Interview: Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze)

tilbrookheader

If you’re a fan of British pop-rock band Squeeze, Christmas is coming a month late this year.

In January, frontman Glenn Tilbrook is slated to release his fourth solo album. That same month, Tilbrook and the rest of Squeeze are scheduled to enter the studio to begin work on their first new album of original material since 1998.

In the meantime, you can catch Tilbrook on his current solo tour, which stops at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J., on Saturday night.

Squeeze-singles

It’ll be a chance to see one of pop’s most underrated triple threats. As a singer, Tilbrook’s crisp tenor has jumped easily from new wave to rock to country to R&B over Squeeze’s nearly four-decade career.

As a guitarist, he plays nimble, complex solos with ease, flashing his fingers from one end of the fretboard to the other in a manner of seconds.

And as a songwriter, Tilbrook and fellow Squeeze member Chris Difford have composed a string of well-constructed, memorable hits — ‘Pulling Mussels (From The Shell),’ ‘Tempted,’ ‘Black Coffee In Bed,’ ‘Hourglass.’ The band’s iconic greatest hits collection, Singles 45’s And Under, is a part of any serious music fan’s collection. They’ve even been called the Lennon & McCartney of their generation, with Difford handling the lyrics, and Tilbrook putting them to to music.

gtfeb2010lo_res_1

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Tilbrook about his new projects, the story behind some of Squeeze’s best work, and why The Monkees were under-appreciated.

Pop-Break: I was listening to Squeeze’s last record, 2010’s Spot The Difference, on the way to work today. That’s the album where you re-created some of your hits, note for note. How difficult was it to try and replicate each and every part the same way you recorded them years ago? It seems like a painstaking task.

gtfeb2010lores_2

Glenn Tilbrook: It was like doing a really complicated jigsaw puzzle. I knew how the records sound and I could sort of remember mostly what gear we used. But it’s about getting it authentic. We made it like a proper record. The only thing that’s sort of missing from it is inspiration. Because you’re trying to copy the inspiration you had 30 years ago. [laughs] So, it’s a bit weird. It was a difficult record to make, but I’m really proud of it.

PB: So you have a new solo album recorded?

GT: Yes, it’s called Happy Ending.

PB: When can we expect to hear it?

GT: I think January is when it’s going to come out. I have everything way over schedule. I’m going to master it when I get back to London in mid-October. So it’ll be ready for a January release.

PB: What makes this record stand out? What do you like most about it?

GT: I’ve never made a record that sounds like this before. There’s no drums on it. There’s no electric guitar. It started out like a folk tradition — bands like The Incredible String Band and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Sort of obscure British bands really. It doesn’t sound actually anything like that now, but that was my starting point.

PB: Early T. Rex before they went glam?

GT: Yes, indeed. That’s right — the acoustic stuff.

PB: And you’re also about to start work on a new Squeeze record?

GT: Yeah, that’s right. We start [recording] that in January.

PB: So you release a new solo record and then you start the next Squeeze record. Do you ever give yourself a break?

GT: Well, I’ve been working on my solo record and the Squeeze record sort of at the same time. It’s going to be interesting.

PB: Do you and Chris have all the songs written?

GT: No. We have half the songs written.

PB: What has it been like to write with him again?

GT: I think sometimes we struggle to make the connection, but when we do, it’s really great. It’s hard in a way to come back to a situation to have it anywhere near similar to how it was. I don’t think we do have the same spark that we had, say, 30 years ago, but in recognizing that, you have to try something different. We’ve got to craft our songs more.

PB: Does he still write the lyrics first and then give them to you to write music?

GT: Mostly that’s the way it works. Not always. I’m writing some bits of lyrics now. We’re sort of verging in each other’s territory now

PB: When you first started writing together, why did you write with lyrics first?

GT: That’s just the way we started doing it. Without ever discussing it, Chris gave me a lyric and I put a tune to it. So, he gave me some more. So, it went on. And it always worked for us.

Photo Credit: Danny Clifford
Photo Credit: Danny Clifford

PB: Has there ever been a time you’ve come back with a complete song, and Chris didn’t expect it to sound the way it does?

GT: A number of songs are like that. ‘Hourglass’ I think was one of those. I think ‘Up The Junction’ was another one. That was conceived as more to be more like Bob Dylan and The Band. But it sounds like Squeeze now.

PB: Well, I watched a new documentary on the band — called Take Me I’m Yours — in which you say that part of the appeal of Squeeze was that nobody sounded like you.

GT: Yeah, I think we had a few really unique things going for us. The earlier incarnations of Squeeze, I don’t think there was a band around who could play as well as us. I think my and Chris’ voices together had a unique sound. I don’t hear anyone else sounding like that unless they sound like us. [laughs]

PB: How did the way you two sing together come about? Did it just happen naturally that you sang and he sang an octave below it?

GT: Yeah, it happened entirely naturally. That’s the noise that came out of us. It was an extremely lucky coincidence.

PB: I think something else that’s true about some of the great bands — The Beatles, The Kinks, Elvis Costello & The Attractions — is that your music had a great deal of variety. You played new wave, pop, rock, R&B, country. A lot of bands search for a singular sound, but often variety is what really keeps listeners interest. How important was that to you?

GT: I think really important. I think the more a band thinks it knows how it should sound, the more they become a caricature of themselves. One of the things I like about Squeeze now is that I have no fear of boundaries as far as what we can do musically. I think the record we’re going to make is going to be the best record Squeeze has ever made, or else it’s not worth starting out. I don’t want to do it unless it’s really great. And I think it is going to be great.

PB: Is there a song or an album you’re most proud of?

GT: I’m really proud of East Side Story and Argybargy. And I’m really proud of Pandemonium Ensues, the album I did with The Fluffers. I think those three records are sort of peaks for me of what I can do.

PB: My favorite Squeeze song is ‘Vanity Fair’ — just a gorgeous, touching tune. What was the genesis of that?

GT: It’s about a fan of ours in the north of England, who’s still around. Musically, it was inspired by Kate Bush. I’m a big Kate Bush fan. Again, it doesn’t really sound like it, but I love the chords she used in ‘Wuthering Heights.’ It’s a lovely song.

PB: Two of your most famous songs — ‘Tempted’ and ‘Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)’ — were actually not massive hits. Neither reached the Top 40 at all in the U.K. Were you surprised by that? Did you expect them to be bigger hits?

GT: I certainly thought ‘Tempted’ was a smash, you know? [laughs] I still do, in my mind. But it never was. It sounds like one to me.

g_stripeshirt1

PB: Were you jealous that Paul Carrack and not you got to sing that record?

GT: No. I mean, obviously, I was a bit upset at the time. But when I heard Paul sing it, it was so undeniably brilliant and in a way that I would have never done, so obviously, I’m way, way over that. He did a brilliant job.

PB: I read that it took a while for you to actually write.

GT: Yeah, to get the music write. I was working on it for about a week, I think. Just going over it again and again. Because I had the opening line, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I went in all sorts of directions to make it sound as natural as it does now. It took a lot of work for me.

PB: How long does it usually take you to write a song?

GT: Well, anything in between a year and five minutes. There are no rules for it. Sometimes, the really lucky ones just pour out of you and you don’t have to do anything. It writes itself. I’ve heard a lot of writers say that about absolute inspiration, and it’s true.

PB: My brother is a guitar player, and he has said few guitarists are as underrated as you. Do you feel you don’t get enough credit for your guitar playing?

GT: No, not really. I don’t really push my guitar playing, particularly on records. But I love playing guitar, and I love stretching out a bit more live.

PB: It also seems like you try to make solos part of the composition and not just shredding away to show off.

GT: Yeah, that is true. I like to try to make them sound like an important part of the tune, so the two become inseparable.

PB: And the solos to songs like ‘Slightly Drunk’ or ‘In Quintessence’ or ‘Another Nail In My Heart’ are so intricate and complex. What is the most difficult solo of yours to play?

GT: You know, I don’t know. Because once I learn them all, they’re okay. You know, there’s a song called ‘It’s So Dirty,’ there’s a solo in that, and ‘Another Nail’ — those are hard ones.

PB: What was your first guitar?

GT: I don’t know, a cheap one that looked like one of the guitars Elvis Presley played in his films. It was the most brilliant gift ever for a 7 year old.

PB: Do you remember the first record you bought?

GT: I do. It was ‘Last Train To Clarksville.’

PB: I always feel The Monkees get a bad rap — that they were a better band than they get credit for.

GT: I completely agree. I think they were a really good band. They had a bunch of great people working around them, and then they had a little bit where they made their own music and wrote their own songs. And they were good at it.

PB: Is there a song or album of yours that doesn’t get enough credit?

GT: I’ve always thought that Play was sort of an underrated record. Mainly because I think there came a point at that time whatever record company we were with chose songs that were not really the best songs on the record for singles. I think there are two songs on Play — one was called ‘The Truth’ and the other was called ‘Letting Go’ — that are really up there with my and Chris’ best work.

Joe Michelini of River City Extension has been Tilbrook's touring partner this fall
Joe Michelini of River City Extension has been Tilbrook’s touring partner this fall

PB: So what can fans expect from your show in Asbury Park?

GT: We have an incredible set-up on stage — me and Simon Hanson and Chris McNally, we’re a trio. And we play all sorts of percussion, Indian harmonium, a ukulele bass, ukuleles, and guitars. And iPads. It’s a very unusual set-up, and we’ve approached everything with a real sort of economy. It works backwards and forwards, all at the same time.

And of course, we’ve got Joe Michelini from River City Extension, who is really fantastic.

PB: Is it unlikely that we’ll ever see a reunion of the original lineup of Squeeze, with keyboardist Jools Holland and drummer Gilson Lavin?

GT: No, I’d never say it would never happen. Maybe, but we’re certainly not talking about it. And I don’t see it happening.

Glenn Tilbrook performs this Saturday, October 12th, at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey with Joe Michelini of River City Extension opening up. Click here for tickets.