A Conversation With Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

A half-century later, does Jethro Tull warrant some reassessment? Most of the pre-1979 evidence points to the affirmative. Murky production flaws aside, early Tull retains its considerable charm as a substantive, challenging stew of blues, Anglo folk and hard rock. Benefiting hugely from a 2011 remastering, remix and expansion for its 40th anniversary, Aqualung is still the most flawless distillation of the English band’s ruggedly dynamic, elegantly verbose aesthetic. Simply put, it doesn’t sound like anything else released in 1971, which was an especially robust year for classic rock. Taking it a step further a year later, Thick As A Brick’s album-length song cycle is a prog-rock archetype (for better or worse), validating the group’s arena-headliner status for the rest of the decade.

All of which left Tull’s flute-wielding leader, Ian Anderson, with very little traction in the years following the punk explosion. Anderson has nonetheless pressed on as other band members have fallen away, lending orchestral legitimacy to the group’s compositions with recent projects featuring string-quartet accompaniment. 

MAGNET caught up with Anderson in the U.K., where he was taking a break from a 50th anniversary tour of the States that kicked off in late May in Arizona and ends next month in Connecticut. At the behest of his handlers, we steered clear of anything on the “All Too Frequently Asked Questions” list posted on Anderson’s website—heady journalistic stuff like: “In 1976, you named a famous Tull track ‘Too Old To Rock And Roll.’ What do you feel about this title, looking back on it now?”

MAGNET’s conclusion: You’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll—and, at 71, Anderson ain’t dead yet.

Aqualung remains one of those LPs that no self-respecting rock-history buff can be without. How do you feel about the album—and perhaps even the song itself—being the sole representation of Jethro Tull for many people?
If you were calling me from Germany, you’d be asking me that question about “Locomotive Breath.” If it was France, it would “Bourée.” There are those pieces that have risen to the fore in certain countries, but not necessarily in others. Certainly the first 10 years of Jethro Tull is when most fans and record buyers around the world got to know us. That material, for them, will always represent the starting point.

Hence, all the reissues.
No one wants to hear new new Jethro Tull music—they want hear new old Jethro Tull music. But it’s natural to want to go back and explore rock history, even if you’re a 15-year-old rock fan in Brazil. 

Among those reissues, the 2016 Stand Up (The Elevated Edition) boxed set is a real highlight. How did the whole Steven Wilson remix come about?
Around the time of the 40th anniversary of the Aqualung album, I approached Steven to see if he’d do it. I knew him for the work he’d done remixing the first King Crimson album. It was obvious from the way he worked that his method was not to replicate the original mix, but to use that as a starting point as he fine-tuned everything and tidied it up. I was pleased with the end was result on Aqualung, and we’ve carried on working together intimately over the years. We’re currently working on the Stormwatch album.

On the original recordings, there was a significant spike in production quality from Stand Up to Aqualung.
Well, in terms of the songwriting and the variety of music, there’s always going to be some evolution with any band. Aqualung actually wasn’t an easy one to do. We were working in what was then Island Records’ brand-new studio, which was a converted church in West London, and there were lots of issues with acoustics. It was very unforgiving, harsh and hard. Zeppelin was in Island’s basement studio, and they had a much better sound. It was not an enjoyable period of recording at all for us. The end result wasn’t something I was very fond of, in terms of the multi-track master tapes and the mixing. To me, it wasn’t a great-sounding album, but we did what we could. 

The liner notes to the Stand Up boxed set describe how you were essentially creating music in a vacuum—that you were fairly isolated. Is that normal for you when writing?
I like to do things privately. I like to be able to explore without interaction from anybody else until I think I’ve got something that’s worth sharing. And at that point, it’s baring your soul, so you better think you really have something to say before you say it.

In a recent discussion with a British friend about the rise of punk in the late ’70s, he talked about this immense pressure in the U.K. to disavow any affection for classic rock acts like Zeppelin, Yes and Jethro Tull. What are your thoughts on that period?
When the Clash, the Sex Pistols and that whole brigade of British punk bands came about in the wake of the Ramones, it was a movement that lasted only a little while—it evolved very quickly. Then you had bands like the Police and the Stranglers, and they owed more to progressive rock, though they took on some of punk’s trappings because that was their entre into making a living in music at the time. On more than one occasion, Johnny Rotten has cited that Aqualung was a huge influence on him as a young wannabe musician. People tend to want to divide things up, put them in neat little boxes on the shelf, and say, “This is for that, and this is for that.” In the real world, people are much more capable of thinking across the broad spectrum of different genres.

The flute’s status in the rock world pretty much begins and ends with you. Why do you think no one else has given it a real shot?
One reason is that it’s a delicate instrument that’s not easy to play in the context of loud rock music. Secondly, if you were to become a flute player in a rock band right now, inevitably people would be comparing you to me. In a way, it’s kind of a thankless task—to realize you’re always going to have that millstone around your neck of the endless comparisons. It’s probably easier for me because I’m a songwriter, so I can integrate the flute into what I do. When I play on other people’s records, it always causes me a bit of trepidation. I wonder whether the flute really belongs there—if there’s something useful I can do that will add to the music. I always tell people, “Don’t pay me, and don’t be afraid to hit the delete button. Then it’s gone forever. I’ll get on with my life, you get on with yours, and no money has changed hands.”

—Hobart Rowland