In 1967, Ian Anderson traded a Fender Stratocaster that previously belonged to Lemmy from Motorhead for a flute, since he felt he would never be as good of a guitar player as Eric Clapton. The rest is history.
We caught up with Anderson to chat about the album Aqualung (he does not like the cover art to Aqualung, calling it “messy,” and did not appreciate how the “dribbly-nosed voyeur” seemed to resemble him), where he likes to go in L.A., and why Prince baffles him.
L.A. Weekly: When you were writing songs for Aqualung, was your goal to inspire change or were you just observing and recording the attitudes of people around you?
Ian Anderson: Well, I certainly never set out to try and inspire or coerce change in other people. All you do is you reflect what you see and what you interpret from the things around you. I'm very much an observer and a conduit of thoughts and ideas. I think it's really the job of the composer, the artist, the painter, the writer to present people with options. I'm just really reflecting the thoughts and actions around me. Whether they are whimsical and musing moments like songs “Mother Goose or “Up to Me” or whether they are more serious or angry topics like “My God” or “Aqualung.”
Do you feel that society still views the homeless or unfortunate in the same negative light as they did in the 1970s or do you think we've progressed past that?
I think we always view people who make us feel uncomfortable and appear to intrude on our middle-class cozy space, we view them with, if not hostility, at least suspicion, discomfort, embarrassment. We should recognize that we're a little bit embarrassed about other people's misfortune and try to come to terms with that ourselves, whether it's by showing some act of kindness or some act of giving in the case of homeless people. But I still find it awkward to approach a homeless person and give them some money. It's difficult.
Sitting on my desk now is a begging letter from one of Britain's better-known charities for the homeless. I'm constantly reminded when I sing the song “Aqualung” onstage every night that these things don't go away. The plight of the homeless in your country and in mine is just as prevalent and upsetting as it was 40 years ago when I wrote that song.
You've said what you do for a living doesn't appeal to you and that you don't like loud music so you would never be in your own audience–does that mean you don't attend concerts of other bands?
(Laughs) It does mean that. I don't like to go where there is a lot of noise of any sort. I've always been fond of acoustic music. When I was a teenager, I was listening to blues and jazz … and I was never really a fan of pop music and electric guitars. After two hours onstage, making rather a lot of noise, I'm quite happy to spend the rest of the 22 hours of each day in quietness and don't really relish the thought of going to a concert to watch anybody else perform. So I'm not a great listener of music at all. I read books and I look at paintings more than I listen to music.
I think the rest of the day I value because I don't have the music, which it becomes seductive and exciting to get back on the stage and start playing music again. The last thing I would want to do is to go and listen to other people play music.
Reportedly Prince famously, after his concerts, would go off to some club and get up onstage and jam at the club and stay up till all hours doing yet more music. I find that quite hard to imagine how someone could devote so many hours in their day to doing something I feel as best concentrated and focused on in a finite period. The best things take a couple of hours–some of the best things can be done in even less time.
At this point in your career, I imagine you have accomplished most, if not all, of your goals. So what drives or motivates you to continue making music?
Just in the next few days alone, I have three different kinds of concerts that I am playing and that in itself makes it engaging and interesting because you have to change your approach to making the music to some degree to accommodate playing with some musicians I have never played before in the Czech Republic to playing in a multi-act festival, which I am not very good at and don't really enjoy, but I have to make the best of that situation with no sound check and somewhat difficult and tense circumstances.
Then I have to endure a long flight across the Atlantic… to land in mile-high Denver to play a concert in Red Rocks Arena in an altitude which makes things physically demanding and demanding as a flute player because in the relatively thin and dry air of the mountains above Denver, it's actually quite hard to play the flute. Every day is a bit different. I am playing in the mountains of Colorado one day and then flying down to Phoenix, Arizona in the desert–these are all a change of environment, and if we manage to find a Red Lobster on the way, or a Denny's, than that will just set things off a tree.
How many flutes do you currently own? Are they something you collect over the years or do you buy and sell them as needed?
I'm not a collector of them. I probably have more than I need, but I enjoy playing them all from time to time and the two that I take with me on any one tour aren't necessarily always the same two. I have many more guitars than I have flutes.
One of my flutes I don't have at the moment because it's sitting in Houston awaiting shipment back to me because it's been aboard on the international space station for a few months and it recently arrived home after a few months, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes.
That's interesting. How did that opportunity come about?
Well, astronauts are not wacky people from outer space. Catherine Coleman of the U.S. Air Force, an astronaut who has been up there for the last six months, is an amateur flute player and she took one of my flutes up there with her and we did a little duet from space. I was in Perm in Russia on the 50th anniversary of the first man-flight in space by Yuri Gagarin and Catherine was aboard the space station. [You can watch the duet on youtube]
Where do you like to go when you're in Los Angeles–are there any places you're looking forward to visiting?
The Beverly [Center] probably is one that appeals (laughs) since it is usually a restful and reasonable respite; and my wife likes to have a walk around there and we sit and have a Starbucks. In days gone by, I occasionally went to The Comedy Store on Sunset, which was the frequent home of a comedian called Barry Diamond, who is a favorite of mine.
I'm not a person who actually goes out very often. I try to get back to my hotel and go to sleep as soon as possible because I usually have to leave early the next day. When I am playing in Los Angeles at The Greek Theatre [on Saturday], it is simply to arrive on a flight, drive to The Greek; do a sound check; play a show; jump in the rental car and head off to the next [show] toward the San Diego area. I'll just be there for the few hours it takes to do a sound check and play a show and get the hell out of town!
What is your secret for being able to remain in the music industry for over 40 years and front a band that is still touring?
I don't think there's any secret to it at all. I think most of the people who do what I do don't really want to give it up. It's something that is a pretty good job if you can get it and, goodness knows, it's pretty hard to get that job these days. Most people would love to do what I do … and most of us who got that job don't really want to give it up and pass it on to anybody else (laughs). So we're rather protective and jealous of our status of professional, working musicians and I don't think any time goes by when you're not reminded of how fortunate that you are to be able to do that on a professional basis.
There will come a time when I can't do it anymore, after which, I may do it on an amateur basis for a little while until my physical and mental systems shut down and it's time to hit the power-off button in a clinic in Switzerland, or whatever happens to me.
But until then, the excitement, the focus, the challenge of doing concerts, both physically and mentally, is always very engaging and as long as you're capable of meeting that challenge and finding that excitement and passion, you keep playing.
Ian Anderson will be performing with Jethro Tull this Saturday, June 11, at The Greek Theatre in Hollywood. To mark the album “Aqualung's” 40th anniversary, the group will be performing the album in its entirety, plus other favorites. Tickets are still available, so grab 'em while you still can!