The Martin Barre Interview
“It ain’t Jethro Tull if Martin Barre isn’t part of it.”
It’s not all that unusual to hear a comment like that whenever the subject of Jethro Tull is broached among discriminating fans. As it is, Jethro Tull the band is not currently recording or touring. Since 2012, Ian Anderson has been working under his own name, having his “Roger Waters” moment as he told me. For guitarist Martin Barre, the end of Jethro Tull (although no one will verify that it has actually ended) was a little more traumatic. As Anderson’s right hand man for over 40 years, he wasn’t quite prepared to go out on his own.
Of course, Barre had already recorded a few albums on his own, but when Tull stopped, it took a while for him to adjust to the idea of becoming a full-time solo artist. It would seem with his 2015 album, Back To Steel, all the pieces have come together. Not only is the album a solid and cohesive effort; it’s also allowed Barre to put a band together and take it out on the road. When we spoke, he had just completed a tour of the UK and Europe, and was preparing to come over to the United States for more shows.
The first date (or dates) for Barre and his band is Cruise To The Edge, a four-day luxury cruise in the Bahamas starring Yes, Marillion and a dozen or so other progressive rock artists. Before the NCL Pearl launches, however, Barre is scheduled to warm up the passengers the night before at a special pre-launch party in Miami. Needless to say, the guitarist is over the moon about all of it. With Jethro Tull slowly fading in his rear-view mirror, the time to take things into his own hands and show the world just what he is capable of as a guitarist, songwriter and band leader has come. In the following interview, my third with the guitarist, I could hear sincere excitement in his voice. In all actuality, I may be as excited as he is because I will be in Miami and on Cruise To The Edge, rooting him on.
You and your band just got off the road after playing dates in the UK and Europe. How did the shows go?
Really, really good. We had two girl singers with us. Unfortunately, they won’t be with us in the States for this tour, but I’m hoping next year I’ll bring them over. We’re just sort of building on a foundation in Europe and in England, and we’re getting a really strong fan-base in both areas. It’s good really…the front row of a gig are people in Martin Barre T-shirts (laughs).
And, now you’re on break before coming over here to the States. And before the tour officially begins, you’re playing Cruise To The Edge. Are you looking forward to this cruise?
I really am because that sort of jumpstarts the whole process of getting over to the States. It really does look fun. The band and I really love being on the road. We’re very close and get on really well, so the concept of working and having a great time works really well for us (laughs). It’s really going to be fun.
Have you played one of these cruises before?
Nope. I’ve never even been on a cruise. It’s going to be quite interesting. I’m really looking forward to it. We leave on Tuesday, so we’re packing as we speak.
Do you have anything special planned? Have you talked to any of the other musicians who are going to be there? I know you’ll be kicking things off at the Pre-Party the night before.
I don’t much about that, but I guess I’ll find out (laughs). Jon Noyce (former Jethro Tull bassist) is playing with Three Friends, and Jon he wants to get up and play a number with us. I think the only problem is that our set is quite short. I know they want us to play a couple of hours, but I have a horrible feeling it’s going to be shorter than that.
Just as long as you play “Minstrel In The Gallery.”
Yes, we’re playing that.
You’ve been playing that pretty regularly, haven’t you?
Yeah, there’s a few old tracks that we’ve played for the last four years. Logic says drop them and try something different, but they work so well and people really love to hear them. They still got a freshness about them. I think because people in the States obviously have not heard the band, I think it’s a really good representation if we carry forward what we’ve been doing. We’ve got a nice mix of old Tull, missed-about Tull and my new album.
You mentioned your new record Back To Steel. Which songs from that record are you playing live?
Nearly all of them. “Back To Steel,” certainly. We’ve been playing “Bad Man,” “Sea of Vanity,” “A Moment Of Madness,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Smokestack Lightening,” “It's Getting Better”…(Laughs) There’s probably one I missed out. They all work out really well. It’s quite nice to have a really big choice. It’s a nice situation to be in when you find it hard to know what not to play.
For these shows and for the record, you’re joined by Dan Crisp on vocals, acoustic guitar and bouzouki, George Lindsay on drums, and Alan Thomson on bass. How did this group come together?
Me and Dan go back probably 10 years on a sort of friend basis to start off with. Then we did a few gigs. He’s a singer and songwriter who lives near me, and we did a couple of things together, mainly acoustic and it worked really good. And then I needed a singer because the original guy I was working with had a big tour with his main band, so I was really looking for someone special. Dan was right under my nose and I never realized it. For some reason, it hadn’t connected to me that Dan was the perfect person. Since he’s been in the band, he’s developed so strongly as a singer and a performer. He’s a real nugget.
Alan has been with us for the last year and he’s a really strong musician. He has a really wide knowledge of music and instruments, and a lot of experience, so he brings a lot to the table. And George has been my little gold mine. Dan’s a nugget and George is the gold mine. He’s an amazing drummer, and I’ve played with a lot of drummers. He is so good. I met him through the local studio that I did a lot of recording at. I was moaning about drummers, as one does, and they said: “Check this guy out. He’s a really young kid. He comes down and does sessions.” And I said, “Oh yeah, go on then.” Ready to think I’m always disappointed. It was amazing and it led to some tracks in the studio and we went on to play live. It’s a great band. I know I keep saying it, but we’re really solid for the moment.
I really like how you fusing hard rock and blues with folksy Tull-like nuances on this record. And you mention Dan, he’s singing rockers like “It’s Getting Better” and ‘Moments Of Madness,” more bluesy numbers like “I’m A Bad Man” and “Smokestack,” and then he easily slips on something comfortable like the jethro Tull songs “Skating Away” or “Slow Marching Band.”
He’s a great singer. We were messing about at the last gig we played, which I think Monday night, and he did some Johnny Cash. He’s pretty good at that as well. He’s just got a good voice. A voice like that can lend itself to anything.
On “Skating,” you modified the arrangement in spots, which I really like. I mean, you put your own spin on songs that you were originally very much a part of. Is that something you enjoy doing?
I do when there’s not a guitar part essentially, but then having said that, we do a version of “A New Day Yesterday” that’s sort of more of an ode to Joe Bonamassa than Jethro Tull. Although, maybe three or four tracks, in fact less than that, we do as the originals. “Minstrel In The Gallery” is one of them. “Teacher” is another one. Some tracks need leaving alone. They’ve got their have their classic parts, classic riffs. I don’t want to mess with them. But then other ones we can have a bit of fun. Maybe make them more guitar-oriented. I just want to bring something else into the arena that’s more me. I don’t want people to think, “Oh it sounds like the original without the flute.” That would be the worst thing in the world for me.
Another unique arrangement on the record is the one of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” How did that one come together?
It goes back quite a long ways. In Tull, I always did an instrumental on stage and I usually wrote them. I was messing in the studio and I was listening to Jeff Beck. Jeff does some really cool things with very popular songs and it got me thinking. So, I started messing about on “Eleanor Rigby” as an instrumental. I thought that would really work well, and I rewrote the chords and changed it. But it sat on the shelf for about 15 years, but then last year I picked up on it and made it really cool to take it and add some riffs to it and just mess with it, but hopefully in a respectful way.
I think you a great job with it. The guitar playing on this record is exceptional. I love the other instrumentals like “Chasing Shadows,” “Hammer” and “Calafel.”
Yeah, Calafell is a little seaside town in Spain. It was where I went when I was a kid. And we did a little festival there, and I didn’t realize that it was exactly where I was on holiday when I was like 12 years old. I just happened to come across it and it was Calafell. I just thought I’d dedicate a little bit of music to it. They were meant to be a sort of punctuations in between the songs. At first, I was going to do a continuous album with song, link, song, link and…anyway, I got distracted. I thought the little short instrumentals would be a little break, a little respite from the songs. “Hammer” is something I wrote to do on stage. I’ve been doing other instrumentals from other albums, but it’s more of a serious attempt to write a piece of music.
It seems like you’ve been writing and recording quite a bit since you stopped touring with Jethro Tull. Has this been a good thing for you?
That’s a loaded question, and I could probably talk an hour about that very subject. I think if maybe I say one thing: I didn’t stop touring with Jethro Tull. Jethro Tull stopped and the subtle difference is I never pulled the plug. At that time, I didn’t want to. This was a decision that I had nothing to do with. And because I didn’t, it took me by surprise. I was very, very unprepared for it, as far as my life is concerned. My work, my whole emotional state. I had no preparation for this event, and, unfortunately, the others did. And that was very, very emotionally upsetting. It took me a long time to get back on my feet. I went through a lot of emotions.
After a couple of years, I got the band I liked and started touring. Step one, if you play the clubs and then you finally get a few steps. I got into that. I got in I could finally make decisions, I’m writing the music, I’m arranging the music, I’m running the band. I think I learned a lot of things how not to do it, as much as learning how to do it. And then there was turnaround after a couple of years where I thought, you know, I’m really happy. I don’t have any negativity at all. For a musician, who are notoriously fragile, I’m a really happy person. I love the band, I love the music. I’m really enjoying myself. And that’s the way I am now. It hasn’t been good, it hasn’t been easy. Right now, emotionally and musically, I’m really on a high. It is good.
Do you think you and Ian Anderson will work together again in any capacity? Do you talk?
No, there’s no communication. I think the longer it goes on, as it is because I’ve got a great band and I’m sure he’s happy whatever he’s doing. But we’re getting further apart. The more commitments I have for myself and my own music, the more I’m gonna do it, and the less likely that we would work together. It’s pretty unlikely. I just think it’s good that Jethro Tull doesn’t exist because it would be a big, big mistake, for even me or for Ian to say, “Look I am Martin Barre’s Jethro Tull,” or Ian is “Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull” because it isn’t Jethro Tull and it never will be. I won’t be for me and my band, and it won’t be for him either.
It hasn’t officially stopped, and maybe that’s a good thing. For it to stop, everybody involved would have to say, “Let’s quit.” But that never happened. So, you know, it’s open, but I always think if I got a phone call, probably the first thing I would say is, “OK, but it’s my band. It’s going to be my band playing because I have a great band and I’m not going to lose them.” That would be the first thing and it would be quite interesting. I don’t have any comparisons or any feeling s for what Ian is doing. I don’t know what he’s doing and haven’t heard. I haven’t heard the record. I’m so far removed from everything that is happening there. It would be like me and Abba. There’s no connection at all. I’m not being unkind. I’m just not in the same world. Whatever world I’m in is a good one, so I’m happy to be there.
Have you been involved with any of the Steven Wilson remastered Jethro Tull box sets that have been coming out in recent years?
No, I haven’t. And the sad thing is the record label doesn’t involve anybody other than Ian in all these things. I haven’t heard them. I don’t get sent them and because of that, the last time I was asked to do liner notes, I said, “No.” They’re not involving me; they want it to look like I’m involved. Talking about Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll, they want my little interview on the new — whatever it is — booklet, but essentially, talking about something I haven’t been involved with at all. So I just said, “I’m not going to do it. You’re not involving me, you’re not even being polite enough to talk to me about it, get my opinion or send me the finished product.” They’re very, very rude people. Steven Wilson is amazing, but I don’t stand behind what he’s doing and I haven’t heard it. It’s a shame.
Yeah, it is a shame because I’m a fan of Steven Wilson and he’s done some great work on these reissues. Let’s go back to the present. Following Cruise To The Edge, you’ll start your U.S. tour in Florida, covering the south and then up the East Coast. Any plans to come out west?
Yeah. We have a tour in April and we have a tour in September. One will be the central states and one will be the west coast. Not many dates yet, they’re all sort of speculative but definitely we have every intention of coming back next year and continuing. I want to play everywhere. And I want to play everywhere a lot (laughs).
Any plans for another record? Are you writing and recording?
I haven’t since Back To Steel because it’s very recent. Every day, I’m just so busy, I just don’t get a day off. And if I do have a day off, I have a day off, rather than historically, I’d have a day off and go to the studio and fiddle about and maybe write something or maybe not. I will, maybe after Christmas, when we’re back from the States. Traditionally, those are quite months, January and February. I don’t need to make myself sit down. I’ll just want to do it. Based on the reaction of what I’ve done on Back to Steel, I’ll sit down and start writing again. I love doing it, I’ll just sit in a studio with a guitar and I’ll come up with something. It might not be very good, or it might be a little seed of an idea that comes to me. It comes very naturally to me, to find ideas musically.