The Squeeze interview
They were always sharper than your average singer songwriter-based, new wave-influenced beat pop combo. The line-up might have changed over the years (though the current incarnation is solid) but the Squeeze engine room was always stoked by just two men – the chalk and cheese pairing of Glenn Tilbrook (sweet alto, seriously under-appreciated fret work) and Chris Difford (floppy fringe, wry outlook, voice that defined ‘gravelly’.) As the recent BBC4 documentary, Take Me I’m Yours, made clear, you not only know more Squeeze songs than you think you know, you love them just a little bit more than you thought you did.
A few years back, after nearly a decade of not speaking, Difford and Tilbrook, struggling with new ideas they couldn’t fix alone, did the right and proper thing by kissing and making up. And for the past few years they’ve managed their solo careers alongside returning to what they know best. Decades pass and tired old survivors hang onto the last vestige of fame for dear life. Others, starved of the oxygen of adulation, regroup to try their hand again. But your real survivors, the old school champs who you’re happy to have back, carry themselves with cool self-assurance. As they bring their ‘Pop Up Shop Tour’ to a close, TMF talked to Chris Difford about the art of playing live and why they “were never really Pink Floyd”.
So, Squeeze have regrouped and are touring for the first time in a couple of years. How’s it felt?
Well...we’re in a pub and we’re videoing some shots for live and doing some, arm, artistic things. They probably won’t look artistic when we’re finished. We’re good at that. But, we’ve got a couple of new songs and we’re putting video to them, stuff were showing on stage. We’ve got a choir, we’ve got some strings and rather than have them touring around with us, which would cost a fortune, we’ve got them on screens.
Tight and ready to go?
As always, we’re putting the cart before the horse and doing production stuff first. But we kinda know what we’re doing, I think. It’s something that we don’t need to study terribly hard by now. Apart from the new songs – they’re what needs a bit of work.
Do you still need to work at it, particularly? Do you try to get super slick before you head out?
Well, I don’t think we’ve ever been Pink Floyd when we go out on tour, you know? We do like a little bit of looseness, yeah. If you listen to our songs over the years, they’re tight pop songs and they do need a lot of crafting, a lot of love. But overall, we do do that almost sub-consciously a lot of the time.
People focus too much on the whole 80’s ‘revival’ thing, sniping at the cash-in tours and ignoring proper, hard-won longevity. Bands like you, Dexys, Elvis Costello, OMD, you’re still out there and doing it on nobody’s terms but your own.
Yeah... I think as a human being, as you get older, you gravitate towards what is real and what is emotional. And for the most part, modern music is not particularly emotional. It doesn’t tap into my emotional needs. But it’s interesting you say Dexys and you say Elvis Costello; these are acts who we came up with and we were often on tour at the same time as those two. I think there’s a gravitational pull towards something real from people more and more these days. I guess in some way Squeeze delivers that.
Are you still happiest collaborating?
I am a collaborator. I don’t like being on my own. I’m a team player - I hope. I don’t like being on my own beavering away at stuff. I don’t find that as creative as when I’m ping-ponging ideas across a table. However, when I’m writing lyrics, it’s a bit of a lonely place to be, so I do tend to focus on my own space when I’m writing lyrics.
There are new songs, I hear. Do tell.
We’ve got five, six new songs and a few new old songs if you include songs we haven’t toured for a while. So I would say 30%-40% of the set will be quite fresh to people. Obviously there are the hits – I wouldn’t deny anybody those but there's new stuff too.
Does playing them ever become a bind, or do they still live a little, still surprise you? I wonder if they, over time, reveal something unexpected, ask something new of you?
Yeah, actually you’re right. Plus, there is a discipline in playing the old songs, something you have to really concentrate on and sometimes when you find yourself doing that, the songs become brand new again.
Because first time round I certainly wasn’t concentrating. I had no idea what discipline was and I just went along with the flow of it all. These days I’m a lot more interested in getting it right. You only get the one chance of getting it right in each town every couple of years, so you’ve kind of got to throw yourself at the wall and see if you can make yourself stick there.
On this tour, punters can buy a CD of the gig straight after the show. Talk about removing the safety net. Does that not make you slightly nervous, knowing you really have to get it right on the night?
No, not at all. I’m really not bothered about that at all. If we make mistakes, we make mistakes and people will have to buy it and buy into it. If it happens to sound great and it goes down well, well that’s a bonus.
I can’t imagine how heartening it must be to fill venues, still – to see a crowd turn out because they want to see you, rather than just re-live a bit of lost youth and have a party
I hope it’s not the latter! Also, we were never really a fashionable band. Look, I think people come out to see us for something more than dressing up and having a night out and so I think we can allow ourselves to try out some new songs and I suspect the audience are adult enough to accept it,
Will these new songs see the light of day on an album?
Well, we’re still considering the possibility of releasing an album next year. We’re looking at the options and how we might finance it and make it work. We don’t have a record label, obviously, so we’re looking at what options we do have.
Are you still teaching music?
Ermm, yeah. I do do the music workshops, still, and I enjoy them very much. I do them twice a year. There’s one in Devon, there’s one in London. And of course, there’s my solo career, there’s Glenn’s solo career – there’s other activities outside of Squeeze. Squeeze is a focal point, yes, but it’s not everything.
I wonder what you made of the recent BBC documentary on the band?
I really enjoyed it. I found it very emotional and I thought they did a really fantastic job of piecing together our career.
You and Glenn, you’d not spoken for nine years. That’s almost inconceivable.
Yeah…and when we did start talking, it was like we picked up from where we left off, almost. I think Glenn was very nervous about working with me.
Well…I think he’d lost a lot of trust in our relationship. I went off and did something else. But I did what I had to do and I respect Glenn for being patient and for being understanding. But when you’ve been together for 40 years in a relationship it can become very complex. You only have to walk into a forest for the first time in 40years…and that’s how much things can change with time.
When you began, you were both young and hungry for success. What’s the motivation these days?
I think we’ve always been concerned first and foremost about our songs. That’s what we’ve been most passionate about. Everything else is peripheral. I don’t think that philosophy has changed particularly - life is bouncing along just as it always did with Squeeze. It’s a complex machine but it seems to work.
Do you ever look around the current crop and think a particular band might have the qualities you had when you started out?
For me, the Arctic Monkeys are head and shoulders above everybody else. They’re a band above everything else and what they’ve achieved…breaking America... They’re just really talented, lyrically, musically, their whole production is so slick, if you can use that word.
Alex Turner pulls the curtain back – a bit like you did on those first few albums.
He does, yes.
I wonder where he’ll go when the youthful fire dims a bit and reflection takes its place?
I guess he’ll be doing what I’m doing when he’s my age and I hope he’ll be looking back on career and asking himself how can I preserve it and how can I love it.
Do you think you’lll ever stop?
No. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing. That’s what I do. I’m a writer first and foremost. As far as performing is concerned, doing solo performances is an expensive hobby for me and I do have to look at it long and hard and wonder if it’s worth doing it. But playing in Squeeze, it pays the rent and it’s fun, so as long as the offers keep coming in…
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