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Rockstar Ian Anderson Loves Prawn Jalfrezi As Much as Whiskey 

The Quint’s exclusive interview with British rock icon Ian Anderson, frontman of the band ‘Jethro Tull’.

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Ian Anderson, the frontman of iconic British rock band Jethro Tull, fantastic flautist, guitarist, composer and singer, has been connected with me in some eccentric manner over the years. The first time was, when Anderson signed an autograph on the Thick As A Brick cassette back in March 1993, a day before he leaped from his bed at his Oberoi Hotel room, to see the Air India building blast in Mumbai.

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The man has a hilarious sense of humour. An over-confident journalist once asked him what it took him to move on as someone with long hair and a flowing beard, to becoming someone with a bald and receding hairline. Ian shot back, "At least I am not like Elton John who wears a dead cat on his head."

Anderson turns 71 on Friday, 10 August. Simultaneously, he is doing a tour to celebrate 50 years of Jethro Tull. A few months ago, Anderson released an album 50 For 50, where he shortlisted 50 songs by his band over those years.

We have stayed connected, after three phone conversations and two personal meetings, besides two press conferences. He won't remember my face but that's the 'Ian charm'. Anderson is a legend in his own right. Many of us know that. But he is prompter than the pigeon, crow or sparrow on the window. He always responds to questions in his own witty way.

Here is the Q&A we exchanged over email:

0

Fifty years is a long, long time. What were your initial thoughts?. You named your group after an agricultural inventor of the seed drill. Mick Abrahams played in the first album This Was.

Fifty years fly by when you’re having fun. Especially as the songs I wrote and recorded back then are still in the live shows from time to time, and so it only feels as long ago as the last time I played them. Hard to be nostalgic about something you did 24 hours ago.
I didn’t name the band. It was our agent in January 1968 who suggested the name. I didn’t know it was really a dead guy who invented the seed drill 200 years before, since I hadn’t covered that period of history at school. Our agent had, and, in fact, majored in history at university. As for Mick, he was a great Blues guitarist and experienced as a musician, being a a bit older than the rest of us.

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The second album Stand Up was perhaps in my opinion where your songwriting skills came upfront. Bouree, based on a Bach piece, was the most famous tune. But there were Reasons For Waiting, We Used To Know, Fat Man, For A Thousand Mothers. At the age of 21-22 how did you conceptualize them?

I was excited by different forms of music — Classical, Folk, Blues, and from the rest of the world too: India, the Mediterranean and — everywhere. Except Hawaii. I hate that Hawaiian guitar stuff. Country and Western are not far behind.

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Benefit is my personal favourite album, with the songs Nothing To Say, To Cry You A Song, Inside and Sossity, You’re A Woman. But I thought it was underrated — to the general ear.

Well, it was a rather down-beat collection. First, tours in the USA and things to complain about! A swing of the pendulum after the more whimsical songs on Stand Up.

The next two albums Aqualung and Thick As A Brick moved into different tangents. The British press called them ‘concept albums’ and you vehemently said they were a spoof on ‘concept albums’ and you thus, invented this fictitious kid Gerald Bostock.

Aqualung was not a concept album. Just a collection of songs, although there was a connection between two or three of them. TAAB certainly was and reflected the surreal and cynical British humour of that time, specifically Monty Python.

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You got into medieval music with Minstrel In The Gallery and then into folk music with Heavy Horses and Songs From The Wood. Simultaneously, and before there was the progressive rock sound of King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, ELP — a bit of Pink Floyd.  Where did you want to draw the difference?

Never thought about it. Best to just go with the flow and develop your musical ideas in an organic way. Not too much thinking. Follow your nose. Follow your heart.

You kept changing your sound. Dark Ages was a completely new style and the contrast was Too Old To Rock And Roll. Elegy was another extreme, and later Broadsword, Fallen On Hard Times, Black Sunday, Budapest, Steel Monkey and Stuck In The August Rain. The Christmas album went into another space.

I try to keep things varied. I don’t always eat King Prawn Jalfrezi. Sometimes it’s veggies or pasta and chips. Sometimes it’s a stiff whisky or could be a glass of milk.

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Your solo albums had different connotations. Divinities was an exploration into orchestral music. TAAB 2 was a totally new experience. After These Wars is my personal favourite song.

After These Wars is about the period of change during the austerity after WWII. Food rationing, rebuilding and the dawn of a new age for Britain. Remember, I was born in the year of Partition. A time when the old British Empire was drawing to a close and we knew it was time to leave the party and head home for an early night. But — as with Palestine — you can’t just pack up and leave without the realities of domestic strife and genocide rearing their heads. But, in spite of the horrors, it was best that we went when we did. Hey, look at the bright side — we still have the Falklands and The Channel Islands. We might even get Scotland back.

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Fifty years on, what drives you? You love cats, run a fish farm, are a proud grandfather. What is one line you would love to tell to younger musicians?

I no longer work in aquaculture. That was 20 years ago. It became too industrialized and has some negative environmental aspects these days. I love small wild cats and the preservation of them, but I am driven mostly by boredom. I need a challenge, and the buzz of tackling some new project.

How do you manage to play that flute? Any secrets in breath control?

Economise on the huffing and puffing. You have to remember to breathe. Phrase things and put it together like a well-written sentence of English grammar. Pauses, varied tempos and ways of expressing the nuances. Like good sex. Make it a journey— not a sprint to the finish.

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Last question. Must have been tough to shortlist 50 songs for the 50 For 50 compilation. How did you go about it?

I went through all the albums and liked a few songs from each. Then led it down to a realistic number which would fit on the practical limitations of three CDs. Obviously, I had to avoid too many longer songs in order to get 50 tracks in there. And they had to be varied in tempo, key, time signature and lyrical content. Took three or four hours of thoughtful listening and adjusting. Happily, I won’t have to do it again for the 100th anniversary collection. That will be someone else’s problem.

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Here’s a poem I wrote for Ian Anderson on his birthday.

Really don't mind if you sit this one out,
'Teacher', 'Rover', 'Elegy', 'Songs From The Wood';
These gems played on cassette back in the early eighties,
Volume probably frustrated the wide and vast neighbourhood.

But Jethro Tull was more addictive than Single Malt and Dunhills,
We heard 'Heavy Horses', 'Benefit' and 'Aqualung' morning to night;
Kept those classics on regular earworm loop,
Our minds and hearts taking directions of melodic flight.

Ian Anderson was our idol, long beard and huge, popping eyes,
Abrahams, Barre, Cornick, Glasscock, Barlow, Palmer, Evan;
The Bach variation on baroque-era 'Bouree' flute and bass,
Transported us into nostalgic, classical, beautiful heaven.

We heard these tunes while skating away, when we had
reasons for waiting,
‘Nursie Dear’ brushing our pain, ‘Locomotive Breath’ shuffling its madness;
The poet and the painter cast shadows on the water,
The fading light illuminated happiness; we forgot our sadness.

Ian moved on with dark ages, taxi grabbing, moths, broadsword and Budapest;
Solo, he walked into light, spread divinities, knew the secret language of birds;
Danced like Rupi, did a thick-brick sequel, then 'Homo Erraticus',
Could anyone really challenge his flute, composition or words?

Our idol's a turning a happy 71 now, enjoying life in wonderful, glorious bliss,
Grandchildren, cats, Indian curry dishes, casual evening stroll;
We just live in the past, one brown mouse smiling in acres wild,
Wondering aloud, My God, how this man is never too old to rock 'n' roll.

(Narendra Kusnur is a Mumbai-based music critic.)

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