Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Talks New Album, Overlooked Tull, and Salmon Farming
Wrong. Ian Anderson and co. return on April 21, 2023 with RökFlöte – which like its predecessor, is an inspired and consistent album from start to finish. Quite an achievement for a band so far into their recording career (to put it in perspective, their debut album, This Was, dropped the same month as Electric Ladyland and one month before The White Album – October 1968).
Anderson spoke with AllMusic shortly before the arrival of RökFlöte, and discussed a variety of topics, including the latest album, band members past and present, and this year marking the 50-year anniversary of a Tull release that is the “black sheep of the discography family.”
AllMusic: Let’s start with the new album, RökFlöte. It was released rather soon after The Zealot Gene – were both albums written around the same time?
Anderson: “No. The Zealot Gene we began working on in 2017, but then I didn’t get many tracks finished because we were on tour, and then Covid came along. So, it didn’t get released until January of 2022 – by which time I had already started work on RökFlöte. It was basically the same kind of process really – of writing most of the music over a period of two weeks, then making some demos for the band, then letting them have a period of time to work on those demos and all the arrangements notes that I sent them, and then we start rehearsing during May or June of 2022.”
“We did six days of rehearsal and seven days of recording, and then I had to – during the little periods between tours – work on finishing up my own flute and vocal overdubs, mixing, mastering, and working on all the artwork design and content. So, it was a busy period. It was delivered to the record company in September of 2022. But, I’ve already committed myself to another new album in 2024 – which is what I started on January 1st of this year, and I should deliver that by April of next year.”
AllMusic: Let’s discuss the album title.
Anderson: “It began with a working title of Rock Flute – because it was going to be a rock album featuring the members of Jethro Tull and it was intended to be a lot of flute material. But during the first day of writing, it became RökFlöte – when I settled on the idea of writing about the polytheistic beliefs of Norse mythology, and started to investigate the considerable amount of material about both the Norse gods and also the origin of the written mythology, which was the Poetic Edda. An old Icelandic in the 11th Century. Just at the time when Christianity was in Northwest Europe finally supplanting the polytheistic beliefs of Norse religion.”
“So, that first day I did a lot of work. I worked on music in the morning and then in the afternoon I spent doing research. And on and off for the next few days, I was doing a lot more research, and arrived at the detail of the conceptual side of it. But Rök – r, o with an umlaut, and k – is an old Icelandic word meaning ‘destiny.’ Flöte – again with an umlaut – is the German spelling and pronunciation of flute in English. The instrument I play. So, it seemed like a legitimate use of not one but two umlauts in a title – and should put to shame Mötley Crüe and Motörhead, who appropriated umlauts in a way which smacks of something a bit to do with Nazis. And I’m not very happy about that. So, my spelling is correctly used and quite appropriate.”
AllMusic: Two singles have been issued thus far, “Ginnungagap” and “The Navigators.”
Anderson: “‘Ginnungagap’ is the creation myth part of the Poetic Edda, and all religions – whether monotheistic or polytheistic – seem to have their own creation myths. Even in polytheistic beliefs, there is a single creator – from which follows on a number of Gods, very often in human guise. In Abrahamic religions, God is God – God created everything and he is the one and only God that follows on. So, that’s kind of easier and more elegant, perhaps. But ‘Ginnungagap’ is…like the other creation moments, is that of evolving something out of nothing. And it’s the religious equivalent of the big bang.”
“And the song ‘The Navigators’ is about the God who protects sailors – and particularly I’m fastening on in the first three stanzas of the song onto the Vikings. Who were pretty nasty pirates and invaders of the worst sort. Kind of…Vladimir Putin with a longship. And they were pretty evil people, but they did leave their mark not only on much of Northwestern Europe, but in Greenland and even the USA. They didn’t leave much of a lasting mark anywhere over there, but they certainly did in Britain – both in Northeastern England and Scotland, where many placenames and surnames are those of Norway and Denmark in the present day.”
“But I’m also aware of the God Neptune – who fulfills a similar role in terms of being a God of the sea. So again, these things have their place in many different cultures at many different times in history. And I suppose if you earn your living on the sea – whether a pirate bold or a fisherman in the contemporary sense as I say in the last two stanzas of the song – then it’s kind of easier maybe to believe in the idea of a protective God, because of what you do being rather a dangerous and precarious pursuit. Because we like our Gods to be there when we need them. When we get into deep shit, we need a God.”
AllMusic: How does Tull’s current line-up compare to previous line-ups?
Anderson: “Well, the guys I’ve been playing with…two have been around since 2004, one since 2010, and the guitarist Joe [Parrish] was new in 2020 – but unfortunately, only got to play two concerts with Jethro Tull, because Covid came along, and the next year and a half there were no concerts. But they’ve all been playing as members of Jethro Tull going back to 2004 – in the case of John O’Hara and David Goodier. They have to be able to play not only the music that they’ve become a part of since the time that they were in the band, but they’ve also got to go back and revisit music that was recorded – in many cases, before they were born. Which is interesting that you’ve got to have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of music genres and the technical skills in able to play everything and do justice to the performances of the predecessors so many decades before.”
AllMusic: This July will mark 50 years since the release of A Passion Play. What are your thoughts on that album today?
Anderson: “Relatively few, because it’s an album that has had – both at the time it was released and subsequently – the reputation of being the ‘black sheep of the discography family.’ And I kind of go along with that – because it was a little bit overly dark and laborious. It was not…not to really offer a defense, but to explain it was an album that followed on from a failed attempt to come up with a successor to Thick as a Brick, and we then found ourselves back in the UK with a very limited period of time to record a new album. And I really had to crack on with what I had in my head. So, it perhaps didn’t get the full scrutiny in terms of arrangement. It became too dense and too complex, I think.”
“So, it’s not one of my favorite albums. And I go along with a number of Jethro Tull fans who would agree with that…and in fact, some music critics who at the time didn’t like it at all. But I’m not embarrassed by it – it has some positive things about it. Steven Wilson – who remixed it in surround sound a few years back – it’s one of his favorite albums. And for a lot of Jethro Tull fans, A Passion Play is the one that you like in a rather dogged, stubborn way, because you think everybody else hates it. So, it makes you more of a ‘knowledgeable fan’ if you actually tell yourself you really like it. But it’s OK – it’s not the worst album I’ve ever made, but it’s certainly not one of the best.”
AllMusic: Which is the most underrated or overlooked Jethro Tull album?
Anderson: “Possibly the album Under Wraps, which was a bold experiment back then in the new technology of sequencers, samplers, and drum machines. Computers in music. It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do in that type of ‘technical music production.’ It’s got great songs on it and it’s really well played by the band. One of the best performances of Martin Barre’s was Under Wraps – he plays really great guitar that doesn’t depend on the blues heritage. So, from that point of view, it ain’t the blues, and in its way, it’s inventive, original music.”
“But clearly, in today’s hindsight, it is derivative of the sounds of that era, when other artists and musicians were started to use that technology. It would be all the better today if it were re-recorded with real drums with a human being playing the parts. But that would be expensive. And I think that perhaps in a way, the cost of rerecording, remixing, remastering, and all the rest of it might not be something that Warner Music – who own the copyrights – would want to engage in. I have mentioned it to them on more than one occasion, but they haven’t taken the bait yet.”
AllMusic: What about possibly performing the album live in its entirety and just recording it that way? Would that be more cost effective?
Anderson: “No, because it would require a great deal of rehearsal, and certainly recording it live would be expensive too – and a huge amount of work to do. And anyway, to play it all live, who’s going to want to come to a Jethro Tull concert and then endure sitting down for…from memory, it’s quite a long album. About 15 tracks on it. You could say it was close on an hour of music that basically is far from being the most popular Jethro Tull music. So, it would be a cruel ordeal to put people through – if they were coming to a Jethro Tull concert expecting to hear a broad swath of ‘the best of Jethro Tull.’ Which, is what they do – just as they do if they go to see Paul McCartney or Elton John or the Rolling Stones or anybody who has a vast catalog and a historical place in the music firmament.”
AllMusic: Looking back at the ’80s Tull albums, do you ever regret relying too much on synthesizers, keyboards, and sequencers?
Anderson: “Well, the keyboards were always played live. In the case of Under Wraps it was Peter Vettese, and on Crest of a Knave I was playing the keyboards. But they were played live. The only thing that wasn’t actually – technically speaking – contrived, were the arrangements for drums, which on Under Wraps was all the tracks and on Crest of a Knave there were a few that used a drum machine programmed to do the arrangements that I’d written. But everything else was played live in real time on those albums. I don’t regret trying that technology to see what it would do.”
“And to some extent, that technology is still with us today – because we don’t use very much in the way of any sampling, but certainly sequencing and the technology of digital keyboards, that’s been with us since 1982/’83. And of course, the recording medium itself is all digital. So, some of the positive lasting aspects of that technology is day to day worked today. I mean, I have to record some flute music for another artist later today – which will be a 24-bit, 96-kHz high quality digital recording. It’s what we do. In fact, what we’ve been doing. I think Crest of a Knave was the first album which I mixed and mastered all in the digital domain, which was in 1986. Quite a long time ago.”
AllMusic: Are you still in contact with Martin Barre?
Anderson: “From time to time – but it’s not something that comes up on a regular basis. I probably speak to more of the other guys than I do to Martin. But he’s got his own things going on as he has done since 2012. And even prior to that – when he did quite a lot of things on his own from time to time. So, he has his own musical life, which is great that he’s out there doing things as ‘Martin Barre’ – not just being one of the musicians in Jethro Tull. So, he gets to be a little more creative in the way that he wants to do things, and the fact that most of what he plays when he does concert tours – as I understand it – is Jethro Tull music. So, the fact that he’s out there playing my songs is great. I’m the guy who wrote them, recorded them, and produced them, and if he wants to play them – fine. That’s great.”
AllMusic: Are you still involved in salmon harvesting? I saw an old documentary that featured you in it.
Anderson: “Not since 2002 or 2003 – when I finally sold off the last of my fish farms and processing plants. It wasn’t really environmentally and ecologically sound. And I was tired of having to defend the industry – which I could easily do in regard to many aspects of it. But there was one thing where it really fell apart – any argument – and that was simply to feed salmon, you have to feed them fish meal products. Which means – or meant back then – that you would be talking about ten tons of fish meal dredged from the oceans in order to make the food to produce one ton of salmon. Things are more efficient these days. And the fish meal that is fed to salmon in concentrated/pelletized form will probably be more in the line…maybe from the raw fish species that are used, it might be five to one. But they’re very concentrated in pelletized form, so you get not a one to one conversion, but pretty close to it.”
“And finally, after all these years, there is a mixture of vegetable protein to supplement the fish-based protein and oils. So finally, salmon have been persuaded to not become vegan, but to take 40% of their dietary needs from non-animal protein and oils, which is a great improvement over the time when I was doing it – when basically, everything that those fish ate came from other fish species. It seemed to me a very inefficient way of food conversion, really – to make something that tasted nice for us guys. So, I really felt that it was time to get out of that industry.”
“But generally speaking, salmon – whether wild or farmed – is something that is probably still relatively safe to eat, when you compare it to a lot of other products people eat without thinking about it. Especially processed meat products – which are really not good for you at all. And I’m very much aware of the potential dangers of processed foods. It’s not just one opinion – it’s a pretty overwhelming set of opinions that you really want to watch what you eat. Especially if you’re going to consume dead flesh.”
For a complete list of upcoming Jethro Tull tour dates, click here.