When a childhood friend 'introduced' me to Classic Rock icons Jethro Tull via their 1971 classic Aqualung, the landscape of my musical horizons were forever altered. Although my initial dalliances with the group's then groundbreaking blend of Folk Rock, Hard Rock and Progressive Rock (particularly “My God”, “Hymn 43” and “Locomotive Breath”) effectively served as a musical epiphany, my journey had only just begun as I continued to methodically digest their sprawling catalog. With the group having now officially embarked on the Jethro Tull -- The Rock Opera tour, an audio-visual tour de force that celebrates the life and times of English agricultural inventor Jethro Tull, frontman and flutist Ian Anderson was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, the difficulties encountered when touring abroad with an elaborate stage production...
Todd: What can you tell us about the Jethro Tull Rock Opera tour? Musically, what was the primary catalyst behind telling the life story of Jethro Tull the agricultural pioneer? It's certainly a less than obvious undertaking.
Ian: “The Jethro Tull Rock Opera started in the UK in September. We get to you guys through November and again in 2016. ...The idea of it came to me when I was driving through Europe and Russia last summer. I was sitting in a car somewhere where I had an internet connection and I amused myself by looking up some details of the life story of the original 18th century agriculturalist Jethro Tull because I had never really checked out too much about him. I had always felt a bit embarrassed that our agent had given us this name back in 1968. I just thought 'I don't really know much about him other than he invented a seed drill and it was a long time ago'. I looked up what I could find on the internet and as soon as I started reading his life story, I was struck by the similarity to his life and the various songs that I had written over the years. It became an amusing way of passing a journey by making a list of all the songs that I had written over the years that fit into different parts of his life as we know it. There is not an enormous amount of material known about Jethro Tull's life. He gets mentioned in all the history books but, in terms of detail, there's not a huge amount that we know that is published and can be found out. There was this element that struck a chord. Before I knew it, I had a list of songs that I thought fit the life story of Jethro Tull. Then, the idea became immediately less attractive when I thought about it becoming a period drama. It become Downtown Abby with a flute. I really didn't feel like I wanted to try and recreate his story as a stage performance based in that historical context. Besides, apart from anything else, my days of wearing tights and wigs are over. I thought 'Let's try and re-imagine Jethro Tull as a contemporary or even set in the near future. Biochemists working on modern agricultural technology of genetic modification of crops, of animal cloning and doing the things that agricultural scientists and engineers have to think about doing these days and in the future in order to feed an ever growing and ever hungry planet'. It began to become much more relevant to my world by thinking about the issues of conservation, of global economy, of population trends and of issues to do with climate change. All of these things that I have a passionate interest in suddenly put Jethro Tull into a very relevant time frame that set in the very near future. I started work on it on the second of January because I was a bit tied up on the first. I couldn't do any of my usual at nine a.m. starts on the first of January for a new project. Over the next few days, I mapped it all out on paper and started to work on a few new songs that I needed to flesh out the story a little bit. With five short new songs and a bunch of classic Jethro Tull material, I had a new show which would embody theatrical elements and virtual guests on video that joins together one piece of song material with another. But everything left me with a real sense of dissatisfaction. I couldn't for the life of me think of a better way to call it other than Jethro Tull The Rock Opera. That's a very hackneyed, old fashioned term that (The Who guitarist/vocalist) Pete Townsend really owns. I just couldn't think of anything else to call it that gave it the same point of relevance and contact with an audience who are familiar with that term even though it may raise the eyebrow and cause the odd groan of 'Here we go again'. I think of it as Jethro Tull in big letters and in whispered undertones, The Rock Opera. To the cynics, it's yet another weak and transparent excuse for me to find another way of doing the best of Jethro Tull.”
Todd: With the Rock Opera serving as a 'true' career retrospective, how do you view the successes of your past?
Ian: “I don't think really any of us who do this for a living set out with ideas of grandeur and becoming the biggest thing on the planet. There may very well be some Pop act who early on in their careers are seduced by fame and fortune for whom the tangible signs of success do become enormously important. I think for people who think of themselves as musicians rather than stars, we're just happy to be doing it at any level. If we're making a living, we're succeeding beyond our wildest dreams because we can follow our passion for doing something that is a lot of fun and still manage to pay the rent. I think that in itself is an enormous sense of satisfaction for any musician, actor, painter or writer. For anybody in the creative arts to actually make a decent living is just wonderful. If you happen to do better than that, then that's an added bonus. I think just being able to survive for an entire lifetime doing something you enjoy doing is enormously gratifying. It's not something that any of us, I suppose, set out to achieve beyond that level of thinking of ourselves as working professionals.”
Todd: How difficult is it for you to adapt the classic material you've previously written for Rock Opera format?
Ian: “It's not that hard, really. Obviously I'm very familiar with all of my repertoire over the years, so finding songs that fit it wasn't too difficult. As I say, a lot of them just jumped off the page and said 'Me please. I'll be there'. A few of them needed the odd line re-writing or a chorus restructuring to better tell the story, but by in the large, it wasn't too difficult at all. The five short new songs can all be recitatives. They were things that I wrote over a period of a couple of weeks. Once you got a structure and you've got the bones of it in place, the rest of it comes really very fast and furious. You really crack on like I'm sure most writers do unless their suffering from that dreaded writer's block that we read about some times. It is a very quick process. ...If you're really on a roll, it will be coming so fast and furiously that you can hardly keep up with it and write it all down.”
Todd: How difficult is it for the group to tour with such a large and complex production? How much of the technology do you actually travel with? Have you able to condense everything down or is it still very oversized?
Ian: “It's what we're used to when touring, baring in mind that we have to jump on an airplane and go to places. And by 'jump on an airplane', I mean flying into Turkey, playing one show in Istanbul and then flying back the next day. You can't be doing this on the level of taking big touring productions. which economically would be unsustainable. Also practically, you can't just zip in and do odd shows. You are stuck with a series of very elaborately planned events with buses, trucks and whatever else. We can do that in some parts of Europe and we can do that in the USA, but we still ultimately have to have a production that works. Just the same, every night we have to rent in local equipment. What we take with us is our instruments and a few bits of high technology that we need to present everything the way we want it in regards to audio. We fly in two video servers, one as a back up, and we also take our very small amounts of hand luggage which is all we've got room for once we've taken all the tech stuff with us. Most of us travel very light and we manage to pretty much carry everything on and off a plane that we need without using airport trolleys or native porters. We travel lightly, but we travel with very high technology. The things we have to rent on the other end like lighting rigs, sound systems and all of that is to the specifications that we send out to the promoters and venues well in advance. The video screens and projectors are things that we will hire locally. We've been doing this for many years, so we know how it works.”
Todd: How has foreign technology changed or improved over the years? I would imagine that having to rely on the rental of even relatively minor equipment when touring abroad must have been an oft-harrowing experience.
Ian: “It used to be a complete nightmare going to places like India or Russia. Twenty years ago, those places were pretty primitive. These days, on the other hand, they all have western equipment. It may not be the latest, but it's probably something that ten years ago was brand new. It's found its way to various parts of the world since then so it's relatively workable, new material. Sometimes even of course today we find in the most unlikely places, they have absolutely the very latest digital equipment. We generally live in a world of digital technology, so we tend to use digital mixing desks and monitor desks and all of the trickery that goes with that world where everything has to seamlessly join together and interface in mysterious ways. Hopefully we'll know enough about how it works and the programming of all that stuff so that we can deal with any little problems that come up on the day of show. Yes, there are occasions when it gets a little nerve-wracking and nail-biting when you're about an hour away from show time and something isn't working, but we haven't had any failures in the last three years of touring and producing shows like this. ...One way or another, it will all come together.”
Todd: Overall, how have the changes in technology such as in-ear monitors and wireless microphone changed how you, and as a result, the group performed onstage? Was the transition smooth or was it chaotic and tedious?
Ian: “The technology was very primitive back in the early '70's. By the end of the '70's, things were beginning to become more organized and very specific regarding contemporary music touring. The systems that became available towards the end of '70's were more dedicated in regards to Rock show equipment. We weren't having to work with equipment that had been perhaps more at home in vaudeville theaters or sports events. ...We were finding that manufacturers were catering to the touring of Rock and Pop music. It became more sophisticated. When we entered into the digital age at the end of the '80's and and the beginning of the '90's, wireless in-ear monitors were born and wireless microphones gave you the technology that gave you more freedom on stage to move around. That's part of what we have been always at the very beginning of. In fact, before there were in-ear monitors, I invented some for myself made out of an old FM pocket radio, some tiny earphones and an illegal transmitter that was actually working on the very edge of the FM band. I had to be careful that there wasn't a local Rock station in town that was on the same frequency as I was trying to hear my vocals and the drums on. It was something that didn't exist back then, but we found a way to make it. Back in '87, I started working with the wireless mics that had appeared by then, but in-ear monitors had not yet been invented. I invented them. A couple of years later, I didn't have to because they were becoming part of the technology that most performing artists use today. It was something that we had to cobble together and find a way to do it that made some sense.”
Todd: When writing new material, do you approach the materials intended for an Ian Anderson solo effort differently from the materials intended for Jethro Tull? How do you do to separate the entities from each other?
Ian: “Absolutely nothing at all. To me, it's the same thing. It's me doing what I do. I don't really stop to tailor things one way or another. There have been occasions in the past when I've made solo albums or done some solo projects which musically are something outside the area of Jethro Tull music. Perhaps it leans more toward acoustic music or more towards orchestral music, but generally speaking, what I write is simply what I write. The songs could be released under the name Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson. It's just I do what I feel like doing at the time. These days, as I get older and towards the end of my musical career, I would perhaps understandably, if you forgive my arrogance, I would like people to know my name before I die. To a lot of people, I'm the guy in Jethro Tull that they think of as the one-legged flute player. They say 'That must be him. That must be Jethro'. Most Jethro Tull fans know my name and perhaps the names of some of the other members of the band past and present. I think we have to remember everybody is not that knowledgeable or dedicated. In last few years, I've tended to use my own name in the mix. We'll usually mention my name, but we usually mention the name Jethro Tull because that is the repertoire. There have been many, many albums over a period of forty-seven years that I've written, recorded and Produced. To me, Jethro Tull is apart from that historical character whose name we stole. It's our repertoire. The songs have been parts of the fringes of the history of Rock music.”
Todd: In hindsight, how do you view Jethro Tull within the history of Rock 'n' Roll? While it's obvious that the group has created an undeniably unique niche for itself, where do you feel you stand amid your contemporaries?
Ian: “I'm not being overly modest, but by the same token, I think you can look back at the real history of Rock music and Jethro Tull is a bit of a quirky sort of non-mainstream band that's done a whole bunch of different things over the years. Clearly, we had our moment in the sun particularly, in the '70's where Jethro Tull was a band that had considerable commercial success over a period perhaps from '72 to '76. That was the era when we were playing arenas and even sports stadiums and not just in the USA but in other parts of the world, too. ...It was never that. In fact, I had enormous fights with our manager, Terry Ellis, back then because he wanted us to play in all these big places. If Elton John did two shows at Madison Square Garden, we had to go in and play three shows at Madison Square Garden. All of this was for me the route that I did not want to follow. I just wanted to play in theaters and play in places that were comfortable, more intimate environments where people could see and hear what was going on rather than an event. To this day, although I do occasionally play some festivals in Europe, it's not something really I enjoy. I don't like walking out there in front of tens of thousands of people stretching into the distance. I'm not motivated or excited by that. It's just another gig. Usually, the sooner it's over, the better for me. I just do it to keep my band and crew employed. We played at the Isle Of Wight a few weeks ago and of course Jethro Tull played also played at the Isle Of Wight in 1970, the final festival of those early days when it ended in near disaster. Well, actually not near disaster, total disaster. It's part of the history of Rock music I suppose that was the European equivalent to Woodstock. Of course, I'm sort of glad that I did it, but I'm equally glad that I didn't do Woodstock. It was something I didn't really feel comfortable about playing those very large scale events. We did it in the UK mainly because we were touring mostly in the USA at that point. Doing the Isle Of Wight was a way to reach out to our UK fans in one place in the period of an hour which is what we did. Going back there all those years later and playing there again, I thought that was then and this is now. Going outdoors in festivals and playing amid the vagaries of wind, sun, mud and everything else, is not something that particularly appeals to me. I had a couple of outdoor shows in Romania a couple of weeks ago and it poured down rain. It was just a nightmare. Last week, I was in a festival in Denmark where it didn't actually rain during the show, but it was bloody cold. It was unseasonal weather, but it was really quite uncomfortable to try and perform in those low temperatures late at night. Next week, I go off to play in a festival on an island off the coast of Norway. ...Who knows what the weather will be like out there.”
Todd: Weren't you approached regarding playing Woodstock? Considering the variety of stylistically different acts that ultimately played during the festival, I've always found it so unbelievable that Jethro Tull wasn't there.”
Ian: “We got a message. I was actually sitting in my hotel room at the Loews Midtown Manhattan Hotel in New York City when our manager said 'You just got an offer to go play this festival in upstate New York. It's going to be a huge. It's just been announced and there's lots of people are going to be there'. I said 'Who's playing and where is it?' and He said 'It's going to be on a farm somewhere in upstate New York. Joe Cocker and The Who are going to be there with lots of other people'. I said Is it a hippy festival?' and he said 'Oh yeah, it's going to be all the hippies'. I said 'You mean they'll be drugs and they'll be naked?' he said 'Yeah, you bet' and I said 'You know what? I think I might be washing my hair that day', which was a perfectly viable excuse because back then, I actually had some. I had rather a lot of it. I politely declined to do Woodstock because it was kind of a hippy thing that would have defined Jethro Tull forever as being part of that genre. I really didn't want that because at that point, Jethro Tull wasn't hugely successful. ...I think we were on our second tour in the USA at that point. I knew that we needed time to evolve. We didn't want to be defined by what we were in 1969. I wanted to give it a little chance to grow and develop musically before we got to be too well noticed. I think that was a very wise decision because I think we would have ended up like (the band) Ten Years After who were on that festival and forever were stereotyped by their appearance at Woodstock. They were great, but that defined the rest of their musical lives. In fact, I remember seeing Leo Lyons, the bass player of Ten Years After, a few years ago at some little festival in Europe. I said 'How you doing Leo? What are you playing tonight?' and he looked down on the set list taped to the side of his guitar and said 'We're doing this. ...This is the set list from Woodstock. It's been taped to my guitar since 1969'. There you go. Who wants to be defined in that way forever by one particular performance? It meant that Ten Years After from then on never really achieved any variance on the material that they were playing around the times of their second or third albums. ...I guess I knew better.”
Todd: At this point, with you now closing in our your seventies (at the time of this writing, Anderson is sixty-eight years old), do you have a particular 'end game' in regards to your retirement? Do you have a specific plan?
Ian: “It probably involves getting carried off stage by a paramedics and failing to be resuscitated. ...It's what happens to a lot of guys. They do as we say in the cowboy parlance of old western movies and they die with their boots on. What better way to go. Soldiers die in battle and comedians die on stage. Many performers have gone out with a brain seizure or a heart attack while they're on stage. I don't know about America, but there are certainly a lot of British performers, comedians, actors and sportsmen, too. They drop dead in the middle of doing what they love. The audience looks on mystified and horrified thinking it's part of the show until they realize you're not getting up again. It happens every year or two. Somebody pops off on the west end of a London stage or in the middle of making a movie or whatever it is they're doing. It's kind of a romantic ideal but, musicians, performers and entertainers or artists generally are in a very fortunate position. We don't necessarily have to obey the traditions and stereotypes of retirement and the rules of no longer being able to work. If I was a captain on British Airways, I would have had to retire two years ago. I'd be too old to fly. At sixty-five, that seems a little odd because I'm still allowed to go on stage and perform. Hopefully, I'm not going to wreck anybody's life by doing that as a musician. It would be considered that I would be endangering the public if I was to fly a big airplane after the age of sixty-five. That is generally the age at which you are forced to retire on grounds of age and presumably imminent senility. Luckily, I'm not in that kind of a world. I suppose it's all understandable. If you went in to have some brain surgery tomorrow and you met the surgeon ten minutes before you went into the theater and he was a guy in his 80's, you'd probably be getting a little twitchy. Whereas, if it's somebody in their 20's, you'd be getting very twitchy. If it's a guy who is in his late 30's or 40's or even their 50's, you're going to feel secure because that person is the right age to have the experience and gravitas and do the thing hopefully in a very steely professional manner. That's the roles that we were brought up to believe in. There's a certain professional age when you can be trusted to do what you do. Quite clearly, that isn't applied to the world of arts and entertainment. ...We might be struggling in our 70's and doing a pretty good job. No one questions age in regards to Rock music. I think they probably did, but everybody's gotten so bored with criticizing the Rolling Stones with the ageist jokes that abounded a few years ago. It's almost not worth even talking about. Everybody's gotten that out of their system. We now accept aging Rock stars as long as they're having fun. As long as they can remember the words to their songs, we go along with it. We've been living with the idea that those musicians were probably old the when we first heard them. They certainly were for me because I grew up listening to people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Boy Williamson who were about my father's age when I first heard them. I've always had it in my head that the music I liked was always played by old men, so it doesn't seem too odd that now I'm one of them.”
Select Ian Anderson Discography
Thick As A Brick 2 (2012) **
Live At Montreux 2003 (2007) *
Aqualung Live (2005) *
Ian Anderson Plays Orchestral Jethro Tull (2005) **
Nothing Is Easy: Live At The Isle Of Wright 1970 (2003) *
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003) *
Rupis Dance (2003) **
Living With The Past (2002) *
The Very Best Of Jethro Tull (2001) *
The Secret Languages Of Birds (2000) **
J-Tull Dot Com (1999) *
In Concert (1995) *
Divinities: Twelve Dances With God (1995) **
Roots To Branches (1995) *
Nightcap (1993) *
A Little Light Music (1992) *
Catfish Rising (1991) *
Live At Hammersmith '84 (1990) *
Rock Island (1989) *
Crest Of A Knave (1987) *
Original Masters (1985) *
Under Wraps (1984) *
Walk Into Light (1983) *
The Broadsword And The Beast (1982) *
A (1980) *
Stormwatch (1979) *
Live: Bursting Out (1978) *
Heavy Horses (1978) *
Songs From The Wood (1977) *
M.U.: The Best Of Jethro Tull (1976) *
Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young To Die! (1976) *
Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) *
War Child (1974) *
A Passion Play (1973) *
Living In The Past (1972) *
Thick As A Brick (1972) *
Benefit (1970) *
Stand Up (1969) *
This Was (1968) *
* as a member of Jethro Tull
** as a solo artist
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