Ian Anderson

Interview - Ian Anderson



Jethro Tull

Natacha Atlas - Mounqualiba


The flute is not an instrument that has a good moral effect; it is too exciting.
Aristotle (384BC - 322BC) Greek "writer, philosopher"

worldbeatcanada: Few are the instances in rock’s history when a flautist has stolen thunder from the guitar gods … with one notable exception. His flute, his voice and his melodies have inspired generations of flautists, whistle blowers and, like the Pied Piper he continues to charm us and lead us by the ears. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson joins me by phone.


Thanks for honoring us with your time, Ian.


Ian Anderson:  A pleasure. Good to talk to you.


WBC: So, last I heard Catherine Coleman was taking a flute of yours up to the international space station. You realize that in space, no one can hear you play?


IA: Well unfortunately, this time that's not the case. Currently she has 6 members of the most recent shuttle expedition plus another 6 people already on there so she has quite an audience and, indeed finding it quite difficult to find a quiet place where she can actually play the flute. The spiritual and cultural side of it is something I think is important to remind people of. It's not just about the science and very pragmatic … space exploration in the sense of discovery. It's a more spiritual affair. It's a discovery of the spirit of humanity and an appreciation of the more aesthetic aspects of not only planet earth but the universe as we see it. I'm very pleased that, in some small way, even though I can't be there (frankly, I'm scared to get out from under the bed most of the time) my flue has gone where I don't have the nerve to tread.  As a matter of fact we were just talking by email deciding when it might come home again.


WBC:  And, last I heard, you were living in the countryside. There’s always been something earthy, folkie, even organic about Jethro Tull, like the band’s name sake that sets you apart from the spacey prog rockers like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis that you were lumped in with in North America. We, at least I, don’t recall being exposed to much of the other scene you were apart of, the British Folk Rock scene like Steel Eye Span and Fairport Convention. Did you sense a difference in the way you perceived at home and on this side of the pond?


IA: Probably in Europe as a whole there is a greater awareness of Jethro Tull having more of a folk or a classical music influence. In America it was more likely the case that we were thought of as being fairly mainstream rock. But, that was due to radio play and the fact that it focused on the more rock songs. Whereas in Europe, we never has substantial radio play for anything outside of the most tinselly of pop music. And, it was based on perhaps understanding more from our live concerts and from listening to the albums at home rather than listening on the radio. Even today, it's much more comfortable for me when I'm playing tours in North America, to be doing them as Ian Anderson rather  than Jethro Tull because I know then that the contingent that might be expecting to hear a rock music program and a set list of head-banging music will stay away from an Ian Anderson concert. Whereas, under the name Jethro Tull it does tend to bring a few of the more hard-nut rockers and it can be a little demanding, a little bit noisy and a little bit intolerant of some of the more aesthetic moments which are, for me, what make concerts interesting to do.



WBC: worldbeatcanada radio and Celt In A Twist are on the pod.  The word gets tossed around far too often these days but in this case it’s a perfect fit, the legendary Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull is online and on stage, June 19th in Vancouver at the Centre for the Performing Arts in celebration of Aqualung’s 40th anniversary. He’s still sitting on that park bench after 40 years! You can find him at the home page, that's www.jethrotull.com.  Ian, I knew I’d get a rise out of my band mates when I told them I’d be interviewing you. Our singer graduated from Berklee College of Music where he studied the flute and subsequently I think he made a study of the entire Jethro Tull songbook. Chris asks, “ Was there a point in your career when you realized you had shifted the audience's perception of the flute and how it relates to popular music?


IA: I think the important thing is that it serves as an example, really of how rock music or contemporary music doesn't have to be just about guitars and drums and synthesizers and keyboards, it can embrace instruments from more traditional sources or even orchestral classical sources. The flute is not THE most ancient instrument. I'm sure things that you hit were. People were tapping out rhythms on hollow logs before they were hollowing out reeds or bones to play them as the first primitive flutes. We do know that flutes go back a long, long way. It's still alive today in Indian classical music and in the folk music of a great many countries, also in terms of Celtic music and Irish music and Scottish music, where the simple tin whistle or six holed flute is still played. I think it's an instrument that still has it's place in contemporary music, both in the folk tradition and in contemporary/traditional classical music and, courtesy of me and a relatively few others, in the world of rock music too. Internationally-speaking, if you think of flute players today, you think of James Galloway in the world of classical music and Ian Anderson in the world of rock music, if you like and perhaps, Matt Molloy of the Chieftains in the world of folk music and Hari Prasad Chaurasia in the world of Indian classical music. I mean, there are relatively just a few people at any one time who are the leaders at the upper echelon of any given musical genre. I'm relatively comfortable with the idea that I occupy that little niche of being the flute player in rock music. Of course, I'm not the only one. I'm just the one who happens to get noticed most often; the most active and perhaps the most aggressive in my use of the flute.


WBC: Speaking of that aggression, one of your many signatures is the way you vocalize while you’re breathing as you play. Are you just gasping for air at that point? Is that how it came about?


IA: It came about because when I was guitar player at the age of 15 or 16, learning to play the guitar, I often used to do the scat singing thing, you know, improvising solo sand singing along with them at the same time, which is something I picked up on probably from listening to jazz guitarists in the US mainly, hearing people vocalize at they play, Mose Allison, for example played piano. He was a great favorite of mine when I was a teenager and he used to kind of mumble along while he was playing, which I always thought was kind of endearing. So, I used to do that while I was playing guitar. And, when I started playing the flute, I adopted that same technique. Actually, a friend of mine who heard me playing in the early days at the Marquee Club said, “I just this album by an American flute player named Roland Kirk and he kind of plays like you do. He does that same thing.” So, I listened to Roland Kirk and realized he obviously had been doing it much longer than me. But, when I heard him I already was on that personal mission to try and make the flute sound not just pure and tuneful in the way it was played in classical music but to give it a bit more of a gritty and raw edge. It was just something that fitted the mood.


WBC: You’ve been way too generous with your time, Ian …


IA: (laughs) Which is just a nice way to say, “You're boring the pants off me!”


WBC: No! Certainly not. This has been totally fascinating. I could go on for hours with you and just pick your brain about these kinds of things. I would like to wrap this with one of my favorite Tull songs, and this ties in with worldbeatcanada radio because it’s always struck me as being a little exotic with the 5/4 time signature and the rhythm of the clave. Would you set up Living In The Past for us.


IA: Well, it was written very, very quickly in a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Boston in 1969 when our then manager said, “We're going to be away from England for the best part of 3 months and, so they don't forget us, it would be a really good idea if we could release a single while we're here in America. Could you just nip upstairs and write a hit single and we'll record it and shoot it back to England so that they keep the pot boiling 'till we get home?” And I said, “Sure, no problem. I'll just go upstairs and write a hit.” I was just humoring him and completely joking about it, but I went up and wrote something that I thought was probably the least commercial thing I could muster which was in an unlikely time signature of 5/4, and had the distinctly untrendy title, 'Living In The Past'. But, it had a kind of catchy feel to it and we recorded it in New York, We did the backing tracks, vocals and flute overdubs in San Francisco some week or two later and then sent the master over to England and then released it. Miraculously and strangely it was actually a hit. I take a certain pride in the idea that there have been relatively few top 10 hits in 5/4 time or in 7/4 or 7/8 and I'm lucky to enough to have had one of each.  As indeed, Dave Brubeck did with the original Take Five and Living In The Past sits there in the same unlikely category of successful and memorable little tunes. Then there was Square Dance which was in 7's, by Dave Brubeck. It took me until 1976 until I wrote a piece in 7/4 time which was Ring Out Solstice Bells which was on the Songs from the Wood album. Yeah, I've kind of been there. I still work extensively in a variety of time signatures, because to me, it's kind of a groove. Once you settle into it; once you've got your head around this different meter, it's actually very seductive. I like to think that people don't necessarily think about the time signature when listening to Living in the Past but they kind of get the groove, and they feel the repetitions without having to be to cerebral about it. So, yeah … let's check it out and see how many people can tap their feet to Living In The Past.


Ian Anderson was interview by Cal Koat on the phone for worldbeatcanada.com on March 3rd/11.