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Ian Anderson leads Jethro Tull with Quartet

Jethro Tull vocalist Ian Anderson pulls strings to connect past with present.
 Ian Anderson ponders Jethro Tull's music in a sacred place. Publicity photo

Ian Anderson ponders Jethro Tull's music in a sacred place. Publicity photo

By Lee Zimmerman

To borrow the titleof one of Jethro Tull’s signature songs, it does appear that to a certain extent, Ian Anderson is living in the past. Recent endeavors have found him rebooting the Tull catalog with expanded versions of the band’s early albums, a live solo redo of the classic “Thick As A Brick,” and now, a new album descriptively titled “The String Quartets,” a revisit to a dozen of the band’s signature songs within a classical context. 

Anderson’s decision to retire the Tull brand notwithstanding, he continues the connection through his solo work, and in so doing, rightfully stakes his claim to the band’s lingering legacy. He was the instantly identifiable frontman of course — the wild-eyed ruffian in the tattered robe precipitously perched on one leg while madly whirling his flute — and its that iconic image that readily identifies him with the band while in their prime. Of course, the fact that he penned all of the group’s material gives him an irrefutable link to their honors and accomplishments.

Goldmine recently had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Anderson and found him as witty, articulate and inspired as ever. As the time limit accorded for our conversation began to dwindle, he was sharing his thoughts on overpopulation and immigration, subjects that clearly pique his interest. However, it’s his thoughts on Jethro Tull and the music the band embodied that grabbed ours.

GOLDMINE: So let’s start by discussing how this current project came into being.
I’ve always wanted to do an album of classic Tull that could be given sort of a classic twist as performed by a string quartet. I’ve worked with string quartets on many occasions — live onstage and as an addendum to the usual band line-up. We’ve used string quartets on tour several times and of course, in the studio as far back as the recording of “A Christmas Song” in November 1968. But doing something with a string quartet, where the music was not cluttered with bass, drums and electric guitars, was not something I had done before. I thought we should look at it, and so then we started talking about it in more detail. We began narrowing down the material and coming up with ideas and going through the possibilities. Finally, we recorded it in September or October of last year — I can’t remember which — and we did the recordings in a couple of atmospheric locations. I didn’t choose them because of the sound quality but rather the atmospheric and spiritual nature.

GM: That must have added a nice ambiance.

IA: It seemed nice to not do something in the traditional recording studio. However it brought with it some technical issues, especially in the way of noise pollutants. In a church or cathedral, you do get the noise of the city around you because they aren’t acoustically discreet. You will hear the sounds of airplanes, trains and various things that creep into the background. You may not notice them at the time, but they’re there, and suddenly you find you’re going to have to do an edit or an alternate take to get rid of some little noise that suddenly appeared. That’s excluding the noises that we as musicians might make ... four people in a room standing around a live microphone, and then somebody shuffles about or knocks something over or breathes too loudly ... all the things you have to be watching for all the time. All things that sound extraneous in aural terms. 

GM: Where was the album recorded?

IA: It was recorded in the Worcester Cathedral in the south of England, in the main body of the cathedral. I actually played a concert there over Christmas. It wasn’t that great a place to record, but it was a nice place to be, and that to me was the attraction of doing it there. Then we also had some sessions in a historic church in the wilds of southern England. It seemed like it was a quiet little village with nothing immediate close by, but in fact, you could hear an airplane fly by every half hour and it would rattle the windows. We knew there would be problems with noise, but I’ve scouted out a lot of other churches and come across worse problems than noise pollution. It’s really hard to achieve true silence wherever you are.

GM: As you mentioned, this isn’t the first time you’ve worked with strings. There was an orchestral Tull album and a solo effort, “The Twelve Dances” album, as well.

IA: Yes, the variations of orchestral accompaniment have been around me since the earliest days of Jethro Tull. But you don’t do it all the time. There’s the complications of cost, bringing other people around, the rehearsal time, and the degree to which the session become organized as a musical adventure. However, I would like to do it more often. I have a concert coming up in May at Red Rocks in the mountains just above Denver with the Colorado Symphony, so that will be a full orchestral concert, but with the full band as well. It’s the second show of the tour, but other shows will have different material and will be played in a rock fashion, as opposed to the orchestral versions which are a little lighter in terms of bass, drums and guitar stuff. From one night to another, you have to do a total mental switch and deal with different arrangements and different pieces of material. I’ve gotten used to doing that over the years.

GM: So will this be billed as a Jethro Tull tour?

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IA: I have three U.S. tours booked this year, and like all the tours I’m doing, they are essentially best of Jethro Tull tours with accompanying video productions. We’ll be using a multi-media approach. It’s not conceptual because there’s no overarching storyline or concept to it. It’s simply well known Jethro Tull material in most cases. We’re not reaching into the far corners of the more esoteric, not universally liked Jethro Tull catalog. It will be the more well known stuff that the audience enjoys and that we enjoy playing.

GM: Is it under the aegis of an Ian Anderson tour?

IA: It will say Jethro Tull — actually, “Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson.” I have my name in the mix and Jethro Tull is the repertoire that we’re playing exclusively. Music I wrote for the band and recorded over the years. But I’ve felt for a long, long time that it’s rather disingenuous to refer to a band in which there have been so many different members over the years. Then there were some members who were with the band for several years, like Martin Barre who was with the band for like 50 years, or whatever it was. People have their favorites, a certain album that they liked and the band that played on it. But it was an ever-changing group of people. That process of musicians changing began within eight months of the band becoming Jethro Tull. It’s been a constant process of changing band members. The last ten or twelve years have been the same guys that I’ve played with. They’re actually the longest-serving guys that have played that material.

GM: Do you have your own favorite Jethro Tull album?

IA: Well, the first album that I originated in terms of songwriting, and which had a more eclectic approach was our second album, “Stand Up” in 1969. That album was important for me because it allowed me to step into a more creative role in learning about studio recording and taking on that role of being the technical producer of the music. “Aqualung” is another favorite because of the obvious commercial success, although it was never a big hit out of the box. It sold consistently and strongly over the years. It’s commercially the band’s most successful record. It introduced a degree of contrast and dynamics in the music under the album umbrella by adding more variation. There were quite a bit of acoustic numbers which I’d usually record in the studio myself, with the band doing overdubbing on some bits later on. So that was more of a singer/songwriter album with the heavier rock component as well. “Thick As A Brick” is another favorite, because of its elaborate and slightly brave and real nature. “Songs From The Wood” from ’77 is another, one which embodied a lot more elements of folk heritage — not necessarily in the music, but in my origins as a Briton and in the elements of music and culture that I could bring into it. There was very little music that you can say was inspired by black American blues or jazz. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing; it’s just that “Songs From The Wood” is a very European album, which many people would consider a quintessentially English album, musically speaking. The Scottish and Irish components are in there as well. 

GM: You have so many different musical interests it seems, from the classical to the folk to elements of jazz, blues and, of course, pure rock. Do you find yourself pulled in a lot of different directions when you start to scope out your projects? 

IA: I began as a child listening to the various kinds of music around me, from church music to Scottish folk music, and then became aware of big band jazz, the wartime jazz music that my father listened to. Count Basie and Glenn Miller and all these guys that brought me my memories from childhood. And then as a teenager, I discovered pop music, and fairly soon I discovered blues and then jazz. It was hard, because they weren’t commercially available. You had to struggle to find records you could buy in order to hear it. It was a real effort. We weren’t living in the convenient era of the internet where a few key strokes will stream or download almost anything that’s ever been recorded. Back then you had to work hard to find the music, so that made it more of a prize when you discovered some new black American folk blues artist. I remember the joy of discovering Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on an album and saving up to buy it. We had to save up with one or two other people because none of us had enough money to go buy an album ourselves. (laughs) So we had to buy records when we could.

GM: Speaking of which — how did you narrow down the vast array of potential material that you used on “The String Quartets?” Was other material recorded as well? 

IA: No, nothing else was recorded. We had a very tight recording schedule due to the string quartet’s obligations and my own touring commitments. It was a very narrow opportunity, so we knew exactly what we were going to record, and we knew we had to nail down four pieces a day — two in the afternoon and two in the morning, with 45 minutes for lunch. So it was a very strict schedule and happily, the Carducci Quartet, being true professionals, did quite a bit of preparatory homework that allowed them to play it on the first run through, and then fine-tune it later in terms of the dynamics and expression. So we got it down in two or three takes. It was done under a strict schedule. Choosing the songs was a matter of taking the more obvious ones, the kind that were easier to visualize in a string quartet format, and then deliberately taking some that weren’t, and using our creativity in a way that could sort of bring them into the same framework. It was a mixture of stuff that seemed to lend itself quite easily. There were also two or three pieces like “A Christmas Song,” which was recorded with a mandolin and a string quartet back in 1968. So we basically recreated that with slight changes in the instrumentation, but very much as it was originally done.

GM: Do you find it easy to shift into the role of producer?

IA: I’ve never liked to have a factory approach, to say this is how we’re going to do it. I like to take a unique and different approach as a producer. My job as a producer is to try to give individual songs their own character and identity. Looking at the album as a whole, you have to try to put all that together in some kind of cohesive way. It can be quite contradictory, trying to evolve something as a whole and integrating a number of parts that have their own uniqueness in the way you recorded them, and perhaps the environment in which you recorded them, or different sound elements you’ve applied to different pieces of music. So the minute you start to assemble them, the factory approach makes it too much of the same thing.

GM: It sounds very precise.

IA: Of course, there have been many people who have been successful at doing just that, having a very focused idea of how to do it, knowing who it’s aimed at, how it works with an audience in generating an immediate response in terms of arrangement, tempo, simple rhythms, placing the vocals and that sort of thing. There are people that make a great living doing that. It’s a huge talent to be able to do that, but it’s not something that appeals to me. I like trying different approaches. I’m currently arranging six pieces for the band to rehearse later this month. I’m aware that I’m sitting down there with the same acoustic guitar most of the time and a bunch of ideas. The job now is to try to make sense of where we go with them, so that’s the next process — arranging and detailing the songs, to make sure they’re in different tempos and different keys. I know the running order, because I kind of know the shape of the album as a whole, and therefore I need to figure out the contrast in terms of the instrumentation. The keys and the tempos become very important, because you don’t want three adjacent songs all in the same tempo. You’d be amazed at how many different people do that. I’m sometimes staggered. Wait a minute! The last song was in this key and tempo! It sounds rather dreary. You can set one piece off against another and create that contrast and dynamic range. Jimmy Page, in his work with Led Zeppelin, presented that lesson to me. When we worked with Led Zeppelin, that was one of the things that hit me early on. What was so great about Zeppelin was that they weren’t just doing song after song. They all had their unique identity. That was the thing that made Jimmy Page so great, as a writer, as an arranger, as a producer. He was the act you had to follow. Although when we were on tour together, we were the act that they had to follow (laughs).

GM: You turn 70 this year, and when one looks at your song, “Living In The Past,” it seems you do have a certain fondness for revisiting the material you recorded so long ago. So would you say you’re a nostalgic type of individual? 

IA: I’m absolutely not nostalgic at all. I have nothing in my makeup that would make me nostalgic. I have a different interest in my own musical history and history generally. It’s about learning from it and making comparisons, and the temporal change that comes about as one travels through life. It impacts the way that you work, the way you think about things. Some things stay the same. Some things change a lot, and I find that a fascinating process, the way of looking at things from 10, or 20, or 50 years earlier, maybe being able to somehow draw an event together in a positive way that’s quite energizing. It’s not just about my music, but also about other people’s music, or maybe in books that I read as a young man, or watching a movie. It’s not about nostalgia. It’s actually about the real kind of passion for the historical perspective. I watch documentary programs about the history of my times, before I was born, because what I was born into what was the aftermath of World War II. So for me, it’s what we could call modern history, the history of the last hundred years, and that for me is something I’m increasingly using both as entertainment and as information, but mostly as a means to find my own place in the overall scheme of things, along with people I know, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve read about. It’s making sense of something. But it’s not about nostalgia. Nostalgia seems to suggest that you literally like to live in the past, and that’s not for me at all. I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t have a thing for birthdays or anniversaries or whatever. That’s just not a part of my life.