quartets. It seemed like something that was worth a go. Our keyboard player, John O'hara, who came from a classically trained backround, was able to do that. We worked together on these pieces of music over the course of a last year - between tours and sometimes backstage, in a dressing room or in a hotel somewhere. It evolved to a point where we could prepare the music and propose it to the chosen string quartet, in time for the sessions that took place in September last year.
R.V.B. - It's a beautiful sounding album. I know that you had recorded some of the tracks in some old historic churches. You get a sense of staying power of the music in the classical format... like great classical music does. Jethro Tull's style of music has classical influences that crossover in itself. Your music has a sense of staying power as well. Are you happy with the sound of the CD?
I.A. - The reason I chose to do it in Worcester Cathedral - in the crypt - was partly because I had a show coming up there in supporting aid for the cathedral maintenance fund... at Christmas. They were kind enough to give me access of the crypt - that was under the main body of the Cathedral. We recorded in another disused church elsewhere in the southwest of England. It was another facility that we took advantage of. I went to visit a lot of different places, but settled on those two. It wasn't because of the acoustic nature. To some extent it was more of a problem than working it out in a contemporary soundproofed, isolated recording studio. It's a less traumatic thing to do because you're coping with the wind rattling the windows of churches and cathedrals. There's extraneous noises of airplanes overhead and trucks passing by outside. These things are quite intrusive, in terms of the acoustic environment. We had to frequently stop and wait for the noise to abate before we could continue the take again. I was looking for more of a spiritual ambience, than necessarily an acoustic ambience. The gravitas that comes with being in that sort of a building, produces a certain mood and emotion. As a record producer, it was something that I was trying to capture - in keeping with the more thoughtful and esoteric reading of the music, as per the string quartets performance. They (Carducci Quartet) probably enjoyed working in those spaces too.
R.V.B. - They were very good. The whole vibe of the CD does come across with that unique feeling and sense of ambience as you described... I can hear it. In the movie trailer about the recording sessions, you mentioned that it might be good to listen to at a funeral. You were saying that it could be in a celebration format. Do you think this music is good for a celebration?
I.A. - I would like to think that Jethro Tull fans would like to listen to this music at a time where there is more of a contemplative and thoughtful process at work. It's not party music. It's better suited to listen to in private. Perhaps it is to celebrate, like waking up on Christmas morning and putting this on as an alternative to Bing Crosby. Perhaps it wouldn't be out of place at a wedding or a funeral... somebody's birthday... or just for a lazy summers evening, when you lay back with a glass of chilled chardonnay. It's music that you hear as backround music. I like the idea that music is for listening to, not just an accompaniment somewhere in the fabric of your immediate life... in the way that wallpaper, or furniture, and the acoustic battle of noise that you're trying to filter. Like listening to music on the train, or a bus, or a crowded room. I'm not one for listening to music like that. To me it just makes the situation worse. I'd rather read a book and put some earplugs in. When I listen to music, I want to give it my concentration and wholehearted commitment. Hopefully people might feel this way about this music. My suggestion is sit back, settle down, close your eyes and listen to the nuances.
R.V.B. - Your music has always had a classical feel to it. Was there any reason that Jethro Tull went in that direction? Are you from the school that music starts with Bach, and then there's everything else?
I.A. - Bach was probably the first classical composer whose music clicked with me, in the sense that I felt like I could draw upon its influence. Early on - in the Jethro Tull catalog of music - I recorded a piece, but twisted it around to make it a piece of sleazy syncopated jazz. I took something from one source and turning it into something else. I suppose what I'm doing is the reverse of that... taking a piece of rock music and turning it into something that is more classical (with a capitol C) presentation of instrumentation. It's my belief that you can do that with music. You can get away with it most of the time - taking melody, rhythm and harmony, and present it in a different genre. Influences that have come to me along the way initially, were black American blues. That's what got me interested in music as a teenager... as a musician and Performer. By the time I was 18 or 19, I was feeling a little disingenuous about delving into black American culture and being an imitator. It was a means to an end, to get noticed and establish some kind of a position. By the time we got to the summer of 1968 - 6 or 7 months after Jethro Tull began - in the music I was writing, there were some things that owed a little bit to my blues backround. I really wanted to branch out a bit and find some other influences from classical music, and folk music - broadly speaking, European sources, rather than American. There comes a point where imitation is ok, as a means of getting going but you really have establish a musical persona of your own. Some of my peers were perfectly happy to carry on playing, essentially black American folk music. Even though they were paler than pale and spoke with London accents. It struck me as a bit weird. Imitating and copying it is ok for some people but for me it's not.
R.V.B. - The scene in UK - in the mid to late 60's through the mid 70's - was that a perfect storm of creativity?
I.A. - It was a perfect storm of changing world culture. Those of us alive, as young adults at that time, had to feel very, very privileged that we were there. The mid 60's to mid 70's wasn't defined by just the changing musical styles but it was defined by the growing emancipation black Americans getting a degree of freedom, with the beginnings of equality and appreciation. It was an important time for women to get recognized as having equal status. Gender equality was defined in that period. It was also the beginning of gay people and people of other sexual orientation getting liberated. It clearly started in the USA and the UK, but was quickly picked up on throughout Europe and many other countries of the world. It was the beginning of a huge period of momentous cultural change that my parents generation could have never have imagined. Of course it threw up a few nasty moments, like the Vietnam war. It also threw up a few glorious expeditionary moments of exultation. The space race and the culmination of President Kennedy's man on the moon, and returning him safely to Earth. These were very momentous years and a great time to be around in the creative musical sense, but also making movies, writing books... doing all the things that had a creative parallel to this incredible period of cultural change. The music doesn't necessarily change the world, music is changed by the world. In many ways it reflected things that were happening elsewhere. Music certainly helped along the way of the gradual breaking down of the very, very restrictive and authoritarian Russia years. By the time we got to 87, we saw the first release of western music on the official Russian State label, Melodiya Records. In Mr. Gorbachev's brief reign, that took place... the first two records to be officially released and recognized as okayed to play in Russia, were an album by The Beatles and an album by Jethro Tull. We see the effect it began to have on the loosening up of a lot of prejudices of dark times... not only in Russia, but in the fascists countries of South America, the communist countries elsewhere, and indeed countries that were flirting with communism... for instance India, in the early 70's. I think western rock music played it's part in loosening tensions, opening up possibilities, and giving people a sense of participating in a freer and more open world. It would be wrong to say that music could change the world because the world changed music rather than music changed the world. The symbiotic relationship none the less is there.
R.V.B. - When you get started in this business, there is trial and error. You go through phases, you modify your music, you write music, and some works and some doesn't. What was the point where you said to yourself, "Hey this is actually working and we're actually going to make a mark here." Was there a turning point?
I.A. - I remember feeling OK about our first few records. I think a turning point probably was the morning that we finished the last recording, and the mixing of the Aqualung album. I remember some 6 o'clock in the morning going with one of the band members to have a very early breakfast, after having spent the night working in the studio. I was thinking at the time "What have we got here? Is this a meaningful step forward in our musical careers? Or is it something that can mark the beginning of the end? - If the public don't like the end result." I felt perhaps then, that there was more at stake... if I had made the wrong decisions as a songwriter in terms of performance. We went through a difficult time period of recording it, because it was not an easy album for us to make... for several reasons. It was a moment of reckoning. Aqualung did pretty well, and then after that Thick as a Brick came along. I felt energized to do something - take a bigger risk - doing an album that was a step sideways from the album that preceded it. I remember going to meet George Martin (the famous producer of The Beatles) at that time, asking for his advice. As a record producer, I felt a little bit intimidated, and I wasn't sure of my ability to continue. I wanted to ask his advice about finding someone who might help me in the studio... a bona fide and established record producer. Maybe a little part of me thought he might volunteer for the job. George had the meeting with me and said "I've listened to your previous records. The advise I'm going to give to you may not be what you want. My advice to you is carry on doing what you are doing." It wasn't what I wanted to hear but it was a great bit of advice. When I thought about his words, it gave me the confidence to get back in there and do it myself. I'm glad that I remembered to say to George Martin - when I got to know him more towards the end of his life - "Thank you for your words. They were words of motivation, great encouragement and confidence building." That was coming for someone who had such a huge role to play in the musical life of The Beatles.
R.V.B. - I gather to support the first couple of albums you performed regionally and in the Europe area. Can you describe to me your first trip to America? How exciting was it?
I.A. - We had played a little bit in the UK, in all parts of the country. We had done a few shows in mainland Europe. America came pretty early on in the early part of 1969. We did three tours in 1969... in the USA. Getting off the airplane was a bit like being an immigrant. We were in the outskirts of New York and being processed. It was very strange, and rather frightening experience to come to America. I think our first gig was either at the Boston Tea Party with Don Law - the famous promoter who kindly gave us a chance to show what we could do, or it was Bill Graham at the Fillmore East. Those two were our opening gambit... as it were. It was a little bit scary. I remember we supported Blood, Sweat and Tears at the Fillmore East. We suddenly realized, "Boy these guys are hot shots." They were wiz kids - New York session guys - who played with great precision and confidence. They were a hard act to open for. Later on, on that same tour, we were supporting Led Zeppelin. There too, you were well aware that you were just rookies. Your were just the new boys in town. It was quite intimidating but very instructive. You had to learn fast, how to present yourself to an American audience - which was a little bit full-armed in cultural terms - than we were used to back home in the UK. It was trial by fire, in a sense that you really had to get on with it and try and learn from the experience.
R.V.B. - You've toured the world numerous times now, and played in some of the best venues that it has to offer. Can you share one or two moments that were very memorable for you. Number 2... did anything ever go wrong or unexpectedly at a show. It's rock and roll, and it happens. Were there any weird things that happened to you?
I.A. - The memorable ones on the upside were not playing at Carnegie Hall. There are many iconic wonderful halls like Carnegie hall in New York or the Albert Hall in London, thet are not necessarily suited for amplified music. Therefore, they don't rank in my top 10 list of memorable/wonderful places to play. I could sight several places... like a few ancient Roman amphitheaters. For instance in Ephesus Turkey, where St. Paul famously went to preach. Tijaria, on the shores of the Mediterranean. Not far from Tel Aviv, in Israel at King Herod's palace... at the amphitheater there. We also played amphitheaters in Greece. There's a certain magic at the very historical outdoor venues along the Mediterranean. Another kind of magic would be playing at Canterbury Cathedral, Worcester Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral... there's a whole list of wonderful cathedrals that I've performed in... in the UK. I've played a lot of historic churches in Europe as well. Memorable in the sense of Spinal Tap moments, with things going wrong, would be us playing at Shea Stadium in New York in 1976. I'm waiting to walk out of the dugout - walking out to the stage - only to be drenched in a gallon of somebody's urine. They poured it over me as I was about to walk out there. It's not really a great way to start a show... to be drenched in pee... especially when it's not your own. There was another occasion where I thought I'd been shot in the chest. I was aware that I had been hit by something, and I looked down and saw blood. It was running out of what had appeared to be a chest wound. I thought "Good God, I have been shot in the chest." I didn't feel any pain. The adrenaline must have kicked in. "Am I just going to drop down and die, or somehow keep going?" I kept going for a bit and thought "You know, I don't feel too bad. I actually feel quite good." I looked down again at what appeared to be a gaping wound and I noticed something inside my shirt. I got hold of a piece of string and pulled and out came a freshly used tampon. (Haha) That was something that was a little odd to be on the receiving end of a very accurately thrown, freshly plucked, symbol of someone's undying love and gratitude. It was a little odd and not particularly hygienic.
R.V.B. - Some stars get panty's thrown at them and you get tampons thrown at you. (Haha)
I.A. - Yeah, why not? Somebody's got to be on the receiving end every once in a while.
R.V.B. - Your music touched a lot of people in their lives. I'm one of them. When I was dating my wife, I knew maybe 10 songs on the guitar. One of them was Minstrel in the Gallery. On a very early date with my wife, I played her Minstrel in the Gallery and I saw hearts coming out of her head! To this day I'm still married to her and your song had a lot to do with it. That's just one story. You're music has touched a lot of people.
I.A. - Look at it another way. Maybe if you played Smoke on the Water, you would have ended up with a couple of babes.
R.V.B. - (Haha) I played her that also but she was more impressed with Minstrel. Richie lives in the next town over and I've interacted with him on a few occasions. You played on their debut album... correct?
I.A. - If you are referring to Blackmore's Night, yes I did. Richie is one of those iconic guitar figures of the 60's, 70's and 80's. Ironically, our paths very nearly crossed back in 1967. A certain record producer, who was using us to make demos of songs that he was hoping to place with a record company, wanted to hook us up with this guitarist who was really good. It never really materialized, but it was in fact Richie Blackmore. We came pretty close to meeting Richie in those early days. He was a young session guitar player in London... alongside people like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. These were the guys that were the gunslingers. They were the hot shots. When they came and walked through the saloon doors, you hid behind the bar or dived under a table. They were serious. We all kind of knew that and respected that these guys were way ahead of the pack. This is one of the reasons that I quit playing guitar and took up flute instead.
R.V.B. - You've had excellent guitar players in your band throughout your long career. You mentioned iconic guitar players, even Tony Iommi was with you for a short while.
I.A. - Tony came and we played together for a little while. It wasn't really going anywhere. He went back to his mates in Birmingham, and they changed their name to Black Sabbath. From his prospective, that was much better than perhaps being in Jethro Tull for about 6 months, and then burning the boats with his pals from Birmingham. Martin Barre was his successor. Our original guitar player Mick Abrahams had come and gone. Tony was one of the people that we considered as an alternative. It was Martin Barre who ended up with the job. For the obvious reason in my world, Martin really didn't have a defined style. He wasn't steeped in a particular way of playing. Therefore as a songwriter, it was more appealing to me that he was someone who would work to understand the song, and find a way to help realize that song in terms of an arrangement and a recorded version, without bringing too much of a set style, or a way of playing. It might of worked in some cases but I had already worked with a guy like that - in the shape of a year with Mick Abrahams. He was really a blues and R & B kind of player. I knew I didn't want to have someone whose style was tightly defined. I really wanted someone who hadn't evolved that far. That was the attraction of working with Martin. He hadn't decided what kind of guitar player he wanted to be yet. That meant that he could become Jethro Tull's guitar player. We were learning and defining our roles together as a team.
R.V.B. - Looking back on your career to this point. What kind of satisfaction does it give you to know that you touched so many lives? There's a lot of people that really enjoy your music.
I.A. - It's not something that I want to think about too much. If you dwell on that, it could give you a rather enlarged perspective worth in the scheme of things. It's a bit like having gold albums. It's nice to know that you got them. I have absolutely have no idea where they are. They are certainly not hanging on the walls of my house. That evidence of your success... whether it's touching people's hearts or monetary success - or some other form for you to remind yourself who you are. I'm not sure that that's what life should really be about. You should judge yourself in harsher terms, than to a degree where people simply think you're wonderful. When you enjoy the final moments of a concert, and people show their appreciation, that's an enormous reward. It's perfectly adequate to happen once in a day. (Hahaha) I certainly don't need it to happen every day of my life. It's part of the experience of performing in a live concert. I would have to be honest and say, "It probably comes that moment of bathing in that response of an audience, comes a close second to the bottle of very cold beer that I'm about to drink, 15 minutes later in my dressing room." That probably tops it. There's a sense of feeling good about what you're doing. I don't mean to be sounding in any way a derogatory kind of attitude towards the audience. If we're talking about feeling good about the moment - believe me - that cold beer is at the top of the list.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) The moment with an audience that is really responsive, receptive and magical... there is really nothing that beats that in rock and roll. It's what it's really all about.
I.A. - Well, so they say. That clearly is for a lot of people... this huge driving urge that they have, is that moment of orgasmic glory that they enjoy. I'm weary of letting that assume too much importance for me. I try to keep that in perspective. Somebody said to me the other day. "We had a standing ovation in Paris." I thought "If you wait long enough, people will stand up. They just want to get the F*&# out of there." You could easily misinterpret the fact that what you consider to be a standing ovation, actually from their perspective is more of a relief, "Good God... now we can go home." (Hahaha) You'll do well to be a little cynical about these things and not just assume that everybody loves you all of the time. I think that's a pretty dangerous way to go through life, even as a successful musician. They can turn on you just as fast as they show you that they like you. As when people find when they take to Twitter or social media. They might get a lot of nice scribbles from other people but they're also going to attract a whole bunch of nasty, vehement and quite fowl ranting. There's people who just love to do that. There's obviously people who utilize for their own end... social media. Like your own President for example. It's kind of a dangerous thing to do. You're going to attract an awful lot of vitriol and nastiness, in putting yourself in front of a public, who many of them just want to demonstrate their loathing and hatred towards you. It not only happens to politicians, it happens to movie actors, writers, musicians, and I suppose various people on walks of religious life. You're going to attract some pretty nasty stuff. I wouldn't like to be the guy who looks after the Pope's Twitter account.
R.V.B. - It's a different world today. So there's no rules in rock and roll. There's nobody to tell you when to retire. There's nobody to tell you what clubs you can play or what concert halls you can't play. Everyone has their own set of rules. I see that you're going back on a major tour this year. Number 1... does it get old? Number 2... are you healthy enough to be doing this?
I.A. - I look after myself by having a regular health check... voluntarily. My insurance company insists on it. I'm way ahead of them. I go through a number of checks every year because I'm looking for trouble. I don't want it to sneak up on me. I go looking for bad news and so far I haven't had any. Anything that is a little amiss is dealt with before it becomes a serious issue. I go through two hours of intense aerobics and I get paid for it... because I'm on stage at the same time. That's quite useful. Whilst I'm aware as I am in my 70th year, it's something I'm clearly aware of. I am maybe not living on borrowed time, but it's not going to go on forever. Maybe I have 5 years, maybe I have 10 years ahead of me... who knows. It will come to an end, all too soon. In the meantime, I want to carry on what I'm doing because it's a challenge... a huge focusing of energy and commitment to do what I do. Without having to work out the reasons why, I am driven to do it. It's not at all about being fun and games, and rapturous in terms of an emotional payoff. It's just something I'm driven to do. It's not all smiles and roses. As I said, a lot of bad stuff happens out there... particularly in the tense stress of international travel. Sometimes the concerts themselves can be quite stressful if things don't go as planned, in a technical or production point of view. We've faced that in a number of places. In my last couple of shows, one was in Kiev... one was in Vilnius, Lithuania. They went OK, but there is a degree of added stress in that sort of a performance. It's a bit trickier than playing in The Beacon Theater, which is relatively easy and there's no big surprises. You have to accept that it's not all fun and games. You have to buckle down and cope with some challenges, to try to overcome and make the best of them. That's what we do. I do ultimately enjoy meeting those challenges by playing in some places that many other bands or artists don't really choose to do. Somewhere along the way, you get a little more miles under your belt, and you feel quite good that you've tackled something that wasn't necessarily easy.
R.V.B. - You do a lot of work with animals... with cats in particular. I know you had a farmhouse. Do you still have a lot of animals and how do you enjoy helping wildlife?
I.A. - I suppose if I were to choose some wildlife on planet Earth, that I would truly, truly be responsible in a meaningful way in trying to preserve, it would be the species we know as homo sapiens. We are an endangered species... given our behavior and abuse of planetary resources. I suppose I would be selfish in saying if we don't protect homo sapiens from itself, we're not going to be in a position to protect any other form of wildlife as well. That's being pragmatic and perhaps a little cynical about the reality of conservation and preservation. As far as we know, we're in a unique position in what we know in the universe and the cosmos around us, we are the only tangible evidence of intelligent life form. We may turn out to be the only spark of intelligence in this galaxy. Wouldn't it be just tragic, if through our own stupidity and bad management, we allow our species to be extinguished or to meet a very sticky and messy end... as it so easily could in the decades to come. That is probably something that we don't think enough about. We tend to think our grandchildren or great grandchildren will sort out the mess. Unfortunately they are inheriting the mess that we've made. My generation is more to blame than any other because since World War 2, we have almost doubled the population on planet Earth. My parents generation and my generation are the most responsible for most of the industrial pollution and mismanagement of resources... that have occurred on this planet to date. In a hundred years, we've seen most of the damage done. It's not just physical damage but it's also cultural damage. We have to be aware of that aspect of it. Hopefully what we do leave behind, is positive aspects of culture... of art... of learning... of the great adventure of science and engineering, and the things that redress the bad stuff. Last week I spent the day at the Chernobyl nuclear facility as a guest of the authorities. We went to visit the inside of the reactor buildings and saw the ongoing enormous cleanup operation, that continues today after 31 years. It will go on for probably another 50 if the money holds up... to right the wrongs of 2 hours of madness that occurred back in 1986. When you look at the mess and the radiation levels - I was carrying around a Geiger counter with me where ever I went - you could be tempted at looking at this as a bad thing. You have to balance that out with what happened afterwards... in terms of human resource, and the coming together of different nations. The enormous benevolence of many donor nations, who put hundreds of millions of dollars into the fund of trying to clean up the mess. America leads the way, ahead of Germany, Russia and Britten. Many other countries donated to their means. You have to look at it in a positive sense. That's how I try to keep my sense of perspective on the broader issues. It's not going to wash away all the pain and bad stuff, that I feel compelled to notice. Occasionally in my work, I recognize that for subjects of songs in music. When all else fails I go out and talk to the chickens. They can tell me what they think.
I.A. - We have 4 permanent cats. Occasionally another 2 that belong to my daughter and granddaughter. 2 dogs, chickens and sometimes the fields are full of sheep. I'm a person who probably finds it easier to establish relationships with animals than I do with people. That's probably been the case since I was a little boy. I remember the joy of having pet cats as a child. More than anything else, I'm a cat guy.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for spending this time with me. I appreciate it. Keep up the good work with your songwriting. The world wants to hear more. I've sampled your string quartet CD a half a dozen times and I'm going to throw it on again.
I.A. - You're a brave man. Thank you very much indeed. Nice to talk to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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Special thanks to Anne Leighton
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