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Credit: Will Ireland)

Music

Far Out Meets: Ian Anderson on harmonicas, riffs and the demands of a musician performing in Jethro Tull

It’s breakfast time on a cold January morning, but Ian Anderson has arrived punctually for our interview. Rock stars aren’t always known for their promptness, but Anderson’s focus is on his art, and he arrives at the appointed time. The trappings of rock fame have no bearing on this interview, largely because the Jethro Tull frontman simply isn’t interested in compromising himself for rock grandeur. 

There is no stronger possible indication of Anderson’s apathy to fame than this response to a question I pose about The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Pencilled by many as a gathering of rock’s elite, Anderson remembers it less as a social occasion, and more as another performance Jethro Tull had to deliver before a paying audience. “It was a little unnerving because it was a bit shambolic,” Anderson says. “Mick had a vision of how this should be, and the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was there to try and realise that. But it was a little bit. Not disorganised, but it was a bit rough around the edges in some ways. A lot of people were a bit embarrassed and uncomfortable about it all, and not really sure what it was supposed to be about. We were being asked to wear silly clothes, and do silly things.” 

“I just wanted to go home,” Anderson cackles, although professional to the last, he did deliver a startling rendition of ‘Song For Jeffrey’, an urgent blues number sung with confidence, cunning and swagger. The performance, shot in 1968 but not released to the general public until 1996, features a startlingly young Tony Iommi on guitar, making it one of the only times Iommi performed outside of Black Sababath — there’s a reason for that too. 

“Well, Tony came in to mime to a pre-recorded backing track on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” Anderson recalls. “Tony’s approach to music rather struck me, because everything was very clear cut, the chords were simple fifths; they were very ambiguous. His melody lines could weave around and dictate whether something was a major, or a minor, or a seventh, or any other interval. Melodically simple and transparent way of making music. He was a great guitarist and could play quite fiery guitar solos. I was intrigued by his sound — he was obviously not a blues guitarist. What it was, was really a precursor to heavy metal, so he came by invitation, and we started playing together in a studio. I don’t want to call it ‘an audition’, because it was a bit of mutual exploration to see if a symbiotic relationship might evolve out of that.” 

Invariably, it didn’t form into a more long-lasting partnership, although Anderson holds nothing but respect for the guitar player. “At the end of a few days, we probably both decided that it wasn’t going to work, because some of the songs I was writing were partly a little more complex, as I only discovered at the last minute, Tony was finding some of these things difficult to play.,” he said. “The way I was playing them, and showing them on the guitar. ”

He stops to offer a demonstration: “What the chord sequences were…they were due to his physical limitations because of an industrial accident, but rather like Django Reinhardt, it didn’t stand in his way. It actually helped him develop a unique style, and laid down the foundation of everything you could call ‘heavy metal’. Tony was the man: Tony was the prime moving force. It inadvertently became a genre of music. But he wasn’t in Jethro Tull in the sense that he didn´t perform with us outside that point.” 

Uncompromising about his music, Anderson holds everyone in Jethro Tull (including himself) to a standard that reveres the band’s history, while also pushing them into newer and more exciting avenues. “They’ve got to be able to play everything that their predecessors did from 1968 onwards, “ Anderson admits. “So, they’ve got to be not just one-trick ponies. They’ve got to understand all the music and musical styles, and then be able to…not re-create faithfully, but to interpret and in a degree, stick pretty close to some of the landmark elements of the arrangements of previous recordings and live performances, so they’ve really got to be pretty smart in terms of music. And they all come from different musical backgrounds, so they have to step well outside of their comfort zones, and in most cases, acquire experience and knowledge of music forms that they perhaps didn’t grow up with. Forms they didn’t study or develop an expertise in. They come from jazz or classical music and suddenly they have to play some pedantic hard rock, and maybe it seems like it’s too easy, but then it’s all about the spirit, the essence and the energy. They have to find that way to play it, that way to convey it. You know, it’s a bigger job than it might have been before. I think in guitar terms, you are looking for someone who is principally a rock guitarist, but is aware of other, more eclectic influences as well.” 

The Zealot Gene, Jethro Tull’s latest record, is an embodiment of this philosophy. While there are parallels with Aqualung, this scintillating record re-models the imagery of past warfare to reflect the world in perpetual motion and constant confusion. “If we were to talk about Zealot Gene, then maybe we could focus on the title track for one, or ‘Mine Is The Mountain’ which in some ways is a cousin to a song on the Aqualung album called ‘My God’ in terms of taking on that feeling of sympathy for a God who is put upon by Homo sapiens, and personified by Homo sapiens into something that resembles a kindly old man with long, flowing white hair and a beard. Interestingly enough, in ‘Mine Is The Mountain’, it relates to Moses going up a mountain, and he couldn’t see God, but heard God. Moses spoke to God, and came back with a bunch of tablets made out of stone, which were the focus of law and order. This was proof to his followers that he could lead them onwards to the land of milk and honey. God hid in the clouds, amid the rain and thunder, and remained that ethereal being without face or form. I’m sympathetic to that idea of God, which manifests in Islam, and the fundamental roots of Hinduism.” 

Credit: Will Ireland)

Fastidious by nature, Anderson sets a series of ground rules the day before the interview takes place. In a carefully written document, the flautist stipulates what questions he’s heard too many times to indulge any further. He’s been asked what he considers the difference between a solo album and a Jethro Tull record; he’s carefully laid out his reasons for the 17-year hiatus since The Jethro Tull Christmas Album; and considering the cancellations, compromises and postponements songwriters have had to politely sit through the last two years, there really is no point in asking if he’s going to hit the road in the summer. My question of: “Do you have a favourite song from the album?” will be joining the list, he tells me, with a laugh.

But Anderson is good enough to respond to the question, and like everything he does during our 25-minute chat, he delivers a response that is thorough, considered yet rich in detail and rhetoric. “It’s that trite answer: I don’t have a favourite child. I have two children, and neither of them is a favourite. I have two cats, and I couldn’t possibly bring myself to say which one was my favourite cat. It’s the same with songs, you give birth to these things – whatever they are – and privately you might think, ‘This one has turned out pretty badly’, or ‘This is the black sheep.’ They’re ‘Always in trouble in school’; ‘caned twice, and caught smoking Marlboro on the school pitch’. But, you’ve got to stand by them. Like a member of Boris’ cabinet, you’ve got to pretend that you’re loyal and faithful until the bitter end. And so it is with songs, even though you know you’re responsible for them and know they turned out to be less than you hoped for, it’s still yours. It’s out there, like a Donald Trump tweet. It’s out there, in the ether, and you might be able to remove it, but everybody’s read it by then. They’ve read it, copied and pasted it, and sent it on. In a way, it’s like that with songs.”

Although it’s been developing since 2017, The Zealot Gene was definitely worth the track, and although the album was written before the pandemic, it seems to capture the two-year imprisonment in both its lyrical content and atmosphere. Rock highlights include the flute heavy ‘Shosana Sleeping’  and the barrelling, baroque overtones of ‘Barren Beth, Wild Desert John’, but it’s the folkier elements that distinguish the album from what came before. The lilting ‘Sad City Sisters’ focuses its attention on the guitar, before an accordion enters, and lifts the focus onto another plain. It’s possible to discern in ‘Sad City Sisters’ a distinct flavour of the groove, timbre and tempo that cements traditional Irish music, not least because Anderson’s flute evokes a melody line that is both evocative of the instruments that sent battalions into war against mightier and more fearful foes. Indeed, it’s a very Celtic sounding track, so I ask the flute player if he is familiar with the genre of Irish music: “Yes, I was[sic],” he replies. “I think it was sort of the mid to late 1970s when I became more interested in Irish music and discovered the band Planxty, who became a firm favourite. I didn’t listen to very much music from the mid-1970s onwards, but I did listen to a little bit of classical music and folk music, and Planxty were a band of great individual musicians-many of them had previously played with other acts, had their own solo careers, and went on to do other things. They were a landmark group not to enjoy universal or international acclaim the way many did, so the world missed out a little bit because they didn’t hear Planxty.”

As the 21st century progresses, audiences are getting exposed to more kaleidoscopic genres than the records of the 1950s would suggest. Much of that interest in esoteric structures began in the ’70s, when progressive rock giants Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer expanded the lexicon of rock to incorporate orchestral suites, narrative treatises of disillusionment and applauded the average intelligence of their audiences by demonstrating works that pivoted beyond the typical ‘boy meets girl’ shtick.

Out of those three groups, Jethro Tull are the only one who are left standing. Anderson says the album fits the “progressive rock” bracket, although the pandemic meant that he had to compromise parts of his vision. “Well, it was, until the last five songs were added,” he reveals. “I wrote them back in 2017, but they weren’t recorded until about March, April of last year when I finally gave up on getting together with the other guys in the band. I thought, ‘I’d better get on and record these at home with an acoustic guitar, and whatever other instruments I have at home.’ I wrote those, and some of the guys sent in their little additions as audio files to incorporate into the mix. They became more acoustic and became a more dynamic feel to many of the other tracks. I think that turned out to be a good thing. It gave the album a little more variety, depth and dynamic range. Different instrumentation, too.” 

Inexplicably, he starts laughing, but calms himself down to give a ludic answer. “If you said to me, ‘Are you going to play harmonica on the new record?’, I would have said, ‘What?’ I can’t remember the last time I played on a record…1974? I still have a box full of harmonicas lying around, and just a little notion of what a harmonica would sound like. The accordion made a comeback, and David Goodier played something I asked him to do on double bass, but he wasn’t happy with it[laughs]. His fingers were bleeding, so he wanted to send me a new file, using a bass guitar instead. It was fun coming up with a way to do those final few songs in a way that gave it a little more variety.” 

Goodier, he tells me, will be missing a few gigs in the near future due to a pre-planned surgery. It’s not the first time Anderson has had to ask for outside counsel (he is their only constant member, after all), but time hasn’t made it any less painful for him to say goodbye to bandmates, no matter how temporary. “But we have to find a substitute bass player,” Anderson points out, “And we’ll be in that difficult situation again of having somebody come along and that will be, ‘Thanks very much. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ I thought about asking some previous bass players to do the job, but I thought that would be rather awkward. I might ask Joe Parrish to get one of his bandmates, so he can explain things to them.” 

Longtime guitarist Martin Barre had to miss out on gigs in the early 2000s due to “ill health”, and the German-born Florian Opahle wound up playing many of the towering riffs in Barre’s absence. Opahle plays on The Zealot Gene, and Anderson grows visibly more emotional when he discusses the departure of his bandmate and friend. “Sadly, in 2019,” Anderson sighs, “Florian, having invested everything that he owned, and probably borrowed money, set up a recording studio and a photography studio for his professional photographer wife, decided that he’d really rather spend his future rather than being on the road, he’d rather commit himself to being a producer and engineer. And having gotten married not long before, he wanted to settle down in his hometown not far from Munich. So, Florian was a great loss, I knew that he was going because we chatted about it on a few occasions. Happily, Florian came in to fill in for Joe for some concerts in September, last year, because Joe at that point-being much younger than the rest of us – wasn’t fully vaccinated. Florian kindly stepped back into the foray and did those shows. Which he really enjoyed, which made it fairly painful that when Joe’s second vaccination was validated around the middle of September that Florian had to walk away again. He would really rather have stayed on, considering that Covid had severely impacted his recording and producing. It was rather sad that he couldn’t stay on, but by then, Joe was the official new guitar player. I told him, ‘Sorry, wife number one wants to come back in and share my bed.’” 

Jethro Tull Band. (Credit: Travis Latam)

Much like the sandy-haired musician who performed a flute solo for The Rolling Stones in 1968 – purportedly at the suggestion of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts – Anderson recognises that to be successful, he needs to follow a certain decorum. “Four guitarists in Jethro Tull over the years, and at least three of them would have quite a lot in common. The original guitar player, Mick Abrahams, was a real rock and roll and blues guitarist, and not to do him down in any way, because he was a great guitar player, [but] he was never going to change. He was absolutely rooted in that place. I don’t think he found it particularly interesting to engage with the music I started writing in the summer of 1968, and by the end of 1968, was putting forward some of the material that might be on the next Jethro Tull records in 1969. In a way, he wouldn’t have fitted in beyond that short duration with Jethro Tull.” 

He mumbles to himself and decides the best way to describe his experiences at both The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Isle of Wight is to value the experiences he got out of them as a person. Being a spectator amidst these great titans was as illuminating as performing with them. “I can use those slightly uncomfortable scenarios to maybe learn something about other people, but also about myself about why I feel disconnected in crowds, in the hustle and bustle of events,” he says wistfully. 

He’s not getting away that easily. What was it like watching The Rolling Stones in 1968? “The performances by The Who, for example, were spirited, and they were in top-notch form. They were spit-fire pilots: they jumped in, and went to battle! The Stones hadn’t played live for quite a while. They’d made a great album called Beggar’s Banquet, which was the focus of the songs they were playing, and this was their sort of ‘tryout’, to perform those live. Mick Jagger had great energy and commitment, but maybe slightly burned himself out during the rehearsal period. Brian Jones was so marginalised within the group and wasn’t contributing very much at all. Yoko Ono was a sort of unwelcome intrusion to the proceedings; screeching and screaming, and generally being quite dotty. John Lennon was good, and to be there and to watch him live doing ‘Yer Blues’ with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards was one of those memorable little moments.” 

He re-iterates that he didn’t really know Jagger, Lennon or “any of them”, but his ears prick up when I ask about George Harrison. Like Anderson, Harrison had an interest in spirituality that went far beyond the realms of a hobbyist. Anderson hums to himself, and then answers, “George Harrison had a relatively sudden, but relatively complete and long-lasting infatuation with Eastern religion, and while I have been from my teenage years on-wards someone with a lot of curiosity about religious studies – I focus on, and read about Hinduism and Buddhism, their differences and similarities. It’s a fascination of mine, but when it comes to writing the music, I’m sometimes very concerned with the very mundane, the very pragmatic and the very real ‘day to day’ affairs of life, as well as the more spiritual elements that creep in here and there, and into the songs I write.” 

And then he’s off, keen to carry on his own personal crusade, safe in the knowledge that his newest work is as fresh – but arguably more worldly – as the anthems he penned in the 1970s. 

The Zealot Gene will be released on 28th January.