Jeb: Heavy Horses has an amazing song titled “One Brown Mouse.”
Ian: It was inspired by a Robert Burns poem called “Ode to a Mouse.” It was a tip of the cap to Robert Burns but it was also very much based on my childhood memories of having a pet mouse when I was six or seven years old. When you are very small, and you have that relationship with animals, and you realize how fragile they really are, and you think it is almost rather unpleasant to incarcerate them in the way that you keep a mouse in a little cage. I often have thought about that little mouse. I think I may have actually helped him to escape. He may very well have spent his final days foraging around in the garden.
Jeb: Stormwatch has a song that is one of your best, titled “Dun Ringill.”
Ian: That one comes from a rural background as well. This time it is about the Western Isles of Scotland. It is very much about a place and that kind of strange, dark spirituality of ancient monuments, and Neolithic, and post Neolithic tribal people and their buildings, burial mounds and fortifications. The song swells with the darkness of Hebridian intrusions by the Viking hordes that swept in from Norway and Denmark and did bad things. They probably had bad things done to them as well as the local inhabitants weren’t exactly pushovers. The song is based on these little hill forts, some of which still stand on a rocky little corner on the Isle of Skye. I tried to bring that spiritual, ghostly awakening of people who lived, and died there.
Jeb: The next album was A and the song I want to know about is “Crossfire.”
Ian: “Crossfire” is very much born out of real events. It was a time when we were undergoing some difficult periods with terrorism. One of our more clandestine military wings, the SAS, our Special Air Service, were brought into the streets of London to liberate hostages from an embassy. We had been, in recent times, suffering terrorist bombings from the IRA but this was something darker, as it was a foreign power, and it was coming home to roost in our own backyard.
It was very much inspired by the news stories and television broadcasts at the time. Everything was short, sharp, brief, punchy and dramatic. We were watching real life. This was not an Arnold Swarchenegger, or Sylvester Stallone, type of romanticism. There were very real people who were being shot at. It was very much written from the rolling television news of the day. I was trying to put myself in the place of one of those guys who actually has to go out there and put his life on the line trying to rescue those hostages. It is not one of my greatest songs but it is about something very real, and that appeals to me. Sometimes, in a piece of music, you can actually paint a picture of a real life event. I don’t do that very often but that was one of them. It was a real life event that was actually happening.
Jeb: Broadsword and the Beast is the opposite but the song “Broadsword” paints a strong picture.
Ian: We are back in the same territory of “Dun Ringill.” We are back into the defense of the community and the defense of your woman and kinfolk. It has a very Scottish feel to it. I suppose you would have to call it folk rock. It is a very theatrical piece, and most bands would not have done that in that sort of way. I think it is rather well done, if you can forgive the rather
Pirates of the Caribbean feel about it. Johnny Depp could have done this as well as I did it.
Jeb: After this, in 1983, you put out your first solo album, Walk into the Light. The single was “Fly By Night.”
Ian: That one was marked by the new technology of digital sampling. It actually contains some of the first digital samples. There were keyboards that were able to reproduce orchestral sounds. There was one such device called The Emulator. Many of the samples we used were recorded by me in my studio. I don’t play violin but I played the notes. The album, as a whole, was an experiment with this new technology. This was a time when that type of stuff was first available, so I wanted to see how I could use it, and where it would take me. On that album, there were still elements of acoustic guitar, and flute, so it was a mixture of what was, then, new and advanced technology, and older, orchestral instruments. I thought it worked quite well. “Fly By Night,” as the title suggests, is a little bit of a womanizer that is a one-night stand merchant.
Jeb: Under Wraps was next for Jethro Tull. The album continued “Lap of Luxury.”
Ian: It is one that was contrived as a more commercial track. It is one of my least favorite songs on the album. It doesn’t seem too evolved, either lyrically, or musically. It is not one that I am particularly proud of. There are quite a few other songs on the album that I quite like but I just wish, with hindsight, that we had recorded those in real time, with all real instruments.
You couldn’t just turn your back on the new tools that were there to make music with. I had to fiddle around with it. It resulted in some good songs. The best I ever sang was on that album. I stretched my limits on that album, which was indeed a dangerous thing to so, especially when trying to do that live onstage. I think the album had its good moments but “Lap of Luxury” is not one of those. It is pretty easy to see what it is about, and it has no layers of meaning, or any depth to it. You can like it if you like, that’s okay.
Jeb: Crest of a Knave has one of your greatest songwriting accomplishments in “Budapest.”
Ian: You’re spot on with that one, as that is one of my all-time favorite songs. It succeeds, partly because it brings together lots of elements of different musical elements, from rock to blues to folk to classical, it has a whole lot of things going on. Some of it was deliberately arranged, some of it was quite loose and some of it was improvised.
Lyrically, I think it works for me, although on the face of it, it is quite sexist. It is actually quite a respectful song. It says all the kinds of erotic things about a young female body. The whole point of the song is to respect that, and not doing anything about it. It is a song of respect for naïve, youthful adolescents in the female form. It is a song of respect and appreciation for the sanctity of growing up, and not to be trifled with. I think it is an important songs for me. On the one hand, people think it is an erotic, and manipulative piece, with a younger female, but when you read the song lyrics, and follow them to their conclusion, then, it is actually quite the opposite. It really works on two levels for me.
Jeb: Rock Island has a not so subtle song called “Kissing Willie.”
Ian: It is not one of my favorite songs but it was set out to be a little bit of fun. At the time, there was that kind of gung ho, naughty attitude towards woman. Don’t blame me; blame ZZ Top, as they are the ones who started it. Also, Robert Palmer started using little dolly birds in his videos. “Kissing Willie” was in that era. The way we did it was to make it almost like a Benny Hill spoof. We did a video for that one with a very well-known video maker who wanted to do a costume drama rendition. It was all very Benny Hill and really very embarrassing. In terms of the music, and video, it is not something that I am happy to be reminded of. It is not something I should be running off to show my three-year-old granddaughter.
Jeb: Catfish Rising has a great song in “Rocks on the Road.”
Ian: That album was a return to the British motif. “Rocks on the Road” is a pretty good song. How many songs can you write about being on the road as a traveling musician, or for that matter, a traveling salesman selling insurance, or a small arms dealer selling arms to third world countries? Being stuck in hotels and being out on the road is sometimes charmless. It is kind of obvious, as many people have written that kind of song before. I was not the first to do it, and I won’t be the last. It did have a lot of little motifs in it that people who spend a lot of time inhabiting hotels will recall, such a moments of mini-bar madness, when the bar closed an hour ago and there is nothing left to do but to open that dreaded mini-bar and pay through the nose for a miniature scotch whiskey. We’ve all been there and done it, and lived to regret it when we saw the bill that next morning.
Jeb: Roots to Branches has a great tune called “Another Harry’s Bar.”
Ian: There can’t be a capital city anywhere that doesn’t have a Harry’s Bar. Why Harry? Who is this guy named Harry and how did he get around so much? Whenever there is a bar called Harry’s, then the chances are that Harry is dead and gone and that he has moved on.
My moment of fancy was that whoever Harry was, is gone and now there is another bartender, and a new owner, who never even goes into work unless he is going in to help drink them dry. It is just another sleazy bar that has absolutely nothing going for it other than it is, for a moment, a port in the storm. If it is wet and windy outside then it is a place to go into and have a drink and wait for it to pass.
I have to say that I am not a person who frequents bars. I have never found them very enjoyable. The only bars I have tended to be in are in the hotel, where it is relatively safe and your room is not far away. The idea of going into a bar in an American city, or in London, is something I very rarely do. I can count the number of times that I have been alone in a bar on the fingers on one hand. In sixty-three years, I have probably been alone in a bar three times, or something like that. You only have to go once, however, to write a song like “Another Harry’s Bar.”
Jeb: 12 Divinities is a powerful album. The song I want to know about is “In the Grip of Stronger Stuff.”
Ian: It is an instrumental album that was supposed to evoke the spiritual residencies of the religious organizations we know, and also the lesser religions, such as paganism. “In the Grip of Stronger Stuff” is primitive. It is ritual, and it is about induced excitement from drugs, drinks or whatever it might be. It is a tune that before it was named, or before it was rewritten for that album, I has played with Dave Pegg in the context of a musical medley.
When it came time to do the
Divinities album, I thought of that tune. I was thinking of Dave Pegg, who was an avid drinker. It seemed an apt title. It is meant to evoke something that is really more to do with ceremony, and primitive religion, where people get stirred up from eating, drinking or smoking something that they probably shouldn’t have.
Jeb: J Tull.com has a great song called “Hunt by Numbers.”
Ian: That is one of the four, or five songs, in my life, that I have written about cats. If you have more than one of them, then you know they tend to like to persecute small animals, and be in a little sort of gang while doing it. It is not uncommon to see three or four of them tormenting the same small mouse. We think of cats as very lonely, and solitary creatures, which hunt alone. When there are there two or three of them and a mouse, then it is literally a game, the cat and mouse game. Apparently it makes it even more fun. We like to think that our cuddly little pussycats are so sweet and innocent, yet they’re manically destructive, and deeply unpleasant souls underneath their soft, furry exterior.
Jeb: Secret Language of Birds has the song “The Water Carrier.”
Ian: A lot of the songs on that album were drawn from artwork, from either pieces that I own, or that I have seen. The water carrier theme was often depicted in Late Victorian, and early 20
th century art. Woman were often seen carrying a pot of water, or a jar of something, on their head, balancing it. We see that today, except it is often small children carrying a plastic fertilizer barrel, or whatever it might be. They carry it to the local well and then carry it back to the village. It is a time honored role that usually centers around females in tribal societies. The guys never seem to do that. The young girls seem to get that job and it is rather heavy and difficult to carry water.
I turn it around to fit the modern age by having somebody sell bottled mineral water to tourists on a beach somewhere. As we all know, sometimes that bottled water is not exactly what is said to be. It is often refilled at the local village septic pump and sold to the unwary tourist who doesn’t realize that the screw cap has already been off several times. I just took a contemporary twist on carrying water for consumption.
Jeb: Your next solo album was Rupi’s Dance. I am certain you will tell me this is a literally title, “A Pigeon Flying Over Berlin Zoo.”
Ian: It was exactly that. I was in Berlin for a concert that night and I took a walk through Berlin Zoo, as I have done many times as a musician playing in Germany. As I was walking through the zoo, looking at animals being iron bars, and barbed wire, I was struck by this lone pigeon. He flew kind of low over the zoo, almost as if he was looking at the animals inside the zoo. This animal was free. He was not incarcerated in this zoo, even if it is a quite nice zoo. I thought, “Hang on, there might be more to this. The pigeon might be looking down thinking that the zoo looks a whole lot nicer than being out there on busy streets of Berlin trying to find something to eat. Maybe life in the Berlin Zoo looks better to him. I thought I could twist that initial thought around, and that the pigeon would quite like being incarcerated in the zoo, and fed by attendants, and given a cushy life.” As I was walking to an Indian restaurant, I had most of the song in my head. When I got back to my hotel I scribbled it down so I could work on it at a later time and make a song about it.
Jeb: The final thing you have done, at this writing, is the Jethro Tull Christmas Album and the song I picked is “Ring Solstice Bells.”
Ian: There are a few songs that I have written over the years that are from the Christmas perspective, or just from that special time of the year that we all gravitate too in our Western culture because it is part of our society, and at some level, we all enjoy that. Christmas is kind of open for everybody.
The kind of branch of Christianity that I am associated with, although I am not a practicing Christian, I still feel comfortable being affiliated with an Anglican, Christian religion. It is kind of a tea and cakes sort of Christianity. It is a cozy, and easy, version of Christianity and it is open for business. I think what I like and respect about it is that it is open to everybody, even begrudgingly to gay and lesbian people. Even Philistines and Heathens, such as myself, are welcomed into the house of the Anglican Lord to perform concerts.
I do things in benefit of the Christian Church. Even though I am not a Christian, I am very much a supporter of Christianity. I think anything that I can do that allows people to rub shoulders with the Anglican Christianity is good. If they find solace, a spiritual outlet, or community worship, then that is great. I am very happy to be able to help people take part in that rewarding scenario, if that is what they want to do, even though I am not a Christian.
I think the same way about homosexuality. I believe myself to be a strong supporter of Gay and Lesbian rights, but I have not yet had a gay or lesbian experience. I don’t have to actually be gay, to be pro-gay rights, and I don’t have to be a Christian, to be pro Christianity. If I were a paleontologist, then I would not have to have sharp teeth, or a long scaly tail, to talk as an expert on dinosaurs. For me, there is no contradiction in any of this, and I find it quite easy to be part, and parcel, of that world without being a fully paid up member of that community.