Flautist, guitarist, songwriter and singer Ian Anderson formed Jethro Tull in 1967. With its signature mix of hard and progressive rock, folk and other styles, the band has enjoyed sustained critical and commercial success. While the personnel has changed often over the years, the group has always been a vehicle for the artistic vision of leader and mainstay Anderson. Tull is currently on tour in support of its 23rd studio album, RökFlöte. Between dates, Anderson spoke with ROCK ON, sharing his thoughts on everything from getting older to the usefulness of today’s beyond-stereo audio formats.
You celebrated your 76th birthday in August. To what degree has getting into late middle age led you toward the bigger universal themes addressed on both 2022’s The Zealot Gene and this new record, RökFlöte?
Well, I'm sure that [aging] impacts upon many people in their lives. They start to ponder their own mortality and those of people around them who are either dropping like flies or at least not feeling terribly well. Recently I had to attend the funeral of my next door neighbor who died. So it happens all the time.
But those sort of themes have probably been with me to some degree since the very early 1970s; it’s not something new. Yet perhaps there is some resolve as you get older to try and deal with subjects that have a degree of seriousness and importance rather than frivolous pop songs. I think that's the way it is maybe for other people; I have really no idea: I don't listen to other people's music, so I have no foggy idea what other people are up to. But I think that [among] people I know who are not musicians or involved in the music industry, it's quite common that you start to ponder things when you get into a period of your life where you know that the end is, if not in sight, somewhere around a dark corner.
The RökFlöte deluxe package includes demos. When you were devising the work, how much thought did you put into the eventual live performance of these songs?
For most of my life, the songs [have been] written with the idea that these are performance pieces. Of course, most of them don't get to be performed on stage; nonetheless, I tend to think of them as performance pieces. So as we go along, I'm trying to envision the way the band will play them live, the way that I will sing them and perform them. And in the case of many of the albums, they'd been rehearsed in the way that we would actually do them as live songs. We're together in a room playing the music.
And so, with RökFlöte, it was very much done that way. The demos were made to send to the band to give them a useful starting point in coming up with live performance variations on the themes in order to play that in rehearsal, then in the studio to record them, and finally to play them live on stage.
So I really do think about [it]. Particularly on the last few albums, and then going back to other albums like Thick as a Brick (1972), I very much thought in terms of the music being performed live on stage. And they were rehearsed and recorded in a tight frame of a very few weeks.
The new album’s deluxe version also includes Bruce Soord's 5.1 mix. In the ‘70s when quadraphonic sound – the historical antecedent of 5.1 Surround – came around, many people thought of it as a gimmick. Where did and do you stand on audio formats beyond traditional stereo?
I recorded two albums where, during the recording the process and doing the mix, we were thinking in terms of quadraphonic sound. And I went back to remix, from memory, the Aqualung album and Warchild in quadraphonic sound after they had been recorded and released. So I did have an experience of working in quadraphonic back in the mid-’70s. It was an interesting option, but it was hampered by the reality of trying to record the rear two channels and to encode them digitally, because the quality of digital encoding, at that point, was very crude. And they had to be cut on the quadraphonic vinyl album which meant that the encoding for the rear two channels was subject to a lot of distortion and very limited bandwidth. It was never really going to happen.
Quadraphonic sound did become the precursor for what became the CD. The idea that you could digitally encode audio signals was something that began in the ‘70s and then really took root in the early ‘80s. So that was a very useful technology in that regard. But quadraphonic vinyl albums, that was just a bit of a side show; it was never really going to happen. It was not good quality and something we could've probably done without. But having sat in many studios and listened to 5.1 surround mixes and more recently listened to things in Dolby Surround and Sony 360, I can see why it has its place.
But, frankly for me, I’m only possessed of two ears, and they are quite directional, and I enjoy listening to music in stereo. I don't really feel the need to rush out and spend many, many, many thousands of pounds or dollars on a system that would allow me to play back surround sound. I have no interest in spending that money and forever doing something to a room in my house which would render it unsaleable. Because if you're going to do that job properly, you're talking about a studio installation that's going to cost you a serious amount of money. You know, the only time I ever listen to music is when I'm making a record, so I have no interest in having some high-tech listening room to listen to other people's music!
Some artists are employing multi-channel sound onstage and in concert. What are your thoughts on that?
If you start to scatter musical sound sources around a 360 degree audio environment, well, that's not the way you hear music. Even standing on the stage, that's not the way I hear music. I guess, if you're in the middle of a symphony orchestra, perhaps that would have some credibility. But frankly, most of us on a concert stage are too busy trying to remember what note to play next rather than listening to the people around us in that kind of a way.
RökFlöte came together quite quickly on the heels of The Zealot Gene. Can we expect you to keep up that kind of pace going forward?
I have another project in mind for release in October of 2024, which I'll really start getting to grips with in October of this year, but that is a way off. I know what it's about; I know the general subject material and how I'm going to go about doing it, but I've deliberately avoided putting anything too detailed in terms of pen to paper at this point.
Because when I start working it, I want to have momentum. I want to have a gathering storm of ideas and creativity to pass on to the guys of the band. I don't want to [start] and then maybe a year goes by before I really get around to seriously working on the mastering and recording of it. An album has got to have some momentum, some life where you begin, you develop, you make some demos, you get in the studio, rehearse it, record it, and mix it, master it, do all the album artwork, and release it. There's got to be a continuity there to keep the energy level up. And the time for that is: not yet.
Jethro Tull’s September 29 live date at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort is near the end of the band’s North American leg; from there it’s off to Europe, then back to the Eastern U.S., then to Europe again. And the group has dates – including a South American run of concerts – well into mid-2024.