An Interview with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

It is hard to mention the Prog-Rock scene, which started in the late 60s to early 70s, without mentioning Jethro Tull. Not only is Jethro Tull an iconic genre-defining band, but they have an unmistakable sound. If a song of theirs graces your ears, it’s not long before you realize you’re listening to Tull.

Yet, they are also a genre-bending band, who have defied expectations, and have never been afraid to experiment with who they are. It may seem to be an oxymoron or a “Catch 22” of sorts, except it’s undeniably true.

Behind it, after all these years, is founder, primary songwriter, frontman, flutist, and multi-instrumentalist, Ian Anderson. Ian and I discuss the evolution of Jethro Tull’s sound, the importance of the album, Stand Up, and Tull’s exciting new album — The Zealot Gene.

Joe:
Let’s start by briefly touching on some things from the past. Could you walk us through the evolution of sound from the John Evans Band to early Jethro Tull, and then, eventually, the Progressive sound the band became known for?

Ian:
The music that we began with was essentially simple Jazz-Blues. The Jazz side was okay with me. There are quite a lot of white guys playing Jazz. But the Blues side of things was something I felt uncomfortable with, much as I loved the music. It seemed a little disingenuous to me to try and make a living imitating something that was essentially Black American Folk Music. I was a middle-class white boy from four thousand miles away. I did accept the pragmatic reality of trying to get noticed by being in a Blues band. That was an underground music form in London, in the late 60s. So, it was an entree into professional music. I had already resolved that I should strike out and try to do something a bit more creative. Not following the typical fashions of Pop and Rock music at that time. There were two big signposts planted along the way in ’67. There was The Beatles with Sergeant Pepper, and then, Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Those two albums were like a signpost pointing me towards something a bit more radical. A bit more inventive. A bit more left field in terms of musical style.

The second album [Stand Up] that we released was more of an eclectic and inventive album. It didn’t rely simply on the Blues any longer. It was bringing together lots of disparate influences from different kinds of music in different parts of the world. I think Stand Up was a good record. It was the one that really started getting us noticed in the USA and to a lesser degree Europe. We did three US tours in ’69, and they weren’t hugely successful. We did manage to get noticed in the support slot with some bigger acts. We began to get a reputation and we built upon that in ‘71 with Aqualung. It exploded after Aqualung, in terms of our success around the world.

It was four or five years in the making to establish Jethro Tull as a Progressive Rock band. We were first described as a “Progressive Rock band” in 1969 by the British music press. For the first time, I heard that term being used. It was applied to Jethro Tull and a few other bands of that era. I thought, “That sounds like a good description of what I think I’m doing, and what I would like to do more of.” So, Progressive Rock sounded fine to me. I mean, you could describe Jethro Tull as a Folk-Rock band. Some albums leaned a little more in that direction. There are albums of course that were much more acoustic, and maybe a little more European in their musical influence. I try not to keep repeating myself, but at the same time, there is an overarching style. Something that emerges from it all, and I think, permeates to a degree on most of the albums that we’ve made.

Joe:
We were starting to discuss Stand Up, and its importance in the evolution of the band. How much of an effect on the sound, and direction of the album did swapping guitarist Mick Abrahams for Martin Barre have? Additionally, how much did taking over as primary songwriter change things?   

Ian:
Mick Abrahams was a Rock ‘N’ Roll and Blues guitarist. Vocally, he had a strong shouty kind of a voice like Rory Gallagher. Mick was a Blues guy, and he didn’t react positively to the direction that began to emerge.  He didn’t enjoy my efforts in the latter part of 1968 when I started to write songs. Some of which became tracks on Stand Up. He wanted to stay very much in the heart of the musical style that was represented on the first record. If anything, he wanted to go further towards more traditional Blues Rock. It was never really going to work out with Mick. He [Mick] moved on and Martin [Barre] replaced him.

Martin didn’t really have any particular style. He played a little bit of everything. He was very unformed as a guitar player and didn’t play improvised solos. Martin was a good musician, but he didn’t have a developed style. It was very useful for the two of us to sit together, and work on songs. Songs that I’d written would evolve after we sat down together. Martin’s playing would also evolve over the next year or two. He developed a musical style that was very much compatible with and a strong part of the Jethro Tull recordings in ’69. His playing continued to be a strong point moving forward. He was just a different kind of player with a different sort of background. Martin was there to learn just, as I was there to learn. To find out how to play the things that were in my head but didn’t have the technical expertise to do right at the time.

Joe:
We would describe you as a multi-instrumentalist, but obviously, you’re most famous for your flute playing. We were curious to know how you decided on the flute as your main instrument of choice.

Ian:
I wasn’t a great guitar player. When I heard Eric Clapton playing in the 1960s, I decided I should probably find something else to play. For no particularly good reason, I picked on the flute. There weren’t many other people playing the flute in the world of Pop and Rock music. It was not unknown, but there weren’t any musicians who were setting the world alight. There was definitely a vacancy there for a Rock flute player. So, I applied for the job, and happily, I’ve not yet been pensioned off.

Joe:
Let’s talk about the new Jethro Tull album, The Zealot Gene. Our understanding is that there is a loosely connected theme on the album. A theme involving human emotions in contemporary society, and a kind of correlation with Bible verses. We were wondering what the stimulus for picking that particular theme was? How did the emotions and Bible text inform each other? Did one piece of the theme guide the other or was it a back-and-forth process?

Ian:
I began in 2017, with the idea of writing an album where each song would focus on a different, extreme human emotion. I made a list of strong human emotions. Negative emotions like hate, vengeance, greed, jealousy, as well as positive emotions like love, companionship, loyalty, and compassion. I looked at my list, and it reminded me of words I saw frequently in The Bible. On a whim, I made an internet search of those emotions and their use within The Bible. I copied and pasted a few reference points that I found in my search. They served as companions to see how The Bible dealt with those emotions. However, to suggest that the album is based on Bible text would be very simplistic, and not an accurate summary.

Joe:
How did the current form of Jethro Tull take shape? What is the dynamic of the current lineup?

Ian:
There have been twenty-seven members of Jethro Tull over the years. Twenty-seven members if you include those who performed on an album as Jethro Tull, or did at least one major tour with Jethro Tull. Many of them have been bass players, and quite a few of them have been drummers. The guys who are on The Zealot Gene have been playing with me, I guess, on average for more than fifteen years. They are people that have performed on my solo albums and have done hundreds of tours as members of Jethro Tull.

Three of the current members became regular members of the band in 2004 and 2005.  All the musicians in the band are from different backgrounds including Jazz, Funk, Classical, and Hard Rock. It’s interesting having musicians, that don’t all have the same experiences musically. They have a broad awareness of different kinds of music, but their comfort zone is not the same as the guy standing next to them. It typically means they may be a little out of their comfort zone when learning new material. But that’s part of the challenge. I have that same challenge if I play on somebody else’s record as a guest. I have to find a way to honor their style their music, even if it’s something I’m not particularly fond of. I must try to find a way to get inside their head and inside that music. Be able to make something that is compatible. That is a useful challenge for any musician to rise to. To find new contexts in which to play.

Joe:
What was the writing and recording process like for The Zealot Gene?

Ian:
I wrote the material in January, February, and March of 2017. I then went on to record some simple demos. I sent those to the band along with all the lyrics, and the basic chord sheets. That ensured they could see what it was all about and prepare ahead of time for rehearsals. At that point, we could play through quite a lot of the music straight away. Then we refined that over a period of five days. Rehearsed and recorded seven tracks in an additional five days, in a recording studio. During that period, I’m also thinking about who’s going to play what and vaguely what the finished music might sound like. Sometimes I try and communicate that general idea to the members of the band. It enables them to come up with their own thoughts and suggestions, regarding the actual music parts they play. I’m not consciously trying to replicate any previous style. The songs just develop organically when you’re working on them. They take on their own form. That’s part of the fun of working with other musicians. Not every detail is conceived in advance. I suppose I’ve worked that way all my life.

Joe:
The Zealot Gene came together over several years. What, if anything, contributed to the extended-release date?

Ian:
I recorded seven of the songs back in March of 2017. They were all done and dusted. Two years went by without recording anymore because we were on tour so much. The only times that we had between tours were usually short periods of two or three days. If there were any longer periods, many of the guys had booked their holidays, surgeries, or something like that. So, we really didn’t have the opportunity to do the last five songs. Then COVID came along. That meant lockdowns and isolation. We couldn’t get together. I finally decided in March of last year that I better just get on, and do the last five songs myself. I finished the album in June. Then I delivered the album masters, along with the artwork, to the record company. Then we had to wait another few months because of the delays related to pressing, and manufacturing vinyl. There are so few pressing plans left in the world that you have to sit in a long queue. I’m already in the queue for the next one, which is scheduled for late March 2023. We’re thinking a year ahead in order to release the next album as planned.

Joe:
So, you and the band are already working on a follow-up to The Zealot Gene? Where are you in the process of that album?

Ian:
I started on the 1st of January. I did the same with The Zealot Gene in 2017, and with Homo Erraticus in 2014. 1st of January at 9 am. Good simple target to go for. At this point, I’m several weeks into the writing process. I’ve spent many hours doing press and promo for The Zealot Gene, so I’m probably a little bit behind. I have a completed first draft of all the lyrics. I’ve got ten out of twelve music themes. The next stage is to go and refine all of those. Add additional music parts and make some demos. I am hoping to do that sometime in February. Hopefully, somewhere around the beginning of March, we might be able to think about doing some rehearsals and recordings.

Unfortunately, I have three periods where some of the band members are not available due to other commitments.  A lot of rescheduling of concert tours, which seemed somewhat inevitable. I should have returned from a tour of Finland recently, which got postponed for the fourth time. The week after next, I should be in Sweden for a concert tour. That has been postponed for the third time. So, that is also something we have to contend with.

Interested in learning more about the work of Jethro Tull and their new album, The Zealot Gene? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Records, Roots & Ramblings, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/records-roots-ramblings-archives/

About Post Author

Joe O'Brien

Joe has always been a huge music fan. Growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Joe did chores and dumpster dove for bottles with his best friend Andrew to trade bottles for money to buy vinyl. Joe is a Registered Nurse in the ER by day, and a life-long music lover by night. Having been an avid consumer of all things music since he was a child, Joe’s diverse collection of over 3,000 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of a man who simply loves music. Joe’s goal is to write about what he is most passionate about and share new and exciting music. Joe lives on Long Island, NY with his beloved dog Scarlett.
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