A Conversation With Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Few bands in history can boast of the success that Jethro Tull has seen in the past 50 years. On January 28, the band will release The Zealot Gene, its first collection of new, original music in over 20 years. Iconic frontman Ian Anderson recently took time to talk about the present and future of Jethro Tull.

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On what will come next for Jethro Tull – Well, the next thing is hopefully the resumption of a lot of concert dates that have been postponed from 2020 and 2021, and hopefully, as things progress during this year, we can get those shows to happen. Right now, as you know, the situation is not very good with Omicron firing on all cylinders throughout Europe and indeed other countries too, so we can hope that things will go ahead. Beyond that, I’m working on a new album for release in 2023. But just to clarify on this issue of as you put it, “The first new Jethro Tull studio album in the century”. Of course, in 2004, there was a Jethro Tull Christmas album, in 201 I started work on a new project which was released really under my own name, Thick as a Brick 2, and in 2014, there was Homo Erraticus (released as Ian Anderson). In 2017, there was a Jethro Tull string quartets album, and now I started in 2017 in terms of recording, finally has released The Zealot Gene album. So when you add in all the box sets and all of the remixes and remastered stuff has been a pretty constant stream of attention-seeking and money-grabbing product that has found its way into the public domain. So it’s not as if we’ve been resting on any laurels or crawling under a stone, we’ve been pretty active and done, this century, I guess we probably manage something like more than a thousand concerts this century. :57

On being able to record the record live in studio rather than by file-sharing – Well, yes, I’m glad you made that slight amendment there, it was recorded in a live fashion, but not live in the sense of being a live performance in front of an audience, we were in a studio. We rehearse everything prior to going into record and so, the recording experience with most Jethro Tull albums since 1968 has been playing live in the studio in the sense of all the guys performing at the same time, not broken up into little bits, and that began long before the digital age and file-sharing that they were people who did make records one musician at a time. I remember Bob Ezrin telling me that Pink Floyd had recorded The Wall, and he was baffled by the fact that at no point during the recording process, any more than one member of the band was in the studio at any one time. That’s what he said. But these days, of course, it is possible to do things bit by bit, piece by piece. I performed as a guest on many people’s records in the last few years, not only in the pandemic but in the last few years, where it’s all been about my contributing by sending an audio file, but never actually being in the studio with any other artist or producer. That’s okay, but when it comes to doing my stuff, I much prefer working with the band and after we’ve spent some time rehearsing, which is probably going to be on average, maybe every two days, we rehearse three songs in the sense of it being fairly productive. We fine-tune things, and then we go into the studio and we would hope to record typically two tracks in a day. Because of the realities of acoustic instruments figuring into the instrumental array of sounds that they have to really be recorded separately. I’m the acoustic guy in the band, I play the flute and I sing and play acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments, so my parts are usually done again as over-dubs because the guide tracks that I may have sung while the band was playing, doing takes in the studio, are somewhat polluted and punctuated by my shouting, “Second chorus coming now, two, three, four”. You have the real guide tracks that people follow, but it’s generally speaking more exhilarating, more of an atmospheric experience to try to perform as you would do it live on stage. That’s the way I like to work and in the way that most often, we have worked historically. I don’t know how other people do it, but it’s sometimes hard to find recording studios that do facilitate that process that way. Many of them that describe themselves as “professional recording studios” actually only have a control room and maybe a little room where one person can be in there in sound isolation performing at a time. We need to be in a place that is a decent size where you can actually spread out around the room. And perform with a degree of separation using direct injection of instruments into the mixing board and acoustic screens around the drums and any other sources that produce the noise in the studio. But when you do that, there is inevitably some leak. That means it’s not very easy anyway to re-record bits of it because there’s usually a trace of guitar coming through the drum mics and vice versa, some drums that you will hear in the background in the microphone that’s stuck in front of a guitar speaker, or certain things that you have to do that you really gotta stick with what you’ve got in the studio. On The Zealot Gene, Florian Opahle, the guitar player was playing his guitar solos live in the studio as we recorded the masters, and that is quite a brave thing to do and probably not very common. Usually, the producer will say, “When it comes to the guitar solo, just don’t play anything, and then we’ll record it separately afterward”, but Florian actually played them live in the studio, all of them. Which is good. 3:34

On the lyrical inspiration behind The Zealot Gene What inspired the songs was the one-word list of strong human emotions, that was my starting point for writing the album. I decided I would write a song, each one of them about a different, powerful human emotion, and having compiled a list of one-word emotions like vengeance, hate, greed, envy, and then some nice stuff like love and companionship, loyalty, compassion, I looked at my list and thought, “Oh, those are words I remember reading in the Bible”, and so, in a fanciful way, I did an Internet search of references to those words as they appeared in the King James translation of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. Then I copied and pasted some of those just as a reference point, but I wasn’t necessarily depending on biblical text, it was just a useful comparison point. On one or two of the songs, I stuck with the historic perspective, the storytelling of some of that stuff. The other songs, for the most part, were songs where I’m using the present-day realities of living in this world, that’s my main focus, and the fact that there is some relationship to some biblical text, is just for me, an interesting exercise from an intellectual and from a songwriting point of view. It’s nice to have some reference points, but usually what I do is I work from visual images and the biblical text in some cases, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot and his wife fleeing the city and Lot’s wife turning to face the mayhem behind her and being turned into a pillar of salt, had a kind of image of what that might have looked like. That image translated into some poor civilian turning to face a 2000-foot airburst of the first nuclear weapon to be dropped in anger on the poor folks of Hiroshima in August of 1945. So the song is really about that. It’s not about Sodom and Gomorrah, but it’s a point of reference. It is another little kind of visual reference that I had when I was thinking about the song, and I made a couple of references to that Biblical tale, but the song itself is soundly set in 1945 in recent history, as opposed to three, four, 5000 years ago. I’m not setting out to illustrate the Bible anyway. This is not a Bible lesson, this is just taking as examples elements of biblical text and then trying to see how they might relate to the world we live in today. 8:54

On his songwriting process – All along the way, you begin to firm up your idea. So by the time I made some simple demos for the band, just usually my phone to record some simple demos and then sending those to the guys along with all the lyrics and the chord sheets, so they had the basis on which they could prepare for band rehearsals together in the studio. By that stage, I had most of the ingredients for each song, and that’s fine, but there’s a little bit of room to add new ideas and fine-tune things when we’re rehearsing. We did seven tracks that way in 2017, and the other five ended up being, by necessity, recorded at home, by me because the pandemic during the last two years just resulted in my having to get on and finish the album by doing it that way. The other guys did in those cases, send some audio files to incorporate into the mix because I was working alone at home. I was using an acoustic guitar and other instruments, and rather than the way they would have been done those same songs, had they been done by the band, they would have had quite a different musical feel. But in a way that turned out perhaps for the best, because I think it gave the album a little bit more depth sonically and a little more dynamic range because of the five songs that they had really essentially an acoustic feel rather than be bass and drums and electric guitar kind of tracks. So it probably worked out for the best, I think. 12:24

On what it is about these musicians and this material that makes it Jethro Tull – Well, for a start, three of them live not too far away from me, which is a whole lot better than some previous editions of Jethro Tull when we were separated by hundreds of miles or even many thousands of miles, in the case of Doan Perry, who lived in Los Angeles. So the first thing is they’re only less than an hour away from me, we can convene to work fairly quickly, but also, I guess they come from different musical backgrounds. Having people whose background in musical preference is for jazz or jazz-funk, in the case of the drummer or classical music, in the case of John O’Hara, then you have different layers of musical style that you can incorporate into the arrangements of songs, which I think is more interesting than it would be if everybody’s musical preference and interest was just in hard rock music. I think it might be more focused and potentially more of a powerful musical form, but I think it would lack the subtlety and the interest that comes from musicians whose background is different music forums. I’m probably, personally speaking, my background is more in terms of folk music and even going back to the earliest days with blues, but that seems to be a good balance that we have. For me, the interesting challenge of writing music, keeping it in mind that somebody is going to probably think of a little way to make this a rather more complex jazz chord, whereas I might have just chosen to use an open 5th being a simple soul that I am. It’s all about the variation and complementing sometimes what could be opposing musical styles, but I like to think we bring it all together in the final arrangements. 14:48

On if he ever hesitates to use the Jethro Tull name without classic members in the band – Not really. No, I mean, I can call it whatever I want. As far as the name Jethro Tull in any musical context is concerned, for many, many years, my company has owned that trademark and copyright in the name, so I mean, I call it whatever I want. What other people might think is not of much importance to me because I’m the guy just gets on and makes the music, I don’t really worry about what people are thinking about it. I suspect that what lies behind your question is that in terms of original band members, well, there’s only me. Even Martin Barre was not an original member of Jethro Tull. He joined after a year or so. I suspect that what lies behind your question is that inevitable one about Martin Barre not being in the band, and therefore, there may be some people who get their knickers in a twist and saying, “Well, you can’t call it Jethro Tull because Martin’s not there”. Well, Martin has his own life and his own band, and that’s something we talked about 20 odd years ago, I was encouraging Martin to develop his own parallel musical career, and took him a long time to really get around to doing that. I’m absolutely sure that there is no way he would want to turn the clock back and be simply the guitar player and Jethro Tull, given that he can be his own boss and do exactly what he likes to do during the remaining years of his professional musical life. Same thing for me, and I don’t have forever, and I’m just getting on doing things and hopefully able to enjoy a little while longer, being able to continue as a working musician. We did play 20 concerts last year, in the latter part of the year when covid regulations and rules allowed us to get in and out of a few countries, we did do 20 shows, but prior to that, we had an 18-month spell of no (work). I didn’t see the guys in the band for a year and a half. During that year and a half, they and the road crew were all there were out of work. They had no money, and so it was quite an important thing really, as an employer, for me to be able to put things at least back on the road to a degree in order that they could generate a little bit of income again. This year is not looking too good so far, we’ve had to already postpone two tours in the month of January, and who knows what February, March, and April will bring because we don’t really know what’s going to happen with Omicron, whether the currently declining infection rates in the UK are a model for elsewhere or whether it’s just a blip as a result of fewer people being tested and few people actually either admitting to having Omicron, which is obviously a milder form of the disease, we’re pretty sure. But maybe not bothering to, rather like Mr. Djokovic, not necessarily admitting that they’ve got covid and carrying on as usual. When you look at the bigger picture, time is of the essence, you’ve got to crack on and do these things while we can. The criteria really for deciding is if something is more of an acoustic, singer-songwriter material then I guess I’d probably say that was an Ian Anderson album. If it’s a band album of rock music and all the guys being there, then I’m more likely to think, “Well, if it fits in broadly to the Jethro Tull repertoire, that cannon of music styles, it tends to belong to that bigger repertoire in terms of its sound and musical stylings, and I would then think it’s probably better to call it Jethro Tull. So that’s what it is, but when we go and play the Jethro Tull repertoire, the repertoire is bigger than the musicians, including me, it’s really a vast body of work, which was released under the name Jethro Tull. If that’s what we’re playing, then I feel it’s appropriate to describe that concert as a Jethro Tull concert. So that’s what usually I do, but in order that people know that I’m actually gonna be there and be on the stage it may say Ian Anderson Presents, Jethro Tull in Concert, or Jethro Tull, The Prog Years, or whatever it might be. So I think it’s quite important that people realize this is not a tribute band, this is actually the real deal, and as I say, I can legally call it what I want, nobody else can. 17:37

On the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – So far, it’s a sense of relief that I haven’t had to face the embarrassing prospect of being invited into the Hall of Fame, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I’ve maintained the position that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is an American institution about American-inspired music. It doesn’t necessarily preclude musicians of other nationalities, but I think it’s gotta be essentially about American music. Not necessarily exactly rock and roll, so we’re not talking about Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Elvis Presley or whatever, but we’re talking broadly speaking, pop and rock music. There is a certain sort of American styling, and certainly, the Rolling Stones for example would fit that perfectly. Because they owe everything to American music, whereas I guess Jethro Tull, apart from the first album, I would say, not a lot of Americana in the musical styles that I tend to work with. So I don’t think we are appropriate as inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But the other side of the coin is when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors, it did so with a few Jethro Tull exhibits, which I provided to them, and they were in Cleveland when the place was shiny and new and I went to take a look. It’s not as if we’re divorced from that whole thing entirely, but I think there’s a slight difference when it comes to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and luckily, I’m not gonna be faced with an embarrassment of having to claim that I’m washing my hair that night and I can’t actually come to wherever it is they do such things. Historically, Jan Wenner, who is, as I know, still one of the kingpins who sit on that board and decide who will be admitted through its grand portals, he’s always had a huge dislike of Jethro Tull, from Rolling Stone days onwards. So we’re not on his list of favorites for sure, and that’s fine. That’s fine by me, but genuinely, I respect the institution of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame enormously, but I don’t think we really belong in there, and I can think of a few artists who probably do who are not part of that. They owe so much to American music, and American music owes something to them too, because they have continued to keep that flame of musical Americana alive throughout the world, even if they are not citizens of the US. 23:14

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