In April 2008 I spoke by transatlantic phone (what a quaint expression, that) with Ian Anderson, founder and leader of Jethro Tull. Our talk covered a lot of ground, including the differences and similarities of Eastern and Western music; the effects of aging upon musicians; the digital transformation of music industry; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the US Presidential election.
The Jethro Tull sound is among the most distinctive in all of popular music. You write the songs, sing lead, and play quite a variety of instruments. The past and present members of the group are not — nor have they ever really been — your puppets. To what extent do the other musicians have the freedom to add and extend what they want to a piece, and to what extent do you map that out for them?
It depends, really, song to song. You know, there have been some songs that have been very much arranged in the studio at the time of recording them, and various members of the band sort of chip in their ideas. You know, like John Evans‘ intro to “Locomotive Breath” on the Aqualung album. He had to play and he had to play an intro, and he jammed something that was kind of pseudoclassical with a kind of bluesy twist here and there. And that defines that song. It is very much his invention; it’s not something I wrote for him to play. I just said, “Right, John, go out and play for thirty seconds!” And that’s what he did.
And there are other times when everything is dictated by me because the song seems to demand a more set arrangement. You know, like the song “Aqualung,” you know, the intro riff on that is something that I wrote. Martin Barre plays it, so in a way he has a kind of shared ownership in that but it’s something that is part of the tune. It’s a riff that I wrote and much of the arrangement in that song is quite sort of dictated in the nature of the song by the time I let the other guys hear what it was about.So it’s different for different songs. Lots of songs I like to go in and record in my own studio, and the other guys some in and overdub a bit here and there after. And other times it’s virtually all rehearsed and arranged in the studio around a very sketchy idea that I present to the other people. So it’s all of those things. I don’t like to have a methodology attached to music-making. It shouldn’t be like a factory production line where you have this assembly process and do things the same way all of the time. I like the way the different songs take on their own life and each one takes on sort of a preference for a different approach in making it come to reality.
Are there any current artists you know of who remind you at all of Jethro Tull, maybe not so much in their specific sound but in the way that they seem to approach their music?
Yes, yes, indeed there are. I played with one this last weekend in Bristol, England with one of Britain’s new award-winning musicians who is very highly thought of — this is just over the last couple of years where he came to public attention with the Mercury music prize — and he is politely termed a ‘new folkie.’ He is essentially a folk singer and player but was basing his material on traditional tunes and traditional songs. He makes them very much his own, but by rewriting old, traditional lyrics and by creating new tunes for them, and he’s very good. I actually think of him as being a young guy, like in his early 20′s, but in fact he’s 30, I so discovered, and for quite a few years he’d been playing in pubs and clubs before he became pretty famous. Now he plays headline concert tours of his own. His name is…
There’s lots more, including Anderson’s well-thought-out opinions on world issues and American politics. Click to continue.