For the first time in 20 years, Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford will be joining forces as a duo to head out on a run of sold out UK shows – The At Odds Couple Tour – to celebrate four decades of making music together. Acoustic caught up with two of the coolest cats in the business to talk about songwriting, fame after 40 years, and new Squeeze material.
For the first time in almost 20 years, Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook will be heading out on the road as a duo with The At Odds Couple Tour that will see them present their songs and story in a unique way. Beginning at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 2 November, the sold out 12-date tour will visit theatres around the UK in a show that will celebrate their enduring music and partnership. Chris Difford’s lyrics and Glenn Tilbrook’s music have prevailed through turbulent times over the past four decades, from the ever-changing musical landscape to their own internal reshuffles and an acrimonious break-up. After the initial rush of success in the late 70s with hits like ‘Cool For Cats’ and ‘Up The Junction’, Squeeze was widely considered to be one of the finest pop bands in Britain.
After break ups and solo endeavours, Squeeze is back together, writing new music, and feeling refreshed – but The At Odds Couple Tour serves to demonstrate the core of the partnership that gave us some of the most unassuming pop hits of the last 40 years, which are still cherished and sung word perfect today. Together, Glenn and Chris represent one of the finest songwriting partnerships the UK has ever produced.
Backstage at the London Acoustic Guitar Show, straight after their barnstorming performance on the main stage giving us a glimpse of what to expect from their duo tour, Chris and Glenn adjourned to talk about writing together, guitars, and their enduring professional and personal relationship.
The conversation opened with discussion about the writing process, which has been delineated more or less from day one – the stories that Chris Difford penned would have been redundant without the lively interpretations of Glenn Tilbrook’s music.
‘I think as we get older, we have started to be more open about the discussion of writing. I think there was a big turning point when we both began making solo albums, and because Glenn is a lyricist in his own right. Now when we collaborate, we work a little bit more on that, we have come more towards the middle. But for many years, it was an unspoken agreement that the lyrics would arrive and then the music would be written, which is a fantastic way to work because there is such a thrill in hearing the finished song. I remember back in the days of cassettes, Glenn would hand me a tape with 10 or 12 finished demos of songs, which would usually be more or less how the songs ended up. It was always a huge thrill to slot the cassette into the car player and have a listen,’ Chris says.
‘It is such a gift, Glenn agrees. ‘I had written lyrics on my own before I met Chris, but his lyrics were always so great and mine… were not! It was a privilege to have his lyrics to work with. I think it felt pretty natural for both of us to fall into those roles and to carry on. What was remarkable was that we never even discussed it – it just felt like that was how it was meant to be. We have had those discussions, more in this incarnation than we probably ever did before, and I think that’s a good thing – it’s a sign of rude health in our relationship.’
Despite Glenn and Chris’ professional relationship always working sublimely for the best part of their careers, the personal relationship between that two has not always been as smooth – although time, age, and experience has evidently relaxed the two.
‘I think we have turned a corner in the last five or 10 years since we got back together. The object of what we did at the beginning of this incarnation of Squeeze was to create our own museum of our past, and make it sound great, and repackage it, which Glenn did brilliantly with the Spot The Difference album where we played our own songs to own our copyrights. By turning that corner, and playing to audiences with a fantastic new set – with some new songs as well as old songs – it has grown some confidence in our friendship,’ says Chris. ‘I think you can see it in other established bands. They have lost the ability to communicate, and the courage disappears. You can see it in older bands when they go on the road and you don’t get that passion. Glenn and I feel that there has to be that passion in music, because we have got so much of it.’
Tilbrook’s guitar playing has always had a dose of joie de vivre evident in it, but Glenn laughs it off claiming to have always been a shy guitarist.
‘I never played a huge amount on most of the Squeeze records, and where I did play, I wanted to make it count, and not just play for the sake of it. My playing is based on blues influences – and we don’t really play blues music. My style is probably a country hybrid. I am very influenced by Albert Lee – I’d love to be able to play like him.’
‘I used to be very shy of playing,’ Chris says. ‘I didn’t have the confidence to play the acoustic or the electric, and there was a long period of just getting by. It was about 15 years ago that I finally decided that playing guitar was something that I had done all my life, and I needed to get it right. It’s like being a carpenter and only being able to put up shelves, it’s not good enough – you need to be able to do the whole thing. So I decided to work on my playing and since then I have been really enjoying it a lot more.’
‘I was saying to Chris just after our set [at the London Acoustic Guitar Show in which they both demonstrated a mastery of their instruments] that his playing has been amazing,’ Glenn reflects. ‘You know when someone has improved at something, it’s not always a gradual improvement, sometimes it just clicks and there is a brand new door that is open to you with a whole range of new options on the other side of it. That’s what it feels like hearing Chris play, and it’s great to hear what he is doing, and it’s wonderful to play beside him now. Chris is feeling the music properly now, he feels everything in the rhythm and the structure, and it obviously feels very natural these days.’
Aside from the Novello-earning writing skills of the pair, they are both blessed with highly distinctive voices. As they harmonise octaves apart from each other, when the two sing together there’s no mistaking it’s Tilbrook and Difford.
‘We didn’t start singing together straight away,’ Chris says. ‘I think it was ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ that was the beginning of us singing together in recording terms, and then it became a bit of a signature for us, and it is a great sound – not a lot of bands have that.’
You’ll notice Glenn and Chris clutching an Avalon and Olson acoustic, respectively, on the cover of this issue. Aside from those, what guitars will we find on the stand?
‘I have a 1930s Gibson acoustic which I use a lot in the studio – it’s a lovely small-bodied guitar and I do a lot of recording with it,’ says Glenn. ‘The Avalon that I used on stage today is one of my favourite guitars for live work – I just love using that. There comes a stage with guitars when they settle down, and I have had the Avalon for nearly 10 years, and this is the right time now – it is lovely to play. I also use Taylor and Yamaha guitars, both of which I really enjoy using. The spacing is slightly different on the Avalon, slightly wider frets, and I guess my fingers have got a bit porkier, so it feels a little bit better,’ he laughs.
‘I have, over the years, broken the scaphoid bone in my wrist, so having a guitar with a smaller neck is important for me,’ Chris adds. ‘I play a Taylor 610 which is one of the original Taylors, and that feels great. Recently, I have been playing a guitar made by Jim Olson from Minneapolis. I first heard one of his guitars being played by James Taylor. I went to see James play, and I went backstage and met him, and just drooled over his guitar. So I ordered one, and it took ages to come through, about a year, and I played it, and thought: “Why doesn’t it sound like James’ guitar?” And then I realised, it’s because I can’t play like James! Now I am watching his stuff online [he also uploads tutorials of his hits] and the sound of the guitar is very sweet.’
‘There are never any bum notes when Glenn plays – it’s extraordinary listening to him play,’ Chris continues. ‘I remember, years ago, when we used to rehearse in a place called Wood Wharf in Greenwich, and we used to extend the songs beyond belief in order to get a feel for how they were going to work, and Glenn would sometimes play for ages, and that’s a talent that doesn’t reveal itself in the songs we do because they are too short – there is no room for that. But Glenn has an incredible talent for playing the guitar, and I have seen it again most recently when I got married – Glenn played ‘Hercules’ and I just thought, “Wow”. It made my day! It’s exciting, and I’d like the audience to experience more of it, and I think we can do that now – I think we have more room in the band to move.’
‘Squeeze songs are all very structured,’ adds Glenn. ‘They tell a story with a beginning and a middle and an end, and that format dictates the style and the amount of guitar I can play. When jazz goes off on musical tangents, as a musician, I can really go with that, but when we make records with Squeeze, the song has to come first. The song and the story are what matters, and the guitar playing is always going to be secondary to that. I do enjoy playing, and as Chris has said, we are starting to stretch some of our songs out a little more now when we play them on stage, so that is going to give me a chance to get into some more guitar playing.’
Pop luminaries who started their writing and playing journey back in the 1970s, Chris and Glenn have succeeded without the use of social media. A band like Squeeze got music out to their fans not by the click of a button, but by putting the gear in the van and touring relentlessly. Is the simplicity of promotion in a digital age a help or hindrance?
‘Well, I saw something a few days ago that really upset me,’ Chris replies. ‘I was watching the Apple stream of the new iPhone. They did this weird thing at the end where U2 came on and said that they were giving away their new album. What are they telling people, by giving away their album? Are they saying that music is for free, which makes it harder for young people to come up the ladder? And then I listened to it… and realised why they are giving it away!’
‘I think that people who like your music, and who come to you, want to help out, they want so support you and they want to buy your music,’ Glenn reasons. ‘That is important, but the other thing that is important about music is reaching the people who are not that interested in you, and I think that increasing those chances for us is important. We weren’t getting radio play when we started, and now the stuff is out there. People who heard us play today [at the London Acoustic Guitar Show] can go and find our music, and if they like it, they can buy our records.’
‘We had a period of two or three years where we weren’t doing much, and I felt that success made us complacent in some ways, and it affected the way that we worked. We got a little bit too pleased with ourselves. This is my retrospective judgement on it; at the time it just didn’t feel right,’ Glenn adds.
With a facial expression suggesting an unpleasant memory, Glenn recalls a bout of writer’s block. ‘I think it happened at one specific time for me, around the time we got massive in the States. It was scary, and I have had a few times like that since. One of the things I have learned about writing is that although it is a natural thing to do, it doesn’t mean that it will always be easy. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have really frustrating periods. It’s like walking – you don’t forget how to do it. You do forget how hard it is sometimes, though. A lot of great stuff comes from a single moment at a single time that you grab hold of and expand on, but a lot of other great stuff comes from long tortuous periods of hard work, revising, and getting it how you want it. The thing I know about writing is that it can be easy, or hard, and the result can be great, or it can be rubbish. You never know how many doors you need to walk through to arrive in the right room. I know what’s at the other side, and I know it might be hard to get there, but I know I will get there.’
‘I never worried about Glenn getting past the time when the music was not coming easily to him,’ says Chris. ‘I know that some songs take longer than others, and that there is no rush – especially now. You have to produce what you can produce in that particular space and time, and if there isn’t anything, then you go back again at a later time.’
‘We do a lot of looking back when we play on stage,’ says Glenn, ‘and that is fine, I am very proud of our past, I love and respect it deeply. But our past is not going to sustain us as a band, we need to be looking forward and moving forward; we have always created our own momentum as a band, and that has not changed.’
So it’s good news from Chris, then, that there is a new musical project under way, which will result in a new album and tour schedule for 2015. ‘Yes, we are working on a new album, and it is inspired by, and based on, a TV show written by Danny Baker and Jeff Pope. It’s from Danny’s book Going To Sea In A Sieve, but we’ve retitled it Cradle To The Grave, and it’s being shot between March and May next year, and it will be on air in October 2015.’
A Tilbrook and Difford concert is a reminder of just how massive Squeeze was from 1979 through to 1987, and how influential they continue to be as a songwriting tour de force. Hit after hit they come – the Lennon and McCartney comparisons aren’t so crazy now, are they?
Glenn and Chris tour the UK throughout November on the At Odds Couple Tour. A new album from Squeeze is expected in 2015.