A Dot Conversation With Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

After thirty years, Ian Anderson isn't about to hop off his Jethro Tull rock island
Posted Aug 31, 1999 at 12:00am
"Jethro Tull Might Do Something Weird..." read the headline when Ian Anderson appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in July, 1971. Twenty-eight years later, that pretty much still applies. Consider the evidence: This, after all, is a man who makes a profitable living farming salmon but at fifty-two still tours the world as the mad piper fronting one of rock's longest-running bands (thirty-two-years and going). He collects and raises wild cats, preferably "the little guys, the ones you don't see in the zoos and on the wildlife programs because they're not big and scary and sexy and they don't bite people's heads off," and then writes songs about them. He endured a near fatal blood clot in his leg some three or four years ago because rather than canceling a tour after a nasty stage fall in Peru, he chose to carry on, whipping across the stages of the world in a wheelchair. And after a quarter century of shaping Tull's sound by playing his signature flute "by brute force rather than by finesse," he decided it was time to finally learn the proper fingerings. And now, he's gone and christened Tull's twenty-first studio album j-tull Dot Com after the band's newly minted official Web site, and adorned the cover with a painting of the world's most sinister yard gnome. Having been properly warned, sit down and meet the man thousands still insist on calling Jethro.

Naming your new album after your Web address is pretty aggressive marketing. What's your take on the Web?

It is invaluable. It's the wild west. It's unregulated, it's crazy, it's a little dangerous, very seductive and everybody wants to go there. And some people end up like those wonderful scenes in wild west movies where the wagon train perished and you just see the horns of some cattle buried in the sand. It's been like that for lots of individuals and companies who tried to make the World Wide Web their entrepreneurial domain. You have to admire that very American spirit, which is alive and well on the Web . . . The first time I looked at the Internet was about five years ago, in the U.K., so things were pretty primitive because we've always been way behind the U.S.A. in terms of the PC revolution. Things were very slow, and very erratic, not a lot of fun, waste of time. But I went back to it a couple of years ago to see where things were, and the access to the Internet was greatly improved. But I wanted to wait until we were in a position to set up a Web site that really was an extension of us as musical personalities, with the intimacy and relevance of up-to-date news and a style of communication that left the fans in no doubt that it was me talking to them.

Despite what one might think given topical titles like "Dot Com," "Nothing @ All" and "El Nino," there's not really an over-arching theme to this album, is there?

There isn't. That's one of those questions that comes up from time to time, 'Should we do a concept album?' And a lot of people say that's really what they want to hear from Jethro Tull. And another lot of people, about three times the size of the first lot, say, 'No, for God's sake, don't do that!' It's scary, and it will be interesting to do, but a conceptual album of intellectual pretension and weight would probably be a foolish thing to do. I don't rule it out, but at the moment I think it's prudent to work with recognizable song lengths. Most people have a preference for neat little parcels tied up in a bow, and for that matter so do I.

When in the course of your thirty-plus year career with Jethro Tull did you first feel successful as an artist?

It was probably during 1972, when we were doing Thick as a Brick. Although it was frustrating trying to take that music to America the first time, in other parts of the world, like in Japan, we faced the complete opposite response, which was just complete silence, with bewildered expressions on the face of the audience. And you realized you had a certain power, to do things that were not mainstream pop or rock music and command attention. But at the same time you were also made aware of the need of not to abuse that, not to take advantage of people's good will by being a charlatan in some way. I think you've always got to have that sense of ethical responsibility about your music and not use the power of performance to sell people something that's actually a con. And there are some people we've worked with over the years who are not honest people. What they present is deliberately a con, and it doesn't seem to have any heart and soul, it is merely a pretense. I may be wrong in making that harsh judgement against those people, and I can understand there may be some people who would level that criticism at Jethro Tull. But I think all the past and present members of Jethro Tull have had one thing in common, which is that they really believed in the music and gave it everything they had to give in terms of playing from the heart. It's not funky music. It's not the obvious kind of get-down and get-dirty kind of rock & roll. It's music that works on a slightly more cerebral level as well, but nonetheless it's still got to come from the heart. If it doesn't manage to emanate from that particular organ, it's not worth having.

So do you still get an adrenaline rush out of playing your harder songs, like "Locomotive Breath"?

I think that kind of music is always with you; it's the Peter Pan part of being in a rock band, the music of rebellious and angst- and acne-ridden youth is something very relevant when you're sixteen, seventeen, eighteen yeas old, but when you actually do it for a living, it becomes seductively and inevitably part of the rest of your life. So in a Peter Pan like way you never do leave that behind, and the simple, hormone-ridden pleasures of the memories of rock & roll puberty are something that you carry with you forever; it's something that you reawaken every time you pick up an electric guitar or stand in front of a big drum kit. I don't think it ever goes away.

Lastly, what's up with the demon on the cover of the new album?

Twenty-three years ago, our next door neighbor made for my wife and me a sculpture based on a Victorian rendition of the Egyptian god Amun, who's half ram, half human. Amun sat in our garden for twenty-three years until I was sitting there three months ago wondering what to do for album artwork, and I realized I was staring at him; I thought, 'He'll do.' Some people think he's the devil, but he isn't. I gave him red eyes because it just looked a little sinister; I didn't want him to look like too much of a pussycat. He's not something you would want to take home and cuddle.

I noticed from the picture of him on the Web site that he's been neutered.

Yeah, poor old Amun's been bobbed for the U.S. market. It was decided by our record company over here after some research that what passes for perfectly innocuous art in Europe would not be acceptable to the U.S. public. So the poor lad was dutifully rendered innocent by some application in Photoshop 5 involving decloning parts of his anatomy. Interestingly, when they took the penis off, they also took the penis off the figure on the back, but they left the pubic hair. So when I phoned up to comment on it, I said, 'Well, you've lost the penis, but we've gained a vagina.' You can never win.

Written by RICHARD SKANSE for RollingStone.com News

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