Interview Date: 08/12/2010
Run Date: 08/17/2010
Squeeze is quite possibly the most well-known unsuccessful band in pop music. After becoming MTV darlings thanks to their clever pop songs and memorable videos, they finally achieved some chart success, at which point the band couldn’t score another hit if their lives depended on it. And all the while, they weren’t making a cent on any of their records. Fed up with the way that the machine was treating them, the band released an album on their own, 1999’s Domino. Not many people bought it, and yet it made them more money than the albums featuring their most well-known songs. This whole talk about how the music business is broken? It ain’t new, that’s all we’re sayin’.
After a few years of wandering on solo career paths following the release of Domino, Squeeze’s principal songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford resurrected Squeeze in 2006 (and recruited original bassist John Bentley in the process) and are releasing re-recordings of their best-known songs, cheekily calling the album Spot the Difference. Bullz-Eye dragged Tilbrook off the beach for a Skype chat mere days after finishing what he calls a wildly successful US tour with Cheap Trick and the English Beat, where the affable frontman dished on the two (!) new albums the band is working on, and how a hypnotist got him to quit smoking. No, really.
Bullz-Eye: Sorry to drag you off of the beach. Where are you guys, exactly?
Glenn Tilbrook: That’s okay. It’s Littlehampton, it’s on the south coast of the UK. It’s very nice.
BE: I had it in my head that you were still in the States, but I guess that tour is done now.
GT: We got back two days ago.
BE: I kept hoping you guys would play Lollapalooza, that you’d slip in at the last minute.
GT: You know, we’d love to do it, but no, not this year. Maybe next year.
BE: Well, let’s talk about the record. I’m trying to spot the differences, and I must say you did a grand job recapturing these songs. Well done.
GT: (Chuckles) Well, thank you. It’s a labor of love. I think it’s the hardest record I’ve ever been involved with. When we first started, it wasn’t going to be a record. It was just going to be something we could use to offer up for licensing for movies or adverts or something, just so we had a little bit of control back over what we’ve done, because we have no control over the originals. They’re with Universal, and Universal have not bothered with us at all. That’s what it started off being, but as we got more and more involved with it, it became apparent that it’s gotta be really good. The original records had a lot of spark, and trying to recreate something like that is a weird science, you analyze everything in a way that you don’t when you’re creating something. So a lot of effort and energy went into it, and then at certain points you have to decide, like with “Black Coffee in Bed,” some things have changed in that version, but I prefer this version to the original. I think it’s better. So in a way, you get to rewrite history, which is a pleasant thing that not everyone gets a chance to do.
BE: You did an interview a while back with one of our colleagues, Will Harris, and you told him that Domino is your first record since 1980 that turned a profit. Knowing that, Spot the Difference suddenly makes perfect sense.
GT: Yeah. From Domino onwards, it was obvious to me that the old model was broken, and in fact it hadn’t worked for years for Squeeze. What big labels do really well, if they’re behind you, is get you noticed, and hopefully get you selling records. And we’d been in that space for a while. But for a much longer time, we operated in a space where we were spending big money but never seeing any return, because for whatever reason it didn’t happen. We were always outside of the mainstream. So from Domino on, we said, ‘Well, let’s accept that. We’re not mainstream’ – I always thought we sounded mainstream, but we never made that crossing – so in a way, that’s been wonderfully liberating. I’ve far more enjoyed my career since ’98 when I did before, because we’re our own bosses. Say, for instance, now I think we’ve got the best band we’ve ever had. We sound sparkier, we sound more lively, everything is in place now in a way that’s amazing. I never thought we’d get to this stage and sound like this. I’m proud of us, and it feels great. Weirdly enough, this tour we just finished, I think is the best we’ve ever had, and it feels great to be able to say that now. We’re in a really special place.
BE: You answered my question about licensing, because I had a feeling that was the reason you chose the songs that you did to re-record. So now you have an album to market to soundtrack supervisors and advertisers, but now comes the tricky part: how do you market this album to the fans who have already bought these songs?
GT: I don’t know. All I can say is if you know the songs, you’ll be surprised to hear them again. I’ve got two comparisons with Spot the Difference. The first is what Brian Wilson did with Smile. There’s an old piece of music that they lovingly assembled and stitched together, and it works, absolutely totally as a work of art. What we’ve done with Spot the Difference is we’ve retraced our steps, but it also works as a record by itself, as a standalone thing. On some songs, like “Loving You Tonight,” or “Some Fantastic Place,” and “Black Coffee,” I think we’ve improved on the originals. I heard a version of “Moving Up” by Curtis Mayfield, and I was about halfway through listening to it, and I thought, “This isn’t the original.” And it was a weird feeling, because it wasn’t the original, but it was really sparky and inspired. It’s great. I grew up buying compilations with dead cover versions by uninspired people of songs that they’d once recorded, and they gave re-records a bad name. I feel like us, and Brian Wilson and Curtis Mayfield, we’re back to reclaim the high ground.
BE: The band’s most two most elaborately produced albums, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti and Play, are not represented on Spot the Difference. I was wondering if that was by coincidence or by design, since I can see where recreating those songs would be a little daunting.
GT: Yeah. Daunting and…you know, it’s something I’m thinking long and hard about now. Psychologically, it’s hard doing re-records, you know. It’s hard to analyze your own work in that way, and it feels a little bit weird while you’re involved in the process. It’s only towards the end where you think, “Yeah, we’ve really cracked this, we’ve nailed it.” I think if I lived in a world of just doing re-records, I’d eventually go mad, and cease to have any contact with sanity whatsoever. Right now, I’m fired up about Spot the Difference, but I’m really fired up about Squeeze doing some new stuff. We’ve taken our time about that. I think the four years that we’ve been together, we’ve been really great to our back catalog, and Spot the Difference is part of that process. Now, in the fourth year of being together, we’ve become a proper band. It’s the sort of thing where you can put a great lineup together and everyone can play well, but there’s another intangible that happens when you play together for a while, and that is you go beyond that, a chemistry…it’s like when you cook, and the flavors melt together, and then you add heat, and that turns it into something different. That’s what’s happened with Squeeze, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a proper band, and it’s going to be creative and meaningful as well as honor our past.
BE: So you guys are plotting some new material, then.
GT: Absolutely, yeah.
BE: When can the fans expect to hear something?
GT: We’re planning two albums at the moment with Squeeze. One of them will be an album of totally new material, and we’re going to do an album of songs that Chris and I wrote in 1974. In the first three years that we wrote together, we wrote a lot of stuff, and we bypassed a lot of it because we wrote more stuff. Any time that Squeeze had recorded, we recorded the most recent songs that we had done. So we have a lot of material. A friend of mine uncovered a tape of this musical that we wrote in 1974 that I remembered, but I hadn’t heard it in ages. And I’m really proud of it, I think it’s a great set of songs. So I want us to record that, because we’d never recorded them in the first place, besides when we taped them in a rehearsal room. That’s sparky and got a lot of life to it, too. I think it’ll be great to approach from two different ends of the spectrum; two albums of new material, one of them written in 1974, and one written in 2010.
BE: That’ll be interesting to hear the contrast in the songwriting.
GT: Yeah, absolutely. All the elements are in place on the earlier one, and now of course you have all these added layers of sophistication that you get as you get older…hopefully. (Laughs)
BE: On a personal note, you should know that Play basically saved my life.
GT: (Stunned) Wow.
BE: I was going through a hellacious breakup, and that album was extremely comforting to me. I know it didn’t sell a lot of records, but I’m so glad you guys made it.
GT: You know, a man who’s subsequently become my best friend said exactly the same thing to me! He was going through a divorce at that same time, and said, “Play, it just got me through.” Wow, that is really weird. What a weird coincidence. ‘Cause not that many people heard the record anyway, and that’s one of our best records, I think.
BE: I totally agree. I was living in Boston when it came out, and for what it’s worth, Play got substantial support from the local modern rock station.
GT: Oh, cool!
BE: They played “The Day I Get Home,” “Crying in My Sleep”…they played a bunch of stuff from that record, actually.
GT: Wow. Where do you live now?
BE: I’m in Columbus, Ohio. You came through with Cheap Trick in July.
GT: Yeah, that was our first date.
BE: How were those gigs with Cheap Trick and the English Beat?
GT: Amazing. I feel like it’s the best tour we’ve ever done. The reactions we were getting were just incredible. It was like how I remember it was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when we were in America; the reactions we’d get were really strong. And there’s a whole new generation that were [at the concerts] that have never seen us before, going absolutely nuts. It’s really great, it’s fantastic.
BE: I talked to [English Beat singer] Dave Wakeling last year. He’s a stitch.
GT: He’s lovely. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s nutty as well. (Laughs)
BE: Let’s get back to Spot the Difference for a second. What songs did you consider for the album that didn’t make the final cut?
GT: None. We just picked out a set of tracks…Spot the Difference was done over the last three years, in three batches. We picked them out as we went along, and we really didn’t give it that much thought. We just thought, “That one, that one, that one, that one.” We missed out on a few that we should have done, but we weren’t thinking really straight. I think it was a random selection, ‘let’s dive in and do those.’
BE: You’ve got John Bentley back in the band for the first time in a while.
GT: Yes, I just went out to lunch with him, actually.
BE: After being bounced from the reformed Squeeze back in 1985, were there any hard feelings on his part over that?
GT: I met up with John about a year before we got back together, and I hadn’t seen him in about 20 years. Chris and I did a book, which came out in 2004, “Song by Song,” and in that book I said, “I think we did a great disservice to John Bentley, we didn’t realize how much he contributed, and his parts are great.” I’m glad I said that, because that’s how I feel, you know? And John read the book, and came to see me on one of the solo gigs I was doing, and he’s remarkably without bitterness. That made me feel so humble, and stupid. And all I could say was, “I’m really sorry about how we treated you.” And the next year, we get Squeeze back together, and it’s a no-brainer, you know? Let’s get John. And from day one, it’s just been great. Obviously, Chris, John and I have all that history together, and weirdly enough, with Stephen [Large, keyboardist] and Simon [Hanson, drummer], bringing them in from [Tilbrook’s solo backing band] the Fluffers, we had an alternative history. I went through the whole thing with starting again, we slept on people’s floors in the States, you know. We had a tour in my RV where we broke down all the time. So when I started again, they were there. By the time we came together as this Squeeze, we’d all had history of some sort – at least with me – and now in the fourth year, it’s become a proper band. We had our own history, and that larger history has joined up to become a fantastic unit. I’m so proud of it. With the Fluffers, I felt that was the best band I’d worked with, and now Squeeze is that. That’s a great position to be in.
BE: There’s a graph on Wikipedia of all the people that have come and gone through Squeeze…
GT: (Bursts out laughing)
BE: …you guys are the new wave Yes. It is awesome to look at.
GT: I’m going to have a look at that. I haven’t seen it.
BE: When you were going back and analyzing some of those tracks that you re-recorded, did you listen to the long vocal runs on songs like “Another Nail in My Heart” and “Hourglass,” and think, “Uh oh”?
GT: One of the things is, and you touched on this briefly, Cosi Fan and Play had very involved production, and basically, with the exception of Frank – and Babylon and On – we had stacks of gear in the control room. “Hourglass,” we played it live, and then we overdubbed and overdubbed on it, and I can remember what Eric Thorngren, who co-produced the record with me, I can remember what he did with the mixes, genius. So you had to create delays that were bouncing across the speakers, and all that trickery. Honestly, to me, doing that mix was like playing a computer game, trying to analyze how to get to the next level. And when we cracked it, it was pretty funny.
BE: Have you heard of an Australian band called IceCream Hands?
GT: No, I have not.
BE: They wrote a song called “Yellow and Blue” that is basically a tribute to “Another Nail in My Heart.” He redoes your vocal run in the verses. It’s not the same key, but it’s the exact same progression.
GT: This isn’t my computer, so I don’t know how to make a note of that, because I want to make a note of that. I’d love to hear it.
BE: You got Paul Carrack to come back and sing on “Tempted,” but he doesn’t sing “Loving You Tonight.”
GT: Actually, can I correct you on that, what we did was we did two versions. Paul has a version, the same track with him singing. That one, we decided to go a little bit left field on, and play about with it a bit more. So it’s not exactly like the original, but the more we did to it, the more it sounded contemporary. And I thought, it’d be great to have Paul sing it, but I quite like singing it, so we can take it out live, and it sounds amazing. That’s not out of any disrespect for Paul’s vocal, because Paul’s vocal is brilliant. [Goes back to the IceCream Hands topic] Can you tell me about that track again, what it’s called and who it’s by? (At this point, Glenn pecks out the band name and title like a man who uses one finger per hand to type. Thunk, thunk, thunk…)
BE: I saw the tour you did with Paul in 1993. That was pretty sweet hearing you guys do “How Long” from Ace.
GT: Yeah! Paul’s brilliant. He’s the only guy in Squeeze besides Stephen Large, who’s with us now, to have funk/R&B element to his playing, plus Paul has the most gorgeous voice. And on top of that, he’s an absolutely lovely man. It was great to work with Paul again. Paul’s carved out a pretty great solo career for himself here and in Europe. I was talking to him, sort of fishing around, and I think we’ll do something together again.
BE: That’s fantastic. A friend of mine saw the Beachland Ballroom gig that you wrote about.
GT: (Laughs) Well, that’s a pretty special place. And regrettably we played the House of Blues on this tour. (Exhales giant breath of frustration) Cindy [Barber] and Mark [Leddy], who run that place, I put my feelings in the song, they’re desperate to make a living doing something they love, and that’s a position I identify strongly with, particularly at that time.
BE: Do you remember the show you did with Marshall Crenshaw at Park West in Chicago?
GT: Yes, I do.
BE: When you came out into the audience and sang “Goodbye Girl” standing on two chairs, you were directly in front of me. I wanted to say thanks for that, because that was a hell of a way to end the show.
GT: (Laughs) That was fun, I really enjoyed that show. That was a great show. Well, I enjoyed it, at least. I’m not saying it was a great show, but it was fun.
BE: You were apologizing for your voice, even though you sounded fine to us.
GT: Oh, that’s good. I had some voice problems at that point. I was still smoking then. Not now. I was hypnotized. It was fantastic. I haven’t smoked since.
BE: (Originally thinking he was joking) You’re serious?
GT: Yeah, yeah, I was hypnotized into stopping four years ago. I was up to 40 a day, non-tipped, I know, it was a stupid thing to do. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop, so I went to see a hypnotist with a pack of cigarettes in my pocket, fully expecting to light up as soon as I went out. And I got out of this thing and walked down the street, and thought, “I can have a cigarette now.” And then I thought, “No.” And I haven’t had one since. It’s amazing that they can do that.
BE: I’ve heard that baritones will smoke just to keep their voices low, but someone with a tenor like yours…
GT: Stupid, it was just stupid. But my voice is a lot better now.
BE: I love the video of you and Nik Kershaw in a busking competition.
GT: (Laughs) Yeah!
BE: Had you even met before doing that?
GT: It was one of those things where we met in the studio afterwards. I felt sorry for him, because I was used to doing that sort of thing. My solo career consisted of grabbing attention in any way I could. If I had been me 10 years before, I would have been horrified at the thought of doing that, because I only knew how to get up on stage with a new album to promote. There was a lot of stuff I had to learn on that downward curve. And it was really good for me to learn, but I felt sorry for him, because he didn’t know how to do that, and I did. And it’s not like I made a tremendous amount of money anyway. But I did better than him because I could approach people.
BE: Well, you were throwing in Beatles covers, and he was just playing “The Riddle.” And I love that song, but the minor key aspect of it…
GT: Yeah, it would be like if I had chosen to do songs from Play, staring at my shoes.
GT: It’s just not going to work, as much as I love it, and am proud of it.
BE: You’ve been more than generous with your time, so I’ll let you get back to the beach. Thanks for talking with us, and I look forward to new material in the new year.GT: Thanks, David, Bye.