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Legendary Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre been cited as a major influence on some of the world’s greatest players including Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Joe Bonamassa and his guitar solo on the classic Tull track “Aqualung” has been celebrated as one of the top 25 guitar solos of all time. Yet despite all of that, Barre is the anti-rock star, always playing down his guitar chops and happier mixing it with the everyman rather than inhabiting the world of rock ’n’ roll celebrity. It’s probably one of the reasons why Australians have such a soft spot for him… that and the fact that he truly has contributed to the soundtrack of the lives of so many with his memorable guitar licks.

Martin Barre is currently on his first ever solo tour of Australia with an energetic four piece outfit to perform a set encompassing 50 Years of Jethro Tull. The tour kicks off tonight in smokey Sydney which was where Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips found the amiable legend on the other end of the phone.

Hi Martin, welcome back to Australia. Before we chat about this tour, I wanted to talk a little bit about the early days of Tull. The seventies were pioneering days for rock ’n’ roll. Did you take much notice of what the other bands were doing at the time? Was there a sense of competition?
There was a sense of competition but we didn’t take notice because I think, and not in an egotistical kind of way … but we thought we were in our own little world of music and didn’t want to get influenced by what was going on around us. Plus there were a lot of tight leather trousers, long flowing hair and crazy musicians passing all night and we shied away from that and that style of music. We always had it mind from the word go that we were going to have it go our own way in music but we did meet with the other bands and made friends with them. Every ticket you sold was in competition to everyone else.

Is there a Tull album where you thought, that’s the peak of the band’s talent, that’s our best work?
It’s difficult to say because I like a song off that album, a song off another one. To say that there was one album that was absolutely perfect would be difficult to say. If I had to pick one out I’d probably say Benefit because we found our feet musically and things had begun to go well for us in America and of course, we started coming to countries like Australia, Japan and the rest of Europe. We had a lot of energy, confidence and motivation. When we went into the studio for that album, we were in a very positive place.

Under Wraps album was a controversial album for many in that it leaned heavily on electronics. You had quite a bit to do with the development of that music didn’t you?
I would say that probably Crest of a Knave was the one I had the most to do with. Under Wraps, which would be my second choice for a favourite album, was really a joint effort between myself, Ian and Peter Vettese because it was very keyboard heavy. It was a lot of fun to make. It was very musical and it was a shame we didn’t use real drums. I think the same album re-recorded with no sequences or electronic drums would be a great album.

The next album Crest of a Knave was a return to some traditional Tull sounds and the band won a Grammy for it. Do you recall the conversation prior to making Crest of a Knave? Did you take notice of the feedback from Under Wraps?
We took it onboard but we always had great self-belief. Nobody can do a perfect album time after time. I think it’s very natural for a band to have its ups and downs. We never released an album without putting our, not seal of approval but … the fact that we were happy with it, that we thought the product was quality and we were very proud of what we’d done. We never did anything that was less than 100 percent. You don’t expect everyone to love everything you do and you just have to learn to balance out negative criticism with positive things. Certainly when we took Under Wraps out on the road it went down really well. It was a very visual tour and people really loved it. I think in general it was a much more positive album than say Passion Play or Catfish Rising. There’s a few that people just didn’t like. You move on. You say, oh that’s a shame, we had our hearts and soul in it, sorry a few people didn’t like it, we’ll do better next time.

Where does your Grammy reside?
It is in my studio and I never point it out but when someone comes in, they’ll start looking around and go hey, is that a Grammy? I’ll just go yeah, that’s right but I’ll never show it to them. I’d never say hey, have you seen my Grammy? I am very proud of it and I think it deserves to be part of our music room, it deserves to be in there. I am quite pleased that we just got the one. You see people with armfuls of Grammys and you just think, they’ll probably just put them in a cupboard because there are far too many. That one means more to me than someone who wins 6 Grammys in one year.

Tell me about the band are you are touring with here in Australia.
It’s Dan Crisp on guitar and vocals, Darby Todd on drums, Alan Thomson on bass and it’s the basic Martin Barre Band. We have quite a few versions of the band. We have a version that we call the 50 years of Jethro Tull Band, not here but in America and it has Dee Palmer and Clive Bunker in the band and two girl singers. This is sort of an exploratory tour and people might wonder what they are going to get and I’m positive they are going to like what they hear and what they see. This four piece band delivers everything any other band can do, it is tight compact but it’s still a big sound.

When choosing a vocalist was it important to find someone with a voice similar voice to Ian’s or did you feel it wasn’t that important to the project?
No that was never on the agenda. It’s not a cover band and I don’t want it to be. I actually don’t like it when Dan gets compared to him because I knew Dan before he had even heard of Jethro Tull. We were together in the UK doing acoustic gigs and his voice has improved and matured but it hasn’t changed but coincidentally really suits the Tull repertoire and that’s where people go wow, he sounds just like Ian. The truth is, he sounds amazing like Ian did in the early days. God bless him, his voice has really suffered over the years. Luckily Dan is a youngster and looks after his voice. The way he delivers all of the Tull songs is really good.

How do you go about selecting the set list for a tour like this?
Funnily enough I was doing that just before your call. We have probably got 4 hours of music and have the luxury of swapping songs every night. That four hours is on call all the time and we really represent all of the Tull catalogue. We don’t go beyond Crest of a Knave, then I also include some of my songs because I really want people to get a taste of my songwriting and what we do with the Martin Barre material. So we do 2 or 3 non Tull songs and they blend in perfectly well.

You told me once that you could pull a guitar off a shop wall and use it for a gig that night, they’re just tools to you. Are there any guitars that you have an emotional connection to from the past?
Yes and no. I love my guitars. When I say pull any guitar off a shelf, it would have to be a nice one (laughs). It would be like ok I’m going to saw this piece of wood, anybody got a saw? You’d want the really nice one! I use PRS guitars and funnily enough before I came over here, my main one needs a refret and it’s a bit battleworn from being on the road for about 4 years. I literally went onto ebay and bought a used one, as new and haven’t touched it, it’s here now, sounds great and plays great straight out of the box. It’s a very good tool but they are replaceable and not unique. I just worry when you have to have something to be able to perform. I’d like to think that if I parachuted into the middle of the jungle and I had a gig and there was a music shop… I’d like to think there’d be something I could sound half way decent on.

Did it take you a long time to arrive at a guitar tone you were happy with?
Well I am never happy with it, I’m sort of comfortable with it. I bring my Soldano amp out everywhere, that’s the one thing that I really like to have with me, although I do use other amps. It’s a big heavy thing and sitting in the hotel room as I speak. That’s my luxury because I know how it sounds and I know exactly deliver what I want it to. I think a lot of the sound from what I do now comes from more of a physical thing, the picking pressure, the feel of the left hand, the fretting, the aggression or lightness of how you play. I think I produce more of the sound from my body as in fingers, wrists, arms and brain and ear. If you hear a sound in your head, you find a way of producing it. So it’s evolving and I don’t think I would ever be in a position where I think that’s perfect and never have to worry about it again. I am always looking for something. Music evolves not only in the sound of the instrument but in the writing, in the performance, everything about it.

Are you fussy about guitar picks?
I just use the same ones, the cheap and cheerful, get them anywhere but I like consistency. I like the fact that the Soldano, I have about ten of them and they all sound exactly the same. They are all consistent. The only element that varies is me. In my mind I might have a night where I don’t play as well. I might have a night where I play better than I thought. There has to be that part of music where you can’t have everything underlined. I’m happy that the only variation is me and I have to put something in the performance every night to make it a bit more special.

Jethro Tull have always used a variety of fretted instruments and had that folk element. You have some very nice mandolins, mandolas and bouzoukis at home. When did you first get into those kind of instruments? Were there particular bands or musicians in the early days who you admired, who played those kinds of fretted instruments?
I think maybe when Dave Pegg joined the band from Fairport Convention and he had more of a folk background. He introduced me to the mandolin which I didn’t like at first but when Tull finished 8 or 10 years ago, I went into the studio and recorded an album of acoustic music which I have wanted to do for years. I finally had time to gather my thoughts. So it was just myself and an engineer and that’s when I started using mandolas and banjoes and bouzoukis. Even though I’d had them at home, I really started writing the music on them more than usual. It’s just another strength to have and another way to develop your musicality, especially from the side of writing music.

Do you have any future recording plans?
I do but I have just had two CDs come out in the last year so I am a bit ahead of myself. Road Less Travelled came out 18 months ago and then we have a double CD, 50 years of Tull, which will be available at the shows. One CD is electric and the other acoustic but yeah, I love writing so I definitely will be doing another CD. I am in the unusual position where I have to hold back, there is too much out there. I am really happy with Road Less Travelled but it got overshadowed by the Tull double album I released. I feel that it has a bit more mileage in it before I start to think of the next one.

What are you most proud of in music career?
I think my writing and I hope and think it has developed. There are thousands of guitar players out there, virtuosos with incredible techniques. It is a bit of a jungle and I don’t particularly belong in it, I do my own thing. I’m not a guitar star. I’m just not one of those people and don’t want to be but my music writing I am really proud of. I think it encapsulates anything I can do on the guitar anyway. If somebody says to me they really like one of my songs I am on cloud nine, whereas if people say I really like your guitar playing, well I think that’s very nice of you but in my mind I am just one of a whole galaxy of guitar players. I think writing music is more unique and something more everlasting. I would feel really proud if another artist recorded one of my songs or one of my songs was in movie or a TV program, that’s where my heart really lies.


BLUE MOUNTAINS   Blue Mountains Theatre   FRIDAY NOVEMBER 22
PERTH    Bar 1, Hilary’s   SATURDAY NOVEMBER 30

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