Interview: Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull

Living in the Present

Jethro Tull are something of an institution in the world of rock music. Their brand of hard-edged folk 'metal' may have changed over the years with the advent of modern studio technology but their basic formula for success, namely being totally unfashionable in the eyes of the media, has enabled them to soar to new heights of popularity, especially in America.

On the eve of yet another Tull tour I spoke to Ian Anderson, singer, songwriter, flautist extraordinaire…

Why are you doing a tour at this moment in time? Is it because you haven’t got another album out for quite a while yet?

"Well that’s the answer in one really. It seemed like a nice idea to play places we haven't played for at least 15 years. At the ripe old age of…[43]…it was probably a question of now or never. Just go out and play the little provincial theatres and do so with a sense of spirited fun."

So are you frantically limbering up then?

"No, nothing as strenuous as that. I'll probably cut myself down to three curries a week and try and run up and down the stairs."

Most large bands now tend to play the big arenas and leave the rest of the country out. Don't you think that smaller venues are just as important?

"Jethro Tull have always played dates in the UK, but by-and-large in the last ten years it's just been Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, and London. It will be ten years since we played anywhere other than those towns. It'll be fun going back to Birmingham Town Hall instead of the NEC, for instance. One thing you have to remember though is that production values in rock n' roll music have become more adventurous and therefore more costly. Most bands can readily see that most people have an expectation of seeing and hearing a bit more than just a bunch of guys walking onstage with a flat backdrop. The reality is that playing small venues has to be economically justified if you're taking more than one truck and a dozen crew. You just have to do it on a smaller scale. I think in many cases today musicians have started to do the sums to work out the reality of the tour. I rather like to think that these things should be self-financing.”

So many bands today put such an emphasis on their stage show that the music takes second place. What would you say is the perfect balance then?

"It's very difficult because most people have pre-conceived ideas what a rock music show should be. It must be ten times what it was twenty years ago. You just become so used to seeing such a wide variety of things that are very costly and expensive productions."

But then the ticket prices are so high. Don't you think that people expect to be entertained?

"That's the other thing: the cost relative to the increase on ticket prices. The cost sector of doing tours has grown dramatically! Even the drummer has to be an accountant!"

How was your recent American tour?

"It was OK. Touring America is, geographically speaking, a lot more arduous because you’ve got a much bigger area to cover. In Europe, for example, you can go everywhere by train and it's a lot easier. Towns are closer together and sufficiently different from each other with every day having its own identity, where America is just a blur after a week or so."

How do you think your audience has changed over the years in America and in Europe?

"Well, by-and-large better behaved. The Americans though are a bit rowdier, y'know, screaming and shouting during the quiet moments. In the UK the audience listens during the quiet things and jigs about during the noisy bits."

You now attract a younger audience as well as the old diehards, don't you?

"Yes, some of the younger people perceive our music as good music which they enjoy."

Jethro Tull have remained somewhat unfashionable in terms of the media. Do you think one of the reasons for your success is down to consistency?

"Yes, I think that's right. We just carry on doing what we do best."

Still, in many respects, you quite often get classed as a 'heavy metal' act along with many other crossover bands. Do you take this as a compliment or as a reflection that the term merely covers an enormous spectrum of music?

"Ahem, yes – the spandex brigade! Well, I think Jethro Tull has always been noted for being at the heavier end of the rock spectrum, although I would say that we're primarily acoustic based. There are substantial elements within any audience which wants to hear that side of Jethro Tull. In America we tend to play down the acoustic/ folky side in favour of our rockier, raunchier material. However, in the UK we do play a greater percentage of acoustic tunes. I usually find that, in particularly writing songs the last thing that I think about is what style of music it’s likely to be. I write songs to amuse myself primarily, and in terms of arrangement it goes whatever way it goes. I can't even begin to think what the next album is going to be like and how it might be conceived by the public."

Are you going to be playing any new songs live?

"At this moment in time, no. We do have new tracks, but we just don't have time to rehearse them. As far as this tour is concerned we will roughly play the same set as we did last year plus a bunch of other songs of various vintages. We do hope to produce a degree of variation on the last UK tour!"

It must be quite difficult to decide what material to play live with such a large back catalogue.

"It's impossible to get it right with something like 214 Jethro Tull songs. You can't please everybody! Usually the idea of what we play comes from our guitarist Martin Barre. However, at the end of it all you've got to make up your own mind and do it at a gut level."

Mark Crampton
Riff Raff
May 1990

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