Ian Anderson: Jethro Tull’s “Ordinary” Rock & Roll Legend

Ian Anderson: Jethro Tull’s “Ordinary” Rock & Roll Legend

ian anderson rock cellar magazine interview photo montage
Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson is quick to let the numbers do the talking.  His band is going on 43 years, more than most marriages last.

The landmark album, Aqualung, the prime distillation of the band’s rock/jazz/folk/baroque musical approach as well as a classic rock staple, is 40 years old this year.

Anderson on stage is still a flute-packing joy to behold.  Anderson was in a reflective/talkative mood prior to setting sail on his umpteenth Jethro Tull U.S. tour and he was quick to jump on the fact that, despite his often demonic presence on stage, off stage he was quite normal.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson InterviewPhotos by Martin Webb

Rock Cellar Magazine: How come we never see you in the scandal sheets and gossip rags?

Ian Anderson: Quite frankly, the reason you don’t see me in the tabloids is that I’m not that interesting. The reality is that I’m a boring middle class person. I’m not the person whose lifestyle appeals to the readers of the gossip rags. I’m not newsworthy because I don’t get involved in bad stuff.

It would be nice to think that somewhere within me lurks a Charlie Sheen. But sadly it doesn’t.

My demons only come out when I’m on stage. I don’t take them back to the Holiday Inn with me.

RCM: You’re into conservation and farming, you don’t drive fancy cars, you’re in a stable marriage and you have normal children.  Does having that ‘normal’ side help you as a performer?

IA: Having that other side helps me as a person but it is not a source of inspiration. It does not help me in making music. For me, it’s just the rounding off of a personality and a life.

From 1979-2000 Anderson owned and co-managed Strathaird Salmon (Fish Farms & Processing Plant) in Scotland. Footage from 1987.

RCM: The ’70s were a pretty wild time for rock and roll. Because of the more intellectual/progressive nature of your music, it seems you were pretty much above all the concert craziness.

IA:  You would think so but that was not the case at all. When Jethro Tull toured in the early 70s it was about police, crowd control, drugs and violence.  We would often be involved in things that were regrettable and scary.  When things got out of control at shows I would tell the audience to not taunt the police and I would tell the police to not take electric cattle prods to the audience. I tried to be the mediator in what was sometimes a very tense concert situation.

RCM: But on at least one occasion you were reportedly responsible for a major arena saying “no more rock and roll.”

IA:  You’re talking about the Red Rocks Arena in 1971.  If you believe the news reports, Jethro Tull was responsible for closing the arena to rock and roll for five years. I remember that incident with vivid clarity and I recall that it was only our efforts in getting up there and calming both the audience and the police that kept the whole incident from turning into something worse. Happily those days are now in the past for us.

RCM: Jethro Tull has been around for 43 years.

IA: Yes. Of course there have been lineup changes over the years. But Jethro Tull has been recording and touring without a break the entire time.

Jethro Tull “Nothing Is Easy” Live, 1970

RCM: What about the longevity of Jethro Tull surprises you?

IA: Not so much today. There are many of our peers in the music business that are still around. The Rolling Stones are a perfect example. I suppose there are a lot of us who should be surprised that we’re still around. In the case of Jethro Tull I think that once we had been around for a few years we probably had the feeling that, unless we did something really stupid, we would be around for a long time.

RCM: So you really felt in your gut that you’d still be around and rocking 4 decades later?

IA: I think that there was enough clear vision back then to think that one day I might be one of those old guys who are still carrying on in a respectable manner. When I was first starting out, it was harder to think that, with a physically demanding music like rock and roll, I would be able to keep it up into my 50’s and 60’s. But having gotten to the point, I find it not to be that difficult.

I think the first two or three years I didn’t expect it to last. But then, as a 20 year old, I looked around and saw all of these blues and classical musicians still performing well into their 80s; I thought why not?

RCM: What were your feelings when you went into the studio to record em>Aqualung?

IA: I certainly hoped that it would be something special because, at the time, it was a make or break album for us.  Jethro Tull had modest success with its first three albums and we were beginning to achieve some level of success as live performers.  But we really needed an album that was going to nail it or it could have marked the beginning of a slippery slope to oblivion.  For me it was an important album and it was also a pretty difficult album to make.

RCM:  How do you mean difficult?

IA:   We were recording in a brand new and unproven studio.  The acoustics were difficult and there were numerous technical issues to deal with.  I felt pretty comfortable with the songs but some of them were quite difficult to record.  The two prime tracks, Aqualung and Locomotive Breath were pretty strong songs in different ways.  The song My God was also quite strong. But I wasn’t quite sure if, sonically, they were working out.

I felt the songs were good, the arrangements were good and the performances were okay. It just was not proving to be a very easy album to make. I was quite nervous until the album was released and the response from critics and fans was largely positive.

RCM:  So Aqualung was finally an instant success to your way of thinking?

IA:  It was anything but.  The album was not an instant success straight out of the box. It sold modestly over a period of many years.  But sales grew because we were constantly touring and we played many of the songs in the album from our set.  At the end of the day, Aqualung has had its life as a record but more importantly, it was the strength of the songs.

Jethro Tull Live: “My God” (from Aqualung)

RCM: You’ve been called a true musical innovator. Do you agree with that assessment?

IA:  That’s not for me to say.  I’d like to think that in a lot of the music I’ve written over the years, there are musical and lyrical lines that are my property and that you don’t really find in the work of other people. Most of the time I try to find ways of expressing ideas and very often visual references using words and phrases that are not a part of the pop vocabulary.

There are other people who I felt had that claim to originality; people like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.  When you get to bands like Bon Jovi and Foreigner, then you tend to get a nice soft blanket – that comfort zone of pop lyricism.

RCM: What do you listen to in your private moments?

IA:  The sound of rain falling and the wind in the trees. There’s very little in the way of music I listen to. I stopped being a music listener when I became a professional musician. I don’t want to hear something that is going to filter into my subconscious and into my music.

But also because I’m playing music just about every day of my life. It’s so much of my life because of what I do that listening to music as a recreation is not a real important part of my life. I spend so many hours with my own stuff that it’s nice to just have a bit of silence.

RCM: Do you think you’re slowing down and getting old?

IA:  There are things you find harder to do as you get older.  You have to expect that there will be increasing limitations. It hasn’t really impacted on my ability to play instruments. But as a singer I’ve found that things change. When I reached my forties, I began to notice that I was losing a note or two at the top of my range.  Fortunately I’m not an opera singer.

Watching Pavarotti’s singing ability decline as he grew older was heartbreaking. I’m a rock singer so I can get away with things a bit longer.

Some things get harder but experience and finesse tends to cover up for that. There are days when I have jet lag or a cold and those are the days you know are not going to be easy.

RCM: Will you know when it’s time to pack it in and just ride gloriously off into the sunset?

IA:  I’m not sure that I will!  Most of us want to die with our boots on and I think most of us will end up carrying on longer than we should. I play and sing everyday. It’s important that I know that I’m still okay.

Photographer:
Martin Webb is the assistant editor/writer/photographer for the Jethro Tull fanzine A New Day.

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