On August 4, 2017, National Rock Review had the pleasure of speaking with flutist extraordinaire and lead vocalist Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Formed in 1968, British rock group Jethro Tull has released 30 albums, selling more than 60 million copies worldwide. The band has performed more than 3,000 concerts in 40 countries and is now preparing for an upcoming tour in the USA and Canada. Recently, National Rock Review sat down with Ian Anderson to discuss the new album The String Quartets, a collection of 12 reimagined Tull classics, Brexit, and what’s in the pipeline for Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson.
NRR: Good day, Mr. Anderson and welcome to National Rock Review. I’m 52 years old, so I grew up listening to Aqualung and Bungle in the Jungle as my first exposures to Jethro Tull. Can you explain the very unique and ahead of it’s time use of the “telephone burbles effect” on the vocals of Aqualung?
Anderson: Yes, it’s a very old vocals trick. The Beatles used it on Sgt. Peppers and it gives the vocal that megaphone type sound. Basically, you remove the frequencies above three kilohertz and below about 500 hertz, so you end up with a very narrow bandwidth. In the music trade, it’s commonly referred to telephone vocals as it sounds very much like the conversation we are having right now. I’ve used it quite a few times on tracks over the years, but it is just more obvious on the Aqualung song.
NRR: When you beat out Metallica to win the 1989 Grammy for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance”, do you feel that the band gained more acceptance from the metal genre after this?
Anderson: I feel Jethro Tull’s music appeals to people across the board. In fact, one of my musical guests on this year’s Christmas Cathedral Show is scheduled to be Joe Elliott, lead singer of Def Leppard, if he can make it. Also, performing with me a few years ago was Bruce Dickerson of Iron Maiden. These are just a couple of examples of people whose music would be considered hard rock or heavy metal. Artist of Soft Soul, grew up listening to Jethro Tull and wanting to be in a progressive rock band, but unfortunately, he just about missed the boat as progressive rock was dying and pop was taking over. Eddie Vedder, I’m told, is a huge Jethro Tull fan, who in 1989, when Pearl Jam were becoming a major band, said that he grew up listening to Jethro Tull and we played a big part in the various influences that he had. I often think that we appeal across the board. We do have songs that are hard rock or heavy metal, but I also have ones that are classical, jazz, blues or even modern folk/acoustic music influenced. I am much more of a broad brush when it comes to music. I don’t have a narrow band of musical genre that I work into the exclusion of everything else.
NRR: Recently, Brits voted to opt out of the European Union, how do you feel this will affect British bands financially on their future European tours
Anderson: Well, we have absolutely no idea, because it could be that Europe decides to punish us. They might start asking for visas like they do when we perform in the USA, New Zealand, Australia. Recently, I’ve been working on visas for Brazil and Argentina. Many countries do impose upon foreign musicians for me to have special work visas for entertainment purposes. That can take many, many days filling out forms and visiting embassies, and it’s a little tiresome. We used to have free travel within the EU, then we’d have to go through passport control because we’re not a so-called Schengen Agreement member of the EU. But you have to remember, right at this moment, we are still members of the EU. And every time I go through boarder control in Germany or Italy or Spain, or wherever I might be landing, and I look at the customs, the immigration officer through the glass window, and he looks at me, and I’m waiting one day for someone to say to me “Leaving the EU are you?” To which I would reply, “as far as I know we are still members so please let me in.” Right at the moment, nothing has changed and I don’t think anything will in the next 2-4 years. A lot of people actually think we won’t leave the EU as you know we are a democracy BUT you don’t always get what you vote for in a democracy. The USA got Donald Trump and we got to leave the EU, even though half the voting public wanted Hillary Clinton or to remain in the EU. We are a divided country, so that’s what you get in a divided country. You have to be grown up and accept what you get. You lost and someone else won. You have to be a big man about it, you have to accept that democracy sometimes brings surprising results that you don’t anticipate and you have to put up with it. Maybe in the next few months or year, we may decide that collectively we don’t want to leave the EU and that maybe in the next 100 days the USA will decide they don’t want Donald Trump and it’s better to impeach him (laughing). Those options do exist as painful as they maybe and as embarrassing as they are. I know half of us are painfully embarrassed with our European cousins that the other half of us voted to leave the EU. Just as there are USA citizens who aren’t embarrassed about the global effects of Donald Trump, I think that most Americans would agree that it’s not going down very well. He doesn’t seem to have the skills or diplomacy to actually work in an acceptable political way with other political leaders. It’s making America look a little bit silly and I’m sorry for all of them as that is the way it appears. He is lampooned in the media throughout the world just as much as he is on Saturday Night Live.
NRR: Let’s talk about your newest release The String Quartets. What inspired you to redo classic Tull tunes into an, as you like to say, a “reimagined” theme?
Anderson: I wasn’t inspired to redo them, it was more an itch and was amongst a group of things I wanted to do before I’m too old to do any of them. I’ve worked with string quartets going back 49 years ago and something that over the years I’ve done many times. I’ve also worked with symphony orchestras and choirs, but that was rock band plus. Here, I wanted to do something that was a lot more pared down, something that was much more essential, more of the classical format of string quartet where I become the 5th member of the quartet. No drummers, no bass, no electric guitars, none of the traditional rock band stuff. Basically, it was another one of those boxes I wanted to tick while I still held a pen in my hand.
NRR: How did the arrangements come together?
Anderson: Some of the songs were much easier to do than the others because they had already been recorded with an orchestral component in the past. John O’Hara, our keyboard player, and a classically trained musician, worked on the arrangements and came up with some departures from the original structure and original way of presenting the essence of the music. Melody, harmony, and rhythm are the three components of music and I think in that context you will find that a good tune will survive even quite radical reworking in a different genre because melody, harmony, and rhythm are indestructible. It’s kind of like atom particles, you can’t actually destroy them, so you can’t really murder a good tune. You can probably impair it or make it walk with a limp, but on a good day you can take your good tune and (using another metaphor) take it down the street wearing a nice dress and people will say I think I recognize you, you look kind of familiar. I didn’t recognize you in a short cotton dress as usually you are wearing a motorcycle jacket and jeans. So these things can be done. However, it is not true about the rumors flying around that I’m off to Nashville to record Jethro Tull’s Greatest Country Hits (laughing), that is not happening.
NRR: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith did it ….
Anderson: To put it in the all too familiar words of America’s glorious leader….FAKE NEWS !!
NRR: Are there any points in the tracks, where you felt compelled to step back with the flute and allow the strings to go front and center?
Anderson: In the String Quartet album, there are many places where they play entirely on their own and I’m not involved at all. I didn’t, I should do the most obvious thing and use my flute to play all of the melodies and top lines. In fact, a lot of the time, I let the first violin take the melody line and I would play something that was maybe a rhythmically counterpoint or perhaps another harmony that gave the flute a less obvious role, but there are other places where I did play the melody or vocal line. This was a chance to mix it up as it wasn’t a factory production, so we didn’t have to do them all the same way. In fact, I believe it was a great idea not to do them all the same way.
NRR: The current tour is Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson. What most people don’t realize is that this actually refers to a group of songs outlining the history of the actual English agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull and NOT the band. Can you elaborate on your inspiration behind this venture?
Anderson: The Jethro Tull Rock Opera is a set of Jethro Tull songs used to tell an imaginary story about agricultural inventor not set in the 18th century, but set in the present day or near future. I was reimagining the historical Jethro Tull as a bio-chemist working in essentially the modern industry of developing new ways and technologies to grow and feed an ever hungry planet. I think it was a very timely and quite appropriate way of looking at the dilemmas that face us all in factory food production. Are we going to say we will eat that stuff or we are only going to say NO, we only want to eat organic food? We want to go back to eating as before, we don’t want this genetically modified nonsense or highly intensive hybridization of different species and animals, refined breeds. We want it the simple old-fashioned way. The answer being, of course, go right ahead, BUT you are going to have to eliminate 4 billion from planet Earth in order to allow or limit resources to do it the old-fashioned way. So, unless those 4 billion people, volunteer for euthanasia then I’m afraid that factory farming and modern technology are going to ever more required to feed your grandchildren and your great grandchildren. It’s a simple choice we all have to make, we either go hungry or we will have to learn how to accept modern technology with the caveat that we have to bring to bare a lot more responsibility and ethical approach towards food production. Unfortunately, in many countries, this isn’t legally enforced. In today’s paper, I just read about chickens from Holland being contaminated with pesticides which are illegally used to rid them of mites. The contaminants got into their egg production, so millions and millions of eggs had to be destroyed. Something that shouldn’t have been done in the first place, but someone thought they could cut corners and get away with something that won’t be noticed. There is such a thing as the precautionary principal, if you can’t prove that there isn’t a negative effect of your actions then don’t do it.
NRR: If you could travel back in time to experience and write about any other moment in history, what point would you pick and why?
Anderson: Well, I think some people would think it would be nice to eat dinner with Adolph Hitler to see if he was as bad a guy as he is made out to be. Some people might want to travel back to some glorious deed like being the first man on the moon, but if there is one thing I could do. Even though I don’t speak historical Greek, I would have liked to have known Jesus Christ. To be an observer, to see what he was like, a chance to know historically how Christ existed. Christ was a Jewish prophet and I would like to see what he did, how he went about his business and follow in his footsteps for a day and see what kind of a person he was.
NRR: Your current setlist features a few numbers from Johann Sebastian Bach, would this be another time period that would interest you?
Anderson: No, not really. Bach, Beethoven and all the greats classists have very much left their legacy alive for all of us to enjoy and, in a way, I think the truth of those people was in their personality. Thank God, Bach, Beethoven, and in particular Mozart didn’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts or otherwise we probably would have learned that they weren’t necessarily nice people. We know comparably very little about them and therefore we can try to reveal them through their music rather than their meanderings, pleadings, and complaining on social media.
NRR: Would you go back in time and reconsider your decision to skip Woodstock?
Anderson: I was so glad I didn’t do that. Nothing against Woodstock, we were just a rookie band and it was way too early for us to perform in front of such a huge audience. The problem is they might have loved us, they might have thought it was great, but in either case, we would have been tarnished with the idea of being the hippy breakthrough band. This happened to our stable mates, Ten Years After. We had the same record and management companies. They went to Woodstock and forever more they were “the Woodstock band”. I remember seeing their bass player Leo Lyons at a festival a few years ago and I wondered what he was going to be playing that night as I noticed his set list taped to his bass. I leaned over and asked him about it and he said, ”that setlist has been on my bass since Woodstock (laughing).”
NRR: With almost five decades of gigs under your belt, you are known as one of the cleanest musicians to ever tour. What is your take on the recent self-inflicted deaths of some of music’s biggest names?
Anderson: I went to art school before I became a musician and the guy that sat next to me in life drawing class had needle marks all down his arms because he was a heroin addict. It’s been quite obvious to me since an early age that drugs were a potentially extremely damaging form of self-indulgence and it didn’t seem to me to be a good thing to do that. Then, probably by the time I was in my first year or two as a musician, people I knew and had performed with started dying. Some of those were my heroes and some of those that didn’t die, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Jackie is no longer with us more from alcoholism than his drug taking, but certainly the last 20 years of his life he was a very unwell man, which is rather sad. Many of the people I’ve known and worked with, Jimi Hendrix being a very obvious one whose life became increasingly in the grip of mechanicals that he took and also to the beetle that feed them to him. He fell prey not only to the drugs but his need to be in a mix of people who frankly were bad company. I think this is very often the case with musicians, who are crippled enough to not enjoy their own company and feel desperate where they have to have people around them all the time. They can’t stand to be alone, they can’t stand to be reflective and stable. They need people around them and they need the constant party atmosphere. I don’t have a moral perspective on people who take drugs, it’s up to them what they do. My advice is that if you can manage without them, it’s probably a safer bet.
NRR: What music do you want played at your funeral as your musical eulogy?
Anderson: Hmmm….it would probably be “A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong because I am an optimist and I am extremely grateful for my opportunity to be working, traveling, meeting people in different countries and experiencing different cultures around the world. In the end of it all, it seems like a wonderful world. I hope my great great grandchildren can enjoy it as much as I have.
NRR: Looking ahead, are you still on track to release a new studio album and live DVD in 2018?
Anderson: Well, that work is a work in progress and the problem is I am on tour a lot. For today, as an example, I am sitting in the office all day. As much as I would like to clear the decks and carry on with working on one of the new songs, it most likely won’t happen until next week or even when I get back from the USA. I occasionally have the better part of 2 weeks where I can work on the recording projects, but the fact is I am often on tour and can’t do them as one continuous block of work.
NRR: Are there going to be any new surprises we can look forward to on the new album?
Anderson: Well, one surprise is that as a 70-year-old, I’m still alive and kicking. There won’t be a new studio album until at least next April. In fact, I have just spent the last 24 hours looking at the various releases for next year, as we have a whole lot of things in the pipeline like re-releases, box sets, and live material. In the next few days, I will be listing to hundreds of hours of live tapes from various years going all the way back to the 70s. These all come from a huge collection I own and we are toying with the idea of putting out an album of basically VERY live sounding music. It will be like owning your own bootleg. There is a lot of terrible live recordings out there on places like YouTube and elsewhere, but I think the ones I have are technically much better. We have recorded shows off the front of the house mixer on tape, cassette and digital recorder going back through the years, so there is lots to go through.
NRR: On behalf of National Rock Review, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with us this morning and we all look forward to seeing you live on August 20th at Caesar’s Casino Windsor along with the other various stops along the tour!!
Anderson: Well the fans can expect about 90 minutes of rock music without a string quartet to be heard.
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