From the Bench to the Stage with Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson doesn’t like virtual music games—or any other kind of game, for that matter—but that didn’t stop him from giving us the longest and most wide-ranging interview we’ve yet had on the site. Nearly 40 years after recording the Rock Band tracks  “Aqualung” and “Hymn 43,” Anderson has plenty of sharp thoughts on music, politics, cyberspace and the world at large…

In Part One, he discussed his preference for playing acoustic over electric guitar, the upcoming non-Tull band tour, and reveals what was the worst song he ever wrote.

Part Two opened with a true story about what really happens when you play Shea Stadium and you’re not The Beatles. Also here are Anderson’s thoughts on receiving the MBE, his personal favorite Tull song, and a grizzled look at gaming.

In Part Three he dares us to make a virtual flute, and ponders which bands will make it to their 50th anniversary.


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Ian Anderson: Some of these things are sanctioned in a virtual music type software, and when it's something like that you could learn more an electric riff kind of song, I could see the point. But I'm not sure if anyone's come out with any software or role-playing or fantasy or play-along-with computer thing for flutes. [laughs]

Brett Milano: We're working on that, though. [laughs]

IA: That's a small market. It's all gotta be mainstream stuff. It's like everything else. If the only people that are going to buy this are ten people or a hundred people or even two-thousand people, it just no way does it justify all the work that goes into developing that software. And it's the same with the flute as an instrument. It's not supported by anybody interested in amplification in trying to develop the instrument so it can be used in a loud-music context without all the problems, and the back and clanking keys and microphonic transmission of noise and all the things in that vein of my life. I don't get any support from any of the manufacturers, even people I've been involved with for 30-odd years like Shure. They know it's just not worth them getting involved with special microphone technology that's going to help a flute, because how many flute players are there out there doing it? Well there is me, and well nobody else that anyone can ever think of on the international stage. So it's like, why would we want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars working on new microphone technology for an application that's only going to benefit - at best - maybe a hundred people? Two hundred people that might be playing flute in a loud-music context. Not worth anybody's time. I've been to other microphone companies as well to talk about it and I get the same absolutely zero response. They're almost embarrassed to even say no, because frankly the reality is why would we want to spend so much time and effort tooling up, manufacturing when the application is so limited?

BM: Are you surprised that so few people have picked up on playing flute in a loud band since you did?

IA: Well, I'm a bit surprised, but there's not an awful lot you can do that I haven't done, but I'm surprised that someone hasn't had a go at it. I can only imagine because I am still pretty active and most people have got enough common sense to think that if they're out there doing the kind of thing that I do, the comparisons with me would be insufferable, wouldn't they? Every interview you ever did, they would compare you to Ian Anderson, and that would be pretty boring. So I guess it puts a lot of people off, but also, it's not really easy. I think, probably people who've done it - and honestly lots of people play flute in rock bands, and lots of people play flute in Jethro Tull tribute bands, so they know what it's like - but the reality is that it's actually quite hard to do well. It's about a lot of compromise. It's trying to introduce relatively delicate acoustic instruments into the context of loud electric instruments, guitars and of course rock drums. It's a frustrating and not terribly easy thing to do, which is again why a lot of people get put off when they've tried it. I'm still surprised there isn't anybody else out there making a name for themselves and getting some kind of accolade for doing it and I'm still surprised, but I can understand.

BM: A couple of people almost did. I mean, Peter Gabriel did for a very short time and then he stopped.

IA: Chances are Peter Gabriel probably picked up the flute maybe the same time as I did or maybe before, but the time of early Genesis he was seen sporting a flute for a little bit. But I'm quite sure he would have thought to himself, well there's somebody else out there doing this in a big way. It must have been in some ways instrumental in his decision to stop playing it because he never seemed to play it again after the very earliest days of Genesis. And there were people who were clearly at it before I was. Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues had preceded me even dreaming about a flute, let alone actually trying to play it. There was a guy from a Dutch band called Focus who played flute in a kind of rock instrumental context. Chris Wood of Traffic used to play the flute. Then of course from the world of jazz there were several people, mostly people who are relatively well-known like Herbie Mann and Roland Kirk. There were lots people, particularly those who played saxophone, who found the flute an easy instrument to incorporate into their repertoire because the fingering was very similar. And in the world of classical music and folk music of course there are an immense number of brilliant flautists. In ethnic music, particularly in India, there were great flautists like Harry and of course lots and lots of upcoming acolytes of the classical discipline in India and elsewhere in Asia. It's an instrument that has a very profound and very global impact. But in rock music probably what you can do with it has been done. But you could argue the same, I suppose, with an electric guitar. There's a mansion of stuff you can do that hasn't already been done really really well by some people that may not even be alive anymore. Thinking of Jimi Hendrix, for example, and people who made a brilliant impact and just faded away like Peter Green. It's a great sadness that he lost the plot. Basically through drugs and through I think some inherited level of psychic disorder, but poor Peter Green is not really ever coming back in the way that he was. But I was a great fan of his playing. He didn't overcook it. He had a very restrained, very lyrical style.

BM: Very good on those early Fleetwood Mac records, that's for sure.

IA: That's right. He was. I'm not a implicit fan of electric guitar playing, as I think I said earlier but those who manage to feel it under their fingers and give it that kind of organic quality, that's what I think. You know, Jimi Hendrix on a good night, he did that you. You know he squeezed things out of the instrument that were just beyond cranking a Marshall up to ten or to Spinal Tap eleven. But he just did have that touch. I think that was something rather poignant about it. As a fan, when I listen to those things today I don't think they ever really sound as good as they did at the time. They sounded better to my ears back then when it was fresh and new, but these days I'm not overwhelmed by much in the way of electric guitar playing. But certainly amongst contemporary players it seems fashionable to do less and not really to be able to play very much. It's certainly not fashionable to play guitar solos be they speedy crazy stuff or tuneful and melodic. It just doesn't seem somehow it became, it didn't have street-cred. It didn't have that urban cool that seems to be a prerequisite of contemporary music. They actually don't play their instrument terribly well. You have to look right and sound…I'm always quite interested in listening to contemporary elements of music, but I find that I analyze them when I listen to them. I think about them, I don't really listen to it with much enjoyment because most of the musical content is stuff that I've just frankly heard so many times before that it doesn't do anything new for me. But I'm interested nonetheless in how people growing up with music today will try to put a spin on something that is time-honored in a musical practice for the last fifty years of electric contemporary music and they find ways to put a new shine on an old pair of shoes. God bless them. Someone had to do that. But sometimes the old shoes were better than the new ones.

BM: I wonder if you've heard a group called The Decemberists, because they've dropped your name a few times. Their new record is kind of a folk concept album and they did reference it as a Thick As a Brick kind of record in a couple places.

IA: What were they called?

BM: The Decemberists.

IA: The Decemberists. Oh, in fact that is a name I've heard, yes. The Decemberists. Where are they from?

BM: They're from Seattle, but they sound quite English.

IA: Right:

BM: They have an album called The Hazards of Love, and I think they stole the title from a Shirley Collins record, believe it or not.

IA: Well I'll have to look out for them and search them out via the Google. Last question?

BM: You've done forty-one years with Tull. Are you shooting for fifty?

IA: I'm certainly shooting for fifty doing something professionally musical but I'm not sure as Jethro Tull, would that really be such a thing to do? I'm not sure that many of us are actually going to make fifty years. That's going to put most of us into our seventies. In terms of celebrating an active band identity into our early seventies, I find it difficult to imagine Keith Richards being a) alive, and b) sadly probably not really able to play guitar. Those who are pushing the limits are probably finding it very difficult at that age. I'm thinking maybe of B.B. King who's still in his seventies and plays and he's struggling a bit.

BM: Well he's eighty-two.

IA: Well he's struggling a bit. John Lee Hooker kept at it for a long time, but I think when you've been in a band like the Stones or The Who which are very, very high energy - it's not just about playing a few licks and a hefty blues voice. It's far more related to aggression and energy and youthfulness and so on. It's difficult somehow to imagine the Stones or The Who. I suppose Pink Floyd would have to be, should they decide in their seventies to finally actually have a Pink Floyd reunion [laughs], they could do it because we never really knew what they looked like anyway. They were the faceless guys for most of their careers. Until there were giant video screens you didn't really know who Pink Floyd were. It was just rather anonymous guys standing half-lit on the stage that was illuminated in a giant light show effect. So they, rather cleverly I've always thought, generated this idea of the music and the visual production impact making personality within the music unnecessary. They never really shone as people and characters. Until the time of big video screens, until the time perhaps of The Wall, we didn't get any close-up looks at these guys as to how they performed. They didn't make a habit of standing in the spotlight very much. That's the sort of gig I suppose maybe they're cunningly planning for their seriously old-age retirement plan involves a reunion tour to celebrate fifty years of Pink Floyd. That would be kind of interesting because they're one of the few bands who could probably do that. They're all perfectly capable of performing, apart from Rick Wright.

BM: He's no longer with us.

IA: But other than that, Dave Gilmore, for example, is one of those very lyrical, very melodic guitar players that doesn't try to be flashy and doesn't need to. He can play that stuff, but he doesn't need to do it all the time to remind you his fingers are nimble and his brain is agile and his music is skillful and quite melodic, even in his improvisational stuff. There's always a bit of a tune going on. Like Eric Clapton. You have to admire those people who carry their music with them in such a way that it isn't actually about necessarily speed and flashy showmanship and that's quite evident in the playing of some of those British guitar players. And I think it's always an object lesson to people like me who on the flute, which is quite easy to play rapid-fire, machine-gun series of notes. You have to remember to tell yourself, "slow down a little here. Just play this nice legato, lazy phrase." Better still, don't play anything at all. Take a breath. Something that people like me really have to remind themselves because we've been extremely guilty of - I have certainly - out of enthusiasm and boisterous goodwill have played too many notes and written too many chords in a sequence and just tried to fill up spaces with just too much going on. Sometimes I really do try to remind myself, and I certainly do try to instill that in some musicians I work with - take a breath. Even if, your hands may be on a keyboard, but pretend it's a wind instrument. Pretend it's a voice. Think, "Where would I have to take a breath here in this phrase of music?" And that's like seeing the sun peeping between the clouds. It's about a sense of space, about a sense of what lies behind and through the notes, creating space. It's the silence between the notes that gives the notes their real character and their identity. A good lesson for even the cyberspace air guitarists.

BM: Well on that note…

IA: Nice to talk to you.

BM: Same here. Bye-bye.

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