Paul interviews… Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

IT may not be fashionable to say so, but I have always had a soft spot for early Jethro Tull and that is why I had no qualms about featuring a flute on ‘Captain Blood’ and later on ‘Pan’, though one American fanzine dubbed it “the spawn of Satan” (the flute that is, not my song)! I was therefore delighted to meet the band’s frontman and songwriter Ian Anderson in 1989 and to have had a chance to ask why it all went hideously wrong during ‘A Passion Play’! Only kidding, though I did manage to slip that question into the conversation, though I worded it more diplomatically of course(*).  

Since the mid-Seventies Jethro Tull have been vilified as self-indulgent, pretentious and archaic, yet their albums continue to sell close on a million copies each year, their concerts are sell outs in Europe and the USA, and they picked up a Grammy for best hard rock album of ’87. Not bad for a band who are often written off as ‘too old to rock and roll’.

‘Rock Island’, Tull’s 17th album, excluding compilations, sees them finally jettisoning keyboards and drum machines in favour of the guitar-orientated rock with which they made their name.

Ian is looking fitter now than he has done for some years. He is sporting a rustic green waistcoat from where he takes his pipe, leaning back to light it as we talk. He is every inch the country squire or Laird.

I was surprised to learn that Ian doesn’t possess a CD player and hardly ever listens to music at home.

“I’ve nothing against CDs. I use digital equipment in my home studio and it’s terrific. It’s never let me down yet, but my living room has such bad acoustics that I save my listening from when I’m travelling and then it’s only Walkmans and a cassette in the car. It’s important for me to have a Walkman with a record facility so I can use it as a musical notebook, but I don’t need noise reduction or EQ on it as I’m unlikely to hear tape hiss above the noise of four aircraft engines or the road surface noise when I’m driving.”

What elements of the new album give Ian the most satisfaction?

“It was my intention to have it sound reasonably live whilst at the same time utilizing contemporary audio techniques and all the options that digital gadgets offer to enhance the sound. Most important was the drum sound which I wanted to be as live as possible, but having found it I should perhaps have altered it from track to track.”

But wouldn’t that have been change for the sake of it?

“Yes, it would have been and I was also somewhat afraid of losing the good drum sound that I’d got. It’s not easy to mike up a kit. A lot of work goes into getting a good drum sound.”

Many people hold the view that the use, or rather abuse, of drum machines has robbed pop music of its humanity. However, Ian is more open minded.

“It’s true that many bands are tied to and dominated by technology, but playing to a drum machine or sequencer can be quite fun because it’s infallible and keeps you on your toes. It’s one less element to the recording to worry about. If there is a timing or tuning problem, you can rule out the machine straight away. But drum machines aren’t something to fight against. There’s one drummer we’ve worked with, Jerry Conway, whose attitude to drum machines is that they are aids for his expression. They are his friends and I think that is a very sensible attitude to have.

“The trouble is that the commercial end of pop music has become very much a formula which can be cooked up by anybody who has the fashionable synths of the moment. Anyone who has mastered the basics of recording can imitate the current hits and stick on a Kylie Minogue-like vocal on the front and make a hit.

“But I’m not disillusioned with the electronic keyboards I’ve been using, it’s just that I’ve called a halt to them dominating a Tull record. We succeed best as a guitar band with the frivolous addition of flute, mandolins, piano, organ, etc. I feel happier now having returned to my roots somewhat.”

“The new album also has less of the Dire Straits influence which gave ‘Crest Of A Knave’ its contemporary sound [Paul crosses himself at the mere mention of the diabolical D.S who he considers personified all that was vomit-inducing in 80s rock, though let’s not forget Van Halen and…].

“We were, in fact, heavily criticized for the Dire Straits flavour of the last album,” Ian confesses. “Martin Barre and I consciously made an effort to avoid that kind of delivery on the new one. So Martin used less of the single coil pick up and I pitched the songs that bit higher and sang them more forcefully as I used to do. On ‘Knave’ I was trying to act out the songs a bit more at the same time singing in a lower register and more quietly to save my vocal chords, because I was worried about my ability to sing at that peak for two hours on stage night after night.

“As far as the guitar sound is concerned I know for a fact that in 1981 Mark Knopfler rang up Martin’s guitar maker and ordered some new guitars. When asked what kind of sound he wanted, he said, ‘I want the sound that Martin Barre of Jethro Tull gets’. At that time Knopfler appeared to be playing an off-the-shelf Stratocaster with single coil pickups. Martin was playing Hamer’s with humbucking pickups and was just about to get some single coil Hamers made with the five-way switch and out-of-phase position and all the things that are now associated with Knopfler. I mean, there’s only so many sounds you can get out of the electric guitar; if you’re playing the blues—and it was on our bluesier tracks that it was most noticeable—, then you’re going to sound like Knopfler who made that sound his trademark. Knopfler was using that old Hank Marvin sound, but beautifully and cleverly adapted to his own music—so he got away with it. It’s the same as when I came out with the breathy flute sound, singing through it and so on and made it my trademark. If you’d have been into jazz you’d have heard Roland Kirk doing much the same thing, but I put it to a different backdrop and brought it to mass acceptance at a certain time making it my trademark and making it impossible for anyone in a rock band to use the flute without being compared to Jethro Tull [Ian obviously hadn’t heard ‘Captain Blood’!]. You wouldn’t have to stand on one leg to get stick, you’d get it anyway just by virtue playing it within the context of rock music.

“I don’t like to throw things back at Knopfler, but wasn’t he the one who everyone originally said was trying to sound like Bob Dylan? I listened to Dylan too, when I was younger, though I found his voice slightly nauseating. He did have a great theatricality to his voice, though, humour too, and sometimes a kind of dead-pan delivery that I liked. I suppose that came back to me on that last album when I tried to alter my approach to save my voice. There has been an element of Dylan in my records since ‘Aqualung’, though delivered in an English accent.”

When you are a multi-instrumentalist and have your own home studio as Ian does, it must be tempting to play all the parts yourself.

“There have been times when I’ve played everything myself, but that’s usually only because the band have dispersed to their various homes around the world. That’s how I recorded ‘Jack In The Green’ on ‘Songs From The Wood’. I wrote the song the night before the session and as I was the only musician in the studio the next day, I played all the parts. But usually I record other parts only as a guide for the musicians.”

Having your own studio must have its disadvantages though. There must be a danger of losing critical perspective.

“No, I enjoy recording more now than I ever did. I prefer to record in the privacy of my own home, to go in when the mood takes me and work until I have achieved what I set out to do. There is something to be said for bouncing ideas off other people, but for me creating music is a private thing and the band are the only ‘sounding board’ that I need and trust.”

After twenty years in the business that’s quite an enviable attitude to have. Which such genuine enthusiasm there is no reason why they shouldn’t be celebrating their 30th anniversary in ten years’ time. ‘Too old to rock and roll?’ I think not.

(*) As for that thorny question regarding ‘A Passion Play’, it was cut from the interview by the magazine (Hi Fi News) who were more interested in Ian’s attitude to technology, but I recall Ian admitting that it might have been a mistake to leave the band to work out their own extensions to the songs after the main part had been recorded so that he could nip out for a cup of tea!

About RealPaulRoland

PAUL ROLAND is a prolific recording artist, producer and author of more than 30 books. He has been spinning his musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop and, occasionally, baroque strings. He has been called 'Edgar Allen Poe of psych pop' and the 'Godfather of Steampunk'.

Posted on April 6, 2012, in Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull, Paul Roland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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