[Interview] Interview with legendary Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson

Did the experience of making ‘The Zealot Gene’ reinvigorate your creativity to inspire you into making another one so quickly?

I dont think that was a factor. I think my creative urge is usually there but for the last few years they were applied in different directions on a number of other projects. I decided to release ‘The Zealot Gene’ as a Jethro Tull album, somewhat belatedly, due to Covid and touring factors but it was eventually released by which time another one was hot on its heels. Its not a case of being reinvigorated. Ive always been blessed with a certain amount of creative energy. If you catch me at the right time which is 9 O’clock on January 1st in the New Year, Im all raring to go.

Did you have ideas left over from those writing sessions that you were able to develop and adapt for your latest album?

No, not at all. I started with a completely clean sheet.

Your latest album, ‘RökFlöte’ is your 23rd album since your debut, ‘This Was’, which was released back in 1968. How do you feel about it as you wait for it to be released?

At the point when the album is complete, when we hand the production masters over to the record company, its all done and put to bed. Then theres the inevitable few months before its in the shops, as we used to say but in this day and age, when its available to stream or download. Its a period of a vacuum thats a bit frustrating really as youve done all the work and that was back in October so theres a period of six or seven months before its released. Much of the delay is the time it takes to manufacture vinyl which is a small but very important part of the profit margin of the record company and the artist too. When did you first start work on writing for the album? I started on New Years Day 2022 at 10:00am, slightly later than usual.

You are the song writer – both the music and the lyrics. How do you tend to develop your ideas?

Its not exactly the same every time but more often than not it will be a title, a subject or something that gives me a direction both musically and lyrically and then I see what pops into my head. In an ideal world, both music and lyrics would proceed together. The very first element might be a line of music or it might be a line of lyrics but either way I wouldnt want to go too far in either direction without dragging the two by the scruff of the neck so that they can walk the same road together. I think that is more satisfying and organic all round so I try and make sure they both proceed in step.

How do you convey your ideas to your band? Do you provide them with demos of the music or do you pretty much direct what you want from them in the studio?

In recent years its tended to be by demos which I record at home in a very simple way. I give them all the notes about the arrangement, the sounds and the approach Ive taken. I try to give them a written précis of where it is in terms of arrangement in my head prior to rehearsal so that when we do come into rehearsal, theyve transcribed all of the music and they are ready to play roughly through the songs straight away. Then wed spend time working on the arrangement to fine tune things. Probably the next day, wed then go in and record it.

The album has a Scandinavian theme. Why did you decide to write lyrics based on Norse legends?

Partly because it was not a subject that I was familiar with. I am familiar with the polytheistic beliefs of other cultures but Id always stayed away from Norse mythology and Pagan religions from that part of the world because of the association with Heavy Metal groups and the misappropriation of the umlaut. That kind of put me off but I thought maybe I should see that as a challenge, not a hindrance so I thought Id see what I could learn. I decided to immerse myself in a topic I wasnt very familiar with. It was interesting for me to learn something new about history, pre-history and the cultural aspects of the Norse people around about one thousand years ago.

Its one thing reading around and researching a subject but how did you distil all of that into lyrics? Do you sketch the framework of a storyline and work those into lyrical themes?

Theres no story line. I set out in the first three stanzas of each song to explore the personalities and functions of some of the Norse gods and theres a different one in each song. Then in the final two stanzas I take those personalities and functions and write about the world that I know in the present day and each of the songs follows that formula. Therell be 60% of the song connected with the historical, observational approach and 40% a more emotional and personalised parallel to the historical part of each set of lyrics.

Are the songs connected by a theme or is each song a standalone tale?

There is no story. I am not dealing with a consequential series of events. Im an observational writer. I rarely tell stories as that suggests something that progresses through time but there is no narrative here in that context. They are descriptive. For the first time in my life I wrote them as poetry, observing certain meters that were put on the page in traditional poetic forms. Ive always avoided that in the past as Ive felt that poetry and song writing are two very different things but this time I started writing it as poetry as I had imagined that much of it would have been performed as spoken word. The album title ‘RökFlöte’ continues with that Nordic theme.

Is that a literal translation of Rock Flute or is it somewhat deeper than that?

I have correctly employed the umlaut in the word “Rök” that means destiny in Old Icelandic as in “Ragnarök” which means the end of days. “Flöte” is the German pronunciation of the word, flute. The album actually started on day one with a working title of ‘Rock Flute’. Along the way, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to have a couple of legitimate umlauts straight away. The opening track ‘Voluspo’ is partially spoken in Icelandic. Is that part an original lyric or did you adapt a traditional poem? Those are the best translations from Old Icelandic and indeed the English translation that I could find. The original was written around 1100 and its the first time that the Norse legends and mythology and religious beliefs were put into writing in the poetic edda as they were passed down by word of mouth before then.

Who did you get to read that?

She was an Icelandic lady called Unnur Birna, who Ive worked with over the years and she was kind enough to repay me for playing on a couple of her tracks at various points so she owed me one, well she owed me two so she did the opening and closing piece. Are the final two verses the English translation of the first two verses? Yes, the final two verses that I do are the English translation of the poetic edda. Happily its out of copyright so its as good as mine.

Are you pleased with the reaction that the first single ‘Ginnungagap’, received?

I dont read reviews so I have no idea how its been received. Its not something that interests me. I probably stopped reading them 30 or 40 years ago. Back then I asked my PR to send me only the bad reviews, so that I could see what I was up against. Once in a while reading a bad review is a sharp reminder that youre not doing everything right and maybe the reviewer has a meaningful point to make.

What is a ‘Ginnungagap’?

It is the creation. It talks about the primal force of creation that is common in every religion. Behind most polytheistic beliefs theres a single creative force that gives birth to the universe and everything that we know and that get`s handed over along the way with a bit of fisticuffs to maybe lesser gods who are easier to understand who are often depicted as superior humans or occasionally as animals.

This is the first full album that guitarist Joe Parrish- James has worked on with you. Where did you first come across Joe?

I came to know of him through a friend of mine who has a son who was studying saxophone at a musical academy. He had a friend who had a YouTube video where he was playing Jethro Tull songs in his bedroom which was sent to me. I thought he sounded very capable and interesting. I got in touch with Joe and he seemed like a useful person to know. That was during the lockdown when nothing was happening.

What happened with Florian Opahle?

Florian had been playing with me for about 15 years when he retired. He got married and he wanted to set up his own recording studio and his wife, who was a professional photographer, wanted to set up a photographic studio. His big project in 2019 was to have a change of life and get away from live touring to spend time with his wife. Florian did come back to play with us in late 2021 because Joe hadnt been vaccinated at that point so couldnt enter the country, so Florian stepped in.

Were you able to work together in the studio this time as ‘The Zealot Gene’ was interrupted by Covid meaning a few of those songs were recorded at individual homes?

Since the lockdown ended weve been able to work together carefully and guardedly at both rehearsal and recording but we took a lot of precautions because if any of us caught Covid wed be in deep trouble. My responsibility is not just to the band and crew but to the thousands of people who buy tickets. In my world I have to do everything possible to avoid getting Covid, which I have managed to do successfully so far.

You have previously worked with Steven Wilson on surround sound mixes of your past albums, this time you have worked with The Pineapple Thiefs Bruce Soord. Why did you decide to work with Bruce this time?

As far as I knew, the other two possible candidates that I have worked with were busy. Steven Wilson was working on his own album and also has commitments to work on some Jethro Tull back catalogue stuff and Jakko Jakszyk was still hoping there would be some King Crimson activity and he also had a one man show at the Edinburgh Festival. My son came up with the name Bruce Soord and I listened to his work in The Pineapple Thief and I really liked it. I went to see him and he did a couple of test tracks to see how Dolby Atmos sounded and also Sony 360. Hes a good guy and I enjoyed working with him.

The artwork is simple but effective. Whose idea was it to use your silhouette carved in rock in the style of a cave painting?

That was my idea. Id been looking through some examples of early depictions of Nordic gods which had been carved into rocks. The stick figures reminded me of the Jethro Tull logo of the one-legged flute player so I just joined the dots together and came up with something that we could utilise and replicate in different ways. I photographed some stone from the garden grounds around my house so I had a lot of background stone surfaces for the final artwork to be based around.

What are your touring plans for the album?

Most of this year well be touring Europe and will have three tours in the USA. There is a UK tour scheduled for 2024 between April and May but that`s still being worked on. That is very much on the cards for next year. We have spent the last year and a half catching up on all of the postponed concerts from 2020 and 2021 and we only just finished that last year. Almost everything we did last year had been rescheduled, sometimes two or three times, because of Covid. Everybody else is in the same boat so all the venues have a huge bottleneck as everyone is out on the road so finding venues is really hard so we have to book well ahead. We will be playing shows at the Northern Kin Festival in Durham on 28th April and the Shepherds Bush Empire on 23rd May but the full UK tour is next year.

RökFlöte” is out on 21st April on InsideOut Music as a Limited Deluxe 2LP+2CD+Blu-ray Artbook / Limited Deluxe 2CD+Blu-ray Artbook / Special Edition CD Digipak / Gatefold LP & LP-booklet / Digital Album.

Purchase the album here: https://jethrotullband.lnk.to/RokFlote

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Author: Jacopo Vigezzi

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