Gary James' Interview With Ian Anderson Of
As front man for Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson has performed in more than 54 countries, recorded over 30 LPs and sold more than 60 million albums. In the late '70s, Jethro Tull was one of the most successful concert draws in the world, rivaling Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. Rolling Stone magazine called Tull "One of the most commercially successful and eccentric Progressive Rock bands." On April 15, 2014, Ian Anderson released his latest CD titled "Homo Erraticus." We talked to Ian Anderson about that CD and a whole lot more!
Q - The title of your CD "Homo Erraticus" means Wandering Man. You could almost be describing your life, couldn't you? A wandering minstrel traveling from city to city, playing your music.
A - Well, indeed. It's the story of all of us. It's the story of migration. It's us as a species. As hunter / gatherers, as our Paleolithic ancestors going in search of somewhere where the woolly mammoth is plentiful and the grass is greener. We do that not only in the physical sense of migration, but we do it in the metaphorical sense of the migration of the aesthetic with our arts, our entertainment, our culture, our religion, our commerce, our industry. We send ideas forth as well as people and this is what this album is about. There's a migration of not only people, but migration of what people produce, sometimes for worse, but most often for the better. I talk about migration notably not immigration, which is the thing that scares the shit out of many people in Europe who are afraid of being overrun by hordes from elsewhere and of course you live in constant fear in the United States of being overrun by your neighbors. I don't mean the Mexicans. I mean the Canadians.
Q - I don't live in fear of that. I never even thought about it to be honest with you.
A - (laughs). Yeah, well that's the point. People are concerned, as has always been the case, that someone is coming. They are foreigners and they are not sure of their motives and their ways. But that's the story of all of us. We have to remind each other we are all from somewhere else originally. Not a man, woman or child living in America today can say, well, with the possible exception of a few original natives, Indian tribes, but even they can trace their ancestry back to Eastern Asia when their ancestors crossed the land, the bridge between Asia and the Americas after the last Ice Age.
Q - You have your own record label, Calliandra Records for this new CD and Warner Brothers is re-releasing "A Passion Play". Why is your new CD not on Warner Brothers Records?
A - Well, it could have been. It was just that Warner Brothers have recently taken over the former assets of the former E. M. I. And it is a very long settling down process in terms of integrating all that catalog as well as new releases. I felt on this occasion, although Warner Brothers offered me the same deal as the one I eventually struck with another smaller record company who specialized perhaps more in Progressive, Alternative Rock music. I felt that there was probably a better chance of getting more attention in the short term with people who were going to try a little bit harder. For them it was a major release, whereas Warner Brothers are very much in a difficult transition period during the last few months. I'm of course working with Warner Brothers on a regular basis regarding management of all the catalog and box sets and new releases and new mixes and so on and so forth. That continues unabated, but I politely declined the Warner Brothers' offer for the new album because I could get the same offer elsewhere from two other record companies which I felt were probably going to give me more attention, and so that's the way we structured it. But the business deal involves a label imprint for me which is only a convenience. It doesn't really mean anything hugely. It's just the way we can do it. It doesn't mean I'm setting up business as a record company. It is simply an imprint label, which is how Chrysalis Records began many years ago with a label deal with Warner Brothers in the USA and Island Records in the UK. Jethro Tull was the first band to be on the new label imprint of Chrysalis Records.
Q - I saw the video of some of the guys in the studio and it looked like they had charts in front of them. Are you writing out the charts for those guys?
A - No. What I sent them back in March 2013 were all of the lyrics, all the chord sheets for the basic structure and some demos which were the basic ingredients of the music. So, they got a basic structure of the music, but then they all sit down and write their own charts as you call them, where they join the dots together and build upon that during rehearsal. But they start off with their charts, it probably consists of not too much more than the basic chord charts that I sent them. They will write into that in whatever programs they use to write their charts. They will write in the detail as we do the arrangements and they refine that and keep updating it. Then they finish up with working charts that they use for rehearsals and to remind themselves during the recording process. By that stage they are playing from memory and by ear, not reading the music so much.
Q - Do you have a songwriting partner or do you write the music and the lyrics yourself?
A - Yes. I've only ever twice in my life collaborated with anybody else. Actually, three times, funnily enough. An old keyboard of ours, Peter Vettese back in the '80s, asked me to play on a track on an album of his. I don't know what song I was going to do. An old traditional Scottish tune and then I sent him the lyrics and ideas about the arrangement and structure. He actually put together some music and sent me the music and I added the flute and vocal parts. I suppose you could call that collaboration because he came up with the musical arrangement. We didn't write the music because we were taking it quite strongly from an original, traditional song, but it's a collaboration of sorts anyway. But normally I'm useless at writing. I can't sit down with other people and share something as intimate and personal as trying to write stuff. I work almost always alone. I think on the album "Songs From The Wood" back in 1977, particularly on that album, some of the other guys in the band came up with some little elements of music which they are credited with and get paid for. It could be four bars here or eight bars there, but if somebody writes something, I'd rather they do it and then they get paid pro rata on a time basis for their contribution. Out of 300 songs I've written over the years, that's probably, I don't know, half a percent of the time that anybody has contributed something that amounted to having a royalty entitlement. It's very rare. I'm not sitting down really collaborating. If you've got an idea for this little section, you come up with something and I just sit back and let them do it.
Q - How has "Homo Erraticus" been received by the press?
A - Generally speaking, I think it's been reviewed positively and being very positively welcomed by the fans who have heard it, listened to it, or bought it or come to the shows so far. We are midway through a UK tour right now and heading off into Europe in the Summer and then we touch down in the middle of September we start in the USA and play September, October and November.
Q - And I see you are booked a year in advance at the Olympia Theater in Paris!
A - Well, some of these venues as you know are quite hard to get. The Olympia in Paris is a very, very difficult one to get. If you are going to book it, it's got to be a long time ahead. We had a couple of shows in the city Opera House coming up which were booked and on hold many months ago, although we have only just signed the contract and booked the flights today in fact. The dates have been on hold for quite a long time because they are so difficult to get. It's the same in the UK. If you are trying to book the Albert Hall, you are going to have to do it more than a year in front. So yes, there are those kind of venues that are sought after, which you have got to get your name on pretty early on.
Q - It was back in 1984 that you were having problems with your voice while you were playing the Universal Amphitheater. You told the people sitting in the front row, "I have a message for you people in the front row who are smoking marijuana. I've had a real problem with my voice and I'd appreciate it if you'd put that stuff out now!" Marijuana is now legal in two states in the United States, Colorado and Washington State. I don't know if that means they can now smoke it legally at concerts, but...
A - You don't know?! (Laughs). You are talking about Universal Amphitheater. It's an indoor venue, okay? So, somebody sitting in the front row smoking anything or setting fire to a newspaper, I am going to get pissed off with you. So, it has nothing to do with what you are smoking. I'm not preaching a moral message telling people what they should or shouldn't take. I'm just saying it is damn inconsiderate to blow your smoke into the face of the person who has to breathe, take four breaths for every one you take, because I'm doing two hours of aerobics on stage. If you went down to your local gym for a workout and if you found people smoking anything in your close vicinity, you would get pissed off too. We are not talking about a moral message here. I can assure you in the state of Colorado you are not allowed to smoke anything indoors, anywhere.
Q - When those states say it's legal, I'm trying to figure out if it's legal to smoke at a concert and what you would do in that situation.
A - It means you can legally be in possession of marijuana if it's a small amount in your own home, perhaps in a public place, but I don't think it means you are allowed to smoke it in public anymore then smoking cigarettes in public is acceptable unless you are outdoors in a very open space. As you know, living in America within meters of certain buildings, even if you are standing outside, you are not allowed to smoke in certain parts of the country. The laws are different state to state, but generally speaking marijuana is accepted in small consumption for private in this country (England). It is still technically illegal, but no cop is going to bust you for having a joint in your possession. If you are smoking it in public you are probably going to get rapped over the knuckles, but that's about it. Of course in the Netherlands smoking marijuana is not only legal but acceptable even indoors in so-called coffee shops, but that is a quirk of European law that certainly doesn't extend to every country. Even in the Netherlands a lot of people aren't quite against the idea that it should be encouraged and accepted because there is, for a distinct number of people, a high likelihood of them moving from soft drugs to hard drugs. For all the stories you hear of that's not the case, you hear the same stories about Internet porn. But of course we are talking about individuals. Not everybody has the capacity for calm, orderly, recreational drug use, whether it's having a pint of beer at the local pub or whether it's drinking yourself into a stupor with some dreadful combination of hard liquor. People may be responsible. They may be irresponsible. The same thing applies to the things that we more conventionally call drugs. We should include nicotine and alcohol alongside marijuana and most other soft drugs as being in the same camp. They are all to a degree addictive to a greater or lesser degree according to your proclivity for having as they say an addictive personality. If someone is blowing smoke at you, I think you are quite entitled to say, "Look, do you mind? Either bugger off or don't do it."
Q - It used to be if you were at a concert, smoking, an usher would shine a flashlight on you and you'd have to put whatever you are smoking, out.
A - Well, I play an awful lot of concerts in America and I have done every year pretty much all of my life. I've done at least one US tour every year I think except maybe '96, '95 rather. It is certainly my experience that smoking in general, regardless of what it is, is not acceptable in recent years. By recent years I mean probably the last 20 years in most places and certainly in more recent years than it is by statute law, it is not allowed anymore than it is allowed for you to smoke marijuana or cigarettes on an airplane. It's just a no no for very obvious reasons. So I don't think these things are applicable any longer, but of course I encounter, particularly in outdoor concerts, a lot of smoking marijuana at festivals in Italy, Spain, different parts of the world it's going to happen. Usually outdoors it's not a problem.
Q - I take it you are not a smoker.
A - I used to smoke cigarettes, but I haven't done so for the last 20 years, 25 years.
Q - I never understood why someone who makes a living as a singer will smoke.
A - Well, a strange irony is, there are some singers who rather quite defensively claim that cigarette smoking helps their voice. I've heard it said a few times. Believe me, it doesn't, because if you smoke cigarettes, whether you are a singer or not, if you smoke enough of them you are going to end up with emphysema and a few other problems that definitely won't enhance your singing. Generally speaking, I think if you are a singer, avoid taking much alcohol, don't smoke at all and keep out of smoking environments. That's what most of us in an ideal world would have done all along had we known then what we know now, but back in the '60s, '70s, '80s, I don't think the full perils of smoking were known and nor were most singers in the context of Pop and Rock music given any training or advice about how to maintain their voices. The irony is, I'm in better shape now than I was 20 years ago in terms of singing, but it's certainly much harder for me to sing now than it was 40 years ago when I had the voice of a 20-year-old, 'cause I was a 20-year-old. Now I'm a guy who is considerably older than Pavarotti was when he was very much borderline in terms of being able to sing at all before he died. I am considerably older than Frank Sinatra when he also was at the point where the game was up. So, I'm kind of doing okay. Mick Jagger is remarkably in good shape for his age and experience. I think those of us that managed to get this far probably count on getting a bit further if we are just a bit careful. It happens not only with the male, but female voices as well in the world of Opera singing, Classical singing. I mean, you lose a couple of semi-tones, a couple of steps I think you call them in America parlance, from your vocal range. You will lose that at the top end. Some of us actually develop more powerful full chest voices in the lower register to compensate, which in my case is very much true. I have a much stronger chest voice than I did when I was younger. That I suppose is because I've learned a little bit how to use that part of my vocal range that is capable of delivering a degree of power and strength. I'm much better able to do that than I was. Being a baritone singer, that's what I was born with than my top practical notes of say F sharp, probably F really, when I was in my 20s is now and E flat or a D. So, I'm a couple of steps below where I was, but that's par for the course as you age. Pavarotti, poor chap, had this glorious voice when he was in his 40s. It was great. At the time he became known to the world he'd actually reached his peak and was on the decline, but of course prior to you and I getting to know Mr. Pavarotti in the Three Tenors, those aficionados of Opera new Pavarotti at his best in the preceding years when he was truly a great singer, but he was struggling. So it's the certain challenges that were there for the truly great singers that is very hard for them. Our folks who fool around in the world of Pop and Rock music, especially like me who write their own songs, we can kind of throw it around and do it a different way. We can always find a way to get around those things, but not if you are doing Classical Opera. The spotlight and pressure is truly on you and I was with Pavarotti the last public concerts he did on a TV show in Germany and it was really a sad and profound experience watching him struggle along with Jose Carreras, who wasn't doing much better at the time, to get through a rehearsal. Your heart went out to the man who was there honoring a commitment, but clearly knowing that he could never do what it was people expected of him any longer. That's a sad place to be. I hope that I don't get to that's point, at least not in the next couple of weeks. (Laughs).
Q - What do you remember about doing "Rock 'n' Roll Circus"?
A - Oh, I remember a lot about it. I remember being backstage with Tony Iommi, later of Black Sabbath, who stood in to play guitar or mime playing guitar for us because I was the only one actually performing 'live'. Playing flute and singing 'live'. The other guys were on tape because we didn't have a guitar player at that particular time. Tony joined us just for a day a rehearsal and a day of shooting. I remember Brian Jones, who was not in great shape, being past his best physically and mentally and rather shunned by other members of The Rolling Stones because he wasn't able to contribute very much. It was a little sad watching that, but Mick Jagger was in great form, driving his guys onto a 'live' performance for TV cameras to which it was the first time they played 'live' for a while because they'd be away from 'live' performing and had just finished recording "Beggars Banquet", which I've always thought was one of their, well, possibly one of their best records to me in terms of having lots of really great songs on it. But I remember lots about it. It was not a great experience for anybody, including The Stones, but it was shelved as a project for many years 'til the rights to it were actually owned by Allen Klein, who'd been The Stones' manager and secured rights to things they didn't know about. The Stones had refused permission to have it released, but it was only when he got permission in principle from The Who and Eric Clapton and me and maybe one or two of the other acts that were on I suppose gave their permissions and The Stones eventually caved in and said, "Oh well, all right then." It was finally released in the early '90s I think. Maybe the late '80s.
Q - You didn't particularly care for the name of the group Jethro Tull. So, if you had a chance to go back, what would you have named the group?
A - Put it in the perspective that back then we had many names in the weeks preceding Jethro Tull. I think in the previous five weeks we had four different names because we weren't very good. We were trying to learn the job really. The name got changed every week because we were so bad, club owners didn't want to book us again, so we kept changing our name. I think it was on our third attempt to play The Marquee Club that we were accepted and given a residency there. At that particular week, our agent had called us Jethro Tull. Jethro Tull, I didn't know, was the name of the dead guy from the 18th century that invented the seed drill. I just thought it was a name our agent had made up. It seemed a bit silly, a bit funky, but I thought well, it's no worse than, I think the week before we were called Navy Blue and the week before that we were called Ian Henderson's Bag Of Blues, which was a misprint. Maybe the week after we could have just been called Typo, (laughs) which would have been kind of fun. So Jethro Tull it was. A couple of weeks later I realized the awful significance that we'd be named after a dead guy. There really was a Jethro Tull, but at that point to change our name again was throwing away this little foot in the door moments of potential success that we now had through being a Marquee Club band. So we had to stick with the name. But over the years I suppose it's become more of an embarrassment to me personally. You can't feel good about being named after a real person who was an important person. I've huge admiration and respect for the original Jethro Tull who was a very important figure developing what became modern agriculture. He was a green farmer. He's the guy who literally wrote the book about tillage, crop rotation, the use of natural fertilizers. He was the greenest of green farmers. He put the methodology into what had only been accidentally done before. He literally wrote the book on modern farming. It feels so startingly un-original and a bit creepy being named after a dead guy. I've got to the point, and I suppose some years ago when I started to backpedal on the name, about 12 years ago and started more often to use my own name in the billing of concerts and of course in recording too.
Q - I doubt if your fans would even know what Jethro Tull means.
A - I would hope that most of the fans would, because that's something I've always talked about over the years. I've always felt the credit of the name goes to the real name it was. I've always been anxious to make people understand not only who we were named after, but also my embarrassment about it. I'm guilty of identity theft. It's like I stole his credit card, got his pin code and made a ton of money fleecing his bank account. I should go to jail just for identity theft, don't you think?
Q - No, I wouldn't say that. Have any of his relations contacted you?
A - Back in the early days, yes, and they weren't happy. And the owners of the trademark Aqua Lung Corporation in North America also contacted us, extremely unhappy about the name of an album which was taken from what I believed to be a generic name for breathing, scuba diving, oxygen gear. I thought it was just a generic name. I didn't realize it was a trademark, corporate name, (laughs) when I came up with that name for the character in the song "Aqualung". So it was a couple of embarrassments there. They both went away quietly. There were no lawsuits or court actions, just I suppose a bit of grumbling went on. I can understand in both cases, particularly in the name of Jethro Tull. It would've caused some annoyance to some people. I daresay if I decided to name the band Adolf Hitler, people would've got pissed off as well for probably more different reasons.
Q - Who knows, you might have heard from his relations as well.
A - Yeah, well there was a band in Hungary back in the '70s called Genghis Khan. Of course that was a name that again belongs to a historical figure. When I heard there was a band called Genghis Khan I thought that's really tacky, calling yourself after a historical character. Then I reminded myself that I too had been doing that for 10 years. It doesn't feel that great. Uriah Heep, another band named after an albeit fictitious character in literature. I think when it comes to band names we should try to be a bit more original. By and large it's kind of important. Back then I'm afraid I didn't have my eye on the ball or my eye on the history book when I was at school, otherwise I might have known better at the time.
Q - You put a lot of time and effort into the songs you write. Could you ever sit down and just write a silly song?
A - Oh, I've written a lot of silly songs (laughs), but not intentionally.
Q - Could you write say a dance song or a Disco song?
A - Well, I'm not really sort of made that way. I think when somebody asked me recently how I would define Progressive Rock or Prog Rock, I said it's music for people who get bored easily. Repetition is a key ingredient of making music. It's one of those tools that a writer has at his or her disposal. Repetition nails it. It makes the point, but if you overdo it, it becomes irritating. And so there were times with a very many tools of the trade, things you have in your tool bag when it comes to constructing music, then you try to use them sparingly. So I think to over egg at repetition and try and have this, I don't know, hypnotic factory approach, it becomes pretty annoying. I remember there was a song I wrote once called "17", which had some fairly elementary, basic and rather simplistic lyrics which immediately made it, for me, not a song I'm in any way proud of. I think it's pretty poor. But what's most annoying about it, and I wrote it at the time with the same repeating pattern of music and the same repeating kind of melody. No kind of harmonic progression. It just goes on and on. At the time I thought I would do this on purpose for a reason to see if I could create that kind of hypnotic effect. I suppose I did. It's so hypnotic if I listen to it now it certainly is guaranteed to send me asleep and I imagine most of our audience as well. It's an example of, in short I would answer your question, no I can't successfully write that kind of music. I'm not made that way. I tire of it to quickly.
Q - When you were in college, you were studying Art. What did you want to do with that degree?
A - Well, I think in a way what appealed to me about the paint and the arts was a little bit precariously close to showbiz because I rather loved the work of Magritte. I still think he's an important artist to this day. He's an idea man. He's a bit of a showbizzer when it comes to making ideas that are perhaps more than the execution. Salvador Dali, whom I never really warmed to the same way I did with Magritte, is the ultimate Art showman. He was, in my mind, a bit of a charlatan, certainly not a great painter, but he was someone who was a great showman, perhaps in the way we take a modern parallel Damien Hirst, who is a showbiz artist. He's more in showbiz than he is in art really. Art can be showbiz. I think we are often seduced by that gaudy, in-your-face, loud art that kind of captures our attention. I think overall my interest in the paint of the arts has become maybe a little more traditional and subtle then. Above all, I think I love people who have great craftsmanship, people who can really draw, who really know how to convey the maximum with the most simple elements of line and tone without resorting to necessarily all the colors in the pallet or all the means of technically producing the work. Someone who can do great work with a pen and a pencil is for me a great artist.
Q - What did you think when people thought you only had one leg?
A - I never actually heard that. People I know stood on one leg. That was a bit of a trademark I developed the first couple of weeks I was playing at the Marquee Club. It was just something that someone pointed out to me I was doing. I wasn't really aware I was doing. I became aware of it and thought people are noticing it, well, I'll kind of do it on purpose. To this day I still play here and there standing on one leg because it's a bit of an iconic kind of performance reminder I suppose of who I am and where I'm from and the Jethro Tull logo of the one legged flute player is kind of an ongoing, lighthearted way of presenting the essence of the band in the public domain.
Q - Throughout this interview and unlike so many of the celebrated singers and musicians I've interviewed, you haven't complained about being ripped off by management or record companies. You have a great attitude!
A - What better job could you have than to dream up fantasy and make it not come true, not in the literal sense, but to bring it to reality as a form of art and entertainment. It's a great job. Why would you want to quit if you still had your faculties. Like the good cowboy, you die with your boots on, don't you? I probably live a bit of a charmed life, but it's a life I've tried to conduct in a way that is born of some discipline and direction. It doesn't just happen that way. I think I'm still a lucky guy. I still have my mental and physical faculties to the point where I can embark on a couple of years of world touring with a high level of confidence I'm going to get to the end of this. If you ask me what my plans might be five years from now, then I couldn't possibly stretch that far, but I can pretty much tell you what I'm going to be doing for the next two years and maybe even three. I'm 67 years old. When I hit 70, I shall have to have a serious chat to myself. (Laughs) To quote Monty Python from the early years, "And now for something different." I think there's a tendency we all kind of get locked into the same repeating patterns of what we do, which is why I think if I sit down to do a new album, I want it to be something quite demanding and quite conceptual and a challenge to me. I don't want to just write a bunch of nice little songs and put them out every five years or something. I'm kind of driven by a bit more adventurism as I get older. I want to create challenges for me and to our audience too.