Setting the Barre High: An interview with Jerthro Tull’s Martin Barre

Okee dokee folks… The opening six guitar notes of Jethro Tull’s masterpiece album Aqualung make up one of the most memorable guitar riffs in rock history. The masterful guitarist behind them is long-time Tull member Martin Barre. He will bringing the sound of Jethro Tull to the Narrows Center for the Arts on March 18. I spoke with Barre about his tour and his work with Jethro Tull.

John Fuzek: Hi Martin, where are you calling from?

Martin Barre: I am in Mississippi where my son and daughter-in-law live, it was gorgeous hot weather and then it snowed, it dropped 50 degrees in a day.

JF: I didn’t even know it snowed in Mississippi!

MB: Oh, it does, really it does! Believe me!

JF: You’re on tour now but is COVID-19 giving you problems? I have noticed some shows being canceled again.

MB: So far none of mine are canceled and we are presuming that they all are going to go ahead, we are just being optimistic because it would be a disaster for everyone if they were.

JF: I’ve had a quite a few of my own cancel, it’s been a tough couple of years.

MB: We did a tour of Europe and it was fine, it was safe, the audiences were amazing and so grateful to hear live music again, in a way that sort of put me at ease because performing is still possible.

JF: Your show is in March so it should be fine. (I spoke to Martin in January) I had an interview cancel because they were unclear as to whether their show was going to happen.

MB: We have no control over it, we are all triple vaxxed, we travel in a bubble and we’re really, really careful; if we are not careful at one gig then it affects them all down the line and we have a responsibility to do a whole tour, sixty shows and I want to do them all!

JF: This is a 50th anniversary of Aqualung tour? 

MB: Well, it was, but now it’s the 51st. We play all of the Aqualung album in sequence, the first half of the show is our favorites- a mix of mine and Tull’s music, more of the stuff we really want to revisit and then the second half is mostly the complete Aqualung album. It works brilliantly, we did the show in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for three weeks and fine tuned it. People love it, they haven’t heard many of these songs in a long time.

JF: Do you still have Clive (Bunker) performing with you?

MB: We have Clive playing drums, two girl singers who do the acoustic songs, we do the show as a four piece, and it’s great.

JF: I have been a Tull fan almost since the beginning and the last time I saw Tull back in 2014-15, it was the Thick as a Brick anniversary show, Ian (Anderson) could barely sing at that point and he let others handle the vocals for the most part.

MB: That sounds like it was Ian’s band, not Tull: it’s a bone of contention, Ian’s going out and doing shows with his own band and calling it Jethro Tull. I will leave people to make their own judgement on that, I’m just getting on with what I do.

JF: Is there bad blood between the two of you?

MB: Ah, no, there isn’t, because everything that has happened since Ian and I stopped working together has been fantastic. I’ve been released from the shackles, to be dramatic, I only found out when it happened that I was being held back musically. So I can do a tour, as we’re doing now, and I sit down and write the set list, anything I want to play. I can play any Tull song, the band can play any Tull song really, it’s a great position, it’s a great band, a better band than most Tull line-ups were! I’m not degrading anything that Tull did, we had great line-ups, classic ones and then ones that weren’t so strong, a lot like all bands that swapped and changed and it didn’t always strengthen the concepts. I’ve got a brilliant band and it’s taken me 8 or 9 years to get to where I am, it’s been brilliant fun. There’s no crossover at all. What Ian does is a million miles from what I do.

JF: Well, he can’t really sing anymore, can he?

MB: I don’t… I think he has medical problems but I’m not to be the judge of that. I play two hours every day to make sure I don’t get arthritis, I mean I’m 75 and I have to make sure I can play as well as I can.

JF: I get it, I am 60 and I am having hand issues, it’s a drag.

MB: Yeah, yeah it is. I really try to look after myself, I listen to how I played 30 years ago and I think, “wow, I don’t know if I can do that anymore.” I am just trying to keep the standard as high as I want it to be, and that’s pretty high.

JF: Were you responsible for the riffs that defined songs such as “Aqualung” and “Cross Eyed Mary”?

MB: We sat down and wrote them together. Ian always had the lyrics and the basic chords of the song, we sat down and moved them around a bit, there was no method in any one direction. Some things Ian recorded completely on his own, “Mother Goose,” he would do everything himself, and other tracks we would sit down and write the arrangements and play with the riffs and the music. There were no rules, and it was important that it was that way: it was a healthy, working method.

JF: I didn’t realize that you played the flute as well!

MB: I played flute before I met Ian. I still play, during lockdown I worked really hard on my flue playing, so for my own enjoyment, and when I left the UK I was looking at my flute and thinking to myself, “should I take it?” but essentially I don’t want to play it on stage and have people think that I am trying to be Ian.

JF: So you don’t play it at all on stage?

MB: I love doing it but I made the decision not to do it. But maybe in the future I will.

JF: Does anyone play flute in the band?

MB: No, don’t have any flute, no keyboard, no flute, the two guitars cover all the keyboard parts, my guitar covers all the flute parts, the voice of the guitar and the flute are very similar in strength, and ability, it’s an easy crossover. 

JF: As far as your own stuff, what do you include?

MB: I change it, we do an instrumental but I am going to change that, I like the ability to show up at the gig and at sound check I say, “what if we play this instrumental tonight instead of the normal one?” and we do it, at the drop of the hat, I try to keep it balanced. There’s something from Back To Steel and Roads Less Travelled and something from Stage Left. I try to keep it balanced and I like my music enough that I want to keep it ticking over in people’s minds.

JF: You don’t sing but someone else handles the vocals?

MB: Yes, the singer, Dan Crisp, has a great voice.

JF: Are you still play Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars?

MB: Yes, but I brought along an old Les Paul Jr, the same guitar I played on Aqualung, I thought it would be a bit of fun to play when we play the Aqualung album, I will have the original guitar as well.

JF: I am happy that you are still out there playing music, Tull music is tough for folks to play and not many folks are playing it so you don’t get to hear it live very often.

MB: I totally understand what you are saying, I feel the same way. It has an essence to it, you can learn it but it won’t be the real thing. I’ve heard other bands play Tull music and it’s not quite right, and I’m pleased because that means that only me or Ian really understand that essence that made the brand, it’s quite unique.

JF: You two were the most consistent members of the band. 

MB: Right.

JF: I saw the band many times with different members. I remember meeting drummer Barriemore Barlow after one of those shows, I remember John Glascock.

MB: We had some great musicians, they all added to the chemistry, what they left behind was very unique, they all had their own very different way of playing and it was not like a generic style, no one had a generic rock style. They all had, and I hate to say it, a very English approach to music where there’s lots of influences all put in a melting pot. It’s not something that you can learn on YouTube.

JF: You also had that kind of Renaissance influence to a lot of the music.

MB: I mean England has a great tradition of Irish, Scottish, and Cornish even, folk music. In the US there’s bluegrass, country, there’s lots of music styles you can bring into Rock and Roll. It’s just sort of being adventurous.

JF: I hate to bring up Ian again, but I was wondering if you had stuff on the side like his salmon farming.

MB: No, I don’t have anything like that, just music, that’s all I do, and I am happy doing it as well.

JF: I know that with a lot of things that have gone down in the past few years- streaming, CD sales drop off, the pandemic, has that affected you financially?

MB: It does, but I keep my head above water. I am not rich, I’m not buying up houses and cars and helicopters, I am a working musician and I can pay my band, and I can stay in decent hotels, not the best but not the worst. It’s a comfortable lifestyle otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but it’s not crazy, it’s not on any level that you would call eccentric. It’s a real working band, in the old tradition, there’s no pretensions anywhere, no luxury, but it works and we have fun and we all want to do it and we love what we’re doing, it’s a great combination.

JF: That’s a far cry from the excess of stadium shows in the 70’s.

MB: I suppose it is, but we never took it that seriously, we never really swam in that way of life. We never took it on board, we had our feet on the ground, quite firmly and we were always putting hard work before anything, we never went crazy, even in those days.

JF: You’re 75 now, how long do you want to keep doing this?

MB: I would like to be playing until I can’t play and when I can’t play I’ll just play in a room on my own. But I think I’ll know when I’m not good enough, and the minute I think I am not good enough to put on a show that people would pay money for and get great value and enjoyment from then I won’t do it.

JF: At least you still enjoy it.

MB: Absolutely, I couldn’t do it unless I did, there would be no way I would. I love playing, I play my guitar every day religiously. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night, I am never bored because music fill all the gaps between family and all the other things that everyone else does.

JF: Anything else you want to add about what folks can expect at the Narrows show?

MB: I think they will be really happy with what we play. I don’t like to give too much away, we like to play songs that people go “Wow! I haven’t heard that for a long time!” I like people to be surprised and hopefully in a pleasant way but I always go for left of field and keep people guessing and surprised and apprehensive. It works great and we have a great show. We road tested it in Europe and we know it works well so it will be good!

JF: I noticed that you played with a lot of other musicians over the years besides Tull members, who was your favorite person to play with outside of Tull?

MB: I think they were more about the opportunity to meet famous people and my opinion of fame is very guarded, I don’t put a lot of mileage on people just because they have a huge name, so musically I love playing with the guys in the band and I’ve never done anything better. It’s nice to tell people you’ve met famous people because they’re impressed, but really, everybody’s the same, there’s nothing that special at all, I think I’ve had more disappointments meeting famous people.

JF: I have to agree with you there having met a lot of famous people.

MB: Yeah, there’s a lot of disappointment, It’s good because I put a lot of value on ordinary people, and that’s the way I like it.

JF: I am hoping that the show goes on, it’s been a long time since I have seen you play!

MB: Thanks, John. Thanks for the chat!

Martin Barre will be bringing the sound of Jethro Tull-The 50th Anniversary Aqualung tour to the Narrows Center for the Arts on March 18. For more about this  show and the many others coming up at the Narrows, “Locomotive Breath” your way to: That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.