By Kent Brown
Atlanta, GA, USA
When thinking of flute-playing rock legends, there's really only two names that come to mind: Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. After over forty-five years of redefining prog-rock in the late 1960's, Ian Anderson is still going strong with his current world tour and release of his newest album, Homo Erraticus. THIRSTY sat down with Ian to discuss a myriad of topics ranging from his current tour, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the influence of American blues, an awkward Grammy moment, Jimmy Page's studio visit and even why he picked up the flute in the first place.
THIRSTY: Ian, thank for joining us today. It's a pleasure. Tell me about the new album, Homo Erraticus, and how the current tour is going?
IAN ANDERSON: Well, we just finished doing a lengthy UK tour, which I think went – artistically for the band and for the audience too – pretty well. We're doing several shows this summer in various parts of Europe, many of which are not the production tour Homo Erraticus, but more of "Best Of" summer shows. We start up in the U.S.A. in September and work our way through a couple of tours there, then to Europe and then throw in New Zealand – and then it's Christmas! So things are going fine and we're keeping very busy. It increases as the year wears on, the more shows, I suppose, the more I am mentally and physically focused and in better shape as a result of doing this sort of thing at my age than I would be if I sat at home and went fishing.
THIRSTY: I have to ask you – how does it feel to step out of the "alter-ego", as you put it, and present Ian Anderson to the masses?
IAN ANDERSON: It's something increasingly that has been the case over the last ten or fifteen years. I have chosen more and more frequently using my own name but I suppose in these years now I feel that it is just a question of branding…but I really would rather use my own name. Of course the Jethro Tull records were to be distinct from Jethro Tull the historical character who invented the seed drill in the 18th century. Jethro Tull records remain, obviously, a big part of what I do, what I love, and what I stand for. But I think I want my own name out there as often as possible just to remind people that Jethro Tull is primarily two things: if you Google it, it's the name of the band and the music associated with forty-odd years of recording and touring, but it, perhaps more importantly, belongs to somebody else who in his own way was a very important historical character and contributed tremendously around the world with the development of farming technology that we know today.
THIRSTY: Do you feel like you may get some backlash from the 18th century agricultural revolution and its fans?
IAN ANDERSON: Well if I was going to get it, it would have happened – I would think – back in 1968. So, no, I think one of Jethro Tull's original family didn't take too kindly to the use of the name back then, but it faded away, along with the Aqualung Corporation of North America who were all upset when the name of the album was revealed and they felt it was a misuse of their trade name. But they quietly sort of relaxed to that and we never had any sort of incident over the ensuing years and they accepted that it is a name of something that is an artistic endeavor, and you get away with it. As long as we don't abuse it too much to cripple it.
THIRSTY: To me, the music of Jethro Tull has a unique place – almost a transportive sound. It's hard for me to imagine that kind of eloquence coming from a hodgepodge of guys who simply loved playing the blues in local London pubs. Can you reflect on the evolution of Jethro Tull's humble beginnings to the production of masterful works like Aqualung, Thick as a Brick – and now Homo Erraticus – and becoming a Grammy Award-winning band?
IAN ANDERSON: The early days – indeed we were a little blues band who were probably not really going to go anywhere except for the fact I suppose that we stood out from the crowd because of the flute, which with all respect to the other guys, it was the thing that got us noticed and the thing that made us different. I think that that was an important part of the initial impression that the band gave. However, after relatively few months – by the summer of 1968 in fact – just a mere six months after we started – I had begun the music which was to become the Stand Up album the following year. And that album wasn't going to work for our existing guitar player who didn't really, I suppose, find it that easy to understand or contribute to what I was writing, so inevitably there was a parting of the ways. The band evolved in '69 with a much more eclectic set of influences that, I suppose, came with the music I was writing, which maybe stretched it a little bit for a couple of the guys in the band who found those musical ideas more difficult to find a way to express. But I think overall it's a pretty good album. We certainly broadened out and were amply rewarded in Europe and the UK and later in the U.S.A. when we did have quite a difference from some of the other bands. I think the folky, the world music, the eclectic elements that appeared in Stand Up were an important part of that development. That was a coming of age – more so, perhaps, with the Aqualung album, which was the "singer/songwriter" approach, that brought more of my acoustic guitar playing into the mix. I think the dynamic range of Aqualung, together with the light and the shade and the emotion to it – some was rather dark and serious, some was uplifting and whimsical – so I think that probably was the album that really brought about a period of maturity. And the albums that followed were progressive "prog-rock" style. I became more detailed in arrangements and performance terms, but its just part of the evolution. Not all of it, necessarily, announced experiments that bore particularly exotic fruit. They didn't all succeed – everything didn't work out just fine. You learn from your mistakes as much as from your successes.
THIRSTY: What did winning a Grammy Award mean to Jethro Tull as a band and to you personally?
IAN ANDERSON: Well, I suppose it was a difficult one because we weren't there to share in joy of the ceremony of the Grammy Awards. I think we told by our record company back then that we were unlikely recipients of the nomination. We were almost certainly not going to win because Metallica was the hot ticket and the band that would take that new category. And so, nobody expected Jethro Tull to actually receive the Grammy. We weren't invited to go to the ceremony. We were busy recording in the UK – we weren't going to fly 5,000 miles to gently applaud Metallica. It didn't seem like a wise course of action or expenditure on the part of our record company, so we didn't go. And when we did win, it wasn't really for a heavy metal, hard rock Grammy; we were getting awarded a Grammy by our success and the voting members of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences because we were a bunch of nice guys who had never won a Grammy before. That was what we got the Grammy for. And since they didn't really have a category then – and to my knowledge still don't have to this day – a category for best one-legged flute player, then I guess I should be content with what I have: an accolade from our peer group, musicians, writers, producers, record company folks – so nice to win it. But if it would have been, I think, a more appropriate category it would have made it easier for everybody.
THIRSTY: I know that blues music had an important impact on you and on the band in its early days. What about the blues movement spoke to you as an artist?
IAN ANDERSON: That began not as the blues movement, so much, as my awareness of black American folk – to a little extent urban blues – when I was a teenager. When I first heard Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, John Lee Hooker – these were guys that made very powerful music which resonated to me, not from a social or cultural point of view, but from purely a visceral – rather strange and exotic music. It was something that fired up a lot of people in my country at that time. But I don't think we knew for one minute, really, what the black experience was that spawned that music. We were very unaware of the historical, and the continuing, struggle of black people and their music in a predominantly white, and quite racist, society. One of my personal favorites of that era was a guy called J.B. Lenoir, who unusually amongst black blues musicians, actually sang in their music about the racial troubles and the riots that took place in the '60's. That was, I guess, a brave and quite unusual thing to do – to dwell upon issues and accuse racism that was still occurring in the '60's. So that began to impact upon me at a time when I really had to decide that this music wasn't my music – it was the passionate heart and soul music of a very different culture and society that I could never join or be a part of. I found it for my own personal point of view disagreeable to be imitating that music because I had such growing respect for what it stood for. I didn't really want to be a middle-class white boy pretending to sing the blues, so I started looking for other influences around the time I was 21, 22-years-old.
THIRSTY: When most kids decide they want to be in a rock n' roll band, their first inclination is not go grab a flute and start jamming away. I'm interested to know how that process began for you – and how it was received by rock n' roll "traditionalists."
IAN ANDERSON: I think the answer to that is fairly straightforward because I was not a terribly good guitar player in my mid-to-later teen years and so finding the flute was a chance encounter with an alternative instrument that I could make my own voice. Instead of being a second-rate guitar player and very much in the shadow of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green – those guys who were the hotshot guitarists in London. So, coming to London, and being a very rough and un-tutored flute player, made me stand about above the crowd and resulted in something that was surprisingly well received by the audience. I think one of our managers at the time, Chris Wright, was convinced that it was the wrong move and wanted me to learn to play background keyboards, stand at the back of the stage, and let our guitarist Mick Abrahams do the singing be the front man. But I kind of knew better. I had a feeling I was onto something with the flute and a few weeks later I think that Chris Wright realized that the flute was indeed an unlikely asset…it was a difference that we should maintain. The audience made it clear that this was something they found amusing, interesting, different – and it is of course a "girly" instrument. It's very popular for young girls to play the flute. But it is, of course, a phallic instrument; one that gets its origins from the seductive techniques of Lord Krishna, various North and South American Indian Gods, and indeed, even the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And these days we prefer to think of him seducing the rats with his flute during the time of Hamelin with the rodent infestation rather more than we like to think of his seduction of the young children of the neighborhood when they were lured off into a cave never to be seen again in an act of retaliation for the lack of gratitude of the townspeople for leaving the town without rats. However, today, he probably would have gone down for twenty years for some rampant act of pedophilia. So we care not to think about those things these days. Sadly to say, I am very conscious when I am active with young flute students – and teachers across the world, let alone people like me – have to be bloody careful these days not to get in any way cozy with youngsters. We live in a weird world. I can't even go with my grandchildren to a public place and take photographs of them without probably getting arrested these days. It's a rather sad reality of the world we live in – particularly in these internet years – the fascination with child pornography seems to have not only destroyed the souls of those engaged, but also destroyed, unfortunately, those innocent relationships that we have with our children and our grandchildren. Funny our world that we live in nowadays. That's why I make sure my grandchildren refer to me politely as Mr. Anderson. We keep our distance.
THIRSTY: To me, you are a real storyteller, (which continues today in your new album which seems an apt commentary on human quest and evolution through "the wandering man" theme). I feel that true storytelling is a bit of a lost art today – your thoughts?
IAN ANDERSON: Well, I'm not so much a storyteller in the sequential sense. I'm more of an observer. I'm more of a landscape painter. I like to create a scene – and to populate it with people. I think that I probably have more of a theatrical view of the world. I see incidents, people – I see them in almost a theatrical context. I see them set within the proscenium arch of a theatre stage. And so, they have a theatre set around them. They have them in an environment – reacting with each other, doing things, saying things, producing. It's less to do with sequential storytelling and more to do with creating scenes and painting a picture. I'm an observer rather than a storyteller. I don't very often sing of my own emotions or my own true reactions or beliefs. I don't "never" do it, but I don't very often do it. More often, when I create a character for a song, I'm endowing that character with a personality with attributes or failings that are very different from my own. I often will inhabit a character in terms of performance, but we mustn't imagine that as me any more than we imagine a skilled actor is the character he plays in a Shakespeare play or in The Walking Dead. Actors get away with it. They're allowed to be somebody different. We respect that. But somehow, we think that pop stars and rock stars have to actually be themselves, otherwise they lose credibility. I don't see the distinction. To me, that is about creating characters that are rich, and perhaps, quite different than "us" – the writers, the orchestrators, the directors. I think in a way, we need to mature our attitude towards the heart and soul of rock music and songs and be aware that in opera, in theatrical musicals – people write characters, performers perform the character and you don't have to be that person. You are taking the character from somebody else when you perform it – or even as a writer when you create those characters and write words for them to say.
THIRSTY: You must have known what my next question was going to be because I was going to say that Jethro Tull has always had a theatrical element to its sound and performance. In the Homo Erraticus notes, there is a reference to "Shakespeare rocks." Are you a lover of the Bard?
IAN ANDERSON: There are things that I find…where I have to be filled with respect, though I don't necessarily know a huge amount of the work or the characters. Of course, Shakespeare is a national asset – he's an international asset really – someone who was the consummate real storyteller. I suppose even though I'm not really a "fan" of the work, I enjoy elements of it that I have seen. Of course, I hugely admire those actors from all walks of acting life who take on Shakespeare because it's a tough nut to crack. Rarely do artists and actors get great reviews. It is an area in which harsh criticism abounds, when you decide to do Shakespeare, especially if you're a Yank, because with rare exceptions – it ends in tears. Kevin Spacey is probably one of those guys who can kind of get away with it because he's sort of been adopted as a cultural asset of our country – where he has spent most of his time and very active in serious theatre. Actually, I enjoy Kevin Spacey when he is doing perhaps more accessible parts. I was watching Kevin Spacey in a movie last night on the television called A Time to Kill. And, as usual, he was great – he doesn't overact – he can let the words and his expression and context tell the story. He's a great actor. And I am not! It's not my job to do that sort of stuff.
THIRSTY: I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
IAN ANDERSON: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is essentially an American institution. It's one that I think should serve, primarily, those great American artists – many of whom have failed to make it, in terms of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I think they deserve their place in the Hall of Fame long before you start going to the dregs of the British Rock Invasion and present them in such hallowed company. I think it's an American institution meant to serve American music. For the most part, those British artists who've made it into the Hall of Fame tend to draw more on American influences in their music, so arguably, what I do doesn't really have more than a passing reference in that context. It's not something that I am in any way bent out of shape in regard to. I mean, since the Hall of Fame opened – it's been there for a long time – but when it did open, they had a couple of exhibits of stuff of mine…my clothing, flutes, albums, whatever. They had stuff in there that acknowledged the presence of Jethro Tull. If, at this stage we were to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I would feel really embarrassed about it because I would be getting the impression that it's kind of a little late in the day to be asked to participate in that degree. I think I can think of other people – like J.B. Lenoir – he should be in there. I can't say for sure that he's not, but he ought to be as one of the unsung heroes of black American music.
THIRSTY: One question that I have always wanted to ask you: Who is Aqualung? I know the song was partially inspired by the homeless, but how did this story unfold for you as you conceptualized it?
IAN ANDERSON: The name – it's one of those rare occasions where I collaborated with somebody, my first wife. We were briefly married and we made an attempt to try to do something creative together on one occasion. As a result, she had some photographs that she had taken – she had studied photography in college – and she wanted to see if one of those characters in the photos could be brought alive in song. I asked her to write down words to describe this person, just to try to involve the songwriting process – I just said to scribble your thoughts out on paper. We made the lyrics of the song out of her descriptive words and I had to make those scan and work as a song piece of music. I think the name Aqualung was something that came to me as an idea as a nickname for this character; this emphysema-ridden condition that was given by his peers the name Aqualung. It's kind of a strange thing because Robin Williams – almost independently I suppose – created that character in The Fisher King. I often wonder if Robin Williams had ever seen the album cover or heard the album or knew the character, because it certainly resonated for me as a depiction of someone falling into that homelessness with all of the contradictory emotions that go along with it for other people; a mixture of pity, fear, loathing, mistrust. It's a complex issue. In fact The Fisher King was, indeed, on television last night. I didn't record it – I haven't watched it since it first came out. But it's the evolution of that attempt to write a song together – probably the only – one of two times when I have actually collaborated with somebody to a fifty percent level. Not something I would normally do. There are some little snippets of music that the other band guys contributed here and there, but for the most part, I am a loner. When it comes to writing music, I just have to, kind of, do it. I hated working with other people or trying to accommodate or feeling self-conscious enough to do that. I am a loner. To me, writing songs – writing music – in collaboration seems as absurd as two artists trying to paint the same picture. Of course, that is not entirely unusual because of processes that were commonly used, even by the great masters, who would have their apprentices kind of "finish off" or add little bits of background to paintings on their behalf, and they would just sign it off as their own work and that process is still carried out today in some corners of contemporary art. But for the most part, artists sit alone in their galleys, with a north facing room, and work alone in tortured silence.
THIRSTY: When you recorded Aqualung – that was when Island Records first opened their London studio. You were reportedly recording at the same time as Led Zeppelin when they were recording their fourth untitled album. You guys got the big studio and Zeppelin got the small one? How did that dichotomy work?
IAN ANDERSON: The Zeps they were in the smaller, more boutique studio. We were in a cavernous church main body, which was a big, empty, horrible, cold, echoey room. It was a dreadful place to work in. The controller room was even worse. We occasionally managed to slip in to do an over-dub or listen to our track in the smaller studio when Zeppelin wasn't there. But they were busy downstairs doing their thing. I remember Jimmy Page popped into our session, actually at the time Martin Barre was over-dubbing the guitar solo for the song "Aqualung". He was in the room, being encouraging, sort of chugging along to the music. Quite intimidating, as you can imagine, from our view, having Jimmy Page watch you try to record! But we really didn't see much of Led Zeppelin because, like us, they were heads-down, trying to get an album finished. We didn't really see them or socialize with them. I don't remember how many days we coincided being there, but I do remember that they were the principle reason you couldn't get into the smaller studio!
THIRSTY: I was checking out some to of the tour photos – and you can still nail that minstrel leg-kick. What's your secret?
IAN ANDERSON: It's not something that requires much in the way of secrets or physical prowess or dexterity. It's just a natural thing – like riding a bicycle. I was out riding around the farm yesterday and came across a competition-style motorcycle that I haven't ridden in quite a while, but once you've spent thirty seconds in the saddle, or rather, standing because you run trials by standing up most of the time, your sense of balance, the throttle control, the slipping of the clutch, the "slip-slidey" back wheel if you're going through something wet – it kind of comes back to you quickly. It's just as well, otherwise you'd fall over, which is exactly what would happen to me if I didn't retain that physical and mental memory of standing on one leg. I would fall over, and you would all laugh because I would be doing it live onstage!
THIRSTY: Congrats on continuing to produce such wonderful work and your newest success story, Homo Erraticus. Can't wait to hear what's next for you.
IAN ANDERSON: Perfect. Nice to talk with you.