Back as you’re unlikely to have heard him before, Ian Anderson has taken Jethro Tull into a new musical pasture, teaming up with John O’Hara and The Carducci Quartet to produce ‘Jethro Tull The String Quartets’; a new album that sees staples of the Tull catalogue re-imagined. Translating effortlessly, it’s a project that Ian has been mulling over for quite some time, as he tells us in our EXCLUSIVE interview. Sitting on a park bench; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Ian, how are you today?
That’s very kind, very thoughtful to ask that. The answer is that I’m about the same as yesterday, and hopefully about the same as I’ll be tomorrow. Continuity is all I ask for at my age.
‘Jethro Tull The String Quartets’ is released next month. The Tull catalogue is ideally suited to the classical / baroque treatment, isn’t it?
Well, the whole point of the project was to realise some of the classic Jethro Tull repertoire in a format that was traditional and classically inspired. I think that a melody, harmony, rhythm – the component parts of music – should be able to transfer across different genres, and in most cases, you can do that. I find quite a lot amusement doing that, occasionally with other people’s music, and sometimes when people do it with my own music. In this case, it is about taking traditional Jethro Tull repertoire and presenting it , song by song in different ways. Because of course, songs are individual; you can’t have a factory production line where you hit a musical equivalent of ‘Google Translate’ and it all pops up in the language of your choice; it’s got to be respectful, to preserve the identity of each song’s individual character.
Did that mean that making the song choices was a little more challenging?
Well, it was going to be challenging whichever pieces we used, but the reason for choosing certain songs was partly to achieve the right variety, so they wouldn’t be all in the same tempo, the same key, in the same time signature. Most of them had to be amongst the best-known Jethro Tull repertoire in order to resonate with the fans. Also, it’s trying to achieve a balance, as you do when you write any album; music that dynamically, and in terms of the identity of the individual component parts, it keeps shifting and moving as you go through listening to the album. To have twelve tracks in the same time signature, in the same key would be really rather boring.
Was the idea of The String Quartets something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
No, it was just one of a few projects I had in mind - not exactly a ‘bucket list’, but just things that I wanted to work through while I still can. This was something bubbling away for a few years, but only taken seriously at the beginning of last year when [collaborator and keyboard player] John O’Hara and I started to work on the project. In some cases we already had the material; there were a couple of pieces that had already been recorded with a string quartet originally, and there was one piece that hadn’t been recorded, but had been performed live with the Skampa Quartet in the Czech Republic on a few concert dates we did with them some years ago. So it wasn’t all form a standing start, but 75% of it was new, or relatively new.
Where did you find the Carducci Quartet, who you worked with on the album?
Well, I overturned a number of dark and slimy stones until they scuttled out from under one. No, not really. Mutual friends mentioned them to me. I had three or four quartets in mind, but I preferred to try and find someone based in the UK. I made plans to go and see them performing at a recital at LSO St Luke’s in London. I was mightily impressed by their ensemble playing, and their energy and precision, and asked them if they would be able to find a few mutually acceptable dates that we could develop towards the recording.
So once you found them, you got to recording pretty soon?
It also required the availability of venues, and also being able to present them with all the finished music in the weeks beforehand so they could do their own preparation and be familiar with the music before we got into the recording dates themselves. We had to record two masters each morning and each afternoon, so four tracks a day, for three days.
The sound of the album is far removed from the perceived hedonistic hard rocking Jethro Tull of the 1970s and 1980s.
Well, yes, but Jethro Tull was never known for being particularly hedonistic. We were always rather a grounded group of people who never really got involved in the social scene of rock and roll, or the lifestyle, which is always associated with sex and drugs, and rather over the top behaviour. Some people are made that way, and some aren’t. I’m not that way inclined; I like to curl up with a good book or a good cat. I’m not really a party boy - I don’t enjoy crowds, I don’t enjoy noise, I don’t enjoy people getting in one place and getting drunk or drugged. I’m uncomfortable in that context. I’m a bit of a loner; I like to eat alone, I like to travel alone, I’m just someone who enjoys my own company, and then for a few hours in the day I’m thrust into the middle of a lot of company. So for me after a show, I’m not interested in going down to jam with Prince at some downtown disco rock club or whatever, I just want to go back to my hotel room and watch the news.
Going back to the new album, and you recorded part of it in Worcester Cathedral; that must have been an amazing experience.
Well, I was due to do a Christmas concert at Worcester cathedral anyway a couple of months later, so I was familiar with Worcester Cathedral, and the people there were very helpful in making the crypt available to us. To record in the main body of the cathedral would be impractical for a number of reasons; partly because it’s open to the public all the time, and secondly, because the reverberation time is so ridiculously long we couldn’t have used those acoustics anyway. The crypt was manageable and had an atmosphere and a spirituality about it but didn’t impose so many acoustic conditions among us.
I wanted to ask you about the status of Jethro Tull as a band; is it really finished?
Well, the band Jethro Tull is arguably thirty-two different members over the years, and by that definition, yes, it is finished. Those guys who were there when Jethro Tull became most successful in the early to mid ‘70s aren't not around anymore - there’s only one of them, apart from me that still plays music, the others have all gave up playing music many, many years ago, and you’ve the members who are sadly no longer with us. So the big body of membership of Jethro Tull, at this point in the day, I think, it’s a little disingenuous for me to talk about ‘the band’ Jethro Tull, because it means so many different things; in terms of all those people who’ve given their individual input into the band, and given their time, and their passion, and their efforts. When I’m the only guy left from the early days, I think of ‘Jethro Tull’ as the repertoire; I think of Jethro Tull as all those people, but when I’m performing today, I’m performing ‘the music of Jethro Tull’.
So it’s all about the legacy of music these days, not the band?
If I think of Mozart, I’m not thinking about 'the man'; if I think of Beethoven, I’m not thinking about 'the man'; I’m thinking about the repertoire. We say; “oh I love Beethoven” – you don’t mean you love Ludwig Van Beethoven; what you mean is you love his music, the repertoire that he left behind, which is what really defines people, at the end of the day. Looking at Jethro Tull in the musical sense, then it is a large group of people, and it is a repertoire, and I don’t think I would want to apply that to today’s world. If you see ‘Jethro Tull’ as a billing, it means ‘Jethro Tull – the music’; it doesn’t mean necessarily a particular collection of musicians. It can’t do that and be somehow representative, not after forty-nine years, anyway. I’d also like to stress that Jethro Tull is the name of an eighteenth century agriculturalist who invented the seed drill; it’s his name. I do feel a little guilty of having been responsible, inadvertently, for identity theft. I didn’t know when our agent named us ‘Jethro Tull’ in January of 1968 that we’d been named after a historical character.
You did pay it back, in a way, with ‘Jethro Tull The Musical’ a few years ago, didn’t you?
Well that was the effort, to try and recognise Jethro Tull [the person], and to recognise the debt, if you like, that I owe him. I didn’t want to create a historical pastiche piece, I wanted to re-imagine Jethro Tull as if he was an agricultural inventor in the present day; so on the one hand he maybe could be designing agricultural equipment or machinery, but I rather imagined him as a bio-chemist working in the fields of bio-engineering and contemporary crop sciences, with all of the controversy that surrounds the inevitability of trying to feed an ever expending planet. You have politicians even in this country, talking about growing the economy, and it being possible by increasing the population. It’s an insane short term view; we have to learn to manage a planet with a finite population, and if we can’t manage to do that, then we are all going to perish.
You’re obviously very passionate about that subject.
I am passionate about the good stuff that we as a species have been able to demonstrate to do; the arts, the science, the culture, the engineering – all the positive stuff. And of course, none of us are born ‘good’, none of us are born ‘bad’, but environmental, family, social backgrounds do push us one way or another, and there are a lot of bad people out there who are responsible for driving us, as a species, down the wrong route. I think we have to hope that there can be more equality, more responsibility with future generations, and we don’t end up with the extremes exerting their populist power as they currently seem to be doing. It’s a cheerful note, as you can see!
To end things perhaps on a more cheerful note, with Metallica and Lady Gaga’s recent Grammy fiasco, are you hoping that it might finally deflect your beating them to win ‘Best Hard Rock / Metal Performance’ back in 1989?
We were nominated in that year strangely, in what was a new category, and whilst we knew that we could not be classed as ‘hard rock’, let alone ‘metal’, it was a nomination that just seemed to sneak under the radar. The record company said they didn’t think it was really worth the expense of flying us over to Los Angeles because Metallica were favourites to win it, which suited me fine because we were working in the studio at that time. But we got the news while we were sitting in the studio; a representative from Chrysalis Records called us and said: “Congratulations, you’ve won the Grammy!”, and I’m not sure if we could hear the boos at that point, but clearly it was a very unpopular win. Poor Alice Cooper, being the presenter had to step to make a rather dubious acceptance speech on my behalf. But Metallica took it in reasonably good grace, and took out an ad the next year when they did win the Grammy, thanking Jethro Tull for not bringing out a new album that year.
That sort of thing must be somewhat bemusing.
It would be nice to be able to not talk about ‘Grammys’ full stop, and even more, so the American Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I mean, I find these really rather tedious; it’s America, I don’t come from America, I don’t play American music, I don’t belong in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and the Grammy thing was just a one-off little moment where five thousand members of the National Academy of Recording Artists decided to award to Jethro Tull rather than Metallica.
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'Jethro Tull The String Quartets' is released on 23rd March, via BMG.