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Ian Anderson's three decades of visual songwriting with Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson is the guitarist/flute player you see center stage at Jethro Tull concerts, hopping up and down Pan-like with his leg coiled behind his calf. He is also the bandleader, lead vocalist, and songwriter. But Jethro Tull's music is created collaboratively by the band, which took its name from the 18th-century English farmer who invented the seed drill. Anderson's current bandmates are guitarist Martin Barre, keyboardist Andrew Giddings, drummer Doane Perry, and bassist Jonathan Noyce. Many illustrious players have passed through Jethro Tull over the years, among them drummers Barriemore Barlow and Clive Bunker, keyboardist John Evan, and bassists Glenn Cornick and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. The various incarnations of Jethro Tull have covered a lot of musical territory on such diverse albums as STAND UP, BENEFIT, AQUALUNG, THICK AS A BRICK, A PASSION PLAY, WAR CHILD, and the Grammy-winning CREST OF A KNAVE.
After 30 years and as many albums, Jethro Tull is still touring and creating new sounds, and Anderson has been the band's only constant. He played flute on the bluesy first album, THIS WAS, and used acoustic guitar, mandolin, and balalaika on the second album, STAND UP, which was informed by Celtic rather than American roots. Anderson's acoustic presence has imbued almost every subsequent Tull album. In fact, the band's mix of electric and acoustic instruments is a Tull hallmark.
Anderson's rare solo ventures have always been primarily acoustic. His latest CD, THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRDS, presents 15 songs in which Anderson invokes many different locales, both musically and lyrically. He sends listeners musical postcards from the lava-ridden streets of Montserrat and the alleys of Bombay. I spoke to Anderson in March about his latest solo project and his many years with Jethro Tull.
Tell us about your early days with the acoustic guitar.
"I think of myself as a player of guitar-family instruments rather than just an acoustic guitarist. My first excursion on acoustic instruments with Jethro Tull, apart from the flute and harmonica, was actually the mandolin — in December of 1968, when I recorded a piece called 'A Christmas Song'. I really only started playing acoustic guitar on the STAND UP album .
"When I heard Eric Clapton play electric guitar in my late teens, I realized that I was never going to be that good. So I decided to trade in my '60s Fender Strat for a $50 student-model flute. To my knowledge, Eric Clapton did not play flute, nor did Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, so at least I was in a field of music where I might be the big fish in a small pool. So I have to thank Eric Clapton for giving me my start on the flute. A couple of years later I got back to playing acoustic guitar, and I still played a little electric on some of the Jethro Tull songs."
Did you listen to British folk musicians like Bert Jansch?
"I was aware of people like Bert Jansch and Roy Harper, the anti-hero of British folk. Roy Harper was less of a traditionalist and more of a modern folk player, much more idiosyncratic in his writing. His style was basically flatpicking, but picking notes out of parts of chords. I never did understand what he played, but it was a way of being self-contained and trying to allude to the melody.
"That was sort of easy for me to pick up on, because I didn't do all that fingerstyle stuff. I would just pick out chord arpeggios with the odd passing melodic note that would work with the vocal. And I wrote songs, starting around '69 or '70, that certainly owe something to Roy Harper. I used to do that in the '70s when the band showed up late. I would do some little acoustic piece of my own. I didn't really do that in the '80s or '90s because I felt a little guilty about cutting the other guys out of the action. In writing Jethro Tull music, I tended to come up with song ideas that worked for the drummer and the guitar player and were interesting for them to play. It's only on this most recent album that I've returned to writing songs for me. Once in a while it's nice to be completely selfish and just do something because it feels good to play."
How did SECRET LANGUAGE OF BIRDS come about as a solo album?
"I just decided that the next project was going to be an album of acoustic songs. And I sat down and wrote those songs. And having finished it, we went on to work on a Jethro Tull album, which involved writing another batch of songs for the band. In doing a Jethro Tull album, the vocals are invariably the last things to be recorded. I quite like working in a situation of my own where I can put the vocals down early and then work the other instruments in and out of that. It's more organic. You have an idea with a certain instrument, and you can go straight on to tape with it and add the vocals early on."
Drummer Barriemore Barlow, who played on Tull classics such as THICK AS A BRICK and A PASSION PLAY, has said that he wouldn't have played so busily had he been able to hear the vocals.
"But the argument is that somebody has to go first. If he hadn't put down those drum parts, the rest of us might not have worked around them and played what we played. That's the difference between doing an acoustic album and a Tull album. I go first on the acoustic album, and that's it."
The new album has a travelogue quality to it with its various locations — Montserrat, Panama, Bombay. Were they written on location?
"Some of the songs were written during two vacations — one in Barbados and one in Montserrat. But most were written at home on rainy afternoons — or rainy mornings, more likely, because I usually write music and lyrics in the morning. So, yes, it's from a variety of places. I've always written music in hotel rooms and restaurants all over the world."
These later songs seem to be more subtle, less melodramatic than the earlier songs on albums such as AQUALUNG.
"Some of the songs that I wrote on the album AQUALUNG weren't even the thoughts and expressions of a 23-year-old; they were the songs of a 14- or 15-year-old. The sentiments I was pursuing in some of the more lyrically aggressive songs like 'Wind Up' or 'My God' were about my experiences and confusion about religion when I was a schoolboy. But it seemed relevant to take those emotions and put them into songs as a young 20-something. But I find now, in my considerably advanced years, that to go back and write a song about teenaged angst and confusion would be hard to do without faking it. What I'm more likely to do is pursue songs in the way that I did early in Jethro Tull, as a visual artist. I like singing songs that put people in a landscape. I have a picture in my head for each song that I write, and it's a framed, still image. My early training as a painter and drafter, I think, produced in me a way of writing music and lyrics that illustrate visual ideas.
"I try to bring some maturity to the thing I've been doing for most of my career, writing songs that tell people a story, not in the temporal sense, but a story they make up to fit the picture I suggest to them. It's like sending people a postcard. You're giving them a little flavor of where you are and what you feel and how you're getting on. But it can only be just that, a little snapshot. They have to do some of the work to imagine the bigger picture.
"And so in the Einsteinian universe where the observer is all important, the listener is all important. The artist making music in a vacuum is meaningless. In an empty universe you can be as creative as you like, but unless you're God, not a lot is going to happen."
Can you still relate to the songs you wrote long ago? The band still performs some of them live, such as cuts from the second album, STAND UP.
"We've played quite a lot of those songs on and off over the years. But, yes, it was an album that literally does stand up. Even though some of the songs do sound very much like a product of their time, they don't sound too odd. Because of the improvisation involved, they're not just replications of some earlier thoughts. I think that's what appeals to me about the Jethro Tull material: it is a bit more perennial. The improvisational aspect allows you to redefine and put a different spin on those songs night after night.
"The more acoustic, more structured pieces I play tend to be less varied from night to night. But somehow their very chiseled, crystalline nature makes them fun to do. But they're not so much fun to do at a rock'n'roll Jethro Tull concert. The audience is there to hear grander, louder, more nostalgia-ridden pieces."
Some of your writing, like 'Christmas Song' and 'Wond'ring Aloud' is simply stated, but other songs sound almost like several songs in one, with chord modulations, key changes, tempo changes ...
"One of the failings of the band is that we're sometimes overly enthusiastic about music we're working on. There's always another thought that occurs, another layer that you want to add to the onion. And sometimes it gets too dense. And when you listen to it a couple of years later, you're aware of how dense it really is, how a little bit of space in the music would have been much easier on the ear and the intellect. It's a bit like packing a suitcase. You should pull out all the things you want to pack into your suitcase, lay them out on the floor, and then take half of them. That's a good lesson to learn about packing a suitcase, and it's also a good lesson to learn about writing music."
You've occasionally collaborated with other people on songwriting, but only rarely. Doesn't that tactic work for you?
"I'm very bad at doing that. On the very first album, THIS WAS, there were one or two songs Mick Abrahams, the original guitar player, and I sort of wrote together. It's happened on various pieces here and there. There are times when someone's made a contribution that's definitely of compositional value. They don't necessarily get individually credited on that song, but they get paid for it. If somebody writes ten seconds of music in a four-minute song, they're going to get paid on that percentage. I'm pretty much a stickler for making sure everybody gets remuneration if they come up with an idea.
"I'm a bit of a loner. I tend to work in the studio a lot on my own. I find it difficult to play and sing with other people sitting there. And I just hate being out in the studio behind this glass window where there's somebody sitting behind the mixer and talking to you in double-talk. I know, having spent so many hours behind the mixer as an engineer/producer. There is a way you have to talk to people when you're trying to get something out of them, when in fact you want to go out there and kill them [laughs]. You tend to become the archetype of a politician. I don't care to be in that position. I just do my vocals and flute and guitar parts alone. I sit in the control room with a microphone, and I control the equipment with a couple of buttons at my feet. I prefer to be on my own rather than have somebody sitting there looking at their watch going, 'Oh God, he wants to do another take.'"
I understand that the band works together on arrangements. I've heard, for example, that THICK AS A BRICK, with all its complex pieces, was put together fairly quickly.
"We did it, actually, quite quickly. I would write music in the morning, and I would then take that piece of music in at lunchtime. We met up in the Rolling Stones' rehearsal room down in Bermondsey in south London, where we would rehearse in the afternoon and the evening. We would then go home, and I would write something else early the next morning and bring it back in. We'd just add on the next piece of music. Most of this was rehearsed in a period of about ten days. We went in and recorded the whole thing quite quickly, because we had learned it all."
So you rehearsed and arranged the album as it was being written?
"I would go in with some basic idea. Maybe I would play it on the acoustic guitar or just talk them through it in terms of chord progressions. Sometimes I'd go in with a very sketchy idea, but the other guys might have thought I had it all worked out. But until I heard how they reacted, I wouldn't know which way to go. And sometimes they would have their own ideas as to how the arrangement should build up. That's how it's supposed to be: a mixture of different input from different people."
There are still some folks who believe the album cover news story asserting that the lyrics were written by an eight-year-old boy.
"I was very surprised that people believed it even then. THICK AS A BRICK was written as a spoof, as a send-up of a concept album. The record preceding it, AQUALUNG, had been viewed by some critics as a concept album, which I disagreed with, although there were three or four songs that kind of hung together. So I said, 'OK, let's give them the mother of all concept albums.' An integral part of that was to pretend the lyrics had been written by an eight-year-old boy, a preposterous, sort of precocious child who came up with these convoluted and vague-sounding lyrics all set to a continuous flow of music. It was a lot of fun to do. I wasn't trying to deceive people. I just thought everybody would get the gag. These were the days of Monty Python. It was quite a successful album. The only frustrating thing was playing it live, because there was all that acoustic stuff in it."
How did the band manage to pull off such a great mix of acoustic and electric guitars in live performance?
"It was very difficult up until the mid-'70s when the first transducers came along. After that you still had to struggle to be heard, but at least you had some chance. But in the old days, I guess up to '73 or '74, it was just putting a microphone close up to the soundhole. The volume of the group was determined by the amount of volume you got from the acoustic guitar, which meant that some of the songs sounded quieter and the audience might get a little restless and start shouting. It was a great struggle."
I understand that Jethro Tull started out as a blues band. What caused you to change your direction?
"The blues band was just an entree into making a living as a musician. Through the simple vehicle of blues I also had an opportunity to learn some elements of improvisation on an instrument [flute] that was completely new to me. I never saw myself as a long-term blues musician. That was not the game plan.
"I was interested in music of other cultures: Asian music, North African music, the classical music of northwestern Europe I couldn't put a name to. It was little things that I heard, you know, and they've been with me ever since. I'd go into a music store, like I did yesterday. I was walking through and saw a section on Eastern music. So I picked up an album of Egyptian flute music, and I listened to it this morning. I'll probably never listen to it again, but it was something that just reinforced all these little notions. Some things just stay in my mind, and I know that later on they will become part of the complex, detailed psychology of how I write a song."
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WHAT THEY PLAY
Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson has always favored small-bodied acoustic guitars.
"Most people think I'm 6'6" and weigh 200 pounds," he says, "because the guitar looks so small on me. But in fact I'm a little guy with an even smaller guitar. Using a big box, you've got a very full sound, but it tends to be lacking definition in the midrange. I like to pick some notes as well as play chordal things, so I prefer more weight in the midrange and find that the smaller-bodied guitars work better for me. And because they don't have as much natural bass, they're less likely to feed back."
He uses a Fishman Matrix Natural 1 pickup, which he runs through a Zoom 504 acoustic effects pedal.
Anderson didn't indulge in expensive instruments on the early albums. He played a bottom-of-the-line Yamaha around the time of STAND UP and an Aria on AQUALUNG. During the early '70s he played Martin New Yorkers, most often an 0-16NY.
"But Martin was reluctant to go into any modifications," he says. "Martin didn't want to do any of the things that I felt might make parlor guitars more playable and more reliable."
In the '80s he began using instruments built by Luthier Andrew Manson of Devon, England, who built guitars to Anderson's specifications based on early Martin parlor guitars. He currently tours with a 3/4-size parlor guitar, the smallest he's ever played, which Manson created from a 150-year-old French design. (A.B. Manson and Co., Easterbrook, Hittisliegh, Exeter, Devon EX6 6LR, England.  1647-24139; fax  1647-24140.) Anderson also owns about 20 vintage Martins, dating from 1834 to the late 1930s, which decorate his walls rather than his studio tracks (although some were used on 1976's TOO OLD TO ROCK 'N' ROLL, TOO YOUNG TO DIE).
Anderson changes strings every night because he sweats a lot on stage. For the past ten years he's been using La Bella light-gauge strings on his guitars and mandolins, but he recently switched to D'Addario EJ-16 phosphor-bronze lights for his small acoustic guitars.
"The winding versus the core thickness is quite different," he explains. "They're more supple than the La Bellas, which work fine on my regular-scale guitars."
His arsenal of instruments also includes Sankyo and Powell concert flutes; bamboo flutes by Patrick Olwell; Schecter electric guitars; Ozark, Ibanez, and Fylde mandolins; Ozark and Manson mandolas; Generation tin whistles; a piccolo by Philip Hammig; Hohner harmonicas; and Paul Hathaway bouzoukis. An extensive list of Jethro Tull equipment can be found on the band's Web site at www.jethrotull.com.
Thanks to Annette Jones for this article