Rock Interview: Ian Anderson on “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera”

“This is JETHRO TULL!, expressed proudly in bold terms. And then ‘the rock opera,’ said in an embarrassed whisper.”

Ian Anderson and band

Ian Anderson and the “Jethro Tull-The Rock Opera” band. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

By Brett Milano

Ian Anderson has reunited with Jethro Tull. Not the band, which was quietly laid to rest in 2010, but the man himself—an 18th-century agricultural inventor who came up with a seed drill that apparently revolutionized farming. The band never chose to name themselves after him—that was the work of their booking agent, who’d scored a fast club gig and needed to call them something.

Anderson’s claimed over the years that he was never too fond of the name in the first place. But now he’s written Jethro Tull—The Rock Opera, which premiered in Europe this fall and has scheduled only nine US dates, including November 5 at the Citi Performing Arts Center in Boston. Though built around well-known Tull songs (“we like to give people the toe-tappers,” he says), the songs are sometimes rewritten, linked with new pieces, and worked into a narrative context that he explains below. As usual, rock’s most famous flautist has a lot to talk about.

Arts Fuse: Is this the first time you’ve given much thought to this guy that you’ve shared your name with all these years?

Ian Anderson: Last July was probably the first time. It was something I’d studiously avoided after the embarrassment of the choice of name that our agent bestowed upon us in 1968. But last year I was on a trip through the farmlands in northern Italy, where the original Jethro Tull spent part of his days, exploring farming methods and recovering from a chest infection. A lot of elements of his life jumped out at me and I thought of about 20 songs I’d written that seemed to relate to the sketchy details of his private life. But doing some period drama set in the past seemed a bit cheesy to me. So I started thinking: What would Jethro Tull be doing if he was some agricultural boffin today? So my reimagined Jethro Tull is working in the dark sciences that people are afraid of, like cloning and genetically modified organisms. Let’s face it, our grandchildren are faced with a simple choice: If you don’t want to eat GMO foods, you’re probably going to starve. And if you don’t want to believe climate change is real, you’re going to die anyway so be my guest—but what about your children? So in my view, climate-change deniers are selfish and ignorant people who can’t cope with the real world.

AF: I’ve looked at the setlist and I see one especially interesting song on there: “Witches Promise” from 1969. You’ve barely ever played that one before, and it happens to be my favorite Jethro Tull song. What made you finally dig it up?

IA: The fact that half of it can be sung by my female guest [Icelandix singer Unnur Birna Björnsdóttir, who appears onscreen as a “virtual” guest].. She brings something that brings it to life in a way that I wouldn’t do by performing the way I wrote it. I still get to sing half of it and play a lot of flute, and we have an interplay, which is gratifying. The song was written to be a single, a piece to get some top-10 exposure for the band, and it did get that in the UK. It’s not really a favorite of mine but it does work quite well in this context.

AF: On the subject of your voice, there have been problems in recent years and you are sharing the vocals on this tour. I saw a recent clip though and it seems to be in good shape.

IA: It was better last night than it was 10 days ago because I’m back in the swing of doing shows every night. In terms of getting through a show, it’s one of the various hazards of old age. I was recently diagnosed as having mild emphysema. And I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 25 years, but my lung capacity has diminished my ability to sing. It doesn’t bother me with the flute but the singing is a little harder, and I’m always looking for ways to grab breath and cope with the reduction in my lung power. Even though I quit smoking 25 years ago, I have spent 45 years of my performing life onstage with smoke machines, that essentially produce droplets of burning oil. That can certainly take a toll. And I’m not looking for sympathy here—if you want to talk about my overall health, my colon’s OK, prostate’s OK, bad wrist injury, bad knee injury. These things are more real for me every day, they’re part of what affects my ability to do the physical show. They are things you have to carefully manage, they can probably spell the end of your professional career at some point.

AF: There’s been a bunch of Jethro Tull reissues lately, newly remixed by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree. Currently he’s up to one of the more obscure albums, Too Old to Rock & Roll, Too Young to Die. What’s it been like for you to revisit that material?

IA: For me it’s been great, because I’m not the guy who has to lay out all the mixes and do all of the work. Hearing the music again, there are things that I find enjoyable from a distance. And there are things that I realize aren’t part of my best work, but they’re tolerably OK and enjoyable to hear in the light of digital technology—where you don’t have to do the nasty things in the cutting room to squeeze the music onto vinyl or cassette. Doing vinyl used to even dictate the running order, since the [inner-groove distortion] meant that we could never go out with a big crash-bang at the end of a side.

AF: The last two albums you’ve done have really harked back to Jethro Tull’s prog era in the early ‘70s. You did Thick as a Brick II and then the concept album Homo Erraticus. And now by doing a “rock opera,” it seems you’re going all the way.

IA: I’m a little bit embarrassed by that, but I couldn’t think of a better term for putting music into a narrative context. It’s really just another way of presenting the best of Jethro Tull. I’m fine with keeping it entertaining, with some issues being discussed if you pull back the layers; and it gives me satisfaction to rework the nuances of the older material. So if you like, this is “JETHRO TULL!”, expressed proudly in bold terms. And then “the rock opera,” said in an embarrassed whisper.

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.

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