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Interview: Ian Anderson, musician

02 October 2015

‘Luckily, slightly overweight, bearded one-legged flute-players are thin on the ground’

I’ve done quite a few concerts in churches. Growing up as I did in Edinburgh, I attended church briefly, and at my grammar school in the north of England, the headmaster was the Revd Dr Luft — though he was rather serious and didn’t help his school embrace Christianity. So I’m used to the atmosphere.


I didn’t find myself going into churches [by choice] until about ten years ago, when I started — just to sniff the air, sometimes rather stale air. If there’s one close to my hotel, I tend to sneak in. For people without faith, I think it’s an advantage to have a place like this in the community. If I’m in a strange place, I like to feel I’m a temporary member of this community.


Christianity’s a tea-and-crumpets religion: one which welcomes you in. That means quite a lot, to other people as well as myself.


Sometimes there’s not much of a welcome from floor managers of some cathedrals, who are sometimes a bit uppity when I arrive and ask where I plug in. You have to win their trust and support if you’re there doing concerts to raise money for them. And that’s 100 per cent of the ticket money: I cover all the costs of the musicians and sound and lights.


I’m a canny Scot: I try to keep the costs as low as I can. But I pay my musicians and crew the same as I’d pay them for the Isle of Wight, because, for them, it’s a job of work. But, yes, there’s a good few thousand pounds involved.


Acoustics in churches and cathedrals are often a challenge. Less so in more modern, compact-footprint cathedrals like Manchester or Newcastle, but can be tricky in the medieval buildings like Salisbury, Canterbury, and so on. But we cope by using delay speakers.


Basically, the audience are almost entirely old fans. They come, not because they are necessarily Christian in practice, but because of the nature of the concert and the spiritually uplifting setting. These concerts are about awakening things in them that they didn’t know were there. I think that’s part of the pay-off: getting people to visit a facility that they probably walk past twice a week and don’t give a second glance to. Cathedrals are priceless assets that will never be repeated.


James Galway told me once that, the older you get, the more you have to practise and prepare for concerts. Very sound advice, as it turns out. In order to stay at the top of our game, we have to fight the degenerative processes of old age and the often overwhelming need for an early bed.


Backstage, it’s always been the same. Just water, tea, coffee, and a sandwich for the band and crew. If a promoter throws in a six-pack of lager and a bottle of wine, that’s an added bonus. We never did the silly, bombastic rock-star thing.


Like many of my age group, I was distantly aware of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley in America, and was sniffing round the edges of what become rock ’n’ roll. I attempted an acoustic guitar and skiffle at the age of 12. It was the sort of music that gave you the feeling that you could possibly do it, and people like Cliff Richard were saying: “Well, we’re white middle-class English kids, and we can do this, too.”


I was playing music in an amateur band at art college, and decided to go on with music when I heard Eric Clapton. I realised I’d never play like him; so I traded in my guitar and bought a shiny student flute and microphone: about £60-worth. I couldn’t play the flute — it was a spontaneous purchase. I struggled to get a noise out of it, but managed a blues scale; so when I began Jethro Tull in about December 1967, that’s when we got noticed. None of the other bands had a flute . . . and luckily neither Clapton nor Jimi Hendrix took to it; so I had the field pretty much to myself.


The flute is a different voice in the context of rock music, and one which I can attempt to play with much greater success than I would have had with the electric guitar. The world is full of “rock gods” and phallic-thrusting, tight-trousered, heavy-metal axe poseurs. Luckily, slightly overweight, bearded one-legged flute-players with thin girly fingers are thin on the ground.


The one-legged thing’s just a balance thing. It started when I played the harmonica in 1968, and transferred the pose to the flute. Got me into trouble when I visited India in 1993 on a promo trip, and they thought I was taking the mickey out of the Lord Krishna, who, I discovered to my horror, is usually depicted as playing his flute standing on one leg, too. To make it worse, I then found out that Kokopelli and other Indian gods, Pan, and even the Pied Piper of Hamelin are also shown playing and dancing on one leg. Continents and even millennia apart, but is some universal truth being stated here? Somewhere, right now, in a little-known star system in Andromeda, a curious ET youth with a wispy beard and some ill-fitting tights is planning a career. Just stay out of Dodge, that’s all I have to say. . .


James Galway has the traditional flute repertoire all sewn up, and there are many, many better players of that traditional repertoire than I could ever hope to compete with. I just potter about with my own compositions, and the occasional reworkings of some classical ditties.


I’ve got 15 flutes of various makes and types. But I usually play just a concert flute made by Sankyo in Japan, made of pure .997 silver. Gold is too flashy for me, with or without the diamond in the crown — sorry, Sir Jim.


The 26 other guys who have been on and off members of the Jethro Tull band since 1968? It’s pretty fine between me and them, but some of them had the odd altercation with each other. But remember that some are no longer with us, and a few aren’t feeling terribly well. The guys with me in the church shows have been members of Jethro Tull for ten years or more. But you can’t turn the clock back and reassemble one of the old team line-ups.


I support the Church, especially of the Anglican flavour, but I don’t really call myself a Christian. I have huge appreciation for the inclusiveness of modern Christianity and the role it can play in defining and providing for the spiritual needs of the individual. But I don’t have blind faith in the existence of either God or Jesus. I’m of a pragmatic persuasion. I believe in possibilities, and, perhaps, probabilities.


The real Jesus, who we will never know, was of flesh and blood and all the other material bits and bobs which make up the average, often complex, man. But the lessons, the narrative, and the morality of the biblical Jesus story are a valuable user-manual for the correct functioning of the Christian, even the human, experience. And you don’t get left with the extra, unused IKEA screws and bolts, wondering if the whole thing will fall apart. Everything fits. Everything resolves.


Nature is my main source of spiritual sustenance: the forest, the mountain, the animal kingdom — but also the quiet backstage-like calm of the cathedral, church, or chapel.


Music is the celebration of experience: birth, love, marriage, death, and all points in between. It’s a sharing thing, but often born of seclusion, doubt, anger, joy, and wrestling with all things in the bringing together of heart and mind. The composer is a lonely, sometimes tragic, figure. The performer is a show-off and jester. Hey, but it’s a living.


As a musician, I’ve been most influenced by Beethoven and Muddy Waters. As a man, not sure. Several, perhaps: I have an eclectic sense of wonder, and a mind open to new ideas and practices. Shame I have to go soon. I would have loved to stick around for another thousand years. Actually, I would settle on a hundred. Make it ten.


I’m happiest in the hour before sleep time when I lie naked on the bed watching rolling news and sipping from a cold beer. I can be in this cheerful position within 45 minutes of walking off stage sometimes. Not a pretty sight, but pretty relaxed.


Regrets? Not having taken the trouble to get a driving licence, learn to surf, bungee jump, and properly load the dishwasher. But, you know, there’s still time. I might even get religion. Who knows?


I get much more angry with myself than with others. Well, most of the time.


I don’t pray. I gently “hope for”, maybe even “wish for”, but even that’s getting a bit close to hovering at the dinner table waiting for scraps of leftover turkey from the Almighty. I once got close to praying during a very scary turbulent flight in South America, but I checked myself in time, remembering that, if there is a God, he is probably a jet-engine mechanic in his spare time.


I’d have the devil in with me if I was locked in a church overnight. Try to knock some sense into the blighter.


Ian Anderson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He will be performing in Lincoln Cathedral (10 December) and St Albans Cathedral (11 December). http://jethrotull.com/tour-dates.

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