Prog rock luminary Ian Anderson talks to Photogroupie about a classical re imagining of some of the iconic tracks from the Jethro Tull cannon and how a 60's rock sound came to be transposed into a classical extravaganza.
PHOTOGROUPIE: (PG) WHAT DREW YOU TO RECORDING THESE SONGS WITH A STRING QUARTET?
IAN ANDERSON: (IA) I've done lots of things with string quartets going back to November 1968. The intimacy of a string quartet has always had an appeal for me. So it was on my, not a bucket list, but something that I wanted to do.
PG: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FINISHED BODY OF WORK?
IA: Obviously, I've been living with it for several months in terms of the preparation and the arrangements, the actual recording sessions, overdubbing, then mixing it and mastering it, so I've heard it an awful lot of times. You get to a point when you release an album that you are so familiar with it that you almost don't want to hear it for a while because you have to clear your head of the incredible scrutiny and detail that you had to apply in getting it to that finished point. It's really the result of another day in the office, but the thrill is in the preparation and recording of it, you have to remember 'that was a lot of fun at the time' and the pedantic, boring bit comes later.
PG: THERE'S A LOT OF MATERIAL TO LOOK AT, SO HOW DID YOU SELECT THE BEST SONGS TO RE-IMAGINE?
IA: I usually have on my laptop, a list of the hundred best known Jethro Tull songs with the view of putting together a set list for a particular tour or concert, so that was my first point of reference. I then whittled that down to about fifty songs and John O' Hara came up with a couple of suggestions that I might not have thought of. We arrived at twelve songs that, broadly speaking, covered that definition of the best of Jethro Tull. Some were perhaps easier fits for the string quartet than others, it's important not to have a production assembly line approach to this sort of music. You have to treat each song on its merits and find a way to bring that to fruition and have respect for the melodies, harmonies and the rhythms of the individual songs.
PG: WHAT PROCESS DID YOU AND JOHN O' HARA TAKE TO SET ABOUT ARRANGING THE MATERIAL?
IA: In some cases, we sat and talked about it before hand and covered the obvious areas - where we would assign the melody line to the first violin as opposed to the flute and I'd play a harmony or a counter melody. These things were usually talked through backstage at a gig in another country or after a sound check or in a hotel lobby. There were a few things where he presented me with his ideas and I'd comment on that. Finding the right group of people whose energy and expertise was up to the mark but also geographically and temporally, having free days in the diary those were big issues. Luckily the Carducci Quartet fulfilled all of those conditions.
PG: HOW DO YOU APPROACH WORKING WITH A QUARTET OR ORCHESTRA?
IA: I've worked with orchestras over the last 20 years and from 2004 onward I've done a lot of orchestral shows, I probably do about one or two each year, but these are different arrangements. In some cases, they're not so different because the original record had an orchestra like Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die. So that's an easy thing; just taking the original record and doing it live. Other songs like Aqualung, Locomotive Breath and elements of Thick As A Brick, where there are no orchestras on the original versions - not only is the orchestral part an addition, the songs are rearranged to accommodate the orchestra. You can't just bolt on an orchestra. Many bands have tried to do that and they (the orchestra) are either inaudible or they have little to play of interest and are just hacking out some legato accompaniment for visual effect. I've always taken the view that if we do orchestral concerts then we and the orchestra have to integrate as a large ensemble. We as musicians have to play whisper quiet on stage. I always say to the guys in the band that if you are making a louder noise than the un-amplified first violin, then you're playing too loud.
PG: YOU DID SOME OF YOUR OVERDUBS AT YOUR DESK AT HOME, SO DO YOU FIND WORKING IN SOLITUDE IS EASY FOR YOU, AND LESS DISTRACTING?
IA: To me it doesn't have to be about empty spaces and solitude, I can be walking down a street in London and suddenly into my head comes a lyric or melody and I have to step aside and record that moment so that I won't forget it.
PG: WAS THERE ANY REASON WHY YOU CHOSE TO RECORD THE ALBUM IN CRYPTS AND CHAPELS GIVEN ALL THE INHERENT PROBLEMS WITH ACOUSTICS IN THESE TYPES OF BUILDINGS?
IA: The crypt as opposed to the main body of the cathedral, yes indeed. But there were other practical conditions. Cathedrals are open for business to the public between 9 and 6 and you can't have any privacy whatsoever. They were kind enough to block off the crypt on a day when I could record uninterrupted by the public or extraneous noise. Even so, we were interrupted on a few occasions by the rumbling of traffic in the distance, as we did when we recorded in the historic church in the Cotswold's on the other two days. A sterile recording studio, which would have been an easier and more productive way to record, didn't provide anything in the way of a more spiritual ambiance. It was the indefinable spiritual ambiance rather than the acoustic ambiance I was looking for.
PG: YOU SAY THAT YOU ARE NOT PARTICULARLY RELIGIOUS, BUT DID YOU STILL FIND THE SPIRITUAL ATMOSPHERE INSPIRING?
IA: Yes, but it's something I'm familiar with. I do two or three fund raising concerts a year for the Cathedrals. We're blessed with a great many Medieval cathedrals in Great Britain and every year I play a few of them to help with the maintenance and upkeep. It's very expensive to maintain a big ancient building. I'm not exactly what you'd call a Christian, but I'm a determined supporter of the cultural tradition of the Christian church in Britain. It brings so much benefit to so many people, especially if I can get a few more of them through the door and it awakens something in them and hopefully they'll go again and dip their hands in their pockets and put a tenner in the collection box as well as buy the ticket that literally keeps the roof on. What we do by that is to bring people to a more spiritual awareness of each other. It's a celebration of being there together and it's an environment that has this strength and gives people the sense of something more profound, even if they are not Christian believers. I share that with them in my concerts which are obviously secular. I try to bring in elements of the musical liturgy of the church and Christian worship.
PG: CHURCHES AND CATHEDRALS HAVE BECOME GREAT PLACES TO PERFORM IN RECENT YEARS, WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
IA: A lot of performers who haven't done that before are a bit scared and it's a challenge to them. But because I've done lots of it, it's a very easy atmosphere. As a child, it scared the shit out of me until I started to perform in them. Now I feel fine, I'm usually welcome and it's my workplace. For others who haven't done it, it's a big thrill and something special. When I did St Albans a few years ago Marc Almond was one of the guests and he loved it so much that he came to perform with me in Winchester and even Reykjavik. Marc, like me, gets a big dose of something rather fundamental and spiritual value out of being there and we hope to pass that onto the audience. Recording the String Quartet album we hoped to capture a little bit of that spirituality side of your being. Some people may say that I don't have any of that and it's all fantasy and silliness and maybe it is, and for them, Harry Potter will have to suffice for their dose of the otherworldly. But others look for it in more spiritual and philosophical terms that aren't showbizzy fairytales.
PG: I GET THE IMPRESSION YOU'RE NOT A BIG FAN OF ALL THAT PRETENTIOUS SHOWBIZ STUFF ARE YOU?
IA: That's right, I'm not a fan of things that are demonstrating your stature in society or your wealth. There are no gold albums on the walls in my house or things I would be putting there in order to define to a visitor that I'm important or special. I just don't think it's necessary to do that. For a lot of artists, they absolutely have to have all these things around them all them time; perhaps because they are inherently insecure and need to be reminded every day that they are multi-platinum important people, if that's what they need then that's fine. Of course, a lot of them need crack cocaine and their other fixes in life to get through it.
For me sex, drugs, rock and roll gold albums and other paraphernalia of visible success aren't necessary; and if they're not necessary it's best to keep them out of the way. I don't need booze or drugs to get me on stage or happily get me back to the hotel. I'll enjoy a beer or a glass of wine but it's not necessary, like human contact. A lot of people I've met can't function unless they have an entourage of supporters, I saw that with Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie. On the occasions that I met them they had to have all these folks with them as if they were afraid of being alone, I'm not like that, I love to be alone. It worries me that people need this constant sense of support and people telling them how great they are. It's a weird place to be. I'm the cat that walks alone, I don't like to go out in company. I like to eat alone, I like to walk the city streets and go out alone, I don't go out with the other guys or the crew. It's much more fun, you can give your attention to another world that's not part of your everyday experience.
Jethro Tull The String Quartets is out now