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Chris Difford is out with his songwriting partner of 50 years, Glenn Tilbrook, dusting off the hits they know their fans are there to hear while planning to record two very different projects when they come in off the road.
One is an album of new material they haven’t finished writing. The other is a batch of songs that date back to the early days of Squeeze, before they’d even hit the studio with John Cale of the Velvet Underground to cut their first releases.
Difford checked in via Zoom to talk about the new recordings, touring with the Psychedelic Furs and more in advance of their upcoming concert in Phoenix on Oct. 10.
50th anniversary tour with the Psychedelic Furs has been 'amazing'
How does it feel to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Squeeze?
It’s quite amazing, really. The concerts we've been doing throughout America have been filled to capacity. And what strikes me is we're getting a younger and younger audience.
Is touring with the Psychedelic Furs what you expected?
I didn't know what to think at the beginning. I was kind of scratching my head wondering where the two would meet. But actually, we meet right in the middle, and it works. They're a really good band. Nice people. What’s not to like, really? And when I hear their songs, it takes me back to a pretty pleasant time.
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How Squeeze unearthed an album's worth of songs from 50 years ago
I understand you have two albums in the works?
We wrote some songs in 1974, which we've never recorded. I think there's 10, maybe 12. Our plan, I think, is to record those sometime next year, and also our first new songs in maybe four or five years. It’ll be interesting. It's a lot of work to record two albums, but hopefully we'll have the time.
I heard your recent single, “Food For Thought.” Is that a good sign of where the new material is headed?
It's difficult to tell. Glenn is sort of very ambidextrous musically. He can stretch in all different directions. So that may be one tone. But there will be other tones, I'm sure.
These 50-year-old songs, did you have demos?
A couple years ago, we discovered a cassette with them on and a good friend of ours had a cassette as well. So they survived. And when I listen to them now, I hear young men, very ambitious, striking out musically and lyrically in a way which was extraordinary for our age, I think. I’d say the music was very inspired by Sparks in those days. Possibly Queen even. It’s kind of an interesting mixture of songs. Lyrically, they tell a story. But they're quite juvenile in a way. I kind of like that. I don't want to mess with that, because I think it would give away the history of those songs.
Chris Difford on working with the Velvet Underground's John Cale
Why have these songs never surfaced?
They were written pre-record company, pre-management. And when we first went into record with John Cale, he advised us to leave everything behind that we'd written and start new. That was quite challenging for us because we were very proud of what we'd written. But he didn't like the pop side of Squeeze. He wanted us to be a bit raw. And by hook or by crook, he managed to make us sound quite raw. The first album tells the story of John Cale and how he kind of kicked the band into different corners of the ring.
That first EP is pretty raw, too.
Yeah, I love it. The sound is amazing. And thank God for John Cale, because I think the pop songs we'd written were very sweet-sounding and would have given us a very light lift at the beginning.
How did you come to find yourselves working with Cale?
He was being looked after by Miles Copeland at the time, and Miles was looking after us. It was just like, "Yeah, let's put these two together and see what happens." It was frightening, you know, to work with somebody as mad as him (laughs). It was an experience. And I'm glad it happened.
Did it make sense to you when they suggested him?
I was a massive Velvet Underground fan. So to work with John Cale was like, "Wow, this is incredible." I had all his solo albums, so I knew what the production would sound like. And I was excited.
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Punk was having its moment in England as you were starting out. Did you feel inspired by that scene?
You couldn't help but be inspired by it because the energy of the music had changed on radio. Whenever you would go into a London club, the music would be fierce and different. I think it gave everybody, all the bands that I know from that time, an energy that they may not have had. And it put them on a stage where they could be exciting and dangerous. I'm really glad that came along and whipped things up. I think every now and again, that kind of musical philosophy is useful. I don't hear it so much these days.
I read an interview with Glenn where he said you really connected with the energy of Dr. Feelgood.
Yeah, we toured with them. It was a big inspiration. They had a very unique energy. You know, radio was brilliant in those days. The internet seems to have swallowed up good taste, in some ways.
Was there a point at which you felt you hit your stride?
There were dips and curves in our career. One minute you would feel that and the next minute, you would feel kind of dumped. But when MTV came along, it gave bands a completely different outlet. It meant that we could hop from college radio to television in America. That was amazing for Squeeze.
What do you recall about those early US tours?
I remember people really not bothered about seeing Squeeze. They sort of came out of curiosity. Music fans in those days were more into ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Styx. To have five skinny guys from South London come play 20 pop songs in one show, it was a bit much for everybody, including us.
Do you have a favorite album or era of Squeeze?
They're all like ex-girlfriends. I've got different feelings for them all. But I don't want to sleep with any of them anymore. I guess the "Play" album has an incredible charm. The production is beautiful. The musicianship is incredible. When I listen to that album, it takes me back to an incredible jumping-off point in my life.
Did you expect ‘Babylon and On’ to be as big of a record as it was here?
When we put a record out, I don't really have expectations. I just put one foot in front of another and hope it does well. And I don't get disappointed if it doesn’t. In recent years, we've recorded two albums. One was successful, the other wasn't. But it was kind of successful in the fact that we'd actually written new songs. It's weird, when you think about what is a record these days for a band like Squeeze? We go on tour playing virtually our greatest hits. And it goes down extremely well. I think that the audience aren’t interested in us recording a new album.
How finding time to be creative is different after 50 years of Squeeze
Do you enjoy making records?
I'm not really a studio person. I'm not big on sitting around moving drums around and stuff like that. I like instantaneous recording. We did a session a few years ago where we just set up in a room and recorded four songs in a day. To me, that was great fun. Because you're capturing the here and now and the emotions. Even if things are not quite right, it doesn't matter. As long as you've got the harmony of the musicians and the sort of nuts and bolts of a good song, that's what represents a good band, really.
Do you still enjoy the creative process?
I do write a lot, lyrically. And yeah, I do enjoy it. It's not like, I suppose, at the beginning when there was nothing to do but write songs and sit on the floor and listen to records because you're a teenager and you've got nothing else to distract you. As you get older, there's many more distractions. There's family, there's mobile phones, there's travel, whatever. To be able to sit down and write requires an incredible amount of discipline for me. I love it once I find it. But it doesn't often come.
Has the way you write with Glenn evolved?
I used to give Glenn lyrics, and he would write the music, he'd demo the songs, we'd record them, and that would be it. We wouldn't discuss anything. We'd just do it. On the last two albums, Glenn has contributed lyrically. "Food for Thought" was, I'd say, 90% his lyric. And of course, it was his music, too. When I do my own thing outside of Squeeze, I have total control.
Do you have a preference between total control and collaboration?
The thing about collaborating, it's a bit like dancing with somebody. You've got to be able to trust them to move in the right direction. Otherwise, you just fall on the floor. At least that's how I feel. I'm happy to write with other people and accept the fact that my lyrics may change and they may not. That’s just part of the musical dance.
'I looked out at the audience and just wanted to cry'
When you talk about giving Glenn lyrics and being prepared for whatever he comes back with, were there times where he brought something back, and you were like, 'Oh, man, I don't know about this?’
There were times when I was enormously jealous of the way that he would take the lyric and make something that I didn't really like at the time. In retrospect, I look back on those songs and think, actually, that was genius that I couldn't see. Because at the time, I was so inside myself, I couldn't see outside. I'm much more appreciative of experimentation than I used to be. There would be some songs where I'd go, "Ooh, I'm not sure about that." But now I'm nearly 70 years old. When I look back across the forest of songs that we've written, I don't have any complaints.
It's a pretty great forest. What's the best part of being in Squeeze at this point?
I have to say this tour, I've found extraordinarily tiring. Because I'm getting older, I guess. And I've got to accept that being on the tour bus and only getting four hours sleep a night is not healthy. You sort of lie around all day. But then you go on stage for 75 minutes. Last night, we were playing Chicago, and I looked out at the audience and just wanted to cry. I thought, we've written these songs that have brought 3,000, 4,000 people into this place. They're younger than I expected. They sing everything. And they shout really loud. I'm just so humbled, really. And I'll take that home and hopefully use it to grow new ideas.
Squeeze with the Psychedelic Furs
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10.
Where: Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.
Details: 602-267-1600, celebritytheatre.com.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: New Squeeze album after 50 years? Chris Difford on records and touring