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Wizened but still wily, Jethro Tull cracked the dance charts this summer with the 12-inch remix of 'Living in the Past', issued eight CDs worth of cobwebby classics and sprightly curios and embarked on a humongous global tour that would sap the strength of lesser mortals. Ian Anderson, for 25 years the bug-eyed jester who has kept Tull hearty and mostly hale, called ROLLING STONE from Turku, Finland, where, for all we know, he may have been standing on one leg throughout the interview.
How do you raise the enthusiasm to play 'Aqualung' or 'Locomotive Breath' for what must be the 1,000th time?
"It's about 1,800 times — we counted them recently. 'Locomotive Breath' is OK. 'Living in the Past' is one that's due for a little light retirement for a year or so. 'Aqualung' has palled a bit in recent months, but somehow it's a song that a Jethro Tull concert would be incomplete without. Realistically, out of over 200 songs we've recorded, only 25 percent are useful live-performance songs."
Which songs that you're performing now are giving you personal pleasure?
"This being notionally a 25th Anniversary Tour, we did try to dig out a few really old ones from the first three albums that we hadn't performed for absolutely ages. Having played things like 'For a Thousand Mothers', 'Sossity, You're a Woman' and 'Reasons for Waiting' again, they've taken on a life of their own, whether we've changed them a bit or stuck to the original arrangements. Of the current band lineup, probably only [guitarist] Martin [Barre] and myself had played 'Dharma for One' before, but the first time we brought it back, it really sizzled."
I've always felt that 1977-78, when you were incorporating traditional folk elements into your writing, was a particularly fertile period for you.
"It was actually at its best with the Stand Up album, in 1969, when a very naive, rural sound slipped into the songs, and I started playing mandolins and balalaikas, which weren't really the established instrumentation of the kind of music we were doing. Later on, my very transient interest in folk or ethnic music coalesced when David Pegg joined us from Fairport Convention.
"Looking back on some of that stuff, it was a bit self conscious in its acknowledgment of formal historical references from English, Irish, Scottish and European folds. As with the blues, it's best when it just oozes out of you when you're trying to write a song. The reason Jethro Tull has been so eclectic — that's the polite term, 'confusing' might be the more realistic one — is because 22 guys have been in the band at different times. In one double digit, that's both the strength and the failing of Jethro Tull."
To what does Jethro Tull owe its longevity?
"As with the Grateful Dead and Status Quo, there's an amazingly strong, loyal following among our fans. Some of them are what we affectionately call the Train Spotters — you know, the ones who are slightly peculiar people who, if they weren't into Jethro Tull, would be just as likely to be jotting down train numbers in a station somewhere. They are unusual folks, God bless them, and very English for the most part. But then you've also got the incredibly diehard 18- and 19-year-olds. God knows what that's about. They weren't born when we started, and they feel so denied by having missed out on that thing their parents' generation was part of.
"Right now, the most dangerous thing you're going to get, I suppose, is near-the-knuckle American rap vulgarism, which most of us are pretty uncomfortable with, or Madonna or Michael Jackson grabbing their parts in order to get attention. I find that all of a bit of a fad, really, probably because I'd been doing it as a joke every night onstage during 'Locomotive Breath' since 1971 — without, I hasten to add, trying to appear sexy in the process."
How did your own stage persona evolve? The mad minstrel playing the flute on one leg, the codpieces ...
"The earliest reviews of Jethro Tull tied together the unlikely scenario of me being a flute player in a blues band, but I had only just started playing the flute, and it was actually the harmonica I played on one leg. It created an image for me which I tried to duck because it seemed trivial. Then I saw the funny side of it and tried to parody it, but I carried it with me. Physically, there are still things that I do onstage that are fun and have a very strong level of expression for me in relation to certain songs, but at the age of 45, there's no point in me trying to compete with the Ian Anderson who was 22."
Are you still developing musically?
"Absolutely. I learned four months ago from my 14-year-old daughter that I've played the flute wrong all these years, that I was using entirely incorrect fingering. So I got someone to fax me a fingering chart when I was doing promotion in India, and after much debate I decided to relearn the flute, and I really had to persevere. I still play quite a few wrong notes each night, but I'll be all right in a few more weeks."
Do you intend to carry Jethro Tull deep into the next millennium?
"I don't think so, no. Whatever Jethro Tull is, it will just respond from time to time to what the interest is from the fans, be they old or new. I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and thinking, 'God, I wonder where we'll be in 2001?' and then, in the next breath, 'But that's so far away it's not even worth considering.' Now, it's around the corner. In a strange way, '68 having been the year we started, 2001 might be a good time for Jethro Tull to play its last concert. You've got time for Jethro Tull to play its last concert. You've got every chance of playing until you're as old as Muddy Waters was — it's just those of us who, perhaps unwisely, chose a more athletic way of performing music who are really in for a rough final few years."