Ian Anderson, the longtime mastermind behind English rockers Jethro Tull, has a reputation of being tough and prickly in interviews, sometimes bordering on intimidating.
Yet, Anderson came across as rather upbeat and funny during our recent phone chat from his sprawling, 400-acre home in Wiltshire. He even admitted that every morning he gets up and has “a glass of chilled vodka,” though that’s about it for his alcohol consumption. “I’m one of those people who never drink after mid-morning,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not a big drinker.”
He is, though, a big talker. Get him started on a subject and he’ll set sail, but the core truth is that he’s having fun these days and is still a committed optimist at 72 when it comes to performing. He’ll bring his “50 Years of Jethro Tull” show to the Chevalier Theatre in Medford on Wednesday.
“I always like to feel you carry an optimism with you every time you walk out on stage, that this is going to be one of the best shows you’ve played,” he said. “Even if it’s in the upper 10 percent, that’s a good goal to aim for — and that in itself is energizing.”
Astonishingly, 36 different musicians have been in Jethro Tull through the years (including Tony Iommi, later of Black Sabbath), but Anderson has remained the anchor since they broke through in the ’70s with progressive rock albums “Aqualung,” “Thick As a Brick” and “A Passion Play.”
Jethro Tull — the name actually refers to an 18th-century agriculturist — toured as an opening act for Led Zeppelin, then exploded and became a frequent headliner at the old Boston Garden, which is where we’ll pick up our edited conversation:
Q. I saw a number of your Boston Garden shows. What was it like to play there? The acoustics were rough, and I remember Billy Joel once said, “Even hockey sounds bad there.”
A. It wasn’t an easy place to play. But people had no point of comparison and very often had very unrealistic memories of concerts back then. They recall with such apparent clarity how wonderful this was, but the reality was there was a thin, weedy sound and there were these little matchstick figures on the stage. It was an age when people look back on it with memories that are altogether too kind.
Q. Weren’t you also on the forefront of concert video back then?
A. Yes, in 1973 we did it with “A Passion Play.” Not all the way through the show, but there were three big segments of projected video on a screen. Then in ’75 and ’76 we did it again. And we’ve been working with video again in the last 10 years or so. There are times when we stick with videos that have become almost as classic as the song itself. And sometimes that’s OK, but otherwise you have to keep coming up with new stuff and ideas. A lot of time, effort and money go into making it.
Q. I’ve read you’ve played 3,000 concerts in the last 50 years, and you still do 100 a year. That seems phenomenal. What keeps you out there?
A. Typically, it’s been 75 to 100 shows a year. It certainly adds up. I might do three or four shows a week assuming they’re not too far away and I can hop a plane to Europe. So that seems OK and means three nights a week I get to sleep in my own bed and play with the cats and have some form of a life, even if I’m working at home, which sometimes of course I am. But being in my own home is very precious. And next year is filling up fast. There is a harsh reality that I’m not going to do this forever, so why quit when you’re having fun?
Q. I remember your song years ago, “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Too Young to Die.” Was it a bit prophetic?
A. Yeah, but that’s fine because it’s a kind of anthemic cheering-on of people who stick to their cultural roots. It’s not political. It was written to describe a person who is an old rocker (or biker) and he was wed to that way when I suppose he was an aspiring teenager and a young adult on a motorcycle and in a black leather jacket and he dreamed of being Marlon Brando and James Dean. It was about a culture, about people who have their clothes, their music, and their way of celebrating life on the open road. It’s kind of triumphal in the sense that you have someone who says, “Yeah, what the hell. I know what I like. This is me.”
Q. I want to applaud you for your lyrics through the years. They’re consistently high quality and thought-provoking. Are they something you work extremely hard on?
A. There’s a very easy answer to that. I write very quickly and I record very quickly, too. My band on the other hand, they want to keep every take, and I hate doing that. I’m a destructive editor. I record something, and when I re-record it, it automatically deletes what I don’t want. I’m making very quick judgments about my own performance. I can’t be bothered with too much editing. That’s the way I work. Life is too short.
Q. What’s your feeling about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? It seems incredible that Jethro Tull is not in there yet.
A. I really do believe it’s an American institution about celebrating, glorifying, and recording the history of Americana in terms of music. It should be about American acts. To me that’s what it’s there for. There is a whole bunch of American artists who need to be recognized long before you start thinking about a bunch of rich Brits who have made far too much money out of the US!
Q. There seems to be a prejudice against the English acts sometimes. I remember David Gilmour of Pink Floyd saying they were eligible three or four years before they got in. And that’s Pink Floyd!
A. I really don’t feel any engagement there. American music brought me into music through big band music when I was a child and then the earliest rock ’n’ roll and then blues. So American music got me going, but by the time I was 17 or 18, I couldn’t walk past a mirror without thinking, “Well, I’m not black. I don’t live on the South Side of Chicago, and I never had the experience of being a black in contemporary America.” I was imitating something that wasn’t really mine. I just found that to be very disingenuous. which is why the first Jethro Tull album was called ”This Was,” because it was essentially the time when we were trying to open the door by being a little middle-class white blues band in London, and that was just a means to an end.
Q. Then you changed your style, right?
A. Yes, and about a year or so later the advent of rock became progressive rock in 1969. That term was first coined by the British music press for bands like us and King Crimson, Yes, and the bands that came along a year or two later like Genesis. We were off and running after that new banner. Arguably, Britain did more of that and did it better than anybody else. So that made me feel better. And of course progressive rock these days is still a very real force in music.
IAN ANDERSON’S 50 YEARS OF JETHRO TULL
At the Chevalier Theatre, Medford, Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $79-$165, 781-391-7469, www.chevaliertheatre.com