An honour. There is no other word to describe how we felt the possibility to discuss with Ian Anderson, rock legend and leader of Jethro Tull. Yes, the mythical 70s prog rock band, fusing folk, blues, hard rock with ornate lyrics and wonderful flute playing by the man himself.
“I enjoy the more mathematical nature of classical music”
With your upcoming album, Jethro Tull – The String Quartets, this isn’t the first time you’re collaborating with a classical ensemble. Has classical music always had a strong influence on your own music?
It evolved through time but it began when I was a child, not really with true classical music but with church music because at school we sang and listened to church music so in a way the very organised and formal nature of church music was something that stayed with me as a teenager when I listened to jazz and blues. There was another part of my brain that enjoyed the more mathematical nature of a very different music. So when I heard Bach and Beethoven when I was a young professional musician I felt that this was the kind of music that I could perhaps incorporate a little bit into my own songwriting.
Subsequently over the years I’ve worked with string quartets and orchestras, both on record and in concert. It began in 1968 in November when I recorded a piece called A Christmas Song with a mandolin and a string quartet. And that’s one of the reasons I put that on this new album, more or less in its original form because it was a bit of a sentimental reminder to me of where I began with my practical interest in the instruments of the orchestra and over the years that’s continued from time to time. I do concerts with orchestras – in fact I have one coming in May in Denver Red Rocks Arena with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to open their summer season. Whilst that might sound like a very big and grand occasion, I’ve played many times at Red Rocks Arena over the years and I’ve done many concerts with orchestras over the years so for me it’s another day in the office really – a lot of rehearsal beforehand, get to the show, do the gig and get out of town. It’s what I do.
We often see rock musicians as people who just play quite instinctively and don’t have very much, if any, knowledge of music theory. Do you yourself have any kind of formal training?
I’m self-taught as a musician I don’t read or write music formally. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for many years and early on with David Palmer, an orchestrator and arranger who for a short time also played second keyboard to Jethro Tull, and more recently with John O’Hara who I’ve played with for ten or twelve years now who is a classically trained musician and he plays keyboards but he’s the guy who did the arrangements for the string quartet and does arrangements for the orchestral shows. He and I talk in musical language, in bars and crochets and quavers, I understand the principles of music but I don’t read or sight-read music.
I seriously thought about learning but I have a feeling that it would take so much time to do it that I would be frustrated because my brain moves so much faster and my fingers move so much faster because as guitarist, as a flautist as a singer I can get to the end result without having to write it down and make notes. I memorize things and I’ve always felt it’s important that you can exercise you brain to memorize passages of music.
Right at the moment with the tour starting on Thursday I’m in that period of three or four days when I work a couple of hours a day just running through the music and regaining my physical and mental association with the setlist that I have to play. So yes it’s important for me to learn to train my mind but to stop and write it all down wouldn’t really help me very much because these days why would I want to write it down, all I do is I record it on my phone. If I have an idea for a new song I just play it and record it and go back and refine it and refine it and then get a final version and it’s just faster to work that way.
“It’s scary to see how easily people get very polarized as a result of their belief”
I saw the album was recorded in a church. When we look at the lyrics of some of your early songs we can detect a certain hostility towards organized religion. Do you still feel welcome in these kinds of places? Has your view of religion and especially Christianity changed over the years?
It was never hostility, even back then. It was critical of some aspects of organised religion but I wasn’t anti-religion of anti-Christianity. What I was trying to do was to look into some of the aspects that I found distasteful: religion being used as a tool for power and control, and also the pomp and ceremony of religion, which I find difficult. I go into Roman Catholic cathedrals quite often and it’s very impressive and very ornate and they have their special ritual function and I appreciate what it means to people. I don’t feel the same simple spiritual relationship that I feel when I go into a Lutheran Protestant cathedral or a Church of England cathedral where usually it’s much less ornate; we don’t worship the gold and the paintings, the glamour, the show-biz of religion, we try to get to the truth, the essential spiritual nature of it so I find it easier to associate with Lutheran or Anglican traditions.
But I’m not a Christian. I believe in the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth and not Jesus “the Christ” in the sense that a Christian has to have that undying belief that Christ truly is both the Son of God and the Son of Man, as the Bible confusedly tells us, or He tells us if you believe the biblical words. I think the Bible is a very useful document, I seek reference from the Bible quite often and on a number of occasions I have included elements of biblical stories in songs. But I think that like all religions it can be very dangerous if you approach it in a literal fashion, and there are very many scary things in the Bible, most of them in the Old Testament but some of them in the New Testament too, and I have to try to keep in mind that I don’t take these things too literally, I try to see the positive messages in the works of the Bible, I can see how easily people get very polarized as a result of their beliefs.
And it’s very worrying sometimes when you see how angry people are because of this and it’s potentially quite a dangerous subject, certainly dangerous to sing about because you know you’re going to piss some people off. Generally speaking however the Anglican Church is pretty easy-going, I play in churches regularly in support of great medieval churches and cathedrals, I’m a big supporter of Christianity and the physicality of the church, but I don’t call myself a Christian. However that doesn’t seem to cause a problem with the more liberal-thinking Christians that I work with. I mean they all hope that I’m going to come out of the closet one day and say ”That’s it yeah I really am a Christian after all!” but I’m not going to do that.
“After all these years, I have to conclude finally: I don’t think I’m gay”
No no I’m not! There are some things after all this time I’m pretty sure aren’t going to change. I’m not going to become a Christian in the sense of being able to call myself legitimately a Christian and I don’t think I’m going to come out as gay, because after all these years, I have to conclude finally: I don’t think I’m gay. I’ve never had the opportunity to find out, I’ve never had a good offer so I think those days have gone by now so I have to accept: I am probably a straight guy. I don’t know if it’s 100% but I’m pretty certain.
You mention medieval churches and cathedrals. Jethro Tull has always had a medieval tinge, what with the minstrels, jesters, even a passion play. From where do you draw your influences, and is there any chance of hearing some Jethro Tull on medieval instruments someday?
Well, the thing is that at school, the one subject that I didn’t do – well I did it but I failed at it – was history. Because the teachers I had were terrible. They failed to communicate, they failed to enthuse us, to inspire us with history and what it meant. It’s a bit like with religion. I wasn’t inspired or enthused by religious instruction at school. It was as an adult that I then went back to see what this was really all about, and so History for me is quite important. I constantly draw upon historical references because I didn’t do that in school. I didn’t have it drummed into me by teachers. I like the idea that we learn from history: being able to put into context the present day or imagine how the future is. We can use History as a point of reference, which is very useful. And the same thing, I suppose, with religion… Having the reference points. As an adult I became interested in the different religions, their role in the world, their histories, how they developed, where and how they’re practiced. It’s one of those broad areas, as a student of comparative religion, as a student in at least some aspects of History, then as an adult I’m a good student. But I wasn’t when I was a kid.
Jethro Tull is often seen as a band that pushed the boundaries of rock, but could also be held responsible for the different excesses of prog rock in the 70s. When you look back at the albums from 60s and 70s, are you proud or amused or ashamed? Do you actually listen to them at all?
When I engage with my earlier repertoire it’s in two different ways. On the one hand, yes it’s a piece of history that I look back on and listen to that music with a sense of amusement, kind of enjoying for what it is as a listener. But the chances are the reason that I’m listening to it is because I’m learning it in order to play it live on stage. And in the case of some pieces of music that I haven’t played for, you know, forty years or something I have to go back and immerse myself not just in the music but in the mental state, the sort of place in my own life, I have to try and get back inside my own head to find out what I was doing at that time, what led me to make that particular musical or lyrical decision. And that can be sometimes very easy, it just feels like putting on an old jacket that you remember, as soon you put it on it’s very comfortable, it’s very easy to wear, very familiar. But sometimes it doesn’t quite fit, you can’t get the buttons to join up any more. It depends on the song really. But just like you can send an old jacket to the tailor, maybe he can let the seam out a little bit, change the shape, maybe you can do that with the music too sometimes. You can learn to wear that old tune, but you have to make a few little alterations.
So my musical way of looking back at the prog rock era is: there are two albums that fit that bill really, Thick As A Brick which was a playful, slightly surreal, fun kind of an album and then the rather darker and more self-important A Passion Play, which I think fails because it’s too dense musically, and it is too serious. So it’s an album I readily admit is not one of my best works, as a writer or as a record producer. As a record producer I should have known better, I should have taken my own ideas and simplified them a little bit, created a little more space between the notes. But enthusiasm sometimes overwhelms you. That’s the way that is was back then.
“There are 200 songs I choose not to play each time”
I know you have been playing Thick As A Brick live often in recent years. I greatly enjoyed your show at the Olympia in Paris in 2012. Have you ever played A Passion Play in recent years?
No only little bits of it, two or three sections have been played live over the years but yeah I was playing a bit of A Passion Play three or four years ago on stage. It might come back again but the setlist is always going to be exclusive, it’s about what I don’t play, two hundred songs I choose not to play. It’s very much the case that with so much material to choose from you’re always having to exclude some songs that you might really enjoy performing live but you just can’t fit them all into two hours on stage, so you have to be selective.
You’ve been playing music for over 50 years now. What is your perspective on the way listening to music has changed across the years?
I think that people have got used to hearing a low quality of music and accepting it for what it is, essentially listening to highly compressed digital formats and often not discrete environments. You’re listening to music when you’re in the car or on an aeroplane or going to work on the train, you’re listening to music filtered through this background noise and people seem to accept hearing music that way.
As a writer and a composer and a producer and an engineer it doesn’t feel great knowing that all they’re hearing is something of very poor quality. Partly because of the format but mainly because of the circumstances in which they choose to listen. So I try to give people a choice. When we make music it’s available as a highly compressed mp3 or m4a. It’s better than the old cassette used to be, but it’s not even as good as a CD in terms of its technical quality. And when of course we record these days, 24 bit, perhaps 96 khz sampling rate, you’re hearing music that contains everything that the human ear can hear in terms of dynamics and frequency. We have got there, we have got to the limits that we need. Unless we grow new ears, technically we got there a few years ago in fact. So, 24 bit audio, which is not the standard that people listen to but which is the standard that we record at, is as good as it gets.
Either they buy the CD which is okay but 16 bits doesn’t have the dynamic sensitivity and subtlety that 24 bit does. It doesn’t sound like a lot, only 8 bits, but in terms of quality difference, it is a huge difference in terms of taking us to the point where we can’t determine the difference. Same thing with photographic images. Once he hit about 16 megapixels, we were pretty much there. I have a camera that can shoot 55.0 megapixel images, and yes you can see the difference when you blow the thing to examine somebody’s eyeball or some tiny little detail at a level you would never actually view the image at. But we have come to a point where we’ve done everything we can do there’s no need to go beyond that degree of resolution, photographically or in terms of audio.
“People keep on listening to music in a bad format and in often not discrete environments”
The technology gets cheaper, file storage gets cheaper and easier, but we’re still listening to music – most of us – at a fairly poor quality standard. And for those who think that buying the vinyl record is the purest form of listening to the music, the answer is no it’s not. The vinyl record will always have scratches and clicks and noises and hums and bangs on it but people love vinyl because of the nostalgia, because of the physicality, the rather organic nature of it. But in fact it is usually going to be inferior for one reason or another. But it does have a certain organic quality that an old 50w Marshall amp’s sound would have, people will say “it’s the magic, you see, it’s limited I frequency response but it’s got that quality that we love”.
One final question that we always ask: what is your favourite Beatles album?
Wow, you got me there because I was never really a Beatles fan. I suppose it would be Sgt Pepper’s, because of the landmark it represented in pop music and rather like in the same year, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. They were the life-changing musical moments for a generation and although I wasn’t a Beatles fan, I guess I learnt something from Sgt. Pepper’s in terms of variety, of the rather surreal nature of it, that was quite laudable. George Martin was a friend of mine (I didn’t know the Beatles at all) and his role in all of that is very important. I like to think of Sgt. Pepper’s as the album that could not have been made with another producer, it had to be George. He was Beatles no.5, he was actually probably Beatles no.3! He was a very special guy and helped to bring together those very opposite personalities and musical backgrounds.