Squeeze co-founder Glenn Tilbrook discusses his solo album — and life on the open road
Though hardly a household name in America, Glenn Tilbrook is responsible for some of the most memorable songs of the 1980s. As half of that decade’s version of Leiber & Stoller — Difford & Tilbrook — the singer/guitarist co-wrote classics like “Tempted,” “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell),” “Black Coffee in Bed,” and the early New Wave dance hit, “Cool For Cats” while playing in an unpretentious UK band by the name of Squeeze, which he and lyricist Chris Difford co-founded in 1974. Apart from their impressive discography, Squeeze was noted for, among other things, their ever-changing lineup of first-rate musicians (example — pianist Jools Holland joined and left twice, with Paul Carrack briefly filling in) and the fact that the band didn’t really catch on in America until — surprise, surprise — their posthumous compilation, Singles — 45’s and Under, was released in 1982. Squeeze re-formed several times over the next 16 years, producing some truly remarkable albums along the way; however, with the exception of an occasional hit here and there (the U.S.-charting single “Hourglass” among them), the band — in the midst of rapidly-shifting musical trends — failed to find the same audience they enjoyed in their turn-of-the-’80s heyday.
Few in the music business can outdo Glenn Tilbrook in the degrees-of-Kevin Bacon game; from his early association with Elvis Costello, John Cale, and Carlene Carter to his work with Paul Young, Robyn Hitchcock, and Mark Knopfler, Tilbrook’s portfolio is stupefyingly thick. For his latest endeavor, the Difford-less The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook (What Are Records?), the songwriter called upon some old friends — including Aimee Mann and Ron Sexsmith — to help create a gem of a recording. Filled with self-revelations, both heavy and light (he admits to loving The Monkees once in “G.S.O.H. Essential”) narratives (Tilbrook relates a terrifying encounter with Randy Newman) and spiced with a surprisingly intoxicating flavor of pop poetry, The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook is an engaging, delightful disc — and perhaps the beginning of another chapter in the singer’s long career. Abandoning all the trappings of rock stardom, Tilbrook decided to support his new record in the U.S. by taking his act on the road — literally. Recently, the very affable, very British, and very brilliant pop demi-god spoke to me via cell phone from an RV park in Malibu, California.
I read something last fall about a comedy of errors involving you and an RV. What happened?
I had set up this sponsorship deal… I had told everyone I knew about it, because I was very excited. So the concept was that I was going to tour in an RV, and a couple of people wanted to make a documentary on me. There was this classic scene — that I know is going to be the beginning of the film — of me arriving in America and meeting Bill, who fixed up the RV deal. We got off the plane after a really horrible journey, and saw Bill… I said, “Bill, it’s great to see you, how are you, mate?” And he said, “I’ve got to tell you something… the RV deal has fallen through.” [Laughs] It was a classic moment. I thought, “Oh, crikey… I guess we’ll have to get along without it.” Bill, then, very kindly set us up with another deal… we wound up buying an RV.
So you’re on your second “van tour”?
I think it might be my third tour… it is my third tour. I’m touring a lot now, because I can, and because I have the RV — which makes things so much nicer for me. I love touring anyway, but I love having my own home, where I can cook and all that sort of stuff that you don’t pay any attention to when you’re younger — like what you’re eating day-to-day.
So much of this new album seems introspective, or at least retrospective. Combine that with this extended road trip, and one might think that you’re having a mid-life crisis.
[Laughing] I can only answer that by saying that if I were experiencing a mid-life crisis, I wouldn’t be aware of it… no, as far as I know, I’m not experiencing a mid-life crisis, and I’m not in denial about it. Certainly, I’ve gone through some things that haven’t been great — the breakup of my marriage, and other things. All that stuff can’t help from being involved with doing what I do, because what I do involves spending a certain amount of time away from home. On the other hand, that’s what happens — you can’t have everyone in your family travelling with you all of the time; so, out of that bad situation, there’s things that I really don’t like – but I’m really having a good time, because I really enjoy playing live.
So this is a solo “busking” tour?
[Chuckles] If you’d like, sure. It’s a solo resume of my entire career, of whatever that may be — but it isn’t planned.
It must have been challenging, translating some of these intricate songs into a solo performance.
It’s something that I’m learning about all of the time, actually. There are some things that don’t work, so I just don’t play ’em; there are other things that work great, and there are others that I need to experiment with. One of the things that I’ve discovered — and that I love — is finding out about the use of light and shade within the guitar, because I’m used to controlling that with a band. That’s been a great thing to learn. Also, communication is something that I’ve learned a lot about over… I’ve been doing solo shows for about eight or nine years now, when Squeeze wasn’t working. Towards the end of Squeeze, I said to Chris, “Why would it be that I can talk (to the audience) when I’m by myself, but when I’m with the band, I don’t feel comfortable talking during the show?” We had a sort of different outlook about the sort of things we should say, and that led us to not say a lot, because of the way our personalities were together. That’s not a criticism; that’s just the way things were. Free of that constraint, I talk quite a lot, and I like it.
You must have had some wild adventures on the open road.
I like the fact that it’s us against the environment. We’ve got an RV that’s 13 years old — it’s always the oldest kid on the block when we get into an RV park. I’ve learned a lot about mechanics over the last year, from being a “wussie” sort of “rock person” that didn’t know anything about these things; I wouldn’t claim that I can get under the bonnet and fix any problem, but I’ve definitely gained a lot of knowledge. And, in doing so, I’ve gotten a certain amount of self-esteem as a “normal person,” and I like that feeling. I like the driving, and I like seeing the country, it’s fantastic — I’ve seen so much of it in the last year. The single most challenging moment for me was in Texas, when we were there in October. They were having some really wild, stormy winds; we were driving along the freeway… we had an awning on the side of the van that not only fell down, but fell down and then blew off in one rather explosive movement — it sounded like the side of the van had exploded. It blew off into a field. It was one of those moments — it was both awful and hysterically funny. We don’t have an awning anymore, anyway.
Isn’t it something, how Randy Newman can go from a controversial, misunderstood songwriter to a beloved, Academy Award-winning singer of children’s songs?
Yeah, but didn’t you think his acceptance speech was great? I didn’t even know about it until a week afterwards.
In regards to your song, “Interviewing Randy Newman”… were you interviewing him for a magazine?
No, for the radio…for an hour-long special on BBC Radio. I’d been asked to present the show and do the interview with him, which was something I was really looking forward to doing, because I’m a great admirer of his work. Really, what the song is about is something that has only happened to me twice — having a panic attack. It was very strange, because I had no warning that was going to happen. I wasn’t nervous beforehand; I would have had a list of questions, but I felt so confident about it, I didn’t have any [prepared]. So, when my “panic attack” came, there was no backup, I didn’t have a safety net. So I just bumbled around for an hour with him, and it was truly awful; I felt so embarrassed, and he was very kind and sweet to me.
When did this debacle take place?
It was ’98 or so.
Has Newman tried to get in touch with you about this song?
No, he hasn’t contacted me, and that’s quite fine by me. [Chuckles] It was one of those things… the song is my way of saying “sorry,” anyway.
This new track, “Other World,” it’s quite amazing… but I see that you didn’t write the music for it.
I didn’t write any of it.
What was your reason for including it on the album?
I included it because…it was a song that I heard Nick Harper play. I thought it was a great song; I hadn’t thought at all about including any covers, but as soon as I heard that one, I knew I wanted to record it — it’s a beautiful song. It was an inspiration for me, I made that one a benchmark — if I could make my songs anywhere near as good as that one, I’d be happy.
Are you singing it on this tour?
I certainly am.
I was watching your old friend Elvis Costello’s video for “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” the other day, and I thought, “No matter how brilliant he is, Costello would never get signed if he was just starting now — he’s not photogenic.”
Not to say Squeeze was uncool, but you definitely didn’t have the image, “the look” — the leather pants, big hair, and all that. Do you think that was one of the reasons why you were slow to catch on in America?
Yeah, I do. I think the “character” of the group was that we were a set of individuals… I think our personalities made sure that we could never settle on anything that could be construed as an “image” — and I single myself out more than anyone else as being guilty of that. Then, it was hard enough… now, I don’t think we would get signed, in a comparable situation today. I think it’s harder for younger bands now. Image and sex, all that stuff has been important in music, but now… it’s hard for new bands, because major labels want something that’s fully formed and developed. We had a chance to grow as a group, and that’s a great thing. I don’t think a lot of people are given that space now, and that’s a shame.
Do you think that the major labels will ever embrace intelligent pop music again?
They’ll embrace anything that they can make money off of, really. The single worst thing that has happened to major labels and music, in my mind, is the discovery of what spending a lot of money on a record could do. I’ve read a lot about this over the last few days, how our records once upon a time sold one or two million [copies]; to discover how to sell ten or twenty million, that would take an incredible amount of resources. So, you get fewer and fewer records being “targeted” for that treatment; you have all these people trying to make records worthy of that treatment — the trickle-down effect is that you get these records all sounding the same. All these people are trying to create “that sound” — whatever “that sound” is — and it takes away from the artists’ individuality… it certainly doesn’t help a group just starting out.
It seems that your arrangement with What Are Records? (WAR) might be a happy compromise between putting a disc out yourself, and dealing with say, A&M?
I’m in a sort of ambiguous situation, really. I reached the conclusion, a long time ago, that I didn’t want to go back to a major label — not unless they would promise me all sorts of things that they are very unlikely to promise me. Squeeze ended up on a major label, and in the worst of both worlds — we were trying to make commercial records, and the less successful we got at making records that sold, the more other people would try and interfere and “fix” things; that becomes a very “unlovely” situation to be in. I don’t want to sound “artistic” and high-minded about it, but it does interfere with the way you make records, and it does interfere with the way that you write — and I really wanted to get away from that. So now, I’m in a situation where I can make exactly the record I want, and if a label doesn’t like it, I’ll go somewhere else. That’s very much the situation that I have with WAR, they have done a good job getting the record out. There’s no budget, to speak of, to get me on the radio; but, then again, there was no budget to get Squeeze on the radio for most of its career — so there’s no big change there. It’s about being on your own, and being able to do what you do… which is something I dearly, dearly wanted.
Who was your favorite Monkee?
[Chuckles] Because he was the funniest.
Squeeze had so many lineup changes… which musician, besides Chris and yourself, had the biggest impact on the group’s success?
Oh, that’s easy. That’s Gilson Lavis. Because of his approach to drumming… because of his age, actually. When he joined us in 1976, Gilson was 25-26, and we were 17-18; there was quite an age gap. This was a guy that had played with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis — guys that we had grown up listening to — and he had experience right across the board, doing stuff he liked, stuff that he hated. He really taught us about arrangements; before Gilson, if we wrote a song, we all just played it — and that was how it went. There was no thought as to how we could improve it, or how it might be different. Gilson gave us that depth, and he continued to give us that; also, his approach to playing the drums was unique — he was a very “musical” drummer, a jazz-influenced drummer with an element of swing about his playing that was very unique for people making music at that time — none of our contemporaries had that.
Being on the road so much, you must have time to discover — or re-discover — a lot of music that you wouldn’t have time for, otherwise.
My favorite album — and it’s been my favorite album for nearly a year now — is by a group called The Avalanches, called Since I Don’t Have You. It’s a sample-based record, which doesn’t sound like the kind of record that I’d like, but it’s a great record. It’s so hooky, catchy… they like “songs,” so they have songs that they’ve constructed out of things.
Out of samples, plus they play [instruments]… I’ve seen them play live, they’re brilliant. Who Is Jill Scott? is something I’ve been playing as well. Let me see, my mind’s gone blank… oh, one thing I’ve gone back to recently is an Atlantic boxed set of the early R&B stuff that they did in the late ’40s/early ’50s. It’s fantastic.
I’ve read a lot of comparisons between you and Chris and Lennon and McCartney, but no mention of the strong R&B influence that one or both of you must have been under at one time.
I think we both were, but I probably stayed with it longer than Chris — I think he went off into a different direction. Yeah, I really love that stuff a lot… there’s certain sorts of music that, no matter how much I like it, I don’t really want to go back and listen to that often — a lot of the ’60s pop music, I think that way about. Though I think it’s great, it’s like I’ve heard it enough, do you know what I mean? With old R&B, though, there’s a certain depth to it.
Has Jools Holland ever invited you to be on his TV show?
Squeeze were on there once, in 1993.
But what about just you, a solo appearance?
No, not a solo appearance. His people said that my album wasn’t the sort of music they were looking for [chuckles].
Yet you had Jools’ brother Chris play on “This is Where You Ain’t”…
Yes, he did — it was great, actually. I was doing the solo for the song — this is at my studio in Blackheath (a section of London), where I live and Jools and Chris live — and I went out to get a sandwich, and found Chris just walking by. I said, “Just come in the studio for fifteen minutes, I’ve got this song” — I can’t play the keyboards well… so we had everything set up, he came in and played the organ part, and was out in fifteen minutes.
While you were writing The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, were you ever tempted to call up your old partner when you got stuck on some part or another?
No… I think that both Chris and I realize that, in order for us to move on, we have to stay away from each other for a bit. We’ve had 25 years of working together, solidly — when Squeeze split up, we were still together. He and I need to establish some “distance” before we work together again… though we wrote a song together last year that either one of us may use.
Will there be another Squeeze reunion?
I don’t think any time soon; I don’t know if there’ll ever be one. It’s something that I would never shut the door on — I love Squeeze, but I can’t see any reason for us getting together, for the moment. I think we all want different things, and I think that would be the main reason for us not getting together. But things change — things change all the time, so….