When Jethro Tull first came into the music scene in 1968, they were the quintessential breath of fresh air. It was the year that Led Zeppelin, Rush, Blind Faith, Deep Purple, Nazareth and Yes all made their debuts. The Velvet Underground released “White Light/White Heat,” Jimi Hendrix put out “Electric Ladyland” and The Who released “Magic Bus.” Heavy hitting hits songs like “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin' Jack Flash” and “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly blared out of transistor radios. This was the early days of Hiwatt, Marshall and Sound City amplifiers, and every band had to be louder than the next. But Jethro Tull’s first album, “This Was,” was anything but typical of its time. A jazzy blues record with one of the most un-rock instruments, the flute, up front and center. Their next release, “Stand Up” was more of what Jethro Tull was later known for, Celtic folk with a touch of classical music and a glob of searing electric guitar by Martin Barre, who still plays with Tull to this day.
Jethro Tull advanced into the 1970s as a progressive rock band with the albums “Aqualung,” “Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play” before slipping back into folk rock with “Songs from the Wood” (1977), “Heavy Horses” (1978) and “Stormwatch” (1979). Seemingly jumping like a black widow spider on a hot plate, Jethro Tull flipped into electronic music in the ‘80s and hard rock in the ‘90s. These days, Ian Anderson – lead singer, flutist, acoustic guitarist, songwriter and only consistent member of the band – has the luxury of playing the music that he wants to play, and while Jethro Tull is available to tour, Anderson is currently touring with a 20-piece chamber music presentation of the music of Jethro Tull, performing at Madison’s Capital Theater on October 14th, the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on October 15th and at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre on October 16th.
Maximum Ink sat down with a very talkative and charming Ian Anderson for this exclusive interview...
Maximum Ink: What are you doing right now?
Ian Anderson: I’ve been doing a mixture of concerts, some which are Jethro Tull shows, with guys who have been Jethro Tull band members. Not that Jethro Tull really is a rock band, compared to many other rock bands, but we play a wide variety of music, it is very eclectic, it covers a lot of different stuff, but nonetheless, for the most part Jethro Tull is thought of being a rock band with a flute player, who strums the acoustic guitar. I’ve been increasingly in the last four years I’ve been doing solo concerts and orchestral concerts which I use some different musicians whose backgrounds are in classical music, folk music or jazz. People who are naturally acoustic musicians rather than electric rock players. When I do shows with an orchestra it is important to be working with musicians who know how to play very quietly and sympathetically and not to play too much and to be able to read music and be able to follow arrangements and be able to improvise too. It is a certain kind of musician that I work with when I’m doing orchestral shows and this year, I guess there are more orchestral shows than Jethro Tull shows. It varies a bit according to my whim and fancy and what offers come in from various promoters from around the world.
MI: Are the Madison and Milwaukee are going to a symphony show?
IA: that is where the chamber orchestra musicians that I picked up in Boston. They are students at the New England Conservatory, for the most part. They are in their early twenties and for some of them it is probably their first taste of going out and playing concerts and traveling on the road and being in the bus. Probably not sleeping enough and drinking too much and whatever fun and games that they get up to.
MI: How many people?
IA: Twenty people onstage all together.
MI: Are you the music director or are you the music director?
IA: The conductor of the orchestra is John O’Hara, who is a chap who plays keyboards and accordion and conducts the orchestra. He and I have worked together as of the last couple of years on orchestral arrangements and pulling it all together. He tends to take charge at rehearsals with orchestras because usually there are different orchestras in different towns. Rehearsals take about five hours and it involves going through all the music for the orchestra and going over some of it again and again because it takes them awhile to get the hang of the some of the rhythmic phrases. He and I work together on the arrangements. I think that there have been about four different arrangers that I’ve worked with over the last four years to come up with this stuff and John O’Hara is the current guy who plays keyboards and does his stint conducting the orchestra too. We are all multitaskers. I play mostly just flute and acoustic guitar. We have so many instruments in the orchestra and with the band guys that we have a wide variety of colors to employ in the arrangements.
MI: What is your favorite instrument that you don’t really play a lot but you wish that you could play more and better? Because you play a lot of different instruments.
IA: Yes, but I don’t really play any of them very well. I think that the one that I always wish that I could play better would be the flute, because that’s my main instrument I guess that I’m known for playing. As a songwriter, I suppose that I’ve written more songs on the guitar. But sometimes I write songs using keyboards and I suppose that if I could pick one instrument that I could be better able to utilize it probably would be the piano. I don’t think that is something that I can take seriously enough or work hard enough at to be able to play. It is just an occasional songwriting tool.
MI: When you started Jethro Tull, way back when bands were louder. It was louder the better and very blues oriented. There is a lot of blues influence in Jethro Tull, but you guys were really, really different when Jethro Tull came out. Did you think, ‘man I can’t afford an amplifier’ or did you go like, ‘man everyone is sounding the same.’ How did that come around?
IA: It came out of the blues boom in the UK in 1967, 68. There was a plether of young blues musicians, many of whom were king of middle-class white boys who followed in the footsteps of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and other people. That became sort of an underground music form in the UK. It wasn’t really replicated at that time in the U.S., hardly at all. But in the UK there was very strong growth of young would be blues musicians, who many of whom went to art school and had an interest in the simple improvisation of blues. My interest was really more in acoustic blues because the style that I listened to as a teenager tended more to be the acoustic players not so much the electric ones. I wasn’t into the more poppy electric players like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley so much as I was into the more acoustic stuff. Sonny Boy Williamson, some of Muddy Water’s more acoustic things. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee were probably my favorites at the time. The kind of music that appealed to me had a simplicity and earthyness about it and had its origins very much in 1930’s blues. People like Robert Johnson, you know, pre-war when blues were first being discovered and the very first records were being made. That was quite a historical perspective on where black people in America had just begun to make their mark in terms of a cultural statement and it came from a generation who’s parents were probably slaves. They were very poor people. They were cotton pickers. They were the destitute. They were only a couple of generations removed from black Africans, who were stolen away from their home in the Congo or wherever else. It was a very formative time for American music and one of the great things about American music that grew out of the era was black American blues and jazz. It is more that just a quant music form. It is something that has shaped the history from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles and everything beyond. We owe everything to those people who were plucked from Africa and set to work in the platations. It has been a profound musical and cultural influence, not only on America and the UK, but when you think about what affect that it had on the U.S.S.R. back in the 70’s, when Western pop and rock music was beginning to shape the inevitable social change that took place under the Gorbachev with perestroika and Glasnost. You can trace it right back to something that something that came out of Africa and had its origins in the most fearful and awful oppression of a race, of a creed, of a color of people with all the prejudices associated with it. That is what brought about the release of the world from that incredibly oppressive and frightening era which you and I remember, but many people of later years just think, ‘oh yeah something happen with the Russians back then when Kennedy was around, we don’t really know what it was and what it felt like.’ It sort of like putting a man on the moon. It is sort of a ‘oh yeah, but it doesn’t have any relevance today.’ When Ronnie Reagan said his immortal words, ‘Mr. Gorbachev tear down these walls.’ It was something profound and simple statement, but Gorbachev didn’t’ tear down the walls, he almost accidently facilitated the break up of the U.S.S.R. and along side that sanctioned the acceptance of what had been an underground phenominom in the U.S.S.R., which was the appreciation of the icons of western music and it wasn’t just the Beatles, but it was also bands like Jethro Tull and hard rock bands. It is part of what change the world and I know this because Mr. Gorbachev has told me that himself. He said, ‘that we were all revolutionaries. The people making the music and those of us that were politicians, were the guys in charge when things changed and we had to manage it.’ In his case he got thrown out and in a way I supposed that he never really recovered from that. He is still reviled in most of Russia as the guy who took it all apart and threw it to the dogs. It is maybe changing a little bit now. We’ve seen music, black music in particular be a direct link to all of these world events. When I, as a balding middle-aged flute player look at what black music is today, I’m actually quite appalled and disappointed in the fact that, for me black music has lost all of what it did have. It has become just another commericalize packaged form of quite often rather plagerlistic and sometimes rather unpleasant music. I don’t find any joy in hiphop or rap or contemporary black American music. I’m afraid that I don’t enjoy it anymore. I find it so hard to understand why they lost all of the creativity that came from a form of very live improvisational, very human, very earthly stuff. It has now all become drum machines and computer programs and people wearing a lot of gold plated jewerly and kind of doing rather doing offensive movements and talking in rather offensive language. What happened to jazz and blues?
[Note to readers] At this point in the interview, I had to flip the cassette. We spoke for another half hour, until the tape ran out. Then Ian spoke with me for another half hour about his love of the Great Lakes area, small towns in Wisconsin and their cultures. When I was transcribing the tape, I was dismayed to discover that the entire second side of the cassette is unintelligeble because of unforseen technical difficulties with the brand new recorder.