Martin Barre Interview
I want to start with your beginnings as a musician. I understand that you played saxophone and flute and I was wondering if that had any impact on the way you approach your guitar playing?
It has, I suppose by default, because I wasn't able to play guitar. Maybe it sort influenced my guitar playing, because I was held back for a couple of years playing R&B and soul, which is what I had to do in order to make a living. I suppose it gave me a good introduction into that sort of music. I didn't really start playing the guitar in a big way until the blues boom came over to England. Then all the bands switched over to more guitar based music. I always look upon it as a blip in my career, I never enjoyed playing saxophone at all, but I liked the music and I've always liked the flute!
It nicely worked out for you then.
Just as well. So that's the only thing that's carried through from those days is that I still like playing the flute and I've played it for many years.
I know there are guitar players who say they listen to horn players for inspiration. I was curious as to whether playing those instruments affected your melodic approach?
I don't differentiate between any instrument — I listen to the melody, normally it's coincidental what's playing it. In fact the other way around there's only a few instruments that I really dislike listening to...the clarinet, the trombone and the bagpipes! As long as one of those instruments isn't involved I'll enjoy a piece of music; the music to me is the thing that is most important. I think it's good to listen to every instrument and every style of music.
It seems to me that Jethro Tull took a quantum leap in the interval between Benefit and Aqualung. Ian's songwriting and his singing made a big improvement and I believe your guitar playing as well. Do you feel there was a jump in your playing in this period?
I've never thought of it that way. The songwriting had changed, because Ian started playing acoustic guitar and a lot of Aqualung features him playing acoustic guitar, that was the turning point in the songwriting. That went through, particularly to Thick as a Brick, so it was quite an influential part of the music. To me Benefit was the turning point where I felt my feet in the band. I think Stand Up was a very nervy, a very quick in the deep end album for everybody. I think none of us knew what the outcome would be of that album. I think all of us were quite nervous about the way it would be received and once it got a good reception, particularly in the states, we had a lot more confidence in what we were doing. In many ways Aqualung was a difficult album to make. We had a lot of problems in the studio, the atmosphere was pretty bad, whereas on Benefit and Stand Up it was quite a positive attitude.
The atmosphere was bad, because of the technical problems?
I think we had musical problems as well, getting the performance in the studio, especially in those days. You could never take it for granted that you could play solidly and get good results. It was pretty hit and miss, you could go in and have a really bad day and not even come out with a backing track.
And you probably didn't have much time to record the album anyway, because you would have to be right back out on tour.
Yeah, in some ways. We were still taking two or three months to record an album. A lot longer than we would now. There was no pressure to get them done by a certain time, the pressure time wise has been more apparent in the 90's through to these days. The touring schedule is laid down and you have a pocket of time to do an album and there is a lot of pressure to get it done quickly.
That's interesting that the pressure is now as opposed to then!
It's not a musical pressure, there's only so many hours in the day. It's always tight, you know? And you always feel like you end up finishing the album and think we could have done a couple of better tracks, better performances here or there on it. It's a very unsatisfactory way of recording, actually when you've got to schedule either side of it. To me doing my album, that was completely removed. The only thing I had to think about was playing well and writing and recording in my own time and schedule.
I was interested in your collaborations with Ian, such as "Minstrel in the Gallery." How do these come about, what's the process?
Thinking back to "Minstrel", the piece of music was straight instrumental. At the time Ian thought it would work well as fitting the concept of us being the minstrels in the gallery, of us being a band. It was an exotic piece of music and he wanted a group piece in the song, but it was already written and we'd played it onstage.
So Ian appropriated it?
Yeah, absolutely. At other times I've co-written music with Peter Vettese on some albums in the studio. Everyone came out with ideas, riffs or chord sequences. I mean Ian hasn't always dictated the basics of songs. Obviously many times he comes in with a chord sequence and an idea and that gets worked on in an arrangement. But often we sit around and just come up with ideas, so that's happened as well.
What about something more recent like "Hot Mango Flush"?
With that song Ian just wanted to give me a little window of opportunity to write a chunk of music. He put the lyrics on a cassette and said, "Come up with a piece of music that will go around this."
So you wrote the music to his words — I thought it was the other way around.
As soon as I'd heard how he'd phrased the lyrics I had an idea what to do with it. So I recorded the music in my own studio and then we chopped all his vocals out and slotted them into my music and based on that Ian re-did the vocals to suit the music. There's a hundred different ways to write music and I'm sure we've been through all of them. Whether the drummer comes up with an idea rhythmically or the keyboard player comes up with a sound or I come up with a riff or Ian comes up with a verse and a chorusthat will be a song — every approach is acceptable. I think we've always had a very broad approach to writing music.
Well, Tull has been around 35 years, right?
I think given the period of time you would have to be open minded and consider every approach possible.
You have to consider there are another four guys in the studio with you, it's all about listening to everybody — what they've got to say and what they've got to play. Giving people space and a bit of leeway with their ideas.
They get to put their stamp on it. One thing that's featured on your new solo album Stage Left is your acoustic playing. You don't usually play acoustic guitar with Tull, is that correct?
Going back to Aqualung, Ian wrote the songs on acoustic guitar and then I did all the electric parts and it became a sort of formula that carried on for many, many years. Unfortunately it meant Ian played all the acoustic stuff onstage and I got stuck with electric. It was only around Crest of a Knave that I started playing a lot more acoustic with Jethro Tull. It's a newer thing for me, but I really enjoy playing acoustic instruments. On my own albums I've got more space to explore using mandolins, bazukis, and so on.
One of my favorite pieces on the album, "As Told By" has a beautiful arrangement of several acoustic guitars and at least one electric in the background. Do you experiment with parts until they sit right, or do you hear them in your head or a combination of both?
On that one in particular I wanted to write a blues-y sounding acoustic piece of music. The way I'll write is I'll go into my studio, pick up a guitar, it might be an electric or an acoustic or a classical guitar and I suppose that sort of sets the direction in which the music is going to go. I had the acoustic and I wanted to write a blues-y sort of sequence and typically of me it was never going to be straightforward. So something that started being like a 12 bar blues very quickly changed, it just developed really. I had the basic sequence and had a melody over the sequence and developed that. I think that the arrangement fell into place as I wrote it. In fact it was one of the first tracks I recorded, I did that one in a day.
Did you really?
Yeah. It's one of my favorites, because it just fell into place.
It fell in your lap.
Well, it did. It turned out exactly as I wanted it to. I never came to the point where I said, "What shall I do next with this? Where should it go?" It worked out so perfectly for me and it was a very satisfying day in the studio.
Is your composition borne out of improvisation, or do you write things out?
I tend to write things out, there's very little improvisation apart from the guitar solos. Particularly on this album, I demoed everything. I've got a 24 track two inch tape in my little room, where I write, because I want to go into the main studio and do a full day's work. I didn't want to come to the point where I had to sit during recording and work out parts. I had all the harmonies and the guitar lines on multi-track as demos before I started recording the master versions. So in many ways it was already mapped out. Anything that was improvised became an overdubbed part, once the bulk of the track was recorded.
I did a blindfold test on a friend of mine, who is a big fan of yours and I played him "Murphy's Law" just to see how long it would take to recognize your style. And it took him about three seconds to guess it was you!
You have a particular electric style — a signature just like Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen — a real fingerprint in your playing. Is that something you've worked at consciously towards or did you just realize one day that you have one?
Well, I'm never aware of it, but it is what I do. I can't avoid it and I don't want to avoid it particularly, but I'm not aware of it and I'm glad I'm not. If I had some kind of preconceived idea of the way I had to play or the way I was expected to play it would sound very sterile. Funny, you mentioning that track, because a couple of people, the engineer in particular said at the time, "That is very typical of what you do." And I thought, "Is it? It doesn't sound that way to me." But I've got a load of different guitars, it doesn't matter what I play — it's like a lot of players you just do what you do and it's inherent in the thought process and the physical process of fingers of strings, vibrato, plectrum pressure.
Obviously you have certain things you gravitate towards...
I suppose it's a natural process, but I don't ever want to analyze what I do, because I don't want to take it that seriously, you know? I have fun doing it and if there's an overall style that pulls out from the finished product that's great because it gives me an identity. I've always thought, especially with Stage Left that there's a lot of different styles and you could take three or four tracks and play them with other music and I think it would be difficult to associate them as being me. Something like "DIY", I can't imagine that anyone would recognize anyone as me playing that!
I think you're right that there is a variety of music on the album and I have to admit the first song I played him was "As Told By" and he didn't know that was you, but when I played "Murphy's Law" he pegged it right away. But there is that diversity on Stage Left.
I wanted it to be that way. I wanted it to be an interesting album to listen to, whether you're a guitar player or whatever. If you didn't know who it was and you put it on your player and you could sit through it and listen to the whole thing without getting bored. That's all you can ask of anyone really, is that they've got the patience to play a whole album and enjoy it - that's a major accomplishment. Very often I'll buy an album and after three or four tracks I'm bored, not because it's good or bad music — I just want to move on. I do like that diversity. I just don't like things that are too focused. I recently bought a new album by a guitar player. It's really, really good, but I'll never play it again. It's a bit one-dimensional and the dimension it has is very good, there's great playing and it's powerful. However that's it, it goes in one direction.
I think the diversity is a hallmark of progressive rock in general. Within one album you can go through so many musical adventures and that's why that music has such longevity, that's why you want to come back and revisit it. Because it's not just the same thing all the way through, you don't know after you hear the first ten seconds what the rest of the song will be like.
I might have one track off that guitarist's album on a compilation CD, I could live with that and never want to hear the other ones, because they don't have anything different to offer to me. But that's my opinion, even with bands I really enjoy like Match Box 20. I think they're a great band and I've seen them live and they have great songs. But even then three or four songs into the album it's off and something else goes into theplayer.
There's a song on the album entitled "Stage Fright" and I was wondering if that was something you had personal experience with?
Yeah, I did. The song isn't really connected to it in a musical way. But I was petrified when I was a teenager and started playing. I was so terrified of playing in front of people, but I was so determined to play. Even then I loved playing and I loved theidea of being a guitarist and I enjoyed it so much that I had to fight this stage fright. I had to combat it and it took me a good couple of years to be able to look at an audience, to look them in the face. I was a very shy, spotty teenager. If I hadn't been a guitar player I would have been a very nervous, shy unfulfilled person. Music was my passport to getting rid of all of that. It was a horrible thing to have — to be shy is not a nice affliction at all. There's nothing nice about being a very shy, embarrassed person.
At what point would you say you became very confident in your performances?
Well, I never am! It's just that I don't have stage fright, I don't have stage nerves. I love being up there, but I make myself do things that are almost impossible for someone like me to do, because it's still there in me. I'll go give a talk at a school and I'll think, "My god, I'm petrified of doing this!" But I make myself do it, because I want to be able to do it. It's a challenge.
You dare yourself.
I do dare myself to do it. It's something I've always had to do and at the end of it, I'm on top of it and had to deal with the situation is what it's all about. The good thing about it is I'm never onstage thinking, "I am great! I am wonderful!" I've never had that and I've never wanted to be like that. I've always been appreciative of having the good fortune to be onstage. I've never had an ego problem.
Just from my experience being backstage and meeting the guys that there is a self- depreciating characteristic within Tull. No one seems to be too taken with themselves.
Well, we're not. Tull has always been that way. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Ian has come up to me and said, "That was really good." It's something we don't do; we don't have a group huddle before we go onstage, "Come on guys, let's give it to them!" And when we come off we're talking about where thenearest bar is, if anyone is going there after the gig sandwiches. We're not saying, "Oh you played a really great solo!" And sometimes I think I did something really, really well and it would be really nice if someone came up and said, "You played that really good tonight." But it never happens, but maybe that's good.
You seem very grounded.
I think that's a good way to be.
When you're onstage and you're improvising do you ever get lost in that moment? Do you ever visualize something or be taken away during a solo?
I have been, but I think it's a bit dangerous. We record every show and when you think you had a wonderful moment, the reality when you listen to it later and very often the emotion carries you away from the music and it's not necessarily that good. Sometimes things go right and I get a buzz from doing it, it does happen. The thing with music is having control and it's so easy to get emotional about something and get carried away and lose track of where you are in the band context. You're playing some wonderful series of notes, but if you go back and listen to what everyone else is playing it's not quite as good as you thought was. You have to keep one foot on the ground and keep one ear on the rest of the band.
Will there be a tour to support Stage Left?
I'm talking about it, but for next year.
And you'll do the states?
Yeah, I hope so I really do. I can't say it will happen, but it's my intention to do it.
Would you tour with the same line-up as the album?
That I don't know. I've had various ideas. Come April of next year is the next window of opportunity; it will be down to who is available and the economics of it. Who would be prepared to do it for the money? People might love the album or working with you, but they have mouths to feed.
The love only goes so far...
It does indeed.
Tull is about to put out a Christmas album. Can you tell me a little about that project?
It's probably more of Ian's project than a Tull project. It was an idea between Ian and the record label. I think I was a bit guarded about it because it sounded a bit cheesy. Traditionally Christmas albums were done by people like Engelbert Humperdinck and bands like Slade. There's an element of "Oh, should we really be doing that?" Looking into it, we had a lot of Christmas tracks we'd recorded over different albums — maybe five or six old tracks that were sort of Christmas-y and lyrically connected to Christmas. And then there were a few instrumentals that we'd done that were actually playing around with Christmas carols — something we'd done as a bit of fun really, so the connection was there. There are three new tracks that Ian wrote and they're strong and I've got a track off my album on it.
Is that re-arranged, because Ian is on it, right?
Ian added onto it. It was the track as it is on my album, but with him replacing a couple of guitars. It's nice, because he's not on my album, but this makes it a different version so it's a bit special. It turned out better than I thought it would and essentially it's a fun Christmas album, something you buy at Christmas time or give as a gift and it's not to be confused with being a Jethro Tull studio album at all. There is an intention to do some Christmas dates as well and make that a bit of fun. And so it's all tied in.
Is it strange to go back and redo songs from the past as you did on this project? Or does it seem perfectly natural to retool something from years past?
I've found that the most difficult thing to do, because I think if you re-record "Aqualung" it's going to be played better, it'll sound more polished, but that nitty-gritty, fly-by-wire performance back in 1971 — it'll never sound like that. And "Aqualung" always is that, the ingredients were all there. A part of me says all of those things are better left alone, warts and all. That was "Aqualung" or that was "Thick as a Brick", to re-record those things and try and improve them, I don't think it's a good idea. In this case I think it was more that we didn't want it to have a 'best of feel, it would have been a bit cheap. In our mind it was better to re-record them so they became a bit special, a bit different.
There was talk when the Living with the Past DVD came out that Tull may be releasing their old video footage and assembling that for a DVD project — is that still on the burner?
I hope it is, there were problems with it, which I won't go into...the problems should I say were contractual ones, that may be a way of putting it. It would be a real tragedy if it doesn't happen, because I think all of that footage is really special, not just to Tull fans, but to us as well. I would personally love the project to be completed. It means a lot as a historical statement. I feel that it would be very important to have that DVD completed, if that was there the history of Jethro Tull would be very complete.
I have to ask about A Passion Play, which seems to be the unloved child in Jethro Tull's catalog...
But not particularly by us, I've listened to A Passion Play and I think there's some good stuff on it. I think it's unloved by the fans, really, because you hear very little demand for it.
You do from people who write Tull, such as yourself, because historically it was important. But I think the modern day Tull fan either doesn't have the album, or doesn't want to hear it onstage. There again he doesn't want to hear Under Wraps, Catfish Rising or Broadsword. They weren't particularly popular or well received. To me there's some really good things on it and it will always be a good piece of music, a good album. It wasn't the right thing at the right time, and we've done that a few times in the 36 years we've been around, maybe Under Wraps wasn't the right album at the right time, a synth and drum machine thing. In retrospect, it wasn't what Jethro Tull was all about. But you learn from your mistakes and get back on track and you're a bit stronger than you were before. Little deviations help you.
I think you have to experiment too. You're an artist, you have to try different paints, different colors...
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but you can't just stay in one box the whole time, because you're just making the same album over and over again.
But even the things that are deemed to be mistakes such as A Passion Play and Under Wraps I can listen to them and think there's good playing on it, there's good songs. They're not bad!
Is that why Tull doesn't visit that material live, because there seems to be less audience response for it?
That would be the reason. It would be fun to play and we like them. On A Passion Play there are some really good bits of music on there, but people wouldn't know it or very few would know it.
Actually that period of Passion Play and War Child is my favorite of Tull's. Those albums are very adventurous — harmonically, rhythmically and lyrically they're very inventive things going on those albums.
I agree with you completely. Maybe there will come a time where we'll be able to use that music, perhaps in an orchestral setting — I don't know, I'm talking off the top of my head. The music isn't relegated to the waste paper bin by any means.
That's good to hear. I saw a Goldmine article with you and Ian from about a year ago and it sounded like Ian was down on it, but perhaps he was misquoted or taken out of context.
I remember a conversation with him where he'd played the album and was quite surprised by how much he'd liked it. So I listened to it to and it was the same for me. It brought back all the memories, I thought, "There's some really good stuff on that." If you'd picked out the songs and segregated them, I think it would have been a strong album.
You think that would have been a better approach?
Yeah, I think it was just a bit too intense. And we went out and played the whole thing from start to finish onstage and I can't imagine how that was for the audience. It was bad enough for us; there's a lot of stuff in there.
I wish I could have seen it!
We did play an hour nonstop, played the whole album— it was exhausting for us, let alone the audience!
But you were playing this to packed arenas, 20,000 seaters...
A different era.MB: It was powerful music, I'm sure it sounded good. It was just too much, it was an onslaught, but the audiences in those days were probably up to it. They'd listen to the Grateful Dead for four hours!
There was definitely a change in musical direction with War Child and then Minstrel in the Gallery to the rock and folk music again. Which is fine, I love that album too and from there you go to Songs from the Wood. There are lots of great things after that and it again shows the diversity that Tull has covered in your career. Did you say this is the 36th year?
I'm 35, it's 36 for Tull.
I think one day I'll just play everything we've recorded. That would be an immense undertaking, I don't know if I would do it. It is staggering. It's 36 years and that's a lot of years.
Well, it's quite a body of work and you definitely have something to be proud of. Once again I really liked the new album and I've enjoyed speaking with you.
I've enjoyed as well, thank you. Cheers.