Wednesday, April 6, 2016
INTERVIEW with MARTIN BARRE, March 2016
After having the enormous pleasure of interviewing Ian Anderson two years ago, I know have the extraordinary bonus of interviewing his long time collaborator and guitarist Martin Barre. They were in Jethro Tull together well over 40 years and now both are quite active with their own bands. Martin Barre put on a great show at the Jammin Java this past December. Be sure to mark your calendar for Monday, April 11th, when the Martin Barre band will be at Ram's Head in Annapolis. And if you live elsewhere, look up the Martin Barre tour dates, as he is covering a major amount of the USA this time around.
The band is great, Martin Barre is still in top form, and they are full of surprises, as you can see below. Thanks to Anne Leighton for arranging this interview. It was conducted by phone on March 3rd and there was a phrase or two garbled, so blame any unclear transcription passages on me.
Folkworld, a European webzine… we are rather loose with the definition of folk, but you fit.
MARTIN BARRE - Well, yeah. That never worries me or intimidates me.
DH - Yeah, genres rarely worry musicians, it’s more our thing.
MB - Yes, for the record stores.
DH - Right. I will start off with a prediction I had made or thoughts I had when you stopped with Jethro Tull. I believed you would be hanging around in England, quietly working some blues clubs with recordings here and there. But now you have a full band, a steady stream of new records and are doing an awful lot of touring. How much time are you on the road these days?
MB - More and more because we are building up the band. We do a fair amount with four pretty busy years, although it’s great even with tensions of getting more and more shows and really, I’m just starting off in America, so there are huge possibilities in the different territories of the USA. I am probably doing less of England and a bit less in Europe, because the clubs in England are pretty well at a dead end. But I love festivals, so we do as many festivals as possible. But at the moment it is really focused on the States.
DH - Good. Do you have hot spots in the United States? I mean Jethro Tull was coast to coast, so I am sure you would have a good audience everywhere.
MB - Yeah, well we have done the northeast last year and we had four weeks. And we are coming back and doing that territory again in April and also Chicago. Then in September and October we will be in the midwest and maybe go to the west coast. We have been everywhere and I intend to go everywhere again and I know America really well and saying it is a second home is really close to the truth. I am married to an American lady. My son lives in America and I love being there.
DH - Great. Yeah, it is kind of a challenge to get started with visas and being a full band, but once you get going, it can take off, which it sounds like it is. I saw your show in the DC area in Vienna Virginia on that first leg recently.
MB - Oh, you were there!
DH - Yeah, that was great. I had a great time.
MB - Yeah, that (Jammin Java) is a good club.
DH - Any chance of Asia or South America… did Jethro Tull do South America?
MB - Oh yeah. I really haven’t really promoted that, but I want to look at that for 2017. And I really, really want to go over to Australia.
DH - Oh, yeah, that would be great.
MB - Every day I am working on what we’ve got and hopefully with patience I will be able to get to places that I really want to do.
DH - And I am sure you have tons of fans there that want you to come over. Now just in general, in your long career you have had plenty of space to be a highly creative force, but now you are the clear leader, at least on the marquee. How big a change is this for you?
MB - A huge change because when Jethro Tull finished, I took stock of where I was in my personal life in every aspect, particularly musically. And the first thing that dawned on me was that I was getting very dormant on a musical level because Jethro Tull had become very antiseptic. There was no fire left in the band at all and wherever you are with a band that becomes normal, whether you are top of the game or settling down and going through the motions.That becomes your normal mode of operation and I realized that my mode is very very low. So it was a bit of a wake-up call. So the first thing I did was to record an acoustic album because I had to think very hard at how to proceed with my career. And it suited me to sit at home in my studio, writing a load of music and then record it as an acoustic album. It was really good fun because it was intense musically and kept me really, really busy. It got me playing again; it got my brain working, fingers working. I really enjoyed doing it.
DH - OK.
MB - And at the same time, the band was being pulled together and doing shows to find where I wanted to go with the electric side of it. That took another year for the band and for me to find what I really wanted to do.
DH - Interesting… and I can continue to see that on your albums as you continue to mix styles and instruments. And I am sure one of the things you enjoy is creating your own setlist. And I really have to give you top marks for that at the show I saw. I had no idea you would come up with such an eclectic group of originals, Jethro Tull songs, blues standards, and interesting covers and I have a few questions about those.
MB - Well, that makes me very, very happy because that part of it is so important and in the latter days in Tull, I would go to Ian and say let’s try this song or try doing that and nothing ever happened. I know that Ian was restricted with his voice problems.
DH - Right.
MB - But it just meant the door was closed on a huge area of the Jethro Tull catalog. And I love experimenting, I love challenging an audience. So I am really pleased that you say that, because that to me is the ultimate test for the people that go to a gig. If they go ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting that’. That works in my book. I don’t want to be predictable. I don’t want to do normal. I have the Jethro Tull heritage but I want to use that in a very constructive way. I maybe want a reconstructing recipe with Jethro Tull music by taking the essence that you really have to keep and the rest I will reconstruct it. Obviously there is no flute so I have a lot of area to put guitar playing into. I have enjoyed doing that and I think that the audience may as well because it still pays respect to the song, but is fresh, it’s new, it’s got energy and it works.
DH - I found that interesting too, as there must be some careful thought on your part to where some songs sounded very close with even your singer doing the vocal inflections really well and other times, it’s like Wow—you’ll just take off and go off in a crazy fun unknown direction.
MB - Yeah, I never gave Dan, as he was learning all these songs, that the melody is pretty written in stone, but if you mess with the melody, it is you—you are singing it and I want your personality in it. I don’t want a reproduction of Ian’s personality. I know you said about the inflections and I guess it is hard not to, but I think Dan is his own person.
DH - I think you are right, but he has the ability with his tone to bring it out some where it flows with the lyric…
MB - Yeah.
DH - And there are other songs, which are more distinct and he does not sound like he is in front of a tribute band.
MB - I hope not.
DH - Right… and you also get to do ‘To Cry You a Song’. That was one where I believe you always wanted to do.
MB - Yeah, I just think that works really well live. It really did in the early days. When I would suggest that to Ian, he wouldn’t do it, because he didn’t have enough to do.
DH - Ah… (laughs) OK
MB - And it’s a shame. I don’t have any of those restrictions and I’ll say to the guys in the band that if a song doesn’t need like a second guitar part, then give it more space. I believe that not playing is as much as a talent as playing is because it is reading the space, listening to other players, and giving them head room is such a powerful part of music.
DH - Agreed.
MB - It is like an orchestra where you are reading a part and there are a lot of empty spaces that are not really empty, but that they have a musical reason to being empty. But in an orchestra, people understand that.
DH - Right. How about the blues songs—the classics that you choose? What is your methodology there?
MB - Again, I am not playing straight blues. There were people who did that incredibly well, if you look back to Stevie Ray. There are some great pure blues players. It is not particularly my area, although I love the blues and I play blues guitar—we all do as: blues as rock; blues as folk; blues as country… there are blues styles in all music. But I am going to make it a bit different such as ‘Smokestack Lightning’ for instance. And ‘Crossroads’ when I do that, I want to make it fresh, different. And with the Smokestack blues chords, I’ll try to make it more like a song someone would write today, rather than an old blues classic. When you see the guy… I saw Willie Dixon play on Youtube and it’s unbelievably good, but all it is, is a riff that goes on for ten minutes. And you can’t do that because you’ll never sound as good as him—only he could do that. You gotta pay them respect by leaving it alone, it’s their heritage, leave it there. But I love the music so I’m going to develop the blues that I play on stage.
MB - Yeah, I can’t play classical music and I definitely can’t play jazz either. But I sound jazzy or I can sound classical, but any jazz musician or classical musician would tell you (and I will tell you) that it is not classical with a capital ‘C’ or jazz with a capital ‘J’ the way I play it. But I am quite happy as I don’t want to be a jazz player, as there is so much more in music that I want to develop. And I wouldn’t be pretentious enough to describe anything I do in those directions. I just like ALL music and there is some jazz I love and hate; and in classical, I love nearly all of it, but it is just when I listen to it, I soak it in like any musician would.
DH - Was there any of the British folk music in your early days that was influential along with the Blues?
MB - There wasn’t because early folk music for me was where I went to folk festivals that my sister dragged me to in the mid-sixties and I really hated it. Because folk music in those days was someone standing with a guitar strumming three chords and was really really boring. And there was no musicality in it. And now, unbelievable bands… there are Irish bands who are phenomenal musicians. And their approach with sympathy of folk music is a completely different animal. And it is fabulous and I am in awe of the people who play that style of music. And in America, bluegrass.
DH - Oh yeah.
MB - Incredible, incredible players… I love it, it’s fabulous and I’ll never be good enough to play it, but I enjoy listening to it and I try to bring some of it out in the music I write, as much as I can.
DH - And I gotta ask… Porcupine Tree and Government Mule (laughs), you blew me away with those covers. Any more surprises like that?
MB - (laughter) Well, I love those songs and that aren’t many that I love, but I am always looking. There is never a day when I’m not trying to think of something to do. I am working on three bits of music this week and I’ll be looking for more. I might change it around. It keeps me active and will keep the audience active as well. We have got a huge set list that we can draw from and is quite nice. It is different than Jethro Tull who played the same set list year after year, maybe with one change at that extreme. And then like Zappa at the other extreme when you would play anything from his whole catalog any night. I like to think I am somewhere in the middle, where we are building up a big catalog of music we can play. And then each night we will chat about what people want to do that night and we kick it about.
DH - OK. How about the writing process… You seem to be active, even with mixing in a lot of other songs, but what is your process for writing your original songs.
MB - I want it to be strong and I want it to be music that works really well on stage. You know, the first adjective would be rock, but I don’t write rock music, but I want it to be powerful. I try to see where my writing goes—I try to keep it to be very much straight ahead. I try to write music that sounds simple, but is more complicated and I don’t want to write music that sounds more complicated than it is. You know, trying to avoid the weird time signatures and tempo changes. I just like music that an audience can hear, having never heard it before, and like it. But it will have a lot of music in it, since that is the way I am anyway, but I want it to come across being straight ahead.
DH - OK. And another thing you get to do these days is choose your entire band and I am curious as to how you found the excellent players you are working with now.
MB - Yeah, it has just developed… I have had a few different versions of the band before this came together. There is George (Lindsay on drums) and I knew he was a keeper. Dan (Crisp, vocals+guitar) I have know for a long time—he lives right down the road from me and the best choice was right under my nose. I didn’t see it. And as soon as Dan joined, I knew it was the right decision. And then Alan Thompson is the most recent one (on bass) and I was lucky to get somebody like him. It’s not all musicality. I am not looking for necessarily great musicians, but it is about living together, focusing on the same things, and really enjoying playing with the music. There is a lot of positive emotion in the band—it is four guys together that really share everything. That is a really important thing and I’m really happy with the guys I’ve got.
DH - Excellent and that all will show up to the audience.
MB - Yeah, Yeah.
DH - What was your recording process for ‘Back to Steel’ in terms of home studios or professional studios?
MB - Well, I wrote it all at home and then we did it in a couple of blocks of sessions. The first one, we had a full rehearsal at the house—we have a big cellar. And then it was three days in the studio and we got six or seven tracks down. Then I finished them off at my house, did the vocals and guitars there. And then we did the same thing a month later, except that I had written a lot more songs. Having done the first set of songs, it put me on the right track as to where to go with the rest of the album. It came together as we proceeded with the rest of the album. It came together easy, we got good results and everything was a pleasure. And I have hated being in a recording studio, particularly in the seventies where there was such an intimidating environment with producers and engineers. There is a big pretension of them being in control.
DH - Oh yeah.
MB - You were struggling to get a good sound and struggling to get a good performance. You don’t need it. It was back when it was the first time in my own studio and I thought: hang on a minute—it has nothing to do with the guy in a control room, really. Just EQ the channel, get the level right, then it is completely down to the musicians. They are in control and there is no set of secrets to getting a great sound. Well, there are—I’m oversimplifying it. In fact, I work with an amazing engineer and his job is to get the sound in the studio control room and getting it on the computer and getting the music from A to B very, very efficiently. Essentially with that, what sounds good in the room is going to have to sound good when you record it. You know I really hated recording in the past, but now it is the opposite as I really enjoy being in the studio. And there is a great local studio we use, really laid back. It is very earthy and a great place to be.
DH - Great and you are touching on one improvement from the old days to the new and I am curious that back in the 1970s it seemed there was a lot of pressure on your band and many others to bang out a lot of albums and tour all the time. Was that difficult in that era?
MB - Hmmm… I think so. And again record companies, basically as we all know are a load of idiots.
DH - Heh, yeah.
MB - There were a lot of kids out of college that wanted to be in the music business, that couldn’t play an instrument. And of course, they had the power to control a band, which was a big mistake. They are financial institutions, the record companies, who are selling a product and they want some control. But it should not be a musical control at all. It is really the band and the artists. And with Jethro Tull, we had some idiot who was in charge of A&R who told us our next album would have to do better. So he brought us all into a meeting… he carried in six vinyl albums, this is how long ago it was. He said these albums have been top ten sellers. This is what you need to be doing.
DH - Oh geeze.
MB - And one of them was Fleetwood Mac and I can’t even remember the other ones, and of course they are great bands.
DH - Yeah, sure.
MB - Oh another one was the Moody Blues. He seriously wanted us to change Jethro Tull’s music to be in line with what were essentially pop bands, very, very good ones. Everybody knows these bands had fabulous albums and great songwriters. But that is not what Jethro Tull did and not what Jethro Tull fans wanted either. This guy, I mean I think it was at that point I just gave up on those people. And essentially I knew my market place is different.… and now you’ve got Youtube and downloads. You can get your music to people directly. It is a good thing you can.
DH - It is good and there have been a lot of improvements. I mean though unfortunately with the free music, you would try to defend the old system, but then you were defending the record labels an then you didn’t want to do that either.
MB - Yeah. In retrospect, most of the people I met were pretty useless and they didn’t do anything for the music. They had no importance. I mean they might have handled incredible artists, but then every label would have them. Because every artist needed a record label with none of the credit was due to the label, other than the fact they hopefully did their job and got prints of the album and distributed it. But you can do that with cornflakes, it is the same business.
DH - (laughs) Exactly. Anyway I saw that you guested on Mick Abrahams latest record. Did you work with him directly or was it through file sharing?
MB - No, I mean I have a lot of respect for Mick and a bit of a soft spot for him, as he was and still is very nice to me.
DH - Good, yeah.
MB - He is very respectful and it means a lot to me that he is that way and I just want to help him out, out of respect. He just sent me some tracks and then I just put my guitar on it. I have not even heard the end result (laughs).
DH - (laughs). Yeah, I have not heard it either, I just read it the other day.
MB - Oh, ok. I have no idea.
DH - Yes, well I will look it up sometime and listen because I enjoy his work as well. And in preparing for this interview, I listened to your new album ‘Back to Steel’, of course, but I also chose ‘Stand Up’ because I really miss Glenn Cornick. Did you enjoy the chemistry with him and Clive Bunker?
MB - Well yeah. You know I always think there is this whole thing about the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, if it is ever going to be an issue. I always think who would it be if they ever were interested in Jethro Tull—how would they deal with a band that had so many people in it? Would they just say let Ian in and that makes it easy? Or maybe me. I just think that the band that was Jethro Tull—there were two bands, the first one is Clive and Glenn and me and Ian. That was the Jethro Tull that hit America and made it all happen. That was the catalyst, the really historically important line-up. And the other one would be when we did ‘Bursting Out’ and ‘Thick as a Brick’ with Barry Barlow, Jeffery Hammond and John Evans. That was a strong lineup and so much happened during that line-up. And again it was just an important part of Jethro Tull’s career. But it can not happen because there are guys that passed away like Glenn has, someone else has moved to Australia, and another one wouldn’t have anything to do with it (laughs). But I think with so many people, it was too much, it should have been left alone with the Bursting Out line-up, that should have been the end of it—not the band, but the changes. We should have got on with what we had. It would be like if Mick Jagger replaced the rest of the Stones with better musicians. Why would he do it? It was a big mistake. Anyway, I’m blathering on.
DH - Nah, that’s ok (laughs). It is interesting, and with the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, even though I don’t care much for it—like all Hall of Fames, it is rather ridiculous and as much marketing as anything, but they really screwed up with Deep Purple.
MB - Oh, did they?
DH - Yeah, they took the first singer, but not the first bass player, who was on the same first three albums. They took some subsequent players, but the remaining original members are mad since there are a couple guys they have played with the last twenty years who are not included, so…
MB - Yeah.
DH - And Richie Blackmore isn’t going to come now, as there are still some issues going on with Ian Gillan and such.
MB - It’s a bit like Tull—a dysfunctional band. But you know, I wouldn’t begin to go into why. But you make decision and you carry out those decisions in a certain way and for Jethro Tull, there were some bad decisions. And the way they were put into being, it is a shame that of what could have been.
DH - OK, let’s see… How is your life in general when you are not working on music or playing guitar. Is everything going well?
MB - Well, that is my life (laughter)
DH - Yes, there is not much room in between, eh?
MB - There is a bit of room, like now I might go for a run. It’s freezing cold and been raining all day, but I just have to get out as running clears my brain. After running a few miles, I will get together with Dan, our singer, and go through some new songs. I have a great life and my wife is amazing. We go to a lot of theater.
DH - Oh, good.
MB - We love music. I like to be social. We’ve got two girls that I would like to bring to the States. They play with us in England in Europe. So we have them and their boyfriends—they are all musicians obviously.
DH - Right.
MB - They are guitar players (laughs). They are young kids, they are in their early twenties. But they are brilliant, they are just great. I like people and I have a lot years where I was very insulated, but now I just enjoy meeting people and being around other people and communicating. It is a different life, but I am very, very happy.
MB - Hmmmmm… (laughs) that is a really hard question.
DH - Everyone says that.
MB - I really love art and when me and Jeffrey (Hammond) were touring states—he paints and his favorite artist was (Pierre) Bonnard. In fact we just went up to London to see a Monet exhibition. It was all about gardens and there were Renoirs, Klees, and Bonnards. It was stunning. And here’s my take… I’ve started enjoying art more, just as a punter. I sort of overdosed on it with Jeffrey because we used to go to the local galleries and since we were from England and played in Jethro Tull, they would give us access to the locked rooms and the private galleries, like one from a billionaire and they would let us in to a house full of unbelievable pieces. I mean art inspires me with what people do with their hands, although I couldn’t mention one that is special to me. We just try and buy a painting maybe once a year, because they are expensive. But they are such lovely things. It is like you buy a CD and you say OK and put it in a pile. But with a piece of art, it is a really important decision because you can’t buy many of them and you really do live with them, whereas music is so disposable if you don’t like it, you can throw it away. I just think that are not any individuals that inspire me outside of music—I am so throughly involved in music.
DH - Well, art is a good connection. That makes sense.
MB - Yeah, and also with live theater just seeing how hard people work. People say it must be hard work being a gigging musician, but not as much when you see a theater production. And a lot of American actors come over and do London theater because it is so special. They work really hard and they inspire me because it such a physical and mental exercise compared to what I do on stage, it is really an inspiration.
DH - I agree with you on theater, as I love it as well. And just one silly question… do you have a favorite football team? And please don’t tell me it is Aston Villa.
MB - (loud laugh) Well, I was born in Birmingham and fortunately Birmingham City was the team I would go and see. I love football and I don’t support anybody. If anything, I quite like the teams that come from very poor areas like Blackburn and Sunderland and Middlesborough. I just think… I don’t know why, but I just think Chelsea has too much money and Manchester United is too rich, you know, but for the real down at the heel fans where football must be so important for the people that live there, so I like the underdog. I just enjoy a great game and probably don’t care who wins.
DH - I am a bit that way and this year is really fun with Leicester surprising everyone.
MB - Yeah, that is really great. I hate it when it is predictable with Chelsea or Arsenal, Manchester City winning cups by having the money to get the best players. I personally think it would be interesting if teams were only allowed to have players that lived within their city, for maybe living there five years. That would make it interesting.
DH - Ah, regional. Yeah, and we have something over here in some of our leagues with salary caps with TV money being spread evenly to small and big markets so it all evens out better.
MB - Yeah.
DH - Anyway, I want to wrap up and I appreciate your time on this. You were one of my earliest concerts, it was probably the War Child tour and there was little hockey rink in Dayton, Ohio called Hara Arena.
MB - Yeah.
DH - And that night it was soooo crowded getting in. You could lift your feet up and let the crowd move you along. There were even broken windows, it was crazy for a Jethro Tull show, but it was definitely exciting.
MB - Yeah, those were good days. We were having a good time.
DH - Great. Well I hope to see you next in Annapolis (at Ram’s Head on Monday, April 11th). That is a comfortable place.
MB - Yes that is great room to play. See you then.