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It’s not every day I am given the opportunity to speak with a musician that has fifty years in the game, but I was recently offered the chance to speak with Martin Barre, guitarist extraordinaire regarding his latest disc Back To Steel, and it’s supporting tour, as well as his take on Jethro Tull classics and reworking them to fit his new band and sound.  As he fished with his soon down in Mississippi, he carved some time out and got us on the line…

Martin Barre by Martin Webb posed shot

Toddstar: Thank you so much for taking time out for us. We really appreciate it today.

Martin: That’s okay.

Toddstar: I understand you’re with family.

Martin: Yes. My son is fishing about 100 yards from me, in a very beautiful area off the Natchez Trace, in Mississippi. It’s a really, really beautiful place.

Toddstar: I can only imagine. There’s stuff going on, and you’ve had such a huge career, there’s so much to talk about, but I’d literally like to talk about Back to Steel.

Martin: Yes.

Toddstar: Back to Steel is your latest release. What can you tell us about this disc that some of your fans may or may not know, or may have not grasped their first or second time listening to this great disc?

Martin: Thank you. I hope that people like it on first listen, and that’s just the idea with it. I think other CD’s I’ve released, from friends and people I talk to, they say the first time they weren’t sure, but then the more they listen, they say the music comes through a bit clearer, and they sort of get the idea of what’s going on; but with this one I just really wanted people to put it on in their car, and then instantly they’d enjoy what they’re hearing. There’s no mystery there; there’s no sort of hidden things at all. It’s pretty well straight ahead, as far as I wanted it to be. I was quite pleased that my writing’s taken me away from the complex and overly fragmented music that I’ve written in the past, and I’ve been very critical of what I’ve done. I just like the idea that songs sort of speak for themselves, they’re sort of effortless to listen to, but still have a lot of music in them, but are instantly accessible.

Toddstar: I definitely believe that you’ve done that. Your discography as members of other bands, yourself, or as guest, you’ve always been kind of the guy who can fill a lot of different gaps. Again, going from the Jethro Tull, into a rock vein, but now you have the blues. Why is that such a huge thread through this disc? What is it about the blues that drew you in, and said this is what I’m going to do now?

Martin: I haven’t been a great fan of the blues; I haven’t associated myself with it, particularly in the Jethro Tull years, it wasn’t required in Jethro Tull’s music, so I sort of didn’t really need to be involved with it. I’ve always enjoyed it; I’ve always loved players like Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Freddie King, Albert King, Gary Moore, Peter Green, and Joe Bonamassa, but I don’t know I’ve sort of gone back to it, and that was the sort of idea behind the title, Back to Steel, it’s sort of back to the very basics of what a guitar does, and how it speaks to people. I always say that the blues is the building blocks of all music, so it’s never that far away, whatever you’re playing, that structure will be based in the elements, the basic elements, of the blues. It was a sort of slip back into it; it wasn’t a conscious effort. It’s never been that far away. I’m not a blues guitar player, I’ve never thought of myself as such, but I do love the feel of the blues, and just the fact that what one note will say so much more than the complex playing of jazz, or some of the sort of shred metal guitar players. I just think that you hear Peter Green play one or two notes, and it’s just absolutely beautiful, and the power of that is really exciting.

Toddstar: That it is. Looking over the tracklist of the disc, Martin, are there any songs that fought you tooth and nail while you were trying to put Back to Steel together, just didn’t come out as easily as you would have liked?

Martin: No. There was nothing. I think that the main problem was the lyrics. Again, I didn’t want to settle for the first thing that I came up with, and so I worked really, really hard on the lyrics, a lot more than the music. I mean the music sort of developed, and I didn’t come to any point where I thought something wasn’t working, but with the lyrics I’d rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, examine them. I mean I just was very aware that that area was probably I don’t want to say the weakest, but the most vulnerable part of what I do because I haven’t done it for very long. It’s a new thing to me, and the benchmark with lyrics is really high, was very high with Jethro Tull and other bands, so I took a lot of care over that.


Toddstar: You mentioned lyrics a couple times. You’re known as a guitar player and you have a vocalist on the album. Do you find it’s harder to put lyrics together because it’s not something you’re going to be singing?

Martin: I find it really hard, and I try and sort of sing, talk through the lyrics against the music, but essentially when Dan [Crisp] is confronted with my lyrics, and he might have already been familiar with the music, but sometimes not even that, he gets it in one hit. Dan is great, he’s really flexible, he’s very positive. I’ve always said to Dan, “if you just want to change a line completely, just do it, its fine.” I was more worried that he’d like the lyrics because a guy’s got to sing them sort of nearly every night, and I just think if he doesn’t like the subject matter, or the phrasing, or the words, that’s it’d be awful to have to do that, but he’s always been very positive about what I’ve done.

Toddstar: Excellent. You just wrapped up a few dates here, in the US, and you’re heading out over to the UK, and you’ll be back in the US in the fall. How is the new material being received by the fans?

Martin: It’s really good. I just think that Tull had a history of experimentation, where we’d come on the road, especially in the earlier years, and we’d be writing a new album, or we have written one, and it wasn’t released, and we’d play new tracks, and with Tull it’d be very diverse, and the fans were always sort of very good, very patient, very well keyed; and I think it’s a tradition that the people, especially being that they don’t really know what to expect, so there’s more surprises than just my music that we sort of throw in, a few sort of strange versions of blues classics; we do a Porcupine Tree song, sometimes we do a Government Mule song, just because I just like anything that works really great live, and if it’s a piece of music that’s really fun to play, that has a lot to offer an audience, then I’m going to do it. I don’t want to be restricted by having to do my new album, or by having to play whole evening of Jethro Tull songs. I like that freedom.

Toddstar: I can only imagine. You mention Jethro Tull, and it’s hard to speak of you without including Jethro Tull. Jethro Tull wouldn’t be the same without you, nor you without them, but when it comes to that music, especially in your own setting, do you find that you approach the songs any different now, when you’re out playing them with your band, than you did, or do, with Tull?

Martin: Yes, I do because some of them I’ve rearranged, and I’ve changed chords, I’ve changed the rhythm, I’ve changed the feel, and obviously in my mind it’s for the better, but I’m very aware that you’re sort of treading on hallowed ground. The audience love what we’re doing with the song material. A few of them are pretty well verbatim, as the originals, and some songs just don’t need to be changed at all. They are exactly what they are, and they work really well, but then a lot of those haven’t been played for 30 or 40 years, now, because Ian cannot sing them, unfortunately, his vocal range doesn’t permit him to do that music, so for me it’s perfect because the fans really waited a long time to hear them again. It all works really well and there’s a big element of freshness in everything we do, and nothing sounds routine, or tired, or sounding like a tribute band, or whatever adjectives you want to put to it. To me, it’s all very energetic, and dynamic, and new.

Toddstar: You mentioned the fans. When you’re pulling out these older tracks, are these songs that you know the fans want to hear, or are these songs that you’ve been dying to hear rearranged, or played live, or just retouched?

Martin: I think both. I think I’m very aware that the fans were always in the Tull days shouting out, “Play Teacher,” “Play Minstrel in the Gallery,” and I just thought it’s a shame we don’t. I’m not going to play anything that I don’t like. I don’t want to be predictable. I think that was the problem with Tull, in the latter years is that we became predictable. So little got changed, we were playing the same songs every tour, the production stayed the same; it was a very tired band, and no kind of injection of energy or freshness, at all, and I really have done the opposite. Everything I do has that feeling that we’re playing it for the first time, and having a lot of fun doing it, and we are.

Toddstar: It’s good that you’re still having fun doing it. Like you said, so many bands do get into that routine, and that groove, where they don’t want to get out of the comfort zone. Your sound is very distinct, on the Tull material and your material. Where do you pull your influences from, not only from the prog rock, and the rock view, but where do you pull your blues influences from, to play the way you do?


Martin: I could be really pretentious, and say that most of the music I listen to is classical music, and it’s true, but to say you’re influenced by Mozart or Beethoven would be like people would just go, “Yeah, come on. Yeah, sure,” but I sort of am because love melody, and I love melody against chords that aren’t the obvious ones. I really love what those composers did with melody, and harmony, and I won’t say I’ve learned a lot, but maybe it influences my writing; I doubt it, but I do love that style of music because I just think it has space, dynamics, it has energy, beautiful harmonic structure, the arrangements are stunning, but there’s no guitar playing, unless you listen to Julian Bream, or [Andres] Segovia, and I’m certainly not influenced by them because I couldn’t play like them in a million years. I listen to other people. Am I influenced by them? I think we all are, whether we like it or not. I think everything you hear goes into your memory bank, and occasionally I’ll hear a bit of music, and I can hear the link with that bit of music to something that I have written, and of course every composer’s nightmare is that you’ve subconsciously stolen something from somebody else, but sometimes I can think okay, I can see where that came from. Essentially, it doesn’t matter. If people are asking about your influences, then you are admitting that you are being influenced, so it’s a sort of Catch-22 situation, and I don’t want to play like other guitar players, but I really enjoy their playing. To go back to Joe Bonamassa, he’s playing really, really great stuff, and I really enjoy listening to him play, but I’m not going to go in my studio and learn any of his licks because I’d rather figure out my own bit of route through music, and I think being individual is so important. You’re going to be influenced whether you like it or not, but to actually sit down and learn somebody else’s conclusions, if you like; Joe has obviously taken a lot of blues, a lot of country, a lot of bluegrass, whatever influences, they’re there, and he’s done great things with them, but he’s taken a recipe, and he’s come up with a nice pie; but my pie isn’t going to be the same. I don’t think anybody’s pie should be the same. Just do something else with the ingredients, and make your own recipe for pie.

Toddstar: That said, Martin, what’s your next pie. Obviously you’re still engrossed in the blues, and you’re touring behind this album, but have you put thoughts to what is the next incarnation of Martin?

Martin: I’m always thinking of ideas, and I don’t write when I’m on the road because I’m just not in that mode. Maybe some people do, but I never get any spare time; if I do have spare time, I’m doing what I do now, and I sort of dedicate it to my family. I just like a balance in life where I cannot play music ten hours every day in my life. I cannot do that anymore, anyway. I try and make a really good balance, but when I’m home then certainly every time I go in the studio I can go in there for an hour, minimum. Thinking ahead, I’m focused on the next album, and I’ve written one song, and but I’m not going to make myself do it. When I’ve got enough time to really dedicate myself to doing it well, because it will need to be better than this one, and so it’s not something to sort of take lightly, and just take shortcuts; it’s got to be 100%.

Toddstar: I know you’re busy, and I know you’re with family, so I don’t want to tie you up too long. I have one more for you, Martin, if you don’t mind. With everything you’ve done, and again you have a storied career, what’s the one or two things professionally you’ve done that you would like to be remembered for, or that you’re most proud of?

Martin: Musically, I don’t look at myself and examine myself. I don’t like that in other musicians. I don’t like the ego, and I’ve met some that have a real problem with ego, and I really, really dislike it. It find that a very unpleasant characteristic. I’m very critical of what I do, and I’m never happy with what I do because I’ll always try and be better. I want the next album to be better. I hear things in there that I won’t do again, not because I don’t like them, but because I’m constantly refocusing and honing into what really works for an audience. Things I’m proud of are more my family; I’m really proud of my family, I love them to bits, of course. I run; I’m proud that I’ve run three marathons because it was actually an accomplishment, and you cannot take that away, it’s just black and white. It’s on the printed page, you ran a marathon in this time, and that’s it, it’s a fact. It’s those things, probably, are things that I would boast about, but not in an unpleasant way, but I’m happy to tell people all about my running, and my table tennis, and my wake boarding, and I love all these things in life, and I really enjoy them. They have an important part in my life, as well, because I always want that balance around it. I just cannot be a musician 24 hours of the day. I might have been, but I cannot remember being that way. I never had the chance to just sit down and play guitar 8 or 10 hours a day. I have a bit of a strange technique. I’ll say its hybrid is probably the politest word, but there’s things I cannot play because for the last 50 years I’ve taught myself, and if you teach yourself some things you won’t do correctly, but once you taught yourself that particular direction, then to go back to the basics can be really difficult. I’m blabbering on, but essentially the music is ongoing, and I don’t think, I hope there will ever be a time when I think, what I’m doing is really amazing, because that’ll be the time you should stop doing it. I probably think the next thing I’m going to do is going to be amazing; it probably won’t, but I want it to be. I want the motivation to go on, and I find it really easy, and I like it being that way.


Toddstar: Martin, thanks again. Go enjoy your family, go enjoy time with your son, do some fishing, and good luck with that, and hopefully we’ll talk to you soon, maybe this fall when you come back to the US, and tour some more.

Martin: Great. All right, Todd, thank you very much.

Toddstar: Thanks, Martin.

Martin: Take care.







Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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