There are few rock musicians that can say they’ve experienced all the different phases the musical form has taken in the last forty years or more. One of them is Jethro Tull vocalist, flautist, violinist, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter, Ian Anderson. I spoke with him by phone earlier this month as he was preparing to tour Europe and Asia.
In 1967, Anderson was among the shaggy remnants of two recently disillusioned and disintegrated blues groups, the John Evan Band and McGregor’s Engine, which formed into a unit and filled some contractually obligated gigs left over by the members of John Evan Band.
“We really didn’t know much about playing our instruments at that time,” said Anderson. “I could play violin and guitar, but had only recently taken up the flute. And I was terrible — we were all terrible.”
Eventually the band, which featured Anderson, Mick Abrahams, Glenn Cornick, and Clive Bunker accidentally hit upon a sound that propelled them out of the sphere of blues and into an edgier rock sound.
“We were all interested in jazz and blues. I was a fan of singer Mose Allison’s work at the time, and tried to incorporate Allison’s riffing style into the work. Like so much jazz, the riffing bled into my instrumental work, especially the flute and suddenly we found ourselves with a rock sound that captured some of the better elements of jazz and blues. We really weren’t sure where it was all going at the time.”
After experimenting with some terrible names, the group’s managers came up with Jethro Tull, the eighteenth century agriculturist, inventor, and musician. “It just fit” said Anderson, “We were at a stage where we too were experimenting, and sowing seeds if you will.”
The historically referenced name and the progressive sound they created landed the band a residency at London’s Marquee Club a year later. They put out the blues based album “This Was” and continued to pursue their more experimental sound. It was during this time that Anderson immersed himself in songwriting. “Writing was always my forte. The musical side of me matured at a much slower rate than my songwriting ability.”
Anderson’s honed his lyrical focus into what he viewed divided people and worked continually to expose those elements of culture and religion that separated people. “At the time, there was snobbery among the religious set here that acted like a giant wall between people. I wanted to capture these attitudes.”
Anyone familiar with Jethro Tull knows that Anderson’s lyrics are intense and complex, mixed occasionally with simple nursery rhymes. “My songwriting reflects a lot of what I’m thinking at that moment,” said Anderson, “Its stream of consciousness, so if I read something and it seems too intense, I add elements of comic relief. Although I think that even the simpler concepts emphasize the metaphors in the songs.”
Since “This Was,” Jethro Tull has produced twenty albums and sold over 60 million records internationally. Throughout, Anderson and the group have continued to improvise on the songs they like the best and creating some fascinating directions for these songs.
“Much of Tull's music contains elements of improvisation, so the songs are never the same two nights running. There is always some scope for variation and interpretation in each performance. A Tull concert wouldn't be the same without some of Locomotive Breath. Well, for me at any rate.”
Last year, Jethro Tull was invited to play an intimate concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Aqualung release by XM satellite radio. An album was released of that effort, Aqualung Live, with the artist royalties being donated to charities for the homeless.
“This was just another chance to improvise on some of our favorite songs. We look forward to any opportunity to re-invigorate our work, although it’s unlikely we’ll do something like that again for any of our other albums.”
In between his solo recording and his work with Tull, Anderson has been working with full classical/pop orchestral arrangements of Tull music. In July, Anderson will be touring the US, playing with several orchestras.
“It’s a great challenge, something I look forward to. For me, it’s just another progression for these songs, another chance to improvise on the established themes. It’s so important for a musician not to be trapped into a form. Frank Zappa worked a number of forms, but was unable to escape his more eccentrically comic work. In a way, it kind of ruined him because people couldn’t appreciate the directions he chose after he was through with all of that. I don’t want what Tull has done in the past to be completely representative of us. We’ve all grown as musicians, and our work has grown with us. Keeping the music fresh keeps me thinking of new ways to interpret what we’ve done, and allows our songs to find a wider audience. What could be better than that?”
Anderson’s orchestral tour in the US begins July 21, when he’ll play the Interlochen Music Festival in Interlochen Michigan. Other tour dates can be found at the Jethro Tull website.