Interview: Difford & Tilbrook. Squeezing In The Hits.
Squeeze frontmen Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook are mid-way through their retrospective acoustic tour of song and conversation entitled The At Odds Couple. Masters of the quintessential British pop song, their 40 year friendship and songwriting partnership may have featured rifts as well as riffs, but as they take to the road as a duo and prepare to write new material, they appear to have reached a stage of harmony and reflection.
Tonight will be their second sold out show at Union Chapel in north London and Chris and Glenn have just finished their soundcheck. Sitting in the venue’s pews, they tell me why songwriting is different from making tea, the excitement of a new BBC project and the importance of socks on tour.
You played here at Union Chapel last night. How did it go?
Glenn: Amazingly. Just lovely.
Does the venue affect how the gig goes or how you feel about it? Was it very reverential last night, being a chapel?
Chris: Reverential? [Laughs] Well, it had a great spiritual feeling about it. I felt that the audience became part of the family, if you like. I heard reports of people having tea and cake and sitting in the pews. I think that’s really, really nice, actually. So, it’s the perfect venue for this kind of show.
How did you go about selecting songs for this tour when you have such a huge back catalogue, both with Squeeze and from solo projects?
Glenn: We did a series of shows in the summer and assembled the basic set list, then we changed it about a bit immediately before we came out and added some different songs. It’s hard to get the balance right for everyone. So, really, we put together a bunch of songs that we thought would please us, and everyone, the most that we could.
Did you try to balance the early and more recent work?
Chris: Well, because it’s a retrospective look at our past, we originally put a couple of songs in pre-record deal, early 70s songs that we’d written – one called Halfway and one called Depression. That was great for the audience because they’d never heard them, so it brought them into that part of our lives. There seems to be a really lovely spread across all of the albums, pretty much, with all the hits.
I’ve seen Squeeze perform a number of times and I notice you do roll out all the hits for people, but there’s a lot of bands that stop doing that. Was it a conscious decision early on and is it hard to stick to?
Glenn: It’s always a hard one to balance. Elvis Costello made a conscious decision early on to keep on moving forward and that was a smart decision on his part. We didn’t always do that and the consequence is we have a bunch of songs that we will always be associated with, which are great, you know, we’re very proud of those songs, but it takes a lot of courage to break away from them.
Is it something you appreciate when you go to see bands that you enjoy – that they still play the classics?
Chris: When I go to see other artists play, for instance with Elvis Costello, I like to hear him do adaptations of his own songs and not mimic the originals sometimes. He’s brilliant at doing that because he’s a one man band, in that respect. It’s difficult when you’ve got five people. You can’t just spin off a new version of Up The Junction or something, it has to be like it is. So, I like people who use their imaginations like that. But in this particular environment, with two acoustic guitars, Up The Junction tells a story of its own history, it stands up without a band.
Are you playing the same set every night? Do you change it or take requests?
Chris: [Laughs] Almost!
Glenn: Nearly. Well, we’re going to change it today. We talked last night about changing the set today. So, yes. We’ve tinkered with it is what I’d say.
Chris: Yeah, we’re tinkers.
Has songwriting changed for you as an art form over the years and, if so, in what way?
Chris: When I was younger, songwriting and being in a band was the only focus of what you did. You know, when you’re 18, 19 years old, that’s all you did 24 hours a day. Glenn’s son Leon comes to a lot of the shows and when I see his enthusiasm for playing guitar, it’s such an incredible place for a young man to be. And then as you get older, and family, and things change, your day gets dissected into so many different chunks that you lose that complete focus. But it’s still there, when we do get into writing, like at the end of this tour – there’s a consistent amount of time to do a lot of writing for a TV show that we’re supplying songs for. I’m really looking forward to getting into the kind of expression that Glenn’s son is in at the moment and just being in that moment. It’s a lovely thing, it really is.
Glenn: Well, it’s remained the same for me. I do have family and obviously that takes precedence, but when I work, I do just work on the one thing and dedicate myself to that. Because I can’t apportion my time in bits and pieces, it doesn’t work like that for me. For me, you have to stick at it and work through it, otherwise it doesn’t get done.
What’s the TV show that you’re writing for?
Chris: It’s for the BBC and it’s called Cradle To The Grave, which is our title, but it’s Danny from Danny Baker’s book Going To Sea In A Sieve.
Has songwriting become a craft where you sit down and decide to write a song or do you wait for inspiration to hit?
Chris: From a lyrical point of view, it’s about opening up to the prospect of imagination. To write specifically for a TV show, for instance, it’s about being in character and that doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes you have to search for it and that can take time. I don’t think songwriting is like just add milk and you’ve got a cup of tea. It’s not like that.
So there’s a certain amount of having to wait, or prepare yourself for it?
Chris. Absorb. Yes.
As the lyricist, did you come up with the At Odds Couple Tour name?
Chris: No, I can’t remember where it came from.
Glenn: No, you came up with it.
Chris: Did I? I can’t remember.
It’s interesting because you’re presenting upfront this idea of friction within an artistic partnership. Do you think that has been a useful ingredient to you working together over the years?
Glenn: Yeah, I think so. There’s lots that we agree on and there are also other things that we’re completely different on, like any two people. The difference in us is that we’ve been in and out of each other’s pockets for 40 years. So we have a tremendous amount of background to draw on, shared experiences and experiences apart when we’ve got into different things that inform what we do now. That’s such a unique perspective to have, for both of us, I think.
You started touring the 1970s – how has your experience of being on the road changed over the years?
Chris: I think it’s been different every decade. My daughters were going through some old cases of files and found loads of old touring bits and pieces from the 80s and 90s. They were laughing at our dressing room rider because it said, like on a Monday it had to be two bottles of brandy and on a Tuesday it had to be two bottles of vodka and it went on the whole week. We were really specific about what we wanted on each day. Postcards with stamps. I think that’s great. We wrote postcards home to our loved ones, so why not? But one of the things that I thought was genius, that we always had on the rider was socks. So, they were disposable items. [Laughs] Along with batteries for Walkmans, as well, we used to get loads of batteries for Walkmans. It’s funny isn’t it?
What music do you listen to on the road?
Glenn: I’ve got lots of Spotify playlists that I get from listening to stuff when I’m in America I listen to satellite radio which is pretty specifically themed. I listen to dublab.com and that provides me with a lot of newer stuff that I listen to. The person I listen to the most at the moment is Kate Tempest.
Chris: It’s funny, I was just walking down Upper Street and there was a couple behind me and this bloke turned to the girl and said ‘You know so and so, you never guess who his cousin is, it’s a rapper?’. She says ‘Oh year, who?’ and he says ‘Kate Tempest’. [Both burst out laughing] She says: ‘I didn’t know she was a rapper, I thought she was a poet’. They were having this debate as they were walking behind me.
And what are you listening to, Chris?
Chris: Depends what mood I’m in. When I’m at home, I listen to FIP, which is a French radio station because it’s so ridiculously eclectic. I really enjoy FIP. You never know what you’re going to get.
Looking back from this point, what advice would you give your younger selves starting out in music in the 70s?
Glen: None, because he wouldn’t listen anyway. [Both laugh]
Chris: That’s a great answer!
Chris? Would you have listened?
Chris: Oh god, probably not. As you get more mature in life, you look back and you start saying things to your kids that your parents would have said to you, it’s frightening. So, I probably wouldn’t have listened. I don’t know what advice I’d give. ‘Take more’, probably.
Glenn: I’ll add ‘notice’, to the end of that. [Both laugh]
As Chris and Glenn head off to prepare for the show, I glance around at the ornate church architecture and the elaborate stage set (a 70s bedroom scene). The congregation is in for a treat tonight. With new material on the horizon, it sounds like the ‘odd couple’ will be sharing stages for some time yet. Amen to that.
Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk. November 8, 2014.