Saturday, March 4, 2017

Interview: -- Martin Barre (Jethro Tull)

"Broken neck.
Worry, stress and fret.
Now, I'm back to steel."
~ Martin Barre ~

Martin Barre carried the guitar torch in the iconic band Jethro Tull for 45 years.  Let that sink in for a moment.  That's like 112 in classic rock years.

From the powerful riffs to the more gentler runs, Martin's guitar was the perfect balance of rock thunder and prog folk lightening.  And, together with frontman Ian Anderson's flute-wizardry, they countered and connected in a unique blend of sounds that made us all feel a wee bit like time travelers.  And maybe a little more cognizant of the earthlier delights.  Tull made us feel lighter in spirit.  Fiercer in battle.  Martin Barre played no small part in the fueling and feeding of this machine.

After the band broke up in 2014, Martin had earned every right to take a breath from the locomotive.  Instead, he continues to bring the rock...touring all over the orb...performing a healthy mix of Tull classics and songs from his own albums, most recently "Back To Steel."  ALL ABOARD!

Martin Barre (guitar)

Casey Chambers:  Your most recent album, "Back To Steel" (2015) a fine collection of 15 songs.  And along with your own original take on the heady task of covering the Beatles, "Eleanor Rigby."  You give it a much heavier jacket and I thought it worked.  How did your version come about?

Martin Barre:  Thank you.  I wrote that arrangement as an instrumental quite a few years ago to play on stage with (Jethro) Tull and I never got 'round to doing it.  And when I was recording "Back To Steel"....I found the cassette on a shelf at the studio and thought it would be fun to have a go at it.  The band was still doing some backing in the studio for the album, so we ran it as a song and it sounded really good.  So that's how it came together.

I quite love playing Beatles stuff.  And audiences know The Beatles well and enjoy hearing it.  On this tour, we're doing another Beatles song, too.  It's a surprise. (laughs)   But we do plenty of Tull and I do my own material, too.  I just think it's really good fun to throw in something a bit unusual in the setlist. If we fancy a song would be really good live, we'll try and play it on stage.

"Eleanor Rigby"  -  Martin Barre / "Back To Steel" (2015)

Casey Chambers:  And you once had the opportunity to play on a song with Sir Paul McCartney.

Martin Barre:  Yeah, that's right.  There was a whole bunch of musicians who were invited to do a session in London.  And we didn't know anything about what or who it was for.  But it was an audition.  Evidently, Paul McCartney listened to all these different sessions and he picked out the ones that he liked.  And so luckily, I was invited down to his studio in Sussex for a week of recording.  I did a week of sessions with Paul for the album,  "Flowers In The Dirt" (1989) but it didn't make the album.  The track I was on..."Atlantic Ocean"...came out later in Japan. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  That song was also released as a bonus track on McCartney's "Young Boy" CD single.

Martin Barre:  Yeah, the song wasn't released worldwide. It's a nice one to know.  It's a bit...musically, I would have liked to have done something a bit more meaningful with the Paul McCartney.  But, I'm grateful I had a week working with him.  He was truly an inspirational musician to work with. He was always sort of my schoolboy, childhood hero. So it was an incredible experience.

"Atlantic Ocean"  -  Paul McCartney / "Return To Pepperland: The Unreleased 1987 Album" (2000)

Casey Chambers:  You made many great albums with Jethro Tull, but your piece de resistance will always be "Aqualung" (1971)...which simply kicks ass and takes names.  (In fact, it's still kicking ass and hasn't even gotten to the names yet.)  Killer riffs, runs and solos. The title track, in particular, was voted by Guitar World as having the 25th best guitar solo of all-time.
How much planning went into that piece of magic?

Martin Barre:  Y'know I never work my solos out.  I just like to hear and study the chords in my mind and then try and form melody around those chords.  I don't follow blues pentatonic playing or any particular stylized form of guitar playing.  But I always like to think that the guitar solo is a melody.  Almost a song in itself.  It has a beginning...a build up...a melodic turn through it.  Rarely, I would work out the guitar solo.  Very rarely.  Mostly I just like to play along.  I mean, I can hear the melody in my brain.  I'll play it merely seconds later.  My fingers just follow the melody that's going through my mind.  I just love to hear experimentation and just...I'd rather have a sweet, melodic solo than one with all sorts of crazy, pyrotechnic playing in it.

I was using a Gibson Les Paul Junior...through a high watt amplifier.  I played a Les Paul Junior, 'cause I had met Leslie West (Mountain) a couple of years before that and we became great friends.  It was sort of his signature a 1958 Les Paul Junior.  So I went out and bought one and played that for quite a few years with Jethro Tull.  But I mean I've had lots of different Gibsons I've played over the years.

Casey Chambers:  And you play it like you're keeping the bull in the chute...but just barely.  Did you realize you had raised the bar just a wee bit?

Martin Barre:  Not at all. (laughs)  No.  I can only be a critic of my own playing.  I mean, I haven't listened to that solo for a long time.  But I know if I listen to it, I'll just hear what I thought was wrong with it rather than what was right with it.

I enjoy writing songs.  I enjoy arranging.  We spoke about, "Eleanor Rigby."  Now I can listen to that.  I can enjoy the music and the arrangement of it.  But my playing...I've never stepped back and thought, 'ahh, that's really good.'  I'm just moving on all the time and striving to play better.  I've never really looked back on what I've done.  And I definitely don't analyze it.  Particularly as being special...or good.  I really appreciate and I'm very proud that people rate the "Aqualung" solo very highly, but I'll leave other people to do things like that.

"Aqualung"  -  Jethro Tull / "Aqualung" (1971)

Casey Chambers:  Very cool.  Jumping back to your "Back To Steel" also did a reworking of the early Tull song, "Skating Away."

Martin Barre:  Yeah, well I enjoy finding Tull tracks that I can put a bit of my own imprint on.  Taking a really good song and recording it a bit differently.  "Skating Away" was very acoustic originally.  Quite delicate.  And I thought we could make it a bit beefier.  A bit more electric.

Casey Chambers:  It's a fresh take.  It's like hearing the song for the first time.

Martin Barre:  Yeah, well that's the idea.  They're great songs, but I wanted to sort of make them more current. A bit more dynamic.  I always use the words...' deconstruct reconstruction'. (laughs)  What Chayefsky used in other words.  It's the same thing really.  You're taking something very familiar.  You're pulling all the ingredients apart from each other.  And then you're reconstructing it in a slightly different way.  I think it's an exciting way to look at music.

It's a challenge, but I quite like the tracks that never worked for Jethro Tull on stage. Some of them were too difficult to play.  Others just didn't gel. The last one I did was "Sealion" and we play that one now and it sounds really, really cool.  I'm always looking for something that will surprise people at the shows.

"Skating Away"  -  Martin Barre / "Back To Steel" (2015)

Casey Chambers:  Where did you get the idea for the title track, "Back To Steel?"

Martin Barre:  While I was in America, I took a road trip and I went up to Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.  And I found this really old...sort of a jazz 1956 Gibson guitar.  It wasn't too expensive and I bought it.  On the way back, I stopped at a hotel.  I couldn't go out and eat (laughs) so I just sat in the hotel room and played this guitar for hours. It was just a beautiful thing.  A beautiful piece of wood. Steel strings.

The basic ingredient of music is a simple instrument and somebody playing it.  Back to the roots.  Back to the basic elements.  And I was wondering what ghosts that instrument had.  What memories did it have of others who had played it?  It was just a lovely thing.  And "Back To Steel" is a good track live as well.

"Back To Steel"  -  Martin Barre / "Back To Steel" (2015)

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to ask you about the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival.  I've heard it was a bit of a mixed bag for some performers, but when Jethro Tull hit the stage, you guys turned it into the Isle of Ass-Kick.  What was it like there?

Martin Barre:  (laughs) Yeah, well it was such an exciting occasion.  I mean it was a bit like Woodstock.  It was such an important festival.  It was an incredible collection of people and bands.  I've got the ad from that festival at home that was in the music papers and the line-up was phenomenal.  Hendrix.  Moody Blues.  The Who.  Jethro Tull.  Ten Years After.  I can't remember everybody but it was enormous.  And there was reputedly half a million people there.  It was unheard of.  It was groundbreaking.  And it was very exciting to be part of it.

I think the Moody Blues played right before us.  It was chaos.  The only way you could get to backstage was by helicopter. (laughs)  They flew you in just before you played and they flew you out as soon as you had finished.  So you couldn't really stay and watch the rest of the festival, which was a bit of a shame.  It was absolute chaos.  But amazing, anyway.

Who remembers this iconic album?

Casey Chambers:  I would have loved to have been a part of that event.  So many legends.  Now you've given us 45 years with Jethro Tull and you're still bringing the rock to the house with your solo career.  And you're touring the states right now.

Martin Barre:  Yeah, well this is our fourth American tour.  We play three-hour sets, so there's a lot of songs we put into the show.  I like to get a 50/50 balance of Jethro Tull material and my own material.  Old blues standards.  Fun music. We're starting in Florida and we're working our way up through Atlanta, Chattanooga, Asheville.  And then we're up into Chicago.  Philadelphia.  New York. (laughs)  It's ten weeks.  It's all at

Casey Chambers:  I'll put a link at the bottom with all your tour dates.

Martin Barre:  And we're coming back in September to do some more shows.  I'm doing as many shows as I can possibly do to establish my band in America.  And it's almost starting from zero because it's a new band.  People don't know what they're going to get.  So, we've got to fight for every fan, ya know?  You really have to work hard to get people in touch with your music.  But it's working really well.  We're making new friends and getting more fans.  The shows keep getting stronger and stronger.  It's a very positive experience.

Casey Chambers:  That's really great to hear.  I hope we'll get the opportunity to see your band throw Kansas a bone this year.

Martin Barre:  Yeah, well I don't know why we haven't played there.  I mean that's disgusting. (laughs)  I know Tull has definitely played Kansas many times.  We just want to play everywhere.  It's impossible, but I'm working on it.

Casey Chambers:  One more thing I want to mention.  "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album" (2003)...was an absolute gem.  Period.  But it was also the final Jethro Tull album.  I was thinking how fitting that the last song on it was the beautiful instrumental..."A Winter Snowscape"...that you composed.  Simply a wonderful song.

"A Winter Snowscape"  -  Jethro Tull / "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album" (2003)

Martin Barre:  Oh, thank you.  I'm really pleased that you mentioned that because it's a very special piece of music for me.  I really enjoy playing it.  Now occasionally we do an acoustic set in the middle of the electric show and that's one of the songs that we play.  I originally wrote it for a solo album called, "Stage Left" in the '90s but then Ian said we were going to do a Christmas album.

In my mind, when I wrote, "A Winter Snowscape," I just thought it had a Christmas atmosphere to it.  I've got no idea why. (laughs)  But the image in my brain was a snowy scene, a log fire, and all that stuff.  I didn't sit down and try to write a piece of Christmas music.  But as I was writing it, the song just sort of became what it naturally is.   Yeah, I'm very fond of it.  It's an important piece of music for me.

Casey Chambers:  Martin, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me this morning.  And thank you for all of the music you've given us.

Martin Barre:  Thank you, too, Casey.

Official Martin Barre Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers