Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with rock guitarist MARTIN BARRE of Jethro Tull
Martin Barre has been the guitarist of Jethro Tull for 43 years, his sound and playing having been a major factor in their success. Album sales have exceeded 60 million units and they continue to be played worldwide, representing an important part of classic rock history.
As Jethro Tull are taking a long break from touring, Martin has put together a band to play the “classic” music from the Tull catalogue. His band is a total commitment to give the Tull fans and a broader audience the chance to hear tracks not performed for many years. The band includes top musicians from a similar background.
Thank you for granting us this interview! So let’s start at the beginning.
PT: Your middle name is Lancelot. That’s really cool.
MB: My grandfather on my father’s side was French and he was a lead violinist – first violinist I should say, in an orchestra in Paris. The family eventually moved to England and the French name came down through the family. My father was Lancelot Edgar. I’m Martin Lancelot. When I was a kid it wasn’t really a good name to have because people just took it out on you (laughs). But now it’s a lot cooler and a lot more acceptable. We’re very proud of it.
PT: Well, we’d agree. Very cool. Tell us, how did you get your start in music?
MB: I’m very proud of my dad. He wanted to be a musician but he was never able to do it because of finances. He wanted to play clarinet. So when I got into guitar playing and gave up my career to be a guitarist he just let me do it. I think the reason he did – and at the time it didn’t strike me – was that he obviously was [once] in my position and he wasn’t able to choose music, but he was very glad I could do it.
PT: What were your earliest musical influences?
MB: As soon as I started playing guitar, my dad bought me some jazz records – Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell. I also got into flute playing; I loved jazz flute. In the fifties we were just desperately trying to find music from America, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis – anything that came from America that gave us some sort of information of what music was all about. In England there was nothing. We got it in dribs and drabs. So when we got a brand new record from the states it would be like a major event. It was a small amount over a long period so I would get a basic but strong sense of rock and roll. But it was a slow process. Over the years I feel it helped you to develop your own music – you have to figure that out for yourself.
PT: How old were you when you got your first guitar?
MB: It was very late. It was around 1960 and there weren’t many guitars around. Nowadays every kid has a guitar and they are everywhere. Kids start at six and by fourteen they’re monster players. So I started rather late. It became a hobby and then it became a passion.
PT: But you did play flute in grammar school. So you were proficient at music at an early age.
MB: (Laughs) I wouldn’t use the word proficient. I was a beginner. Like everybody else in the sixties, we were all beginners. Even some famous people – they were all beginners – even into the seventies. All the bands were learning how to play still. Very much so in those days, a lot of it was a learning process.
PT: We read you never received formal training because you didn’t want to get locked into a formal style or sound like anyone else. Is that true?
MB: Yes. The only formal training you could get in those days were guitar teachers who were incredibly narrow minded and boring. They had no interest in the music that I was interested in. You were better off finding a cool kid in a music shop and having him teach you everything he knew. I had a guitar teacher for like four weeks and I really hated it. I just thought if I carry on with this guy I’m going to stop playing forever. He was actually making me hate guitar – he was making me play this awful dance music. So I ended up teaching myself. I think in retrospect, that was a really good thing to have happen, because as I said before you have to figure it all out yourself. I think you have to do that. You have to find a slightly different angle.
PT: We’ve talked about this with other guitarists and musicians. (Wayne) took guitar lessons for four years and can only remember “Love Me Tender” and “The Volga Boatmen.” But today, kids (like Wayne’s seventeen-year-old son) use social media like YouTube to learn music and how to play instruments. How were you able to pick up things back in the 60s and 70s without social media?
MB: By word of mouth. In the early days in London we all had flats and bands living in a room in London. It was like a big community. You had your band and lots of friends who liked music and lots of gigs. You heard everybody. You saw everybody. It wasn’t much information, but you found it – all of it because you needed all of it. It was a great era to discover. I remember having a friend – he was a guitar player – and he played Frank Zappa and we would listen to him play all night, every night. It was an intense experience. It honed your interest. If you found something you really loved, you could just delve into that area.
MB: I was a flute player. There obviously were not many people playing blues on flute. They knew about me and obviously I knew about them – in 1968 they were a pretty happening band. They were a cool band and eventually I saw them. And it was an amazing thing because I thought That’s what I want my band to be like. To be as good as that – as energetic as that. And we did a gig together in the UK and we met up and chatted. And then Mick Abrahams left the band about four months later. They didn’t know my name, but they found me (laughs). They had people look for me in London and then they did find me and said they wanted me to audition for them. Tony Iommi originally got the job. But I had a second go and it carried on from there.
PT: We heard that on the first album you did for them (“Stand Up”) you were terrified.
MB: Well I was. I remember backing so many bands, we worked incredibly hard and did hundreds of gigs, but we were insulated. So it was intimidating. I really, REALLY wanted to be part of that band. But I was a nervous person anyway. When I was playing at fourteen, I was absolutely terrified to play in front of people. It took me many years to overcome that fear.
MB: Yeah. Jethro Tull was a great band. We were very forward looking. We wanted to last and have a long career. We took music incredibly seriously and we had amazing success. Everywhere we went we got a great reception. We went around the world many, many times. There was nowhere we played where it wasn’t amazing because we were different. We didn’t fit into the mold that many other bands did. We didn’t dance around on stage with bare chests. We didn’t take ourselves seriously, but we took the music seriously. And I think that made us very different from the normal bands that were out there. In fact, we were lucky. We had a good fan base, we made some good albums, we made some good decisions. We also made some bad decisions. But amazingly, it was a very, very long career.
PT: Because there were so many bands around that time, what do you think contributed to the longevity of Jethro Tull?
MB: I really think that we were anti-heroes in the same way that punk bands hated Jethro Tull because Jethro Tull had become established. But punk bands were anti-establishment in music. But I think we were like that when we started. We were a different rock and roll band – we didn’t dress a certain way, we didn’t party, we weren’t crazy. We just did everything differently and I think the fans saw that. Nobody else did what we did in the way we did it. We didn’t really have any competition. We had our own niche.
PT: That’s really fantastic – and standing out is surely a way to be noticed (as long as you stand out in the right way!) Speaking of standing out, what kind of impact do you think the advent of social media has made on the industry?
MB: [It’s been] just Incredible. Just the fact that a great musician, a great song, an interesting person, a terrible person, something really bad, something really good can have so much of an impact so quickly. The fact that this communication is so vast and so quick – it’s an amazing thing. At first, I think people my age are suspicious of it. A band today that is completely unheard of it can sell out a concert and it’s because of social media that they can do it. Snarky Puppy, a New York band, sold out 5000 people in England – and they could only do it through social media. You have to listen to Snarky Puppy. They’re great. That really shows you the power that social media can have – it demands respect. It can be abused, but I think any sort of communication like that can be misused.
PT: For sure! We also think that it helps in building and maintaining a fan base and keeping in touch.
MB: Yes, it’s true. Facebook and having so many followers and fans is the economics of how you are going to sell tickets and get to fans – it’s been the lifeblood of music these days. It’s a big wake-up call.
PT: It is a big wake-up call. We certainly have found all of that with our blog.
MB: People want information. There’s so much you can share today.
PT: We know at one time you were studying architecture. What was the key thing that made you turn to music?
MB: Architecture in the 1960s was really bland – literally cubes, squares, rectangles with windows (laughs). There was no art, so it was a really boring career (laughs). Nowadays architecture is just incredible, very exciting and very artistic, and a cool career. But in my mind I wasn’t enjoying it and I didn’t really like the people with the purse strings – I didn’t get on with them. And then on the other hand I was playing more and more music. I was in a band and we were playing four, five, and six nights a week and that didn’t help my course work (laughs). I think that it just became more important to play music.
PT: How much touring do you do in a year?
MB: Much the same [now] as with Tull. Probably going to be on the road five or six months of the year in total. August until the end of December – it’s solid. It’s really good for me now to do as many gigs as I can. I’m just really excited to be out there playing.
PT: Why is it important for you now to be playing as many gigs as you can?
MB: Because it’s me. It’s just me. It’s nothing else. It’s not me behind anybody. When you are out there yourself, you’re really at the mercy of everybody that comes to see you. But if everybody likes what you do, it’s such a great feeling. I used to read reviews of Jethro Tull and – it may sound like I have a big ego – and probably I have (laughs) but if I wasn’t mentioned in the review, I wasn’t interested; it didn’t mean anything to me. Jethro Tull was great, always amazing, etc. but I would look to see if they mentioned anything about my playing. Sometimes they did and it was nice, especially it was positive. But in the band you were hidden – and towards the end of Jethro Tull, other than me Ian Anderson, the rest of band was pretty well faceless people. They never got mentioned. Their names never came up. It was very diluted. And that’s why I really like writing music, doing arrangements, I’m doing administration for the band, I’m the guy out front. I have a great band I’m working with and I give them a lot of space. That is really important to me. It’s quite exciting for me. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding.
PT: What is your process in writing music? Do you have a specific process?
MB: I don’t. I don’t like things formulated. Sometimes I pick up a mandolin, an acoustic guitar, an electric. Sometimes I come up with a riff I quite like and I’ll put it on tape. I have a really old cassette player. Sometimes I’ll come up with chord or a melody. There’s no rules. I want it that way. I don’t want to have to go through rules to write music – like get my piece of paper, get my pencil, sharpen my pencil, sit down, write the chords. No. Whatever happens, happens. And if nothing happens, it’s fine. If I sit all day in studio and just play – I’m very happy. If I sit in the studio all day and play and I have something at the end of the day, that’s a bonus. So I have any agenda at all, it’s just that I want to play.
PT: Great answer! What do you focus on when composing?
MB: I don’t like technique for the sake of it. I like simplicity. My goal is to write music that sounds really simple and easy to listen to. I like any complications to be subtle. I work hard on every idea I have and I work it, work it. I try to make things as perfect in my mind as they are ever going to be and then I move on to the next piece. I will revisit the things I did the day before and make sure it’s exactly what I want to be doing. I could write a song in a day, maybe and say it’s fine and move on. But I’ll spend a month on it. I want to. It’s a lot of work, but if you don’t get the quality to be the best it can possibly be, then quantity is not important.
PT: What advice do you give young musicians about the business side of the industry?
MB: Ohhhh, I can’t because the business end is a nightmare. You just have to work hard and you’re going to make mistakes and mistakes. You got to learn by mistakes. You just have to be so tough. You have to throw off failure; not take it to heart, you have to brush it aside. It’s so hard to do. If someone tells you they don’t like your music, it’s a pretty personal thing. It’s an insult to your personality really. There’s got to be a part of you that needs to accept that. Because if you accept compliments and people think you are really great then you can accept people that think you’re really awful. You can’t look at one without the other. It’s really difficult, but we were talking about social media before. People have found new ways of finding success. And it’s changing all the time. But you have to find people that you have a bond with and that you can trust and feel like they’re on your side for the right reasons.
PT: What was the best advice you ever were given?
MB: The best advice I was given was by my dad. He said don’t ever be a cynic. Don’t ever be a person that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
PT: Your dad must have been very proud.
MB: Yes. My mum and my dad were very proud of what I’d done. And it made me humble to see that pride. You can’t take that for granted. They were just so supportive emotionally to me. And my wife does now. And so do my children. The family is everything.
PT: What about your children? Are they musical?
MB: No. They all love music. My wife paints and loves art. If they had wanted to do it, I would have encouraged them. I just think that if someone wants to play music, they will do it, rather than try and push them.
PT: What was the worst criticism you ever received?
MB: Maybe the worst thing is being ignored. That was always the thing in Jethro Tull that upset me – that the other band members were very much sidelined. It’s not fair. It was a band. We all worked incredibly hard. We all put a lot into the music – we were all a part of that music – an important part. All of our dedication was 100 percent. Not to have that recognition, not just me but the other guys, all through the years, that was hurtful and was a criticism; [when someone is] not important enough to be mentioned.
PT: So tell us, what’s on your future agenda?
MB: We have gigs in the States, Midwest, Florida, West Coast, Canada. In between that I want to get back to South America and Australia again. There are places I loved playing in the past and I want to get back to it. It’s like starting over again and I am up for it.
PT: Does your family travel with you?
MB: My wife comes on a lot of the trips. She’s very involved behind the band. My daughter does the photography. They all do their part. It’s a good family – a strong family.
PT: One last question – it’s one that we always like to ask. If you were to sum up your life in one word up to this point, what would it be?
MB: Fortunate. Whatever happened to me has been the right thing – not all the time, but most of the time. I think I’m very fortunate.
PT: That’s a great answer! Thank you so much!