Fall 2003 Interview with Jethro Tull's Martin Barre
By Shawn Perry (www.vintagerock.com)
It may be safe to say that Jethro Tull is, to borrow a familiar phrase, one of the hardest working musical acts in show business. 2003 was certainly no exception as the group came through on all fronts, releasing solo albums from the band's principal members, flautist/vocalist Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre, as well as a spirited holiday disc bearing the suitable moniker of The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
Having followed Tull's colorful career for decades, I am continually amazed by their unrelenting output. We're talking about a band that has had over a dozen personnel changes in the span of some 35 years. Still, the music has yet to flounder and droop in public in spite of its reigning legacy and insolvency with the times. To appreciate something as eloquent as "Aqualung" or "Cross-Eyed Mary" elicits a cache full of nerve endings in most free-thinking individuals, forever wavering against an abrasive and aromatically distinctive resonance. You're not going to get that with today's boy bands.
In 2002, I spoke with Anderson and Barre for About.com, finding them both pleasantly humbled and assured. Quite simply, Tull's station in the music biz quagmire keeps their calendar filled with a wide assortment of activities. Barre, whom I met with backstage at the posh Orange County Performing Arts Center, is just happy to have a steady job as the band's unswerving guitarist -- a post he's held since 1969. "If you like working, it's a good gig," he remarked.
To avoid the nostalgia label, Tull had to get something out into the marketplace with a little more panache than Living in the Past with recycled hits or live collections. As if remastered CDs and DVDs weren't enough to keep the pot boiling, the Fall 2003 release of the solo and Christmas CDs fills the void quite nicely. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is a delicious collection of chestnuts -- new, old, reworked and traditional -- roasting on an open fire. Anderson's Rupi's Dance is a homespun, acoustical-based album filled with anecdotes, pet peeves and keen observations. Barre's Stage Left is a miraculous scrap heap of instrumental pieces that deftly exhibit the guitarist's understated abilities.
On opening night of their brief Fall 2003 tour, Tull played at the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa, during the final days of the annual Orange County Fair. Once again, I was invited to speak with Martin Barre, this time with a focus on Stage Left. Having pretty much covered his days with Tull during our previous chat, it was uplifting to talk about the new album with Barre, who was genuinely excited at the prospect of promoting and touring behind it. Naturally, we touched on a few Tull related issues, including the Christmas album and what's on the horizon. Always one to go with flow, Barre made a few guesses without further commitment.
Shawn Perry: Last time we spoke, you mentioned how much you like to run. On your own web site (www.martinbarre.com) you say you love tennis. On the Tull web site, it says you enjoy skiing and wind surfing. And on the press release for Stage Left it says you're into snowboarding. So, what's next? A triathlon?
Martin Barre: I didn't mean to do it (laughs). I haven't thought, 'Wow I must get healthy and fit.' I just enjoy doing it. Coincidentally, it's looked upon as being healthy and it probably isn't. It's probably far healthier to sit and relax and enjoy life, instead of running around lakes, up and down rivers, and around parks... or smashing your knee on a snowboard or landing on your ass windsurfing. It isn't necessarily a good thing (laughs).
SP: Do any of these physical activities you partake in have an influence on your playing or writing?
MB: No, not really.
SP: You're not thinking about music at all?
MB: I must admit, when I run, sometimes I do think about bits of music. Because it's quite nice to get yourself out if you're in the studio and running and thinking about what you're doing. Sometimes you'll come up with an idea and think, 'I should have done that,' and you can go back and rectify it. It clears the mind.
SP: Let's talk about Stage Left. With Tull regularly on the road, how did you find the time to write and record this record?
MB: There's more time as the years go on. As far as touring with Tull, it's not as intense. Last year it was about three or four months. This year, it's really barely three months out touring. We haven't done an album for a while. The Christmas album went very quickly. So, there was a lot of time. I had a whole chunk, from September to the end of March. I had some music and I thought the time was right. I wanted to do it. It was perfect, really.
SP: Your solo records have been few and far between.
MB: I've had three in ten years. That's not bad.
SP: When do you know it's time to make one?
MB: When I have six months off (laughs). I can't do nothing [with that amount of time off]. I'm at home playing anyway. I might as well. I like to write. There will be more albums. I want to promote this one. I want to tour. I really want to give this one a lot of space and a lot of attention.
SP: When will you be taking it out on the road?
MB: We're talking about coming back next year (2004) to play some club dates. It might just be music stores and me playing to the CD and sort of a question and answer thing.
SP: How much does your work with Tull influence your solo work?
MB: I think in the discipline in how I play and what's acceptable to me. Musically, I don't know. I think you can learn as much listening to Bach as you can from Jackson Browne. They're both great. Maybe I'm bringing something from Jethro Tull, maybe not. I'm not aware of it. It's probably inherent.
SP: Are you intentionally trying to distance yourself from Tull when making solo records?
MB: I don't see the reason to. I don't want to. When people say it sounds a bit like Tull, I say, 'Great.'
SP: What's different about Stage Left from your previous solo efforts?
MB: I tried to make it simple and straightforward. When I listen [to music], it annoys me if there's too much in there. Like I've thought too much about it and it's over arranged and over produced. And because of it, the guitar struggles to get through. This one, I just wanted it very easy on the ears. So if you put it on a player and maybe you're having a dinner party, it wouldn't be intrusive. It does the work for you.
SP: I spoke to Steve Howe earlier this year about his last instrumental album, and I have to ask you the same question I asked him: how do you come up with titles for the instrumental tracks?
MB: I don't find it hard because you don't have to write lyrics. I find that hard. Coming up with one word, or two words or four words, that's not hard at all (laughs). It might be something silly. I have working titles for them and sometimes that develops into the title because I connect the two. Or the title goes with the music. I find it a bit fun. It's like the icing on the cake.
SP: You have a nice mix of acoustic and electric numbers on the album. Were you trying to achieve a balance?
MB: I was aware of it. I'd make sure if I'd written a couple of acoustic ones, I'd make myself think electric and maybe think big. Or slow melodic, not the style, but the sort of sound that should be there. When you go out and do gigs, you need these sort of rocky and bluesy tracks; you need something to sink your teeth into.
SP: While there are shades of Tull on parts of the album, you are definitely holding your own on this record. "As Told By" is your own distinct interpretation of the blues; "Favourite Things" has a renaissance feel to it; "Spanish Tears" embraces a sort of Spanish vibe; "Celestial Servings" is kind of jazzy -- it reminds me of Mark Knopfler...
MB: You said it. It works. "As Told By" is me sitting down trying to do a blues. I wanted to do a bluesy sounding acoustic piece and it sort of went. I can't play the blues, but I enjoyed doing it. Nothing was an effort. It all fell into place. I didn't have to work that hard to come up with ideas. But then I worked hard on the harmonies and arranging and playing the parts. That's where I put all the work in.
SP: You're playing lots of unique electric and acoustic instruments on this album. Would you consider yourself a collector of vintage guitars?
SP: How did you decide which instrument to use on each track?
MB: I probably played 80% of those guitars on the tracks that I said they were on. But when you talk about instrumentals you have to have something to say. I thought it would be of interest to talk about the instruments I used on the tracks. I sort of wanted to talk about the instruments though -- they are genuine stories.
SP: On "Count The Chickens," you're playing a Les Paul Junior, which you say you bought after meeting Leslie West. You also played it on "Aqualung."
MB: Yeah, it was the lead guitar.
SP: Would it be fair to say that some of your playing on "Aqualung" was indirectly influenced by Mountain?
MB: I think so. Not "Aqualung" itself, but yeah the way I play it. Leslie is the only player that I've actually had influence from directly. But Leslie West with his sound, he's a great player. I didn't try to copy him, but there are certain things about his playing that I really, really like.
SP: Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Ian usually play the acoustic guitar on Tull's records?
MB: He normally does, but sometimes I'll play a lead acoustic line.
SP: That being said, I think your acoustic playing on this album is very refreshing.
MB: I enjoy it. I love the acoustic sound. That's why I'm playing bouzouki and mandolin too. The structure of the sound. I really like the sound of the guitar; you know the inversions and making an orchestral sound with the acoustic.
SP: Do you prefer the acoustic over the electric guitar?
MB: In some ways, I do because they're so honest. You don't get away with anything when you play the acoustic guitar. There are no sounds that mask the notes or bad technique. It's a great, pure sound. I love it. I get a little satisfaction if I play the acoustic well to my mind. It's very satisfying. With electric, I think you're always fighting the elements with an electric guitar. You're always trying to get a better sound. It's not a perfect instrument.
There's too factors that work against you. They can go the other way. I'm not saying I don't enjoy playing it. With acoustic guitar, it's completely you. With electric, you have gizmos and you can make it sound good, but it's very simplistic.
SP: You're playing some flute on the album. Is this something you've wanted to do for a while?
MB: I've played flute for 40 years, but not continuously. I played flute before I met Ian. And I don't keep it up obviously because there's not a whole lot of flute playing involved for me. But yeah, I think on all three albums, I've done a tiny bit of it. It's just a gesture. It didn't need to there, but it was a bit of fun.
SP: You have some excellent musicians on this album, including a couple of your Tull band mates. How did they become involved? Is this something you guys talked about while you were out on the road?
MB: They're very supportive of my music. Jonathan Noyce was really my bass player before he was Tull's bass player; he played on my second solo album so there's a strong link that goes back a bit. Jon was my first choice. It's a loyalty; I get on with them well. And I know they'd be quite hurt if I used somebody else. They play great so it was an easy choice. Same with Andy [Giddings, Tull keyboardist]. Having Darrin [Mooney, drummer] was more for practical reasons than being in L.A. [note: Tull's drummer Doane Perry is the band's only American and lives in Los Angeles], and I wanted to be there with the drums. I like to keep my finger on the trigger. It was really important that I was in the control room while Darrin played; he is the sort of player I like. I like what he does with Gary Moore.
SP: You have your friend Simon Burrett singing on "Don't Say A Word." How did that come together?
MB: He's a semi-pro musician and a local friend in Devlin. The idea was to get him to demo it, really just do a rough version of it (laughs). The guy put his heart and soul into it. He really put a lot of work into it. At the end of it, I thought it would be really cruel to get it all replaced by a name singer. And everybody liked it, so I said, "Great, keep it. I don't want to replace it." It meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to him.
SP: What can you tell me about the Jethro Tull Christmas Album?
MB: It's a mixture of re-recorded Tull Christmas tracks like "A Christmas Song," "Another Christmas Song" and "Jack Frost And The Hooded Crow." There's about five Christmas Carols, sort of like the one we're doing tonight, sort of jazzed up and traditional, but very arranged, turned around with different time signatures and stuff like that. It has one of my tracks ["A Winter's Snowscape"] and three that Ian wrote for it. It's something you buy as a present.
SP: Are there any plans to play any special Christmas shows behind it?
MB: We're thinking about doing something next year, doing some Christmas shows.
SP: Are you playing anything off your album tonight?
MB: Yes, the first song, "Count The Chickens."
SP: Any plans for a new Jethro Tull studio album?
MB: Not now. It's around the corner because it's overdue. Ian has solo album, I got mine, and Tull have the Christmas album. We can get by with that. Maybe 2005. We'll have to do something by then (laughs).
© Copyright 2003 Shawn Perry. All rights reserved.