OWhen I last interviewed Ian Anderson, frontman of multi-millionaire progressive rockers Jethro Tull, in 1993, he told me that 2000 would be a good time to hang up his flute. “I think I was confused with the pilots of British Airways who, at 65, are absent,” he retorts today. “If you’re a professional tennis player and fully vaccinated, you might manage to play well into your late thirties. But those of us in arts and entertainment can die with our boots on, like John Wayne in a black and white western.
Assessing Anderson’s face on my laptop screen, I could easily knock a decade off his 74th birthday, but it’s still hard to reconcile this loquacious and knowledgeable analyzer of politics and history with the wild hippie dervish he was around 1970, famous for playing his flute on one leg. His troll hair disappeared long ago, but this passage of time is “both romantic and encouraging, because it means we can continue to pay our grandchildren’s school fees into our old age.” There are others older than me who are still doing their thing. Mick Jagger’s pants keep going up and down, so all is well with the world.
And indeed, this is for Jethro Tull fans, who will have wondered if they would ever get another studio album – the previous one was in 2003, and it was a Christmas album (although it was done in Anderson’s puckish style). New LP The Zealot Gene was born in early 2017 with Anderson’s list of primal emotions: “Bad things like anger, jealousy, retribution, then good things like love, compassion, loyalty,” he said. All of the tracks draw inspiration from biblical texts which Anderson later googled to support the record’s anti-extremism theme; a song skewers Judas Iscariot, the disciple who kissed Jesus in Gethsemane to expose him to his enemies: “How does it feel to point the finger stabbing / with a treacherous kiss from those deceitful lips?”
The Zealot Gene explores how these emotions govern life today as they did when the vengeful God of the Old Testament rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. Ms. Tibbetts is named after the mother of the US Air Force captain whose B-29 dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; Jesus is wistfully alluded to in the acoustic songs interspersed with the album’s sharp rockers. The title track is about authoritarian rulers satisfied with Twitter; harmful use of social media is a pet peeve of Anderson. “Donald Trump was relatively bright and new when I wrote the songs,” he says, speaking from his home in Wiltshire two weeks before Jethro Tull traveled to Europe for their first post-Omicron shows. “You could already see how he thrives on division and polarization, but there are still five or six quasi-dictators who represent populism and extremes left and right alike.”
Crucified by rock critics for his ambitious conceptual thinking when Tull was in their 1970s glory, Anderson is loath to have The Zealot Gene called Tull’s biblical album. “My interest in a variety of subjects, from hard science to the cruel world of politics, is part of who I am,” he says. “I’m an observer, which comes from my brief background in art history – I see an image in my head and I want to illustrate it musically.
“I completely understand if people look at my meanderings for many years and think, ‘Oh, if you’re making lists of words, those who come to mind about Ian Anderson would be pompous, vain, arrogant and self-indulgent. But, hopefully, you might also think serious, studious, passionate and, above all, committed.
Tull’s 22nd studio album is the first the current line-up has recorded under the band name. When Anderson disbanded the previous incarnation in 2011 — ending guitarist Martin Barre’s four-decade tenure — Tull seemed finished. But having made two solo albums in the meantime, Anderson has revived The Zealot Gene name, as seven of its 12 tracks were recorded live in the studio by the entire band before the outbreak hit.
Alongside other surviving classic-era progressive rock bands – including King Crimson, Yes and Genesis – Tull went global. The fusion of Anderson’s folk-tinged voice, acoustic flute and raspy flute with the searing riffs of Barre and the rococo keyboards of John Evans, in complex songs that often ignored the rules of conventional pop composition, was integral to their success. Tull’s breakthrough 1971 album Aqualung featured the layered medieval rock that could have been played in baronial halls and taverns if amplifiers existed in Elizabethan times.
“I loved the blues, but for me it was just a pragmatic way to open the door, because that wasn’t really what I wanted to do musically,” he says of the band’s journey to Aqualung. . “The street signs were The Beatles’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, then Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I thought, ‘I want to try to do something like that, something eclectic.’ »
Tull’s signature sound characterized Thick as a Brick (1972) and A Passion Play (1973), classically-influenced concept albums consisting of single pieces around 45 minutes each. Disheartened by A Passion Play’s complexity and Miltonian allegory of the afterlife, not to mention the whimsical fable that connects its halves, critics in the music press tore it to shreds.
The band were clearly unglamorous amid early ’70s glam rock, but ditched their scruffy looks to embrace flamboyant mummery. Anderson’s bug-eyed minstrel was rooted in the court jester with his mockery of cant and hypocrisy. Anderson still occasionally plays on one leg, but not to the point of compromising his senior’s dignity. Dressing up “was fun,” he says, “and looking back on it, it was too much fun. fly, that might as well be me.
Tull’s director-producer Terry Ellis took Anderson to Royal Ballet costume designer in 1972. “This very creative man came up with a pretty racy codpiece design. He made a few that were molded to look like they had a wriggling monster inside,” Anderson recalls with a laugh. “In the end, I picked one that had a nice domed shape. When I put it on, he said, ‘How does that feel?’ I said, ‘That’s great. How did you know my height? And he said” – Anderson mimics a flirtatious voice – “‘Well, when I looked at you, I thought we were about the same size’, which I thought was a good answer.
“Fortunately at the time, I had lightly muscled legs and firm, neat buttocks, and I looked like a demented Nureyev with a flute. The fly was a good investment to get noticed, but it became a real a hassle because I had to tie myself up in it every night to get on stage. Plus, it required very careful dry cleaning, beyond that of the local laundry service. It ended up like a Hell’s Angels original – it just wasn’t washed in. So if you were within 20 yards of me on stage in 1972 or 1973, I would announce my presence with a distinct lack of scent, even if I was just standing backstage.
Tull hit a historic low in 1979 after their former bassist John Glascock died at age 28 of heart disease. In the early 80s, the band that began life as a Blackpool blues combo in 1963 experimented with synthesizers, but it was a mix of hard rock and progressive greatness that earned Crest of a Knave en 1987 an unexpected Grammy award. Roots to Branches (1995) and J-Tull Dot Com (1999) – the standouts among Tull’s next five albums before The Zealot Gene – incorporate global musical influences and reflect on aging. Anderson suffers from asthma and hasn’t been able to hit high notes since he overworked his voice in the early 80s, but this instrument is currently in great shape.
Asked what Tull’s legacy should be, Anderson first apologizes for “nicking” the name of the Berkshire agronomist who invented the horse-drawn seed drill. “Our booking agent gave it to us, and when I realized who Jethro Tull was, I was embarrassed, but we couldn’t change it because we had just gotten the Marquee residence and were starting to get positive responses. I always felt a bit guilty about that.
“So I would say that, over all these years, Jethro Tull tried very hard. Some people might say we tried too hard, but it’s better to do it and fall on your face every once in a while than to s “sit comfortably while backpedaling in order to stay balanced. I would get restless if I was doing generic music like the Stones or even the Who, or the Ramones in the punk world. I feel like I have to move on and do something that brings me closer to what I think can To do.
“If you can elaborate on all of this and put it into a three-line epitaph for my tombstone, I would be very grateful to receive the result by email at some point,” Anderson says. “Actually, I could get the stonecutter to work on it right away.”
The Zealot Gene is out January 28 on Inside Out Music