By Ken Sharp
More than 35 years since first landing on U.S. soil and steadily building a devoted following on the wings of FM radio stalwarts, “Pulling Mussels From a Shell,” “If I Didn’t Love You,” “Tempted,” “Black Coffee in Bed,” Annie Get Your Gun” and “Hourglass,” Squeeze are back and they’ve clearly learned a thing or two after almost two decades of inactivity as a recording entity. “Cradle to the Grave,” based on the U.K. TV series, is the name of Squeeze’s first CD in almost 20 years. It’s a confident return to form for one of Britain’s most beloved bands and is ripe with clever wordplay, muscular vocals and the consummate melodic quirkiness that served as the defining hallmark of essential Squeeze long players like “Argy Bargy,” “Cool for Cats” and “East Side Story.” The esteemed songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook are at the top of their game, delivering a moving song cycle chronicling their own upbringing and formative years. No tired rehash of past glories, “Cradle to the Grave” is the vibrant work of a band looking toward the future with many more miles in their musical tank before they reach their final destination.
GM: How did the Cradle to the Grave TV series, which is based on the life of Danny Baker, serve as the creative spark behind the new Squeeze record?
Glenn Tilbrook: Well, because I read the book four years ago and thought what Danny was writing about was similar to mine and Chris’ lives. So I called Danny up and said, ‘We should do a musical of this; l I think this would be a really good thing for us to work on.” And he said, “Well, we’re doing a TV series.” I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s not gonna be a TV series in America. So anyhow, to answer your question, we started working on that and then it went quiet for a while. But what happened is the series provided the inspiration for the songs rather than being directly a part of it. They weren’t narrative songs that fit in with their scripts; they were standalone pieces.
GM: In the song “Sunny,” the lyrics “I was young and naïve and drifted around, but I followed my dream with music I found life Sunny…” When did that realization hit you that music could serving a healing force in your life?
GT: Well, I mean that song is really autobiographical, as you can imagine.
Certainly for me the first thing I remember was being enthralled by music. It’s very funny; I see it in my children now when they listen to music that they have the same thing, just being absolutely captivated by it. It could be anything; it could food, it could be art, it could be engineering. But it’s just that music hit me in such an emotional way, and it’s never stopped doing that for me.
GM: At what age did you come to the realization that you’re not going to be an accountant or lawyer, music is your own option?
GT: I think I always fancied it. It was always a serious thing and always the most important thing to me. It never really stopped being that when I grew up. Now besides my family life and all that stuff, it’s still the most important thing to me. It’s still the thing that gives me the most pleasure.
GM: When did you realize it was actually possible you could have a real career in music?
GT: Ummm … I don’t really know what the answer to that is. I always thought when I was really young that I was sure Squeeze would be successful. Then once we had a bit of success and it sort of faded away a bit, you’re always sort of trying to chase after that thing of it being as successful as it once was. In a weird way, we’ve never come close to our early sales, ever, but I always felt like we were doing something good. It’s really strange to be doing something now but it feels great; the new album feels like a proper Squeeze record to take its place alongside “East Side Story” and “Argy Bargy” and “Cool for Cats.”
GM: While the last two Squeeze albums, “Ridiculous” and “Domino,” were good records, “Cradle to the Grave” is a huge step above in terms of the quality of the writing. To what do you attribute that creative upsurge?
GT: You know, I think now for me the records I’ve been making in this century have been getting better and better for the most part. I feel very confident and I don’t feel worried about what other people will think of them. I’ve learned to be happy in the knowledge that I can entertain myself and then hopefully other people as well. I have to do it for myself.
GM: Were there times you weren’t doing it for yourself?
GT: No, I don’t think so, but when we were being A&R’ed with Squeeze toward the end of our career, I went along with all suggestions happily but it sort of ended up being a watered down version of what several people thought Squeeze should be, until the last record which we sort of made by ourselves. But now I’m 58 and I don’t really want to work with other people; I know what it should sound like. It was a joy to make this record and it was a joy to go into the studio knowing the way we’ll do it is to work out an arrangement and record it and then overdub minimally.
GM: As a songwriter in crafting the music for Squeeze and in your solo work, you can be counted upon to take the road less traveled with your selection of chords using songs like “Elephant Ride” and from the new record, “Open” and “Nirvana” as examples. What inspired your approach in terms of chord structures/melodies?
GT: I can’t really put my finger on it. I guess it’s the sum total of everything I’ve ever listened to. You never stop listening and you never stop learning. One of the things I’m learning now is how to be simple when it’s a good idea. There were times in my writing past where I think I’ve been too complicated. It’s come from loving and getting wrapped up in the musicality of it. For me, songwriting is the best amount of fun I can have, which is to sit down and put together something that feels really pleasing. I mean, like the chorus of “Open;” I’m in my studio now and I was sitting at the piano just across from where I am, and Chris was sitting where I am, and we wrote the song together. We were striving to get it right and we just worked at it and got it right and it felt natural.
GM: You and Chris were estranged for many years. Discuss how the mending of fences began and ultimately led to you writing together for the first time in many years.
GT: It was a slow process to get us going. I still to this day don’t know what makes Chris tick but what I do know is when we work together we bring out something in each other that isn’t there otherwise. It’s the history; we have so much history together. It’s a very strange thing; I don’t have any relationships that have lasted as long as mine and Chris’.
GM: What was the first song you wrote together after reconnecting?
GT: I think it was an early version of “Honeytrap.” I think that was the first one we wrote together and then we wrote “Cradle to the Grave” and “Tommy,” which later became “Sunny.” Those were done like four years ago. But Chris sort of disappeared after that so I did a record by myself and then we came back together again when this project was definitely happening. So it’s been a long time coming. We stuck at it this year; Chris and I spent the first three months writing and I think that’s what we’re gonna do again from January to March. We did the record in two halves; we recorded and mixed six tracks and then recorded the next six tracks and mixed them. On the first half of the record we had John Bentley on bass and he played brilliantly and it was very sad to see him go. Then Lucy Shaw came onboard and she brought something different to the table. So in a way the first half of the album dictated how the second half would be and they were quite different in character. But it all works together as a record; it all hangs together.
GM: Did you miss working with Chris through the years?
GT: I honestly can’t say that I did. (laughs) It’s a joy to work together with him now. I would never have chosen for us to split up when we did but that was Chris’ choice really, and then I had to learn about writing lyrics myself and I’m glad I did. I can now bring some of those things to the table and it makes me stronger as a writer. It makes us better. The stuff that Chris has done; he’s written some incredible songs with other people. It’s really good. We’re at a better place as writers than we ever have been.
GM: “Sunny” is one of the standouts on the album, a string quartet-driven number and was originally a song called “Tommy.” With its lyrics referencing “Trying to play like Jimi Hendrix behind my back and with my teeth,” is that about you?
GT: Yeah, the lyric is an amalgamation of me and Chris. It’s both of us. Yeah, but that line you mentioned, that is specifically me. Hendrix was a big influence on me growing up and still is to this day. He was such a great songwriter, melodically he was really gifted. He was very unsure of his own talent as far as his songwriting, but he was great.
GM: Given his incredible ability as a guitar player, his work as a gifted songwriter is overlooked?
GT: Yeah, absolutely. I do think that. He was such an amazing guitarist and you don’t have to look further than that, but when you do there’s such a lot to be found.
GM: I hear his influence on you in the context of Squeeze on the guitar solo for “Some Fantastic Place.”
GT: Oh yeah. Without a doubt, he’s there. I wish I could play like that, I never had the vibrato thing; I’m still working on that. But the spirit of that is like Hendrix on that song.
GM: You and Chris have just come off touring in the States on the “The At Odds Couple Tour.” In what way do the clear differences in your personalities and outlook in the way you see the world worked in your creative partnership?
GT: You know I don’t even know how it works. (laughs) There’s a lot of love and respect that we have for each other and what we both do, but beyond that, I don’t know what makes it work. I don’t know what it is. What I do know is we’ve got a great band and it’s a joy to sit down and work out the songs with them and put the tracks down and go on to the next one.
GM: Not counting the new CD, what stands out as the Squeeze album which ticks all the boxes for you?
GT: I’m gonna go out on a limb here and choose the “Cool for Cats” album. I’ll tell you why; besides the soul thing which arrived later with Paul Carrack joining the band, at that point we were less sure of what we were so we were doing electronic stuff and we were doing pop and really experimenting. The longer a band goes on the harder it is to do that, except actually now we’re right back there again with experimenting. But “Cool for Cats” was the first album we ever did that really expressed what we could do and I’m very fond of it.
GM: Away from music, what would make up a perfect day for Glenn Tilbrook?
GT: I love walking; I love going on long walks with my dog. I also love cooking. I’m absolutely mad about cooking. It’s one of the things I miss when I’m on the road, which is being able to cook for myself. My specialty is Spanish seafood reduction, which takes about eight hours to cook but it works it’s absolutely perfect. There’s nothing quite like putting together a really complicated meal and pulling it off. It’s like making a record. (laughs) GM