Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre’s new album, Stage Left, is his third solo effort, and not only does it contain great riffs and tones (every track but one is an instrumental), the veteran musician also opted to cite each primary guitar (or other stringed instrument) used on each track in the liner notes, and illustrations of said instruments are also found inside the CD booklet.
Since his previous interview in Vintage Guitar (October ’97), Barre has stayed active in more than one way. Not only is he still firmly ensconced in the lead guitarist slot of Jethro Tull (after over a third of a century) and also committed to recording solo material as well, the 56-year-old guitarist is still an enthusiastic runner, and attempts to work out daily. When Barre called VG to bring us up to date, we began by discussing his personal physical fitness efforts.
Vintage Guitar: Are you still running on a regular basis?
Martin Barre: I am indeed – younger heart, older skin (laughs)! I try to do five miles a day; sometimes it’s a bit less. I also play tennis, sail, and snorkel.
Were your first two albums distributed in the U.S.?
They were, but on labels that didn’t do much. The first album was on a German label that had an office in America, but I don’t believe it lasted long. The second one was on a label that was having problems. Trying to get it into stores involved more than just the label, though.
Distribution problems aside, what are the other differences between the first two albums and Stage Left?
I’m still learning to write music, and I do stand by the first two albums; there’s nothing I regret about having done them, and I loved recording them. There are things on them that I thought could be improved, and I learned by listening to other people, as well; I value other peoples’ opinions.
I think I’ve honed the way I’m writing, and have actually made it more listenable, more user-friendly, more straight-ahead with straight-on melody and emotion.
Exactly. I’ve never been big into this whiz kid/flash playing. I follow my nose with music, and I don’t feel a need to solo on every track. I’ve kept the guitar playing, as you said, more accessible for everybody.
Was this album recorded in your home studio?
I recorded the album in a commercial studio. I have my own studio, where I write demo material, then take it to the “big” studio and employ an engineer. It can get into some serious money, but I’m very focused on the way I work. We started at 10 in the morning, finished at 8 every night, worked six days a week, and I loved doing it that way. I don’t like hanging around, which is why I demo’ed everything on 24-track before I went over there. I’d written and arranged all the music, all the guitar parts, all the harmonies on 2″ tape, analog. Everything was ready to go; then I recorded everything from scratch on digital, so I didn’t do any preproduction. Working at my pace is fairly quick, and it’s great fun.
Why did you opt to do an almost-exclusively instrumental album this time around?
Well, I love songs, but I’m not a singer and I’m also a bit self-conscious with lyrics, so I suppose I’m a bit of a coward. (chuckles). When I’ve composed bits of music I thought would make a good song, I’d ask myself, “What am I going to write about?” But if it was a good piece of music, I’d tell myself I could put a guitar line in it. So it’s a cop-out, and maybe the next album will have two or three songs with lyrics. I like a mixture.
Did you intentionally set out to use a different guitar on each track?
I didn’t. Basically, I’m Strat-into-a-Soldano guy. That’s what I use. But at home, the first day in the studio I had a couple of Strats, then I did an acoustic track, so I brought a couple of acoustics over, then tried an old Gibson electric.
I took a couple guitars with me every day I went over. It was like going to work with my sandwich box! I love guitars, and it was a luxury to do it that way. On the road or doing another session, you take a guitar and you make it work.
Why did you put descriptions and photos of the instruments on each track in the liner notes?
I thought that if there was any interest in instrumental music, there would be interest in the instruments themselves, so I wrote about those rather than talking about me or what the piece of music meant.
It’s hard to not be pretentious about instrumental music – it is what it is, and means whatever it means to each listener.
Did you write any of the songs with the guitar you used on that particular track?
Yeah. I’ve got a Gibson 335 that I wrote a song with, and it sounded so good that it sort of kickstarted the whole thing. I thought it sounded great; I had the sound I wanted on that particular song. Different characteristics of one instrument would bring out what I was trying to accomplish with a certain song.
Was there an overall theme to the electric songs on the album?
Since I’d done a tour a few years ago with my own music, I wanted to make sure there were things that would be fun and powerful to play live. The worst thing would be to have a good album, but you try to do it live, it all sort of collapses, or doesn’t translate. So I was very aware of having stuff that would work well in concert… particularly the electric stuff.
Listeners may think they hear Baroque, Renaissance, or perhaps even new age influences on the acoustic material.
Well (chuckles), I’d be flattered if they heard it! I’m a sort of jack of all trades, master of none. I can’t play jazz, I can try to play the blues, I can’t play folk. I’m not accomplished in any of those styles, but I love all kinds of music – I listen to country and western, folk… anything that’s great music and played well. So all those influences are there, but there’s no pretense about what makes me write a piece of music; if there’s a certain style in there, it’s because I like it, but I’m not saying it’s that certain style and nothing else. If somebody likes it, I’m happy; if somebody doesn’t like it, I’d be interested to know why.
Talk about some of the songs, and the guitars on them. “Count the Chickens” starts with a Gibson Les Paul Junior, and you credit Leslie West in the liner notes.
It always makes me smile when I think of Leslie West. Mountain supported us in the early ’70s on a couple American tours. He’s a great player, and in those days, everybody hated everybody else, and bands would try to blow each other off the stage, and that kind of competitiveness was stupid. I think Mountain was the first band we really became friends with; they were really nice people, and they had a great time onstage. It was so refreshing to meet people with that kind of attitude. Combined with the fact that he was such a powerful guitarist, you couldn’t help but be moved by somebody like Leslie West. You can’t ignore his playing, and I was always a big fan.
Is the Gibson L-5 on “French Correction” the same one you’re holding on the back cover? At its outset, the song seems to have an almost acoustic sound.
There might be a bit of acoustic guitar hiding in there (chuckles)! But (the L-5) is played very quietly, and it has a beautiful sound. I mention in the notes that I bought it from Annie Allman in Savannah, Georgia. I had a guitar that needed fixing, and I wasn’t intending on buying another instrument, but she mentioned that she had this gorgeous instrument, and shipped it to L.A. for me to check out. I loved it; I love big, fat guitars.
What about the bouzouki on “Favorite Things”?
Ian (Anderson) bought it for me; it’s from a company in England. Ian plays a bit of bouzouki on his stuff, and he thought he’d try to get me into it, as well. I ignored it for a couple of years, then one day started trying to play it. It’s lovely; it does everything a 12-string guitar does, but it’s less demanding, sonically – it doesn’t take up a huge chunk of the sound spectrum. It’s easy to tune, and it has a lovely voice. I really enjoy playing it, and I’ve tuned it a number of ways; I didn’t follow any rules, and you can do anything with it.
The mandolin on “D.I.Y.”?
Again, I played mandolin occasionally with Jethro Tull, and (former Tull associate) Dave Pegg, who’s with Fairport Convention, is one of the great mandolin players. I didn’t play mandolin very much, and then, in the middle of this album – probably because of the bouzouki – I thought that what the bouzouki needed was something doubling it, an octave up.
I got in touch with Andy Manson, a luthier in England, and asked, “What have you got in mandolins?” He said, “I’ve only got a really expensive one, but have a go on it.” It was a stunning instrument that sounded gorgeous, so I had to buy it. It was still somewhat of a departure for me, and I had fun playing it.
“Celestial Servings” has what you refer to as your main stage guitar, a Strat with humbuckers.
Yeah, that’s a Fat Strat. It can get a typical Strat sound, even though it’s got humbuckers. That’s why I use it onstage. You can get a nice, fat sound out of your bridge pickup, but then you can revert to sort of a nice, rhythmic traditional Strat sound.
The final song, a vocal number with the paradoxical title of “Don’t Say A Word,” has a Fender Mustang, of all things.
(chuckles) I bought that from a guitar dealer near Jackson, Mississippi, near where my wife is from. It’s a big store, and when you go into the vintage room, there’s this big pile of cases, and you just open them up to see what’s inside. Like opening Pandora’s Box! The Mustang was quite pretty, and the vibrato worked really well, so I ended up using it.
A lot of the songs – electric and acoustic – have harmony leads. Do you write such songs with that intent?
I don’t, because the downside of doing that is when it comes to playing live, you want that harmony, and you have to get the keyboard player to play it, and it can be a really cheesy sound. And I do apologize to all keyboard players (laughs), but it doesn’t sound like a guitar. I may be making a mistake writing such things, but I just love harmonies, and I get a kick from working them out and playing them. I have a compulsion for doing it, but I’m also stuck with them!
The latest Jethro Tull album is a Christmas record of primarily Anderson-penned songs, as well as instrumental arrangements of traditional Holiday songs. Tull has always been innovative, but this is a departure…
It’s more a bit of fun; perhaps a Christmas stocking filler/present for all of those Tull fans who have every album. Nevertheless, we took it seriously, just as over the years, we’ve done bits of Bach or Beethoven, and we have done a few carols. So it really wasn’t such a departure from the way we do things, anyway.
There’s a sticker on the CD that quotes a web review, “If you liked Thick As A Brick or Songs From The Wood, this album is for you.” How do you feel about that?
(laughs) How do you feel about it? I’d take it with a pinch of salt. I think it would be more relevant to say, “If you like everything Jethro Tull has ever done, you’re gonna like this.”
I think the real Tull fans will like it, but somebody who doesn’t know Tull very well will probably wonder why it’s there, because it isn’t representative of Jethro Tull, to me. If you play it along with other Christmas records, it’s fine; it’s an alternative to buying something by Frank Sinatra or whoever.
The final track on the Christmas album is “Winter Snowscape,” an instrumental you wrote.
When Ian told me about the Christmas album, he said he was going to write some music for it, and I’d started writing for my new album, and had one track that had a working title, which was a Christmas title. I called that one “Snowman” because when I worked on it, it reminded me of Christmas. I played a rough demo of it for him, and he thought it was great. It was earmarked for the Christmas album; it’s a slightly different version of the same backing track, with flute added.
Anderson recently released a solo album, then toured solo. Are you planning on doing the same thing?
Definitely, and my solo touring is just going to consist of “normal” gigs; I’ve got three albums of material to draw on, and I’ll do a couple of Tull songs for a bit of fun.
But Ian’s solo tour is more like a “chat show” format. I think deep down, Ian’s always wanted to be sort of a Jay Leno (chuckles). There’s a bit of music, but also a lot of interaction with the audience. It’s different in many ways.
Any plans for a future “standard” Tull album?
There are. In practical terms, I would say that for the next year, we won’t go into the studio; perhaps at the end of ’04. And I’d think there would almost be an obligation to do a studio album in ’05.
The problem at the moment is that Ian loves doing his own music, for the same reasons I love doing my music. You work at your own pace, and you’re very focused on what you’re doing. It’s fun, but it also puts off doing a Tull album, which will happen, but the timing has to be right; everybody has to be in the right frame of mind, rather than doing it because there’s an obligation.
But it’s also important for us to do solo stuff. I’m really passionate about my music, and I really want to play it live. I’m as committed to being a solo artist as I am to Jethro Tull.
Barre in August, 2003, with Jethro Tull. Photo: Marc Deley.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.