With a new solo album hot off the press, Jethro Tull’s guitarist Martin Barre explains to julian piper why he loves classical music, why he won’t be touring with Ian Anderson, and why he’s turning his back on amplifiers.
While they might not have quite achieved the iconic status of some of their illustrious peers, the very mention of an upcoming Jethro Tull tour is akin to the second coming. Tull has been at it for an incredible 43 years and whether or not rock music was meant to last this long, it’s an impressive track record. But rumblings of discontent abound amongst the Tull faithful; a quick glance at any one of the band’s online message boards suggests that all is not well. Ian Anderson has allegedly lost his voice, is touring Thick As A Brick [one of the band’s most celebrated albums] without a Tull member in sight, and Martin Barre, his long time faithful guitarist and acolyte, is striking out on his own with a solo album.
So on the morning I met up with Martin at his Devonshire home, I was certainly intrigued. I’d once liked Jethro Tull, but had bailed out about the time of their third album. However, as the years rolled by, it was difficult not to be impressed both by the loyalty of their fan base and the band’s seemingly unstoppable longevity.
Certainly the softly spoken guy who came to the door was far removed from any preconception of a grizzled rock star. A man who enjoys wind surfing, sailing, running and mountain biking; only Martin’s white goatee beard links to his famous alter ego on face value. Sitting down to talk, the guitarist exuded the kind of passion you’d expect from a musician proud of their first release on an indie label, rather than someone whose recording career stretched back to recording Aqualung in Island Records’ studio some 40 years earlier.
Aqualung was a pivotal moment in rock music history. Not only did the album, with its complicated arrangements, sell more than seven million copies, it also opened the door for legions of bands that followed in Tull’s wake, with Martin’s mammoth guitar solo on the title track being judged by “those that know”, as one of the 20 greatest of all time.
For decades Jethro Tull was well ahead of the pack, the very denizens of that often maligned music form we call prog-rock. As much as the crazed figure of a codpiece-wearing Ian Anderson standing stork like on one leg, playing a flute and leering lewdly at the audience, came to signify the band’s whacky image, equally the interplay between him and the band’s bearded guitarist/flautist was always an integral part of any Tull live show. It was as though the musicians were joined at a musical hip, and for Tull fans the idea of the one without the other was an impossible scenario. But time moves on.
Martin has often toured with a band partly made up of veteran Tull musicians, and the prospect of another solo album was hardly unexpected. But what will take many by surprise is the totally acoustic nature of the music. ‘It’s either classical crossover or high quality elevator music!’ he laughs. Such engaging modesty belies the fact that Martin’s produced a gem of an album – an inspired selection of tunes that’s of awesome complexity with some ingenious arrangements of several of Martin’s personal Tull favorites.
Martin joined the band in 1968 following the departure of guitarist Mick Abrahams. One album into an uncertain career, Jethro Tull was already something of an enigma. Their early incarnation was apparently far from popular with promoters, and the very fact that they became known as Jethro Tull only came about when a desperate agent changed their name to obtain a repeat booking.
Martin smiles as he recalls his unlikely beginnings. ‘I’m a Brummie and I’d started out playing music by the Shadows and songs by Little Richard before I took up the flute,’ he said. ‘When the blues boom came along I went back to guitar, but everyone was playing the same Albert King licks – really badly! I never wanted to do that, I never wanted to copy anyone; we played with Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, and as much as I loved what they were doing, I never wanted to learn their style. I avoided other guitarists like the plague,’ he laughs.
‘Not to be bloody-minded but I just thought it was a pointless exercise to base your own style on your hero. I used to think even if your own style might not be as good as someone you admire, at least it’ll be yours and there’ll be have some unique qualities in there. Mountain were our support band on a tour and I was a big fan of Leslie West; like me, he liked to play melodically and very emotionally, and I felt we had a lot in common. We began taking the songs that would be Stand Up on the road in 1969, and of course we were playing to Mick Abrahams fans – lots of whom didn’t like what they were hearing; they were expecting a blues guitarist and it took a while for them to appreciate that the band was going in a different direction. They gradually came around but the transitional few months were very difficult for everyone.’
In discussing Jethro Tull Martin was anxious to avoid making any comments that might suggest there was any acrimony between himself and Ian Anderson; the legacy of the band is something he understandably holds dear. He was nonetheless happy to shed light on the band’s modus operandi.
‘Ian’s take on the world isn’t my take on the world, and Ian’s take on Jethro Tull is just his; I don’t mean it in a derogatory way but he views the world through his eyes and always has. He’s a very solitary individual. As a result there was never much input from anyone else in the actual songwriting; Ian would write the songs on guitar and come up with a riff he wanted to use. But by the time of Benefit and Aqualung, the songs were becoming more nebulous. Ian would come up with an idea for a song perhaps using simple chords like D, C, G, and A minor with a chorus tagged on, and we would build music around his basic idea, work out an arrangement. In that way there was a lot of input from the band but not a lot of credit given; when John Evans came up with a piano line, for instance, which subsequently became a very important part of the music, he just did it as a part of his job. And it was the same with all of us, we didn’t have parts, we invented them along with everyone else in the room.’
Like many musicians from the era, Martin freely admits that such considerations as to who exactly was making money from their efforts, was of secondary importance to the job in hand. ‘It never mattered, the politics and finances were something we brushed aside because we were musicians creating something special; we were the leaders in our field and the fact that we were making bucket loads of money wasn’t the focus of our attention,’ he states. ‘We never thought about it, everything was just work, work, work – albums, stage shows. At the time the rest wasn’t important. Now what matters is that the other people who played in the band, musicians like Dave Pegg and Eddie Jobson, do get credit for what they did; they were a very important part of the band’s history and it would be a tragedy to overlook them. At the moment Ian is very focused on himself and being the nucleus of Jethro Tull, and I think he tends to underplay – whether intentionally or not – the roles of the other people. It’s another side to the band and I won’t let it be buried. My mission will always be to ensure that these other guys – and myself for that matter – receive credit for their input. I’ve invested 43 years of my life playing for Jethro Tull, I’m very proud of it and protective of it; I shall shout from the rooftops and make sure my side will be known.’
Martin’s new album was recorded in a studio in a corner of his Devonshire house; a small but airy space with a mixing console, a rack of instruments and a vintage Gibson LG-1 lying on a sofa. ‘I used the LG-1 on several tracks,’ he enthuses. ‘My son found it for me in the States and it has a wonderful warm tone. I’ve always done one or two instrumental tracks on my solo albums and they’ve been the ones I always got most satisfaction from playing, so I thought I really needed to find a theme and take the idea further. But as there hasn’t been a Tull album for years, and these are songs I love, it became quite natural for them to form the basis of the album – and it’s been a long process. I’d have most of the parts written out before we started recording, then we’d start at 10am in the morning and do 12 hours, aiming to get one track done each day. I wanted the engineer to work from dawn to dusk and there not be half hour an where I’d say: “You have a coffee while I write the next thing.” There was a lot of preparation. Music’s very tiring on the ears but I was in play mode, loving it with no sense of time. We’d have breaks, sit out in the garden and have a coffee because I wanted the whole thing to be a pleasurable experience.
So was it easy to convert to an acoustic mode? ‘There’d always been a tradition in the band that Ian played all the acoustic parts, occasionally there was a cross over and I’d play something in the studio, but never on stage. A lot of Tull songs are very pretty but don’t get played a lot, and I thought maybe they’d work as instrumental pieces because they deserved to be reborn. I had to introduce acoustic songs into my repertoire, and it was really interesting to find myself slowly discovering the beauty of acoustic instruments as I did so. It’s taken some time to find what I want out of them, but now I have things like a bouzouki and mandolins – instruments I’d never played until about 10 years ago. Apart from the LG-1, I used a Santa Cruz, a Fylde and an old Gibson mandolin that my son also turned up for me. In putting the album together, my main inspiration was classical music; I love harmony and melody, the dynamics and space you find in classical music. So I’ve tried to come up with chord sequences that take you away from the predictable, exploring what is possible without it being unmelodic, jazzy, weird or… prog! It’s nothing flashy and the intricacy is the harmonic structure rather than loads of notes being played really fast, and although I didn’t want it to sound like a smart-ass album, I’ve worked really hard to make the harmonies really different and quirky. I like to think it’s really good dinner party music, the kind of stuff you’d play when you were cooking or having a cup of coffee!’
And with the festivals still looking for next year’s headliners, was there any chance we might see Tull in action I wondered? ‘I shouldn’t think so!’ Martin chuckles. ‘Ian never liked festivals – never enjoyed them, hated them. He doesn’t like an environment where he’s not in control, there’s no soundcheck and you just have to dive in and do it. But I love it, that whole thing of being on the edge and you never know what’s going to happen. Infact that’s a big reason Ian stopped playing Jethro Tull gigs, he just didn’t like the enormity of big stadiums. We were due to play Woodstock but they stopped it before we got there. I was always sad because it was a historic occasion, and the name Woodstock is still a reverential topic. Probably the music sounded awful, the PA was miserably tiny and the quality of the playing wasn’t great. Does it matter? I saw the Stones in Hyde Park in 1969, the sound was terrible but it was amazing!’
Martin Barre’s Away With Words is out now.