This week, the classic rock guitarist Martin Barre, who played with the iconic classic rock band Jethro Tull for 43 years, comes to Portland. Now 75, Barre is fully focused on his solo career, after tensions between band members of Jethro Tull — most notably lead singer and flute player Ian Anderson — have splintered the group. The Phoenix spoke with him about a life in music and reckoning with history.
Hi Martin. You recently said that Back to Steel was your most important work of your career as a musician, how’d you come to feel that way?
Well, I’ve had some fantastically nice comments about them. At the time I had a lot of belief in it, that it was a good form. I’m sort of now looking to the next one, which will be in the summer I’ll start writing. We’ve just got a DVD come out that has some from the Back to Steel album and Tull songs, and that just came out this week.
I’m curious about your relationship to the guitar. I’m in my thirties, and I’ve not done anything as long as you’ve played guitar. Are there points along your career that you’ve been frustrated with it? Or has it always been something that’s been natural to express yourself through?
It’s like any relationship with a person. There’s highs and lows. Yeah, I’m always questioning myself because I’m never happy or self-satisfied with what I’m doing. But it’s very rewarding and every day I wake up and almost the first thing I do is go to the guitar. It’s never been a chore or a job, it’s been a way of life. I love playing it, and can’t imagine even now seeing it as anything but a joy. It’s a great relationship, but it’s definitely ongoing. It’s infinite in the information that it gives you, and I’m always hungry for more information, more inspiration. Always trying to write better music, and there’s a long ways to go still.
On Back to Steel, there’s a cover of “Eleanor Rigby” and two Jethro Tull songs — “Skating Away” and “Slow Marching Band” — is there a process you use to re-work old Tull songs?
Yeah. Well, obviously the Tull fan base, I want them to think of themselves as Martin Barre Band fans. I don’t want to be completely tied to playing Tull songs forever, but I always will. It’s my heritage. But I’m always wanting to make them a bit different. Playing them note-for-note like the record isn’t as satisfying as representing it a slightly different way and making it more mine. I’m always looking at the back catalogue of Tull and planning. I’ve always got some ideas; they don’t always work. There’s a lot of great songs in there, but you don’t want to bury the song by making it ridiculously different. But I also want to bring something to the table if you like. “Skating Away” was the main focus, and “Slow Marching Band” was a track we recorded about six months before the CD was made. I just kept listening to it and thinking that really deserves to be on the CD on some point. So I just made it a bonus track, give people more for their money.
And the Beatles song, I actually wrote that as an instrumental a long time ago and never did anything with it. I kind of wrote around the main melody and changed the chords, and people really like it. Now we combine “Eleanor Rigby” on stage with another Beatles song — which will be a surprise. It’s a dangerous area. You start doing other people’s material and you really have to be careful you’re not becoming a cover band.
What songs or artists do you find yourself appreciating nowadays?
I’ve always loved the great songwriters, you know? Don Henley, Stevie Winwood, Paul Carrack, Neil Young. I’m admiring songwriting more than playing. And there’s lots of great players, lots of young guns on the guitar. And I admire what they’re doing — playing well, a sort of virtuosic take on the guitar — but that’s never going to be my thing. I just like to listen and sometimes I think, Oh, that’s interesting. As I said earlier, it’s information, and no one knows everything. Even some kid playing guitar might make me go, huh, that’s different. It might be incredibly simple, but you’re still going to learn from it.
I find that there’s less that I like on radio play — particularly in England, it’s dreadful. What I don’t are the shows on TV, that highlight that sort of karaoke style that’s just about making stars. And I really despair that. It bypasses music and these kids just see that it’s about making a star. They just want to go from zero to infinity overnight and it just leaves me cold. All these kids who’ll burn out in a year, they’ll get their ten minutes of fame and then they’re on the scrap heap.
But I love classical music and bluegrass. Anything that has great playing in it, great composition and melody.
Has there been a Tull biography that has suited you?
Occasionally over the years someone wants to write a book on Tull, but nowadays I just refuse to do it. I don’t know why, but there’s a lot of bad feeling in Tull the way some of the guys were treated. So it’s a difficult book. And to have a very fair representation of everyone’s points of view would take a very talented writer. And a lot of work interviewing. There hasn’t been one, and there isn’t one. I’m not particularly interested, because that’s history and history looks after itself. I’m much more interested in what I’m going to be doing next year.
Tull was my father’s favorite band, and I was always impressed by how your albums decades ago would have these high concepts to them, like the newspaper with Thick as a Brick or the Warchild film or that claymation film “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” (1988). That’s very unlike so many other rock bands from that era. How did you guys come to do that sort of thing? Was it marketing or part of the fun?
It was fun. We had a look at everything that was going around us. In the ’70s it was all pomp-rock and guys in tight trousers and flowing hair and bare chests and we thought that whole thing looked absolutely ridiculous. I think people took themselves far too seriously, and we wanted to be exactly the opposite. We wanted to say, Look, we’re entertaining you. We’re a bunch of ugly guys with beards and we’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have a laugh at ourselves and we want the audience to laugh. It’s sort of an English thing, it goes back to Monty Python and Benny Hill, where people really look at themselves and find the humor in life. And to this day I can’t go on stage and not try to crack a joke. I don’t think anything should be that serious. Nothing should be dull. Even classical music. There’s a guy in England who’s a conductor, and he does carol and classical music and he used to joke with the audience. And I was like, why wouldn’t everyone do that all the time? Same with religion. Why is it always so serious? Just make people laugh. God gave us the gift of humor — use it. And win more people over. It’s there to be used.
Growing up, there were a lot of Tull songs played around the house. You had a very lyrical guitar style and as an adult I have a lot of guitar lines that you’ve written from decades ago that go through my head. Like that song “Jack-a-Lynn” from Broadsword and the Beast, I don’t know why it’s that one. I’m wondering, are there any that get stuck in your head? Either your own or from other musicians?
Well, I love melody, and that’s why I love classical music. It’s born of melody. And classical music was obviously from a time when there was no record of it. You went to hear a piece of music and you remembered it. It had to have a huge impact on the ear, and the melody needed to be strong and hummable, so people could carry them in their brain. So I’m a big fan of melody in guitar solos that’s strong. Hendrix did it; a lot of people do it as well. I don’t analyze it. Just play where your ear takes you, and that’s what I’ve always loved about music.
March 28 (acoustic) and March 29 (electric), 8 pm | Martin Barre of Jethro Tull | $40 | One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland | onelongfellowsquare.com