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Ian Anderson Of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson, the legendary voice of Jethro Tull, brought the “Jethro Tull” concert to the Akron Civic Theater on April 11th, 2016.  This new show “re-imagines the English Agricultural inventor Jethro Tull, with a narrative set in the near future.”  The show included classic Tull songs as well as some new material.

Mr. Anderson took some time out of his schedule to speak with us about his career as well as the 2016 show at the Akron Civic Theater.


Greg Drugan:  Hi Ian, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, where are you calling me from today?

Ian Anderson:  I’m calling you from my production office in the United Kingdom.

GD:  Nice! Let’s get down to it; who were some of your musical influences growing up?

IA:  Well it started when I was seven or eight years old with wartime big band jazz.  My father had some old 78 rpm records that I listened to as a child.  People like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Bennie Goodman; that sort of stuff.  Then I heard the very early days of rock and roll.  I wouldn’t say influences but I became aware of rock and roll like Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started listening to blues.  People like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and Brownie McGee.  Also, a bit of jazz music like Charlie Parker and that sort of stuff is what I grew up with when I started to play music.  So I started with big band jazz music and also a bit of church music and Scottish folk music too.  So I have an eclectic amount of early influences in my life before Jethro Tull came about.

GD:  You are known as a multi-instrumentalist.  What is your favorite instrument to play?

IA:  Well I suppose I have a natural affinity for the flute because I’ve been playing it all these years and it’s the instrument I’m most associated with.  It probably is the one that I find the most satisfaction in playing.  I, of course, use the acoustic guitar in writing songs most of the time.   So that's another instrument that I enjoy.

GD:  How did you decide to pick up the flute?

IA:  As a guitar player in my late teens, I came across the early Eric Clapton thing in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and came to the conclusion that he was so far ahead of many other people especially me, that it might be a good idea for me to look around and find something else to play.  For no particularly good reason, I picked up the flute because it was shiny.  It was interesting and nice and compact and not too big to play.  Although it was some months before I got some sort of note out of it.

It was December of ’67, I was 20 years old and I had no musical training or any instruction book on “How To Play The Flute: Part One.”  So without any aid or help, I just had to fiddle around with it and find my own way.  By February, I was playing the flute at the Marque Club in 1968 when Jethro Tull became Jethro Tull.   It was three months after I started, but people sat up and noticed that I played the flute.  I was playing the flute, but I was thinking guitar.  Because my embryonic flute style was based on guitar riffs and improvised blues solos that I had played on the guitar.

GD:  So you’re basically self-taught; that’s amazing!

IA:  That’s right, yes.

GD:  Jethro Tull has been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for several years.  Many fans would like to see you get inducted.  What’s your take on the Hall of Fame?

IA:  Well, it is a peculiar American Institution.  I think it’s there primarily to celebrate the great input and significance of all those American artists who shaped American music.  Maybe a few Brits have sneaked in there but they tend, for the most part, to be those that write and perform in a rather American style.  You find those who tend to sing with an American accent and play American-sounding music than those that are a little more European.  Those that sound not-so-American tend to be often not included into the Hall of Fame and that’s fair enough.  I think that the whole thing should be about American music, and when Brits play it, that’s fair enough.

I think that those people who organize the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who I know used to be the same folks who were citizens of Rolling Stone magazine tend to have the same view of Europe as George Bush; which was old Europe and so perhaps they’re a little slow to prioritize that musical influence.  But there are so many bands, great American bands and great American artists that so far haven’t made it and they deserve their turn long before you start scraping the bottom of the barrel, including Jethro Tull!  But if they decided to do that, of course I wouldn’t be churlish and refuse to show up.  But I would have to make sure I wasn’t washing my hair that day.

GD:  That is a very interesting take; I guess I never thought of the Hall of Fame from a British perspective.  Who would you like to see in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that isn’t already in?

IA:  I don’t think Captain Beefheart is in there, is he?  He surely is one of those great Americana artists who, like him or loath him, he is a part of a very American form of music.  Same with Frank Zappa, these are people who are terribly important.  Not only did they influence people in their own country but a huge amount of influence on British and European bands.  Captain Beefheart especially, who perhaps most Americans may not realize was a well known and hugely respected and influential artist in Britain back in the ‘60s.

GD:  Excellent! A few years ago you were appointed an official Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), what was that like? Because we don’t have anything quite like that in America.

IA:  The circle of the queen’s awards and the various little medals that they give you for being a good guy aren’t only necessarily about people who are the good and the great and the famous.  The majority of the MBEs are handed down to people you would have never have heard of; people who perform their duties on behalf of the community.  Perhaps they are unknown to everyone else.  It could be the village policemen, it could be the guy who helps little children cross the road.  It is celebrated really as a way of recognizing people’s endeavors from all walks of life and from all perspectives.  It’s not just about excellence in the world of the arts or God help us, in commerce and industry; which are often on the Queen’s honor list.

So you get these things and you think that’s nice and it’s nice to be recognized.  Like I said, it would be churlish to refuse.  Although at the time, I was not very well disposed of Tony Blair and his government of the day.  So I had to think carefully if it was right for me to accept.  But by the time I received that honor, Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister, so I told myself that it wasn’t on Blair’s watch when I got a minor medal.

GD:  Is becoming an MBE the first step to become a knight or can you just get knighted right away?

IA: (laughs) Well, I guess people can just get knighted out of the blue.  Becoming a knight is the highest honor because you become Sir Elton John or Sir Mick Jagger.  But we all know what Keith Richards thinks of Sir Mick Jagger.  Of course you sneer at people who achieve these titles and then actually use them.  Mick Jagger doesn’t run around referring to himself as Sir Mick.  But Elton John for example, I remember doing a television show and Elton John was on it and I saw his piano setting on the stage.  There was an elaborate sort of protective quilted cover that had “Sir Elton John” embroidered on it for everyone to notice.  I thought that was a bit in poor form, really.

GD:  Do you have any aspirations to be a knight?

IA:  It’s not up to me, but I doubt that my activities or my reputation would ever be in the firing line of a knighthood.  Well it’s not a firing line, it’s a sword you get tapped with, not a gun.   There are several people that are deserving of that award for their service on behalf of their country.  People like me are quite content to sit in the background.  But if someone wants to buy me a hot dinner or a pint of ale in the pub, that’s good enough for me!

GD:  You have worked with a variety of artists throughout your career, is there anyone that you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?

IA:  I’ve worked with a lot of people but that’s because we were on the same show or perhaps I was a guest where we performed together on stage.  I don’t really stop to think about that.  There are a few people that if I thought about it and that contacted me to play flute on this track on their record; I would think that’s great.  I don’t have a wish list of people who I would like to perform with and I’m sure that I’m not on their list either! (laughs)  You just take it as it comes.

If you were to ask me who would I like to be on the stage with and perform, I would probably say Ludwig Van Beethoven, but that’s not likely to happen for obvious reasons.

GD:  I recently saw a picture of you with Jimmy Page floating around the internet.  I was wondering if there is a possible collaboration between the two of you?

IA:  Jimmy Page is one of those people that if he asked me to play on his record, I would be delighted to do it as long as it was something musical that I could contribute to.  Jimmy is a hugely important artist and not just his work with Led Zeppelin but because he is a great guitar player.  He was one of those few guitar players who, back when I started, who was reputed to be ahead of the game.  There was Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck, those were the four guys.  Then it was Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac who figured in those terms of quality of his playing.  Jimmy was one of those session guys along with Ritchie Blackmore who were the hot-shot young guitarists.  He has been responsible for a lot of great music.

GD:  It seems like you are always keeping things fresh and updated.  Tell me about this tour;  how did you conceive the story of Jethro Tull?

IA:  I was driving through northern Italy in the summer of 2014 and I was looking at different agriculture methods and crops that were being grown and thinking how different it was in the UK.  It crossed my mind, I wonder what Jethro Tull, the old agricultural innovator of the 18th century, what he might have made of European farming?  So I looked it up on the internet, to my surprise, he actually visited southern France and northern Italy not once but twice and indeed incorporated some ideas that he got from studying that variety of agricultural styles into his work when he came back to write about improved farming methods in the UK.

So that set me thinking about Jethro Tull in terms of his life story which I’ve never really examined at all.  I really wanted to keep away from it because I felt embarrassed having been named by an agent after a dead guy who invented the seed drill.  I never paid any attention to Jethro Tull and his life and times until a year and a half ago.

As soon as I started reading about him, I was struck by similarity between elements of his life and times and songs that I’ve written through the years.  So just for fun, I made a list of songs that I thought that the coincidence was a workable one in story telling terms.  I came up with a set list of well known Jethro Tull material that I thought could tell old Jethro’s story.  But rather than setting it in the 18th century, I thought I would extrapolate it and put it into the present day and the near future.  To make it more interesting and relevant to talk about agriculture innovation today and tomorrow because we really do need the inventiveness and creativity and innovation to be able to grow food around the world in the face of climate change and ever increasing population.  So if we ever needed a Jethro Tull, it’s now.

GD:  With this tour, I’ve read that it’s more interactive where you have guests appearing on screen, where did that idea come from?

IA:  I’ve been using video in shows since 2012 so this is the fourth year we have been using a big video screen and coming up with a presentation that is visual to go along with the audio experience of hearing a rock band.  We try to make it look interesting and try to give elements of context of the songs but it takes it a step further because we are also telling a story.  My guests that appear on screen are contributing, singing a few lines here and there and performing in character.  Who are different characters in the life of Jethro Tull; his wife, his father and his son.  It’s a way of telling a story giving the context of the music and giving the narrative a way of expressing itself in a visual way.  If you go to it will tell you everything you need to know!

If you get that information out, people will have a better understanding of what this show is about.  Ultimately, it will be a toe tapping experience.  We are there to entertain people and make it easy on the ear and easy on the eye.  It’s interesting and evocative but it is toe-tapping music.  People can still enjoy hearing the best of Jethro Tull, but just giving it a little bit of context.

GD:  Well thank you so much, we will get that information out and we look forward to seeing you in April!

IA: Terriffic, we look forward to being there.  See you soon!  Thank you very much indeed.

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