Q&A with Glenn Tilbrook, lead singer of Squeeze

Squeeze will perform at the Academy of Music in Northampton on Feb. 24


(Photo courtesy of Squeeze)

By Matt Berg, Collegian Correspondent

After stealing money out of his mother’s purse in 1973, Chris Difford placed an advertisement in the window of a candy shop in London for a guitarist to join his band. He wasn’t in a band at the time.

Young and hopeful, Difford’s effort led to the creation of one of the most iconic duos of the ‘80s when Glenn Tilbrook responded to the ad, the only person to do so. Together, the pair formed Squeeze, a new wave band that shaped the decade with their 1981 masterpiece “East Side Story” and hits including “Tempted,” “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction.”

As their career was gaining momentum, the pair were hailed as “the heirs to Lennon and McCartney’s throne.” Combining witty lyricism with innovative synths, the band laid the groundwork for the future of pop music. Although not as prominent as The Beatles front men, Squeeze’s contribution to music as they headed the Second British Invasion during the early ‘80s is indisputable.

Glenn Tilbrook spoke with the Collegian from his home in London about the band’s legacy, John Lennon’s death and his touring in the 80s. Squeeze will perform at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton on Feb. 24. Tickets can be purchased here.

Matt Berg: Other than the Velvet Underground influence that the band drew its name from, I hear some Beatles, Kinks and maybe Zombies in your music. Who are some of your other influences?

Glenn Tilbrook:You know, it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t look for music that I grew up with, which is ‘60s music. I absolutely adore cheerful pop music, and that stuck with me throughout my life. Right now, I’m really into Kate Tempest, Stormzy. I’m into people that tell stories, and it seems like hip hop is the place that it happens the most.

MB: You guys were part of the new wave music and have been lumped into a bunch of other genres. How have you seen your influence in music today?

GT: Every now and then people will cover our stuff, and it’s a lovely compliment. One of the things I think about that is exciting today is artists are less informed by genre. I think that’s a good thing, you know. In a way, only listening to radio stations will sometimes narrow your taste because they give you more of what you want to hear. I always liked being surprised by different things, and that seeps its way into what Squeeze does.

MB: Was the band really started when Chris stole money out of his mother’s purse to place an ad for band members?

GT: Well if that’s what he says, then I’ve got to believe it. Jools Holland and I had been playing together for about 10 months before I met Chris, and when I met Chris we clicked instantly. We were both writing songs individually, and we started writing together. Suddenly we were writing tons of stuff. We spent about three years doing very little else while we were writing. It was a great way to get our relationship going.

MB: Four producers were originally slated to be on board the making of “East Side Story,” including Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. McCartney fell through, but what was it like to be working with such accomplished musicians?

GT: Well I would’ve loved to have McCartney on, but the scheduling on it never really came off. We did do some stuff with Nick Love…Dave Edmunds was great. But Elvis Costello really gave us a momentum in the studio; we had like two weeks to do “East Side Story,” something like that. We were just banging tracks out and it was great.

MB: Halfway through when you were producing “East Side Story,” John Lennon died. What was it like in the studio that day?

GT: We arrived at the studio in the morning, and the news had been on the radio. We’re five hours ahead of New York. We woke up to the news that he was dead, and no one felt like working. It just was the oddest day. So, we did indeed go to the pub and drown our sorrows. You know when something like that happens, with how massive the Beatles were, they’re still in my mind the biggest and most creative band that there ever was. Lots of great stuff has happened since then, but for the sustained, creative momentum, they take the biscuit every time for me.

MB: It’s been almost 40 years since your biggest albums. Do you have any songs or performances that you’re particularly fond of?

GT: There are different eras of Squeeze. Up until “East Side Story,” I think that defines one era when we were growing as a band. We had all that youthful energy, and we somehow managed to make it work. Much of “East Side Story” is so fast, it’s madly fast, but it represents who we were. Now we have more control and more experience, so I’ll never try and be that band back then. That would be absolutely a mental thing to do. What we are now I think is the best Squeeze to represent all our songs. We can play songs now that we could never play back in the day, and that’s a really great feeling. We’re at the top of our game.

MB: As I was listening to your most recent album, I noticed a lot of political references and themes. How has the political climate in England shaped your music lately?

GT: One of the things that I thought to myself very clearly was that if there was a time to get political, it felt like that was the right time for Squeeze. My country is going through a very strange time I think, and there’s a lot of polarization and there’s a lot of people shouting at each other. I wish it weren’t that way, but it is. I think we’ll get through it.

MB: Your voice and Chris’s voice have stayed remarkably similar to how they were back then. There’s a lyric from “Bang Bang” in 1978 that goes, “Staying younger by the day / My good looks will never fade away.” How do you think it has held up?

GT: Well, speaking for myself, I’m certainly a little more chubby than I used to be. But we’re a great force on stage. The band is at the top of its game. We haven’t been able to play this year yet, but last year’s tour was the best touring that we’ve done, ever, ever, ever. It feels so great to feel that were capable of doing that. The reaction from the audiences is what tells us we’re doing something really right.

MB: You guys toured extensively in the ‘80s. What’s it like touring now versus then?

GT: We toured the U.S. maybe five times before we got anywhere near a tour bus, so we were in a little van crisscrossing America and it’s a great way to see the space. It’s a great way to get to know each other and get in each other’s hair. I saw the diversity of America, and it was so great to finally see what it was all about. Once you start getting into buses and all of that, that was a different experience, wonderful. It feels like a different age now.

MB: If you had to, would you change anything about your musical career? Would you do anything different?

GT: I accept everything, you know, that has happened good and bad. I come from a very blue-collar background and I’ve been writing and performing all my life, and I can’t tell you how incredibly lucky I feel that that’s the case. We’ve worked hard, we’ve worked for it, but no one deserves anything. I feel grateful that we’re here now, honestly. It’s a privilege.

MB: As a college newspaper, many of our readers are aspiring musicians themselves. What advice would you give to college kids trying to make it in the music world?

GT: Be prepared for disappointment. Always follow your heart. Try and be true to the idea of what you want to do and be driven by passion, not anything else.

Matt Berg can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mattberg33.