The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Jethro Tull formed in 1967, headed up by singer-songwriter-guitarist-flutist Ian Anderson, although many listeners have always thought of Tull and Anderson as one and the same. Early on, Jethro Tull established itself as one of Britain’s best-known bands with their unique blend of rock, blues, English-folk, and even a dash of classical music. For in-depth information on Jethro Tull, visit their official website :
On September 24, 2003, Ian Anderson spoke with The Acoustic Storm by phone from San Francisco, before performing a benefit concert for wildcat conservation.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s talk first about your current tour, “Rubbing Elbows with Ian Anderson.”
IAN ANDERSON: Well it’s basically a result of doing years and years of promotional visits to radio stations and TV stations around the planet, but particularly in America. That got me thinking that it might be nice to take this element of improvised chat and bring that into a musical concert and use some of the many relationships with radio personalities over the years and have some of those people come and co-present the show with me. Then we add a few other ingredients, like old guests, and then make it kind of a friendly behind-the-scenes intimate look at me and my music, and some of the acoustic music of Jethro Tull. So it’s a different kind of performance, which is very much improvised, although it works to a schedule, to a pattern, because we all remember at our age we need to be in bed by 11:00, so we work to a deadline, but the show is different every night.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Acoustic music has been an important part of Jethro Tull’s sound; you’ve always incorporated acoustic instruments, even more so into your solo material.
ANDERSON: Yeah, well my very first awareness of music was essentially acoustic music…it was big band jazz. My father used to listen to that stuff, so when I was about 6-7 years old, that’s what I heard. And then when I was little older, you know, I guess around 11 or 12, I heard what, in the U.K., was called skiffle music. It was actually an acoustic derivative of folk and bluegrass styles of music, essentially American folk music. And that kind of made it big for a while in the U.K., for a short while. But it was a bit of an introduction into acoustic music and folk music. And then when I was a teenager, in my mid-teens, I began listening to Black-American blues artists, particularly the acoustic players like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Sonny Boy Williamson and folks who played acoustic instruments and played to small, intimate crowds. Then, of course, I became aware of rock music and pop music, but that never interested me as much as the more earthy, intimate and improvised music that always excited me as a player. But for practical reasons, and commercial reasons, rock music is the mainstay of the era into which I was born as a musician, so that’s what I took up. But it’s always really been the case that I’m the “unplugged” guy in the live rock band. That’s what I’ve been doing for a living for some 30-odd years, and sometimes it’s a little frustrating because you’re struggling to make yourself heard and the subtleties of the instruments I sometimes play may be lost in the context of live rock music. But that’s what I do and I’ve been rather successful with it and have had a lot of fun with it. Still, it’s nice to sometimes take a little break and do the acoustic stuff in a more exclusive way. So, just having finished 12-14 weeks on the road with Jethro Tull, in Europe and the U.S. this summer, I have time off now for good behavior, so this is kind of my weekend job (laughs). Just having some fun doing something that’s a lot more intimate, more scatty, more improvisational where we involve the audience with questions and answers and just make it a lot more fun.
ACOUSTIC STORM: We’re always scouring the archives for special acoustic versions of songs for The Acoustic Storm. It seems that the intimacy of an acoustic arrangement might invite people to listen a bit more closely than they would with the electric rendition of the same song.
ANDERSON: It’s certainly been a fashion in the last 15 years with the so-called “unplugged” phenomenon to spread through TV and radio. I can remember way, way back coming to visit radio stations in the U.S. and being asked to play something live on-air, and the same in American television. You would play live, whereas in Europe everything was on tape or miming to the record. But it seems to be a long tradition here to expect the artist to do their stuff in an intimate and improvised setting, and I find this quite encouraging. And, of course, MTV made “unplugged” the definitive description for a phenomenon that is certainly not exclusive to MTV. In fact, when I first went into MTV, right after they opened their doors for business, we were asked to do an interview and we brought some instruments, and to their surprise, we played a couple things, you know, just acoustics guitar and flute, or whatever. They were really knocked out and said ‘oh, this is great, we wish all the artists would come and do this’ and I said ‘well you should ask them’. They asked us to come back and do it again sometime and I said sure, no problem, but they never asked us back, they just stole the idea and made it MTV Unplugged (laughs). It may well possibly be that Jethro Tull was the first band, when MTV was literally a fledgling company that just opened its doors, and unofficially we did, I guess, the first MTV Unplugged performance. So it’s been around for a while and people like to do that, and I think there’s always a bit of a thrill in hearing someone that you associate with a different sort of music. You know, hear things that are stripped away to the essential elements of the songs. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing with some of the Jethro Tull rock songs over the years…to take them more into an acoustic setting, or even an orchestral setting because I sometimes do shows with the symphony orchestras. Some of Jethro Tull’s earlier tunes were indeed written as acoustic music, and although at the time, I felt it probably upset the other guys in the band a little bit because it didn’t necessarily include them doing what they wanted to do. It was a little divisive with me doing acoustic tracks within the Jethro Tull framework, so whilst I did that in the ‘70s it kind of cooled off after that. I then began thinking more in terms of writing rock arrangements to keep the drummer happy, also the electric guitarists and keyboards, and folks who like big, rich loud sounds. So I guess in more recent years, my acoustic fix had to be obtained by doing solo albums, and making more of a dedicated effort to do the more organic and subtle stuff that I can fool around with as a solo artist and not have to write for the other guys in JethroTull. That’s fine, but once in a while it’s nice to be totally selfish and do the song in a way that feels organically right for that song and not worry about having to include other members of the team. That’s part of the joy of doing solo albums; it’s a little insular, a little selfish and introverted but that’s kind of fun to do sometimes.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You’re musically eclectic in terms of the instruments you play. The flute is such a different sound for rock.
ANDERSON: The instrument I began playing initially was an acoustic guitar, followed by electric guitar, but I realized I was never going to be Eric Clapton…I thought better then to make a change. The good thing I also realized is that Eric Clapton is never going to be a great flute player, neither was Jimi Hendrix nor Jimmy Page (laughs). I thought this is an instrument I might exploit and not be the only flute player in rock music at least, but perhaps be the best known one, so I guess it was a lucky break that I picked up that instrument. I had already had some flirtation, not with the flute, but with a tin whistle and with the harmonica and mandolin, so my more eclectic leanings, in terms of stringed instruments, you know, the guitar family of instruments: the bouzoukis, the mandolins, the things that aren’t regular guitars, they’ve always fascinated me because of their tonality and rich, ethnic sounds. The various whistles and flutes and things that you have to blow into have always intrigued me, since they’re very primitive instruments, and I guess are, in some ways, like the human voice in terms of being kind of soprano, and perhaps rather a feminine voice. I think that really appeals to me, because there’s something both masculine and feminine, at the same time, about the flute. It’s a very popular instrument, of course, for girls to play and principal flautists in symphony orchestras, I guess 50% are females. It’s definitely an instrument that women feel comfortable with, in spite of its obvious phallic representations in folklore and mythology. It has that sort of a masterful and seductive quality, and again in folklore and mythology there are a number of fairly macho male flute players who range from Christian and Hindu religions to a number of South American and Central American and North American Gods who play flute, curiously standing on one leg, which is an interesting, and very coincidental aspect of my flute playing. I seem to have adopted the same style, unwittingly, that has been part of ancient mythology and folklore regarding the flutists and flautists of the world, so it’s kind of a strange thing that I ended up doing that, and entirely coincidental because I didn’t know anything about these other flute players when I began. It’s only because I used to play harmonica standing on one leg when I was beginning in the Marquee Club, and the first journalist that wrote about Jethro Tull said two things, that I played flute and that I stand on one leg. Where, in fact, they got it wrong, I wasn’t plying flute, I was playing harmonica, but they kind of invented an image for me so I had to take it up and figured I better start playing the flute on one leg too. And many years later I delved into the mythology of flute playing and found that I wasn’t the only one. It’s like a bit of a weird episode of the “X Files”, or something. It’s a strange synchronicity of one-legged flute players. I’m not sure why, perhaps we’re all aliens planted here for some strange message, because I was born in 1947, the year of Roswell. So it may well be my theory that my mother was impregnated by aliens and I was sent here as the one-legged flute player for the 21st Century. Of course I’m kidding, but it is kind of spooky when you find out about things that you’ve been doing, in my case for 25 years. I found out that the Lord Krishna of the Hindu religion is usually depicted playing the flute standing on one leg, I mean that just knocked me sideways; that knocked me off my perch. It was a very strange and quite unnerving discovery when I went to India and was confronted with this reality by the journalists there when I was doing a press conference.
ACOUSTIC STORM: So that’s when you first heard about it?
ANDERSON: Yeah, they were a little upset with me. They were angry, thinking I was making fun of one of their most important Hindu Gods. I said I’m sorry, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. Then one of them showed me a picture of Krishna and since then I’ve paid more attention to these things and it is a little spooky, a little strange, but the flute in mythology, Krishna himself is a great seducer in Hindu mythology. He uses his flute to seduce the young female goat herders, apparently with great success. I can’t claim to have the same end result, but then, I don’t run across that many female goat herders.
ACOUSTIC STORM : And when you were a single guy, you were not necessarily in the market for that many female goat herders either, right?
ANDERSON: Not really, no. But I have met for the first time, although she claims I’ve met her before, the famous ‘Cynthia Plaster caster’ a few weeks ago when I was playing in Chicago. She was an infamous groupie of the ‘70s, who famously plaster cast Jimi Hendrix and a few other folks for immortality in Plaster of Paris, which she and her groupie friends would cook up and create these anatomical specimens, currently for sale. Cynthia has recently won her court case to get her plaster casts back from, I think, Frank Zappa’s manager. But she’s got them back now, and you too can buy your own Jimi Hendrix, life-size replica, but not all of him, just the part that stuck out like his guitar, and it’ll cost you a mere $1500 bucks, or so. It’s kind of interesting, poor old Cynthia is back in the business, not that of plaster casting people, but selling the replicas of the originals. She’s actually going to be one of my guests on the ‘Rubbing Elbows’ tour in a few weeks time. So it’ll be interesting to have her onstage and explain, maybe even demonstrate her subtle craft, not on me, I hasten to add, but I’m sure I can find a willing volunteer among the band.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Well, I guess we’re digressing a bit here. Getting back to music, would you mind talking a little about the “Aqualung” album, especially the acoustic tracks, “Mother Goose” for instance, or “Wondering Aloud”? That album is a good example of how you were able to put acoustic tracks in the midst of some powerful electric music.
ANDERSON: It’s also an example of how sometimes I’d be in the studio recording something like that, and some of the other guys were on a lunch break, or before they arrived in the studio for work that day, I would have some little song that I’d put down. It was fun for me to do. It was actually the first album where I did record some songs in a more personal, solo kind of way. But it did create a little tension, I think, and certainly in later albums during the ‘70s, it became apparent that the other guys were uncomfortable that I was doing some tracks on an album that didn’t involve them. I think that began with “Aqualung,” really, not that it was a bad atmosphere, but you could sense the tension because I was doing something that wasn’t quite playing the game, you know. There wasn’t a role for the drummer, or sometimes there would be no bass, or lead guitar part and sometimes the guys felt a little left out, I suppose. To some extent you could incorporate some things, some playing from the other band members, but I felt it was usually easier for me to play all the instruments anyway, rather than getting someone else to play something that perhaps they may be uncomfortable with in terms of instrument or style. It was just me using some available time, you know, an opportunity when the other guys were away just to quickly pop something on tape and say, that’ll work, then maybe add some piano or guitar part and there it is, done. Done and dusted, finished, ready to go.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How about the lyrical side of that album, was there any particular inspiration you had for crafting the themes of that album?
ANDERSON: It wasn’t a concept album, but it was popularly thought of being that, although it really wasn’t. There were 3-4 songs that were loosely connected in the sense that they talked about, I guess our relationship, man’s relationship with spirituality, with the God-Head, with organized religion. It certainly wasn’t a diatribe against organized religion, although “My God” definitely takes a little poke at Christianity, specifically at Catholicism. But that’s just part of growing up in that sort of environment in a very strict school system, you know. We were obliged to take lessons in theology, specifically Christianity, but we weren’t taught anything about Islam or Hinduism, or Buddhism, it was like these things didn’t exist and that really upset me. Even as a young teenager I was aware that a large part of the planet didn’t practice Christianity. They had their own beliefs and creeds and their own sets of human values, which, in many ways seemed to work just as well in their society, just as Christianity typically works in a Western society. I was more interested in the commonalities of religions, the things that were common factors, the more pragmatic sets of rules, of regulations, of ethics and beliefs, things that you could live by that were common sense. There was no rocket science attached to stuff, it was just common sense, you simply had to live in harmony with your neighbor: do not steal your neighbor’s wife, do not shoot your neighbor, do not lie to your neighbor. It’s all enshrined in fairly basic teachings of a number of religions. Some, of course, take it to extremes, like do not step on a spider. I’m not sure if that’s ever taught in the Christian religion, but one would like to think that the essential values of Christianity would spin down to thinking, “well if I don’t have to squash that spider, then let’s just leave it alone, it’s not harming anyone.” In fact, it may be doing some good. I think most religions have some real good, positive things to teach us about how we live our lives and “Aqualung” was not an album out to tear that apart. There were just 3-4 songs that were making a case like, let’s not get all caught up in the dogma of organized religion; let’s try and celebrate the more benevolent spirituality of religion in a more, perhaps, down-to-earth fashion. So 3-4 songs were kind of in that vein, but the rest of the album had nothing to do with the subject at all. The rest of the songs were a loose collection of songs that were fun to do at the time, fun songs to write. Though people did see it as a concept album, which I think is an error, because certainly in my mind it was not a concept album. The fact of the misreading of that caused me then to lampoon the concept album notion with the follow-up album, “Thick as a Brick,” which, of course, also contained a lot of acoustic music, but in a much more developed and arranged way. We were almost making a satirical statement about concept albums; we were making fun of it in a way, it was part of the surreal humor of that era, a Monty Python-esque approach of making a rock album. So we had fun lampooning the concept album there. Of course, many people took it very seriously, thinking it was a holy, serious and meaningful work, which it wasn’t really, it was just a little fun. Although it did have some bits of musical material and lyrics that we were taking seriously in playing and recording, but the overall feel of “Thick as a Brick” was having fun with the concept album, poking fun at that overblown approach to making music.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Do you have any particular or singular approach to songwriting, or do you just write something when it hits you?
ANDERSON: I think there are two things that happen; one is that you occasionally get gifted. A little inspirational jewel, you know, a little whimsical butterfly just flutters past and you reach out and you take it in your hand very carefully, very gently, you don’t want to hurt this little thing; it’s something you have to nurture. It’s very fragile, that first inspirational idea, and you have to make something out of it. But that’s just an occasional lucky break. The rest of the time you have to go looking for that butterfly, you have to look for inspiration, you have to wake up in the morning and say, “it’s Monday, it’s 8am and I’m going to write a song.” That’s a good discipline to have. I don’t think for a moment that Beethoven, Mozart, or even Frank Zappa, you know, just sat around with their feet up on the desk waiting for inspiration to arrive. These are people that woke up early and went to work and that’s what I try to do. I follow what I imagine would be the approach of any diligent and wonderfully creative musician, in that most of the time you have to go out there and drag that creative notion from the stone in which it’s set. It’s stuff you have to carve from a lump of something that has no shape, no form, and you have to whittle away at it and create some form within. You have to go looking; you have to go armed to the teeth with all your skills and abilities and go to work. And then you come home and put your feet up, but not until the job is done.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Right, if there’s time. Speaking of time, you probably don’t have much more of it left.
ANDERSON: No, I’m here today doing a little fundraiser for about a hundred Jethro Tull fans paying a couple hundred bucks to hear a talk about conservation of some wildcat species that I’m involved with, as well as some other folks working on the project to send some scientists to the high Andes to look at the habitat of the Andean Mountain cat. So we’re here doing this little fundraiser to put some money together to fund this scientific expedition. It’s about the third one actually, so it’s an ongoing project of mine just to help some folks out in the world with cat conservation and see if we can’t find out a little more about some of the world’s most exotic and most endangered species.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Cats are close to my heart as well. Mine is a black cat, Percy, and I saw on the cover of your new solo album, “Rupi’s Dance,” there’s a cute little black cat, and on your website, there’s a cat in motion. Have you always been a cat lover?
ANDERSON: Yeah, I guess as a child I always had cats, and dogs actually living side-by-side, but I’ve always been fascinated by cats. Again, rather like the flute, which, as I said, has both femininity and masculinity, sort of somehow caught up in the nature of the instrument and the way in which it’s played. The cat to me does the same thing, you know. The cat is wonderfully feminine; it embodies so much femininity in the way the cat moves and walks, whether it’s male or female. It doesn’t matter; it’s just endowed with qualities that we associate with femininity. But to contrast that, the cat is a meat-eating hunter. It’s a real macho male, alpha male killer, you know, whether it’s male or female. There’s also a very masculine side to the cat, and that’s something that really appeals to me. On the one hand it seems very contradictory, yet is a wonderful duality of apparent sexuality. We tend to personify our relationships with animals very often, because it’s easier for us to try and understand animals in that kind of way. But the cat’s a complex creature and I love cats, except when they get big enough to bite my head off (laughs). So when it comes to lions and tigers, I let others involve themselves with conservation issues. I’m just more interested with the little fellows. And there are 26 species of, arguably small, wild cats and they far outnumber the big cats in terms of variety of species, shapes and sizes and colors, and so I’m kind of interested in those folks. They resemble, in many ways, our own domestic cat in terms of size, but are very exotic to look at and often, unfortunately, are hunted into extinction for their fur, for the exotic meat trade, for exotic medicine trade. There are a lot of difficult issues surrounding small cat conservation, because you’re sometimes finding yourself talking from a Western point of view and maybe failing to understand that for other people in other cultures they have no concept of conservation the way we see it. They see nothing wrong with trapping animals for their fur or the exotic pet trade. These people are saying, “hey, they’re here, why shouldn’t we make a living and catch these animals? And if they all die we’ll just switch to something else.” They don’t really have a conscience; it’s not really in them. It’s like telling the Iraqis to become Democracy-loving people; for most of them Democracy is a totally alien issue and it is, in some ways, rather the wrong way to go about preaching to people, to do it by force. You have to encourage people; you have to teach them over generations, and so it is with conservation. We have to try to gently persuade people, that to wipe out a whole species for the fur trade is maybe not a great thing to do. We have to persuade them and not enforce it with guns because we’re just going to clash cultures with them in yet another horrible way that they will deeply resent.
ACOUSTIC STORM: I commend you on your conservation efforts and hope that people will also keep in mind that domestic cats need protection as well with spaying and neutering, etc.
ANDERSON: Yeah, the little girl you refer to on the album cover, little Rupi, unfortunately when I was back between tours I had to take her in to be spayed. She wasn’t in good shape for a few days; she was pretty angry. But on the day I left, when I was going to the airport, she had her stitches removed, she was a lot happier. It happens to all of them, and I guess how ever difficult it is to do that to our pets that we love; it is for their protection and benefit too that we do that. I don’t quite know where the Pope stands on neutering cats (laughter), but I’m sure he’d have a point of view.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Ian, thank you for taking this much time to share with the Acoustic Storm.
ANDERSON: It’s a pleasure, nice to talk to you.
-Transcribed by Dave Cooper