Life is a LONG Song

Ian Anderson remains an inscrutable presence in the music scene. The Scottish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who founded Jethro Tull in 1968 has led that band from its blues-rock roots into commercial FM classic rock hero status, while swimming into side streams both unconventional and admirably uncommercial. Over the years, jazz, classical, even traditional British music have all been utilized by Anderson as fodder for songs. If there is a recurring quality to Anderson, and by extension Tull’s music, it has been one of a kind of decisive commitment to continually pursue something else.

Flipping through Jethro Tull’s sizable discography, there is a kind of logic in the themes—loss, environmentalism, and gritty existentialism are but three. For many, Jethro Tull helps us celebrate both passion and apostasy.

The band is commonly considered to be forefathers of the ’70s progressive rock scene. Yet their de facto masterpiece of that era, 1972’s Thick as a Brick, was a Monty Python-inspired spoof of the very scene that soon held Jethro Tull aloft. Anderson is a signifier of classic rock, both in sound and image. His Albion-blues-belter voice and Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style flute riffing makes Jethro Tull’s music instantly recognizable, as does the image of Anderson in performance, standing on one leg, with bushy hair and maniacal eyes, a wisecracking, droll Highlander challenging the audience from the spotlight.

Anderson and various permutations of the band have stayed busy since the band’s heyday. In 1989, Jethro Tull won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental for their album, Crest of a Knave. Although nominated, Anderson figured the band had no chance of winning and didn’t even attend the event. The win was a much-ballyhooed upset, especially since Metallica were the hands-down favorites to snag the award. In response to the furor, Anderson commented in his own typical and droll style: “Well, we do sometimes play our mandolins very loudly.”

Most recently, Anderson and Tull keyboardist John O’Hara collaborated with the Carducci String Quartet for Jethro Tull: TheString Quartets. Anderson’s success working in classical settings goes back to Jethro Tull’s earliest roots and his latest is no exception, featuring inventive interpretations of band songs including “Locomotive Breath,” “Living in the Past,” and Sossity, You’re A Woman.

Devotees of Anderson and his band run the gamut from metal to moody songsmiths. Iron Maiden famously covered “Cross Eyed Mary” while neo-prog bands Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree have attempted to evolve Tull’s sound, if not musical philosophy. Even Nick Cave has vocally espoused his love of Tull, going as far to name his oldest son Jethro after the band.

Ian Anderson is hitting the road this fall with his current lineup, which includes O’Hara (keyboards), David Goodier (bass), Florian Opahle (guitar), and Scott Hammond (drums). This week they return to Northeast Florida with a show at Daily’s Place.

Folio Weekly interviewed Ian Anderson via telephone, as this author sat in a minivan in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel 50 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee–a quintessential and bucolic progressive rock setting.

Folio Weekly: What was the impetus behind the Jethro Tull: The String Quartets album?
Ian Anderson: Well, it was one of those projects, which I wanted to take off the list while I could. Last year while we were on tour, I had the opportunity to work with our keyboard player, John O’Hara, who is a classically trained orchestrator and percussionist. And he and I worked backstage and in dressing rooms and hotel lobbies, wherever we could really, to work on ideas for the string quartet album, for which he arranged the quartet parts. It was really just to realize some of the more classic Jethro Tull songs in a more pure, classical-sounding setting. I’m not trying to turn it into classical music, because it’s not…apart from one piece, that is. But most of it was really about trying to show myself and show the fans that a good tune, or even a halfway decent one, can undergo an interpretation, which dresses it up in a new suit of clothes. It’s still the same old body underneath and it’s still the same old elements and melody and harmony and rhythm; which essentially is what music is. But, um, giving it a different context in which to operate and I find that interesting, and a little challenging. But I think it worked pretty well. Although I’ve always been at pains to tell if our fans like their meat and potatoes, or in your country, if they like their meatloaf and gravy and mashed potatoes, the way mom used to make it, is probably a different album for them.

It seems like a logical extension of the Tull catalog, since it seems like you’ve always been comfortable working with those classical textures in the music.
Well, I first worked with a string quartet in November of 1968 when I recorded a track called, “A Christmas Song.” So it was very early on in the Jethro Tull story that I took to working with string sections and chamber orchestras and they appeared on many Jethro Tull songs throughout the ‘70s. And of course in the last 10 or 15 years I’ve done quite a few orchestral concerts around the world. So I’m not a stranger to working in that context. But I think when you strip away the drums, and the bass, and the electric guitar, and deal with a very pure and simple format—which is, two violins, viola, cello, a little flute or vocals, in our case, a little piano—you’re left with a very simple and clean setting. It’s the musical equivalent of an Apple MacBook. It has that elegance that is attractive. So this isn’t the first time I’ll do this and hopefully it won’t be the last. I don’t have any intention to take it one the road as a string quartet tour because I think that’d be stretching credibility a bit, to perform. Audiences will always imagine that, halfway through, there’s going to be a drum solo. (Laughs)

Some of the musicians in the current Jethro Tull lineup are fairly young players; before signing on, how familiar were they with the earlier music?
There were certainly a couple of members of the band who weren’t around or born when the Jethro Tull story was happening. But you know these are musicians who’ve grown up playing different kinds of music and they have absorbed the Jethro Tull repertoire; not obviously all 300 songs. But this band now can easily play 100 to 150 of the Tull songs onstage. But these are guys who’ve immersed themselves not just in the music of it, but also tried to get inside the heads of the musicians who, in some cases, played that music decades ago. I think it’s true to say, whilst the guys in the band today can play all of the repertoire from ’68 through to the present day, you couldn’t say the reverse: some of the guys who were in the band back then wouldn’t really have perhaps the technical skills or musical styles available to them to play all of that repertoire. They were very important members of the band during the time they were in the group, but things move on. And of course, in many cases, those musicians are no longer playing music. They are old guys who’ve given up, or in some cases, sadly they are no longer with us. It’s not feasible, for instance, next year will be the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull…

That’s right! Congratulations. That’s really quite a milestone.
Thank you. And we won’t be wheeling out coffins on the stage or have onstage paramedics for that tour.

You could have the Mayo Clinic sponsor the tour.
Yes, I suppose you could just try and stick to touring in major cities with venues that are close to hospitals. But joking aside, and it’s not really that funny I suppose to joke about those who are feeble these days or no longer with us, but the reality is, it’s been a long time. I’m 70 years old and have been lucky enough to enjoy good health and am still able to do what I do. But it’s not everybody who can manage that. As I’m sure you’re aware, in these last few months there have been quite a few stalwarts of the ‘60s and ’70s who’ve passed away and I’m sure you can expect to see an increase during the next years. All of those founding members of the great days of classic rock music, if they’re not already gone, they will be dropping like flies in the next few years. And sooner or later, me too.

Well, you probably have 50 more years in you…the Centennial Tour.
Well, people come up with these encouraging remarks (laughs), but I just kind of groan and say, “Who are you kidding?”

You mentioned how your current band knows your repertoire, and I guess there is an assumption that you have to play certain well-loved tunes for the fans. But, that being said, what are the songs that you personally prefer to focus on in concert?
Well, my tastes in the music of Jethro Tull over the years are not that different from the audience. The ones they seem to focus on, some of the mainstream heavy hitters of the Jethro Tull repertoire; well, I tend to agree with them. In all honesty, there are only one or two songs I think that are popular, particularly in America, which I don’t like to do. Two songs that I don’t like to do are “Teacher” and “Bungle in the Jungle.” And it’s only because they were deliberately written in a commercial, more pop kind of style that I feel a little self conscious about. But that’s probably it. In fact, those songs aren’t particularly popular in other countries of the world. It’s just that in America, I suppose, they were considered to be a couple of important tracks. Happily, there are other ones that are more important to American audiences and to me, too. So if there’s something I really don’t want to do, I won’t do it. If it’s in the setlist, it must be something I have a deep love for, as you do for your children, your grandchildren, your cats, your dogs…you know, there’s some very profound emotional attachment. And I wouldn’t play anything onstage that I was even remotely uncomfortable with or ashamed of. There are times when I’m up there when I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a go at ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” Then I realize, “No, I’m not the guy who sang that” and probably wouldn’t do it justice. But there are things that you sometimes get a little idea about doing some songs that I hadn’t written, but I think it would be a little bit cheesy to do that.

Jethro Tull, as you might have heard, is usually categorized as progressive rock, but the band has always seemed to travel against the grain. In the ’70s, you were never as “rigidly” prog as someone like Gong or Gentle Giant. You had all of these different musical approaches that went from classical and jazz that would then shift to traditional music and then the heavy songs that helped create metal. Did that progressive rock label ever seem inaccurate to you in some way?
I don’t believe you can compare us, in a general degree, with the “arch” kind of “noodling” prog rock bands like Gentle Giant or perhaps Yes, or even early Genesis. Jethro Tull is really more about me as a songwriter trying to come up with songs that were interesting and developmental, that sometimes fit with the label “progressive rock.” But it became termed as “prog,” as the British press did in the early ’70s, which was usually used with a sense of sneering and disparaging, begrudging interest in the music. Because prog rock could be a little too grandiose and self indulgent, and I think that was interesting as a piece of music history, but I’m not sure it passes muster today. But there are bands today that indeed follow that particular approach. My good friend Steven Wilson [of UK band Porcupine Tree], who has remixed many of the classic Jethro Tull classic albums, he in his previous band identity and now as a solo artist with a band, he’s very much someone who’s part of the contemporary progressive rock tradition. And I suppose bands like Dream Theater. So it’s never really gone away. I think that probably bands today like Steven Wilson or Dream Theater have a little bit more of an ability to not fall into that trap of self indulgence. Which I think was the case with a lot of bands back then. I mean, I have to put my hand up and say, “Yes, for a couple of albums we fooled around with a slightly over-the-top approach as well.” But I like to think the songs were more identifiable as songs and weren’t really burdened with much instrumentally showing off. We weren’t that good of musicians, when you had Genesis with Steve Hackett as the guitar player. They were great, great musicians of instrumental prowess.

You’ve been a longtime, vocal advocate for things like nature conservancy and environmental action, animal rights, and climate change. Do you think that, as a species, we have the potential to change—or are we entering an irreversible doomsday scenario?
Well, it’s not looking good, I have to say. And the current U.S. administration’s policy with Trump spells a huge disappointment for people all over the world, in hoping that America would take the lead in really addressing the issues of climate change. But you know there are other issues attached to that, too, including global population and no one wants to go near that. Because you can’t tell people how many babies they’re going to have. But what you can do is alert people to the issues, which, according to the United Nations’ latest figures, would demonstrate something in the order of 11 to 13 billion people on planet Earth by the end of this century. Indeed, the seven billion that we currently have is set to be something like 10 billion by 2050. Most of that increase is in Africa and Asia, where family sizes are enormous. It’s all about education of women, it’s all about giving women rights and equality throughout the world. Because generally speaking, when women have an education they choose to have fewer children. They have other things that they want to do in life rather than be subject to the patriarchal society where men seem determined to exert their prowess over all. Rather than having a Harley Davidson between their legs, men have as many babies as possible. It’s like a status symbol; it’s like a collection. In the way that some people might collect baseballs or signed photographs of baseball stars, some men just choose to have a lot of babies. Mind you, one child is a blessing. Two children are a God-given gift. Once you go beyond that, it’s the start of a collection (laughs). Personally, I’m not really into collecting children, or grandchildren, for the matter. I told my son-in-law [Andrew Lincoln, of The Walking Dead] that there are two bricks with his name on them that would smash his testicles into a mush should he attempt to impregnate my daughter again.