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Interview: Ian Anderson, musician, leader of Jethro Tull

17 May 2024

‘Playing in a cathedral gives you a sense of history, responsibility, and humility’


The band Jethro Tull started in January 1968 at the Marquee Club in London. Fifty-six years later, people still come to see us perform all over the world, from Brazil to the US to Iceland and, of course, where we’re currently on tour in the UK. We’ve just played the London Palladium and the Bristol Beacon.

The band’s changed over the years, mostly because of people wanting a change of tack, or illness or death. There are very few occasions when we’ve had to ask someone to leave, and that didn’t stop us being friends. There’ve been 28 main musicians over the years.

My son’s worked with me since university 22 years ago. He’s played drums, been stage manager, agent, lighting director, co-manager. He’s steeped in all aspects of the music profession.

I decided to become a professional musician in 1966 when I was at art college. I became increasingly interested in music, because it was an immediate outlet, in real time. Painting and drawing take longer: you might have to wait 50 years till after your death before anyone takes any notice. So it was youthful impatience.

I brought my flute into rock music, because there were so many guitarists in 1968 — and much better players than I was. Luckily, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix couldn’t play the flute; so it seemed worth a try.

In the UK at least, half of the pop and rock musicians studied drawing and painting, and switched to music. Many of the words — “line”, “form”, “colour”, “tone” — that describe music and art are the same. Melody is like a pencil line on a fine-art drawing; so it’s a fairly easy switch. It’s not an accident, though I don’t think you find that link in other countries.

Usually graphic designers do album covers, publicity, videos and so on, but right from the first, I’ve been involved in my album covers in some way.

I’ve made an album with the Carducci String Quartet, and I saw that they have a more finely tuned mechanism than a rock band. They have to play together with a lot of understanding, attuned to minute visual clues, but even with a rock band, musicians still have to fit into the culture.

If you’re staying up late, drinking, doing drugs, arriving half an hour late, it’s over. We have standards, rules. I’ve no time for people who put their own decadent pursuits over the professionalism that belongs to being a band and playing for the paying public. The musicians I play with share that view. They’re the right guys.

I’m not a natural performer. I’m shy and reluctant, in keeping with many people who do what I do for a living. Maybe it’s our way of getting out there and overcoming the demons, and during the time on stage we express a different aspect of our personality — but then we step offstage and retire to a quiet place under a damp rock.

Some performers go to the nearest pub and club after the show, and perform again. I’m not one of them. After two hours of aerobics on stage, which is what performing’s like, I want to enjoy my own company in a private space as soon as possible.

It’ll be the first time in the day that I can actually relax, hanging up my work clothes, and shedding the emotions with them. Traditionally, I do that by watching news and current-affairs programmes, which calms me down and takes my mind to other, more important things than what’s happening to me. I’ve always had an interest in politics and documentaries.

I share an interest in the world’s railways, particularly in the UK. Even in greater Europe, the train is a preferable option to travelling in a crowded van for three or four hours.

One reason the flute appealed to me is that it’s very portable. I do have some electronic equipment, which goes in a vehicle or aeroplane; but, when I’m travelling, I have carry-on luggage for my stage clothes, toiletries, and flute, and, as a “civilian tourist”, I can manage with a backpack.

I don’t like to be encumbered. My wife owns a car, and my children do, and sometimes I hitch a lift, but I prefer life without complications: I like things that are small, light and compact.

I’m responsible for an enormous carbon footprint over the years — I’m a climate sinner — but I’ve planted over 50,000 mixed deciduous trees on our farm. Its heavy clay isn’t not capable of producing arable crops. At best, it grows grass for grazing, but some margins aren’t suitable; so we’ve extended our ancient woodlands with many oak trees. They are an emblem of the Anderson-family clan, whose legend is “Stand sure”.

Covid was a very tough passage in my professional life, as we had to reschedule over a hundred concerts in 2020 and 2021.

We perform live on stage in real time, but in indoor concerts there’s a big video screen behind us, playing accompanying video material, sometimes explicitly related to the music, sometimes abstracted. We’ve been using that for last 12 years. There’s lots of jiggery pokery and sophisticated electronica, but we’re playing as a group the way we’ve always done it.

I’m a destructive recording engineer. If it’s not right, I delete it and do it again. I want it to sound as if it’s a real performance. Artistically, it’s better final result.

We can do different takes in recordings, but it’s not my preferred way of working, though I’m far from being a Luddite in the use of modern technology. I began working with it in the late ’70s, and made a couple of albums in 1983 and 1984 to avoid the temptation to stick with the conventional analogue tech which preceded it for all time. If you don’t attempt to integrate and utilise it, you might not know what you’re missing, but I didn’t let it drive how the music would be. It’s quietly in the background for the recording, mixing, and remastering process, without affecting the way the music is written or listened to.

There’s something spiritual about combining the best of the old with the new, in technology as in the spiritual world. You keep things that are the essence, even if there are things culturally and historically that vary in accuracy. You don’t lose the integrity of the original or dumb it down for people who can’t understand the original. If I’m going to read the Bible, it will be the King James Version. It may be wildly inaccurate in places, but the essence is kept.

And so I like to perform without the rather grotesque amount of trickery that goes with the new technology.

It’s the same with photography. I’ve been a keen photographer since I was a child and knew how to develop and process and print. When digital tech came on, I had a digital camera for album covers, publicity, and so on. It was limited to begin with but somewhere around 2000 it became quite sophisticated. I have Leica cameras, and some of the lenses I use were made 50 years ago.

I’ve long had access to Photoshop, but it’s too manipulative, too jazzy: it looks good but rather facile. I use Lightroom which is much more attuned to traditional analogue photography: not manipulating the image, but enhancing it as you might with traditional darkroom techniques. I revere the black-and-white photographers, particularly the photographers who recorded society and culture with that curious special insight. Picture Post in the ’50s was brilliant pictorial journalism, and the photographs of the Second World War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, they were an important part of Britain’s journalistic history. Too expensive to produce in age of colour photography and tabloids.

I’m proud of all my albums in different ways. I guess the so-called concept albums are most satisfying, as they feel more integrated and complete. And they are about something collectively, not just a collection of disparate songs.

I have played in many of our fine cathedrals and churches, not only on the UK. The profits from the sales of tickets for my Christmas concert in Bristol Cathedral will go to the upkeep of these sacred buildings, and, perhaps, also in support of the musical liturgy of the church. I try to balance the festive time of year in song with a few of the elements of an old-fashioned carol service; so we’ll be giving some of the best-known repertoire of Jethro Tull and a few snippets of seasonal traditional church and classical music.

Playing in a cathedral gives you a sense of history, responsibility, and humility. The spiritual side of it is more personal to me, and so I visit these places as a civilian, as you could say, to immerse myself in that. I’m not able to do that when I am working.

I grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Edinburgh, and then in Blackpool as a teenager.

What surprises me most? Waking up every morning. So far. . . I’d be happy if I just wake up tomorrow morning — just like today. I never tire of it!

Right now, the hideous Netanyahu, his government, and Hamas make me angry. I’ve invested much time and money, over the years in doing my little bit to help bring harmony and tolerance in Israeli society through my charitable efforts and performances there. Now it seems to be of no avail. Vengeance and retribution now rule on both sides, it seems.

What’s making me happiest at the moment is the smile on the face of a young kitten — so expressively alive and engaged in the excitement of its new world.

The love and support of family, friends, and fans are the most important things I’ve received over the last year. I leave the material gifts to myself to buy, not to receive from others.

A sense of the divine crept up on me over the years. There was no Damascene moment of revelation. But I’m not a person of faith. Faith implies certainty, and I don’t do certainties. Possibilities and probabilities are my approach to the spiritual essence of life and what might happen next.

This sense has become more detailed and thought-through, but my core feeling for pantheism is central. However, Christianity is the convenient and excellent portal through which many of us can enter the wider domain of the divine.

I don’t believe in an interventionist God. To me, the divine source serves as inspiration, comfort, and optimism, not to grant fairy-tale wishes. But those who feel the need or inclination to pray have my support and encouragement as, for them, it may be the only way they can engage with spiritual fulfilment. No harm in it at all, as long as you keep in mind that Santa might not respond in time for Christmas.

A planet with three or four billion inhabitants enjoying a more or less equal status in terms of living standards and sharing a responsible use of natural resources is what I really hope for, for the future. Eleven billion by the end of this century is not going to work. Neither will mass migration. We are in for rough times, but I remain optimistic for my great-grandchildren, mainly because I have to feel that way in the face of dire predictions.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to be locked in with some of the world’s many bad guys. Knock some sense into them. Starting with a good few political leaders, despots, tyrants, and dictators. Make a list for me and I will see what I can do.

Ian Anderson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Jethro Tull will be giving a Christmas concert in Bristol Cathedral on 11 December at 7.30 p.m.


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