The Ian Anderson Interview
One of the joys I get from writing about vintage rock is the chance to talk to some of the greatest musicians in the world. And Ian Anderson, in my book, is easily in the top five. Even better is the fact that I've been given the opportunity to speak with the Jethro Tull leader on three separate occasions. Each and every time he has astounded me with his insight, attention to detail, his recall of historical milestones, his wicked sense of humor and mild courtesy. In the past, my interviews with Anderson have spanned his entire career; this time I narrowed my focus to one particular subject: Aqualung.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Aqualung is unquestionably Jethro Tull's most popular album. Needless to say, the band has some big plans to honor the record — plans you can read about in the interview below. Ian and I also talked about the making of Aqualung — the inevitable bumps in the road and more importantly the triumph of its eventual success. And then, just to throw things off course, there is one last question about Jethro Tull’s future. You may be pleasantly surprised at the answer. I know I was. Then again, Ian Anderson always seems to have any number of surprises up his sleeve. At the end of the day, it’s all to keep the bigger picture in perspective.
The Beatles have Sgt Pepper, Dylan has Blonde And Blonde, Pink Floyd has The Dark Side Of The Moon and Jethro Tull has Aqualung. With that in mind, would it be fair to say that Aqualung is a definitive representation of what Jethro Tull is all about?
Well, in truly commercial terms, the answer would be yes. It being the single, best-selling album. But then again, it's had 40 years to sell that number of copies. It wasn't an instant, out-of-the-box big seller. It sold steadily over the first few years of its life to establish Jethro Tull internationally. I guess it’s the album, perhaps along with Thick As A Brick a couple of years later, which defined the band being established in most of the major record markets. Today, it supplies very much the benchmark repertoire of the band. Even at my other concerts with string quartets, acoustic shows and so forth, we have two or three songs from the Aqualung album — long-established must-have songs.
Now you’re coming over here to play some shows, doing Aqualung in its entirety.
For the second time, we’re doing all of the Aqualung album in concert. About five years ago, we did a bunch of shows in the UK and a few in the US. where played Aqualung, It was something we did at the suggestion of XM radio in Washington some six, seven years ago when they asked us to come into their studios and perform all of Aqualung live as a radio broadcast. There’s a whole bunch songs on there that we never played live and I couldn’t see myself wanting to do that. However, after listening to the album back then, I decided it was worth giving it a shot and we agreed to do this for XM and we released the recording as a limited edition album for charities for homeless people in the U.S. and the UK.
It was a worthwhile thing to do. We then went out and played a bunch of shows, particularly in the UK, doing the whole album. So, we’re doing that again. In September, there’s a collector’s edition of the Aqualung album being released by EMI, which I just finished working on in conjunction with Abbey Road studios. An engineer has remixed the album very nicely in 5.1 surround as well as stereo, so the collector’s edition will have the original mixes, the remixes, the 5.1 mixes and about 11 bonus tracks, including some outtakes from the album, which we were able to find amongst the old tapes stored at Abbey Road studios these days.
Will the 5.1 mix be on SACD or Blu-ray?
It’s not on Blu-ray. It will be released as a pack with a CD and DVD. We only just finished this in the last week or two. Believe it or not, I have a CD of the remixes sitting on my desk that arrived a couple days ago, but I only got back a couple of days ago from a Latin American tour. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but I will to do that tomorrow morning. I listened to the final mixes, but I haven’t heard the actual mastered versions, which had been put into the final trim at Abbey Road studios.
Going back to the making of Aqualung, wasn’t it your first wife Jennie who came up with concept for the title track?
She had a photograph of some people she had been photographing when she was studying photography at a college in London. Her assignment was to go and photograph homeless people in South London, which she did. She came back with the photographs and she had written on the back of a photograph some description of one of the characters. The picture caught my eye and the word she used to describe him. And so I said, “Let’s make this into a song.” So we did and it became the title track of the album.
On the copy of Aqualung I have, she gets full credit for the song.
She was my first wife and that was a nice way of saying good bye.
The album also courted a bit of controversy, with songs like “My God” and “Wind Me Up,” which were initially perceived as anti-organized religious.
It’s fair to say they were critical of organized religion — a stance I maintain to this day, in spite of the fact, mysteriously to some, I’m a supporter of Christianity and every year I play concerts in churches and cathedrals, and it’s something that I do. But I can still be critical of various religions, particularly Christianity; because it’s the one I’m closest to and have the most knowledge of. To be critical and not condemn it outright is, to me, quite easy. It’s not a contradiction in any way. There’s no dilemma at all in that. I’m a supporter of Christianity, but I am critical of certain aspects of it. And I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I’m a supporter, I’m not a Christian. But then again, I could support the Manchester United Football team and not be a soccer player, couldn’t I? I could be a scientist who is passionate about the evolution of dinosaurs, and yet not have sharp teeth and a scaly tail. Not a contradiction there.
I read the sessions for Aqualung were problematic — a new studio, new bass player who didn’t really play bass, scheduling. With all these issues, did you have any idea you were making such a pivotal record?
We did because we knew it had to be. It was either the beginning of the slippery slide to oblivion or it was going to be another step up in terms of a career. I won’t speak for the others, but I was very conscious of the fact that this was a pretty important album and it had to be a bit of a landmark album. We’d done OK with three albums, but this was the one that was going to make or break us. It wasn’t an easy album to make from a technical perspective.
We had one or two difficult times in the studio, which resulted in several attempts to record some of the songs. It wasn’t that they were bad — they just weren’t quite right. Some of those outtakes are on the collector’s edition. They’re part of the evolution to the final product. A couple of the songs we played live on stage for months before we actually went into the studio to record them. It wasn’t an easy album to make mostly surrounding the technical issues, working in a brand new studio using untried and untested equipment, which unfortunately was letting us down. It wasn’t an easy ride.
And you ended up playing lead guitar on “Locomotive Breath”?
Well, I play one of the guitar parts and Martin Barre plays the other. In fact, I was listening to those in the multi-track about three weeks ago in the studio and I said, “Hold on a minute…let me just see who’s playing what here.” We had three attempts to record it that were spectacularly unsuccessful and this was about the fourth time we tried to do it. So I went on out into the studio and just did a kind of metronome bass drum and high-hat track for three and half minutes or whatever. And then I went out and played some guitar parts with an electric guitar. And then we overdubbed some tom-toms and cymbals…well, our drummer did. And the bass part and the guitar part and tacked the keyboard introduction to the beginning.
It was rather like making a Pink Floyd album. None of us were in the studio at the same time (laughs). The only way to record that (“Locomotive Breath”) was to sort of lay it down. It has a sort of metronomic pulse. It wasn’t gelling as a band piece. So I went out and did it in a rather artificial way, but it resulted in the desired effect.
Is Aqualung your favorite Jethro Tull album?
It’s certainly one of them. I don’t really have a favorite. I have favorite songs rather than favorite albums. It certainly is an album that I think is a good benchmark for everything we’ve done since then and obviously before then. It stands the test of time pretty well because a number of the songs on the album are songs about real issues. Whether it’s touching on religion, homeless people or prostitutes — these are realities of life today. It’s not an album that’s rooted in some historical perspective. It’s not about getting to San Francisco and wearing flowers in your hair. It’s not something that’s caught up in a nostalgic moment of whimsy. It’s something about issues as real today as they were 40 years ago when I wrote the songs. And those are the songs that are more upbeat and humorous or whatever. They’re songs that avoid the temptation to being pinned down and being from a certain year or certain time. They are songs of whimsy but nonetheless timeless whimsy. They border on being a little surreal in terms of lyrical content, songs like “Mother Goose” and “Up To Me.”
They’re, I suppose, a product of having read books by Jack Kerouac as a teenager. And I followed the works of painters like Magritte and Dali, who were people who kind of looked at things from a sideways glance. They had a different way of seeing things, seeing the world, and presenting them in a rather surreal way. But that was a product of the times in the UK because British humor was heading that way as well. These were the days of Monty Python, a rather surreal form of humor, which began prior to that with Round The Horn, The Goons and on to Monty Python and even these days with Little Britain. There’s a very clear-cut line of British comedy. It has an evolution, but it definitely went through quite a surreal moment with the Python folks, which I think rubbed off on me as a musician and a songwriter. Preceding that and paralleling that was, of course, Captain Beefheart who was a prodigious and very clever lyricist in the late 60s in the U.S.A.
Would it be safe to assume there are no plans for an Aqualung 2 on the drawing board?
It’s pretty safe to assume that because there’s been lots of songs since then that have touched upon some of the same areas of lyrical material as Aqualung. There’s a number of other songs that have touched upon religious matters and other social issues, but I don’t think putting them together and calling it Aqualung 2 would be a particularly good idea. There are other albums I suppose that if I thought about it, I could probably say, “How could we go about examining that.” Years and years later, would there be a merit in doing that? Perhaps there are other possibilities.
I think of Aqualung as a series of songs. It was widely touted as a concept album, but I never saw that myself. I saw it as a collection of songs, two or three of which had some common ground in terms of touching upon religious matters, and two or three touched upon social issues. I never designed it to be a concept album at all. It was perceived as such because that was the mood of the times. Writers and critics were gleefully looking for something along those lines.
This has absolutely nothing to do with Aqualung, but it’s been over a decade since the last Jethro Tull studio album. Any chance we’ll get a new Jethro Tull studio album anytime soon?
I do have, currently, a whole album written and prepared, and in fact scored in Sibelius, one of the music composition programs, and al the lyrics and arrangements done. I’m looking forward to going to the studio to record it, but it won’t be until November because between now and the end of October, we’re pretty much on the road all the time. I finished writing that in the beginning of April or the last week of March. I spent a few days with my guitar player and keyboard player doing the job of consigning it all to written arrangements. But it’s on ice until we have a recording session with rehearsals starting at the end of October. We have about six weeks of studio time booked. So, yeah there will be something next year coming out around the end of March.