Interview with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull: "Progressive Rock? In THIS direction!"
A few years ago, Ian Anderson didn't think that another album under the name of Jethro Tull would be a very good idea. Fortunately, the prog legend has changed his mind. "The Zealot Gene" is the first Jethro Tull longplayer in 18 years — although Anderson has been consistently releasing music under his own name that could have easily passed as Jethro Tull albums. "The Zealot Gene" is exactly what his fans have hoped for — classic Tull — and celebrates the band's longest lasting line-up in its rich history.
I had the pleasure to talk to Ian Anderson. A German version of this interview can be read on on the music site laut.de.
Mr. Anderson, when did you get the idea that you wanted to release an album under the Jethro Tull name again after all?
Well, the decision whether it will be an Ian Anderson album or a Jethro Tull album is usually something I make at the time I start working on the record. With this record, it began in 2017. I decided to make an album of new material and release it under the Jethro Tull name because the guys in the band have been performing with me for an average of 15 years, being on three or four albums, but not yet on an official Jethro Tull album. So it was really to honor their longstanding role in the band. For some people, the new album is a more exciting and important part of their lives. But I think for most people it's just a bit of curiosity to see what I'm up to this time. We'll see how it fares in the public domain.
When you released "Homo Erraticus" in 2014, you stated that you weren't sure if another Jethro Tull record was a good idea.
Well, at that time I just wasn't sure then. But that was 2014. Three years later, when I started working on this album, I just decided that it should be a Jethro Tull album. In hindsight, I probably should have made the decision to release "Homo Erraticus" as a Jethro Tull album back in 2014, but I just wasn't sure. I'm going by how I feel on that day I've been working on a new album since last Saturday, I started writing and recording a new album to be released in 2023. And I'm pretty sure I know what it's going to be called and what it's going to be about. So I'm making these decisions at this particular time.
Do you already want to reveal if it will be another Jethro Tull album?
I think it's too early for me to talk about what an album in 2023 will be called or what it will be about. I think I'll keep that to myself for a while. Maybe by the end of next year I'll tell people what it's about.
Why don't you tell me a little bit about the timeline of working on "The Zealot Gene"?
The timeline was that we rehearsed five days and recorded four days in March 2017. During that period of time, we recorded seven tracks, four of which I finished later in the year. But we were on tour a lot of the time, so I didn't finish them right away. By the end of the year, I think I had finished four of them. We're not talking about the final mixes. I assumed that sometime over the next year or so I would record the last five songs. But in 2018 and 2019, we were touring a lot — and then the pandemic came. At some point I thought it would be a good time to finish the album. But we were in lockdown. I couldn't meet with the band. And even after the lockdown ended, it seemed unwise for us to breathe the same air together in a small room. So I decided at the beginning of this year, as things were getting worse again in terms of the pandemic, that I would just go ahead and finish it by myself at home. So I said I'd record the last five songs with just an acoustic guitar and a flute and some other instruments, and some of the other guys added their parts by sending me some audio files that I put into the final mix. That may be a compromise, but I think it gave a good result because it meant that, sonically, the album had five songs that had a different feel and a different kind of instrumentation. We weren't necessarily going for drum-and-bass rock songs. I think it benefited the album in the end that it gave it this variety, this dynamic range. Especially the first year of the pandemic was pretty bad for musicians because they more or less couldn't go on tour.
How did you spend that first pandemic year?
I spent most of the time sitting in the office, canceling things, trying to get plane tickets back. It was a pretty depressing year because we kept having to postpone concerts.
The current lineup is the longest-serving Jethro Tull lineup in history - except that Joe Parrish joined in 2019 for Florian Opahle. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the musical dynamics within the group?
Florian Opahle started playing with me in 2005. And he stood in a couple of times for Martin Barre when he wasn't available for concerts. David Goodier, the bass player, started working with me in 2004, then John O'Hara in 2005. Scott Hammond, the drummer, started in 2010. And then Joe Parish joined in February 2020. But we only managed to play two concerts in 2020, because of the pandemic. We have a group of people who have different musical backgrounds: John O'Hara comes from the world of classical music and David from the world of jazz. Scott Hammond is kind of a jazz-funk drummer. Florian is a rock guitarist, and Joe Parish I would call a folk-rock guitarist because he has an affinity for progressive folk music. So the musical background is quite diverse. But I think that's a good thing. Because you can bring in elements of musical style and performance that are people's strengths. But it's also good to challenge them by having them play music that sometimes they're not as familiar with or that's not their favorite music. I think that's good for all of us, including me, who sometimes participates in musical performances that are way outside my comfort zone. So sometimes I play along on other people's records and have to try to find a way for me within a style of music. That's something that maybe I don't like that much. But you know, it's a good discipline, a good challenge.
What would have been the usual approach in the studio, had we not been in a pandemic?
The usual ways, I think, probably go back to the earliest days. To the idea that it's good to rehearse music, then go into the studio and record it as much as possible as if you were just doing the whole thing live on stage. I think that's my preferred way. I did that a lot on some early albums, and "Thick As A Brick" was also rehearsed outside the recording studio.
Then we came into the recording studio and recorded everything. After we played through it, we recorded most of the album as if we were on stage. So we rehearsed, then we went into the recording studio and played it all together in the studio, which I think is the most satisfying way. But inevitably, sometimes people find out later that some elements of their performance are not to their satisfaction, and they want to replace some parts of the music. That's fine, we all have to do that sometimes. The spirit of a live performance, that's what I like best and that's also the way we've recorded most often. But there are times when it just has to be overdubs. Especially when you're doing projects where you're playing a lot of instruments yourself, and of course you can't play them all live at the same time.
How ready are your songs when you present them to your colleagues?
They get all the lyrics, they get the music, the chord sheets, they get some demos that I've done that get them going in the right direction, and then they have some time to prepare. Then we can rehearse in the studio and play through the songs. Then we fine tune them.
We then fine tune it for a day or two and get to the point where we have a final arrangement. So they all have the chance to put their individual stamp on the parts of the piece. But over the last 15 years, they've usually gotten a pretty good, solid idea of what the songs are about and what the general arrangement should be. By the time they've prepared the music and listen to what I've sent them, they've done 60 percent of their final contribution. I don't tell them every single note they have to play. I just try to give them a good overview so they know where to start.
You are considered one of the pioneers of progressive rock. Do you still listen to music yourself?
Well, I've never really been a big music listener, and I'm not a music fan in the sense that I listen to music to relax or have fun. I remember thinking in the early '70s: I've listened to enough music in my life now. From blues, to jazz, to classical music, to folk music, to religious music. And, you know, I have enough influences for the rest of my life. Then, in the mid-70s, I really stopped listening to music.
Yes, I listen to music sometimes, but mostly just music that I'm already familiar with, Handel, Beethoven, or Muddy Waters. But usually only when I'm on a plane and trying to distract myself from the turbulence. Sometimes music is a calming thing. But I don't really listen to music, I play it, I do it for a living. That's what I do. I'm a musician. So I don't really listen to much of other people's music, past or present. If you had asked me in 1970 what was in the top 10 on the charts, I wouldn't have been able to answer that. And I probably would have never heard of half the artists that were in the top 10 charts. The same is true today. I'm just not really interested in broadening my musical experience by listening to contemporary music. And maybe that's partly because when I do, I can immediately trace the musical lineage.
In a way, it seems to be a new musical experience for a lot of people, maybe even the people who are making the music, the people in their twenties. For them it's all shiny and new, and for their fans it's something they may never have heard before. But I've been around the music world for 60 years, and it's hard for me to hear something and think, 'Wow, I've never heard that before.' I can trace the ideas back, they seem pretty predictable. Lyrically, I'm not very interested in much of what I've heard in the last 40 or 50 years, I don't really feel like music lyrics have become more interesting to me, they're usually pretty simplistic, and I'm not very impressed with most of what I hear. Which is probably why I enjoy classical music more.
Sure, there were definitely things back then that were really groundbreaking. It's amazing when you listen to the first Pink Floyd album, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn". It was a unique and new experience to listen to that album. It was a signpost for those of us who wanted to be musicians in 1967. A signpost that said: progressive rock? In this direction. It was the beginning of progressive music.
And that's an important experience. But I don't think I've heard anything that's an equivalent in terms of the music that I hear from other so-called progressive rock bands that are out there today. So I'm not really a music fan, but would anyone expect me to be ? I spend an average of three or four hours every day of my life playing music and listening to the music that I play or learn or rehearse or write. Why would I want to spend more time listening to music than that? That's about as much as a person can take especially if you're a flutist, which drives you crazy after two hours.