After more than four decades, numerous personnel changes, and a musical trajectory integrating blues, rock, prog, folk, classical, and practically every other genre either straddling or circumventing pop's progress over the past 40 years, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson has remained the band's leader and musical mainstay.
His iconic image as the wild-eyed ruffian balancing precariously on one leg became, in the minds of many, the quintessential model of English eccentricity, a role Anderson assumed early on. "It obviously served the band very well as an identifying feature and a kind of logo," Anderson reflects. "But over the years, it became reinforced to the point where a lot of people don't know I actually have a real name. They think my name is Jethro Tull."
Speaking with New Times from his London office, Anderson took time from a busy day preparing for Tull's latest American jaunt to share his thoughts on both the band and the times in which they dwell. After the jump, an extended Q&A featuring questions we couldn't fit
in the print edition.
New Times: What can we expect from a Jethro Tull concert nowadays?
Ian Anderson: We have our flexible repertoire that we play in concert, but some of it we won't be playing in June in America because it's not appropriate for an audience that are drinking and smoking and generally looking for an upbeat experience. The music we play in different countries of the world is a little more esoteric and adventurous and not just the familiar songs Jethro Tull is expected to play. Playing outside of the mainstream of musical styles is harder for us in the U.S. in the summer when we go out as Jethro Tull. That's why I play more concerts in America as Ian Anderson, because I can play performing arts centers and I can be a little more adventurous in my musical repertoire.
So what is the divide between Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson?
The divide is very simple. Its whether or not I can get through a show without being shouted down by drunken lads. Frankly that's the reality, and its not only in the U.S., but also in other countries of the world where hooting and shouting is considered to be the norm. And frankly, that's the difference. When I do a show as Ian Anderson, the louts tend to stay home. When it's Jethro Tull, it's an outdoor show and even when it's an indoor show its going to be a much rowdier affair.
It seems that "Aqualung" and "Locomotive Breath" are the inevitable show-stoppers that everyone waits for with bated breath.
I don't have a problem playing those. They're good songs. I'm always happy to play them in concert because they're two of my best songs actually. Both of them are quite relevant in terms of the subject material. They're not about leaving my heart in San Francisco. They're not about some cultural moment in history. They're about issues rather than just love songs ... One is about homeless people and you still see them on the streets of New York and San Francisco and Washington and the other is about the relentless surge of ever more people jumping on the ride to nowhere. They're very contemporary issues in terms of population growth, immigration, all the issues that if they're not on people's lists, they're in people's lives. I tend to think nothing of immigration. I frankly don't really mind too much who my neighbors are - what color they are or what their religion is - I just mind how many of them there are.
Do you really think people hear those two tunes as message songs, or are they relating instead to the killer riffs and refrains?
I think that's always something you have to be aware of... that people listen to songs in different ways. There are those who hear the sound of the words, the emotion behind the words, rather than what they actually mean. But I don't think I'm a heavy writer at all. I'm a little leery of people who pour over the nuances and detail of lyrics, because I think it's easy to get too caught up in trying to figure out what really lies behind and inside the mind of the person who's writing the songs. That's a dangerous thing to assume.
What draws you to the music you currently enjoy?
There's a lot of foreign language music that I actually like, but I have no idea what the people are actually singing about. If I don't understand the words, I can still appreciate the emotions of the words and the melodies. I can enjoy listening to Finnish folk music or good Bollywood music, even though I have no idea what they're singing about at all. I probably listen to that more than I listen to music sung in English because frankly the words are mostly so appalling in terms of most rock and pop music. It's really repetitive and dreary and limited in terms of the vocabulary.
Did you know that Aqualung was appropriated for both PlayStation and Rock Band?
I have no idea. I don't do video games. Usually they seem fairly harmless. I'm quite circumspect about authorizing my music for violent video games of the shoot 'em up variety. I don't mind if they're vaguely musical or somewhat educational - giving these people a little bit of an opportunity to have a little bit of creative input into the musical world is okay I guess.
How did you come up with that indelible riff?
The irony is that the riff actually began with me playing it on an acoustic guitar in a hotel room in the USA back in 1970 (Sings "da da da da dah dum") and having been played on an acoustic guitar doesn't have a lot to do with the way it's been perceived. It became one of those big electric moments.
Tull's had several archival video releases lately. When you watch these, do they put you back in the moment or does it become a detached observation?
I'm often surprised as to the degree to which I really can identify with the moment. It is quite surprising, the little things that you do remember about particular concerts. You may not remember if out of the blue, but if you happen to see them on video or film or a TV recording or happen to hear a live recording from the early days, it does tend to sound frighteningly familiar. Generally speaking there's not a huge dissociation because I'm quite cognizant onstage. I don't drink or take drugs or whatever it is... except, um... once in my life I walked onstage not entirely focused shall we say, having imbibed a bottle of cheap chardonnay before I went on. But the reason I did it was because I had just heard that Frank Zappa had died and I was really quite upset about it because a few days before I had a message to call him and I didn't and I really, really felt bad about it so I drank some wine. And then I drank some more wine and then I realized 'holy shit, I shouldn't have because I don't feel very well...' But that's about the only occasion I can remember drinking. I think in the mid '70s I'd have a bottle of beer and sort of sip it either during the show or between when there was a lot of drum solos going on. Still, that was something I think I always felt a little bit nervous about, because you're aware if you do drink a bottle of beer... you could feel a certain loosening up. It might be okay if it's after dinner or in a bar somewhere, or sitting with a few friends. But if you're in a formula one race car or playing professional football or you're doing a rock concert, then you're aware that feeling good doesn't necessarily equate with playing well. So I've always tended to be sober and pretty much focused onstage and with a sense of alertness and heightened awareness of what's going on. So it's logical that I would remember all that stuff... or at least a lot of it.
Early on, when you portrayed a kind of cartoon character in the long bathrobe standing on one leg, was that an attempt to make you the personification of the band's image?
It was deliberate attempt on the part of our manager, Terry Ellis, and our record company, but at that point I wasn't all that comfortable with it because I was trying to stretch the boundaries of the band as a band. It became more and more a case of the focus being put on me as the front man and I was doing all the interviews and all the media stuff, and so it became all about me standing on one leg playing the flute. And (guitarist) Martin Barre and (drummer) Doanne Perry were considered my side men.
At what point did you know that Tull had definitively broken through and the band had attained mega-stardom? Was Aqualung the defining measure?
I think that the real watershed was after the Benefit album, because by then we had become quite well known in most countries of the world where we had played concerts on our own or as a headline act. I can remember at the end of recording Aqualung, at like seven o'clock in the morning when we finished the last mix at Island Studios on Basing Street, sitting with (then keyboardist) John Evans and saying, "That's it, we're done, and this one is either going to make us or break us in terms of fame and fortune, or else we've gotten as far as we're going to get and this one's going to be a relative failure and we'll be in a slow decline." I thought it was kind of a watershed album really, but being as it was new to the concept album concept and had some songs that were about stuff, rather than just love songs or whatever, we weren't sure how it was going to go down. And it wasn't that it was an enormous hit straight off, but it was a strong seller and has remained so for many years since. About ten years ago, it was up to about 12 million and I would guess it's sold a few since then, and I'm grateful that it's linked forever to the name Jethro Tull. Most people would say that's the thing they think of at the heart of Jethro Tull's career and repertoire, and interestingly it has quite a lot of songs that are just acoustic guitar and voice with a little decoration. It's not at all an all-out rock album by any means."
What are your audiences like these days?
That's a little difficult to tell. When we're playing a concert in Italy or whatever we'll expect to see a lot of audiences in their teens and early twenties. It seems that most of the people you see at these outdoor gigs are a lot younger. But what they see in us I don't quite know. Whether they see us as a generic classic rock band or whether they really do know specific songs and specific albums, I don't know. It may be that they've grown up with this stuff because that's what their parents listened to. Maybe they discovered the music early on in their preteen years. I think there are a lot of people who come to see Jethro Tull who might also go to see Deep Purple or any one of several classic rock bands from the early late '60s, early '70. It's an era then that clearly has quite a lot of authority and musical history.
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Jethro Tull's history dates back some 42 years. How has Tull managed to adapt to a 21st century world?
Well, obviously times have changed dramatically and Jethro Tull's music has evolved from the blues in 1968 through the more progressive rock, folk rock and whatever the hell definitions have been applied over the years. But most of that evolution took place in a very free and creative time for young musicians that were working in the UK and the USA in particular. Of course these days, classic rock music is still on the radar because all the bands who played that music in the '70s and '80s and whatever are around playing concerts today. So it's still part of people's lives and still gets played on those blue comfort blanket radio stations in the USA.
How would you compare the world the band came up in with the way things are now, at least as far as the music biz is concerned?
Of course, it's a different world now and the major difference is that the music industry tends to be much more constricted. Physical product is very repetitive and while the haircuts change, the music stays very much the same. The more cutting edge rock music doesn't have much of an outlet compared to the massive preponderance of online access to music, but so much of the music that's downloaded in the world isn't paid for. So it's a pretty bleak future when it comes to making a living at it, let alone making any substantial level of income... unless you get to the stage where you can command good fees for performing live. Bit if you aren't going to sell records, you're not going to get the gigs and vice versa. So its difficult to break through. Musicians don't get the breaks and the kind of opportunities that musicians got 30 or 40 years ago. It's a tough life for young musicians and for those of us who are growing old and still performing, we look back on our early careers with a sense of good fortune at having been there at a time when you could actually achieve these things and you could achieve them on your own terms without the pressure of whatever people considered commercial.