Interview: Ian Anderson on Jethro Tull's Long-Awaited New LP

Frank Mastropolo
And What Drives Him to Want to 'Wreak Havoc and Mayhem'
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It has been more than 18 years since Jethro Tull released a new studio album. The wait ended January 28, 2022 with the release of The Zealot Gene. Songwriter, vocalist and flutist Ian Anderson explained in a press release that his interpretation of Biblical tales contributed to his lyrics.

“While I have a spot of genuine fondness for the pomp and fairytale storytelling of the Holy Book, I still feel the need to question and draw sometimes unholy parallels from the text. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly rear their heads throughout, but are punctuated with elements of love, respect, and tenderness.”

The band has released two singles and animated videos from the album: “Shoshana Sleeping” and “Sad City Sisters.” In 2021, Tull released an animated video to reimagine their 1971 hit “Aqualung.” To its original theme of homelessness the “Aqualung” video adds migrant detention, war and other social issues. Anderson asserts that he wants neither the credit nor the blame for the videos.

Ian Anderson: I can make it very clear that any promotional videos for this or any other products are not — and this goes back to the first videos we ever shot in the ’70s — they’re not my idea. The record company will suggest that we need a promotional video. They will come up with some suggestions of a director or a videographer in contemporary terms and that person will come up with some storyboard ideas and they’ll be run by me and if I don’t have any real big objection to it, then I’m going to say OK.

I’m hands-off. I’m not going to say, “Well, this is how you should shoot a video, this is how you should build it and direct it and incorporate this idea or that idea.” So it’s very much in the hands of other people.

In cases where I’ve had to perform in a video, I’m like an actor in a movie. I do what the director and script tell me to do. And I do it as well as I can but there’s no point in trying to exercise directorial control if you are not an experienced and creative director. So I leave it to the guys who know what they’re doing. That’s me just offering you a cop-out: If you don’t like the video, it has nothing to do with me [laughs].

Your level of non-involvement is surprising.

I think a lot of people think I’m a control freak and I do absolutely everything. Some things I would readily admit to being a control freak over but when it comes to working with other people, you’ve got to accept they’re there for a reason because they bring something to the table that either I can’t do or I don’t want to do.

When it comes to working with other musicians, I want to hear what they think. I want to hear their ideas. I want to hear their contributions. If you have the right musicians, that balance of incorporating their ideas and their way of playing something, that’s a satisfying thing for me to do and I hope satisfying for them because they feel involved.

You’ve made the point that fans don’t want a new album by the Rolling Stones, they want a new old album by the Rolling Stones. Please elaborate on that.

They want a new album that sounds like their favorite old Rolling Stones album or Jethro Tull album or Yes album or whatever. They want to regenerate that notion of what from a nostalgic point of view encapsulates the identity musically and otherwise of their favorite musicians and bands.

But that’s a cynical view. I’m sure some of them are hoping for something they’ve not heard before as a Jethro Tull album. I would like to think as a record producer, as a songwriter, I can fulfill both of those wishes. I can manage to grasp and present things in a way that will make it for them satisfying if they have certain expectations or hopes for a thing that sounds like Jethro Tull.

It’s hard for me not to sound like Jethro Tull but at the same time, you try and introduce some elements musically that hopefully, they have not heard before. And lyrically, stuff that I haven’t touched on before in songs. I think if you’re careful you can probably manage to do a bit of both and generally make people happy if they’re interested enough to give it a listen.

"Shoshana Sleeping" by Jethro Tull

Did you weigh what you think people will like in writing songs for the new album?

I’ve honestly never given that much consideration at the time of writing new music. I sometimes review it when I’ve done something and think, will people like this if I’d done what I’ve intuitively wanted to do, or have I made subconsciously some compromises?

I consider it after the fact but when it comes to doing it, it’s far more invigorating and exciting just to get on with it and see where it takes you rather than try to work to a plan. It’s easy for me to just follow my nose.

Audiences are composed of vast numbers of individuals of different ages, different backgrounds, different musical preferences and some of them, those of them who think of Jethro Tull more as a folk rock band, might be a little disappointed with this album because although there are some acoustic songs that are maybe folky in the sense of the musical construction and the sound of it, there might be a little bit there that would appeal but a lot of it won’t.

For those who think of Jethro Tull as a hard rock band, they might be disappointed with some of the more calm and reflective pieces of music and lyrics. So you can’t please everybody all of the time. Hopefully, you will end up with something that does cover many of the bases.

There’s no point in trying to select a section of the demographic and say I’m going to write an album that going to please them. That would be I think folly and would end up pleasing nobody, including me.

What is destructive recording and why do you do it in an era of box sets that include countless outtakes?

I have always preferred the idea that you make decisions on the fly. I like to work quickly so if I play a wrong note or something that is not satisfying, there’s no point in keeping it and just adding to the pile of stuff that I’ve got to sift through so I delete it straight away.

Destructive recording means when you press the record button, whatever it was on that track that lay before it is now deleted and you replace it with the new recording. I make my decisions. I just want to get on with things, I don’t want to sift through endless takes and try to select bits of one and bits of another.

Has Jethro Tull had a Spinal Tap moment on stage?

Back in 1973 we opened the show in Buffalo, NY with Jethro Tull, five band members on stage in giant white rabbit suits. Everything had worked fine in rehearsals but the plan was that we all lined up and we each unzipped the giant white rabbit costume of the person in front of us. And one roadie unzipped the last one. But unfortunately a couple of the rabbit suits, the zips jammed. And we couldn’t get out of the rabbit suits [laughs].

It was complete blind panic as roadies were attempting to cut us out of white rabbit suits with box cutters or brute force or whatever it entailed. It was hilarious. If you had been there you would have thought this is part of the show, isn’t that quaint and entertaining. In reality, it was humiliating and embarrassing. And the white rabbits never made another appearance after that spectacular failure.

Getting lost under the stage, another one. I think every band has done that. We’ve got lost in the bowels of some enormo-dome and finally found our way back to where we began.

"Sad City Sisters" by Jethro Tull

Your flute playing is predominant on the new album. Have you been influenced by other flute players?

I never listen to other flute players because when I started playing the flute I was a retired guitarist. I played electric guitar when I was a teenager and then at the age of 19 I heard Eric Clapton playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and realized he was so far superior to what I could do.

I had heard of people like Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, who were the hotshot session guys in London and I thought, this is a very competitive world and as an also-ran guitarist I’m probably not going to be able to compete with these guys so I thought I should find something else to play.

For no good reason, I just stumbled upon a flute hanging on the wall of the music store near where I lived and on impulse I traded in my white Fender Strat for a student model flute. The Strat would be worth about $30,000 today to a collector being a real genuine vintage Strat. 

Before I owned it, it belonged to Lemmy Kilmister of then the Reverend Black & the Rocking Vicars band and later of Motörhead. It had a bit of history as a guitar. It would have been worth quite a lot of money but I traded it in for a $50 flute and it was the best investment I made. It turned out to be just the ticket.

I learned to play flute only by huffing and puffing into it until I got a note. And once I had one note I could get three notes and then five notes and I had the blues scale. So I could play the sort of things I played as guitar solos, I could improvise on the flute.

And a couple of weeks later I was playing it on stage at the Marquee Club and people were saying, “Oh wow, a blues band with a guy who stands on one leg and plays the flute.” So it offered a very speedy identifying visual feature that made Jethro Tull stand apart from Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac and the other blues bands of that era.

But I wasn’t the only flute player in town. There was Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues. Traffic, Chris Wood played saxophone but also a little bit of flute. I was aware of it but I didn’t listen to what other people were doing. I didn’t want to hear what they were doing, I just wanted to find my own feet and compete with the electric guitar in the band.

So I developed a way to play the flute, which was quite aggressive and forceful. That’s the beginning and more or less the end of it although along the way I’ve had to try and learn to play a more conventional way as well.

I’m never going to be a classical flute player but I can quite often play things with the kind of tonal quality and the purity of a scholarly well-educated professional flute player. I can get a little bit close to it. It’s not my forte but I can give it a good go.

Let’s do a lightning round. Favorite venue in the world to perform in.

Ephesus, the great Roman amphitheater in Ephesus in Turkey probably would stand out as the most memorable venue to play in although at the time I did it, it was just another gig. I went back as a tourist a few years later and thought “Wow, I actually played here.” But there are other ancient amphitheaters scattered around the Mediterranean which I’ve had the pleasure of playing in. I guess they are as a type of venue the place that gives me the most satisfaction.

If we were talking about indoor venues then I would not be talking about Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden, I’d be talking about Worcester Cathedral or one of our many great medieval cathedrals in the UK, which for me at Christmas are a very magical place to be in performing.

If you had not formed Jethro Tull what band would you have been a good frontman in?

One that didn’t need a singer because I’ve never really thought of myself primarily as a vocalist. I just ended up singing in a band because the guys couldn’t sing at all or pretended they couldn’t so I ended up being the singer by default. I guess if I was to be the frontman it would have to be as an instrumental musician and in which case it would probably be in something remotely folk music-related. But I can’t think of a band that would come to mind.

What kind of music gives you a headache to listen to?

I can answer that very, very easily and in a very straightforward way. There are two kinds of things that really, reallyannoy me. One is unfortunately Caribbean steel drums. It’s the frequency and the volume. It just drives me nuts hearing those things and having frequently been a visitor to the Caribbean to accompany my wife on her annual sojourn into sea and sun and sand I’m periodically afflicted with a desperate desire to wreak havoc and mayhem on a Caribbean steel drum band who are ruining my evening or making it difficult for me to sleep. So that’s one.

The other thing is the sound of Hawaiian guitars. That sort of swooping steel pedal thing that I just find really, really annoys me. It’s not so much the musical content of either of those two things, it’s the frequencies and the way in which they’re played that just set my teeth on edge.

Other people would say the same thing about the bagpipes, the Scottish pipes, the great pipes of Scotland. For me, that’s completely opposite. That stirs my soul, it lifts my soul hearing bagpipes but many other people find it’s just like the siren call from hell when they hear the Scottish pipes start up.

This story appeared in Rock Cellar Feb. 10, 2022.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past

New York, NY

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