Notes From An Artist

A Conversation with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

January 05, 2023 Ian Anders of Jethro Tull
A Conversation with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Notes From An Artist
More Info
Notes From An Artist
A Conversation with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Jan 05, 2023
Ian Anders of Jethro Tull

Send us a Text Message.

Hosts David C. Gross and Tom Semioli grapple with the irascible founder of one of rock’s greatest ensembles. Anderson ruminates o’er Tull’s glorious past, the music industry, and his latest version of the band sans Martin Barre. The hosts review Tull’s blues origins and emergence as a prog rock band in the 1970s. 

The Ian Anderson Playlist

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Hosts David C. Gross and Tom Semioli grapple with the irascible founder of one of rock’s greatest ensembles. Anderson ruminates o’er Tull’s glorious past, the music industry, and his latest version of the band sans Martin Barre. The hosts review Tull’s blues origins and emergence as a prog rock band in the 1970s. 

The Ian Anderson Playlist

IA: Fire away! 

TS: There have been many incarnations of Jethro Tull since the band was founded in 1967. Tell us about the current Zealot Gene line-up with guitarist Florian Opahle, bassist David Goodier, keyboardist John O’Hara, and drummer Scott Hammond.

IA: Florian hung up his touring hat around Christmas 2019. He constructed a brand-new state-of-the-art recording studio and a photographic studio – his wife is a photographer – and he wants to remain at his home in Rosenheim, Germany to work on his own projects. So Florian is on the album, apart from one track where his successor John Parrish-James plays – which is the track ‘In Brief Visitation.’ I recorded that one at home due to the pandemic.  

The rest of the guys in the band, including Florian, have been members of Jethro Tull on average for the past fifteen years or so – playing in concert – but never on record. They’ve never been on an album that has been billed and released simply as Jethro Tull. I thought it was time to set that record straight and write an album for the band. 

 We cut the first seven songs before the pandemic – which took five days of rehearsal and four days of recording. We didn’t get around to finishing it until our attempt to ‘renew’ the process – the pandemic turned out to be more of an interruptive matter. All of 2020 went by, finally in 2021 I decided to that I was just going to have to finish off the last five songs on my own. And these are songs that I’d written five years earlier!

It seems like it’s a long time in the making, but the total number of hours – writing, rehearsing, and recording it – was the same as any other album really…

I tend to be quite a quick worker. I don’t like to hang around. When we’re in the studio, I like to at least complete one song per day. 

DCG: What are your thoughts now – given the Covid lockdown – on remote recording?

IA: The five tracks I recorded at home were just me playing rhythm acoustic guitar and a few other instruments and then the guys, some of them, sent in their contributions as audio files that they recorded at home. It’s not a very satisfactory way of working but…but to get it finished, I had to resort to doing it that way. 

Right now, I am embarking on a new writing project which shall necessitate booking time in a studio, rehearsing with the band, then going in to record it. 

Again, this has been made so much worse than ever before. We’re sitting on concerts that have been rescheduled twice already – and may or may not take place in the months to come. We’re so unsure about any dates! 

It is messy booking tours now, setting up flights, getting into hotels… then add the Covid testing, issues with visas, only to find out it’s shut down because of high levels of inflection which we are now experiencing over here in Europe in a big way.

TS: What are your thoughts on streaming concerts? Two of our guests, jazz bassist Larry Grenadier, performed a streaming concert from the Village Vanguard in New York City. Colin Blunstone of The Zombies talked with us about his band’s streaming concert from Abbey Road Studios in London, wherein they invited an orchestra to back them, something that they could not do on the road. 

IA: We actually looked that option in March and April of 2020 when it became obvious that we are not going to be able to perform in the conventional way for a while. 

Having considered it and what it all involved, I came to the conclusion that it’s an awful lot of work, and cost for something that I think our fans would probably not be that interested in because, quite frankly, everything that there ever was has been available commercially on DVD and bootlegs on YouTube – or whatever. So I don’t think it brings anything terribly new to the party. 

It might do for The Zombies because they’re a band with a kind of a cult following. Historically there is something, as far as most people are concerned, something in the past so you might be inclined to tune in and watch a live broadcast of a streaming concert – because it would be so unusual. 

But in the case of Jethro Tull, we’ve been on the road every year playing all over the place – we did three US tours in 2019 for example… it just wouldn’t seem to be anything particularly interesting if you weren’t there in person. 

Plus, it would have involved getting everyone – the band and the crew – into a performance space while we were in lockdown. And that wouldn’t have been a wise course of action, given the consequences of Covid during pre-vaccination.

DCG: A colleague of yours, Annie Haslem of Renaissance, was a recent guest, and she discussed with us the popularity of progressive rock on the northeast coast of the United States where you both often toured and are quite successful. Why did American audiences gravitate to what Jethro Tull was doing? 

IA: We have a phrase in England that goes ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ – Newcastle being a mining town. If you were coming to the USA sounding like a west coast surfing band – forget it! (laughter)

They’ve already got that there; they don’t want to hear somebody else pretending to do it. And I think the same thing would apply with blues as well. We would be better off trying to forge our own musical identity outside of any obvious musical genres. 

The bands that did well were the ones that were able to bring something new to live performances. Other than Hermans Hermits, and The Beatles – the pop groups – Cream were the group that really, really brought a progressive blues sound to the USA. And quite frankly, they didn’t care whether you liked them our you didn’t. 

They came to America, they did the show their way, get out of Dodge, and stash the money in a bank somewhere. Same thing with Led Zeppelin the following year. Again, they didn’t care whether you liked them or not as they barnstormed their way across the USA. 

And on their coattails Jethro Tull arrived, and frankly we had the same attitude. I didn’t expect America was going to like Jethro Tull – and it didn’t matter to me whether we were successful or not. We were a long way from home. It would matter if we weren’t doing well in the UK or even in some European territories. 

I think that attitude of just not caring too much somehow means that the audience realized that we were not trying to please them – we were there doing what we do in a very direct honest way. 

We were not setting out in a calculated way to win their approval or affinity. And I rather think that’s the case. And I know some acts that desperately wanted to be big in America. That was their entire focus! Audiences realized that they were trying too hard and those bands were never successful in your country. 

I won’t mention names, but I can think of a few bands that were opening acts for Jethro Tull. I was pleased to have them with us and give them the opportunity to perform in the USA. But they just didn’t click. 

DCG: It reminds me of the book What You Think of Me is None of My Business by Terry Cole-Whittaker! 

IA: Mmmmm, yes. 

TS: The Zealot Gene arrives with two accompanying videos “Sad City Sisters” and “Shoshana Sleeping.” You’ve employed puppets to be actors in the film. Quite a change from “Sweet Dream” and “Too Old to Rock and Roll” wherein you appeared in the clips.  

IA: Generally speaking, when there are promotional videos, I stand well back in terms of any part of the creative process. I simply do what the director asks me to do – like an actor on the set. 

Unless you are some superstar actor who can tell a director what to do – you have no choice but to be directed! But I have to be putty in somebody else’s hands! 

But in terms of an abstract video that does not involve my performance, as in the one your referring to, I have absolutely nothing to do with it. Other than to say ‘yeah, well, that looks okay!’ 

Most times, I see them at the storyboard stage. Promotional videos are about marketing, and selling products – something that I really do not want to get involved in after I’ve done my part of the creative process of writing, recording, mixing, mastering, and putting out the album. I’m done!

I don’t care for the calculated selling process, and as for record companies, by and large – that is what they are supposed to do. That’s what they get paid for. That’s what they’re supposed to be good at. 

So, I listen to their advice and their input. Unless I feel very strongly against what they are suggesting, then I’ll go along with the general plan. 

Tomorrow we are shooting another video, and the director wants me to perform in front of a green screen, which I have at my house. He can incorporate that into the next promo video, whatever that will be. 

Now as for the stage videos that are part of our live shows, my son is the videographer who puts it all together. We discuss the ideas – but that is a whole other area than marketing – this is about enhancing a performance. I feel more creatively inclined to get involved in that. 

TS: With video platforms such as YouTube, fans young, old, and middle-aged can witness the entire history of Jethro Tull. 

IA: Well, I suppose that’s remarkable! Especially when you compare it to the technology of thirty years ago. We’ve been living in the digital age since the early 1980s. 

And some of the digital technology goes back further than that when it began to appear in various aspects of gadgetry in the recording process. 

DCG: What year did Pro Tools come out? 

IA: (raises voice) I have no idea, I don’t use Pro Tools…don’t talk about that! The digital technology really took root in the 80s… 

…by ’82 or ‘83 I decided I should embrace some aspects of it rather than just ignore it or pretend it did not exist. 

[Notes From An Artist Notes: In 1983 Anderson released his first solo album – Walk Into Light which was essentially a collaboration with Peter-John Vettese – who, at the time was also the keyboardist in Jethro Tull. With its drum machines, and high-tech -for the time – veneer, the album came as a shock to fans, and was not well received. The following year, Tull released Under Wraps, yet another Anderson effort laden with electronic/synthesizer dominated tracks. Both discs, though worthy of reevaluation, are routinely cited as the worst in the Anderson / Tull canon. The next Tull album, Crest of a Knave – released in 1987 saw the band return to its hard-rock roots. 

However controversy erupted when the band was awarded a Grammy for Best Hard Rock / Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental – beating out Metallica’s metal classic …And Justice for All, and Jane’s Addiction’s alternative metal masterwork Nothing’s Shocking. Nearly forty years after the fact, Tull is faulted for this faux pas, of which they had no control over.] 

Like many people having gone through the era of analogy technology in the 70s, then embracing some aspects of digital technology in the 80s, it’s not only the means that we make music but we also tend to listen to it courtesy of a load of digital processing and digital coding. No matter what platform you’re getting it on – downloading or physical copy. 

It’s been around… not quite as long as the Boeing 737… or the 9-millimeter Parabellum pistol… or the Rolex watch… or the Fender and Gibson guitars…some things do remain. Certain things go on and on and on and hardly change. 

And it’s good that that happens in our world. But by the same token, we have to embrace these elements of technology. And the irony is, that when we go in to record an album, we’re standing together in the studio with the valve amplifiers and the analog technology of music making, or in my case, acoustic instruments! 

We’re actually making music in the time-honored way – long preceding any notion of digital technology. We utilize that to simply get a record made. 

Our performances are entirely real time analog. That’s the way I’ve always liked to work. I’ve worked in other ways too. But I much prefer the idea that we are in a studio together performing live. 

In the cases where I am recording on my own, I am sitting in front of a microphone, playing an acoustic guitar, and the flute, and whatever…

For me it’s not that different from the operating procedure that I encountered when I first entered a recording studio as Jethro Tull in 1968. We no longer have to work within the limitations of 8 tracks. 

TS: The Zealot Gene works as a song-cycle, comment on the relevance of the album format in our age of streaming songs.

IA: I had this discussion with a couple of record companies two or three years ago prior to completing this album. We talked about the possibility that we shouldn’t release an album – and that perhaps we should release a track every month. And then after a few months, for those who want a physical copy we could print vinyl, or compact discs, whatever. 

They did not like that idea! They felt that the Jethro Tull fanbase would want an album as an ‘album’ -something that was cohesive and they will choose the way they want to listen to it, whether it’s streaming a single track on Spotify or purchase a double physical vinyl album. 

I find a large degree of unanimity in record companies in how to present music from bands of our sort; whether they are small boutique imprints or one of the three major companies. And they do tend to go back to the way it always was, based on my experience. 

So they think that Jethro Tull fans are people who largely older, and that is the way they prefer their music. Amongst younger fans buying into it for the first time, part of their reason for doing it is that they also prefer the larger packaging together of a number of songs into something cohesive as a bigger whole. 

Compared to most people I listen to music very little anyway. I was on a plane coming back from Rome three days ago and unusually for me, I happened to have some headphones in my pocket, in an attempt to block out the sound of some noisy people. I played a selection of music that was on my phone – something from ZZ Top, Frank Zappa, couple of things from Handel. A complete mixture of totally diverse and different music and I quite like doing that!

I remind myself how much variety there is in popular music in the last 50 years or so. And when you include music that was written perhaps 200 to 300 years ago, then you realize that the world is a very big place musically speaking. I like to sample a little bit of lots of different things. 

Very rarely do I sit down and listen to an entire album. If I was in the right mood perhaps I would listen to the entire Beethoven 9th Symphony, but it would have to be a special occasion where I felt where I really wanted to invest that period of time. 

So perhaps it’s wrong of me to ever expect other people to do the same thing with my music. I assume they listen to a track, or they listen to half a track. It’s the way things are and perhaps the way things have been for quite a while since people have had the means of not just listening to an album on a turntable and playing it all the way through – simply because it was a pain in the arse to get up and lift the needle. 

Nowadays it seems as if we have too much choice. But it can bog you down as well. It’s like going to a tapas place, you find something you really like, but it’s a tiny little portion! If you put it on to a whole plate I could have eaten a ton of that! There are too many little things you can dip into. 

TS: Good analogy of the music business and tapas! 

DCG: I realize that this is a bit of trivia – I used to attend Jethro Tull concerts at the Fillmore with a colleague of mine who noted that Clive Bunker was his favorite drummer – I think you know him, his name is Doane Perry.

[Notes From An Artist Notes: Clive Bunker was Jethro Tull’s original drummer spanning the years 1968 to 1971. Doane Perry was Jethro Tull’s longest serving drummer from 1984 to 2011.] 

IA: Yes, Doane was certainly aware of Jethro Tull in the early days. He was generally excited about music and Jethro Tull caught his interest…and when he finally got the opportunity to play with us it was a musical match that was very easy to mutually appreciate.