Martin Barre: trying to out-Tull Jethro Tull

One phone-call was all it took for Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre to have the thick-as-a-brick-pile rug pulled out from underneath him. That was in 2012 when Ian Anderson, the band’s singer, songwriter and flautist, rang and told Barre he was breaking up one of the world’s most famous rock groups. No consultation – after 43 years together. They’ve never spoken since, and Anderson currently tours as “Ian Anderson and the Jethro Tull Band”.

A stunned Barre picked himself up, dusted himself off, began writing songs, assembling a band, finding an agent and securing a record deal. “I had to do the whole thing like any band starting out would have to do,” he recounts on the telephone. “Jethro Tull might get your foot in the door, but that’s all, because essentially it’s down to what you do and how well you do it. You really have to prove yourself from the ground upwards, again. It was a challenge. But I like being in control of the arrangements and the musical side, because I think I’ve learned so much from the Tull years.”

Martin Barre. Photos supplied.

Anderson’s decision ended one of rock’s longest continuous collaborations, and Barre says a part of him will always be sad about that. “But the other part of me is very happy that I have a great band,” he goes on, “and I truly believe we play that music better than any Jethro Tull band or any other band I’ve ever heard. So I’m really proud of the guys I work with, and it inspires me to do better.”

Unlike Tull, Barre’s band has a second electric guitar (played by singer Dan Crisp), and so the huge Tull back-catalogue is partly replicated and partly reinvented. They have over four hours’ worth of material up their sleeve, including revisiting songs long ignored. “That was a huge area,” Barre explains, “because Ian’s voice, very unfortunately, was getting problems, and a lot of the early material Ian’s been unable to sing for quite a long time.”

From 1969, when Barre joined Tull, the band’s music evolved through blues-rock, progressive rock, English folk, hard rock and jazz fusion, and Barre consummately played it all, in the process influencing guitarists including Mark Knopfler, Joe Satriani, Joe Bonamassa and Steve Vai. “I can’t play jazz and I can’t play classical music,” he says of his limitations. “In fact probably I can’t play folk! I mean if you really look at the great bluegrass and Irish and Scottish folk musicians, they’re just in a different league. But I like to feel that they influence the way I listen to music and the way I play. So, yeah, I embrace everything. I think it would be a big mistake to turn my back on anything, musically.”

Across these many blurry idioms, Barre has boasted one rock’s most distinctive guitar sounds, seemingly regardless of the equipment he uses – something most musicians dream of, but which he finds mildly frustrating. “I’d like to have a bit breadth to what I do,” he says self-deprecatingly, adding that his main priority is simply to play better. “Whatever I do I try to make it cleaner, tighter, more musical. It’s an infinite job. I’ll never be as good as I want to be, so I can never sort of sit back and be satisfied with what I do. I think in many ways all music’s like that. It has its imperfections, and that’s what inspires people to do better… The minute you think you’ve really nailed it would be a very sad occasion, because in my mind the best show I’ve ever done is yet to come.”

Martin Barre Celebrates 50 Years of Jethro Tull: Factory Theatre, November 20; Blue Mountains Theatre, November 22.