Martin Barre Back to Steel

By Jeb Wright

Martin Barre (after surviving the cut for something like four decades) finally fell prey to the fate that has been bestowed upon every other musician that has teamed up with Ian Anderson in the band Jethro Tull.  He was handed his pink slip.  Well, maybe not literally, but when Anderson decided to go solo he went with a new band, leaving Martin to suddenly face a future where he had to be something other than ‘that guitar player in Tull’. 

Martin has bounced back with a new album, titled Back to Steel.  The album sees Barre expressing his many musical styles, including tips of the hat to his Jethro Tull past, his love of blues rock ala Cream and English folk… oh yeah, and even a really cool remake of a Beatles classic. 

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with Martin when he was in New York getting ready to kick off his East Coast tour.  We discuss the end of Tull, the birth of his band, the diversity of his album, as well as his set list, which will be enticing to long term fans of his former band. 

Jeb: It is a pleasure to talk with you.  Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Martin: It is my pleasure.  I was just meeting with an old friend called Paul Hamer.  He built me the most beautiful guitar.  It is quite emotional.  His whole family came here to present it to me.  It was completely overwhelming. 

Jeb: Hamer… Rick Nielsen with the 5 neck axe, Steve Stevens, Rick Savage, Glenn Tipton… Tell me about your new unique Hamer guitar?

Martin: It is a most beautifully built… I don’t know if I can describe it to you.  It looks like a 17th century instrument.  It is impossible to describe the detail.  It is a beautiful thing.  It is absolutely unique.  It looks more like a lute, but it is a thin bodied electric guitar.  It is indescribable.  I’ve known Paul from many years ago.  We go way back to the early days of Jethro Tull when he used to be a guitar dealer.  He would come around the backstage with a 1959 Les Paul and he’d say, “Do you want to buy it?”  I’d go, “No, I’ve already got three of those.”  He’s a great guy.

Jeb: This creation sounds too nice to take on the road.

Martin: It is very much too nice to take it on the road, but I am going to get to play it on this tour as I will have it with me.  I will play it.  I will find a way to do it. 

Jeb: Speaking of the tour, I know you’re thrilled to be taking your solo band out in the United States.

Martin: Absolutely.  It has taken me four years to do this.  We came here last November and December and the thing that has opened the door for us was playing on the ‘Cruise to the Edge’ on the ship.  It was fantastic.  On the back of that we did a promotional tour and we’ve met an agency and built an infrastructure to get us working over here properly.  It has been a huge amount of work and now it is the icing on the cake, and we are in New York.  This is the fun part after doing all of the hard work.  Now we get to get on stage and play. 

Jeb: I love how passionately you are taking this tour.  It is inspiring. 

Martin: It is so unlikely that I could do nothing.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.  You see tennis players on the veteran circuit.  You think, “How can they possibly still want to play?”  Their bodies must be racked with pain, but they are out there practicing.  It is the same with me with music, I never tire of it.  As long as I am physically able to do it I will be playing.  It is just in my blood to do it. 

Jeb: Your latest album includes some Tull songs so can I assume your live set will be a mix of Tull and Barre tunes?

Martin: It is. We tend to concentrate on the early guitar/bass/drums Tull songs.  I’ve taken some of the Tull music and completely reconstructed it to make it heavier and blues and guitar orientated.  We’ve probably got 40 percent of the set Tull material.  The rest is off Back to Steel and we do some blues classics.  I never do anything the way you hear it.  I take it to pieces and re-write it and add music to it.  I like to do that.  I don’t want people to predict what’s going to happen on stage.  If I announce “Smokestack Lightening” they are not going to get the version they have heard before.  They are going to get our version.  

Jeb: I watched you on YouTube. 

Martin:  We have four songs like that.  One was “Rock Me Baby” which is a real old blues classic.  We did “Fat Man” which is a Tull song.  We did one called “Watch Your Step.” 

Jeb:  I love “Watch Your Step” because it so bluesy.  You told me once you were just a blues guitarist. 

Martin: I am sort of a simple and uncomplicated blues player.  I enjoy that.  It is all about getting out there and playing a few solos and letting it rip.  I just want the band and the audience to have a really great evening. 

Jeb: By listening to that song, you must have been a big fan of Cream.  That song reminds me of Cream. 

Martin: Oh yeah.  I was.  Someone asked me to name influential albums for me and Disraeli Gears was on that list.  That was a ground breaking album at the time.  It is a beautifully constructed album.  I was a big, big fan of them and Hendrix.  They were the groundbreaking acts of those years.  It inspired me to do what I was doing in parallel.  It was not quite the same music.  I hear any great music it will inspire me.  It can be the melody, the harmony or the emotion.  You can use the same thing in your own career.  Music reads the same across the board if it is great, no matter what style it is. 

Jeb: Here is a hard one: Ian Anderson is out on the road and you’re out doing Martin Barre and there is no Jethro Tull.  Why aren’t you two together?  You are the Jagger/Richards of Progressive Rock and it is so strange to see you apart. 

Martin: Funny enough, I quoted that sort of relationship between two people recently.  It is sad.  A few years ago Ian got me and the drummer in a room and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”  It totally took us by surprise.  He said he didn’t want to do the big rock gigs where the fans shout and that he’d had enough of it.  To cut a long story short, that was the end of Jethro Tull. 

I don’t know what he is doing, musically, but at that point I decided that I didn’t want to stop playing Tull.  I knew I would find a way of making Tull music that I love work for me.  It is sad because I think the old band could still be out there doing great music and doing great shows… it is a missed opportunity to me.  Jethro Tull is a great brand. Whatever I’m doing or whatever Ian is doing is a lesser version of Jethro Tull… I don’t mean musically.  I just mean on the grand scale of things.  If we did a Jethro Tull tour now it would be a wonderful thing.  We could put new songs in the set that have not been played and it would be a wonderful thing.  The sad thing is that Ian wouldn’t allow me, or anybody else, input or ideas into the show because he’s very restricted in what he can sing.  He is also restricted in what he wants to play.  You can just imagine what sort of show you could put together with the catalog of Tull music.  It would be phenomenal.  It’s just a shame.  I’m going to carry the flag as much as I can.

Jeb: You play some of those early ones.  Tell me a few that fans will love to know you’re playing. 

Martin: “Teacher,” “Minstrel and the Gallery” and “To Cry You a Song” to name three. 

Jeb: That makes me pay attention.  You do “Skating Away” on the new album.  I wish you would have remade “Minstrel.” 

Martin: Right.  I don’t know how you could really do it.  I look at all of these pieces of music as we did with “Fat Man.”  We completely changed the feel of that one and it worked great.  “Minstrel” is so set in stone and I think to change it would just be doing it for the sake of doing it.  Some things you just need to leave alone. 

Jeb: “Skating Away” is an iconic song.  I would have thought you should not screw with that but you did it well.

Martin: It was a dangerous one.  It is a great song and done so beautifully.  There you go.  I meddled with it.  I just wanted to play it live and change it a bit. 

Jeb:  The singer has to have some balls to take that on.  That song is so Ian Anderson.  Hearing someone else sing it took a while.  He is a different singer than Ian and I miss his voice with your guitar, but the new version is so damn interesting. 

Martin: Dan [Crisp] has a difficult job.  With my material he is his own person.  With Tull, I’ve always told Dan to just sing it the way he wants to do it.  I don’t want the melody to change, as the fans know the melody so you can’t change it.  I wanted him to approach it from as personal point of view as he possibly can.  He has a difficult job and I think he does it really, really well. 

Jeb: He does the bluesy stuff excellent. 

Martin: Yeah. 

Jeb: You also remake a lesser known Tull song that I found exciting.  “Slow Marching Band.”

Martin: I did that because I just love the song.  We did that quite a while before we did the rest of the album.  It was sitting in the vault for like a year.  Every time I would go back and hear it I knew I really wanted that on the album.  It doesn’t particularly fit in with the rest of the CD, but I just love the song so much that I wanted it to be there. 

Jeb:  “Back to Steel” is my favorite one on the album.   

Martin: It is sort of one of my favorites because that’s what I love about guitar playing.  You’ve got a riff and it has strong chords.  There are little bits of solo.  That is my thing… I love to listen to and I love to play that sort of music.  I really wanted to write a song that had that style about it. 

Jeb: “You and I” doesn’t fit in well, but it is a nice song and it is very interesting. 

Martin: So many times I will buy a CD because I hear a great song.  The rest of the CD just sounds like something that was put together as an afterthought.  Nothing changes and it just sort of plods through in a similar style.  With this one the next track might go into a totally different direction, but it will make people sit up and listen to what is happening now.  I want to keep people’s interest.  The girls were great.  They did some backing for me on the other tracks and they were so amazing that I wanted to give them their own song as well.  That is how that one came about. 

Jeb: I don’t know if you will play this one live, but I really enjoy your complete reworking of “Eleanor Rigby.” 

Martin: We are definitely playing that one live.  It works really good live.  I’ve worked that out as an instrumental in the Tull days and I never used it.  I used to do an instrumental on stage every tour and I’d done that weird arrangement and changed the chords but never used it.  That is a reworking of an old idea. 



Jeb: I like how you do that.  How long did the album take? 

Martin: Probably around three months.  The music was quick.  Obviously, there are weeks and weeks of writing.  I do a huge amount of preparation, so when we go into the studio all of the music is written down, all of the parts and all of the harmonies.  The hardest part was the lyrics.  I spent maybe six weeks on the lyrics.  I would write a set of lyrics and get up the next day and read them and tear them up and throw them in the bin and start again. 

I’m still on my learning curve with songwriting.  I haven’t written huge amounts of songs.  I am sort of enjoying it, and I am hopefully improving as a songwriter.  Lyrically, I’ve never done lyrics.  I need to be as good as I can be.  I don’t think you can just sort of tear off a sheet of lyrics and say that it is fine.  They are just throwaway lyrics.  I can’t stand songs that are just a repetition of the same line.  They have run out of ideas so they just repeat the same line.  Lyrics have to match the music in quality. 

Jeb: I am glad you brought that up.  It is interesting because you’ve composed instrumentals and some very famous riffs like “Aqualung” and “No Lullaby” and “Minstrel.”  Songs are different. 

Martin: I don’t know… I think you’re right.  I started writing little bits of ideas within arrangements of songs or an odd riff or a middle 8 for a song.  From there I wrote complete instrumentals—I’ve always written them from the beginning when I joined Tull.  It was always a case there was a slot in the show where I played a piece of music that I’d written.  I’ve always written, but in very small quantities. 

I’ve got the motivation and inspiration to develop as a music writer.  I’ve got a lot that I want to do. I always think when you’ve had 30 to 40 years of writing songs that you possibly might struggle to find inspiration.  I am not mentioning any names, but I’m sure it must be a nightmare to think that the tank is empty.  For me, I’m more of a beginner.  I’m sort of halfway through my journey of learning how to write music and songs and that is great. 

Jeb: Are you finding lyrics are harder to write than music?

Martin: Definitely… definitely.  The quality of lyrics out there, you know, it is a high standard.  I find it really hard. 

Jeb: You write music first and then lyrics, I assume.

Martin:  Yeah, I do it that way around.  If I go into the studio I am more likely to pick up an instrument and start playing that I am to sit at the desk with a pencil and paper.  I start with the music first. 

Jeb: You spent several decades around a guy that is a great songwriter and lyricist.  Did you learn a lot watching Ian Anderson?

Martin: It sets the bar really high.  There is no question that Ian has been, and is, a great songwriter.  That’s why the standard of what I do is being compared to that.  I would never compare the standards because whatever I do is what I do.  Some people might like it and other people might not.  I do the very, very best I can do.  That is where the standard is set very, very high.  Particularly, the lyrics are that way.  It is good because it makes me work hard, really hard to get a great quality of music out there. 

Jeb: Lyrics are just there to break up guitar solos.

Martin: [laughter] I wish!

Jeb: Tull breaks that rule.  The lyrics are so important. 

Martin: The real testing moment is when you give the lyrics to the singer and he’s never seen them before.  He looks at them and you are just looking at his face and wondering what’s going through his mind.  Is he thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me?  He wants me to sing these words?”  That is a really hard moment in time.  Hopefully he sees them and thinks, “This is not so bad.  I can do this.” 

Jeb: How much credit do you give yourself as a being a part of the success of Jethro Tull?  I love Mick Abrahams, but you came in and the band took off.  I think a lot of that was your hard blues rock style and how it mixed with Ian’s musical vision. 

Martin: I don’t take any credit, but then I don’t take no credit.  I will let other people do that.  They can sort of decide in their own mind where that lies.  I’ve always been more of a band member.  At the moment I am out in the front, but it is still a band. 

I want the guys to be involved and we don’t measure how much work they do or if I come up with a bass line. I am not writing that in a little notebook saying, “That’s mine.”  That doesn’t interest me.  I’ve got a job that I do and it sort of goes into another area like lyrics and writing harmonies or arranging or thinking of things the drums could do.  It doesn’t matter as it is part of being a musician.  The drummer might say that the part the guitar player is playing could be changed.  If I thought he was right then I would change it.  It is all about working together.  I don’t analyze it, as it is not important to me to analyze it. 

Jeb: As a fan I think something happened and it started with Benefit and went on through the years. 

Martin: I’m very proud of the history of Jethro Tull and I’m out there keeping it alive as much as I can. 

Jeb: Before I let you go, I have to mention that we are celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Aqualung album.  At this point, do anniversaries mean something to you?  

Martin: I don’t think they mean anything to Ian.  We had the 30 and 40th anniversary and we didn’t do anything special.  We may have called it an anniversary tour, but there was never a big deal made where we had a big party and invited anyone who was involved and celebrated. There is not a celebration and it is just news to promote what we were doing… or it was that way.   I sort of look forward to the future rather than sit back and say, “Wow, 45 years.  Let’s think about that.”  My mindset is what I am doing this year and what I’m going to do next year.  There is so much to do.  What comes before has gone, and I want to be working hard on what I am doing now. 

Jeb: Since it is 45 years, though, I have to mention the song that started it all, made you huge and will always be there…. ”Aqualung.” 

Martin: Okay… I don’t play it in my set and I haven’t played it for four years.  The main reason is because it would be a cheap shot.  I go on stage and I play the riff and they go hurrah.  I want people to not know what I am going to do and to be really surprised.  I don’t want to be obvious.  I might play it again and I might not.  I don’t want it to be more important that everything else.  I don’t want it to take over the overall thing of what I’m doing. 

Jeb: What about another Aqualung classic “Cross-Eyed Mary”?

Martin: I don’t do that one either.  It is a great song, but I think a lot of the problem is that in the last of the Jethro Tull years there was a very small catalog of music we were playing because of Ian’s voice.  We played “Aqualung” every night as it was written.  We would play “Cross-Eyed Mary” and “Living in the Past” and it was the same every night for years and years.  It never changed.  I just needed to go away from the routine.  I don’t want anything to be routine. I want it to be like it has never been played before.  It has got to be fresh and energetic. 

Jeb: What about “Hymn 43”?

Martin: We play that one on mandolins.

Jeb: No way?  That has to be too cool…  That is like the most heavy metal song from Tull and you come up with a way to take it to mandolin?

Martin: Well, I did it with Jethro Tull.  I was just fiddling around on the mandolin and I just sort of heard that song as a jig.  I took it to Ian and I said, “Do you fancy doing it this way?”  I think we might have even done it a few times and he liked it.  Now we play a sort of jig that I wrote for an album called Away with Words and we haven’t played it for a while.  I think this tour we will play it on stage

Jeb: For a blues guitarist you sure do a lot of neat shit.

Martin: [much laughter] I will take that as a compliment. 

Jeb: I understand why you say that, but I think you have a recurring theme in your career and that is that you’re a musician and not a rock star. 

Martin: I just love playing.  I am very simple and straight ahead person.  I love playing music.  I love playing with musicians.  I love audiences with a smile on their face.  It is easy.  It is not complicated at all. 

Jeb: What’s the most gratifying thing about doing these solo band concerts and what is the one thing you miss from doing it on a larger scale with Tull?

Martin: I don’t miss particularly anything doing it on a larger scale with Tull.  Obviously, financially if I could I would have my two girl singers from the UK and I might add a keyboard player.  I wouldn’t change my lifestyle or anything about me really.  Musically, in my mind I’ve got a band that is better than any of the Tull ones, with all due respect.  I stand or fall by what I do and it is nerve-wracking and it is dangerous.  It is time for me to put my neck on the line… so far, so good.  It is new for me and when it goes wrong I get it all… the blame.  If it goes right, then it is very nice and I feel very good.  If I do something right, then I am really pleased and proud about it. 

Jeb: You’re very grateful to have the Jethro Tull fans out there who are interested in everything you do, musically. 

Martin: That’s why I do it.  I do it because, particularly in America… I was getting so many emails over the last four years saying, “We want you over here. When are you going to play here?”  They probably thought I didn’t care, but I was working my ass off trying to get back over here.  It is like meeting old friends again.  I really love being here. 

Jeb: Last one… Will there be a live album?

Martin: Yeah, as soon as I can.  Yep.  Everything… there will be more and more… absolutely.