One for the road - Martin Barre: “Spinal Tap moment? We used to dress up in animal suits and have four-hour shows”

(Image credit: Elayne Barre)

Jethro Tull legend Martin Barre recalls how running keeps him sane and fears a life without cheese…

What was your first gig?

“The first Jethro Tull gig was in January 1969. It was in Penzance at a very horrible club, which I hope doesn’t exist any more. This was in the days when it probably took seven or eight hours to drive from London to Penzance, so we got there ridiculously late, got into this club and there were people all over the floor, comatose. The air was thick with pot and, at the far end, you could just about make out the stage, so we had to bring in the gear climbing over all these people - they didn’t even move an inch.

“We’d bought new stage gear the day before at Portobello Market and mine was a pirate jacket and it became quite apparent after the first song that the arms were too tight so I had a severe loss of blood in my left arm, leading to the inability to play.

“We only had one guy in the crew and I called out to him and he brought over his trusty Swiss Army knife and cut away the underside of the jacket around my armpit. This produced a lush flow of blood back into my left hand and service was restored. I think the audience thought it was some sort of Druid blood ceremony - and the only bit of the set they actually enjoyed! We never got asked back…”

Describe your current stage rig…

Cheese is on my rider and I eat it guiltily. Life would be pointless without cheese

“It’s quite straightforward, I’ve had this rig for many, many years - it’s a Soldano Decatone with a Marshall 2x12 at the back and an extension 1x12 Marshall at the front. The only effect is a tiny little PicoVerb with a bit of room reverb to wet up the sound a bit. Then a radio, which at the moment is Sony, and my trusty PRS P22 - and that’s it.

“If it’s a gig in the UK, I load up the car with as many guitars as I can fit in - I’ve started going back to old guitars again. I went through the phase of having amazing vintage guitars a long time ago and I’m starting to collect them again - ‘collect’ as in a musical term and not in a ‘hang on the wall and don’t touch them’ way. I’ve got a nice 345 from ’69 I take on the road in England, I’ve got a Cherry Dot Neck ’61 335 that I love and I’ve got a ’63 Fender Strat, Fiesta Red, that I love probably as much as the 335, but more than the 345…

“I’ve got all these lovely guitars that are fun to play maybe just for one song. I can get by with the PRS forever and a day, it does everything I want it to, but I just like guitars!”

What’s on your rider?

“There’s very disappointingly little on there. Unfortunately - and this is more for other people than myself - I’m actually a gluten-free vegetarian. As I say, it’s more unfortunate for the people I’m with because, when we go out to eat, it’s just so depressing when they hear me order food. The waiter or waitress always looks at me with these great depths of pity, thinking, ’Y’know what? You’re going to eat a lettuce leaf tonight, so get over it…’ 

“So hence my rider is usually just water and a nice dry white wine. The only thing I’m allowed in life. I’m not even allowed cheese, but there’s nothing else I can eat. Hence cheese is on my rider and I eat it guiltily. Life would be pointless without cheese.”

What’s your best tip for getting a good live sound?

In the worst place you’ve ever been in your life, there is somewhere to run and it will cheer you up

“Maybe just knowing your gear? I play through my live gear at home and I just know it so incredibly well - and I think that I play to the guitar and amp as much as the guitar and amp play to me. It’s a sort of two-way energy link, if you like. It’s familiarity and there are so many variables in the way you play and how hard you bite with the plectrum, backing off the volume, left-hand technique…

“There are infinitesimal variations [in your technique], and we’re talking about millimetres here, but I can hear the difference and every time I play through the same rig, the same setup, I get to know it that little bit more. And it’s the same gear, and it’s the same settings, but it sounds better with age. I can’t explain it. I just alter the way I play to the gear and the gear responds.”

What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?

“My running shoes, because running keeps me sane. Everybody thinks it keeps me fit, but I question that. In the worst place you’ve ever been in your life, there is somewhere to run and it will cheer you up. I’ve been in horrible Eastern European industrial towns and everyone blocks themselves into the hotel room, but I will find a park or a river and along that river or around that park there will be similarly weird people like me running - and they’re smiling.

“It’s like being an express tourist because every town we visit, I see a lot more of it than anyone else.”

(Image credit: Elayne Barre)

What’s the best tip for getting the audience on your side?

“I think it’s honesty. If you try and have a ‘show’ people see through it. It’s a veneer. People can tell when you’re being genuine and communication with the audience isn’t scripted - and the fact it isn’t scripted means you’re treating each audience as a unique gig. 

“I have fun and I try to communicate that fun and enjoyment in every respect, other than just playing - talking about the music, chatting to the audience, interplay with the other guys on stage. People can see and read in the musicians’ faces exactly how they feel about what they’re doing.”

Where in the world is the best venue you’ve played and why?

“I would say that, in general terms, the worst country you visit, the poorer the town, the more horrible the place is, the nicer the people are. I guess you could say they might be grateful that you’re there, but that would just be really condescending. I tend to think that people who have a very basic existence enjoy things in a very honest way and I would never favour one venue over another. In some ways I would rather not remember where that certain gig was, but I can remember how good it was. To me, every gig is the first gig I’ve done and the most important gig I’ve done and I want the attitude that everything is equal.”

What’s the worst journey you’ve ever had either to or from a gig?

I had inherited some ’visitors’ from that horrible motel… let’s just leave it there, shall we?

“There are so many nightmare journeys and most of them involve flying. The worst one was when I had to get to Switzerland the next day. I got the last flight out of Heathrow, which went via Brussels. I got to Brussels and had to stay in a horrible, horrible motel because fog cancelled flights. The only flight I could get to Switzerland was via Athens on a Greek airliner when everybody smoked. I had the last seat in the very back row, surrounded by smokers. The flight was diverted mid-air and I ended up in the wrong town in Switzerland. I got on a train and I was so filthy and dishevelled they wouldn’t serve me in the dining car. I got to my hotel and it became apparent in the next half an hour that I had inherited some ’visitors’ from that horrible motel… let’s just leave it there, shall we?”

What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

“I think the best Spinal Tap moment in Tull was when we used to dress up in animal suits and have four-hour shows. It wasn’t me, thank goodness, but there was a person who wore a hare suit. He kept the head of it backstage and it was such a long show he used to pee into an empty lager can. Anyway, he was fumbling backstage to get his head, and knocked the can of pee into it unknowingly. He then put the head on and had to play the rest of the show. That’s Spinal Tap, isn’t it?”

What’s your favourite live album?

“I guess it would have to be Live Cream mainly because it had such an impact. It was an amazing album anyway and I think it was in an era when - if I can be cynical here - ‘live’ albums were actually live and not repaired. It was totally genuine but it just held all that vitality - it just came out of the speakers, such a powerful sound, just incredible.”

Martin Barre’s latest album, Roads Less Travelled, is available now via Cleopatra Records.

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