There was a period during the late 70s and early 80s when Ian Anderson began making plans for the end of the world. Born in 1947, he was a child of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation had been a permanent presence throughout his life. “It always seemed entirely possible that all of this could end before I had reached manhood,” he says.
Now, thanks to a combination of escalating East-West tensions and having become a first-time father a few years earlier at the age of 30, the Jethro Tull singer’s fears were more intense than ever. The fact that Anderson and his family lived just a few miles away from RAF High Command near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire didn’t help matters.
“It was, for sure, a hard target for the Russians,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly a survivalist, but I did think quite seriously about an escape plan, what to do if the proverbial hit the fan.”
This escape plan, he says, involved getting the hell out of Buckinghamshire as quickly as possible should the balloon go up. “There were two fuelled-up vehicles, and probably 30 gallons of petrol stashed away. They were the days of easier gun ownership, and there were some fairly serious-looking armaments that I would not have left at home as well.”
As it turned out, real-life nuclear armageddon never came, although a fictional version rears its head on Jethro Tull’s 23rd album, the Norse mythology-inspired RökFlöte. More than once Anderson invokes Ragnarök – the vivid, devastating version of the end times as detailed in the Poetic Edda, the 13th century collection of poems that relate the tales of the Norse gods.
“This day of reckoning, the end of days scenario is familiar in a multiplicity of religions,” he says. “When the theme for the album began to unfold itself, I was drawn to Ragnarök.” He raises a knowing eyebrow. “It’s a very opportune subject, given the times we’re living in.”
It’s 9.30am when Anderson appears on the other end of a Zoom screen. He’s sitting in an office in the 18th century Wiltshire manor house he’s lived in for almost 30 years, having long ago vacated Buckinghamshire. He should have called half an hour earlier, except a typo on his part meant he got the time for our interview wrong. He’s in a grumpy mood, grumbling that he spends much of his time at the moment copying and pasting links for calls like this. He’d planned to go supermarket shopping with his wife, but that’s fallen by the wayside.
“I’m wrestling every day with so many fucking interviews,” he says testily. “I’m supposed to be a musician on tour. Anyway, it’s nice to be popular.”
The reason for the current demand on his time is RökFlöte, which arrives just over a year after 2022’s The Zealot Gene, itself the first album of all new Jethro Tull material since 1999. “I’m a bit like your local bus service,” he says, the tetchiness starting to dissipate. “You wait 20-odd years, then two come along at once.”
RökFlöte is a decent late-period Jethro Tull album. The wild-haired, swivel-eyed spirit that animated their classic early records is long gone, but its gentle musical touch is offset by the lyrical richness that is Anderson’s signature. Where The Zealot Gene drew inspiration from the Bible, using it as a springboard to explore everything from the rise of right wing populism to mankind’s eternal propensity for conflict and war, RökFlöte draws on an entirely different, equally fanciful belief system: Norse pagan mythology. Each of RökFlöte’s songs begins with a stanza that is descriptive of a different Norse god, before the next three stanzas place those characters in the present day. “Which to me is an amusing thought,” says Anderson.
The title RökFlöte is the singer’s little pun. It actually began life as a mostly instrumental album for flute named, with impressive literalism, Rock Flute, before Anderson fell down a rabbit hole that led to Valhalla.
“It’s a subject I had utterly no fascination with,” he says bluntly of the album’s lyrical inspiration. “I probably steered clear of it because it’s a fertile ground for those heavy metal and hard rock freak musicians who fantasise about that world. And having been aware of that mythology attracting the likes of [senior Nazi leader and occultist] Heinrich Himmler, I thought it was something I’d keep a distance from.”
Asking what finally sparked his interest in the subject prompts an erudite if circuitous monologue that takes in his dislike of history classes at grammar school (“The only O-level I failed”), some long-held axe-grinding directed at the teacher of said subject (“A brutal, awful, little man, just like Vladimir Putin”), dodging Sunday school as a seven-year-old by hiding up a tree while wearing a kilt (“A little draughty, because like any true Scotsman, I was expected not to wear underwear”) and a youthful fascination with “religions and beliefs and the cultures in which they have operated in different parts of the world at different points in history”.
It’s the latter that saw him eventually land on Norse mythology. “I thought maybe I should try and learn about this stuff,” he says matter-of-factly. “I suppose I liked the fact that, in spite of the number of gods in the pantheon, there is still an underlying cosmic force, the creator spirit.”
Anderson’s fascination with religion and faith of all hues is fascinating in itself. He loves the idea of religion but can’t commit to the actual ‘faith’ part of it. Or, as he so vividly puts it: “I lack the ability to do anything other than gently run my hands over the spiritual breasts and not squeeze too hard, in case I get sucked into the full act.”
“It’s always been something that fascinates me,” he continues. “And I suppose as you get older, there’s a bigger chance that you start to consider your own mortality and the degree to which it might all end all too soon.” He grins devilishly. “Though I’m pretty determined that Roger Waters goes first.”
The former Pink Floyd vocalist and bassist’s name comes up more than once during our conversation. With his strident proclamations on the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian territories (which he likens to “apartheid”) and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (which he calls “not unprovoked”), Waters is a polarising figure these days. Anderson seems genuinely perplexed at his contemporary’s willingness to loudly put his opinions out there, undaunted by the response.
“Why someone who’s been doing it as long as he has is seemingly unable to act on the understanding that it’s up to you to convey your ideas in a way that isn’t going to get you a drubbing,” says Anderson. “He’s loose-tongued with his convictions, which seem to be a little confused and perhaps not based on reality. He goes out there ranting and raving, as many others do.”
In fairness, Anderson doesn’t shy away from addressing current geo-political events himself on RökFlöte. The knotty, Ragnarök-referencing Hammer On Hammer conjures images of prophesised divine devastation, before pivoting to the modern era. ‘Vlad the bad, seethes and schemes/An empire past he must renew,’ sings Anderson, a not-so-oblique reference to the man in charge of the Kremlin.
“I’m not scared for me, but I am for my grandchildren,” he says of the current situation in Eastern Europe. “I do get concerned for what they may be facing. But you can’t worry about it forever, And I prefer to be optimistic, in thinking that Putin is the ultimate bluffmeister.”
Anderson has friends in Russia, such as Boris Grebenshchikov, singer with ground-breaking 70s prog band Aquarium. “He’s Russian to the core, but very anti- the current regime, just as he was very critical of the regime in his early life, when it was a very brave thing to even try and start a rock band.” Anderson has another friend who works in the Russian media, with whom he has exchanged a few tentative emails. “He knows that I know that his emails are probably being monitored, so we’ve only skittered around the edges of it.”
Tull themselves had a Russian tour booked for September 2022, though it was understandably cancelled when the invasion began seven months earlier. “We also had a concert in Kyiv in the early part of last year which went for a burton as well,” says Anderson. He has been trying to resurrect the Kyiv date, though the local promoter is adamant that it’s way too early to safely take place. But part of Anderson wants to visit the country, if only to play a guerrilla gig.
“Even if it’s on a street corner,” he says, eyes lighting up. “People who have done something like that, it’s been such a boost for them [the people of Kyiv]. All of these things are part of a rallying cry. I guess, if I did it, it would be totally under the radar. I wouldn’t want it to look like the cavalry coming over the hill. But forget the economics, it would be a very positive gesture.”
As it stands, Tull’s upcoming tour itinerary takes in altogether less hazardous places such as Budapest, Ghent, Durham and Shepherd’s Bush. War zones or not, Anderson admits that being on the road isn’t something he relishes.
“Touring has never filled me with great enjoyment. The concerts are the easy bits, because they’re the reason you’re there, but the travelling is the bit I don’t enjoy.” Neither, he says, is he naturally disposed to being around a lot of other people, not least the members of his band.
“We spend countless hours sitting on buses together and onstage at soundchecks, but the rest of the day I’m a loner. I’ll spend the day wandering the street in the wet and rain, looking for the worst Indian restaurant in town, where I’ll eat alone. They’ll have breakfast together, then they’ll meet in the lobby and go and do whatever it is they do together.” He grimaces. “Weird buggers.”
This unsociability is unlikely to change now, though touring at the age of 75 does have its upsides. He was diagnosed a few years ago with a manageable case of the inflammatory lung condition chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the physical activity of performing provides useful aerobic activity.
“Unlike others, who pay insane money to go to their local gym, I actually get paid for doing my exercises,” he says. “And singing thousands of words every night is probably a good bit of mental training. It’s all good reason to keep going, even if I wasn’t really enjoying it. And I enjoy enough of it that I can’t imagine those days really being over.”
According to Anderson, he’s already started thinking of the follow-up to RökFlöte, hoping to release it in late 2024. “There’s another bus on the horizon,” he says, returning to his local transport metaphor. “All being well. Assuming nothing gets me or I don’t fall under a taxi.”
Other major milestones are looming in the mid-future too. Anderson turns 80 in four years, and Jethro Tull will be 60 around the same time.
“Putting zeros on dates and ages is an attractive idea,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a target, though, because one day when I’m going for my usual medical check-up, I’m going to get some bad news. Most people, according to medical professionals, don’t want to know. Whereas I take a view that if you go out there with your eyes open, there’s more chance of seeing trouble on the horizon and being able to dodge down a side street and avoid it with the appropriate medical attention. So that’s my hope,” he cheerfully adds. “That I’m able to stave off the decline, both physically and mentally, that is inevitable.”
With that our time is up. More interviews await, and that supermarket shop won’t do itself. Armageddon hasn’t got Ian Anderson yet. Age will have to wait a few more years too.
RökFlöte is out now via InsideOut. Jethro Tull play London's Shepherd's Bush Empire this evening (May 23) before embarking on a run of European shows. US dates begin in August. For tickets and details, visit the Jethro Tull website.