Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: Great passion for a job playing ‘oddball’ music
With the “Jethro Tull” show hitting Grand Rapids tonight, check out this 2001 interview with the cerebral frontman and farmer who has a lot to say about his career, touring and the mistakes rock stars make.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Nearly 50 years ago, singer, flautist and acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson formed the band Jethro Tull, named after an 18th century English agricultural pioneer – a progressive classic rock band that soon earned widespread success with albums such as “Stand Up,” “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick.”
Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Anderson, then 53, prior to a couple of Michigan tour stops.
When Anderson – the musician and farmer – brought his “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” to DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids in April 2016, Local Spins published some unreleased outtakes from that 2001 interview with one of the more intelligent rock stars one will ever encounter.
His thoughtful, singular approach certainly were evident during the Grand Rapids show which featured the reimagined story of the agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull as told through the band’s and Anderson’s songs. Read the review and check out the photo gallery online here.
Here are excerpts from that 2001 interview.
Q: It must be gratifying after all these years that you can still do what you love in front of people who love what you do.
A: Of course, I still find myself having to spend time in a grubby dressing room. But it’s what I wanted to do when I left school. I chose a career with some built-in, serious impediments against my being successful. I got lucky and I’ve still got my job. I think of it very much as a job. It’s a great passion … but a job’s a job. Some are better than others.
Q: So how has touring and music changed for you since the 1960s and 1970s? Is it harder? Is it still a passion?
A: Some people say, ‘How can it be fun? Aren’t you bored?’ If I was a street musician, I’d be working the most expensive street in London. If I was a professional surgeon, I’d be at the peak of my professional life. If I was a jet pilot, I’d be flying over the most exotic places. In other walks of life … I wouldn’t want to give it up until I had to. If you’re a jet pilot or if you’re Muddy Waters, they’d have to drag you screaming from the cockpit or from the club stage. It becomes an obsession. (As for touring) I can’t sleep in a moving vehicle. I don’t feel comfortable overnighting. I’m a very private person. I want to get to my hotel room after a show. I just want to get naked with CNN and catch up on what’s happening around the place. I like the anonymity of a hotel room and I can close out the rest of the world – just like a newborn.
I’ve done very well for myself. I’m not a high roller. I don’t splash money around. I live in very comfortable circumstances and from the very beginning, I saved money. I had an education fund for my children before I had children. It’s tempting to think there are these people (other rock stars) who are just stupid or ill-advised, but it’s understandable that if you weren’t born rich and suddenly at the age of 22 you find yourself with lots of money, it’s tempting to buy yourself a fancy car and tempting to share that with your friends and relatives. That’s nice to do, but somewhere along the line you have to pay taxes and pay rent and pay a road crew and those people on the periphery of your world.
It’s a tough business to be in. But I’ve made my living out of being a creative person. That’s probably the best job in the world.
Q: Fans must send you stories all the time about the impact your music had on them when they were growing up.
A: All those things we grow up with are very precious. It can be so accidental, but you form these relationships with books, with movies, with music, with sports people. They’re really important. They’re part of your formative years and they’re things you cling to the rest of your life. They’re your security blanket, an old vinyl record. It’s about nostalgia, but it’s about something more than just weepy eyes and cracking open a beer with your buddies. It’s something more fundamental. It’s about values. Those are the values we’ll carry with us the rest of our lives. When someone asks, ‘What’s your favorite music?,’ nine times out of 10 you’ll go back to something you heard between the ages of 15 and 25. We almost always go back to that period – the benchmark for everything else in the rest of your life.
Q: Does it bother you that you haven’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Your fans are among the most outspoken in decrying the fact that Jethro Tull hasn’t been inducted. (Editor’s Note: Jethro Tull still hasn’t been inducted.)
A: It doesn’t because we’re still featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (museum) anyway. I just got an email inviting us all to come around there so maybe we’ll squeeze a visit in. I’m aware that we’re one of those bands that sit out there on the periphery of the mainstream of rock history. We’re not that important. We’re kind of a cliquey, oddball thing that some folks hold dear. It’s not American rock ‘n’ roll. (Some critics in the 1970s) rather resented these upstart and confident British bands that came up and appeared to hold such sway over the development of pop and rock. For whatever reason, those politics still continue. It doesn’t worry me. If we got in, I would go along with the spirit of it all and be friendly. And I’d be cheerful if we weren’t. It really wouldn’t matter to me. I’m not sure I feel that’s the right and proper place for me or Jethro Tull. I think I quite like being an outsider.
Q: What mistakes do you see musicians make and what advice would you give to younger musicians?
A: There are so many mistakes out there to be made. The first one is to try to be in bed by 12:30 a.m. It really isn’t worth wasting the rest of the years of your life by being seduced into this party, this chemical world of excess, to have this wild life. That’s a mistake because you have to get on a plane the next day and do it again. You have to look after your sanity and your mental health. Don’t get crazy. Keep some order to it. Be careful about letting the control freaks run your life, like your manager or your agent. They enjoy it. They don’t have those special talents that you do. They get their vicarious pleasure out of controlling the lives of young and vulnerable musical heroes. You need those people. But try and learn a little bit about what they’re doing. Keep your eyes open and learn about contracts and international taxation and how venues get booked and the basic economics of concert tours. You can choose to be involved or let people do it for you and letting people do it for you can be fun, but at the end of the tour you wonder where all the money’s gone.
Q: I’ve always considered 1971’s “Aqualung” (part of which is featured in the 2016 tour) an insightful indictment of mankind’s religions but at the same time, a spiritually uplifting endorsement of God. Is that a fair assessment?
A: It’s a simple and direct assessment. There are not a lot of changes since then. I very much hold the same view that I held when I was 14 or 15 years old. It’s not radical. It’s pretty basic stuff. I’m just trying to share with other people about what this is all about and is there some cynical or hypocritical power trip being played out there on the part of our religious leaders. … I’m pretty cynical, all the way from popes down to lesser clergymen.
Q: So when you look back at your career, what’s your view of Jethro Tull concept albums such as 1973’s unusual “A Passion Play,” which got mixed reviews from critics?
A: The album was dense. It was obscure and harder to listen to. It is strange that after all these years, it’s the one really cool Jethro Tull album to know about. It was good fun making those records. But (“Passion Play”) is not one of my favorite albums. It was an interesting experiment but probably less successful than most because the body of work doesn’t hold together. … I look back on some things I did with a degree of embarrassment and a degree of self-loathing. I’ve done some pretty bad things musically. There are 120 to 130 songs that I feel really good about, 50 that are ho-hum and another 50 or so I wouldn’t like to hear again.
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC