An Interview With Martin Barre
Martin Barre is one of those guitarists that you don’t tend to notice too much. You’ve heard the riff on Aqualung and you think this is easy to play – single note riff, nothing to it. But then you go and see him live and realize this riff is all in barre chords (no pun intended). And you watch him play all night. His ease is mind-boggling. He looks as if the guitar is actually growing from somewhere on his body. Maybe then you realize just how amazing this guy is.
Even if you’re not a fan of Jethro Tull, this is one guitarist you want to get to know; a very nice man who took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. Read and learn. Learn from the best!
Guitar Noise: You joined Jethro Tull on their second album.
Martin Barre: Yes. I replaced a guitarist called MacAbrahams. That was in December 1968.
GN: So it’s been quite a long ride. Do you still enjoy it?
MB: Well I enjoy playing and that carries me through everything. It’s a good job for a guitar player; there’s a lot of interest there, there’s a lot to get your teeth into. The music is always challenging. It’s a good gig for a guitar player.
GN: With a lot of guitarists, you notice that as they grow older, their playing seems to suffer. For some guitarists, it’s just the opposite; it just keeps on getting better. After seeing you on stage last year, I can say that you fall into the latter category. Your playing blew me away.
MB: There’s a passion there and I think it would be pretty hard to disguise if it wasn’t there; I’d have to be honest with myself. If I wasn’t playing better every year, I would stop doing it. I would hate to be up there and not offer something to the audience that wasn’t better than what I was doing the year before.
For some, they’re just paraphrasing what they did in the past. I wouldn’t want to do that. I have to have the confidence to be up there doing my best and nothing else will do, really.
GN: You know, I would pick up my guitar and play Aqualung and think I had it pretty well. Until I saw you play it… There are lots of barre chords in there.
MB: It’s not hard to play…
GN: After seeing you play it, I’m not of that opinion anymore…
MB: (laughs) As guitar playing goes, it’s not a hard gig. It’s not normal music because it’s being written from a whole different approach; there’s a very un-guitar approach to it, the chords are different, the voicing is different, the scales are unusual. It’s not predictable. It’s good because it’s not what you’d call guitar-band music.
I make sure that I’m in top form (laughs). I want to be up there playing all the time!
GN: Yes, well the whole music scene has changed. Musician’s aren’t performing the way they used to be when you started.
MB: It’s very competitive now. Everyday of your life you’re competing with a whole bunch of people. Thirty years ago, there weren’t that many people to compete with. Now there are a lot of talented guitar players out there and every day you’re competing for your job and you’re competing for your reputation and your place in the market with all these other players.
It gets harder and harder so I practice every day; there’s no way I could afford not to do it. All the young players have lots of energy, so I work on my energy and I work on my fitness, mentally and physically. I believe you have to have an edge.
But then again, I love playing, I love the instrument. I don’t have to work incredibly hard because I have all those years experience and that counts for a lot. But then again I still make sure that I’m in the best position.
GN: You’re not one of those guys who are thinking about retiring next year…
MB: Noooo! Not at all. I will never stop playing, whether it’s my own music or Jethro Tull or something else. I’m very broad-minded. I can adapt to anything, so ultimately I’ll keep playing, whether it’s in clubs, auditoriums, big stages, it doesn’t matter to me. As long as I’m able to write music and to record music, I will fight very hard to do that.
GN: I’m glad to hear that! I was wondering, in regards to such tracks as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick – without considering what the fans want to hear, do you still like playing those songs or would you like to go out and just play new material or songs that you’ve basically never played live?
MB: Sure, I would. Some of the songs are unusual and are not played very often because of the reaction. And the whole thing about playing live is the reaction of the audience. You have to have that; the musicians are feeding the audience. If you play all the music that you love but that the audience doesn’t love, (laughing) it’s going to wear pretty thin… So it’s always about the compromise and the balance. There’s always a better performance of Aqualung. I never get tired of playing it; there’s always a more precision-performance to be done. I sort of go different places in the solo to make it fresh every night so that there’s no feeling of repetition night after night after night. I try to approach it on a one-off basis. Every night I play it as if it were the first gig (laughs) or the last gig. You have to be that way.
GN: I think that’s the right attitude. Some people go on night after night and just play automatically.
MB: I couldn’t do that. I think there’s a lot to be said about simplicity. I get a lot of pleasure out of playing in a simple manner and that can be more demanding. You take Thick As A Brick, that’s very easy to play for me, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing such a simple piece of music, and playing it well. That can be very demanding.
GN: In Jethro Tull, you’re in a rather unique situation playing with another soloist who isn’t a guitarist. How do you manage playing so that he can get his flute solos in and you can get your guitar solos in?
MB: It works out rather well. The area the flute plays in is different from the area the guitar plays in. I have a lot of space and I quite like it. I saw Matchbox 20 a few weeks ago. That’s a band I quite like and I focused on the guitarist, and everything he did, he did really well. Everything from playing the solos to playing really good rhythm guitar. He did it really well and I could appreciate that.
I think that’s kind of like my role. Whether I’m playing a difficult chord or a very rhythmic part, then that’s as demanding as a solo would be. I never let up and I take pride in every note I play.
GN: That’s a very healthy attitude and probably why you’re still one of the great names out there.
MB: It’s the way I look at music. I like to listen beyond the top line, I like to listen beyond the solo. You can listen to one piece twenty or fifty times and there’s always something new because there’s so much in there.
GN: I apologize for this question, but I enjoy asking it… If you were offered the “big” contract, short 3-4 minute commercial songs, no more long, difficult songs. Would you sign?
MB: And not be allowed to do anything else? (laughing)
MB: I can do anything and I do a lot of things where I don’t get paid any money at all. I go out and play with local bands, I play on other people’s albums and I don’t ask for any money. So I wouldn’t do it for the money, but I’d probably do it just to do something different. I would actually like to be in Faith Hill’s band.
MB: Not because there would be a lot of money (laughs), although that would be quite nice, but because it would be quite challenging for me to do. If I were offered the chance, I would do most things, as long as there’s a lot for me to do. If it were a demanding job, I would do it for that reason.
GN: It almost makes me want to ask you to play on my album…
MB: Did I say that I do things for free? (laughs)
Money isn’t the criteria. On the one hand I have to run a household, maintain a family. All these things cost money. But playing music is what I love doing and being paid is just a bonus.
GN: It’s the reality of living, that’s all.
MB: Yes, but it doesn’t interfere with what I love doing. The big pay is just a bonus. Sometimes we go out on the road and we’ll play India or South America or Israel or Turkey or Russia, we make very little money; barely enough to cover expenses. But we love doing it. We just go out and say, “Let’s have fun! Let’s play for some people who’ve never seen us before.” And generally they just really appreciate you being there.
And then suddenly you get subsidized for the big North American tours and the big European tours… It all sort of flattens out. You don’t have to make money. If we get offered a gig that sound fun or exciting, we’ll just go out and do it. As long as we don’t lose money.
It’s something we always did which is different from other bands. We like to do unusual things. We’ll go out and play territories where other people can’t be bothered to play because there’s no money. Like Moscow…
GN: It must be a different reaction over there?
MB: Yeah. It’s nice to meet different people and to see their attitude. And traveling is a bonus too. You get to see places you wouldn’t normally go to.
GN: There was an article published in Montreal last year from a popular journalist who said that rock music should only be played by twenty-year olds. That musicians in their fifties and sixties should retire because they have nothing important to say. He specifically mentioned a few bands that should retire. One of them was Jethro Tull. What would you answer to something like that?
MB: From somebody who’s a journalist, that’s an incredibly naive statement. It sounds like something you would have read thirty years ago. I don’t think anybody who would’ve read something like that would’ve taken any notice of it. I think he’s doing himself more harm than the people he’s talking about.
The Stones, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, The Eagles… there are so many bands from my era that’re still on the road, and people still enjoy them. I think nothing more need be said.
GN: Are you happy with your new album?
MB: Yes, but I don’t want to say too much. I want you to listen to it and say… whatever…
(*Note: Please read the review of Martin Barre’s Stage Left here.)
I read the comments on my website (www.martinbarre.com). Obviously they’re all buyers, but the comments are all quite positive.
It’s quite centered on the guitar, but I left space for everything, that way it’s not too guitar…