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Jethro Tull


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Concert Preview: Jethro Tull goes orchestral




Many musical artists wear creative diversity and mercurial imagination as badges of honor. Few deserve the distinction more than Jethro Tull. The English band, which came up in the late 1960s, melded more sounds, notably rock and folk, better than most of its peers and few since. The group's frontman and chief songwriter, Ian Anderson, became an icon through his versatile music and wildly eccentric performances where he introduced the flute to rock 'n' roll. Anderson is bringing the Tull catalog 8 p.m. Thursday to the Murat Theatre, 502 N. New Jersey St., Indianapolis, with an orchestra. He discussed this and many other topics during a recent phone interview.


Where did Jethro Tull get its impossible-to-classify sound?


Ian Anderson: "It gets it from me, because I'm the guy who writes most of the music. I get it, probably, from growing up as a child with influences of Scottish folk music, Christian church music, classical and listening to my father's small collection of big band American jazz. (It) probably gave me an inkling for what I heard as a teenager, black American blues. My playing musical activities really began as a teenager, influenced by the work of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker. That took me into music and playing the guitar. When Eric Clapton came along later in the '60s, I realized I should find something else to play, that he couldn't play. So I settled, for no particularly good reason, on the flute. That brought me into contact with other elements of music, from folk music traditions around the world. It's been an eclectic thing really, since 1969 when I was in possession of a number of musical influences which I continue to exploit even today."


How much more interesting does that make it?


Ian Anderson: "I don't particularly follow any special musical style. The 12 notes that make up our musical scale (are the boundaries). It doesn't seem particularly useful to classify and categorize things all the time. I'm always interested in what we can do with those 12 notes to make them come alive in different ways. Hence my interest in music from other countries, other cultures, other religions, other beliefs, other points in history. It's all part of the raw material you have to work with as a musician. I wouldn't be happy, for example, being a blues musician all my life or a classical musician. I've always been a bit of a restless soul. I find the musical passion comes from the musical variety that is out there. It's up to me to go out and find it, which is what I've been doing for the last 40 years."


What have you wanted to do differently with your solo records compared to what you've done in Jethro Tull?


Ian Anderson: "Avoid the need to play at ear-bleeding volumes is probably the first one. I'm an acoustic musician; that's what I've been doing all my life. But in playing with a rock band, you have to endure a certain amount of volume, which is not really good for the ears and psyche beyond a certain point. The joy of acoustic music is hearing music played that can be very powerful and dramatic, but without having to be at ear-splitting volumes. When you hear the sound and shape organically of musical instruments - whether it be painstakingly crafted from pieces of wood or polished pieces of metal - there is something nice about playing instruments where the craftsmanship is resulting in an instrument that might be hundreds of years old or tens of years old, or maybe one built yesterday that hopefully someone will be playing in a hundred years. You can't really say that about some plastic box synthesizer or sequencer or computer."


Why is it that Jethro Tull's sound became louder and heavier over time? Bands usually work opposite of that.


Ian Anderson: "I don't think it has been. Jethro Tull's music was both loud and noisy and quite insensitive pretty much from the word go. It is to these days now. For me it's the variety that's important. I don't think there's a tendency for it to be lighter or darker, or louder or quieter so that you can relate to the passage of time. I've always tried to explore greater depths of music and greater dynamics."


I'm thinking of Jethro Tull's Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1988.


Ian Anderson: "That was an anomaly due to the fact the 6,000 voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decided that Jethro Tull should have a Grammy - not really for being the best heavy metal band, but for being a bunch of nice guys who hadn't won a Grammy before. It was a token thing. Some people got very upset about it. But they don't have a category, yet, for best one-legged flute player, so I have to take what's going."


How did you develop your famous on-stage persona, such as the overcoat and standing on one leg while playing the flute?


Ian Anderson: "It came not from playing flute, but actually from playing harmonica. I used to play harmonica standing on one leg, because you suck more than you blow the harmonica. And when you suck in those really high notes, it's good not to be wearing overly tight underwear. Otherwise you get an involuntary leg-lifting action. You should check it out at home, but make sure you have a doctor or paramedic in attendance."


What were those days at the Marquee Club in London like?


Ian Anderson: "They were undeniably exciting. You could go (there) in 1968, and every night of the week you'd see somebody on stage who went on to become legendary - whether it was Led Zeppelin or The Who or Joe Cocker, King Crimson, Yes. It was amazing who played there. Plus a lot of blues and jazz artists. I think the Rolling Stones started their career by playing at, amongst some other clubs, the Marquee Club."


Why was Tony Iommi rejected as Mick Abrahams' replacement?


Ian Anderson: "He wasn't rejected at all. Mick left the band somewhere around December 1968. Tony, we had already met and kind of got together with (him) and some other people. A very casual way. It wasn't an audition, just sitting and playing together and seeing what would happen. Tony was already with another band at the time. To steal him away would've been an unkindness. I don't think, from sitting down and playing together, he would've found us the ideal band to play with, and we wouldn't have found him the ideal guitar player. But when the Rolling Stones asked us to appear as a guest on the 'Rock 'n' Roll Circus' TV recording, we asked Tony to come and stand in on guitar and mime to the backing track. I was the only actually live on that TV show. Rejected sounds a bit cruel. Tony, I'm sure, thinks one of the best moves he ever made was to shake hands immediately after playing and saying, 'See ya.' I'm sure he's much happier, then and now, with Black Sabbath."


What spurred you to write the subject matter comprising "Aqualung"? Is that as relevant now as it was then?


Ian Anderson: "Very much so. I believe in a non-interventionist god who does not feel it necessary to answer your or my prayers or to stop this tidal wave from happening, or stop Hezbollah from throwing a couple missiles. I don't believe in a god that intervenes, whether it's called to do so or otherwise. I believe in a rather more natural, ever-pervading spiritual force for good and life and positive things, which are all around us. If we go looking for it, it's in our relationships with our friends, families, trees with spring gently in the wind. And though it's hard to grasp, it's also somewhere buried in the twisted and warped evil that infests the planet in the form of terrorism and everything else. Somewhere we have to believe in some kind of redemption. I had a pretty nasty e-mail from someone who read one of my interviews I gave to an Israeli newspaper, incensed I suggested we talk to terrorists. What I actually said was that we do have to have dialogue, we do have to engage with the evil in a way that doesn't only involve retaliation with guns and bombs. We can't talk to them, which is the point of some objection, because how do you talk some absolutely bigoted and dyed-in-the-wool, black-eyed, evil-hearted person? Well, of course it's difficult. And if you can't get through to them, you have to work on getting through to their children and their children's children. It's not a fixable problem. This is not about a global war on terrorism or one religious belief system winning out over another. It's actually about learning to live side by side and concentrate on some of the real problems in the world we have - like climate change, for one. Where we can't reach people with words, we have to reach them with music, with arts and entertainment. We're sure not going to win by throwing bombs at them. That we know. Do you think with your president, there's a single day that man wakes up in the morning without thinking whoops, mistake. Tony Blair, who's visibly a worried man these days - and must have the most awful feeling every single day of his life - could back and think this one through again. It just was the wrong thing to do, and lots of us said so at the time. But clearly politicians, they make a decision and got to play it out. I'm one of those people who thinks it was a disastrous and dreadful decision to go into Iraq. But I think it would be an almost greater disaster now to walk away from it. I'm one of those strange souls who says we're there now, we've got to try to work this one out and see it through. Unfortunately a lot more American lives and a good few more from my part of the world will be lost. What we can't do is walk away from it now. Otherwise we're lighting the blue touch paper under the Middle East. But do I feel good about it? No. Your president and mine are two of the most foolish people on Earth. Certainly in my lifetime."


Why do you think the American music press became so hostile toward Jethro Tull in the early 1970s, particularly around the time "A Passion Play" was released?


Ian Anderson: "In the same way the music press is hostile to Coldplay. You have your moment in the sun, and then it starts to rain on your parade, just to mix metaphors (laughs). It's going to happen in everyone's career. You have this flirtation with the press and the media. You're the golden kids who seem like can do nothing wrong. The big danger is to start to believe you really are important and lovable, because sooner or later the folks who set you up are going to tear you down. Among certain cultures you'll be booed at, jeered and hissed. It's a hard thing to live with; a hard lesson to learn. But it happens to pretty much everybody - the Rolling Stones, Beatles. Coldplay's a more recent example of a band whose music is great pop. But when you hear the boos and sort of rustle of disapproval coming, then you know it's going to be a rough ride for the next months or year or two. I don't think it really got to me because I wasn't elevated to such lofty stations of stardom and the feeling you can't do any wrong. I've always been fairly filled with doubt and feelings that I'm just lucky to be making a living as a musician. I've never thought of myself as a pop or rock star, so I don't have very far to fall if people don't like, now or then, what I do or did."


Is this American tour you're embarking on the full Jethro Tull, or is it solo?


Ian Anderson: "It's Ian Anderson plays the orchestral Jethro Tull. I have a young orchestra hand-picked from the New England Conservatory in Boston, who are getting their first experience on a rock 'n' roll tour bus. I have my special guest - Ann Marie Calhoun - an award-winning bluegrass fiddler from Virginia who was brought up in classical music but paralleled her studies with playing American bluegrass. She's a very interesting, useful person to be playing with because she improvises and is aware of lot of other kinds of music. She's got a broad musical experience, which she's picked up in her 26 years. It's good playing with people who I can stand on stage with, and their improvisational skills are such that it makes for a buzz every night. It's a solo tour, but with my U.K.-based band and a Boston orchestra, it's a recipe for either heady delights or unmitigated disaster."


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