Ian Anderson

The leader of prog rock band Jethro Tull about the end of days, faith, fencesitting, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the band’s new album, RökFlöte
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull at Gypsies Green Stadium, South Shields. PHOTO: MR CLIVE, FLICKR – CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed

The title of Jethro Tull’s new album RökFlöte is a play on the word Ragnarök; signifying the end of the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. It’s a scenario those outside Valhalla tend to think of as the apocalypse – and a subject on the mind of Ian Anderson, the band’s creator, singer, flautist and long-term front man. He explains that rök can mean both mist and destiny in Iceland, which seems appropriate for a future that’s shrouded from us. But then 76-year-old Anderson has always kept a weather eye on doomsday. “My first climate change song” was written in 1971, he says, followed eight years later by “Dark Ages”.

When I tell him Perspective is looking at threats to life as we know it, he’s happy to keep that ball rolling. “In my lifetime we might see an overturning of the Atlantic Drift, or something far worse at Vladimir Vladimirovich’s hands,” he muses. We discuss the likelihood of nukes being used in the Ukraine war. As far as he is concerned “the End of Days is probably not tomorrow, but maybe the week after, or the week after that. It’s definitely a possibility. And we only have ourselves to blame, along with a few despotic leaders who indulge in satisfying their own delusions of grandeur.” Puckishly, he points out that such men are often of “rather reduced physical stature”, adding, “a lot of little guys get incredibly bossy. I should know, I’m one of them.”

I’m talking to Anderson via Zoom. We’ve never met, but the singer is familiar to me through Jethro Tull’s albums and is so thoughtful and open – with a distinct metaphysical edge to his conversational detours – that for once video chat doesn’t feel constraining. He’s certainly unafraid to tackle difficult topics. When I ask what measure he’d take to ward off doomsday, he immediately cites reducing world population – if it could be done “without using the nuclear option or castration”. Long-established studies show the planet’s ideal carrying capacity, “based on its natural resources”, is around three billion, he explains, but currently stands at 8.1billion and is projected to rise to 11 billion over this century. “Where are all these people going to get their bread and butter and clean water?” he asks, before referencing Mikhail Gorbachev’s prediction that in future, nations will go to war over water rights.

Christianity tells a story with a beginning, middle, a pretty nasty end and then the promise of season two on Netflix

Is there any global leader we can trust to deal with these global challenges? “Of course there isn’t! That was amply demonstrated when covid struck.” Political leaders “don’t do their research”, he says, citing how leaders ignored peer-reviewed studies of the best face masks to wear against airborne pathogens. It’s a topic of vital interest to a flautist with COPD whose livelihood depends on clear airways. He did do his research and was an early mask adopter, feeling he’d be letting audiences and band members down if he fell ill: “When you’re a performing musician you have a moral obligation to do your best.”

Anderson is nothing if not a trooper. He still pulls off his trademark feat of balancing on one leg while playing the flute. And Jethro Tull’s tour dates this year include concerts in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Brazil, as well as plenty of UK gigs. Although the singer says that nowadays he prefers his own bed to “Mr Hilton’s” and wants to be home with his family and animals (Jethro Tull’s website has diverting articles on domestic kittens and wild cats).

A big reader, Anderson enjoys conducting deep dives into topics that grip him, such Norse mythology, but is wary of “the dark fascination” this has exerted on all kinds of thinkers, from Tolkien at the lighter end to Himmler at its very darkest. The band’s new album is more about encapsulating some of the individual gods’ qualities. The question of the numinous is particularly resonant in the last stanzas of the track “Ginnungagap”: “I dream of spaces, emptiness/ Deserts golden, endless dome… Home to all creation, vistas/ Of foreign lands./
We conjure ghosts/ Of pre-birth state, primal recall/ The calm amongst the heavenly hosts.”
But the concept of God is too ineffable to be depicted, he says, believing: “Most religions sing from the same hymn book when it comes to the crunch. They all act as portals to a spiritual world.” In Anderson’s view, we should try and be open to the idea of a spiritual realm “and unembarrassed to use organised religion as a means of cracking open the door of that portal – to peep through to the other side.” He sees comparative religions as “guidebooks for the soul on how to co-exist with your fellow beings” even if a few misguided souls distort the message. He muses that faith, “like everything else, gets corrupted and turned into a power game – and sometimes an international war game.”

Even so, when I ask which individual has had the greatest influence on his life, he immediately answers: “Jesus of Nazareth. I say that as opposed to saying Jesus, Son of God. Faith implies certainty; I do possibilities and probabilities. There’s about a 90 per cent probability Jesus existed and did more or less what was ascribed to him in the New Testament. But that’s not the same thing as the Jesus Christ people revere as the embodiment of God on earth; that’s a bit of a stretch. The great thing about Christianity is it tells a story with a beginning, middle, a pretty nasty end and then the promise of season two on Netflix. It’s a great classical narrative with a slightly bolshy Jewish prophet.”

I can’t help asking how he’ll feel about these questions of faith on his deathbed. The singer is contemplative: “Some prepare through devout belief. I hope it will be a moment of calm, of acceptance; either the end of an adventure or the start of a new one. We should be prepared for it through the death of others – parents or a pet. We have our allotted time.”

He is less sanguine about the government’s attempts to define and outlaw extremism: “Why are we even having this conversation? It should be patently obvious that your average Muslim has no connection with extremism.” He’s just as exasperated by the idea you can sum up the allegiances of the UK’s Jewish population, or “lump” Israeli Jews “together in the world of Netanyahu and the Likud.” He’s toured many times in Israel, using “Christian, Muslim and Jewish musicians” and lives in “the hope most people can see the complexities, the good and the bad on both sides. And ultimately will take the humanistic approach.”

“Faith, like everything else, gets corrupted and turned into a power game”

Anderson himself is “an unapologetic fence-sitter”; his ability to look at issues from every angle has him suddenly pondering what Margaret Thatcher would have been like if she’d been born 30 years later, “with a more liberal and accommodating outlook. Might she have been the centrist leader we need right now?” He knows Thatcher is a figure of hate for many, but “few would deny she was decisive, powerful, grasped issues, had integrity – and beat cabinet ministers round the head if they didn’t shape up.”

The Scottish-born singer reads the manifestos of all the main political parties, including the SNP (although as the child of an English mum he remains committed to the UK’s union); he votes not so much for a party as for the best local representative. He surprises me by saying that if he lived in North Somerset he’d consider opting for Jacob Rees-Mogg, having warmed to the even-handed, “human way” the politician talks to guests on his GB News chat show. “We can’t paint everyone as being bad just because it suits our need for a political persuasion. I try and focus on the positive things, rather than the easy pot-shot.”
The positive things in life naturally include his wife Shona and his beloved flutes. When I ask what enchants him about that particular instrument he responds that “rather like the violin, it is the sound of the human female voice – it speaks of seduction, elegance and has an ethereal quality.” He pauses before adding, “It’s also a hell of a lot easier to carry around than a tuba. You can stick it in your pocket and, yes… I am pleased to see you.” I laugh rather more than is strictly seemly at this gag.

Other passions include Scottish nature, in particular the country’s wildcats he’s involved in conserving. He’s less convinced about reintroducing wolves from other countries: what if one decides to snack on a near-extinct Scottish wildcat? This same checks-and-balances way of thinking influenced his approach to salmon farming on his estate in Skye for twenty years. He sold it on in 2001, after realising that ten kilos of fish meal, derived from “trash” fish species, was needed to produce one kilo of salmon. “It just wasn’t defensible.” Though he emphasises that the meal now fed to salmon in the UK is “50 per cent green stuff”.

For relaxation he listens to the eighteenth-century trinity of Beethoven, Handel and Bach – with Handel “just edging ahead” as the singer’s favourite composer for “his rather decorative flights of fantasy”. Anderson is also a keen photographer, having being given his first camera aged ten, when he used to admire street photographers like Bert Hardy in the pages of Picture Post: “masters of social realism”. He often carries his Leica just in case a particular scene grabs him: “It’s confronting a different level of reality, one I don’t usually get to enjoy.”

In 90 minutes’ chat we’ve travelled from global apocalypse to snapshot glimpses of human life in all its messy glory. It seems a good moment to finish. As we say goodbye, I wonder if Anderson has a personal motto. Without missing a beat, he says: “We must try to strive for better things.” He quickly realises this is a rough translation of “Meliora Sequamur” – the motto of his old school, Blackpool Grammar. Looking thoughtful for a minute, Anderson adds: “If I could say anything to my evil old headmaster, it would be, ‘there were some things, sir, you left behind that continue to play a part in this pupil’s life.’”

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April 2024, People

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