AS rock music’s pre-eminent flautist, Ian Anderson cuts a singular and – he’d probably be the first to admit – eccentric figure.
Leader of Jethro Tull since they formed in 1967, the 74-year-old can still adopt the trademark pose once likened to a “deranged flamingo”.
Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson can still adopt his trademark pose once likened to a ‘deranged flamingo’ at 74Credit: Will Ireland
Ian is releasing the first fully-fledged Jethro Tull LP since 2003’s Christmas Album, called The Zealot GeneCredit: Will Ireland
It requires Anderson to stand on one leg, his other leg bent at the knee, while he plays his challenging instrument with great skill and gusto.
He insists he can only do it these days “if the money’s right and the underpants are not too tight!”
This thought leads the rock’n’roll survivor, who counts singing, songwriting, guitar-playing and computer wizardry among his skills, to ponder his remaining ambitions.
“Mostly they centre around me waking up in the morning. My favourite hobby,” he says.
These are typically witty observations from the irrepressible Anderson as he releases the first fully fledged Jethro Tull LP since 2003’s Christmas Album.
Called The Zealot Gene, it’s a vibrant song cycle summoning the band’s classic folk-rock sound, yet forward-facing and thought-provoking.
Filled with references to the Bible, it draws on the ancient scriptures to ponder the human condition in the 21st century.
One of the questions I feel compelled to put to him this week is: “Would you call The Zealot Gene one of those dreaded concept albums?”
Anderson replies: “Ooooh, rather! I like to have a theme — or concept, if you prefer — at the starting point of writing. Gives focus and energy to the process.”
With his story-based lyrics and complex song structures, Anderson is not ashamed that Jethro Tull records sit firmly in the box marked “prog”.
I ask if he believes prog rock is something we should all love and embrace half a century after his band blazed a trail alongside Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Genesis.
“Whether with a smirk or benign smile, the answer is yes,” he decides. “But I have always preferred the more stately and cautious ‘progressive rock’.”
Naming Jethro Tull after an 18th century agriculturalist, as you do, always placed the band on the more pastoral side of this quintessentially British music scene.
In 2022, that unruly mop of reddish-brown curls of Anderson’s early years in the business have long since receded.
Gone is the Victorian vagabond look. With trim beard and waistcoat, he appears every inch the country squire.
It’s wonderful to report that The Zealot Gene, with flute well to the fore, follows in the grand Tull tradition — although the band’s creative force and only remaining founder-member has this to say: “I was not really trying to follow any thought-through stylistic approach.
“I just let it happen in an organic way when I start writing.
“But I suppose when some people hear the flute in a rock context, it rings a few bells.”
In many ways, the album is the follow-up to 2014’s solo effort Homo Erraticus.
“Arguably, that should have been a Tull album, as it was written for a full rock band featuring musicians who had already been playing with me for many years,” says Anderson.
“They must have done many hundreds of concerts performing the Jethro Tull repertoire but had not appeared on an album billed, simply, as Jethro Tull.
“So I decided back in 2017 it was time to make a Tull release.”
But as the Covid pandemic kicked in, early in 2020, Anderson was left with unfinished business.
“The last five songs should have been recorded in late 2017 or 2018 but due to the pressure of so many tours, I kept putting it off,” he explains.
He decided to put the project on hold during 2020 and eventually gave up hope of the band getting together during the lockdowns and restrictions.
Anderson adds: “Finally, in March last year, I decided to finish it by myself at home, although the others offered up a few additions which I incorporated into the final mixes.”
The disciplined worker describes his routine: “I tend to work a couple of hours in the morning and again late-afternoon.
“Mornings are for the creative splurge and afternoons for the editing and ordering of the album as it takes shape.”
For The Zealot Gene, he planned a series of songs “each to be based on strong human emotions”.
He says: “I made a list of some bad mind-sets like rage, jealousy, greed and vengeance; and some good, like benevolence, com-passion, loyalty and different forms of love — fraternal love, erotic love, spiritual love.
“It then occurred to me these were words I had encountered often when reading the Bible.”
And though he drew on the old texts, he also “wanted to set most of the songs in present-day scenarios”.
So would Anderson describe himself as a religious person?
“In the sense of having faith and as part of an organised world religion, no,” he answers.
“In the sense of a deep spiritual awareness and ongoing intense curiosity, yes. I am somewhere pantheist and Deist in personal philosophy.
“But I hold dear the Christian faith of my geographical and cultural heritage. I do not believe in an interventionist god and I am not a man of faith.
“Faith implies certainty and I don’t do certainties. I do possibilities and even probabilities.”
Next, Anderson and I indulge in a deep-dive into some of the new songs — which throws up fascinating back-stories.
The Zealot Gene’s uncompromising title track proves a good place to start, as it gives both barrels to the rise of dangerous populist leaders in our uncertain world.
“The obvious model is Trump, of course, but there are at least half a dozen more who fit the bill,” he says.
“If you can’t quite control traditional mainstream media, no matter how hard you try, then you have to resort to Twitter, it seems. Divide and conquer!”
Mine Is The Mountain draws comparison with an old favourite, My God, from the seminal Tull album, 1971’s Aqualung.
“Both have the expression of sympathy towards the put-upon God, cast in the image of man,” says Anderson.
“Since the earliest days of poly-theistic belief, homo sapiens has persisted in personifying God — either elevated from a superior human being or perhaps even as an animal.
“In Mine Is The Mountain, I am making light of the demands of those of us who want results, either through prayer or the acquisition and demonstration of power in the form of idols or tablets of stone.
“As ‘God’ says in the last line, ‘And now for God’s sake, kindly leave me alone’. In other words, ‘Give me a break; I need some rest from you lot!’
“Frivolous, perhaps. Disrespectful and irreligious, probably. Shaking the tree makes people think. But shake it gently for best results.”
DRIVING GUITAR RIFFS
Sad City Sisters is a modern tale expressing Anderson’s fears for the youth of today.
He says: “Old fogies like me may seem patronising and irrelevant but, as a father of a safely grown-up daughter and grandfather to a much younger trio of juniors, I have to feel concerned as to the potential dangers of over-indulgence and vulnerability when it comes to clubbing on a Saturday night. You might get away with it most of the time, but . . . ”
Airy folk music combined with driving guitar riffs frame standout Barren Beth, Wild Desert John.
The first protagonist is Elizabeth from the Old Testament. “Odd that we have to have barren or celibate virgins to birth the good and the great when it comes to prophets,” muses Anderson.
As for John, he’s based on one of the singer’s larger-than-life relatives.
Anderson says: “It’s my black-sheep cousin John, a nutty and errant priest who enjoyed a notorious service as vicar until he was locked up by the Church for his own good!
“I only actually met him once towards the end of his professional tenure at a small church in the Home Counties.
“‘Eccentric’ was the polite way to describe him. But I expect he had redeeming qualities as a church-man and a good person. Just couldn’t resist the showbiz lure of evangelical preaching.”
Then there’s the vaguely risqué Shoshana Sleeping, a celebration of the female form. “Look but don’t touch,” exclaims Anderson. “The singer and the object of his fascination are already in some existing relationship, I think.
“It is not a voyeuristic or peeping Tom notion, merely the erotic appreciation of the human form.
“Comes from my exposure to life-drawing in art school at the age of 17, perhaps. But the Old Testament Song Of Solomon is a far naughtier reference, I think.”
The Zealot Gene’s finale, The Fisherman Of Ephesus, takes listeners to the fabulous Ancient Greek settlement in southwestern Turkey.
The mention of it brings another anecdote: “I played Ephesus amphitheatre once, in 1991. There were 23,000 punters in precarious lofty stone tiers with no guard rails.
“A health-and-safety nightmare by today’s standards. I returned later as a tourist. It’s a very profound and atmospheric place.”
The song features Apostle John, who is ridden with survivor guilt but, says its writer, broader themes are explored.
He says: “It refers to all who survive events when their buddies don’t make it. Plane crashes, IEDs in Afghanistan, terrorist attacks — even Covid, for the unlucky.” Anderson has strong views on the pandemic and says the Government got off to “a bad start”, awarding the initial response three out of ten.
As with so many artists, he had his life turned upside-down by lockdowns.
The 2020 Jethro Tull European tour was stopped in its tracks when band and crew reached Finland’s capital, Helsinki.
“Everything was ‘go’ when we boarded the flight at Heathrow but by the time we had checked into our hotel a few hours later, the tour was cancelled.
“Since then, the Helsinki show has been postponed and rescheduled twice more, including ten days ago. Let’s see if it finally goes to plan at the end of April. Fourth time lucky!”
Soon after the original debacle, in May 2020, Anderson was diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a condition characterised by long-term respiratory symptoms.
Thankfully, he can now report: “I had a further diagnosis last November and COPD was more or less discarded in favour of asthma.
“Whatever it is, it is much improved in the last months with medication. The greater risk posed by Covid just has to be accepted. I just have to hope for a low viral load when my turn comes, as it must, sooner or later.
“So, Boris won’t persuade me to throw away my FFP2 masks (filtering 94 per cent of airborne particles) any time soon. Especially in currying favour to support his dwindling political fortunes!”
With that parting shot, I can just imagine maverick music maestro Anderson hopping off stage on one leg, flute in hand. He’s made of strong stuff.
Hyde Park gig’s a career highlight
HERE are some of Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull highlights from the band’s 55-year history.
He says: “Getting a residency at London’s Marquee Club in 1968.
“Being favoured (for a while) by John Peel and receiving lots of radio play as a result.
“The first Hyde Park concert with Roy Harper, T-Rex and Pink Floyd.
“Performing in several wonderful historic amphitheatres around the Med.
“Getting to play Say Hello, Wave Goodbye many times with pal Marc Almond.
“The list goes on. And on.”
Stand Up is a standout record
SFTW also asked Anderson if he had a favourite Jethro Tull album.
He says: “Possibly the second one, Stand Up.
“A brave departure from the bluesy beginning of Tull and the start of the progressive rock and more eclectic period, which has lasted a further 53 years.”
Ian formed Jethro Tull in 1967 (pictured on stage in 1973)Credit: Rex Features
One of Ian’s best memories is of Jethro playing Hyde Park on June 29th, 1968Credit: Getty
The Zealot Gene is a vibrant song cycle summoning the band’s classic folk-rock sound, yet forward-facing and thought-provoking