From humble beginnings in the northeastern town of Luton, England to its rightful place in the anthology of rock music, Jethro Tull’s name has come to bare a legacy synonymous with the bands’ uncompromising nature. Amidst the ever-changing lineup and through stylistic choices persevering through the scrutiny of ephemeral trends, the group led by Ian Anderson has made its indelible mark on the genre on its own terms. With Jethro Tull nearing five decades of musical history under its name, frontman and main songwriter Ian Anderson has embarked upon a new musical endeavour, one that combines his rich musical legacy with his love for the classical music repertoire. Recorded in Worcester Cathedral and St Kenelm’s Church in the UK, Jethro Tull - The String Quartets gathers a magnificent set of rearrangements of the bands’ back catalog, performed by the Carducci String Quartet.
It’s been 3 years since the last release bearing the Jethro Tull name. How did this project come about?
The repertoire of Jethro Tull can be realised and performed in different ways, whether it be in their original form or through reworked arrangements, like in a “concert” setting. This String Quartet project came about because, although I had worked with string quartets before, I had never really done a dedicated album with a string quartet and no rock band instruments. This was looking at the far more poignant, sparsely instrumented classical string quartet with a judicious degree of involvement by me in terms of flute, acoustic guitar or vocals from my end. It was about avoiding the temptation of having bass and drums and electric guitars. We got the sessions on the way in September when my preferred string quartet, the Carducci Quartet, John O’ Hara and I were available for 3 days.
This current release is listed solely as a “Jethro Tull” record, whereas certain of your solo releases were listed as “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson”…
(Laugh) Oh dear, we’re back on the old “Ian Anderson vs. Jethro Tull” story are we? I don’t really need to comment on it. You decide what YOU want to call it. Jethro Tull is a band of some 32 musicians variously involved in the recordings over a period of 49 years. I’m the guy who’s written almost all of the music, produced the records, organised things, the tours… YOU decide what you want to call it (laugh). I have little interest in the marketing and the billing. The music of Jethro Tull is the repertoire, it’s not necessarily about a specific group of musicians. They’ve all been an important part of the band. Some members were involved for only a few months or sometimes a few years.
Do you see this record as a retrospective record or rather a new chapter for the “band”?
Well it’s not about the “band”. There’s no “band” involved in this. It’s a string quartet and Jethro Tull’s repertoire. It’s like when you come across Beethoven string quartets. It’s not Beethoven playing the violin or cello, it’s his compositions that are being played by string quartets. We’re talking about the repertoire of Jethro Tull here. If you say to me “I love the Beatles”, I don’t think you mean you love John, Paul, George or Ringo. What you really mean is that you love the music of the Beatles. When you look at the historical perspective, when you express admiration or joy and a pleasure of listening, it’s not about the individuals but rather about the music that was created and left behind, which is part of their legacy. So it is for the music of Jethro Tull.
How did the arranging process come about? How did this all come together?
Well I started by looking up my list of songs on my laptop computer. I refer to this file containing over a hundred song titles quite often, namely when I put together a tour or a one-off concert. I went through them and sorted out those who would work in this new context. Some of them didn’t seem to work and others were chosen because I had already done them in a similar context; certain songs already had strings in the original arrangements for instance.
John O’ Hara, our keyboard player, came up with a few suggestions of his own and I came up with a few suggestions that maybe he wasn’t so keen on but seemed to me like more of a challenge. I also didn’t want it to be too “esoteric” or clever, we needed to have a few straightforward songs that aren’t too different from the feel of the original recordings. I tried to mix things up a bit.
Each song had to have a different approach. It’s not a factory production line where you come up with a methodology and apply it to all of the songs. I wanted each song to have a different starting point, a different rationale and a different way of being developed as an alternative to the original performance. Above all, what I wanted to do, was to prove to me first and to our fans second that the elements of music, harmony, melody and rhythm, are the crucial element of any piece of music, and you can preserve them whilst presenting the music in a completely different genre and styling. It’s not beyond the bounds of reason that I could jump on a plane to Nashville, book a studio and embark upon “Jethro’s Best of Country Hits”.I don’t want to do it, I’m not a fan of the country music genre, but I could. Classical music, Folk music, Jazz or Blues or other forms that I do have a greater affinity could also accommodate to my music. It may not ALWAYS work but usually it would. I’ve proved that time and time over the years. I mess around with my own songs and sometimes rearrange them for live stage performances. Some songs have 3 or 4 different arrangements to pick from. I always have to be sure, when I put on a setlist, to remind the band which version we’re playing, or else they might embark upon the wrong arrangement (laugh).
Were there any particular challenging parts when it came to revisiting or re-arranging some parts of your back-catalog?
I occasionally tried to avoid the obvious. Sometimes the violin would carry the melody line that would typically have been sung or played by the flute on the original version. It’s not about me and a string quartet in the background, that was never the idea. I really wanted this to focus on the string quartet. They came first; If there was any “accompaniment”, it would be from me rather than them.
The first violin usually carries the melody lines and key lines, and the second violin typically constructs the harmonies. The viola has its own solo and pieces along with the cello, supporting it in a more rhythmic fashion. I’d find alternative and counter-melodies that might work a little differently to the harmonies for the second violin and viola. I had to sit and work out some ideas, some of which were worked out at the time of doing the arrangements with John O’ Hara, others were deliberately left until the very end when it came to adding my parts and doing the mixing.
Can you tell as bit about the choice of location for the recordings?
I was looking for something that had a little more ambience than a sterile contemporary recording studio. I wanted to capture some kind of a feel. I had a concert coming up in support of Worcester Cathedral, one of our great medieval cathedrals and they were kind enough to give me the use of the crypt underneath the main body to record for a day. After searching many churches in the countryside of Southwest England, I found the church that offered the best chance of not being interrupted by either the public or any extraneous noise. Even so, both in the cathedral crypt and in the historic churches in the countryside you will find the occasional aeroplane flying overhead or at a distance, the sound of a train, a truck or just the wind rattling the windows. There were many times where we would be in the middle of the take and we would have to stop because of the noise that was being picked up by the microphones. We’d have to stop, wait for it to go away and start again. We had a few interruptions like that which were frustrating but we ended up with two or three takes of each of the songs to choose from. We got it done on time thankfully, as we didn’t have any “spare time”.
The Jethro Tull repertoire has seen a number of reinterpretations and covers versions. Are there any in particular that struck your attention in particular?
I’ve heard lots of people doing the music, from tribute bands in far away countries through to famous artists like Iron Maiden for instance. My preference is for when someone does it in a completely different way. I think it’s much more interesting if they take a piece of my music and really make it their own, not just using the same arrangements and copying the way I did it.
I’m much more interested in doing something really radical with it. I’ve heard bits of Jethro Tull music that have been sampled and put into hip-hop records and I’ve heard people do my music where they really deconstruct it and put it back together again. I’m more interested in that, because I think that would be my approach. If you asked me to work out an arrangement for a piece by Iron Maiden, what I would do would sound nothing like original; I would see no point in doing that because they’ve done it much better than I ever could do it in that style.
When somebody else does my music I want to hear it done a different way, just as I would hope that mister Bach would be more interested in hearing me play a couple of his pieces of music in a
very different to the way he originally wrote them for classical musicians. I could be wrong; maybe Bach would be really angry, pissed off and insulted that I would take his music and change some notes and harmonies. However, my gut feeling is that Bach, along with Beethoven and Mozart for example, who were great improvising musicians, would have maybe been appreciative and understanding of the fact that there are no real absolutes in music. Bach could have been feeling very different one morning and done a piece of music in a different way. In that sense, the way I might hear his piece of music and retranslate it to suit me is what I hope he would be appreciative of. We get bored of hearing the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven again and again in the same way in every classical venue. They’re simply performing it the way it was written at the time. If Bach heard me playing one of his pieces, he would at least go “oh! What’s that? That sounds like a bit of my music!”. My gut feeling is he might go along with it, at least for the first couple of minutes.
Speaking of reception: have you noticed an evolution in the reception of Jethro Tull’s music over the years?
I don’t think much changes over the years. It just depends where you’re playing and what you’re doing. If I’m playing outdoors in the summer, the audiences look the same as they did back in 1969, it’s a mixture of people of my age and people a lot younger. If it’s an indoor concert hall, the audience will generally be much older and behave in a much more calm and disciplined way. It’s the same in Germany, Switzerland, Britain the US…
I try to avoid national stereotypes when I think about the audience reaction, and I also try to avoid the stereotypes that we would associate with age-ism. The stereotypes exist and perhaps with some good reason, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to dwell on that and just assume that all young people are a bit more silly and louder whereas older people fall asleep halfway through in their chairs and have to be woken up by their wives to be told it’s time to go to the toilet during the intermission.I think there’s a danger that we create and reinforce these stereotypes unnecessarily. Overall, I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount of difference. When I cast my mind back to one of our very first concerts in the USA, playing at a Jazz festival in 1969, the audiences there were basically aged from 15 to 60. Jethro Tull’s audience was always quite broad demographically. It’s always been very mixed.
Interestingly, I was at one of Black Sabbath’s last shows in London at the O2 a few weeks ago, and while I wasn’t surprised to see that the audience was 90% male, I was surprised to see a lot of people in their late 30s. I expected the audience to be people in their 50s or 60s along with some people in their teens and 20s. I was quite surprised to find that missing middle group, as they’re not so often at my concerts. We tend to have the old and the young and they tend to be a full generation apart, with a missing generation in the middle: those who grew up listening to music in the 80s and 90s who wouldn’t have picked up on Jethro Tull. The younger folks look at the history of pop and rock and get excited about the origins of the genre and are more appreciative of the classic rock bands from the 60s or 70s, so it’s not unusual to see them in the audiences, especially in the outdoor shows and in the mediterranean and latin countries. When we do an outdoor show there it seems like everyone in the audience is aged 20, the old folks are all at the back.
What is next for Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull?
We’re starting rehearsals and then recording the first 6 songs for a new studio album for 2018. All of it is written, we just have time to do the first piece of the recording before we head off to Australia and New Zealand on tour. When we get back, we’ll soon head off for the first of 3 US tours this years. Later on this year there will be a few days here and there where I can carry on working on the new album. So that’s the main project at the moment. I also have all of the master tapes from several concerts of the Jethro Tull Rock Opera which we filmed during a few shows last year in Europe. At some point during the year I will attend my attention back to that to piece together a live DVD. It will include 5 new songs which have never been released, which is something some of the fans will find interesting to listen to.
To finish off : could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
It’s a bit of a boring answer I suppose, but one piece that entertains me the most and is the most inspirational is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It’s so magnificent, it contains such huge dramatic expression of melody and powerful ensemble playing. It’s the complete Beethoven “album”. It would have been wonderful to have known what the 10th Symphony would have turned out, but as it turned out we’ve only got the 9th. That would probably be my favorite album. Close behind that might be a compilation album of Muddy Waters’ music as recorded live towards the latter part of his performing by Johnny Winter (note: Ian is most likely referring to Muddy "Mississippi" Waters – Live from 1979). Winters recorded some of Muddy Waters’ greatest hits live in the studio and this release is an album I tend back to because it’s the opposite of Ludwig Van Beethoven. However, it has the same swagger, the same overt sexuality that I find in some of Beethoven’s music. There’s something almost a little “cock-rock” about some of the key melody ensemble pieces from Beethoven, it’s a little bit “macho” (laugh).
I suppose one of my favorite books, which is about to be made into a movie again, is by my favorite author John Le Carré. He’s known as the thinking man’s thriller writer. I think his first classic novel of the genre that achieved commercial success is The Spy who Came in from the Cold. It’s a book that really defines the cold war years of the early 60s. In a way, we are moving back to that kind of uneasy status quo, an almost cold-war relationship with Putin’s Russia. I think it’s quite ‘a propos’ that we reexamine the genres of that era. So I guess you could also pick the movie starring Richard Burton and you could pick the book.
Besides that, if I get bored I can always watch my son-in-law in The Walking Dead, which I sometimes tune in to and watch, just to connect to what’s happening in that weird Zombie thriller genre (laugh). When my son-in-law is away making another season of the series, I can always wave at the television screen and say “Hi, are you doing Andy!”.
Special thanks go out to Ian Anderson and HIM Media for making this interview possible!
Jethro Tull / Ian Anderson