Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ian Anderson: This Was and Always Will Be

David Schultz


Flute solos, Johan Sebastian Bach covers and a devotion to medieval chamber music hardly seem like the characteristics synonymous with classic rock success, much less those upon which an English blues band from the Sixties would ultimately base their legacy. For Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull, taking unconventional approaches to the familiar has always served to single them out, to some as anachronistic objects of derision but to many more as purveyors of a distinctive style that no other band can come close to reproducing. On their early albums, This Was, Stand Up and Benefit, they embodied the British-inflected blues, with the release of Aqualung, they emerged as classic rock titans, they give birth to the era of the prog-rock concept album with Thick As A Brick before presiding over its demise with A Passion Play and with Minstrel In The Gallery, established them as masters of the baroque-inspired jam. While difficult to point to any bands that are their direct descendent, Jethro Tull’s influence spreads throughout the progressive rock minded bands of today as well as to any group daring to incorporate the flute into their sound.

For close to forty years, Ian Anderson and Martin Barre have fronted Jethro Tull and at the present time the band is rounded out by Doane Perry, who has pretty much manned the drums for Tull since 1984, and newcomers David Goodier (bass) and John O’Hara (keyboards). No longer shaggy maned and slightly less wild-eyed, Ian Anderson remains Jethro Tull’s most recognizable face and voice, the silhouette of his one-legged flautist stance as identifiable with the band as the ruby red lips and tongue are to The Rolling Stones and the confederate flag to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Prior to Tull’s recent tour of America, Anderson spoke to from the west country of England about the bands 40th anniversary and shared his views on the effects of downloading music through the Internet, the upcoming Presidential election and the possibility of a Jethro Tull residency.

Depending on when you start counting, this year marks Jethro Tull’s 40th anniversary, a true milestone. To commemorate their 20th and 25th anniversaries, Tull released box sets chock full of unreleased studio tracks and little-heard live recordings. To celebrate the four decades that have passed since the release of This Was, Jethro Tull’s phenomenal 1968 debut, they have released a double CD set consisting of the original mono mix of the album, a remixed and remastered studio version and assorted live tracks culled from the vaults of the BBC. In addition to the double CD reissue, Tull will be releasing Jack In The Green, a DVD compilation of German performances with a focus on a concert from The Broadsword And The Beast tour. This month will also see the American release of a double DVD documentary that is essentially the Jethro Tull story. “It features interviews with the band members past and present, people who were involved in Jethro Tull’s formation and career and lots of live performances,” explains Anderson, impressed with the impressive scope of the project. “It’s really one for the fans; a look at the story of Jethro Tull from the very beginning. Of course, even in 350 minutes of running time over 2 DVDs, I’m sure a lot of people will complain, ‘Well, you didn’t talk about this’ or ‘We didn’t see that.’ It’s hard to fit in 40 years of activity into even 350 minutes of documentary material. The makers of it have done their best and we’ll see how people like it.”

Not one to shy away from speaking about the past, Anderson responds to questions about Jethro Tull’s 40th anniversary with measured excitement for their upcoming American performances. “It’s been forty years since Jethro Tull began at the Marquee Club in February of 1968 and we are concentrating this year on reenergizing some of that very early period of Jethro Tull’s repertoire,” explains Anderson. “Those who saw Jethro Tull when we first landed in Boston in 1969 will probably find when we play in Boston that there are quite a few songs that they might have seen Jethro Tull play on that first occasion. We’re not exclusively representing that era of Jethro Tull but there’s an emphasis in the set list of material from the first three or four albums and a smaller scattering of things from later decades. It seems fitting in an anniversary year like this to revisit some of the really early work that made a few people sit up and take notice.”

In early August, Jethro Tull did pass through the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York. True to its promise, the show featured revitalized versions of “Serenade To A Cuckoo,” “Dharma For One” and “A Song For Jeffrey” from This Was, a gorgeous rendition of “Sossity, You’re A Woman”/”Reasons For Waiting” and of course, potent readings of “Thick As A Brick,” “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath.” Playing before still images of the band taken over the last four decades, the briskly paced show also included slightly ironic offerings of “Living In The Past” and “Too Old To Rock And Roll (To Young To Die)” and healthy doses of Anderson’s wonderful wit and inimitable flute. Prior to “We Used To Know,” Anderson related a tale of playing the song back in the 70s when a young band known as The Eagles opened for them. He gathers that they must have heard them play the song because he believes “Hotel California” to be a fine homage to the Benefit era song. Sure enough, the descending chord changes to the Tull classic sound quite similar to those accompanying Don Henley’s trip down a dark desert highway.

In returning to remix and remaster This Was, Anderson didn’t have to tax his memory with respect to the music. “I’m pretty familiar with all of Jethro Tull’s recordings,” he explains. “From month to month and year to year, I’m listening to most of the albums because we’re always changing the set list and dusting off some old material so I’m pretty familiar with all the albums. This Was was last remastered a few years back when digital technology allowed us to remaster it in a higher standard from the original master tapes. Interestingly enough, those old master tapes going back to the 1/4” and the 4-track ½” tapes, they’re actually in much better condition than some of the stuff from the later Seventies. The old tape from the late Sixties was much heavier duty. They made tapes much much thinner in the Seventies, the latter part in particular; it’s much more fragile, has much less oxide on it and is far more prone to falling to pieces than some of the early stuff. The irony was we got pretty good results from the This Was material, indeed even from the 7 ½” per second mono BBC radio tapes. They were still in better condition than a lot of the stuff that came from the 70s and into the 80s when tapes stock was not as sturdy as it has been.”

For the 40th anniversary reissue, Anderson worked with the original Abbey Road tapes from 1968, noting that the remixing was made for difficult “because everything is on four tracks. You don’t have all the options because certain things are already bundled up: the bass guitar is on the same track with the vocals or the bass is on the same track with the rhythm guitar,” he explains. “You can’t separate out most of the instruments. So you’re trying to make the compromises in the mix just as had to be made when the album was recorded in the first place with only four tracks available. Back in the days of Sgt. Pepper and the first Pink Floyd album or the first Jethro Tull album, 4-tracks were all we had. 8-track came along the year after and 16-track within a couple years after that. By the time we made the Aqualung album we were recording on 16-track and things had evolved a huge amount in just the three years since we started.”

Anderson is quite taken with the advances in recording technology, which has progressed significantly since the recording of This Was. “Apart from the music that you can steal from the Internet without paying for it even on legitimate download operators like iTunes, the vast array of music available these days is tremendous,” he marvels. “Quite often when I go to research some music, I’m amazed by the depth of availability on iTunes. They have obscure old blues albums and artists that I thought no one else had ever heard at the flip of a button.” Amazed as he is for the wealth of music to be found online, Anderson is not impressed with the ability to acquire mp3s without cost. “We just have to remember that its only 99 cents for something that may bring you listening pleasure for years to come. It would be rather nice to pay for it and continue to support the music industry that nurtures new artists as well as old artists. If we don’t pay for the music that we listen to, we can’t really have much expectation of there being money spent on developing the artists of tomorrow. It’s not about lining the pockets of Sir Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger,” says Anderson. “It’s about paying money that’s invested by record companies, publishers and everybody in the management and promotion – the money that gets paid from recordings in order to develop the artists of the next decade and beyond. We’ve got to have a moral standpoint on this one and think of not only keeping people in work and providing the jobs that the music industry has generated over the years but also in investing in the artists who have yet to make their first record.”

While not exactly a populist position, Anderson’s opinions come from his decades as a performing artist who’s earned a living from record sales as well as concert tours. He wouldn’t quibble with the fact that it’s been quite some time since he was a starving musician. Anderson considers for a moment whether the abundance of available music on the Internet might result in wider exposure of a young band’s music which results in increased attendance at their live shows. “Perhaps they do,” he says before dismissing the possible benefits. “Let’s remember, you don’t have to pay for the 10 or 15 seconds of music that you get to listen to on or on iTunes or on any of the other download specialists when you audition - as the Americans are fond of saying - a piece of music before deciding whether or not to buy it. I don’t accept any argument for taking music and not paying for it from the Internet. I think that it’s a cheap shot. It may be that you go and listen and buy a ticket for a band of which you downloaded some music for free from the Internet. I still feel that that band - in order to get the point where they have enough money to even rent a tour bus and put their amplifiers on the stage - we owe them, whoever they might be, the right to be paid for what they’ve created. If we don’t pay them for making the record, we’re denying them the one economic resource that allows them to go out and tour. It’s all right for bands like Jethro Tull. We can go out and tour and make big profits. Our costs versus our gross income produce a large percentage of profits on which we pay our taxes in various countries of the world. Most bands, particularly when their starting off, aren’t that fortunate. They’re obliged to sometimes pay to be the opening act on a tour or play for virtually nothing and they depend on selling CDs by whatever way they can or downloads from the Internet to put a little bit of money into paying for the cost of the tour bus. It’s not every band that makes money out of touring. You may go see your live act play in your local venue but chances are they’re losing money every time they step out of their front door to play a gig until they get to a certain critical mass where their income per show exceeds somewhere in the range of $15,000. It’s impossible to imagine a band going out with the shoddiest of tour buses and playing venues without a talent fee in excess of $15,000 and of course, you don’t get that playing in the clubs,” instructs Anderson, his words becoming slightly impassioned but his demeanor remaining, as always, pleasant. “Putting it in perspective: stealing from the Internet is stealing from the Internet. You’re stealing out of the mouths of babes and I don’t think that it’s a fair thing to do. Steal from Paul McCartney; it’s not going to hurt him. It’s not going to hurt me particularly if you steal from me. I do think the downloading of new young artists’ material without paying for it is probably the least attractive thing you can do. We need to support new music and new artists and we should pay them for the work they do.”

Over the years, Anderson has often joked about the increasing number of reissues and greatest hits packages he’s asked his fans to purchase. While Anderson’s present focus is on remembering the past, it begs the question of whether there will be any new Jethro Tull music in the near future. “There is no plan for there not to be,” discloses Anderson. “During the last couple years, as you can imagine is the case with middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, there are medical issues that crop up. Unfortunately, from time to time, people have had to plan for some surgery or some period where they need to have some general overhaul,” he says, obliquely referring to Martin Barre’s relatively recent shoulder surgery. “There’s also the possibility that next year one of the musicians may have to take six months off to have some remedial surgery for a longstanding injury,” he reveals. “People who do what we do, whether its strumming the guitar, bashing the drums or holding the flute, there’s a lot of damage that comes along with that. We get work-related injuries and so far, fingers crossed, it hasn’t happened to me. It did briefly in 1996 but apart from that occasion, I’ve been okay,” says Anderson, alluding to his successful battle with deep vein thrombosis. “Bands are made up of people and sometimes we have to work around the medical realties.”

The realities of aging have affected Tull’s touring plans along with their recording ones. “These days we have to schedule a lot of our tours and activities a year ahead. Right now, we’re talking about specific dates about one year ahead in the USA as well as in Europe. It’s always possible that someone might not be available to do it. We have to have a backup musician in mind if somebody other than me gets sick or for whatever reason can’t do it,” he explains. “You really do have to think ahead. There are commitments you make once you announce concerts that you have to stick with. If it did happen to me it would be a cancellation. With all respect to the other guys, they’re all replaceable – not easily - but there are other musicians I know I can pick up the phone and hopefully they will be available if someone for whatever reason can’t make a show. These are realities of not just getting old but the realities for any musician at any age. That’s happened to us a number of times in the last two years,” he says before bringing it back to the issue of new music. “The opportunities to go into the studio have tended to disappear because those periods of time usually get eaten up by somebody’s illness, recuperation from illness or somebody’s commitment to do some other work with other artists. We all have things we do outside of Jethro Tull.”

While many equate Ian Anderson with Jethro Tull, without Martin Barre, Owen Wilson’s rant from Armageddon about people who mistake Jethro Tull for a person might not have been so funny. Barre joined Jethro Tull nearly forty years ago, replacing Mick Abraham after the release of This Was, making his and Anderson’s one of the longest running relationships in rock and roll. “There’s a lot of loyalty, friendship and support,” says Anderson explaining the pair’s longevity together. “We’re not close in the sense that we do things together. We’ve always had different interests and different personalities. Right from the beginning, Martin’s had his own life, his own circle of friends and I’ve had mine. We tend to survive as a couple, musically speaking, because of those differences and separate interests. If we had been too close, we would have come to blows or found it hard to carry on,” says Anderson, bringing to mind the reported volatility between Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. “We have a healthy rather separate relationship. I think that’s probably the best way to be in a musical group. You don’t get too close to the people around you because the intimacy you enjoy musically speaking when you’re on stage together or even on tour together is pretty intense. Being on stage with other musicians, it’s like two hours of sex. It’s exhausting, especially for old chaps like me. We keep a degree of separation which is a healthy thing to do when you have to combine that with the intensity of the experience that you have on stage together. Perhaps in some ways it’s a little bit like a marriage – to have all that stuff that you really enjoy together but sometimes it’s the minutes apart that are also important. Whenever Jethro Tull are off the road for a while or off doing some solo projects and we get back together again there’s a sense of kinship and spirit within the band and that’s good. You just don’t want to overdo it. You can spoil the broth by overboiling it. A gentle simmer is better.”

With more than twenty studio albums to their credit, Jethro Tull has the breadth of catalog and devoted fan base to take up residency like The Allman Brothers Band or Phil Lesh & Friends and perform a historic run of shows. “The idea has crossed my mind,” relates Anderson. “I have a rather simplistic approach to being a traveling musician. I like to come into town, have some lunch, go to sound check play the show and leave town early the next morning. The idea of playing two shows in the same venue - let alone ten or twenty - it’s really hard for me,” he says, crushing the hopes of any Tull fans hoping for a Grateful Dead-like career retrospective residency in the near future. “I just like the kind of one night stand approach to performing and playing. I like to get in there and get out. If I’m still in the same town at 8:00 the following morning, I’m feeling a little strange. So that’s really not going to work. There have been occasions when we’ve played a couple of nights in a particular town at the same venue and we’ve changed the set list to some or even a greater extent for another show. Generally speaking, it’s not my way of doing things. I’d rather get on with the next one and a new sea of faces.” Since a large majority of Tull fans possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the band and their music, a residency, while not only being something new for the band, a three or four night run of shows in a single city would likely draw an insane amount of interest. “Perhaps so, but it would be two or three nights too long for me,” he say, quite matter-of-factly. “I’m afraid I’m just one of those people who like to leave town before the newspapers come out.”

One achievement that Jethro Tull is famously known for is their 1989 Grammy victory over Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance for Crest Of The Knave, a predominantly acoustic album. “It will be remembered but for all the wrong reasons though,” laughs Anderson. “I think the award was given to us by the 5000 voting members of the Academy of Recording Artists not for being a heavy metal band but for being nice guys who had never won a Grammy before. I’ve always said if there was a category in the Grammy awards for Best One Legged Flute Player, I’d win it every year,” he boasts, tongue firmly in cheek. Metallica was quite vocal about their Grammy defeat taking out some of their frustration on the innocent Tull. Whatever tension that may have existed has long since faded. “Metallica were very generous once they did win the Grammy. They thanked everybody; their wives, their families, their pets, the fans and Jethro Tull for not putting out an album that year. It shows that the darkest of dark metal bands do at least have a little sense of self deprecating humor which is always good to see.”

Nearly twenty years later, where is the Grammy? The question itself makes Anderson laugh. “Interestingly enough, I did find it after about 10 years,” he says. “I hadn’t seen it for a long time. It showed up when someone was doing an insurance valuation. They came across it in a drawer somewhere in the far corner of the house. It made its appearance again but I don’t know what’s happened to it since then. It’s disappeared again,” he laughs. “It’s somewhere here in the house It’s very nice to have these things but you don’t necessarily have to show them off to the neighbors, he says with an understated modesty. “While it’s nice to have awards and acknowledgements from people, it doesn’t mean you have to wave them around to let people know how clever you are. I’m perfectly secure with myself. I don’t really need to impress myself by having these things on display.”

At the time that I spoke to Anderson, Barack Obama had just passed through England, “hobnobbing” with various high-ranking politicos as part of his whirlwind tour through the country. As Anderson is extremely eloquent and knowledgeable on more than just music, we digress into a little political discussion, centered on Europe’s interest in our upcoming election and the Democratic candidate’s appeal overseas. “It’s very much the case, for instance, in Germany 75% of the population want to see Obama become President of the United States,” offers Anderson. “In a number of countries in Europe I would say his profile is very high, considerably higher than John McCain and much higher than the current administration. In the eyes of most people, outside the 30-something percent that give Bush some kind of an approval rating in the U.S., they don’t think he’s done that great a job. Obviously this is an important time and an important election that is being viewed very seriously around the world. America, we hope, is going to have a rekindled part to play in the ideal of the future, in terms of major issues – not only lead the war against terrorism or rather the fight against terrorism but also on subjects like climate change and the economic issues facing people in many countries right at the moment and sometimes in the future.” After pausing for a second to reflect, he continues. “Yes, it’s being eagerly anticipated and very much watched and discussed and pretty much headline news in the papers in Europe. For instance, Obama came over here and I think people were aware that he was grandstanding a little bit and showing off for the media but on the other hand, how else is he going to get people’s attention in this competitive world. I think he did, on balance, a pretty good job and we’ll see what happens from here on in.”

Given the vagaries of International politics, I ponder whether the rest of the world’s desire to see Obama elected would in some fashion work against him. “It’s something that all the pundits here are talking about,” counters Anderson. “There could be a negative result from Obama going missing from America on a crucial week. On the other hand, when you look at how McCain has been doing in recent weeks his star is waning fast and he gets grumpier and crankier as the days go by. (At the time of the interview, McCain’s poll numbers were quite low. His numbers have surged since). I can look at John McCain and think, ‘Wow. He’s even crankier and grumpier than I am,’” says Anderson with a low chuckle. “I feel a certain if temporary kinship with John McCain because I like a guy who’s grumpy. I like a guy who speaks his mind and can sometimes lose the plot a little bit. Unfortunately, neither I nor John McCain would probably make a very good President of the United States. But it’s not up to me to judge,” he says with his voice rising in that distinctive Ian Anderson manner. “I think part of McCain’s popularity was that he was a new broom, someone who disagreed with many of the things done and said by the current administration and was one who had a degree of separateness from the Washington party apparatchik,” says Anderson of the Republican candidate. “I think McCain’s strong point is that he seems to have Republican credentials but with an independent soul, not one who would be bowed and cowed by the traditional hierarchy of the Republican Party. That’s probably what won him the nomination: that degree of independence, that he wasn’t an old school Republican. Whether he’s new school anything is what we have to keep our eyes and ears open for to find out if he has something to offer behind the rhetoric and the war veteran stance which unfortunately as he sort of learned from John Kerry doesn’t necessarily win you a Presidency.”

The discussion then moves on to the general populace’s apparent distaste for politicians who blindly toe the party line. “A lot of people who probably wouldn’t have voted the last two times around are going to go out and vote in this election,” opines Anderson. “I think there will a much bigger percentage of black people and a much bigger percentage of younger people going out to vote then on the previous couple of occasions. There should be a demographic change in the voting habits of America which should probably play into the hands of Obama more than McCain. One can understand that the Republican Party is a little bit nervous about new voters. Obama is hardly what we’d call a radical liberal. He’s a pretty tame guy in terms of what you might have and McCain is slightly to the left of what you might call a typical Republican,” suggests Anderson before offering his more personal take on partisan politics. “My pal Tony Snow, who sadly is no longer with us, was a staunch defender of the Bush line in his days as Press Secretary of the White House. He was someone who defended the Republican Party regardless of his boss; a real staunch Republican and I admired and respected him for it even if politically speaking we were often arguing opposite sides on issues like climate change. Tony and I didn’t come to blows but we got fairly passionate in our arguments. Sadly, I never got to find out whether Tony had ever come around to accepting climate change before he died. We didn’t talk about that in the months leading up to his death. It somehow seemed a bit cattish to reawaken ideological arguments with a man fighting against terminal cancer,” he says with poignancy entering his voice.

“I’m an American taxpayer but not a voting citizen of the United States. So I have to leave it up to you guys, just as the Germans, French and the Italians do. It’s interesting times and the world is watching. My message to the American people isn’t to vote for John McCain or for Barack Obama or even for Hillary Clinton next time since it looks like she’ll take another crack at it. My message is simply - vote because you can’t afford to be one of the 40% of the people who sit on their behinds and can’t be bothered to go to the polls. Democracy is what young men and women have fought and died for in Afghanistan and Iraq. If anything we owe it to them to use our democratic right to show the rest of world how democracies work. That’s my message. Hanging chads notwithstanding,” he adds with a laugh.

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