Interview: Guitarist Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze Discusses Gear, Guitar Solos, Influences and Future Plans
Glenn Tilbrook has always been something of a rarity.
The Squeeze lead vocalist is one of the only frontmen of his generation of New Wave rockers — a generation that includes Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, Debbie Harry, Ric Okasek, David Byrne and Ian Dury — who could write and sing a boundless collection of brilliant, hook-filled hits and then grace them with catchy, lightning-fast guitar solos.
His solos on some of the band's best-known songs — including "Black Coffee in Bed," "Another Nail in My Heart" and "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" — are mini-masterpieces that draw from a host of influences, including R&B, blues and '60s rock, while solos on lesser-known tracks show a deep appreciation for country, rockabilly and jazz.
And then there are the songs.
A Squeeze concert is a reminder of just how huge Squeeze were from 1979 through 1987, and how many outstanding songs Tilbrook and his writing partner, guitarist Chris Difford, wrote. One after another they come — "Tempted," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Hourglass," "Cool for Cats," "Goodbye Girl," "If I Didn't Love You," "Up the Junction," "Take Me I'm Yours." It's enough to make you think the Lennon/McCartney comparisons weren't so crazy after all.
Seeing a modern Squeeze concert is a lot like seeing them in their heyday, thanks to the recent return of bassist John Bentley, who played with the band from 1980 to 1982, when the Squeeze hit factory was working overtime. Bentley has been back with Difford and Tilbrook since 2007; keyboardist Stephen Large and drummer Simon Hanson round out the band.
If you've missed their recent US tour, or can't wait till they return in June, you can check out the current lineup on their new live album, Live At The Fillmore, which was released April 17 via Anchor and Hope Music. The career-spanning album features 20 songs, including a few offbeat choices, such as "It's So Dirty" from Cool for Cats and "Hope Fell Down" from Difford & Tilbrook's self-titled 1984 album.
I sat down with Tilbrook after Squeeze's soundcheck at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey. We discussed gear, guitar solos, the band's success with smaller labels and their plans for future releases.
GUITAR WORLD: If I were to start a Squeeze cover band, what one guitar and handful of effect pedals should I have in order to cover all the bases pretty well?
I guess you’d have a Telecaster with a B-bender, and I’ve stopped using pedals except for the one that comes with my amp. And that’s a conscious decision; I’ve enjoyed using the volume control on my guitar more. I used to have two compressors at different levels, so I’d have a solo one and one for just a general "even-ing" out. So I guess I’d use those if I were to use pedals. Or I’d use one of those wobbly Hendrix-type effects. It’s not the octave thing. I can’t remember the specific name – bollocks! It’ll come to me.
I know you used a B-bender on “The Truth” from Play. Where else can we here it?
It’s also on “Hourglass” at the end, going into the chorus. It’s actually a very “Honky Tonk Women” approach to the chorus, sort of a tip of the hat to the Stones.
What led you to the B-bender?
I came upon it because there was a guy called Ross McGeeney, a guitarist in a band called Starry Eyed and Laughing. He used to have that guitar; I just thought it was the coolest thing. I saw a guy in Las Vegas once who had D- and E- and G- and B-benders. He was insane. I wish I could remember his name. He was a session guitarist who got tired of touring, tired of all that, he just wanted to play. He’s the guy who really inspired me to do that, but just with one string. He had two different neck benders and two palm benders.
What’s your main electric guitar these days?
I’ve gone back to playing Strats, which is what I used to play in Squeeze for the first five years. After that, I started playing the B-Bender, and I did that for 10 years or so. But I’m liking the tone of Strats. Mine’s a real new one, and they seem to do production-line Strats pretty right. I like that they’re pretty robust, the tremolo arm doesn’t often lose the tuning. I just like the sound of it.
How about your main acoustic?
I flip between Taylor and Yamaha. Yamaha have got some really good little acoustics. I don’t have any on this tour, but I do like Yamaha. And Taylor I’ve used for ages, since 1990.
How or when do you decide it’s time to go guitar shopping?
You know, I’m not really a guitar collector, not really a gear guy, but I do have most of the guitars I would like to have. My definition of having a guitar is having something that I use. It’s not locked away to sell later. But the thing I wish I’d gotten is an old Les Paul, because they’re just sort of out of reach now, financially.
Who were your influences, not so much in terms of writing, but as a guitarist? You’ve always done a very convincing job at several genres, including rock, country and rockabilly — and that's just on the East Side Story album alone.
I DJ once a week when I’m home, and I started playing a lot of the early Les Paul records. I love the tone and the way he plays, going on through to Jimi Hendrix, who was my No. 1 influence as a guitarist when I was growing up.
Through Hendrix, I discovered Wes Montgomery, and I still absolutely love his playing. He was a big influence on me. I do more and more octave playing the older I get. It’s one of the things I love to do. He has a very thoughtful style.
And Joe Pass was a genius. I learned one of his solos once by slowing the record down. It took me about a week, but I got it. It taught me a lot about where he was putting his fingers. All that stuff was really great for me.
Amos Garrett is another guitarist I absolutely love. Someone told me he used to drop in a lot in his solos when he was recording, working things out phrase by phrase. And some of the solos I’ve done, like “Another Nail in My Heart,” it took me an afternoon to figure out what I was doing. But I knew in the end that I could learn it and play it, and I could never have played it otherwise. So for me, that’s like being able to write a solo. If I could write music, I might sit down and compose a solo as opposed to what I normally do. My standard method of playing is pretty blues-based.
In the '70s and '80s, you and Chris Difford were often called the new Lennon & McCartney. How did you feel about those comparisons? Was it sort of like, "Thank you, but please stop"?
I think when it first happened, it affected our writing for a year or so. But then we forgot all about it. It’s a very nice compliment. We’ve lasted longer [laughs], I mean in terms of actually working together.
I can't find the exact quote, but one of the guys in They Might Be Giants said that if you cut off their heads and propped their bodies on a stage, they’d still be able to play their huge hit from 1990, “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” Something about how their bodies' muscle memory would just take over. Is there a Squeeze song like that?
Hmmmm [laughs]. Well, we have a lot of songs like that. We carry around a repertoire of about 15 songs most people would know, four songs that most people over here would know and another 10 that, if prodded, they would know. Like, “Oh, that’s them.” You know, it'd be one of those songs. All of those I could do without my head [laughs].
When you write a guitar solo, do you start with the song's melody and go from there?
Mostly, yes. I’m very conscious of my guitar playing, particularly early on, and I wouldn’t trust myself to improvise. It’s a sort of an insecurity on my part. So — wait, let me interrupt myself. The other guy who really influenced me is the guy who played the solo on The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” [Tony Peluso]. That solo really stuck with me. And it’s interesting, because it starts off like you’re asking me. It starts with the tune and then it branches off into this wonderful thing. You know, it’s like in a musical. A song should carry the plot forward. I think the guitar solo should carry the music forward and not just hang around.
I'm going to name five Squeeze songs with what I consider exceptional guitar solos. Please tell me what comes to mind for each one — how they came to be, what you were going after, etc.
“Another Nail in My Heart” (from Argybargy, 1980): I think that was my first proper melodic solo. As I said earlier, I spent an afternoon constructing it drop by drop. The placing of the solo is really odd because it happens after one verse and chorus, but it somehow works. I used a Yamaha on that — I forget the model, but I play it in the video. It’s one of those double cutaways; it looks like an SG, but it isn’t.
“Messed Around” (from East Side Story, 1981): That’s when I felt relaxed enough to go back like that. Stray Cats were really happening at that time, and that was sort of a nod in their direction. And when Squeeze were forming, Jools [Holland, original Squeeze keyboardist and current UK TV presenter] really brought a lot of early rock and roll and boogie-woogie to the table, so I loved all that music. It was very easy for me to write in that idiom.
“Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" (from Argybargy, 1980): I think that’s an obstinant solo — just to stick on one note for half the solo. That’s my personality all over. It’s a delay, so I just play (makes the sound of an E note and waits … then again …) [laughs]. It’s like a series of false starts.
“Black Coffee In Bed” (from Sweets from a Stranger, 1982): It’s sort of a very 1960s, Motown-influenced solo. But I love the idea of a key change for the solo. And also for it to be quite jazzy, which the song wasn’t.
The weird slide solo on “If I Didn’t Love You” (from Argybargy, 1980): [Pausing] Yeah, that’s right — it is a slide, isn't it? I don’t know why I stopped doing slide after a while — but I’ve never done it since. Yeah, that’s one of the most rock solos I’ve done, with an extra touch of New Wave weirdness thrown in.
That was five. Let's consider this one an honorable mention — “Crying In My Sleep” (from Play, 1991): I was always trying to pull Squeeze toward R&B, and as a band, generally, until now, they’ve pretty successfully resisted. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Prince and Tony! Toni! Toné!. That sort of thing was really floating my boat. So that was my reaction to that.
When Keith Wilkinson joined the band in 1985 and brought his fretless bass along, the band’s sound changed drastically. Did you write or play any differently in that era [1985 to 1997]?
Yeah, it did change, but no, I didn’t do anything different. It just turned out that way anyway.
Are there any new albums on the way — either new material or unreleased tracks, the makings of an archival project or box set, perhaps?
Yes, but it’s tremendously hard to get Universal motivated at the moment. Their turnover seems to be incredibly high in terms of personnel. You know, we’ll deal with one set of people about our project and then the next year they’ll be gone.
Steve Howe says he sets aside certain years for Yes, certain years for his trio and certain years for his solo tours. Do you do the same for Squeeze, The Fluffers [Tilbrook's other band] and your one-man shows?
Yeah, pretty much. The Fluffers are on hold because Lucy [Shaw] and Stephen [Large, also the keyboardist in Squeeze] had a lovely baby boy, who’s just over a year old now. But I want to do other things, you know, and each one informs the other. Each one makes the other grow.
The band re-recorded 14 classic Squeeze songs for the Spot The Difference album from 2010. First off, why was that done? Secondly, in your efforts to make the songs sound identical to the original versions, did you hunt for the exact gear you used to record the songs 30 years ago?
Yes. A lot of the stuff I still had. I have a lot of the original Boogie amps I used to use. One thing I couldn’t find were HH amps, which we used on the first album. I can’t seem to find them anywhere now. But all the rest of the amps I have, the guitars I have, the mini-Moog I have. And then getting the sounds was hard. The hardest thing was trying to get my voice to sound the same. I’ve got the same register, but my voice sounds thicker now than it did when I was 22. So that would take a bit of practice. Thirty years-plus, it’s weird.
The reason we did it was to be in competition with Universal, who own our masters. So we can go to a movie person who wants to use the songs, and we can say, “You can use the Universal version and that’s fine, or you can use this version. It sounds just the same, but it means we get paid." That was the reason for doing it — we gain some sort of control. But in the end of it, that was not a fun album to make. But I didn’t want to let go of it until it was right. But we did a good job and actually got creative with about three of the songs on the record. I think they’re better than the original versions. And the rest of them sound identical.
Which songs do you feel are improved?
I think “Black Coffee In Bed” and “Some Fantastic Place” are better — but I can’t remember what the other one is. But there’s another one where … and we’re doing this for Squeeze as well. You know, if the original versions are great, we’ll stick with them and if we think we can improve them, well, we’re not gonna start doing jazz versions of “Cool for Cats” or something like that, but if we can make it sound like this band as opposed to that band, then we’ll do that because this band has a lot of energy.
I recently read that the first time you turned a profit was when you released Domino in 1998 on a small label, Quixotic Records, and produced it yourself. Does that represent a new model for you guys?
Yeah. Well, the old model, by the time we did our last record with Universal [1995's Ridiculous], we were doing four videos for it, which cost a rather large amount of money, and recording in expensive studios and never seeing anything back from it. It was just a really stupid model for us. It’s great if it works in the old-school sense if you’re having hits and getting some return on it, but we carried on doing that, again and again, in spite of the evidence that it wasn’t working. So by the time we got to our last album for Universal, which had airbrushed photos of us, with no lines on our faces and all that stuff, I thought, “You know what? I’m done with it." So it was tremendously liberating from Domino onwards.
It feels like the earlier days of Squeeze. Our first five records were made in the pre-Michael Jackson era, which I think was the game changer for the business. It saw a new model of how to sell not 5 million albums and be happy, but 20 million, 30 million. From that point onward, I think everyone started shooting for the big sales. Which meant that for a lot of people, the process got scrutinized a lot more. We made five albums without really seeing the record company hardly at all. They just let us get on with it. And that’s what it’s like again now, which is why I like it so much.
When you and Chris write together, how do you decide which songs Chris will sing?
Well, he’s always had first choice over what he sings within our camp. And to answer your question from early on, we’re gonna record some new songs when we return from this tour. I don’t have many plans for the record, but there are a few things we’re definitely doing, which is, I’m not playing the songs to anyone in the band until the day we record them. And it’s gonna be song by song. I want to work each one out without any preconceptions at all.
Secondly, I want us to sing as many of the songs as we can together, because that’s something we missed out on. Whenever we open our mouths together, it sounds like Squeeze. I love that sound. Beyond that, there’ll be stuff I sing and stuff Chris sings.
Bassist John Bentley is in the band again, which, from a fan's perspective, is rather cool. Do you agree?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. I certainly underrated what John brought to the band the first time around. You’re right — the Squeeze sound did change when we had Keith Wilkinson, and looking back now, not necessarily for the better. I think John drives us a lot.
One last thing: At the end of “Heaven” [from East Side Story] there are these weird noises, like a cow or something. What the hell is that?
[Laughs] It’s Chris Difford slowed down, singing the words [lowering his voice], “And I love her.” [Laughs again] I’ll tell him what you said!
Squeeze's new live album, Live At The Fillmore, which was released April 17 via Anchor and Hope Music, is available on iTunes. For more about Squeeze, check out their official website and Facebook page.