Ian Anderson: Will the REAL Jethro Tull Please Stand Up!

By Jeb Wright

Ian Anderson has been incorrectly addressed and referred to as Jethro Tull more times than the actual infamous agricultural inventor probably was addressed the entire time he was alive!  Ian has certainly been recognized more often!  While both men, probably at some point, enjoyed acoustically orientated music~ that is where the comparisons end.  One was an inventor and the other a flautist.  One is in history books while the other has been gravely denied entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Both, however, are linked due to a band manager’s decision to call his artist Jethro Tull. 

Originally unaware that his band’s moniker was an actual person, Anderson, upon discovering the truth, chose to ignore the confusion rather than confront it head on.  Now, after years of what could be called identity theft from beyond the grave, Anderson is ready to give Mr. Tull, the historical man, his proper respect.  Well, sort of. 

The upcoming tour by the artist formerly known as a member of Jethro Tull will embark upon a concept tour where the theme is Jethro Tull, the agriculturalist.  Only Anderson failed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Instead, he did something creative, something the real JT, an inventor, would have certainly appreciated. 

The tour will tell the tale of Jethro Tull as if he were alive slightly in the future of the present day.  The story will be told through the greatest hits of the band Jethro Tull.  Sounds a bit confusing?  Convoluted even?  Well, have no fear as in the interview below Jethro Tull… err… Ian Anderson explains everything!

Jeb: The last time we spoke, Ian, we discussed the real life Jethro Tull and how you were feeling guilty of identity theft.  When I saw this press release, I had to smile.

Ian:  I am doing everything I can to make the classic Jethro Tull repertoire as entertaining as possible and give it some context that makes it not only fun to originate as a production, but to perform every night and that also pays homage to the original Jethro Tull.  Of course, I’ve done something a bit naughty extrapolating on his historical real life and interpreting that as a current, or slightly future life, and imagining what Jethro Tull, the agricultural inventor, might have been engaged upon if he’d been born thirty years ago, as opposed to back in the 1700s, or whenever it was. 

Jeb: At what point in your career did you become curious as to who this real life Jethro Tull character was?

Ian: I studiously avoided finding out about it.  It was a bit awkward, as it was our manager, at the time, who gave us our name.  I wasn’t a history scholar, so I didn’t know he was a real guy; I thought it was a name he had invented.  When I found out a couple of weeks later that the name was a historical character I just didn’t want to know about it; I kind of blanked it for quite a while.  I think somebody once gave me a copy, a reprinted copy, of his book Horse-hoeing husbandry.  I kind of looked at it, but didn’t pay much attention to it.  I found it kind of awkward and embarrassing to identify with this character. 

It was a long time later when I looked him up. It may have well been into the Internet age, as it was at that point when I found access to information about him.  More recently, in fact it was last summer, I read it again and was surprised, as there was relatively little to draw upon, only three or four accounts of Jethro Tull’s life and activities.  There was not a bustling amount there. 

What is there is sometimes a little conflicting, in terms of time-line.  You draw from that; you distill what you think is likely the main body of fact.  With that knowledge, it became -I mean slowly- over a period of an hour, or something… I must have gone through the entire repertoire of songs in the Jethro Tull catalog and found, to my amazement, a lot of songs that were an easy fit, or just needed a little bending to easily fit the story of his life, without too much in the way of changing. Some are word-for-word, note-for-note, the way they were originally recorded.  Some have had a few pronouns change to give characters a chance to say “I” or “me” instead of “he” or “she.”  In some cases, a different line, or a different chorus, or even a different verse, in the sense of “Heavy Horses” are added to give it the place in the narrative of the Jethro Tull that I am proposing slightly in the future from now. 

It was a bit of a surprise to find that it could be done.  When I sat down to get to work in earnest I was not suffering from either writer’s block, or any sense of inventiveness.  It was a quite positive and methodical working through where I wrote five new songs to flesh out the narrative in a way that might give it more sense. 

Jeb:  When did you know the moment you were really going to do this?

Ian: I was sitting in a car, I think it was either in Germany or Italy, I really can’t remember where.  I was sitting in a car and I had brief access to the Internet and I was looking up Jethro Tull and comparing, and copy and pasting, from two, or three, different sources the elements of his life story just to get straight in my own head just who he was and what he did.  As I said, I’d read it before, but not paid much attention to the details.  I thought, “I’m going to make sense of this.” 

I suppose it was almost straightaway that elements popped into my head and I quickly looked at the list of all the songs that I have written and thought what could go where.  Over an hour or so, it popped into place.  I didn’t go too far with it at that point, as I was on tour doing a different show.  I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much by getting involved in another project. 

I left it until January the 2nd of this year. Unfortunately on January the 1st I was not available to start work, as I like to do at 9 a.m. on a new year.  I was otherwise engaged, so January 2nd I started work on it.  A couple of weeks later, I had it pretty much done.  I made some demos of the new songs for the band and I started arranging things and building up all of the new elements.  I got the lyrics and all of the information to the band so they had it to play with over the months of January and February.  In March, we started making a working demo of the whole show in order to have the bedrock for building all of the video material around and for the performances of the guests.

Jeb:  Are you keeping the guest appearances a secret?

Ian:  I can tell you that it is not Rod Stewart.  It is not Sting and it is not Elvis Presley.  There will be no sudden ‘wow’ when you see who I got to do these appearances.  I don’t know those people and there is no way I would be asking them.  If you ask people like that then you never get to talk to them; you get to talk to their manager and they want a million dollars and part of the action.  I can’t afford to do that.  I am not going near any famous people, or their managers. 

I don’t have a manager.  If somebody asks me to do something I think, “Am I busy that day?  Is this something I want to do?  Is this an artistic challenge?  Is this something I think I can do well?  Are they going to be pleased with the result?”   I make a decision based on those things and if I have time to do it, then I will do it.  I never would ask for money.  I don’t need the money, so you can figure out that many other famous people need the money either, but their managers do. 

They are greedy pigs.  You just can’t get near most of these people without going through their managers, unless you happen to have their email address, or home telephone number.  There are people I have worked with who have been very kind enough to join me in the past for a charity thing or something. 

As much as I would love to ask Bruce Dickinson to do it, he’s done something for me in the past; I would never go back again and ask somebody, as it would be presuming on their generosity.  These things are kind of difficult and I’ve been disappointed many times in the past trying to contact people only to be rebuffed, so I can’t be bothered, really.  The people I am working with are all folks I’ve worked with before, in one way or another.  They are people that bring to the party what is fun and upbeat.  There are not any famous heroes, or stars involved. 

Jeb:  A lot of people in the same stage of their career as you are just ‘going through the motions’ on a greatest hits casino tour.  There is nothing wrong with that so much if it is done well, but you go the extra mile.  I can always count on Ian Anderson being worried about the next show, the next album and the next tour.  Your fans expect that from you.

Ian:  I don’t have any bad feeling about folks that do things the same.  I used to mention BB King as an example of a man who went out and did yet another tour playing, yet again, his selection of his well-known blues material with a great band of well-drilled and supportive musicians behind them.  He delivered the goods, he was BB King, and he was the man. 

There is nothing wrong with that.  You have a very repetitive performance because, for a lot of fans, that’s what they want.  They don’t want things to change.  They want their meat and potatoes.  They want their meatloaf and their apple pie.  They know what they like and on a regular basis they want more of it.  I can understand that.  It is comfortable and perfectly understandable.  However, there are some of us, who are perhaps more restless souls.  When I say ‘some of us’ I don’t just mean singers and songwriters and musicians, I mean members of the audience as well, who are hungry for something a little different.  If you can find a way to make things partly the same and partly different and make it cohesive, then I think that’s the better way to go. 

It would be quite understandable that folks would not like to sit for an hour through something totally new that they have never heard before.  That would disappoint most people because they don’t have the enthusiasm for something different like they would if they went to the theater, or to see a movie.  There, they accept it as it is part of the genre.  You see an actor that you like and he is in a new movie playing a new character and you expect it to be different.  That expectation is probably what makes it more fun.  Actors, by the very nature of their job, can play a different character and take on a different personality—unless of course they are Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. They both find a comedic and upbeat thing in their more recent acting roles, but, for the most part, some people want them to play the same character in a new movie with a slightly different script. 

If you’re going to see Matthew McConaughey, you are going to see him do something you haven’t seen him do before.  We are quite happy to see that when we go to the theater, or we go see a movie.  Somehow, with pop and rock music, we don’t want people to change in that way.  We get a bit irritated with Sting for doing a musical based on his hometown and ship building and strikes. It is irrelevant to most of us and we’re not really that interested in it.  If Sting hadn’t appeared, miraculously out of the blue, in his own musical in New York it would have closed due to bad business, bad business in the sense that it was losing a ton of money. 

We don’t like our musical heroes to keep doing different stuff.  We want them to do things pretty much the same.  My task is to try and play it both ways: to do something different and yet the same.  That doesn’t mean repeating myself writing new music and making it sound like the old songs, but we’ve got to have some old points of familiarity.  It can be a nod, a wink and a tip of a cap to a previous character, or a line of lyrics or music, the little elements are what give that sense of familiarity.  Putting them carefully into place is part of the artist freedom that I have as a musician.  I employ those tools as I would if I was a classical musician, or a script writer for movies. 

I’m going to feel the license to re-introduce elements from time-to-time because I know what fun it is when I read a book and find a little reference to a previous character, or find a descriptive phrase that reminds me of the author’s previous work.  I get a kick out of that as a reader, or as a member of an audience.  Whether it is a bit of Beethoven, or a work of a writer, it is fun to spot those elements that crop up again.  I figure if I enjoy it, then hopefully some people enjoy it when I do it. 

Jeb:  You took some artistic license on this.  You set the story in the future.  Was that to fit in songs like “Aqualung”?

Ian: It was to avoid at all costs the need to dress up in tights and ridiculous clothing to do a period drama.  It’s alright if you’re making a movie, but not if you’re packing a couple of suitcases to travel around the world and do a concert. 

I put the historical character in the future, I had him jump forward a couple of centuries and wondered what he would be if he were an agricultural innovator today.  The chances are he’d be a biochemist working on genetically modified organisms and cloning and wrestling with the personal dilemma of the ethics of agribusiness instead of actually creating, essentially more food on a global basis, for a growing population. That is, in a nut shell, what I am having Jethro Tull go through, building a business as an entrepreneur and as a scientist.  He is faced with “What am I doing this for?  I’m making tons of money feeding people, but, ultimately, we should be doing this for more ethical and profound reasons other than to make a lot of money.”  At the end of it all, after some wavering and thinking, he can ditch it all to go back and lead a simple life. 

He is persuaded by his wife and child that his role is to use that creativity, both as a scientist, and as a businessman, to move forward and to do his bit to develop new methodology and new sources that we can employ, given that we are entering into that dangerous place of climate change, overpopulation and the shifting demographics within that populations, where everyone would love to have what we have.  We don’t want to share it with them because we are quite greedy in the so-called West.  We like our comforts, and our freezers, and our motorcars, and our air conditioning.  We don’t really want to reduce our standards to give a more equitable share to the other nine billion people that are going to be on the planet in forty or fifty years’ time.  We are not prepared to readily give up things in order to spread those benefits and utilize the resources in a fairer way. 

That is something we all have to wrestle within our own consciousness.  Maybe not so much me, because I’m an old guy, but people my children’s age, or my grandchildren’s age, are faced with some tough decisions.   Change must come from within.  Governments can’t tell people how many children they can have, or how much food they can eat.  People must take these things on themselves. 

There is a glimmer of hope.  We’ve begun to recognize this through an unwilling, but certain growing sense of awareness of pollution and minimizing the effects of climate change.  It is happening.  It is creaky and there are a lot of folk out there who are just plain greedy and don’t want to play ball, but we are seeing some light and there is a scope for optimism, but it has to go further. 

Our social, our political, and above all, our religious leaders have got to take the initiative and be prepared to embrace a new and future world.  For the Pope to say, “We don’t want Roman Catholics breeding like rabbits” is what I would expect to hear from a man who claims he hasn’t watched television since 1990 and only reads one newspaper for ten minutes a day.  I would have thought that a responsible leader of substantial people ought to be reading ten fucking newspapers every day.  I would think he would be watching CNN, Fox News and the BBC and finding out what the hell is going on in this world that he ports to lead a third of. 

He has made  a very small step in the right direction compared to previous Popes, but it just demonstrates how incredibly out of touch the man is within the world that he’s in.  He is the moral leader for his people, so he needs to do some quick thinking, as he is facing much more crucial times than he seems to be willing to embrace.  It is a small step in the right direction, but, whoa, let’s get real. 

Jeb: You write amazing lyrics and your fans know that.  By and large, however, you are more known for playing the flute than you are as a commentator on social change. 

Ian: I think it is evident in some songs where I have gone in that direction… most notably it is on the Aqualung album on songs like “My God” or “Aqualung,” which is a song about a homeless person and the glorification and merchandising of religion.  “Locomotive Breath” is a song about the unstoppable human train of development, morally, ethically, population-wise, all of those things are hinted at in “Locomotive Breath,” but they are not very clearly defined.  I’d probably write the song in a more detailed and specific way if I was writing it today, but it served its purpose.  It was about that headlong rush into the future where we can’t get off this train and it is out of control.  It is of our own making, but we are stuck on it.  That is why the song works, and thank God it does work, as it is an important part of the Jethro Tull repertoire.  It does work in the context of the Jethro Tull so-called rock opera, so it is good that it is there.  

I’ve been doing songs like that, I suppose, most of my life, but the degree to which people recognize them is probably somewhat diluted by the other songs that are a little more whimsical, lighthearted, upbeat and just a bit more fun.  That is quite intentional on my part, as I do try to mix it up a bit.  I don’t want to be the guy who just writes about depressing things, or talks about rather odd people.  I need to balance it out with a bit of fun. 

It is also the nature of the work I will be doing from September onwards.  It is meant to be upbeat and fun, but the messages I hope will provoke conversation.  It is about some really scary realities about today and the near future.  You can never get people to pay attention if you just go out and deliver it as a political diatribe.  You’ve got to lure people into it.  You’ve got to draw people into this in a way that makes them smile.  Afterwards, maybe it makes them furrow the brow at what it was they were smiling about. 

Jeb: You are putting in “Farm On the Freeway” in the set. 

Ian: Yes, because the original Jethro Tull, his father sold the family farm.  Having lost his birthright because dad sold the farm I thought it was a perfect fit.  I didn’t even need to change the lyrics on that one.  It was perfect.  The song that precedes it, “Back to the Family,” has a couple of rewritten lines that hint to the scenario that is about to unfold after a young Jethro, after his recuperative tour of Europe, comes home to find his father sold the family farm.  “Farm On the Freeway” fits rather admirably, other than it is based on an American scenario rather than an English one.  I could have changed it to “Farm on the Highway” but I thought I would stick with “Freeway.” 

Jeb:  Another thing going on is the anniversary of a classic Jethro Tull album, Minstrel of the Gallery.  Do you enjoy these anniversaries? 

Ian: It is a chore you could kind of do without, but on the other hand, as much as the most ardent of fans, I am very happy to celebrate the things that I’ve done when I look back on them.  I find that seventy percent is pretty damn good!  The thirty percent of it that isn’t damn good varies between being okay and really a bit dreadful. 

I look back on most of it with a feeling of, “Wow, that was pretty good stuff.”  Since I don’t have to do it all, I get help with the remastering and the remixing… that helps.  I do not have to do it all, I am just there as one of a team that puts all of this stuff together and I am very pleased to do it.  It is nice to be working on that level. 

I don’t know how much help Jimmy Page had on doing the remastering of the Led Zeppelin albums.  I met Jimmy just after he finished doing it.  I got the impression he was very hands-on and that he was the guy really working in the studio doing the remixing and sorting everything.  My impression was that he was working with an engineer.  Maybe he worked with a couple of assistants, but I imagine he did most of it himself.  I congratulated him.   I said, “I am afraid I don’t have your metal when it comes to wanting to take on such a task.” 

Part of it is that we have a lot more albums out than Zeppelin.  I don’t think I am driven in the way that Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa were, for example, in working to catalog and develop and reinterpret their early works.  I just don’t think I have the stamina to do it.  If I am going to spend hours in the studio I think I would rather be working with a new song, or a new idea.  That, to me, is more stimulating and more fun. 

Happily, I do have around me the folks who can probably do a much better job than if I was doing it on my own.  I am more than happy to have Steven Wilson, as long as he wants to do these things.  He’s got not only the technical skills that I don’t have, but he’s also got the ears that I don’t have.  His ears are fifteen to twenty years younger than mine.  He has a better clarity than I do and he has a better objectivity than me.  I do work quite closely with Steven on these things, in terms of discussing the mixes, as they’re in progress and I go to his studio and we work together on it, but, far and away the job is being done by him and not by me.  I am just there as an observer and a sounding board to discuss certain things like where we could do this, or do that.  I am there to be part of a team.

Jeb: For fans that really know our Tull stuff, you can’t think of Minstrel without thinking of the last Tull album with Jeffery Hammond-Hammond.

Ian:  Well, that’s right.  I am always reminded that we went into the recording knowing that Jeffery was going to leave at the end of the recording of the album.  He made it quite clear that this was the end and that there was not going to be another one.  The tours that followed culminated in the work that would become Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll were sort of marred by the fact that Jeffery was going to leave and that none of us could persuade him to stay. 

John Glasscock was the person we asked to come in, as we knew his band were breaking up at the time.  For Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll he brought something into the band that was quite different.  He was more technically proficient of a bass player, but he was also a great singer.  He was great to have because he could handle those backing vocals quite easily.  His voice was pitched just a little bit higher than mine, so he could handle the high harmonies in the studio. 

John was a great addition to the band.  Sadly, of course, his future was finite but, you know, we have to look upon all those band members, twenty six of them, over the years, as being quite vital to the Jethro Tull story, and vital to my personal musical development.  They’ve all been people who have taught me lots.  They are people I’ve enjoyed working with. 

It is a lot of people. I don’t know how many musicians BB King had in his band over the years.  I would guess rather more than I have.  Frank Zappa would probably have had more than I have.  In that way, I see myself as almost like a traditional band leader.  I am there to get people motivated to see where they can go with music and their lives and what I can take from them, as well as what I can give to them.  There comes a time when they move on and, hopefully, move on to other things. 

In the case of most of Frank Zappa’s musicians, he gave a lot of people a great start.  If not a great start then a great building block along the way to what happened in the rest of their careers.  That’s the positive thing as a band leader, that you can have people that you work with and they go on to achieve things elsewhere at a different time.  I am quite proud of the big musical family. 

Jeb:  You said that you thought 30 percent of your music was good to rubbish.  What album do you consider rubbish?

Ian: Well, not an album, just a song or two on each album that are, perhaps not up to scratch.  As we go through the remastering process we do uncover some things.  We are working on Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll at the moment and there are songs that, in all honesty, there were two pieces I had completely forgot that we actually recorded.  They are not great, but they are not bad.  There are two or three that are under consideration and may deserve to be there. 

They will appear, also, in my project that I am underway on, which is compiling, re-editing and correcting all of the typos and punctuation on all of my collected song lyrics.  As I go through all of this, and we found these songs, I took the decision to present them as lyrics even though, in some cases, I don’t think they are that great.  It is a bit like an artist doing a sketch. You fool around with something, but you don’t complete it.  You want to do it in a different way, so you move on.  I think it is a little bit like that.  At the time, they were left off because they either didn’t fit, or they were not very good, sometimes both, and occasionally neither.  Sometimes, it was because of the finite playing field of vinyl.  Choices were made as what made a better album.  The song “A Small Cigar,” which was destined for the Too Old for Rock ‘n’ Roll was left off because we couldn’t fit it all onto a vinyl record without reducing the overall level to cut it.  Decisions were taken and that one got left off.  Hearing it again today, it is worthy of inclusion for sure. 

Jeb: Last one:  Are there plans to record this performance?  Will there be a CD or a DVD?

Ian:  My plan is not to record studio versions of this.  The classic Jethro Tull songs are more than 80 percent of the material.  The running time is the Best of Jethro Tull and the collection of songs that make that up.  The five new songs are all relatively short songs.  If you look at the whole thing it is a vital, but small inclusion of new material.  However, the traditional songs are all performed really very much as they were on the record.  Only one of them is edited down a little bit because it was a particularly long song.  I felt I could get all of the elements of the music in there, but it doesn’t repeat as many sections.  

I insisted with the band that we do it that way.  Over the years we had played many of them and made changes, but this time I wanted to go back and recreate the way we did it.  With that in mind, it is necessary to change the lyrics here and there, as I’ve said, and to give other people the opportunity to do their take on it. 

I can’t take all of these people with me to sing a few lines, here or there, or to play a cello, or a violin bit.  It was like when I took Ryan O’Donnell last time.  A lot of the time he didn’t have anything to do.  I felt a bit guilty.  I had to give him things to do because he has just a few lines, here and there. 

Speaking of Ryan, he is on the other end of the scale over the last few months.  He has been rehearsing with the new Kinks musical called Sunny Afternoon.  Ryan has been the understudy waiting to replace Ray and/or Dave’s parts in the musical.  In both cases, they are on stage almost the whole of two and half hours. 

It is basically The Kinks early hits.  Ryan had to work on that and he managed to get three weeks off to come and work with me on this recent European tour.  The day he flew back he believed he was going to be playing Dave Davies for a week or so while the other actor was taking a break.  Half an hour before show time the director came into his dressing room and said, “We’ve got a problem.  The guy who is playing Ray has gone off sick.  You need to be Ray instead.”  Ryan, who had just spent weeks on tour with me, was suddenly thrust into being live on stage on the West End of London being the other Davies and not the one he was ready to play. 

What he’s doing, you see, is really flat out because he is onstage almost the whole time and singing in every song.  That is a really, really arduous thing compared to popping up from time-to-time in my shows and singing the odd line here and there.  Ryan is full time at it, hammer and tongs this week.  I think he is probably back to being Dave, if the actor doing Ray has got over his laryngitis.  It is pretty scary doing that sort of stuff.  Ryan is one of my guests we recorded about a month ago doing some parts for the new show.  He will be with us as a virtual performer in the sense of being onstage with us every night.  He does not need a hotel room or bunk though.  He gets paid to stay at home! 

Jeb: How about a DVD?

Ian:  I don’t think, at this point, it is not something I have been thinking about.  Given the small amount of new material, against the large amount of old material played like it was before, there is not much of a justification for re-recording all of that stuff, as it would just be the same arrangement of the originals with just a few lyrics changed in a few of the songs.  I don’t think we should mess with it.  However, the live performance is different.  The chances are quite strong that sometime next year we will record audio and video of two or three shows and then compile a master show tape out of that.   We will release it as a live album rather than a studio recording. 

Jeb:  When will we get the next Ian Anderson studio album?

Ian: I have my plans, but they are not set in stone.  Apart from all of this, the next projects are the lyric book and the string quartet—quintet if you include my contribution—of Jethro Tull songs.  Hopefully, John O’Hara and I will be working on that towards the end of this year. 

The third project is one that is stripped down and really kind of personal.  It will be something a bit more autobiographical, which is the kind of music I don’t really do.  It is more me.  I might embark upon that route.  It will be very much a solo, solo album with very little adornment.  It is the sort of thing you would expect from a really old guy who has to be tucked up in bed rather early.  It is pipe and slippers type of album.  Leonard Cohen with a flute is probably as close as we can get to describing it.