Ian Anderson: Jethro Tull’s Early Beginnings And New Starts

Photography - Nick Harrison
Photography – Nick Harrison

There was hardly any rock ‘n’ roll on Jethro Tull’s 1968, This Was, debut. Filled as it was with jazz and blues led by eccentric and multi-faceted, Ian Anderson, who would hop on one leg and spew out the Bach as readily as the rock. Forty albums later, the most recent of which is The String Quartets, arranged by current Jethro Tull pianist/accordionist, John O’Hara, with The Carducci String Quartet, Anderson is taking his merry men out again.

The show is a multi-media greatest hits assemblage bound to please any Tull fanatic, as well as your mom. We caught up with the notoriously opinioned curmudgeon just prior to leaving for Brazil where the tour starts. Ian, you see, prefers audiences outside the U.S. But, we’ll let the man tell it to you himself.

The addition of vocalist Ryan O’Donnell on the Thick As A Brick 2 tour was a stroke of genius. What led you to that decision?

Two reasons. One was that on the original Thick As A Brick recording, there was quite a lot of places where flute and vocals occurred at the same time. If I was going to try to recreate as much of the original album as I could, something would have to go, but to bring in another flute player would’ve been very weird, so I brought in a singer. I couldn’t just give Ryan a few lines in the course of a two-hour show, and because of his experience in musicals as a singer/actor, he brought a more theatrical flair to the presentation. It also gave me the freedom to play more flute, yet still have time to draw a breath before having to sing again. It was a pragmatic decision.

Ryan also appeared a couple of years later on my Homo Erraticus tours. He then joined the cast of The Kinks musical in London’s West End (Sunny Afternoon) as Ray Davies. It’s a very demanding and exhausting role and he’s been doing it every night to packed crowds for two years now. It’s a great show. I went to see it myself and loved it.

Then another vocalist, Unnur Birna, from Iceland, joined the cast of your Rock Opera tour a year or so later, but only on the big screen behind the band. As was Ryan.

She did the video shoots too. Both of them were my virtual guests for the next 18 months of shows. The three U.S. tours planned now will all be sung live, with those two relegated to short on-screen appearances.

I’ll never forget when you had the delightful violinist Lucia Micarelli with you who went on to star in HBO’s Treme. You seem to have a very good ear for discovering new talent.

If you think of the history of Jethro Tull over the years, there’s been over 30 members in and out of the band. They’re all folks who have their special abilities and talents. Just as you can credit John Mayall for having brought many musicians into the ranks of his Bluebreakers, who went on to enjoy successful careers like Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor. Just like a little earlier Alexis Korner had both Mick Jagger and Robert Plant in his blues bands. Nurturing young talent is a priority if you want to be a good band leader.

Like Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, which was like a finishing school for generations of big jazz stars.

Same for the bands of Frank Zappa and even Captain Beefheart, although in his case, his style pushed people away from the band rather than be the captain of a happy ship [chuckles to himself]. I’ve always thought it was nice to work with different people and when the time came to move on, it’s usually a mutual decision. Bassist, Dave Pegg, for instance, spent about nine years in Jethro Tull while still in Fairport Convention.

I know you’re not going to be able to bring the Carducci String Quartet on the road with you but, damn, they do add a lot to your current Jethro Tull: The String Quartets album. You picked the right songs with having so many to choose from. What songs almost made the album but didn’t? Might there be a Volume 2?

It really takes quite a long time to develop those arrangements. Some of the songs were an easy fit, yet some of the more rock-oriented songs had to be reconstructed. Each song on its own merits required a different approach. John O’Hara did a lot of work arranging. We went into a church to record a lot of it.

Carducci has a pretty filled date sheet in many countries of the world playing classical festivals. The chances of getting them to go out with us are very slim. And it didn’t make any sense to say yes to the numerous offers we got to do a one-off show together because of the time it would take to rehearse. Here’s hoping they play some of these pieces on their own tours.

But how great would it be to see them with you at Red Rocks, for instance, in Colorado. It’s on my bucket list to go to that beautiful venue one day.

It’s very cold. Performing outdoors, a mile up in the clouds in the best of times is a very hard place to play. I practically need oxygen to play flute and sing. You struggle with very low humidity, freezing temperatures, and it is, really, quite difficult. Mexico City and La Paz (Bolivia) are like that too. You suddenly realize how your flute sounds very thin and reedy, losing its body and volume as if there’s something wrong with your instrument. That dry thin atmosphere robs you of the air you need to properly perform.

I love the shock of recognition as each song on the new CD unfolds. I do not want to know what’s in store and when you open with “In The Past,” with that melody that’s imprinted upon my brain like a tattoo, it was like an electric shock.

With some of the tracks, there was a deliberate attempt to reconfigure the song—like with a cello cadenza—by teasing people so they know not which song it is but are lured into it and then bam they know what it is. That’s ok to do two or three times but it would be a bit of a bore if done on every song. “Pass The Bottle,” for instance, was originally recorded in 1968 as, “A Christmas Song,” with a string quartet anyway. It was important for me to include that because it was the first time I ever worked with a string quartet.

I remember seeing you at MusikFest in Bethlehem, Penn. and you got really upset that night and stormed off the stage in a fit of anger depriving us of “Aqualung.”

I really don’t remember specifically what the problem was, but it was most likely something that annoyed me in terms of the audience whistling, shouting, hooting and generally making so much noise that it became impossible to concentrate on the music. Unfortunately, that’s the way people are. I attended one of the final concerts of Black Sabbath recently in London. The reality is that they play very loudly despite (lead guitarist) Tony Iommi not really liking to do so. They do so just to overcome the inevitable crowd noise. They cover it all up with brute force volume.

Jethro Tull has more dynamic variation and the crowd uses those quiet moments to screech out their whistles and such or shout out at you. You then have two choices: You either try to struggle on and blot it all out, or you get mad. You think I’m the only one? I know many artists who get truly pissed off at crowd interruptions, the flashing of cameras and cell phones, the utter lack of respect for the artist. It just seems to be that in certain places, folks seem to think that’s ok. Maybe I’m wrong and they’re right. I just don’t really want to get drawn into it but I know when I play outdoors in the U.S.A., especially in the summer, it’s going to be a rough ride.

I find that fascinating.

It’s not fascinating! It’s a pain in the fucking ass. But it’s what I do for a living so I have to put up with it. Forgive me once in a while if I lose my temper. Somebody inevitably will shout out something unpleasant at the wrong moment, I will lose my temper and shout back. Or I will walk off the stage. Most times, I try to blot it out. But trust me on this. It is a really rough ride for musicians. I’m not happy when people shout me down when I am totally trying to concentrate of what I am doing on stage. It makes it difficult. I don’t get that in other countries.

I remember once at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, I took the band aside after soundcheck to warn them it could be rough. I told them if they were in deep concentration and the hoots and whistles and shouts started, try not to let it affect you and continue to give it your best. The end result that night was the audience was as good as gold. In Italy, for instance, they seem to instinctively know the proper time to make noise. It seems to be ingrained in some people and it’s just not very nice.

I fear a football sports mentality comes to the fore in American open-air venues. They get over-excited or impatient. They’re waiting for the pay-off. The big riff. They probably only know two Jethro Tull songs anyway. They just don’t seem to have the time when I’m playing an introduction part to let it come naturally in due course. It’s unpleasant and I know it’s going to happen. Hopefully, it won’t happen in New Jersey.

I’ll be there so if it does happen, look at me and tell me, “Hey Mike, tell your friends to shut the fuck up!” I’d remember that the rest of my life.

You probably would but that’s more the style of Bruce Dickinson, not me. I try to avoid the four-letter words on stage.

You avoided dying in 2016, a year so many of my other heroes passed away.

And many of them were my friends, or musicians I’ve worked with. There are a lot of deaths because of that romanticized rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. People inherit the mistakes of their youth in terms of drugs and drink. It can catch up to you fast. Like my old friend (bassist) John Wetton (King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash). Tony Iommi told me. He rang me up and said Carl Palmer told him. So we chatted about all the dead folk for awhile before getting on to the subject of our own health and mortality because that’s what these things tend to conjure up in your own mind.

We may be already be on borrowed time. Tony had lymphoma cancer, which is currently in remission, and a recent scare turned out not to be malignant. So he’s ok. For the moment. He’s looking forward to working with people outside of Black Sabbath. One of them might be me.

I was thinking of asking him to join our merry crew for some British shows in December.
He was in Jethro Tull for about five minutes, right?
It was more like a week. I was immediately struck by the way he played the very first time I saw him in a band that eventually became Black Sabbath. He was different from our generation of blues-based lead guitarists. His style was a direct result of his physical impairment of losing the tips of his fingers early on. He appeared as the lead guitarist of Jethro Tull on “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” a British TV show.

But, yes, we consider ourselves most assuredly blessed to still be in business. The phone does keep ringing and people keep asking us to come out to do our stuff, which we happily continue to do. If you’re an astronaut, you’re hanging up the space suit at a certain time of your life. You have to retire! It’s obligatory. Luckily, in my job, 65 came and went and I’m still doing what I do. At least for a little while longer.


Jethro Tull will perform November 1 in Red Bank NJ at The Count Basie Theater and November 3 at The Beacon Theatre in New York City.