Jethro Tull's John O'Hara: Orchestrating Tull

By Raymond Britt

Though 300 years apart, Jethro Tull (the inventor) and Jethro Tull's (the band) John O'Hara have more in common than you might expect, in ways that may surprise you. Consider these fast facts:
  • Jethro Tull, multi-dimensional inventor of the modern seed drill, was originally a keyboard player, in the early 1680s, or so.
  • Jethro Tull's multi-instrumentalist keyboard player John O'Hara was originally a percussionist, in the early 1970s and 1980s, 300 years later. 
  • “When I was young my diversion was music,” wrote Jethro Tull in his biography. Though he quickly added that, to paraphrase, he was quite bad at it. 
  • "When I was young, I was gigging in my father's band," Jethro Tull's John O'Hara told us. Though he's too humble to say so, he was quite good at it. 
  • In 1701, using his experience as a keyboard player, Jethro Tull would rise to global fame by inventing the modern seed drill. 
  • In 2003, using his experience as a keyboard player, John O'Hara would rise to global fame by reinventing some of Jethro Tull's modern music for Ian Anderson's orchestral solo tour. 
Though, of course, Tull and O'Hara ultimately pursued different primary professions -- Tull as inventor/agriculturalist/lawyer/author, O'Hara as Tull's keyboardist/accordionist/orchestrator -- it can be said that both are known for innovation and creativity in their respective paths.

Tull, The Inventor / Tull, The Band

Yes, Jethro Tull was an admittedly poor musician. But he did pay attention to the instruments, to the gear, as it were. It was his understanding of the keyboard, the organ and its construction and function that led him to inspiration, to invent the seed drill.

In his 1731 book, Horse Hoeing Husbandry, Tull explained that by “altering [the soundboard of an organ] just a little and some parts of two other instruments as foreign to the field as the organ . . . I composed my machine,” the seed drill, in 1701.

The celebrated invention revolutionized worldwide agriculture, serving to plant seeds that led to significantly more productive personal and crop output. And it helped bring Tull to the attention of Ian Anderson, a musician in need of a new name in 1968, when his band was given the moniker: Jethro Tull.

Jethro Tull, the band, is in the midst of a world tour commemorating the 40th anniversary of  classic rock's classic album, Aqualung. taking the stage each night are band founder, composer, flautist, singer and charismatic leader Ian Anderson (see our interview with Ian here); 4-hour marathon runner and 40+ year Tull lead guitarist, Martin Barre (see our interview with Martin here); drummer Doane Perry; bassist David Goodier; and keyboard player, accordionist and orchestrator John O'hara.

Tull's John O'Hara, Perspectives

We spoke with John when he was touring with Ian Anderson on Anderson's 2010 solo tour. John generously spoke at length with us on a variety of topics, from his musical career progression, influences,  joining Ian's band, then Tull, the process of orchestrating Ian's and Tull's music, to gear choices and performance insights.

Here are the highlights.

Musical Career Progression
I started off just gigging as a teenager in bands my father was a musician so I found myself playing in a few of his bands from time to time. It was all kinds, it was Doobie Brothers, it was that kind of period. So it was kind of rock music . . . late seventies, early eighties, I was still in school. 

But then I got into music college, which was kind of decision that actually I could make this as a career, the decision to and I went to a classical music college as a percussionist. 
And then I got into a jazz course at another college. Royal Northern College of Music . . . the Royal had a better ring to it . . . THE  Royal Northern College of Music, which was very grand. I did undergraduate there and postgraduate . . . as my blurb says on the  . . . and so that gave me a pretty basic grounding in music. 
I was always playing piano, I graduated as a percussionist but was always a second-study pianist. So when you get to year two in music college in year one I think you usually get the option to drop; I actually kept it going. 
I was fascinated by it, and by then I was writing with it and composing and the piano was a great source, a tool, for that. But then of course that led to me getting a job as a percussionist with the dance company.  
Basically the story want that call came in ‘we need a percussionist NOW is there anyone who is available tomorrow night to come to Birmingham which was two hours away from where I lived.  I said I’m free, I’ll do it! 
I literally ran down there and got into the orchestral pit. Basically had to sight-read all of the material, but by the end of the gig the director said that was great, do you want to stay the rest of the week, and I said sure I’ll stay for the rest of the week. And after that I stayed for what must have been 5, 6, 7 years . .  It was a long time. 
I played all kinds of percussion instruments, marimbas vibraphones it varies from to timpani in a Mozart symphony. I wasn’t using midi controllers, it was all natural instruments, all acoustic, a big trunk full of gear.  
I then went to working in theater, it was my writing that took over . . .  music for Shakespeare, music for contemporary modern theater.

Influences Along the Way
I was being influenced by the composers that I was playing, the people I was performing with because that was all brand new music, music that was commissioned for that company.  
You get a chance to meet the composers and work with them, so they were influential.
I was always a bit symphonic . . . I really liked Richard Strauss, not the Johann Waltz Strauss, but the Richard Strauss with the big, symphonic orchestra, big tunes melodies, fantastic harmonies and an amazing orchestrator. 
That sound the he would create, such as the John Williams’ of the world take on . . . . so much, just so much in that big room.  
Think about it . . even in one measure, the texture in that measure is in that one romantic period and that’s the Richard Wagner’s, the Richard Strauss’s of the world, that’s what we were doing and that’s what inspired me, that’s what I listened to.  
So a lot of when you listen to orchestrations relate, when I look ahead a bit, like I now do for Ian and others, you know I’ve got that big sound in my head often even though we’re working with different musical forces. 

Joining The Band
Dave Goodier, who plays bass with Tull now, he and I used to work a great deal together, he would play bass for me on all of the projects that I wrote in the theater world, so he and I had a long-standing relationship for ten or so years. 
In fact, I had to take some publicity photos for Dave to give to Ian when Dave was introduced to Ian so there’s a little circle there. 
He found out that Ian was looking for a new accordion player and piano player.
I had just started to play accordion at that point, just a few months, actually, and so Ian just phoned me up, said would you like to come and audition, and I said sure.  
So he sent me a couple of audition pieces, one for the accordion one for the piano, and I went along and we did some playing, some improvising and it went well.  
At the end of that he said would you come out and do the Rubbing Elbows tour, which I think was about 2003 which was my first outing with Ian. 
That then progressed to Ian saying, 'look I’ve got this orchestral project . . .' and by then, I already had orchestrated a considerable number of pieces for Ian.  
Thick of a Brick and Aqualung had already been scored and David Palmer’s music had been orchestrated, and most of that work had been done by another orchestrator, someone that Ian had worked with very briefly.  
I then came to those scores, he handed me, and said, 'those scores, look, load them into your computer and then we can work through them again, because there are a few alterations I’d like to make.' 
So once I had started to get used to the way Ian worked and liked to work with orchestras, I was able to subsequently make an orchestration and hand it to Ian having known, pretty much, the fashion in which he likes to work.

Ian’s work is very pure sounding, the chords tend to be very pure. 

Often Ian will work with chords that don’t have a third in them so it could be a major or a minor chord that’s leaving an openness so the person who’s improvising has room to move around it, has the choice whether to play major or minor.  
It may be Martin’s influence . . . often chord five, that’s often the same, probably because they have been together for 40-odd years, that's the same school. 
I didn’t orchestrate Aqualung, but I did alterations in Aqualung. 
The body of Aqualung, this current version of Aqualung is in a different key than with Tull, down a semi-tone. Tonight, we will do a version of that, the orchestral version because we are playing more acoustically but where the orchestra had that big symphonic section unfortunately we edited that out. At the moment, we’re playing Aqualung in F I think the beginning we play in D minor and at the end we’re playing E minor. 
An example? God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was mine. It just had to be orchestrated as a big swing number. I’ve heard Ian’s version on the Christmas Album, but when it came to orchestrating it just had to be like that, because of that shuffle -- kjook kijack kijook kijack -- because the shuffle is there, it just had to be a big band number.
The scoring is for full string section, three woodwinds, two horns one trumpet and one trombone. So it’s quite tight, it’s quite small. I use a lot of doubling and I use quote a lot of open things with the brass so you’ve obviously got your horns in the middle, your top and the trombone on the bottom, but the trombone is not always playing the root of the chord, it’s just a little bland. So I often get him up playing a harmony note as well.

Touring Gear
I’m using the Roland 700, the new one as well, the GX, which is absolutely gorgeous . . . I use the GX as a controller, and it controls the Phantom, so I’ve got a rack-mounted phantom sitting beside me, and in England I’ve got the phantom keyboard, but it’s just too big to fly with.  
Under that I use the MOTU as a mixer really because I can get two inputs from the phantom, two inputs from the organ module and two inputs from the accordion. So, that’s six out of the 8 inputs used, and my in-ear mix that’s central so I can now control the gain, I’ve got it literally by my hand at mid-body height. 
I do the patch changes not triggered externally and usually, I do them on the keyboard sending program changes. Actually on this tour, because it’s a simple one, I’m actually just using the daisy wheel. I’m doing it literally on the machine.  
Having the drawbars on the organ, having three different pre-sets, on Thick as a Brick, for example, using a quieter sound, I can just hit the button on the thing, glorious piece of equipment, it really is.   
I couldn’t say anything more about it, except, now don’t tell Roland about this, I’ve had two crashes on this tour. Once, it crashed and it was absolutely dry in the middle of the show. 
The first one was Thick as a Brick, it was stuck, but in the middle of it, I have to change. I had to turn it off and turn it back on to reboot it again. And, of course it just takes time to load the samples. Seconds were going by, and I was thinking, 'I should have been playing that there . . .' From Ian there was a moment of ‘what was going on’ but I’m sure it was just a glitch.  

New Songs on the Ian Anderson Solo Tour
You’re going to get a new song on this tour – two new songs on this tour – one of which is an instrumental.  
There’s a new one, which is instrumental, which doesn’t have a title, and there’s also a new song which I think it really really clever, really strong and it gets quite rocking in the middle, and its called Adrift and Dumbfounded. 
The other interesting thing to look out for, of course, will be from the passion play, we’re going to do the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, and I will play John Evan’s part.  
Ian will narrate, it’s not been done on stage, ever. Jeffery did it for the recording, and then of course mimed it on film, and of course it was orchestrated with a small ensemble.  
I could have put patches in, and oboes in but actually we just wanted to keep is simple and the piano sound on the roland is just great. I use the pure ‘complete piano’ sample card on the inside – it’s much better than the ones that are in there.

And with that, it was time to prepare for the concert, which was brilliant. See our show review here. And catch John and Tull in 2011 on the current world tour.

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