When I knew I had a long sought out interview with Ian Anderson a week before Christmas 2016, I went straight to every interviewer’s first source of research – his website.
There’s a part of the site called All too frequently asked questions, designed to get boring questions out of the way so the interviewer can concentrate on asking something that stretches Mr Anderson.
So I ditch any thought of asking how did the name Jethro Tull evolve (18th century English agricultural pioneer who invented the seed drill), Do you like rap music (considers it like nursery rhymes with attitude) and why does he think Jethro Tull’s music has lasted so long (loyalty of fans).
DOMINIC: Ian, let me take you back to 1988 when Jethro Tull won the Grammy for the best hard rock/metal album. Did this attract more metal fans to your shows?
IAN ANDERSON: Not as the result of the Grammy, no. I don’t think anybody made that mistake, if they were a fan of heavy metal or hard rock,”Oh, we’ll go along and see Jethro Tull”.
From our second album on, there’s been elements that would have been hard rock in terms of sound, that’s been a little part of my approach as long as I can remember as a songwriter. I’m a more complex and difficult soul in the sense that I delight in the eclecticism in much of that popular music that I suppose became known around ’69, 70 as progressive rock.
It’s taking music from a variety of sources bringing it into something that isn’t always a success story can be quite bombastic and complicated and a torture to listen to, when you get it right it’s a delight to bring in elements of many different sources and that’s kind of what I do so of course there’s a bit of heavy metal in Jethro Tull, there must be otherwise Iron Maiden wouldn’t have recorded one of my songs on their first album and Joe Bonamassa wouldn’t have been playing one of my songs since he was a teenager and picked up an electric guitar and stood in front of an audience. There’s obviously some elements of hard rock and even, I suppose, metal that has appealed to people just as some of the more folky and acoustic stuff has appealed to other bands.
I quite often meet people from other rock bands and other varieties of sorts of music who say, “Ahh, I like to play this when I was a kid”, or came to a concert in such and such and you realise you were one, just one, of the very many influences they would have had in their lives and if you play a tiny part in the shaping of somebody else’s musical career then it’s something to feel quite good about, and I hear that often so it applies not just to musicians but to fans as well . You’ve been part of their musical experience; even if it’s just a little bit here and a little bit there that they know you from.
DOMINIC: Do you consider this part of your legacy?
IAN ANDERSON: If by that you mean jack of all trades, master of none, the answer is yes.
DOMINIC: I wouldn’t dare to be so insulting.
IAN ANDERSON: That’s sort of how I see myself as someone who is , I’m kind of like a good Polish builder, I can fix your plumbing , lay a carpet, I can mend your roof . I’m the guy who can reliably do a bit of that and a bit of that. But I’m not particularly well trained in any particular area but sometimes people like people like me and, dare I say, Polish builders because they’re hard working, they deliver the goods, they get the job done and they have a variety of skills and they do so with I suppose a degree of passion and they like what they do and they want you to like what they do. That’s my approach to music. I’m there primarily to do this for me and for me to enjoy what I do but if you’re enjoying it too that’s a real big bonus.
DOMINIC: Investigating a little further what you’re saying about almost learning on the job, is that how you learnt the flute as you were originally a guitarist?
IAN ANDERSON: I was a guitar player, one of, if not hundreds then tens of up and coming players at that time and I knew I wasn’t going to join their ranks, I wasn’t that good, I was just another guitar player. At the same time there was Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Guys who I quickly realised were well ahead of me and for me to catch up, and probably not have that talent; it seemed like a good idea to find something else to do. I already knew by then I was never going to be a great singer, by the time I heard Robert Plant in 1968, I thought, God, I hope this guy doesn’t hope to learn to play the flute. You find something you can do and the other people can’t, and another of those awful analogies being a big fish in a small pool is sometimes more rewarding immediately. It’s not like I’m the only flute player in rock music but probably, arguably, the one that people think of first.
DOMINIC: You’re recognised for standing on one leg.
IAN ANDERSON: Along with a few others. I can claim some originality in the sense I was entirely innocent of there being any predecessors in that way, but standing on one leg is something that kind of came to me when I started playing the flute in February 1968 at the Marquee Club,. I just picked it up, I don’t know why. Just seemed a kind of weird balance thing. Playing the harmonica standing on one leg, playing the flute standing on one leg, it just became a bit of a fun thing. It was about 1991 when I visited India on a promotion trip and to my horror, journalists thrusting pictures of Lord Krishna under my face and getting a little testy about the fact they felt I was being somewhat disrespectful by copying his flute playing stance. I was quite shocked because I really didn’t know about that pictorial image of Krishna standing with one leg crossed over the other playing his Indian bamboo flute to seduce the young goat herders which apparently he was doing. To this day, I don’t notice many goat herders in the audience but I suppose there might have been the odd one or two, maybe I had some impression on them in my time.
There are indeed dotted through history one legged flute players, from the fictitious pied piper of Hamelin who’s usually depicted dancing on one leg down the street, playing not a transverse flute like I’m playing but something that was more like a clarinet, probably a reed instrument. But in popular fiction, he’s thought of as playing a flute to seduce the young children as opposed to the goat herders. It goes back to both North and South America. The tradition of Indian Gods, they were flute players who stood on one leg and danced around. Once I found out about Krishna, the artwork depictions of Krishna, one of the many Hindu Gods, I set out to find if there were any other parallels and I was quite shocked to find out there were quite a few from different times and different continents on planet earth. It’s just one of those weird kind of X files episodes.
DOMINIC: If I was to sum up for me Jethro Tull, I’ve always seen you as being able to achieve commercial success without compromising your music. Would you agree with that?
IAN ANDERSON: Ultimately, yes I would agree but there have been times when I deliberately set out to write something in order to get some kind of commercial result, usually in order to help promote an album. When our manager asked us back in 1969 on our first American tour, “Can you just quickly write a hit single so we can release something back in the UK so people don’t forget you while we’re away in America?” “Sure, give me ten minutes. I’ll be back”
And I wrote a piece called Living in the past, and I took it as a bit of a joke really, because I wrote it in 5/4 time signature, which was definitely not something you could dance to. The title, living in the past, was as untrendy and definitely not a contemporary notion. So really, on all counts, it was not something that was likely to have chart success but I was able to give it some kind of memorable and fun element that made people forget the potential complexity of it being in 5/4 time, and just enjoy the groove, and enjoy the feel and the melody, and indeed it was a top ten hit in the UK and a couple of years later, even in the USA. It’s difficult when you set out to write something with a view to it being commercially accessible. You find sometimes afterwards it’s left a bit of an odd taste in your mouth. It was many years before I found it in my heart to play living in the past live on stage.
There are a couple of other songs I released over the years as singles which I really don’t care to play at all. One I never played was ring out Solstice bells. I’ve never done that live on stage and I was playing it in a church in Radevik a couple of days ago, and I thought I could do this in the way I did it with the string quartet album. Maybe next Christmas it will be one of the songs we play at Durham Cathedral, Bradford Cathedral. It might find itself in our Christmas repertoire. 41 years. Makes it quite a long time after I first started playing it if I play it live on stage next year.
Interview by Dominic Forbes
Ian Anderson, John O’Hara, and the Carducci Quartet are set to release Jethro Tull – The String Quartets, a collection of 12 re-imagined Tull classics, allowing Tull fans and classical music connoisseurs to enjoy the band’s vast catalog in a new way. The album is released on 24th March.
Hear “Songs And Horses,” an adaptation of Jethro Tull’s “Songs From The Wood/Heavy Horses” below:
Songs and Horses is also available now for instant download with the full album from:
Or through the Pledge Music campaign where fans can purchase signed CDs and Vinyl LPs: