Although Jethro Tull front man and flutist/multi-instrumentalist Ian Anderson has no interest in becoming a film icon, his often misinterpreted antics would dazzle and inspire any cinematographer. For example, there was the night when prog rock act Tull received a Grammy award for the Hard Rock Heavy Metal category; an ironic event in which the group was pitted against Metallica.
The evening of the awards, Anderson worked feverishly away recording (his label: Chrysalis Records couldn’t afford to send him to the ceremony and doubted the band would even win – after all, ‘Heavy Metal’ was not the genre description Jethro Tull or fans of either band would have used to identify the nominated music), unaware of the evening’s outcome.
Then, there was the controversy which resulted when a reporter described Anderson as a flute-player performing on one-leg, although Anderson was merely trying to re- arrange his microphone in dim light.
(Subsequent reports compared the multi-talented performer to Krishna; an observation not always well-received by devotees).
Furthermore, despite the ambiguity spurred by Anderson’s often flagrant lyrics (“My God, what have you done, made a fool or everyone.”) and his charismatic performances, this feline afficionado has always landed on his two feet.
In fact, the Dunfermline, Fife native, has often waxed poetic and paid musical tribute to God’s most mysterious creatures; ‘Old Black Cat’ and ‘Rupi’s Dance’ were both tributes. That said, both musically and in “real life,” Anderson is passionate about the plight of Britain’s only remaining wild feline, the Scottish wildcat.
Jethro Tull’s discography was revisited in 1993’s 25th Anniversary album of Tull’s hits which included the psychedelic ‘Beggar’s Farm’, the introspective ‘Wond’ring Aloud’ and the jarringly metered, but optimistic ‘Skating Away on the Ice of a New Day.’
An unbridled perfectionist, Anderson painstakingly provided the original studio tracks on guitar, percussion and vocals, before adding the band, for ‘Locomotive Breath’. Putting the flute on a rock pedestal, Anderson performed this song’s breathy improvised passages as dynamically live, during hundreds of concerts, as on that initial track.
Other eye-opening favorites included dark character portraits from 'Aqualung' about streetwalker ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ and the lecherous, but somehow universally accepted (inspired by pictures of homeless men) protagonist of this 1971 classic.
Furthermore, Anderson has done more to propel the flute into the rock oeuvre, than the mythological 'Mother Goose' has done to popularize bedtime stories.
And, speaking of ‘Mother Goose’, I’m anxious to get a hold of neurologist Oliver Sacks, the author of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' Sacks cured a patient who complained of hearing Irish Jigs repeatedly in her head.
Personally, I’ve been facing a similar quandary –feeling completely enraptured by this song for the past three weeks. It’s possibly that all-consuming drone that languishes through out each verse, like an escalating Saharan wind storm, the endearing way Anderson sings along with the melodic line, that superbly spun intricate instrumental hook or the playful references to Piccadilly Circus that make this song unforgettable.
However, until Sacks conjures up a cure, I’m deliriously happy to be “living in the past” and honoring the future with Anderson, whether he’s standing on one leg playing ‘Bouree’ or landing firmly on both, like his whimsical musel 'Rupi'.
‘Wond’ring Aloud’ with Ian Anderson, via telephone from his residence in the UK, was captivating. Anderson is confident in his opinions, quick-witted and refreshingly introspective.
This dynamic, prolific and articulate performer is awash with wisdom and, even after having enjoyed four decades of success, remains ambitious, in a field so often filled with fallen heroes and uncertainty.
PB: Let’s talk about the influence of the countryside of England, and perhaps growing up in Scotland, as many of your songs specifically reference your physical surroundings such as ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ or ‘Dun Ringill.’
IA: That’s correct. Of course, there’s always a ring of credibility when instinctively people know that someone who is writing prose or poetry or song lyrics is writing from something that is a personal experience, something that is actually really a regular feature of life as opposed to making it up.
I think that’s probably good advice to any aspiring author. For your first novel, write about something you know. Write about something you really understand, something really close to your heart and a result of your own experiences and observations.
I think that that applies throughout - that it’s a good idea to keep drawing from the things around you. So, songs like ‘Dun Ringill’ basically are about the ruins of an old hillside in the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, where Nordic invaders would have landed to pillage and plunder and the local folk would have hidden the women and children and the sheep under fortifications.
‘Jack-in-the-Green’ is a sort of folk-lore material that’s actually from England, but there are parallels in other parts of the world, too, providing God of Fertility, if you like. It's rather benign, not too grandiose. But, it’s stuff that you learn about particularly at this time of the year.
I walk in the grounds and the garden where I live in England, and the green has been at work, in preparation; the leaves and everything is in bud – it’s beginning to form on trees.
It’s part of life, part of nature, and a song that I’m performing, for the first time at the end of this week, a new song which is about a hare (a kind of animal with bigger ears and a bigger body), one of those which came into our garden and obviously decided it was a safe refuge. Unfortunately, [it was] unaware at the time that we had a savage terrier.
PB: You enjoy writing about what we call “Mother Nature.”
IA: The thing that I’m not really good at writing is songs that have to do with personal relationships, which I always think, ultimately, are a little sacred and not something that you do want to be literal about – plunder for song material. I think that’s a betrayal that I find worrying, although there have been a few consequential meanderings in that general area in the early days of my songwriting, i.e. the first few months.
It’s not an area that I choose to visit much in the subsequent years and I’m more likely to visit the topic in a slightly more detached observational way if I do it at all. I’m more of an observer. I like to see things and people and circumstances.
PB: Ian, can you tell me how often during the day something in your surroundings inspires you to write a lyric?
IA: Consciously, probably once or twice. But, subconsciously I suspect rather more as you’re storing away little snippets from visual and verbal stirrings from television and radio and conversations.
Yes, it does happen, but I think consciously there are probably some days when it doesn’t happen at all. You just don’t have any thought of connecting something you’ve seen or done. You could put yourself in that more creative state of mind. I’m going to be receptive and positively invite that kind of input.
PB: In previous interviews, Ian, you had mentioned the drone in Indian music, also found in bagpipes or maybe Celtic music, which is hypnotic; very seductive. At what point did you make that connection between these two types of music? Also, what are your feelings about India as a culture?
IA: It goes back to the pre-Jethro Tull band – the John Evan Band. I had an Indian drummer by the name of Richie Dharma who lived in Manchester with his parents and his mother was Indian and my first introduction to Indian cooking was at Richie Dharma’s carry-out curry lunchtime – where we were going off to play and, around that time, in the mid to late 60's, there was a growing number of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi restaurants appearing, not the 10000 that we have today – 8000 which were really Bangladeshi – not Indian.
I had an introduction to not only the fast-food Indian cuisine, but also the music of India, because it was being played while you ate, and so Indian music was something, by the age of 18 on, I heard regularly.
But, there was also, back then, the beginnings of some fusion formed – one particular piece called:’ Indo-Jazz Fusions’ which was quite – I’m not sure how famous it was, but it seemed to be quite a well-known piece, written by John Mayall back in the mid 60s. It was indeed a long time ago.
PB; It sounds like ‘Indo-Jazz Fusions’ led you in a new direction.
IA: It was something that I heard a little about and was aware of, so that I heard much of it because I couldn’t have afforded to buy it, but it was something out and about and we definitely heard back then. It was one of those records that started to bring together elements of Indian and western music, and of course, Indian music contains a lot of improvisation and therein lies a link.
The actual way in which different scales are employed in Indian music – the “raga” - the scale in which you say these are the notes we’re going to choose to play from - a given piece of music in a given key. It feels like a great and rather restrictive force.
A jazz musician brought up in the be-bop era, where there were fairly standardized progressions of chords formed the basis of improvisation. So, [it was] possibly quite restrictive to be anchored around one on- going tonality for anything up to an hour; the length of Indian music.
For me, when I wrote some music for Anoushka Shankar, I was pushed to try to learn and understand as much as I could about sitar music – how the sitar physically was played, how it could deal with some of the nuances that we could actually sneak in to get some chordal progressions and some harmonic development to the music, without it providing too much anxiety for the Indian player. Hariprasad Chaurasia - he was very uneasy if you moved to another chord – even if it was a related chord.
He would allow himself to play the notes in the normal scale of the flute that he was playing, but it made him quite uneasy when you’d do that. We’d do it to him, and you could see him be all at sea, and we’d have to say, “Now look, just carry on playing. It will work, trust us.”
I know Anoushka would say the same thing when we would put something to a different key. It was like, I suppose, the feeling of riding a bicycle when suddenly someone’s taking away the stabilizing wheels and realizing you could actually keep going (laughs).You just have to trust to your fellow musician that they were going to catch you if you fell.
PB: You originally had an interest in the visual arts. Do you have a desire to have your life story in film?
IA: No, I certainly don’t. I’ve never really been – once or twice – I’ve been asked to appear or participate in a stage production or in a movie as an actor.
But, I’m not an actor. It’s not something that I feel I would possibly want to get involved in and do badly. You really have to study that stuff. My son-in-law’s an actor. He’s spent years learning his craft and honing his skills and he still has to do a screen test if he’s up for a major part in a film or TV. And I would find all that rather harrowing (Laughs) indeed.
But, it’s not something that I would want to do and when it comes to writing music for movies or TV, it’s not something that I’m particularly moved to do because you really – because first of all, when you agree to do that, you’re invariably brought in, at the very last minute, to wave a magic wand and produce some music which happens to fit the nature of the production whatever it might be.
But you are going to sit there and look at the screen; starting and stopping and reiterating, developing pretty much as a slave, to the director’s whim as to where he wants music, and indeed, what kind of music he wants and where he wants it.
This is a different kind of a jobbing approach to music that I don’t really feel instinctively, simply because I’m a free agent. I don’t like to be hampered by the music merely being an aural wallpaper behind a primarily visual event. I’m not really keen on that.