Jethro Tull's Martin Barre: Taking Roads Less Travelled
BY DAVID DeROCCO
It’s a funny thing. You won’t find his name on the list of Top 100 Guitarists compiled by such supposedly learned rock mags as Rolling Stone, Spin or Kerrang!. Nor will you find it on similar lists assembled by musician trade mags like Guitar World or Guitar Player. But as fans who purchased over 60 million Jethro Tull albums will attest, guitarist MARTIN BARRE is responsible for some of the most inspired, provocative and diverse guitar and string stylings ever laid down on a rock record. In fact, his signature riff in the Tull classic “Aqualung” was voted 20th best solo ever in the UK and 25th in the US. And for what it’s worth, the guy even earned a Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy in 1988 when Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave won over Metallica’s …And Justice For All. Take that metal fans!
These days Martin is serving up splendid solo records, including 2016’s brilliant Back To Steel and the upcoming Roads Less Travelled, featuring 11 original Barre-penned tracks that reflect his incredible 50 year career as a guitarist and burgeoning talents as a songwriter. To promote that October release, Barre and his band perform locally at Seneca Queen Theatre September 27th and This Ain’t Hollywood September 28th. The rock legend took time to chat with GoBeWeekly about his passion for music, the joys of touring and Jethro Tull’s noticeable absence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
GOBE: It’s great to see you heading back to Niagara after so many years.
MARTIN: We’re very familiar with that area. I know that road like the back of my hand, and all the sights in Niagara and Hamilton and Toronto. It’s a very nice part of the world.
GOBE: I apologize and hate to admit that I haven’t kept up on all the music being made by bands I love and their members. But after listening to Back to Steel, it brought me back to that same sense of excitement and discovery I had as a young music fan buying and spending time with a new album. It’s a wonderfully diverse collection of music.
MARTIN: If you enjoy that, then you’re going to enjoy the new CD we’re touring, Roads Less Travelled. You can pre-order it now on Amazon. It’s sort of an extension of what Back To Steel was, the same direction and same diversity. But this time it’s all my own music.
GOBE: Is that a primary challenge as an artist at this stage, without the radio and label machinery behind you, just letting fans know you’ve got new music to share? Is touring still the best marketing?
MARTIN: Well it is. My audience are very much focused on seeing the band live. There again it’s a huge Tull audience that follow me all the world over. You just have to try to get to people on every media you can. I’m old fashioned you know. I like the press. I like reading an article and seeing a picture. I like putting a CD in a CD player. I recognize that most people download, they’re looking at Facebook, they’re looking at YouTube. It’s a changing world like it or not and I don’t dislike it all. You have to go with it. You can’t fight it. You really have to follow the flow.
GOBE: There are 15 tracks on Back To Steel, and 11 tracks on the new CD. It’s 2018 Martin, you’re showing you age by releasing two quality records with so many tracks of great music so close together. That’s old school!
MARTIN: (laughing) I was worried that it’s not quite as long as some CDs but I’ve heard that people’s attention span is a lot shorter than it used to be. Sometimes I refer back to old Tull records in bits and pieces and an hour was normal. People were disappointed if it wasn’t an hour. But the fact of the matter is that I’ve taken a nine month period to record this album, and there’s a lot more time, a lot more music, a long more arranging. And so the content is intense even though it’s a shorter album. And I listen to it all the time because I’m always appraising what I’ve done. At the end of it I think everybody will feel like they’ve listened to a lot of music. All I want them to do is not wish there was another track but to want to listen to it from the beginning again. If that’s how they feel it’s good.
GOBE: You say taking nine months to record Roads Less Travelled like it was a long time. In the 70s Jethro Tull incredibly released 10 albums. Looking back, does that seem ludicrous that you were producing at that pace, or was it a joyful creative period.
MARTIN: I never think about it. I wake up in the morning, I put the coffee on, and whatever that day has for me, it will include music. Maybe one day I might need to do something, but today I’m arranging music for the next tour for the guys and working on arrangements. Tomorrow I’ll probably just go in the studio and play just for the hell of it. It’s never a chore. Making albums, I’ve never felt like I need to do one every so often. I just want to. I’m a great believer in moving forward and I’m not happy doing a tour like we did last year in the States, coming back this year and just changing a couple songs. That’s not good enough. I want it to be lots of new material, almost a different show. That’s just me. I think a lot of bands are just repetitive in their catalogue, particularly on stage. I just want to keep moving. I don’t want to look back too much. I’m looking at tomorrow and the day after and the year after.
GOBE: With 11 new tracks of original material on the new release, it’s clear you’re a guy that still likes making new music. You could just have easily put on seven or eight and called it a day.
MARTIN: I love it. And for me, I’m a guitar player who has sort of discovered the joy of songwriting. I’ve always loved arranging music. It was something in Tull I did a lot of. Now I do 10 or 20 times the amount of it. It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful music is, the harmonics and dynamics. It’s a lovely thing. It’s such a privilege to work within that industry, that art of making music. I’m learning to be a songwriter so it’s like I’m a teenager again, like I just started and again. I’m learning as I go. I’m hoping and believing that every song I write is an improvement and a bit better. As a writer I have a lot more to say.
GOBE: With new album Roads Less Travelled, it’s kind of an ironic title given the tour schedule on your webpage. You’re already booked through until June 2019. I’ll assume not having heard any tracks that the title refers more to your musical path as a player.
MARTIN: I know. I think that emphasis is on taking a route nobody else takes. I look at other musicians and guitar players and writers and I think that’s a bit well worn. My route through music has always been the other direction, going down that alleyway that no one else wants to go down, not doing the obvious. And I think I’ve been like that in everything I’ve done in my life since I was a school kid and a teenager. I never followed the crowd. It’s my logo if you like; I’m always going to do down the road nobody else is taking.
GOBE: It was certainly unique in the road you travelled with Tull all these years; was the creative environment that produced those great songs and albums collaborative, combative, or full of compromise.
MARTIN: All of those things. Compromise is part of life. If you don’t compromise you become a narcissistic person, a controller. You don’t listen to people. You’re not open to ideas or criticism. I believe that people need to have that compromise. Jethro Tull was a fantastic learning curve through all of it, because it was so intense. There was something in there that was different and creative and exciting. It was a great background and I’m very happy that I did it. Music takes me to little corners, but I love it. It’s dusty and dark and new, fresh maybe. I don’t know what’s going to happen on any particular day, what I might produce.
GOBE: Well, according to the Grammy’s you’re also a great heavy metal guitarist. Do you think you’ve got another metal album in your future.
MARTIN: (laughing) I never start out with that intention. It just goes there and it’s me. In some ways I can’t control it and don’t want to. I play loud, I like to turn things up to 10 and 11. I’m a rock guitar player and I’m proud of it. I’ve still got the mandolins and mandolas and classical guitars. That’s just the contrast. I’ll never lose that tie-in with rock music. That’s what environment I was brought up in in the mid-60s. It’s my education and my background.
GOBE: I watched the video on your website where you talk with reverence about your guitars and the technical aspects of playing. Do you have a favourite.
MARTIN: Today for example I’ve already played on two electrics, a Gibson and a Fender. And I have a little travel guitar, one where the neck collapses, a little acoustic. I can walk around and play it and drink my coffee and look at my computer. It’s become sort of my favourite work tool. It sounds good, I can write on it. I love all my instruments. There’s not one that’s more important than another. When I look at them I think, ‘one day I’m going to sell you.’ And it’s like they’re saying ‘no, not me, not me.’ (laughing). I love them but they don’t own me.
GOBE: From where do you derive your greatest sense of joy as a musician these days. You picked up your guitar so many years ago, and have created this wonderful life. Is the joy in the writing, the recording, or is it performance still?
MARTIN: I’ve really enjoyed all of those things. I love recording. I have a little recording studio. We work 12 hour days but it’s not work. It’s enjoyment. I think with recording, if you’re doing right, what you put into it you get 100 times back. When you can take little ideas you write down on a manuscript, you don’t really know if it’s going to work, but when they do it’s a wonderful pleasure. Playing live is such an amazing thing for me. We just headlined our first festival this past weekend in Germany. I was a little apprehensive when you’re carrying the festival. We went on with little trepidation. It was unbelievable. They loved the band. You can’t help but glow in that euphoria. It was so nice. I’m a little big headed from it. It’s such a wonderful compliment that people will come see you play live and enjoy what you do. That’s the big reward. I love all the gigs. The smallest clubs in some ways is as fun as a big stadium. I just love playing live.
GOBE: In 2018 Jethro Tull got the inevitable snub from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again. We Canadians worked long and hard to get RUSH in there. Is that something that even matters to you. Is the music the true legacy.
MARTIN: Everybody likes a pat on the back whether they admit or not, they can be a bit blasé about it. You never see anybody turn it down and they’re always smiling and grinning and they’re loving it, as they should. There’s good times and bad times. I think about all the travel, all the rubbish you have to go through in life. If there’s that little bit of paper on the wall that says, hey you did good, it’s a nice thing. I’m very respectful of all those occasions. One day I would love to be there, whether it’s with Jethro Tull or even m y band. It’s just a very nice thing to have happen to you.