Ian Anderson discusses Jethro Tull’s new album The Zealot Gene and celebrates the 50th anniversary of Living in the Past.
GOLDMINE: Welcome back to Goldmine for the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull’s U.S. Top 40 singles debut with “Living in the Past,” a favorite of mine, along with its flip side, “Christmas Song,” where you sing, “The Christmas spirit is not what you drink,” which thrilled me to hear growing up, as I was uncomfortably witnessing what you described.
IAN ANDERSON: I played that one multiple times in December at three of Britain’s great cathedrals, doing some fundraising concerts for the church, which I do every year, except in 2020 due to the pandemic. I play the mandolin, sing, and the other guys join in. I don’t have a string quartet as on the original record. It is a slightly cynical song about the materialism and commercialization of Christmas and losing the sight that it is one of the two major festivals of Christianity. It should welcome everybody under that cozy Christmas blanket, Christian or not, to join in with celebration and to enjoy the spirit of being together with family and friends. It doesn’t matter what headgear you are wearing, what you skin color is, where your ancestors came from, or what your religious or nonreligious beliefs are. I am not a Christian, but I am very happy to go along with traditions and culture, which is an important part of my life.
Flip side: Christmas Song
A side: Living in the Past
Billboard Top 100 debut: November 2, 1972
Peak position: No. 11
Chrysalis CHS 2006
GM: On the new Jethro Tull album The Zealot Gene the song that I feel is the best sonic match to “Christmas Song” is “Sad City Sisters” with the mandolin, accordion and flute capturing a similar sound. I enjoy the video as well, just like I did with the “Shoshana Sleeping” video late last year.
IA: Good. Thank you for that. I ended up recording the last five songs myself at home. I gave up hope rescheduling the band in the studio because of COVID-19. I asked some of the guys to send in their contributions on audio files that I could incorporate in the final mix. I don’t particularly like to work that way. I much rather that we roll together in the studio playing as we would play live on stage. It gave those last five songs more of an acoustic nature with a contrast to the rest of the music. That way, I think it turned out to have the same dynamic range as the Aqualung album.
GM: Aqualung was the first Jethro Tull album I bought, and I played it over and over, with themes perfect for my young teenage ears. The Zealot Gene also seems to have a lot thematically in common with Aqualung.
IA: Yes, like Aqualung. I am making reference to a lot of biblical text that came as a result of writing out a list. I started out thinking I was going to write songs about strong, powerful human emotions. I wrote a list of emotions on a piece of paper on day one of working on the album, like fraternal love, erotic love, spiritual love, companionship, compassion, and some bad stuff like hate, violence, aggression, jealousy and vengeance. I looked at this list and was reminded of things that I read in the Bible. I then did a big search of the Bible text to find examples of those words. I copied and pasted that text to give me some point of reference and build some songs lyrically around my search. I didn’t use any biblical text in the lyrics at all but made reference to those biblical verses that gave me the substance to put the words into a context of the present day and the world we live in now. I think there is only one song that comes to mind where I left it more in its historical biblical context and that is “Mine is the Mountain.”
GM: “Mine is the Mountain” is powerfully dramatic about Matthew and Lucas, one of my many new favorites. “Mrs. Tibbets” starts off the album nicely with your flute, the orchestra, and the reference to “have yourselves a merry little Christmas.” It is a perfect Jethro Tull opener with a wild guitar solo, too.
IA: Florian Opahle played his guitar solos live in the recordings. They weren’t overdubbed, along with the band playing live, which was brave. I think it gave it a lot of energy. We did about three or four takes of each song, so his solos were a little bit different every time but all with the same general layout.
GM: For piano, “The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde,” I think John O’Hara’s piano stands out like a John Evan classic Tull performance.
IA: I talked with John O’Hara, our keyboard player, before we started recording and I suggested that maybe we should make it more pianistic. On our prior album in 2014, Homo Erraticus, he played more organ on it. So, it was a deliberate plan to make it more pianistic in terms of keyboard sounds but inevitably you have texture with samples and synthesizer sounds and the vast array of sounds that exist in keyboards since the early 1980s when digital technology started to implement itself in musical instruments.
GM: Which was true with some Jethro Tull and Yes music in the 1980s. Let’s talk about Yes’ Jon Anderson and his song “Activate” on his latest album 1000 Hands, where you brought a wonderful magical flute to Jon’s work. In my 2020 Goldmine interview with Jon, I told him that I was drawn in immediately by your flute.
IA: Thank you. That was actually recorded a long time ago. When people ask you to play on their record it seems that they take even longer than I do to actually finish the record and get it out. It seems particularly in the past couple years that anyone who has been locked down at home has asked me to play on their records. I did quite a few with lesser known artists like Mandoki Soulmates. I prefer playing with people with music a bit different from what I normally do, making it more of a musical challenge.
GM: A good example of that is the Canadian band Men Without Hats, who people know from their 1983 song “The Safety Dance,” and the song “On Tuesday” from their 1987 Pop Goes the World album. What a wonderful marriage of their sound and your sound.
IA: I remember watching “The Safety Dance” video on British television and it stood out very prominently as being almost a throwback to the hippie era. I loved the very buoyant nature of the performance with a hippie silliness in their setting. I think that word got back to Ivan Doroschuk from the group, and he asked me to play on a track. Ivan was in London. I went into the studio and added a little bit of flute. Sadly, the album and the follow up work of Men Without Hats never really took off again. “The Safety Dance” was truly a one-hit wonder. I think that “On Tuesday” is a touching and simply lovely tune. I think much of his peculiar way of wedding together pop electronica with intriguing music and lyrics is quite exemplary, a good example of intelligent pop music.
GM: Let’s conclude with the title song from the new Jethro Tull album, “The Zealot Gene” where you sing, “Half of us are in the apple. Half of us are in the pie.”
IA: “The Zealot Gene” is a song talking about populism in the present, politically, socially and the aggressive nature of social media polarizing people with stark opinions on one side or the other. It is easy to say that it is a song about Donald Trump. It is actually a song about all the Donald Trumps. There are at least a half-dozen political and national leaders in the world today who behave as bad or even worse than he did. It’s quite easy to point your finger against that sort. I rarely write a song about an individual. It is always about different personalities but depicting some commonality out of different characters. It is a song about extremism in social media, politics and how we find ourselves pitted against other folks with a contrary opinion. Some of us sit in between in shades of grey. I see nothing wrong with having a more moderate view and indeed sitting on the fence, which is something I am very happy to do. If you sit on the fence, you have a pretty good view of either side. If you should decide to jump off the fence and go to one side or the other, it is with thought, deliberation, consideration and hopefully some caution. I am a professional fence sitter.
GM: I first wrote about you in 1978, covering a concert on the tour supporting Jethro Tull’s Bursting Out double live album. I wrote, “The highlight of both the record and the performance was a shortened version of “Thick as a Brick,” which allowed each band member to show their versatility. It was a shortened to 12 minutes from the full 44 minute album. Thick as a Brick is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. So happy double anniversary of the albums Living in the Past, Thick as a Brick, and congratulations on The Zealot Gene, which keeps the sound of Jethro Tull going on in fine form.
IA: Thank you so much. I am most grateful and am looking forward to taking some of the new songs on the road.