Interview: Ian Anderson - Frontman of Jethro Tull is playing his own tune

Anderson performs at the Bluesfest Music Festival, Byron Bay, Australia, in April. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Anderson performs at the Bluesfest Music Festival, Byron Bay, Australia, in April. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
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Scot Ian Anderson, the frontman of Jethro Tull since the band was formed in 1968, gets his kicks from cultivating hot chilli peppers, studying wildcats and following politics. Aidan Smith talks to an extraordinary man of rock

I CONGRATULATE Ian Anderson for this being, in my experience, the earliest that anyone in rock’n’roll has ever roused himself to speak and he displays the grumpiness you might expect – but not for the obvious reasons. “Actually,” he says, “it’s 8:47am which means I’m two minutes late. Sorry, but I had to put on some washing.”

What was he washing? The tweeds with which he’d ape a batty Brigadoon laird some years before running salmon farms with a £20 million turnover? The off-white tights in which he’d stand on one leg for epic flute solos which, in mythology, lasted days? Or the codpieces which completed the look of Anderson as the leering, bawdy master of ceremonies for the band Jethro Tull, who sang of “eyeing little girls with bad intent”?

Well, he dresses more conservatively these days, but after all that the fates could throw at Tull – ridicule, indifference, sex changes – they’re still going. Indeed, the 40th anniversary re-release of their best-known album Aqualung has co-incided with a surprise renaissance for the music his band and their kind played, prog-rock.

Anderson, 64, is one of those notable Scots – the actor David McCallum is another – for whom the old country is a long, long time ago. But prod them in the right places and the reminisces will flow.

“I was dux of Roseburn Primary School in Edinburgh,” Anderson says, and I feel the honour is not far behind those 60 million album sales. “My prize was a book called 20 Scottish Tales and Legends. I’ll never forget my very last day – the qually dance. The bonniest lass by far was Linda Nelson. Every boy thought every other boy was going to ask her and so didn’t bother; as a result no-one had until I did. But I have to tell you that I sold the last waltz for the princely sum of sixpence to David Bendelow – an English lad who was teased relentlessly about his accent and also his name – so he got to walk her home. Benders, I think, went into films. What became of the lovely Linda? Bizarrely she was living on Skye when I farmed there, but I never found out if she still had her blonde ponytails.”

That sixpenny deal was probably the first evidence of Anderson’s sound head for business. Not long after, when other musicians were happy to delegate and get ripped off, he took control of Tull’s affairs.

“I simply didn’t believe in tour managers, trying to justify their wages. I’ve always loved organising and was happy to do it myself.” Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that Anderson has never touched drugs. “I was around them from a young age – at art school I sat next to a chap in life drawing with heroin needle pricks on his arm who’d done time in jail. Then I encountered the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin who were out on the edge but drugs never seemed like a great plan. Probably being a loner helped me keep off them. I’ve never been a man’s man who drinks beer and talks about football – how grim! – or much a social animal, really. At the end of the day I just want to be on my own, and on tour you’ll most likely find me in my hotel room, naked on the bed and watching CNN.”

Anderson isn’t quite a solo act away from Tull. He shares his rock mansion in Wiltshire with his second wife of 35 years, Shona, and is a grandfather. How does he get his kicks? By cultivating hot chilli peppers, studying wildcats and a far from casual interest in politics: “I’ve been courted by the Lib Dems among others, and in Barbados earlier this year my holiday reading was all the party manifestos.” A science-fiction devotee in boyhood, he’s maintained his interest in space and rocketry. “Earlier this year I loaned one of my flutes to an International Space Station astronaut, Cady Coleman, and we duetted – me in Perm, Russia, and she 220 miles above Earth. Fantastically thrilling.”

The mansion was the setting for the wedding of his daughter, Gael, to This Life and Teachers actor Andrew Lincoln, and the night before our chat, Anderson broke off from his rigorous diet of telly news to watch his son-in-law in The Walking Dead. “I’m not a fan of zombie thrillers but I’ve just loaned Andrew some money to buy a country house so I was kind of checking on my investment.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple was a flower-girl at the ceremony, Gael having been the Hollywood star’s PA, and the latter’s husband, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, came in useful in the church when the organist lost his way. “Being a public schoolboy he was able to pick up the tune of Jerusalem while the rest of us were floundering.” Later, Anderson dug out his flute before retiring early to bed. “I knew I’d have to get up at 2am to chuck out the freeloaders and booze-looters,” he laughs.

Back to Edinburgh, where the family business was the RSA Boiler Fluid Company. “My grandfather invented a whizzo solution for descaling steam engines, but I don’t think he and my dad were really onto a winner there.”

The old man was very methodical and Anderson picked up this from him, if little else. “He walked with a stoop, never said much, in that dour Scottish way, and was old before his time when I came along rather late.” Both his parents quickly became addicted to the then-new Coronation Street; young Anderson thought there must be more to life.

“The diet was terrible, everything fried, but I thought I might like vegetables. I remember asking my mum if I could try spinach; she said it tasted of dirt.” His grandmother, at least, possessed eccentricity and curiosity and he was similarly impressed by dotty Aunt Molly who’d gone to university late. The “smelly sea” around Leith Docks seemed to promise adventure and new experiences and eventually delivered when one of his two much older brothers, a marine engineer, sent back a Bill Haley LP from Canada.

Anderson immediately saved up 22s/6d for a mail-ordered Elvis Presley plastic ukulele. The family moved to Blackpool where it was his turn to be taunted for his accent, and issues of nationhood continue to intrigue him.

“I hate being mistaken for English but have lived down south for most of my life and these days probably regard myself as British. Would I want an independent Scotland? Possibly not, although some degree of separation where you can still metaphorically poke each other with sticks is healthy. But there is a pronounced, indeed extreme and anarchistic streak in my family. The black sheep was Uncle Gerry, dropped behind enemy lines during the war and forgotten about after repatriation, who plotted something dastardly against the Sassenachs in government.”

For 20 years until the turn of the century, Anderson had one foot back in Scotland as the salmon laird of Strathaird on Skye. Initially he was greeted with hostility.

“The West Highland Free Press stated, quite rightly: ‘His only qualification for owning a large chunk of Scotland is that he made rather a lot of money from playing the flute.’ But I became qualified in that I spent a lot of time up there, got to know the people and their concerns, warned some of my prog-rock chums with sharp accountants that exploiting wilderness Scotland would only bring them trouble – and ran a good-going estate providing jobs for 400 before deciding to sell up and get back to music.” Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre are the only Jethro Tull ever-presents, with keyboardist David Palmer deciding a few years ago to put the band behind him, also his identity as a man.

“David is now Dee. He was a bearded, pipe-smoking, curry-loving man’s man until his wife died. We had our suspicions; at a fan convention our bass player thought he was wearing a bra. After I was doorstepped by the News of the World, who thought I’d had the sex change, he came clean: ‘There’s something I have to get off my increasingly ample chest … ’”

Tull, with Anderson having grown up with The Goons, always possessed the madcap humour that was missing in other proggers preoccupied with playing longer and more complicatedly than anyone else. The songs on Aqualung voiced anxiety about homelessness and the environment, and questioned religion to such an extent that copies were burned in the US. All that was forgotten when punk swept prog aside, but recently Johnny Rotten confessed to Anderson a secret love of Tull.

“He told me Aqualung had been a big influence on him and who knows, maybe he stole from the tramp on the cover for his hunched, scowling persona.” He chuckles at this, but now he really must be getting back to his washing.

• The Aqualung re-release is out now on EMI.