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A Conversation with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull’s formation, even if the band didn’t acquire their final name until early 1968. Although Ian Anderson has already finished writing the group’s 22nd LP, he has decided not to release it until 2019, so he can focus on celebrating Jethro Tull’s history with a special anniversary tour next year. We asked him to reflect on the past five decades, and to share some details about the content of the 2018 shows and the sound of the new record, among many other things.

When Jethro Tull first got together at the end of 1967, would you have thought that you’d still be doing the same thing 50 years later?

The band did indeed get together in December 1967, but it wasn’t until 2nd February 1968, I believe, that we became Jethro Tull, and that was the key point. We were playing at the Marquee Club in London, for our fourth attempt, I think, to curry favour with the management of the club. At that point, there was no reason to believe that any success that we might have would be anything more than short-lived, because that’s the story of pop and rock music – you know, they come and they go. There were lots of one-hit wonders.

We were just grateful to have something to get out of bed for and hopefully make enough money just to survive, which we did for a few months until we began to build up a following. Then we released our first album, which did quite well, and it put us on the map. Maybe after a year or two, I began to think, “if I don’t do anything too stupid, maybe I could have a career in music” – not necessarily as a performing musician; maybe as a record producer or a manager or working for a record company, or just something connected with the music world.

And after four or five years, I began to think, “maybe I can go on performing”. Also, many of my musical heroes from when I was a teenager, people from the world of jazz and blues, were still playing music. They were playing until they died. Some of them, of course, weren’t very old when they died, because a lot of them were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and quite often didn’t make it to a glorious old age. But the prospects definitely seemed a little brighter after four or five years. And at this point in my life, I have to think that I will probably die with my boots on, like any good cowboy hero in a 1950s western. It’s the good fortune of people in the world of arts and entertainment that they’re able to continue as long as they feel fit and able, not having to retire at the age of 65 and learn to play golf – god help us!

How do you feel about ‘This Was’ all these years later? Is it special to you?

What’s special to me about it is the infinite wisdom of a 23-year-old! The choice of the name, I think, was a really important decision that I took. I suppose, by the time we got to preparing the artwork for the album, I’d already started to toy with some new songs, which, I hoped, would be the material that we’d play and record for our second album. And it was very different to the imitative blues format that we began with – that was a slightly cynical thing to do, because blues was essentially the underground music form of the clubs and the pubs, and it was a way into music, but it wasn’t something that I very much enjoyed listening to as a music fan. It wasn’t what I thought I was equipped or indeed entitled to do, because I’m not black and I’m not American. So I felt I should move on and do something that was a little more close to home, in the sense of my own culture and background, and so working on those songs, it seemed like it would be a departure from our first record and our first performances. That’s why I decided to call it ‘This Was Jethro Tull’, which was a very fitting way of pointing out that already this was something in the past. And that also led me to the idea of the band all dressing up as old men on the back of the album cover.

The front of the album cover had no title on it, which the record company was extremely upset about. They said, “you’ve got to have the name of the band and the album title on the front cover”, and I said: “Why?” And they couldn’t really give me a good reason, so I compromised, and we put it on the back cover. I thought that the fact that there is nothing on the front cover would get people talking, and, of course, it did. And the band being made up to look like a bunch of wizened old men was part of the package, so I think it worked our fairly well, in the sense of marketing and promotion – such as it was in those days.

The cover of ‘This Was’ (1968)

You’re doing a handful of Christmas shows this month. Since you wrote quite a lot of anti-organized-religion songs in the past, I was wondering why you chose cathedrals as venues?

Those songs are not anti-religion, but “anti-the-way-it-is-taught-and-conveyed”. People in my generation grew up with the legacy of an old-fashioned school system, where we were taught religion in a very closed-door context. It was not appropriate to question the religious instruction master, who was the headmaster of our grammar school, and to question the word of god, as it was written in the Bible. I felt that religion wasn’t being passed on to us in a way that was constructive and relevant to our lives in the future as young men growing up in a world that was ever-changing, and changing faster than anybody’d ever seen it before – there was a real cultural revolution happening.

So you’re not against the idea of religion and god?

I’ve never been against the idea of religion or god. It is a state of humankind that we yearn for some kind of a spiritual connection and we want to have answers, even though many of us in our hearts know that our questions are unanswerable; that’s not the point. But it’s part of who and what we are as creatures: we feel there must be more than a finite existence. And religion serves a purpose, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism or Islam. And wherever the monotheistic religions are practiced, I believe that we are, in our different ways, addressing the same god, the same idea of god. This doesn’t sit too well with the head-hunters of the different religions, because they all think that everybody else’s god is a false god and it can’t be the same – but, goodness me, of course it is! Even the Hindu religion, with its pantheon of gods to suit every mood and every day of the year, still comes down to being the manifestation of a single deity, a single creator. And you choose the one or the ones you want to follow.

Religion is also responsible for a huge number of dreadful things in the world, that people do in the name of religion. Right now, of course, Islam is the bogeyman, because it’s all too easy to confuse the idea of Islam as a faith with Islamic extremism. But, of course, Islam is a very pure and beautiful expression of a religious conviction – it just happens to be a very convenient excuse for those who want to go out and create madness and mayhem. Frankly, those people that we talk about as being terrorists and extremists are essentially spoiling for a fight, in the same way as they would on the terraces of the football ground in the 60s or the 70s. They just want a punch-up, and religion gives them an excuse, but that doesn’t make me want to condemn any individual religions or religion collectively.

I don’t call myself a Christian, but I’m a huge supporter of the Christian church, because it’s my cultural background. I believe in supporting Christianity, particularly the great and beautiful buildings that have been designed and maintained over the years. They are a hugely important part of our world, particularly in the UK, where we have so many beautiful cathedrals, sometimes in quite small cities. They’re community assets, and many of them are struggling to survive, particularly Bradford and Peterborough, which I’m playing this year. I do my little bit to support those buildings and help pay for the heating bills and the staff’s wages for another couple of days, which is about all my concerts are able to generate. We do what we can. And I invite the audience to join in and think again about the value of these community assets, whether they’re Christians, or whatever their persuasion or lack of.

You also have the Jethro Tull 50th anniversary tour coming up next year. What is the set list going to look like?

The tour next year will be 10 months of gritting my teeth and going with the flow, and trying desperately hard not to be a party popper, because celebrating things gone by is just not me. I don’t do birthdays and anniversaries – I just feel really awkward about it. But, you know, on the other hand, a little noise inside me a few months ago began to say: “Listen, it’s only going to happen once, so go with the flow and try and enjoy it. Use it as an opportunity to perhaps consider the origins of the band, and to celebrate not only the music of Jethro Tull, but also the 33 musicians that have been part of the band over the years.” It’s been an ever-changing line-up, and they have all given months or years of devoted attention to performing the music, even when they weren’t in the band when that music was performed for the first time.

So it’s about celebrating something, and I can just focus on 10 months of touring, when we will do the expected thing. And the expected thing is to wallow in undiluted nostalgia for two hours on stage! There is a set list, but it may change. It will very likely focus mostly on the first 10 years of Jethro Tull, when the band became internationally successful. By the time we’d been going for 10 years, we’d had the impact on all of the countries that we’ll be playing. All of those countries had found Jethro Tull somewhere along the way, not necessarily at the beginning, but perhaps in the late 70s – countries as diverse as Russia, India, and, to some extent, Japan, and places around the world that perhaps we never thought we might reach, but, of course, we did, and we played at all those places. And some of them we will be playing again in 2018.

Is there a chance that we can hear some new material at the shows?

There is new material, but you won’t be hearing it until 2019. These nostalgic shows would be the wrong place and wrong time to introduce the new album; that would be a diversion from what it is we’re really doing, so I’ve decided to postpone it. We’re halfway through recording it at the moment. In January or February 2018, I’ll probably make a big dent in the remaining work that has to be done, but we’re talking 2019 for a new studio album.

In a way, it’s pretty frustrating, because I already completed writing it in January or February this year, and we did the recordings mainly in March. It’s like having to forget you’ve done something, because to keep engaging with it would make it seem really old hat by the time we released it. So I’m just having to push it to a far part of my brain until I’m ready to do something more creative with it, and then, hopefully we will get it into the marketplace in 2019, probably around March.

Jethro Tull’s current line-up: Scott Hammond, John O’Hara, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle and David Goodier (© Silvia Finke)

Musically, is the new album going to be more similar to your recent solo work, or are you trying to recreate the classic Jethro Tull sound?

There are many ways of considering Jethro Tull through the years, having begun essentially as an imitative blues band and gone through eclectic musical eras that sometimes went off into more folky or progressive rock or sometimes hard rock directions. So it’s very difficult to say what is the classic Jethro Tull sound, as there’s probably four or five of them, to say the very least.

My approach when writing music is trying not to get too bogged down with trying to write in a particular way. It’s much better to have a sense of freedom and make the music that feels right to you at the time. If you have to put a label on it later on, then it’s probably best to let somebody else do it. I don’t consciously think too much about it, other than trying to create a balance of dynamics, tempos, keys and time signatures to make it interesting musically. That’s what I’ve done since the very beginning and that’s what I do today. The album is a mixture of heavy rock music, some rather spacey kind of acoustic music and electronica, so it’s not like having 12 tracks that all sound very similar to each other. I find it very boring when it’s the same instrumentation, the same musical idea being trotted out for 60 minutes of meat and potatoes.

You’re asked about music all the time, but you’ve also written some of the most distinctive lyrics in rock. Are there any writers, poets or other songwriters that have influenced you?

Well, the answer to that is pretty much no. Once I became a professional musician, I began to listen to less and less music. Particularly in terms of lyrics, I just don’t want to be influenced by other people in the same profession. By the early 70s, I was consciously trying to avoid music in my life. My average day consists of probably a couple of hours of music, because I’m always going to be playing music just for fun or rehearsing something or working on some new ideas. I think two or three hours of music a day is probably enough, otherwise it becomes an overkill. You really just have to have fresh ears, and silence is so important in my world. It can be silence in my office or just the space between the musical notes, which I try and remind myself I must remember to preserve, rather than a cacophony of machine gun scattering of music, which the overly enthusiastic, vigorous songwriter can sometimes be guilty of – and I’m certainly no exception.

I think I’m mostly an observational writer, and I think it comes from having studied painting and drawing when I was younger. I’m used to the idea of line and form, and tone and colour in the pictorial arts, and as a writer of music it’s very easy to take those same words, which are also describing elements of music, and use them in a painterly way as a musician.

I tend to write songs about people in a landscape. I’m not a portrait painter; I don’t like close-ups of the face, and I’m not a landscape painter, because however beautiful the mountains and the rivers might be, if there aren’t any people in them, it all seems a little empty. I like to have context for the characters that may be written about, and sometimes I sing in the first person, but it’s not necessarily autobiographical, nor is it me displaying the personal angst or emotion that I’m asking to people to share or identify with. I’m playing a character; I’m like an actor on a stage and I’m performing the role through music, whether it’s recorded or live. So just because I say something in the first person, doesn’t mean it expresses my personal character attributes, failings or philosophies. Although most pop and rock lyrics are about the bleating of rather sad souls who haven’t got much to write about anyway, so it’s not too difficult to avoid repeating what they do.

Sometimes you just have to stop and look around you, and you can find inspiration for music and song lyrics in places where you didn’t think you would. It’s just a matter of stopping and being an observer in a world where you have to try and think outside the box sometimes. Einstein came up with some radical ideas as the observer of the universe, because he was able to think outside the box and stop and consider something that other people had just overlooked. I think that’s the job of an artist, too; to sit and find other ways to look at something that others just glance at and walk on. Sometimes you have to stop and take a closer look at something to find something else in it.

I am probably influenced as a lyric writer by people, but not from the world of pop and rock music. I’m more likely to take inspiration from factual material, because I do tend to read quite a lot of stuff that is a bit more philosophical, about the state of man and the world we live in. I also read some fiction; my hat goes most readily to John le Carré, who over the years has turned out an enormous amount of material and is a thinking man’s thriller writer. He does tend to come at things with an idea. He has a bee in his bonnet and he goes out there to work it out through characters, which he devises almost like a script writer writing a movie. Dialogue is a great strong point of le Carré’s work, and so is the pace. His books tend to start slowly; you’ve got to struggle with the first 30-50 pages, and then it begins to pick up a little bit. It almost always satisfies, in the sense of having that dramatic, dynamic kind of a range, which, I think, is very important when you’re writing fiction or music. There has to be a climax when you’re writing fiction, which is similar to a musical climax. So his work is an example that I try and follow, in terms of the vocabulary, characterisations and the development of ideas. But, of course, it’s a very different world to writing lyrics – I doubt that I can write fiction, and I doubt that le Carré is a rock music lyric writer in his spare time. He probably has little interest in that world; they’re like parallel universes, but they do touch edges sometimes.


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