The Ian Anderson Interview
On the road throughout 2015, Ian Anderson is playing newer original music under his own name alongside the music he wrote, recorded and performed with Jethro Tull. He began the year jumping back and forth between shows highlighting a "Best of Jethro Tull” setlist and shows promoting his 2014 album Homo Erraticus. As if the line between the man and Jethro Tull wasn’t blurry enough, it just became a little more integrated with Anderson’s latest twist for the Fall of 2015: Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera.
This time, Anderson celebrates the life and times of the English agricultural inventor Jethro Tull — a name, of course, a group of musicians with Anderson out in front took for themselves in 1968. As payback, the 18th century pioneer is finally given his due for inventing seed drilling and other farming innovations. Anderson’s rock opera, however, casts him in modern times as a captain in the present corporate farming industry. A loose story is created weaving in Anderson's best-known Tull songs with newer songs, supported by other multimedia elements to enrich the experience and piece everything together.
In my sixth interview with the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, we discussed the Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera concept in depth. Anderson explains the world in which he thrust Jethro Tull — the man — into. Along the way, he gets political, touching specifically on the economy and the power of the rich. Instead of asking him about any plans to reunite the Jethro Tull band, a sore subject that Anderson has tap danced around with grace and respect, I bring up the Steven Wilson remasters of the band’s core catalog. That, of course, leads to an intriguing exchange about surround sound, MP3s, CDs, cassettes and vinyl. After speaking with Ian Anderson, I usually feel richer, more stimulated; the following 30-minute chat we had may well have been the most eye-opening.
So you’re bringing Jethro Tull back as a rock opera.
I’m bringing the repertoire as I always do. Not back, just onwards. Jethro Tull is alive and well and we’re going to repertoire most of its 27 band members who are still alive; you can hear them still even play music. We are, in the musical Jethro Tull sense, as opposed to the original Jethro Tull historical agricultural inventor sense, we are alive and well. But, of course, I do tend to use my own name where I can these days because at the age of 67, with a certain vanity, I would like you to share with me what it says on my passport before I die. So forgive me for wanting you to know my name.
I read you kind of felt guilty for taking the Jethro Tull name back in 1968. So is this rock opera your way of paying tribute to the man who’s more or less become synonymous with your body of work?
Yes, it is. It’s exactly that, paying tribute. But not in the way of taking a historical tale and acting out some period piece, which I think would be pretty dreary. I think anyway my days of long hair and tights are over. I would rather reimagine Jethro Tull in a contemporary setting. For me, it’s more exciting and challenging to wonder what Jethro Tull would be doing if he was alive today. He wouldn’t be inventing a seed drill. He’d probably be a biochemist working on genetically modified crops and cloning of more productive animals. He would probably be making a ton of money, having patented his inventions as part of the agrochemical business. He would be a huge…he would probably be a very wealthy man. He never achieved that in his lifetime because back then you didn’t get wealthy from inventing a seed drill or writing a book. In fact, he didn’t enjoy much fame or fortune during his lifetime.
In my reimagined story, I bless him with good fortune and great wealth, but also with the dilemma and the ethical confusion of should he really be making a lot of money out of something as fundamental as feeding people in a world of ever-growing population and ever-growing needs, especially in the face of declining assets in regard to land and weather, where we will be facing the adverse affects of climate change increasingly over the years to come and many areas growing crops today will not be growing crops in 50 years time. There will be arguably some areas where crops are grown but aren’t grown now as they warm up a little bit. But I think what we gain in northern Canada, we’re going to be losing a lot more in terms of traditional grain-growing areas of both the Americas and, of course, of central Europe, because those are the areas that continental masses have generally hit pretty hard with climate change, more than our maritime climates where I live in northwestern Europe. We face some very uncertain times in the need to feed the nine billion people as opposed to the seven billion people we have now difficulty in feeding. We’re going to be feeding nine billion people in another 35 years and I don’t know how we’re going to do it, unless I persuade you all you’re going to have to eat genetically modified soy bean, and if you want to eat organic or don’t have any babies. That’s my advice.
So you’re not really going to be writing a song about him inventing seed drilling. It’s going to be more or less being like he’s working for Monsanto, in the GMO industry and the moral implications of that.
Exactly. But I don’t’ mention Monsanto. I don’t mention anybody by name that I have either an issue with or specific inside knowledge of. What I’m talking about is the principal. We face this in many areas of life, where people do become extremely rich. I have less trouble with somebody getting extremely rich if they’re a movie star or even a banker. But I do have a problem with people who are providing absolute necessities of life becoming extremely rich, and that means food, power, water. I think there are some things that should be done — successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs should be well-paid — but what I have a problem with people earning $20 million a year if what they’re doing is supplying us with drinking water. I have a problem with people getting to the point where they’re amongst that elite of extremely wealthy, rich people if they’re engaged in the necessities of life. You can apply that to medical profession as well. If your job is to be a doctor and save lives, then, of course, you should be well-paid for being a doctor with all of the training and expertise they’re expected to have. I personally have a problem with people doing with a view to becoming extremely wealthy. I think there are some things we should do with a more altruistic frame of mind. So I don’t have a problem if you’re a highly paid surgeon with huge expertise in saving people’s lives. I don’t have a problem with you getting paid $1 million a year. I have a problem with you getting paid $20 million a year.
So my understanding for this tour is you’re going to rework a few Tull classics and then you’re going to add some new songs. I can see how songs with kind of a pastoral flavor like I guess “Heavy Horses,” “Farm on the Freeway,” “Songs From the Wood,” would work, but how do you make something like “Aqualung” or “Locomotive” fit in with this premise? Or do you?
I do because we’re talking about an invasive locomotive. For example, that’s a song not about climate change, but population growth. If you liken the driving force to the population, everything has to keep getting bigger because we’re chasing our tails trying to find ways of dealing with our inefficiencies in terms of providing social services, schools, hospitals, medical profession generally. Everybody’s struggling to keep up. So very often it’s about creating bigger and better societies with increased commercial churning as the solution to the problems that really have to do more with efficiency and controlling what we do more carefully rather than just simply getting bigger and bigger and growing the economy, as politicians are fond of saying. Growing the economy is usually an admission of the fact they’ve failed to make the existing economy work or the existing resources of human workforce and the resources which are part of the social and economic structure that we have. If you fail to do that, then growing the economy seems the way out of the mess. It is not. There are some economists in the world who would agree with me on that score. However, of course, up in the same delusion that we just have to go onwards, onwards, onwards, add the more people— it’s about quality of life and quality and efficiency of the economically sustainable populations that we have in our countries that appeals to me much more, giving more people an equal quality of life rather than simply exaggerating the degree to which the rich get richer while poor get poorer, which in society is very much in society the case.
As you can imagine, I’m probably, in ideological terms, I sit somewhere to the left of center. But I’m not a commie, nor am I an arch-capitalist who thinks of only myself and my own interest. I would describe myself as either a pragmatic socialist — which, of course, is almost like being a commie if you’re an American, because socialism is something that scares the shit out of you — but I’d call myself a pragmatic socialist. I’d also call myself a benevolent capitalist, because I do believe in sharing the wealth and being responsible and ethical with your wealth-gathering aspirations as an individual. I have a pretty clear idea of who I am and what I do and what I think I admire in other people. I’m the first to say that people should be paid for what they do well. They should be encouraged, they should be nurtured. We need those kind of people. We need the Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs. But what we also need is for them to take responsible views about their own views and be prepared — as indeed the case of Bill Gates — to be something of a humanitarian, who wants to use that position to share with other people less fortunate. I think that’s an important thing we should all be prepared to do if we’re successful at that level.
As I say, I don’t have a problem with you making a million bucks a year. I just have a problem when you have a super yacht. Then I want to be equipped with either some automatic weaponry or a torpedo, and I will sink your fucking super yacht, because I don’t think you should have one. I find it’s an obscene display of wealth, whether it’s a Russian oligarch or a rich industrialist in the Western world. I find that to me to be kind of obscene. Those things happen and I just don’t like it. I suspect most people feel the same way as I do but perhaps don’t articulate it or dare to articulate it. There’s a limit to how someone should be rewarded in life unless they’re prepared to give most of it back. I choose to do that by paying my taxes. I pay my taxes in the U.S.A. to the tune of more than 40 percent of my income, and I do that in the U.K. After the 7th of May, I will almost certainly be paying closer to 62, 63 percent when you add together the new rate of income tax that is proposed at 50 percent plus the national insurance contribution, which is a tax on income not described as income tax, but it is another tax and that supports our health service and our health care, you would call it. So yeah, I am facing a tax bill reaching past 60 percent after our election, which almost certainly will result in higher taxes. And that’s something that I have to say, well, OK. I can afford to pay that. That’s the world I live in, the country live in and the system I work within. The golden rule is pay your taxes.
The irony is, of course, the super rich very rarely, as a percentage of their total income, do pay the same percentage of tax as those who are more in the middle of the income-gathering sphere. The super rich can buy all kinds of very expensive lawyers and tax accountants and offshore companies and ways of sheltering their income to avoid — even legally — to avoid tax. But I think it’s kind of unfair that they should be able to do that. If you’re making half a million bucks or a million dollars a year, you probably can’t afford those tax advisors and batteries of lawyers who are there to help you set up companies and find ways to hang onto more of your money. Most of us who choose to work hard and do better than average, I think we should be paying our taxes and be proud of it. I tell that to my son-in-law: “You’re in work, you’re an actor, you’re in work at the moment making really a lot of money. You should be proud to be in the position to pay taxes at the same rate as I do and you should feel good about it.” Get a T-shirt made that says, “I paid my taxes and I’m smiling.” Because that’s how you should feel. You should be feeling good about what you do within the system, not feeling bad because the government is taking a big chunk of your money away. We should all try to feel good about it. The people who can’t feel good about it are those people who are paying 30 percent in tax and who barely are earning enough to feed their families and yet still having to pay large tax bills because they’re right down in the lower end of the income scale and the tax rate is still quite material. There’s a small amount of income that we’re all allowed to earn tax-free, but it’s not a living wage, that’s for sure. So the people who are hardest hit are always further down the ladder. I guess that’s why we should feel good when we’re sitting somewhere in the middle rung of the ladder. We should be feeling good about paying our way. And if you call that socialism, well I’m proud to be part of it.
But I consider myself to be a benevolent capitalist since I’m out there learning a living, age 67, and I’m not retired. Here I have to work a lot of the days of the year and I feel like I’m a contributor. I feel like I’m still part of the system. It’s my job to try and continue to do that as long as I have a profitable life in terms of my life, my profession and the income-gathering ability to employ a fair number of people that I do in my work. It’s not just me. I have a team of people who accompany me through my life, working as road crews, musicians’ advisors. It’s a many, many layered commune that you create when you are a wealth creator. You are part of nurturing a whole lot of other people, and that’s something to feel good about. Even when you want to kill them. Even when the monitor engineer turns up something in your monitors and it feeds back and your head falls off. You’ve got to kind of remember.
I hate it when that happens. Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera, is this just meant to be a live performance only, or do you have plans to do a studio album?
I have a lot of studio work to do, some of which I’ve already done in preparing all the bedrock material for building all the video and stuff around. That’s already underway. We have sessions at the end of next week. I’m here the following week to record some of the virtual guests’ input both on audio and video, and about three or four months of video assembling and editing to do to prepare everything for the show in September. It’s a big, big body of work to get through. My son is involved in that, shooting video and editing video, so it’s something we keep in the family. But that’s part of what I’m doing.
We have to remember that all of this — whilst it might seem rather grand — is just a weak and pathetic excuse for turning up yet again after 47 years and doing yet again another best of Jethro Tull tour (laughs). That’s the reality. This is the best of Jethro Tull; I’m just giving it context and putting it in the framework of a loose story that gives it a bit more interesting position for me to get up and sing those songs. Sometimes, of course, I change a line of lyrics, I’ve written a new verse. Sometimes when someone else is singing in character they’re saying “I” rather than “he” or “you.” Sometimes [there will be] tiny little twists of lyrical change to make, but the idea of re-recording a studio album would be a bit pointless, because in most cases what I’m doing is taking those original recorded arrangements and instrumentations and playing them just as they were on the original records. So it didn’t seem to be a lot of point in re-recording them other than presenting it as a recording, a video recording of a live concert. So it’s a loose intention without being too specific to record some shows in the early part of 2016, with a view to making a release of a video and audio CD. Which, if things are going well and people seem to like it, then I guess I will do. But it’s not a priority right now. My priority is building a stage show together and getting it all to happen in time for the start of the tour from September onwards.
You talked about how you’re constantly coming back to Jethro Tull, at least the music. And, of course, there are certain periods in the band’s history now that have been explored by these Jethro Tull reissues that have been coming out: Minstrel In The Gallery – 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition is the latest. It’s the fifth Jethro Tull album to get expanded with extra tracks and a Steven Wilson stereo and surround sound mix. Is this trend going to continue with the remainder of the Jethro Tull catalog? Are we going to see these expanded sets with surround sound mixes, with all the albums?
Steven has said he’ll do all the stuff from the ’70s and he’s working his way through that with a few more to go. I think beyond that, Steven will have inevitably — I mean, it’s an enormous amount of work. I’m surprised he’s still willing to undertake yet another Jethro Tull album in terms of the huge chore that it is. But he has a genuine fondness and, I suppose, from that music, a little bit of inspiration in his own music, as a performer and songwriter that he derives from working with heritage artists and their classic material. I’m sure a little bit of it must rub off on him. So it’s a very comfortable relationship. I admire Jimmy Page for his very hands-on approach to remixing and remastering classic Led Zeppelin material. I went into an airport a few months ago when he just finished work on the Led Zeppelin album that he was doing and he said, “Oh, I’m just off for a little quiet week’s holiday on my end. Where are you going?” I said, “Oh, I’m just off on tour. You know, family and crew here in the airport lounge.” He said, “Oh yeah…” I could sense that wistfulness. He’d love to be doing what I’m doing, out there doing a Led Zeppelin tour. Sadly, he’s unable to do that for reasons that we all know. So it’s great that he’s devoting his attention and his considerable expertise and authority, his ownership of the production values and the recordings of Led Zeppelin’s work. He’s very hands-on, just as Frank Zappa was very hands-on. You see, I’m a lazy guy. I like a bit of fun. I want to goof off and go fishing. Except my goofing off and going fishing means jumping on a plane and doing a six-week tour or something. That’s my version of going off fishing. I’m just having fun being a live performing musician. Why would I want to sit in a darkened room in front of endless displays of technology driving myself crazy working on old material. It just wouldn’t seem like a reasonable fair exchange to me.
When I interviewed you back in 2002, we talked a little about surround sound. It was kind of a novel thing then. You told me you weren’t a big fan of it but, of course, since then Steven Wilson has done surround sound mixes of I believe five Tull albums and your last two solo albums. Would it be fair to say that you’ve kind of come around to surround sound? Is it something you listen to, that you find yourself enjoying?
I accept it as part of the choice that we should give to our listeners, to our fans, who we provide choice to. We give them the opportunity to download MP3 tracks as individual tracks, a whole album; 24-bit albums in digital download form. We give them CDs, DVDS. We give them stereo. We give them surround sound. In some cases, when I worked in a precursor to today’s surround sound back in the 70s, in quadraphonic, we even gave them quadraphonic mixes. In fact, some of the work that’s currently going on in terms of remastering the box sets, we’ll feature songs … the early quadraphonic work I did around the time, it’s from the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll and some of the Warchild album. In fact, I think the albums that I did — I think I went back and remixed. It wasn’t something that particularly intrigued me then, other than it was a new technology, but it was a very flawed technology. At least back then, the digital encoding of the way it channels information was really poor and it sounded terrible. But the mixes on tape, on the other hand, sounded fine. It was amusing to do, but it wasn’t something that I felt I wanted to continue with because the technology wasn’t there yet.
These days, it is, but I don’t possess it. I don’t have 5.1 surround speaker systems in my home or in my studio so when I’m working with Steven, I have to go to his studio to sit and go through these things in 5.1. But he has the toys and he likes to use them. Me? I’m more of a headphone guy. In fact, I’m talking to you now wearing some very precise, studio-quality monitoring headphones that I use as part of the arsenal of effects that I have to try and present music in a way that is the best compromise. So I could be playing on some big ATC built-in studio monitors in my studio, I could be playing on my Genelec nearfield monitors or my Nordio nearfield monitors. I could be playing my music through the little white Apple ear buds, because that’s the way most people are listening to music these days. So I have to make sure I deliver music that sounds good with your five-dollar rip-off Chinese version of Apple — well, Chinese version, Apple is all Chinese anyway. You know what I mean. You’ve got to try and deliver music that’s going to work in all its formats.
Just as back in times go by, we had to make things sound good on cassette, even though that was a pretty hard job. And to try and make them sound OK on cassette, we had to change things. We had to take off the low frequencies, the high frequencies; push the upper mids and the lower mids in order to make it work on cassette, because the medium simply could not have the bandwidth that you got from vinyl, and, of course, later on the CD. And the big problem, of course, is sometimes when these tapes are incorrectly marked up, they might have been using the cassette production masters to make CDs from. They certainly wouldn’t have been using the vinyl masters because there was no CD and you had to make compromises with your original master mixes by creating production masters that made it easier to get the sounds onto vinyl. And, of course, you didn’t have those constrictions when we had the advent of the CD revolution. You could effectively have the whole bandwidth of your whole studio master tapes. But that isn’t what was used to make the original CDs. They mostly used production masters that were already doctored to work with imitations of other medias. So the first CDs, of course, were not sounding quite as good as they could have done. I’m not saying that happened with all artists and all record companies, but quite frequently it did happen.
I think later generations of CDs sound rather better than they did to begin with. But we are talking about 16-bit phenomenon with some real limitations and dynamic range, so 24-bit audio is obviously the way to be. Those extra eight bits are not just making it a little better; they are taking it to the realms of where our ears — we as an organism do not have the capability of appreciating any improvements beyond 24-bit 48K, unless you were a bat. The sound-playing rate at 48K is going to be enough for any normal human being. But, of course, there’s still some people who want to record at 24-bits and 192K for reasons that totally escape me, other than they want to fill their hard drive up that much quicker.
It’s a bit like photography. We reached a point really with about 20 megapixels and reasonably big sensors that could reduce the amount of noise with full-frame digital camera sensors; we got to the limits really where there’s no point in going further. We’ve done it. We’ve got there. Unless we’ve grown new eyes and new ears, which we’re not going to do anytime soon, we’ve already reached the statistical limits of technological excellence but we don’t really need to go further. What we want to do is make things quicker to download and easier to handle and store and share with other people; that’s where the technological advances come. But in terms of the medium, we got there actually a few years ago with audio and arguably more recently with digital film. But we’re there with digital film, digital alternatives to traditional film, the digital recording of video, whether it’s stills or movie. So we’ve kind of got there. We got there. You look at the average TV drama these days, it’s shot sometimes using 16-millimeter film because people like that quality, but very often with a lot of digital manipulation in post-production. It looks fantastic, TV productions these days compared to 20 years ago. The quality is amazing. If you’re watching “Breaking Bad” or “Better Call Saul” or “The Walking Dead,” I mean, you’re looking at really, really good quality imagery made, produced, directed and edited by people who are really at the top of their game. Quality has got so much better. We’re all tempted, I think, to go, “Oh yeah, whatever.” That’s kind of what we got used to. But unless we grow new eyes and ears, we’re there.
A lot of people are stepping back these days, especially when it comes to audio. We just celebrated Record Store Day, and there was a Jethro Tull release, Live at Carnegie Hall, a double vinyl LP — which I purchased. And there were other vinyl versions of some of your recent solo albums I saw for sale. Are you a fan of vinyl at all?
I’m a bit more of a fan of vinyl now than I was at any time up until 2012. All of the work I’d ever done in cutting records, in the vinyl sense, was always frustrating and anticlimactic. You spend all that time writing, arranging, recording, mixing, mastering and all of them, and then you finally took the record home — you know, the actual commercial, factory-produced record — and played it on your really expensive, state-of-the-art turntable, and it was always an anticlimax and really disappointing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve played that record hoping it was going to fulfill my anticipation of sounding great, only to find that all I’m hearing is little ticks and hums and scratches and a limited bandwidth and dynamic range — especially on the end of grooves where a needle has to go through a more exaggerated contours of the groove because it’s traveling slower as it goes to the center of the record. So all of these things were always contentious issues in making vinyl records.
The first time I actually really got a record where I thought, “Wow, that sounds almost as good as the 24-bit digital master,” is when I was working at Abbey Road doing the mastering of Thick As A Brick 2. We A/B switched from one to the other quickly between the 24-bit digital master and the vinyl playback, and it sounded, I mean, really just almost indistinguishable. You got that occasional bit of surface noise or a little click of a speck of dust that had found its way into the vinyl groove, but it was remarkably good. For some reason we couldn’t do that back then, and we can do it now. Albeit, we’re still working on Neumann lathes that are 50 years old. The few that are left on planet Earth in working order are cannibalized from various bits lying around the back rooms of record companies and industrial warehouses where these things are hoarded like gold dust, because they are. They won’t make anymore of them. Right now, if you want to get a vinyl record pressed in the U.K., you’ve got to have it done in Germany and the waiting list is about 12 weeks to get your vinyl record pressed. Which is horrific, but there are so few cutting lathes, so few people able to do that job and actually manufacture you. You can cut the album in a couple places in the U.K., but you can’t actually press them. There’s almost no hope other than a very limited number of pressing plant capacity in Germany. So I guess the same thing applies in the U.S.A.
There’s probably one or two pressing plants still doing vinyl. The thing is they’re being run by guys who are absolutely hands-on aficionados of the art of cutting and pressing records, whereas back in the 60s and 70s these were guys who, you know, were basically making tea the week before who got elevated to the lofty position of being a cutting engineer. They … didn’t know what they were doing. They were loose cannons — sometimes they got good results, sometimes they didn’t. But I think these days, the folks who do this are absolutely besotted with what they do. They’re really experts. They’re working with really old equipment, which they lovingly tend and care as you would a vintage aircraft. You don’t want to take off in one of those unless it’s in very, very good working order. Same if you’re cutting an album today — you want to be absolutely sure your equipment is really correctly aligned, everything is just working perfectly and you’re in a sterile hospital / laboratory environment with absolutely no dust or particular matter in the air.
You wouldn’t find what you saw back in the days that I was cutting vinyl — the cutting engineer had a cigarette in his mouth all the time, he was puffing away. I won’t tell you the name of the cutting engineer, but he’s the most famous cutting engineer and he smoked like a chimney while he was working, puffing ash and smoke everywhere. Probably I did too, I was probably smoking as well in the cutting room. You wouldn’t do that today. People know better. However, there you go.