Q&A: Ian Anderson

After 2012’s well-received Thick As A Brick 2 [40 years on from its prog-pastiche prequel], Ian Anderson is now touring both albums together, rounding things off at the Royal Albert Hall at the end of June. Busy preparing for dozens of dates across Europe, South America and Japan, he talks with enthusiasm and eloquence about everything from Manet to aerobics to the audio ambience in Les Misérables. The Jethro Tull founder and flautist, who sang Too Old To Rock’n’Roll, Too Young To Die in 1976, isn’t slowing down in his mid-60s. “I get fairly tense and nervous if a few weeks go by and I haven’t done a show,” he says.

**So you’ll soon to see how many bricks it takes to fill the Albert Hall. **

Yes. Both albums in their entirety, with a 20-minute intermission, so we advise everybody to bring a warm flask of Bovril and a cushion. It’s a long concert. I can only judge by the ‘popular demand’ we seem to be getting for it. There can’t be many bands around today who would play their new album live as the second half of a show. It’s a calculated risk, and I’m glad we have audiences that not only accept it but seem to revel in it – though I can’t be utterly convinced that there will be no mass walkouts anywhere. You never can tell.

Nobody has much interest in old bands’ new albums nowadays. That’s why the Rolling Stones chose, wisely, not to embark on one. It’s a fact of life: when you’ve been around for a long time and have a repertoire, the young want to hear the ‘hits’ live for the first time and the old want the comfort zone, the blue blanket, the cosy reassurance. But I’m not like that. I’m a bit of a grump. I want to do what I want to do. So we play the 72 album, then something that relatively few people know. We fly by the seat of the pants and have to earn the applause.

For a mature gentleman, you maintain a hectic schedule.

At my age I think it’s good to keep pedalling. If you take your feet off the pedals and freewheel there’s a danger you’ll just slow down and fall off. I’d be very concerned about not being able to remount the bicycle now, so I like the idea of keeping at it. And preparation for a concert isn’t simple.

My son-in-law [Andrew Lincoln] is an actor. Like me, he gets out of shape. Not physically, but in terms of nervous energy and tension. He had to fly out to the USA this morning to shoot scenes for The Walking Dead after a break since last season’s filming, so he’s been furiously working out in the gym for two weeks. And all he’s got to do is run around and kill a lot of zombies. Me, I have to do two hours of aerobics every night. But the best preparation is actually singing and playing, so today I’ve been doing that to backing tapes. I will be feeling my way into it when I next go on stage the night after tomorrow. Age is a killer!

**What decides whether you play as Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson? **

Repertoire, and where it is. It’s not like the Stones, who go out and use their corporate band identity because they have three or four original members. That’s not the case with Tull, because I’m the only guy who’s been there from the beginning. For example, I wouldn’t do an orchestral or acoustic show or a new project like TAAB2 under the band name, because it would suggest to less knowledgeable people that it’s a generic Jethro Tull concert. Some of them might get a little bent out of shape if they’re hearing the unfamiliar instead of the broad spectrum they’d associate with the band’s history.

For that reason, I started doing a lot of shows under my own name about 10 years ago. Of course they feature a lot of Jethro Tull music, because it’s my music. I’m the guy who wrote, arranged, produced and fronted it. So I have this duality of name-tag, depending on which conference I’m showing up at. Sometimes I have to look at the billboard outside the theatre to remind myself which name-tag I’m wearing that night. But when I’m on stage the reality is it doesn’t feel any different to me.

**You’re already writing your next project. **

Yes. It starts off just after the last ice age, then spans to the present day, and jumps a little ahead into the future. It’s just a series of snapshots about us. I’m an observational writer. I’d like to be a storyteller, but in a popular rock song or album you can’t cram it all in convincingly somehow. So I paint people in a landscape, where the context kick-starts them into life and meaning. [The album in question, Homo Erraticus, has just been released].

The 1973 Jethro Tull album A Passion Play is being remixed and remastered by Steven Wilson. He said the bad reviews it got back then had tarnished your opinion of it, and he had to persuade you that the album was worth revisiting.

The passing of years has been kind to it in some ways. The tunes and arrangements are often pretty good. But somehow it was a little downbeat. There was too much gravitas in places; it sounded pompous and remote. But that’s a personal feeling. I long ago got used to getting slapped down by reviewers whenever we strayed – or they thought we had. Nowadays you have such a plethora of potential media outlets that opinion is spread, so it’s unlikely anyone gets uniformly bad reviews. Unless, of course, you’re a drunk guy flying a jet upside down.

**Have any other musicians been influenced by Jethro Tull? **

When people tell me so, I assume it’s just one of many influences. I mean, my influences aren’t one or two, they’re 20- or 30-plus. Sting and Bob Geldof both told me they loved Living In The Past when they were young. That song resonated with some because it was a ‘pop’ song but in 54 time. It stuck its head above the battlements and was noticed. Bruce Dickinson is quoted as citing early Jethro Tull among his influences. Realistically, there’s only a couple of the more up-and-at ’em songs that maybe fell into his orbit. Then there was Johnny Rotten, who said Aqualung was seminal, and may have subconsciously borrowed the Aqualung character, which was me doing a ham Richard the Third. I don’t think you could say the Sex Pistols as a band were influenced by the prog rock of Jethro Tull, though.

Enter The Uninvited

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.