Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Explains What Makes the Flute Rock
Jethro Tull's newest album is called RokFlote – and that naturally begs the question: How exactly does the flute rock?
The answer is probably obvious for anyone who has followed the career of Ian Anderson across the decades. It's not hard to conjure the vision of Anderson, standing on one leg, percussively puffing away through song after song in the Tull catalog. For others, learning that he originally approached his instrument as if he was playing an electric guitar will help put the idea of "rock flute" into perfect perspective.
Anderson spoke with UCR about how RokFlote took shape and the way personal history impacts his music, while sharing thoughts on fellow flute-playing star Lizzo.
The idea of this album can be loosely connected to questions you had about your own ancestry. When did that begin?
Growing up in Scotland, I was aware that my father being Scottish and my mother, who came from England, were of different tribal origins. With a name [like] Anderson on the east coast of Scotland, there was probably a quite reasonable chance that somewhere in our ancestry, there were folks who came from Denmark or Norway – Vikings, if you want to call them that, marauding dangerous pirates or somewhere in between. But my mother’s side was probably more from the Celtic side, having come from, I guess more likely through France, possibly as late as the 11th century. But who knows?
I was aware there were probably two different things going on. It never particularly fascinated me, but it was something over the years that I wanted to know a little bit about. Luckily, one or two of my family [members] have made more effort than I have in terms of researching our ancestry – at least in terms of going back maybe three or four generations. Obviously, in terms of knowing about origins from many hundreds of years ago, that’s really beyond anything other than conjecture, but [that’s] a good starting point sometimes for something fanciful that may have merit in ways that are not necessarily historically accurate.
How did the concept of doing an album based around 12 gods and Norse paganism really start to take root for you?
On the day that I started work, the first of January 2022, I had the notion that I would write a series of songs about polytheistic faiths and I looked at a few possibilities. I decided after about an hour or two that I would settle on sticking with a bunch of gods that were related to each other from Norse mythology. That was partly because I didn’t know very much about it. I’ve neglected Norse religions in my readings of comparative religion over many years, partly because of its association with right-wing and nationalistic tales.
Whether it’s Wagner or God help us, Heinrich Himmler – or a bunch of heavy metal Norwegian rock bands, it’s something that’s tied up with a lot of glorification of aggressive, manly behavior. I wanted to try to write in a little bit more of a sensitive way. I wanted to derive a little bit of information from the old Icelandic [collection], The Poetic Edda. [Those were sourced from] the 11th century when Norse myths and legends were first written down, as opposed to being passed on by word of mouth. Within the scope of two or three days, I’d started work on those lyrics, assembling a bunch of flute themes I could allocate to different songs.
I recorded demos about three or four weeks later to send out to the guys in the band. They had the use of all of that and the lyrics and written notes on arrangements for a couple of months before we got together to do some rehearsal and recording. We rehearsed for six days and recorded for seven days, broken up in maybe two or three different periods of time between tours last year. It was done pretty quickly. The way I like to work, everybody comes in well-prepared and then we fine-tune the arrangements. Everybody gets a chance to examine exactly what it is they’re playing in the light of what other people are playing, because sometimes something will work just fine while other times, somebody says: “Well, I wanted to play that there, but it doesn’t really work with what you’re playing.” You know, we have to work it out so that people’s ideas can be reflected, but not in a way that will be confusing or contradictory to somebody else’s ideas.
Listen to 'The Navigators' by Jethro Tull
What separates the rock flute from other strains of flute in your head?
When I began playing the flute, pretty much the only thing I’d really heard [involved] vague memories of folk music and classical music, but nothing really concrete. It was nothing that I could put my fingers on or my ears around. It was an instrument that occasionally featured in some decorative context in pop music and jazz that I may have heard. But when I took up the flute, it was really without any knowledge of the instrument. It was just something different to play because I had played guitar and knew that I was never going to be equal to Eric Clapton, let alone Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore and the other guys who were doing sessions in London. I found something else to play that was an unlikely instrument.
A few months later, I managed to get a couple of notes out of it. Once I had five notes, I could play the blues scale and I could play solos. So I was playing the flute, but I was thinking guitar – because that was my musical background: I played the flute as if it was an electric guitar. I was trying to get a strident, loud raucous sound that would compete with drums, bass and electric guitar. So I developed this way of playing and I think I’d been playing for maybe six weeks when a friend of mine at art college showed me an album that he had just bought by [multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan] Roland Kirk. It was an album called I Talk with the Spirits. He said, “He sounds just like what you’re playing on stage, you know, doing this kind of singing thing when you play the notes.” I listened to it and I thought, “Yeah, that’s great. He’s got that down.” One of the tunes on that album called “Serenade to a Cuckoo” became a sort of party piece in our early days playing at the Marquee Club.
But other than that, you know the Moody Blues, I guess they had a flute player called Ray Thomas. He was not exactly a rock player, but he was a decorative flautist. Around the time we began, Chris Wood, the saxophone player with Traffic, he played a bit of flute. There [were members of] King Crimson who played a bit of flute. It was an instrument that occasionally would crop up but when I was doing it, suddenly it was much more of a dominant, integral part of the band, really. It was quite an assertive instrument, so it was a point of difference in marketing terms that made Jethro Tull different to the other bands of that era. But over the years, you know, I’ve played the flute in ways which weren’t just based on blues. They were based on lots of folk influences from Ireland and Scotland and elsewhere in the world, perhaps from Asian flute music, Indian flute music. And then, from classical music increasingly, [I found myself] picking up musical ideas. Not necessarily flute ideas, but just musical ideas in general.
Those are employed largely on RokFlote, which does not utilize syncopation, or jazz or blues influences. It’s music that really mostly comes from things that are perhaps more commonly and melodically found in the world of the great classical music era of a couple of hundred years of 18th and 19th century music.
Listen to Jethro Tull's Version of 'Serenade to a Cuckoo'
While you've been keeping the flute alive in rock music, Lizzo has come along and put the flute onto the world stage for a lot of other musical genres. I wondered what you think about what she's doing for the instrument?
I’m afraid I can’t really offer anything. I’ve heard of her and people have mentioned her name, but I know nothing about the lady. I should obviously listen, but I’m not a great music listener. I’ve never really been a big fan of music as a listener. If I listen to music, it’s more likely to be Handel or Bach or more recently, catching up on other stuff that I haven’t listened to. I’ve become a big fan of Morrissey. Now, I’m a walking encyclopedia of everything to do with Morrissey, having read his biography and listened to all of his music. I’ve come to discover something that was missing, really. When you grow up in a certain world, there are things that you just don’t pay any attention to. They don’t seem relevant, musically or personality-wise. I decided one day out of the blue that I was going to listen to Morrissey. I discovered, to my surprise, that I really like Morrissey. So maybe the same thing will happen with Lizzo. I might listen to her and think, “Oh, wow, that’s really great!” But it will be one of those chance events when I suddenly decide to let my fingers dance on the QWERTY keyboard and look her up on YouTube or something.
One of her main flutes is named Sasha Flute. Have you given names to any of your flutes?
No, I’m not like that. I know, particularly with guitar players, they do have this infatuation with the guitar as a female form. I seem to recall that B.B. King had a name for his favorite guitar, Lucille. In my world, I don’t know, maybe I just don’t want to have too close of an attachment to an individual instrument – because, at the end of the day, they’re expendable. They get damaged, they get broken or they get superseded by another model. I tend to look upon them as tools of the trade. So whilst a car mechanic might have his favorite motor hoist for getting engines out of cars or his favorite set of tools, [I’m not like that]. I guess I have a favorite couple of flutes, but I don’t want to get too attached to them, because they’re not forever. They will get stolen or broken, so I keep a little distance. Tools of the trade, that’s what they are. I clean them; I lovingly polish them and keep them in good working order – but I don’t have an emotional attachment of any sort. I save that for my cats!