The Weekly interview: Longtime Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull invented the seed drill back in the 19th century, and Ian Anderson wasn’t aware of that when his band was named.
Photo: Carl Glover

You’re performing your latest solo album, Homo Erraticus, and a set of Tull hits here, correct? Yes. We do the new material, along with the video and the theatrical elements, and then we come back after the intermission and play the longer section of the show, which is the best of Jethro Tull, whatever that means. Picking 10 or 15 songs out of 300 is never an easy task, but I try and find the songs that I think are representative of the different styles and the different eras of Jethro Tull music. I try and find two or three things that are a little unusual … in some cases they’re things I haven’t played for 40 years or whatever. It’s interesting when you reacquaint yourself with some early work. You have to get your head back to that place, when you wrote that song and what you thought it was about and what it meant to you when you made the original recording. It’s kind of an interesting process, for a 67-year-old to go back to being a 22-year-old.

Last year you played Thick as a Brick and Thick as a Brick 2 here. Are the full-album sets something you particularly enjoy, and could you see yourself plucking more records from your catalog for such presentations? We played all of Aqualung a few years ago, but it’s not something that every anniversary year I’m gonna play all of Songs From the Wood or Warchild or whatever it might be.

On the other hand, I might be enticed to feature one or two of those songs specifically because it is an anniversary year, which usually means the record company wants to put out some shiny box set with all the unreleased material and the 5.1 surround mixes and the DVD material and all of the supporting elements that make it a collectors’ edition.

These sort of anniversary editions are kind of amusing, I suppose, for the fans, and in a way I sort of enjoy getting involved with it. I’m glad I don’t have to do all the work. I met Jimmy Page in an airport a couple of weeks ago and he said, “I’m working on another project doing all of the Zeppelin stuff on a particular record, getting all the outtakes and different versions, putting it all together and mixing it.” And I said, “Well, good stuff, Jimmy; gotta jump on this plane now, ’cause I’m actually going off to play a show.” Because he’s not actually working in the sense of doing tour dates with Led Zeppelin, so he’s got lots of time on his hands to spend in the studio doing all of that himself. I don’t have to do all the work myself, thank goodness, otherwise it would tie me in knots for months on end and I wouldn’t get any shows done at all.

What’s it like to comb through your catalog at this stage of your career? I’ve found it quite energizing, in a way, to go back and have to so intimately connect with that material. It’s almost like getting to polish the crown jewels, get them out of the vault and polish them up and put them on display.

But also, lyrically, I’m about a third of the way through the newly edited complete lyric book. And there’s a bunch of stuff on there that makes me kind of feel uncomfortable. Some lyrics of some songs I’m not comfortable with at all, but I have to leave them on there. It’s not that many, but maybe 5 percent of the stuff I’ve written does make me cringe a bit, but the sort of 50 percent that I’m really happy with is a good, solid, positive kind of feeling of accomplishment for me.

You’re performing as Ian Anderson now, not as Jethro Tull, and you’ve been quoted as saying you didn’t think Jethro Tull would play again as such. Do you still feel that way, and is there a chance you might perform with longtime Tull guitarist Martin Barre again? The interview that I think you’re referring to is one that was given to the Guardian newspaper, one of our broadsheet newspapers in the U.K., and I think they went for what they thought was the punchy headline, which was that there is no more Jethro Tull. The opposite of that is really what I was getting at, that Jethro Tull goes on. It will go on as long as people are remotely interested in the music that we’ve made over the years.

But two things: Jethro Tull in the musical sense is currently running at 28 different members of the band at various times over a period of 46 years. And the other thing is Jethro Tull, in the historical sense, is a character who invented the seed drill back in the 19th century. And I’ve always felt somewhat guilty that our agent named us after him. I unfortunately didn’t know that Jethro Tull was a historical character at that point; I thought it was just a name he’d made up, and then found out a couple of weeks later it was a real person. So it was kind of embarrassing in a way and kind of unoriginal. It’s identity theft, and I feel a bit guilty about that.

I think in my final years as a traveling, performing, recording musician I would like Jethro Tull to be remembered as the historical reference and, on the musical side, the huge body of work that over the last 46 years has been my life. But it’s also the lives of 28 other people, who I think all deserve their place. And somehow to go out with a bunch of musicians—some of whom weren’t even born when Jethro Tull began—would seem to be neglecting all these other people who were part of that big family.

Some members of the band played for longer than others, in the case of Martin for 44 years or whatever, so clearly he sits with a level of much greater importance than some who maybe were only in the band for a year or two. But nonetheless they’re all part of that extended musical family, and I think the chances of us ever performing together are, for various reasons, unlikely.

Last time you were here, I wrote that Thick as a Brick 2 was a surprising revelation for me, and that the people who left at intermission missed out. I’m very much aware of the challenge to the audience of sitting through a block of new material that many of them are completely unfamiliar with, but it’s my job to make that entertaining. Just as you would be entertained if you went to see a good movie or a good theater play that you’d never seen before. After all, who goes to a movie theater to see a movie they’ve seen 20 times before? Hardly anybody. We go to the movie theater to see a new movie, because we’re interested in what the actors, who we may know, are doing in this particular film, or what the director is doing this time. But somehow in pop and rock music we have this idea that, oh, dear, it’s all a bit new and a bit difficult, and we know what we like and we don’t want to be jolted out of our comfort zone by having to sit and listen to some new stuff. And I can understand that. But then it’s my job to try and make it as interesting as hopefully the movie would be or the theater play would be. Hence we go a little more into a kind of theatrical area of presentation that I think keeps people engaged. It’s my job to try and find that way to entertain people whilst not descending to the depths of a Broadway musical review or some tacky casino show in your town.

Our friends Penn and Teller are adept at challenging perceptions of what constitutes theatrical and magic entertainment, giving you another insight into things, but still keeping you engaged by doing some very clever stuff, some of it very traditional and basic, some of it a bit more cutting edge and wacky and weird. I think they understand how to do it, and in my musical way I try and provide that equivalent.

Ian Anderson September 19, 8 p.m., $50-$90. The Pearl, 702-942-7777.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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