While I was familiar with Ian Anderson’s music prior to interviewing him — Jethro Tull songs like “Aqualung,” “Thick As A Brick” and “Bungle In The Jungle” remain classic rock radio staples 40-plus years later — I must admit that I never heard him speak prior to our phone call. In turn, I was not expecting such an intellectual, quick-witted and lucid interview subject. Furthermore, in 15-plus years of interviewing entertainers, I don’t think I’ve encountered a musician as smart and well-spoken as Ian.
Digressions aside…Ian Anderson and band will be playing at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on November 6. While this is not a Jethro Tull concert, it is billed as Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera Performed By Ian Anderson. In turn, as one of eight U.S. performances of the rock opera this year, concert-goers should know to expect some new material beyond the Tull classics. As discussed during my phone chat with Ian, “surprise virtual guests” are to be expected within the performance.
A common theme of my chat with Ian is how he tends to do things his own way. While he is a competent guitarist, he is best known for being a flutist, and the reason why he picked up the flute — as an adult — was out of wanting to expand the sound of his compositions. Although the career of Jethro Tull has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, Ian is otherwise wealthy from having businesses outside of the musical realm, including high-end salmon farms that he owned for decades. Altogether, Ian interestingly pairs old-school work ethic and new-school technology.
The first Member of the Order Of The British Empire that I have spoken to on behalf of Downtown, Ian entertained a unique mix of topics within our Q&A session. I was able to ask him about his famous son-in-law — you’ll have to read further to learn who that is — but my favorite part of our interview was the “last words” he offered. Given all of the insight offered within our 20 minutes of talking, I hope that one of those “commercial ventures” discussed will be Ian’s autobiography. For more information on Ian, there’s a great bio on his official website: http://jethrotull.com/ian-anderson-bio.
Being a New York City-based publication, I wanted to ask what you remember about the first gig that you ever played in New York City.
Ian Anderson: The first gig we played in New York City was almost certainly the Fillmore East, and that was already a legendary venue in 1969. Bill Graham had kindly taken Jethro Tull on its first tour of the U.S.A., perhaps on the recommendation of Ten Years After, who I think he had already booked the previous year, and it was a harrowing experience. As I recall, we had started off at the legendary Tea Party in Boston and then moved on to play The Fillmore East in New York. I think our equipment had not made it on the plane from the U.K., so we were playing with borrowed equipment, so it was a bit harrowing, a little bit scary. But I remember Bill Graham, straight from the word “go,” he was a welcoming, gentlemanly, nice guy. Although he could be pretty tough on people he didn’t like or didn’t get on with, he was always a perfect gentleman to me and very supportive.
Is your upcoming show in Brooklyn the first time that you ever performed in Brooklyn?
I: We played, I think, in the general area but not in the heart of Brooklyn, where the Kings Theatre is. I guess it’s a difficult venue for a lot of New York folks and people in the general environment, because I guess it’s seen as a scary place in the middle of nowhere. I think the work that the venue owner and the promoter are doing to build this up as an alternative venue, it’s kind of hard work, people have a resistance to going to that part of the world. But I’m hoping that it will brandish itself in the months and years to come as one of New York’s iconic venues.
I believe that Diana Ross was one of the first to play there since they opened the venue, but have you ever been to Brooklyn a tourist or visitor?
I: Not really, no. I’ve passed through on my travels, but not in the sense of being able to really explore the area. Inevitably, people like me when they come to New York, they end up ensconced in a hotel downtown, and especially when there is a day off, which there rarely is in my touring life. But if there is, then we tend to be close to the heart of things where we can walk rather than taxis or subways or whatever. I’ve never really stayed in the other areas, maybe out in Long Island, maybe I had a night off somewhere in Long Island. As the name suggests, it is a long island. You can be quite a bit away from New York City in Long Island or elsewhere in the environs of New York or New Jersey, it’s a totally different world.
I know you’ve played Jones Beach on Long Island many, many times. With your upcoming show, the description of it mentions there being “virtual guests.” Where did the idea come from to have such a technologically-advanced live show?
I: Well, it came really from a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for the last three, four years. Using video and people performing on video as wells as giving visual content for the songs. I think when people go to a rock concert these days, they’re all used to seeing video content in some way, whether they’re watching YouTube or a DVD of a live show, whatever it might be. They expect more than a distant view of five jeans-and-t-shirt-clad non-entities on a distant stage. It was okay in Madison Square Garden in 1969, 1970, 1971, whatever it might have been, if you went to see Led Zeppelin and they were just a tiny speck on the horizon of of a 23,000-seat venue. But these days, you expect to see more since 1974, 1975, when video screens started to slip into the mix. In 1975, for example, Jethro Tull was doing the tours with “Tullivision” where we had a big screen and broadcasted the live performance in big cinematic terms so that people in really big venues could see close-ups of the people on-stage. That’s part of what I think people expect these days when they go to a rock concert. If they don’t expect it, perhaps they ought to because we have that technology. It fits in a suitcase.
We travel around the world now with a couple of media servers in special little luggage-size flight cases and take visual content around the world with us. I can check them in on almost any airline around the world which will accept my virtual guests in a suitcase, and I don’t have to buy them breakfast or pay for their hotel room.
(laughs) That’s one of the very interesting things about you, Ian. You had an old-school business like your salmon farms, yet you’re up on the latest technology for your musical career.
I: Well, that indeed fits exactly where music is in the world today. We use all the most contemporary and recent upgrades of digital technology, and having upgraded my studio computer to El Capitan OSX and running Logic 10, I’m running the latest upgrades on software that’s been one of the major recording software packages for many years now. We keep up with all the major changes, but you have to remember that when a singer gets on-stage, he’s singing with the same set of pipes that’s been around for the last 60,000 years since homosapiens came out of Africa. If we get on the stage and play an electric guitar, we’re probably going to be playing it either through a Marshall or a Fender amplifier or pretty much a clone of those two, and we’re going to be playing a Fender or a Gibson guitar, because essentially those two guitars…define the two kinds of approaches to electric guitar. They’re still with us today, nothing has changed. The Hammond organ, the piano, the other bands of the rock band ensemble, the drum kit, they haven’t really changed since the 1960s. I think we have to remember there are some perennial values in music. When it comes to actually making the music, it tends to be real people on the stage in real time playing real instruments, and I don’t think that anything fundamentally is going to change that, it’s just that the delivery that changes where we use a lot of technology in order to make things sound better and look better onstage. When it comes to delivering the music in the modern age, then it’s most likely going to be part of a digital system, whether you’re buying one copy of a CD or DVD, or whether you’re downloading something from the Internet that’s just a simple video or audio file.
When did you have the realization that you could have businesses outside of music and that you could be more than just a rock singer?
I: I’ve done a few other things outside music in my life, but that was a while back. In the last 20 years, I’ve mainly concentrated on being a musician. I have a few other interests and concerns that take a little bit of my time, in the world of conservation, or in selfish pursuits such as photography or my interest in world religions, my support of the Christian church in England, not just because I’m a Christian, but because I like smelly old buildings. There are things that I do that broaden my life, but I’m mainly a musician. I haven’t been involved in salmon fishing or anything to do with fish for 15 years now, since I got out of that, although I’m still concerned with farming in the sense that we have a farm and a lot of grass and we have sheep, we have a lot of woodlands and we have trees. But that’s a peripheral and not very demanding part of my life. Business, yeah, I’ve done other business stuff in the form of farming and fish-farming and fish-processing, and even in the gun business, for a while I was in partnership with a gun dealer and we refurbished old British shotguns and sold mainly vintage guns and firearms to clientele who were sportsmen. We’re not talking about guns for self-defense (laughs) or violent purpose, we’re talking about sporting game guns…Just to be able to do something in a commercial context which is something that you’re kind of passionate about and you have a feel for. Lots of other stuff I might have done but never got around to doing yet. Maybe we’ll see where the wind blows next. Maybe I’ll get into some commercial venture with something else, I don’t know.
Have you ever owned a restaurant or a pub?
I: No, given a bit of serious amount of thought, but that is just full-on…That is even more demanding than being a musician. A musician, you’re probably just talking about 10, 12 hours a day. A restaurant, you’re struggling to find five hours to sleep by the time you’ve conducted your working day. If you’re going to run a restaurant, that is a full-on job. I don’t think that you can run a restaurant without really being there and being at the heart of it. You can’t just get a chef and a manager and leave them to do it. It is so much about people and the same thing with running a recording studio, it’s about people, so is running a band. It’s about people, the people in the band, the people in the crew, the culture of it, it comes from people working together as part of a team. So it’s pretty much a full-on job, and in reality, I think I’d rather be a musician than be an airline pilot or a lawyer or a dentist or a professional golfer. I’ve got a pretty good job and I’m holding onto it for as long as I can.
Speaking of musicians, when someone thinks of a flutist in rock and roll, you’re probably the person that most people think of first. But I’m curious if there’s a fraternity of sorts of other people who play flute within the rock world. I know Ann Wilson from Heart used to play on a song or two in concert, there’s Dwight D. Kerr from Erykah Badu’s band, there’s some flute played by Walt Parazaider in Chicago…
I: Not that I’m aware of, it’s obviously an unusual instrument in the context of loud rock music. When I started playing flute, I certainly wasn’t the only flute player in rock music or folk music. Flute players were not uncommon, but it was often in pop music in a decorative context. It wasn’t in the fundamental blood and guts of the music. So when I started playing flute in 1968, it was to try and create a foil for the electric guitar.
Something that would be a kind of dual venture between the role of electric guitar as a solo instrument and the role of the flute as a competing and complementary solo instrument, so I wasn’t just gonna just decorate the music with a few pretty lines. I wanted to be at the heart of it and play big riffs like guitar riffs. My entry into the music business was alongside artists like Jimi Hendrix and bands like Cream where the electric guitar was a real focus, where the heart of the song was big guitar riffs. As an ex-guitar player, I learned to play the flute by playing big riffs and solos and playing a dominant role within the music, and that wasn’t the case with other flute players. I may not have been the first player to bring the flute to pop and rock music, and I’m certainly not the best, I’m just the loudest.
(laughs) Do you have a favorite Jethro Tull cover as recorded by another artist?
I: I do have a soft spot for one that was done on a Jethro Tull tribute album many years ago by a British singer/songwriter, kind of folk singer guy called Roy Harper. He covered a song of mine called “Up The Pool,” a reference to the town of Blackpool in the north of England, where Roy originally came from, as did I albeit a few years later than him. It was a great honor that he chose to do that song. He didn’t record it exactly like my version, he put his own take on it. But it was kind of nice to hear someone that I grew up listening to and admiring doing one of my songs, because he felt kind of a spiritual bonding with the song, and the fact that it was the geographic origin of both of us musicians, albeit at different times because we didn’t know each other when we lived there. Maybe also the fact that Iron Maiden, legendary heavy metal band, recorded “Cross Eyed Mary,” I think it was one of Bruce Dickinson’s first vocal efforts with Iron Maiden…These are kind of interesting moments when people choose to do one of your songs, but if someone is going to do one of my songs, I like it when they do something completely different…Musically speaking, I want them them to make it their own, do it their own way, do something that I wouldn’t do, do something that i couldn’t do, then I’m all ears.
Another very interesting thing about you is that your son-in-law is a famous actor, and I’m curious if you watch The Walking Dead.
I: Well, I didn’t watch it last night, because it was either watch The Walking Dead or watch the International Formula 1 Grand Prix race, which was last night in Austin, and by the time we saw the replay it coincided with The Walking Dead. My wife said, “Can we watch The Grand Prix, please?” because we get to watch Andy, Andrew Lincoln the actor who plays Rick Grimes, the male lead in the story, we get to watch him in his underpants making his coffee in the morning enough. But I don’t get to watch Lewis Hamilton win the world championship too often. We made a choice and didn’t watch Andy last night. But I do watch it, not scrupulously every episode, I kind of dip in and out of it and see how the storyline is going, and of course we speak to Andy…A couple of nights ago I had an e-mail from Greg Nicotero, one of the directors and the guy who’s behind all of the zombie makeup and crowd scenes. He was in London doing press and promo for The Walking Dead, and was maybe going to come to a concert I was playing on Saturday, but unfortunately was tied up doing press and promo too late…”The Walking Dead” is, I wouldn’t say is a close family, but kind of cousins. We know some of the cast and crew and people we’ve met, and it’s a big family effort. Not unlike a band, they have a real team effort with The Walking Dead, and when it comes time for someone to get eaten by zombies and the curtain comes down on their career, it’s always with a great sense of sadness and loss. Of course that’s the nature of the series, people do get eaten (laughs). Sometimes I do get to hear who is getting eaten before you guys and I’m sworn to silence.
So finally, Ian, any last words for the kids?
I: I’m not one to tell people how they should behave, because the more you tell, the more likely they are to do the opposite. The only advice I would give to anybody is, “Don’t try to give too much advice to kids.” The best way to give advice is by setting examples, it’s not by telling them what to do. I think, if you’re a family — a child, a teenager or even a grandparent — set the example. Do what you would have other people do, maybe they’re going to grow up and follow that. But if you try and lecture them by a set of values, whether it’s your set of values or passed down by a religion or a social convention, that’s not necessarily going to impress people. I think what’s going to impress people is to live by the example that their family set for them, by whatever generation. You should set the example that’s more likely to have an effect. People say to me, “Oh your kids are really nice, your children are well-behaved, brought up nicely.” I say, “I didn’t bring them up, they brought themselves up.” If they happen to watch and listen to and pay attention to the things that are around them, that’s great…Don’t tell your kids what to do, just set the example, hope that they follow you.
-by Darren Paltrowitz