Martin Barre of Jethro Tull – Interview

I had the great honor to interview Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. He was very friendly and spoke openly about his life and musical endeavors. He continues to work hard at making music and credits those around him for giving him the ability to do what he does. His respect and admiration for all the people who work with him is evident as he offers praise effusively. He is humble and confident at the same time which is impressive considering he was a part of one of the greatest bands of all time. He mentioned something about possibly writing a book. I hope he does!

By Fredda Gordon. Photos courtesy of Martin Barre.

FG: I’m very excited to be speaking with you this morning. Let’s start at the beginning. Was there music in your house growing up?

MB: It was very unmusical.

FG: Really?

MB: Yeah. My dad loved big band jazz, and sort of modern jazz, but nobody in the household liked it so he never played it when there was anybody else around. I think it was an underlying love of music. My dad wanted to be a clarinetist. My grandfather was a professional violinist in Paris, so that musical thread came through the family but my dad was unable to pursue a career. He had to work in a factory. The finances didn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do. When he knew that I wanted to play guitar and be a musician he was incredibly supportive. He gave me some vinyl to listen to and encouraged me. All very understated, from the sidelines [he] watched what I did. They [dad and mom] were both very proud of me and that’s as much as I could ever ask of them. They were very supportive because I gave up a career in architecture and they said nothing. They never held me back from my music at all.

FG: And they could have.

MB: They could have, and should have, but I think my dad saw in me what he wanted to do and wasn’t allowed to, so he wanted me to.

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

MB: My sister, who’s older than me, was into watching bands and going to the local youth club and they had live music. I knew nothing about music at all and she said, “This group is playing down the road at the local club, I think you’d like it.” The next week me and my sister go down there and there’s a group playing. They were totally responsible for me being a musician because I was so overwhelmed with what they were doing on stage. The sound, the noise, the atmosphere, everything about it was just incredible. I’d never known anything like it in my life. I straight away loved what the guitar player was doing. He was this super cool rock and roller with, they called it a bunch of grapes, where your hair was [*motioned hair on forehead]. He had a bunch of grapes, a zoot suit, a string tie and this gorgeous Gibson guitar. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth while he played and all the ash went down his guitar and there’s a load of girls at the front of the stage adoring him. I thought ‘That’s what I want to do!’ Not because of the girls but he was so cool. That one moment I was converted.

FG: And, you played the flute when you were in grade school so were you playing the flute at this time?

MB: No, I was playing nothing. Within weeks I went out and bought a guitar. This is 1960 so there weren’t many people playing instruments. There weren’t many people playing rock music. There was nobody giving lessons, there were no books you could buy on rock guitar. You had to sort it out yourself. So, my dad gave me those vinyls that I told you about and I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to play jazz guitar. But I loved the flute playing. Frank Wess was on one of the albums and I just loved the tone and the subtlety. Beautiful instrument! Within six months of starting on guitar I got a flute. The guitar lessons were awful because the teacher was a sort of an old man and he didn’t like rock music so he wouldn’t teach me any so that was a no-no. But I had flute lessons and he was a nice guy and it stuck. I’ve been playing flute ever since.

FG: So guitar came first.

MB: Yeah, it was always my dream and my ambition, but the flute helped, I guess. I don’t know why, but the two things were hand in hand, and I always played both. Eventually, when I got kicked out of university (chuckle), I got a job as a sax player. Nobody wanted guitar players because it was soul music and r&b and they just wanted brass players and keyboard players. I had my flute, bought a saxophone and I played sax for about two years. Then the blues came into fashion in the UK and I was able to get back to playing more guitar.

FG: How did you learn to play the guitar? Did you stay with the lessons or learn it on your own?

MB: The lessons didn’t last. I just learned. I bought records: Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Dwayne Eddie, all these all-American artists. I’d get one record a month and I would try to figure out what they were doing. I learned by ear. It was a slow process, like a stew on the back burner slowly cooking the flavors, once it’s done it’s much more intense. I think kids who learn really quickly they bypass a lot of the important things. I was very thorough.

FG: Did you play a lot of scales?

MB: No, I wouldn’t know what a scale was. I just learned rock and roll, really basic stuff. The Shadows were a big influence in England. It was all instrumentals. I learned every record they made. The Beatles started playing and I learned every Beatles song that came out. Then we formed a band, and again it’s just sort of gathering information from every direction you could and everything you learned to play added into that reservoir of knowledge.

FG: You have said “We were trying to push the boundary, try new things. The essence of Jethro Tull was never to just sit where we were and would learn by writing music a little bit beyond your capability.”

MB: Yeah, it’s the way I started and because, as I said, there’s nobody to tell me what to do, so it was a difficult road. You had to find your inspiration and find your information. I had no agenda. I wasn’t

learning how to play BB King with a book, and play it really badly. I just had to figure it out myself so it was always my version of music. Then when I met Ian [Anderson] he was very much the same. He wasn’t learning how to play like anybody else. He wanted to form his own pathway. So, we had a very similar approach to music and that carried forward into Tull. Tull never followed trends, we were always looking for something new. Soaking it in and being broad-minded. I hope that’s the way I still am, always looking and listening. And sometimes there’s something there… ‘Oh okay, that sounds good.’ It’s listening to a lot of stuff and taking a tiny percentage of it to influence what you do musically.

FG: Do you have any stories from the road that stick out in your mind? I mean, I’m sure you do.

MB: [Shaking head yes] Yes, I do.

FG: Can you share any?

MB: No, I cannot [laughter]. They’re not like that. There are so many, I’d be here all day and I can’t summon one. When you see a comedian on TV, they have these stories and they tell them so convincingly well. You think ‘fresh,’ but, of course, they’re in their repertoire. All my stories, they’re in there, but they don’t come to the front of my mind in an instant. They come to me, and sometimes in the middle of the day… because I’m writing a book, slowly but surely… I just think, ‘Oh yeah, remember that happening! I must make sure that goes in the book.’ But then, of course, the next day I’ve forgotten it again. I’m not very good with things like that.

FG: What do you do when you’re not doing music?

MB: I run, I’m very passionate about running. I play table tennis in the leagues in England. I play my guitar, my flute, my mandolin, bass clarinet. I read a lot and I like things that take me outdoors. I like sailing, snowboarding, wakeboarding. I’ve got all these hobbies that I was never able to do when I was young because they didn’t exist. Now I’m an old man doing things that young kids do, but I love it! There’s so many cool things you can do, I’m never bored. I just want to be outside, whether it’s in the garden doing some odd job… I’ve always got something I want to do. I wake up any day and there’ll be something that I can focus on. But the bottom line, I go in my studio and play. I write music or just practice, play for fun. Limitless. Infinite.

FG: Speaking of getting out and doing things, how has coronavirus affected you?

MB: It hasn’t impacted me in a personal way because we live on the countryside. We don’t see many people. Our social life is on the road and with the band. I miss that terribly but my life at home is very much me and my wife, we see our kids and our grandkids and I can still work at home. The work I do at home now has been the same for a long, long time. I’m not prevented from working, practicing, writing, I can do all of that. I can’t travel and we like traveling, but we’re the same as everybody else. We’re going through exactly what everybody else is going through. There’s no work maybe that’s the one thing that might be slightly different. We definitely are out of work and we’ll be for quite awhile.

FG: Yeah, it’s hard. I also travel and love live music.

MB: Dan [Crisp] was just on the phone and we’re moaning about how he’s worried about losing that impetus and that passion. Sometimes you think it might be easy to just stop altogether, very rarely, but it’s always in the back of your mind. You think ‘It’s so unlikely for it to get back to normal soon enough to make it work for us.’ It’s not just me, it’s the guys in the band, it’s the crew. They are doing anything to survive. At some point they might just “I just got to go back to college, get a job as a carpenter or plumber.” They have to exist and at what point do you make a decision that changes your life completely. We’re not being supported in any way. The arts are not being supported at our level.

FG: Not at all.

MB: Probably the same there. The theaters, the clubs, are going bust.

FG: It’s heartbreaking to watch and to know musicians are going through this awful time.

MB: It really is! In the big picture the arts are a luxury. You work, you buy food, you do things with your family then if you’ve got a night off you go and see a band play, a movie, a play or an opera. But it’s a luxury and it’s the first thing you do without. You don’t want to do without it but it’s right on the bottom of the list.

FG: It’s a luxury that feeds your soul.

MB: Yes, you can get around it.

FG:Under Wraps” departed from Tull’s classical sound and you’ve mentioned it’s one of your favorites. Why do you like it? What makes it one of your favorites?

MB: I can’t really explain. I’ve got songs that I really like, songs that I really don’t like and everything in between. Ian’s the same. There’s some Tull songs that he will not sing because he doesn’t like them. He wrote them, but he doesn’t like them. That’s normal. And, why do I like it? I liked it when we re-recorded it. I just think it’s a great song and I can look at the song from a neutral point of view because Ian wrote the basic song. “Under Wraps” on this album [50 Years of Jethro Tull] is a combination of the acoustic version and the electric version. I pulled them together and got the girls to sing it because the girls have got great voices and they have a different take on the way it sounds. I like that.

FG: I love your album Roads Less Travelled. My favorite song is “Trinity,” I just love hearing you play. When you say you “Go in and you play” I’m thinking that would be great to just listen to you all day.

MB: Well, I love writing and then when it works, and it usually does, I’m lucky. I have a filtering process and very early on I get rid of the stuff that I don’t think will work. Maybe that’s experience. From there on it’s just such a pleasure. I love seeing and hearing music evolve and when it turns out even better than you hoped it’s just the best feeling in the world. I mean, I don’t have an ego thing with my music but I can listen to it and I’m really happy that I did what I did and it’s not being glib or self-promoting, I genuinely enjoy it and that inspires me to go and do it again.

FG: You mentioned female voices. Can you talk a little about women in the industry because it seems that there’s not so many women in rock.

MB: I can’t talk about it because I don’t think it’s an issue with me. I love the girls being a part of the band, their voices deserve to be heard. I give them as much space on stage in a musical space as I can. They’re qualified to do the job. Our lighting engineer is a girl, my wife manages the band and does admin, my daughter does my FaceBook, my other daughter does all my photos and artwork. I don’t even think about it. The whole movement of people needing to be acknowledged and recognized, I can understand it and there’s so many bad things, but it’s never been on my agenda. My wife’s from Mississippi and she never had any of this happening to her because people just lived together and loved and respected each other. There was no left or right it was just a world that everybody shared. I don’t think about it because I’m in the middle of it and the girls are every bit as important to me as is the guy helping us load in the gear, the girl putting up the lights, that the lady in the box office, the guy setting up the drum kit. Everybody has a part to play and they all need to be acknowledged, encompassed into the family, that makes us work, that enables us to perform. It’s not just me. It’s 20 to 30 people every day that enable me to do what I do and I appreciate every one of them. I acknowledge them and I’m grateful. It isn’t an effort, but I want to know who they are, I want them to be part of it.

FG: It’s 50th anniversary for Aqualung.  I’ve never heard anything quite like it before or since and I love it. Did you think it would be the hit it was or have the strength that it does?

MG: No, no. Putting it together was difficult, we had problems in the studio. It wasn’t an easy album, it wasn’t hilarious fun to do [chuckles]. It didn’t have a good vibe in the studio, but there was a lot of emotion there. It leads me to believe that whatever your emotion is, you can channel it and make it positive because other albums that we had a great time [making] weren’t so successful. People didn’t like them. But we finished [Aqualung], we released it, we just sat back and thought, ‘Whew!’ Then out on the road people reacted to it. It was the fans that made it big, we didn’t. It was just another album, the best we could do and we didn’t judge it at all. We didn’t have any concept of how good or bad it was. I think all these things, you do your best, you do what you think is right and then it’s out to the jury and the jury is the fans. Next year we’re going to play all of Aqualung, from beginning to end, as part of the set because I think it’s another milestone that needs to be acknowledged.

FG: When you recorded it were there charts? How much was improvised?

MB:  [For] all the albums I’ve got little sort of school boy exercise books with the chords and little bits of music and triplets and little things to remember. Then, nearly all the latter albums where the music was more complex, up to the end of Passion Play, I don’t have anything at all written down. Which means we all learned it by ear. We had no reference other than remembering what it was, which is probably the best way of doing it. But now I write everything down. Like Road Less Travelled, I had all the music written out, all the parts. I don’t know why, I just like to do it. But in the early days there was nothing, you just remembered the chords. It was all simpler, more straight ahead. And because a lot of it, as you say, was improvised, then that was never written out or planned at all.

FG: What about your leads? They’re very complex. Is that worked out beforehand or do you just do it?

MB: It’s a mixture. But certainly with Aqualung I just went for it. I didn’t plan anything at all. It was literally improvised and you didn’t get many goes at it because it was all going on tracks. Maybe it was 24 tracks, could have been eight. You had a couple of passes at a solo and one of them needed to be the one that was going to be used. Otherwise you ran out of tracks on the tape, or you had to erase one. You didn’t have the luxury you have now. With the computer you could do 50 goes at a solo and then just pick out the best one without losing the rest. It was pressure, but I still have that in me now. If I do a solo usually the first or the second one is going to be the one I use. There’s something in there that’s unknown. You’re really going for it. You don’t have any preconceived ideas and that’s when music gets exciting, when you don’t have too much information, you just let your ear do all the work and then follow your judgment. So, yeah, I’ve done a lot of improvisation over the years and I quite enjoy the process of the unknown quantity. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does work it’s quite nice.

FG: Was Ian Anderson involved in creating your leads or vice versa?

MB: No, not really. We always had things in a very relaxed way. Everybody had input and somebody might say, “Oh, I like the way you do the drums, but when you do fours on the hi-hat…”. And, then somebody might say to me “You know your rhythm, why don’t you try a part that goes with the bass guitar?” And [I would say] ‘Oh, okay.” I think a group works as a group and you put suggestions into the pot, you take them out, you have to be aware of everybody that’s around you. We’re always exchanging ideas but it was always in a helpful way, not in a critical way. I can’t ever remember somebody saying, “That’s really awful, stop doing it.”

FG: You mentioned in the beginning that you didn’t really like listening to jazz, do you listen to jazz now?

MB: Yeah, a bit. I like Scott Henderson, Alan Holdsworth. I still like big band jazz from when my dad liked it. I can’t play it so I admire the technique and the freedom. I’m interested in the way music is interpreted through jazz and I want to know a bit more so I can use it in my music. But, I wouldn’t be able to play it and I wouldn’t want to spend the days and days and years and weeks investigating and learning how to play it. It’s a lifetime of work, a very specialized genre of music and rather than play around with the edges I leave it to somebody else. In my mind I can play jazzy. As an adjective, not a noun.

FG: Through the years of playing did the Aqualung album evolve? And is that incorporated in your new album?

MB: They didn’t really evolve. We played everything like the record for most of it. 95% of what we did in Tull was to really stick to the original version. Then you just got the feeling of what the audience wanted to hear. As new albums were recorded you played less of the old ones because they replaced it. You had that definitive two, three hour concert slot and you wanted to add new material. Change was always important. Freshness.

FG: Speaking of change, I enjoyed the new album. Having a woman’s voice on a lot of those songs is refreshing and made those songs different.

MB: I love them.

FG: How did that decision come about?

MB:  It’s easy. It was what you call a no-brainer. The girls perform on stage with me and we do those Tull songs in an acoustic section of the show. The audiences love it. It takes them a minute to look at what they’re seeing and think, “Shouldn’t Ian be singing that?” Then they’re going, “Wow! it’s really great!” I’m 100% behind it and, the girls, I see them sort of every other week because they live near to me. I went and played a gig with Alex [Hart] a couple of weeks ago and I got up with the guitar and played the Tull songs with her in this little club with 20 people in it. It was fabulous! And their voices!

FG: How did you choose the songs for the CD?

MB: I’m essentially playing songs I like, then songs that the guitar is a big part of. They’re very guitar focused, especially the earlier ones. Songs that we’ve played live on stage and the audience liked them. There’s a lot of choice and I could have done another cd of songs that I like. It wasn’t an easy choice, but there’s nothing there that I don’t like. We came to the end of that day’s recording and we still hadn’t done Aqualung. We listened to everything I said, ‘I really like what we’ve done, we don’t HAVE to do Aqualung because there’s so many versions of it out on the internet, do we really want another one? We’ll leave it for another time.” I don’t want to have to do the obvious. I don’t always want to be mainstream. It’s nice to put something on there that people are really surprised to hear and hopefully in a nice way. “Slow Marching Band” is a song we never played live and I’ve always loved it. I’m so pleased that I could put it on the album.

FG: Some of those songs I’m not so familiar with so now I get to hear them.

MB: Yeah. I like that because it’s not special if it’s predictable, a repackaging, in any way at all, then I don’t want to know about it. I’ve seen “best of” albums and celebration albums, not just Tull, and it’s just repackaged and I don’t want to be like that, I don’t want to be involved in that. I think everything you do has to be really new, re-thought out music coming from a different direction. I think you owe the fans to put a lot of work and effort and thought into everything you do.

FG: I know you’ve talked about your relationship with Ian Anderson. Together you made such an impact in the world of music, and in the world in general. I know the ending was not expected for you. Could you say a word about how it feels now because it’s been a couple of years.

MB: It’s been eight or nine years. It was very hurtful but I’m a very strong-minded person. I’m obstinate, stubborn, single-minded and it made me pull through it. Straight away I went in the studio and recorded an album called Away With Words. It was something I’d always wanted to do. Take the really pretty, acoustic songs of Tull, and then I wrote an equal amount of music of mine to go with it. It was an intense two, three months of writing and recording. It was therapy, really. I think it was a very bad decision to stop Tull. I guess the fans won’t get over it, and neither will I. But I’m happier now, where I am, than I could ever be because I’ve got a great band, I’ve got loyalty, I’ve got talent. They’re amazing! I’m in a very happy place. I have more to do, I’m busier and I’m able to play the songs that I want to play. It’s not a selfish approach, but I think the one qualification I have is that I’ve been playing Tull music for 50 years so probably know more about it than anybody because I played every one of those songs. I know them and I’m comfortable making decisions and putting a set together. I’d like to play more of my solo material, and I probably will get back to doing it. But, yeah, musically I’m stronger, personally I’m much happier and I’m surrounded by nicer and better people than I ever have been. So, that box is empty, my box is full.

FG: One of the things Ian mentioned in an interview his feeling that you could do more on your own, that he was holding you back. He also said he felt that you weren’t so connected on the internet. Is there anything to that or was he just talking?

MB: [Motions “talking” with hands]

FG: He was just talking. Ok.

MG: The only person that’s encouraged me, is me. So, there was no question of being held back because I did four solo albums. I toured solo bands. It’s talk.

FG: What are your feelings about the internet and using computers?

MB: Well, I resisted being an internet junkie in the earlier days of it and I was never very good with emails, but this is between people who own phones and talk to each other nearly every day. It’s one method of communication and it’s more relevant me talking to you. I never jeopardized anything by being a bit reticent. I could have been a bit sharper being involved in technology but I do what I need to do. I try and do it properly and I try not to let anybody down. It’s no good when I’ve got a Zoom interview in an hour me saying ‘What’s Zoom? What do I do?’ I’m not stupid, but I’m old-fashioned. I have to acknowledge both sides. I don’t go on FaceBook but I make sure somebody does it for me. I do the promotional clips but I don’t put them up there. Other people are better at doing it than me. I’ll let them do it and when they’re doing it I’m writing music in the studio.

FG: Which we are happy you’re doing! Your new album is a compilation of Jethro Tull songs. Are you a co-owner of the Tull songs?

MB: No, I don’t. I wrote bits and pieces, and all of Tull arranged the music, but arranging doesn’t create an income stream for anybody in any band. Then there were bits of music that might have been 10 seconds and we were never a band that claimed that 10 seconds needed remuneration. It was never a priority. I’ve done little bits and pieces wherever I was able to. There’s a lot of people writing bits of instrumental for Tull and some of them were really quick and sharp like the Eddie Jobson’s and the Peter Vettese’s were like ‘Wham!” Ian would say we need an instrumental section and we’re all going [motions to head like he’s thinking] and somebody’s going to be first. I like to go in a room and think it through and take my time. So, it was a little competitive in a healthy way. It never bothered me, I don’t and never did have an issue with it. As a band we all did a good job. Whatever the lineup everybody did what they were asked to do and more.

FG: To perform the music now, is there an agreement?

MB: You pay. There’s a process of paying for the rights. I can play the Beatles if I want to, or the Stones, the Eagles but they all get songwriting credits. It’s a free world but with Tull I’m part of the history and if anybody denied me the rights it would be very strange.

FG: Some Tull fans say the music from the Tull era was so much better than today’s. Do you think that’s attributed to their attachment to the time they grew up in? What’s your opinion about that?

MB: Yeah, I think it’s what they grew up with but I’m not probably a good person to ask because I love the music of the seventies. Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, the original Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, hmm, Led Zepplin, Hendrix, the list goes on. But that was my world when I was growing up and soaking in these influences. They’re still in there so I have a very biased viewpoint. And I listen to modern music. I hear a few good songs that have great vocal tonality or ability. I’m a big fan of Miley Cyrus because she’s great at what she does. Whether I like her music, that doesn’t matter. It’s immaterial. Yeah, I’m old-fashioned but so was my dad and so will my kids be. I just think it’s inherent in the human makeup.

FG: Do you have any favorite bands right now that you love to listen to?

MB: I hear the odd thing. I like Snarky Puppy, I like Delgres, I like some of the girl singers, Narina Pallot, um… I don’t know… I listen to Glastonbury [music festival]. They had the history of Glastonbury this year because obviously there wasn’t one, and I listened to a lot of music and some of it I thought wasn’t very good, some of it I thought it was good but very repetitive, but the one thing I thought was amazing and stood out so much above everything else was David Bowie playing in 2000. Then, you know what? Nothing else held the candle to it for me. And I asked other people, I said ‘Did you see David Bowie on tv?’ “Yeah, wasn’t it amazing?” It transcends age groups. It’s something that’s great. It’s like Beethoven or Brahms or Bach. It’ll never be anything than great and not all music will be like that but David Bowie will. Elton John will. The Eagles will. Hendrix will. How that happens, there’s no… you can’t plan that out, it just happens. It’s a process that’s not in anybody’s control.

FG: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album?

MB: I’m very happy that people like it. Dan [Crisp] was on the phone and I was saying ‘people are giving such great feedback and I’m so pleased for them, I’m very proud of my band. I want to look after him and I want to be a good boss, I want to be a good musician, I want to be a good songwriter, music writer, I want to be a good guitar player. I’ve got so much to look forward to and I don’t need anything else.

FG: So we can look forward to even more music coming out in the future!

MB: I’m planning on it!

FG: Excellent!