Uptown Problems: A Q&A with Squeeze’s Chris Difford

Chris Difford (left) and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. Photo by Rob O’Connor

Coming up on August 14 in Pawling, New York, Squeeze will begin the United States leg of The Squeeze Songbook 2019 tour. Over the next month-and-a-half, the British legends will head out from coast to coast and explore every nook and cranny of the wonderful catalog created by songwriters and band co-founders Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. A few months back, Difford spoke with American Songwriter about the upcoming tour, the tricky part of creating a setlist that will please everybody, and some of the band’s most memorable songs.

You have what could be called an uptown problem in terms of having so many different Squeeze songs from which to choose to play on a tour. Do you ever feel pressure when it comes to making the selections?

Yes is the answer. In fact, I’m just about to sit down and try to work on that myself. It’s quite a challenge. We have 14 albums to wade through and to pick a set is going to be really difficult. And it’s more difficult because of the fact that Glenn and I want different things from the shows. It’s going to be a lot of negotiation, I’m sure, but it will be worth it. On this tour we’ve got a great band and we’ve got a great canon of songs. What we’ve gotta do is just get all of our ducks in a line, so to speak.

There have been a lot of “New Dylans,” but relatively few “New Lennon/McCartneys”, which is a label that you and Glenn received when the band became popular. Were you able to enjoy this praise or do you feel that it added unnecessary pressure?

Absolutely no pressure for me. I think it was a really wonderful accolade. It just made me work harder, I guess. The only way you could compare us is that it was two people writing songs. That was where the comparison really ended.

Everybody talks about your songwriting with Glenn, but your harmonies are also a big part of what makes the band so special. Was that vocal blend evident when you started working together all those years ago or was it something you had to work at?

I don’t think we ever worked at it. It was like it was straight out of a drawer, ready-made. It was never designed, that sound. It was just us.

Has ever then been a discussion about doing an entire classic album, such as East Side Story or Argybargy, from front to back for love shows?

The East Side Story album is something that we have been asked to take on tour. But we agreed that it probably wasn’t the right time. And it seemed like to us we had to find something new. The Difford and Tilbrook songbook gives us a wider focus to pull on. Instead of just one record we can pull from 14 records.

OK, as a Squeeze nerd, I’m going to throw some tracks at you for your thoughts and maybe to subliminally request them for the tour. Let’s start with “Cool For Cats.”

It was really a collection of different TV shows that were spinning around in my subconscious that I’d been watching. So they were vignettes from those. It wasn’t anything any deeper than that.

I’m guessing that it’s fun to have that song to do as a showcase when you take over lead vocal on it every night.

Yeah, particulary here in the UK, it’s one that you’d get murdered for if you didn’t do it. It has to be part of the show. Which is fair enough, because it’s one of the biggest-selling records that we had.

When you wrote the lyrics to “Vanity Fair,” did you envision it coming back as a string-laden ballad, which it eventually became when it was recorded for East Side Story?

Kind of. I was really, really pleased. That’s one of my proudest moments lyrically. I think it’s one of Glenn’s proudest moments musically too. He and I really came together on that song. I love the lyrics to that song. It’s so complicated that I don’t know whether we could do it live. Although I’ve heard Glenn do it on the piano and it works really well. Maybe we can twist his arm and get him to play it on the piano.

Along those lines, can you pinpoint the biggest surprise in terms of what you envisioned for lyrics of a song compared to the music that Glenn returned to you?

There’s so many, to be honest. Every lyric that I’ve given to Glenn, I’ve always had a really exciting time listening to what he’s done. Because he’s such a creative writer from a melodic point of view, from an arrangement point of view. For example, when “Another Nail In My Heart” was written, I never expected there to be a guitar solo instead of a second verse. It takes some guts to do something like that. That’s always been the spell of our relationship. You never know where the songs are going to end up.

I’m guessing that he still gets the same sense of surprise when you send him songs as well.

We have a lot of differences, but our similarities are in the songs. When I go through them one by one, even the duff ones I really love. And that takes some doing.

Is it true that all it took was seeing a coffee-stained notebook to open up the lyrics of “Black Coffee In Bed” for you?

Yeah, I still have the notepad in my office. That’s how the opening lines always happen. In fact, I’ve been working on something today that came from a picture that I saw. That’s how a lot of songs start. You have to see something or visualize an image, and pick up a pen and off you go.

Tribute songs are often honorable but mawkish. Yet “Some Fantastic Place” (from the 1993 album of the same name) is a tribute song that feels just right. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for that?

Glenn’s girlfriend Maxine (Barker, who passed away in 1992) was the person who inspired him to pick up the phone and call me in the first place. And that’s how our relationship began. So when she passed away, it was the deepest of all things. That lyric came to me from the end of my pencil without me really thinking about it. It’s one of the most powerful songs I think we’ve written.

Finally, when you and Glenn started Squeeze, did you believe the band had the potential to do what it’s done?

Yes, I think so. If you do anything in life, you’ve got to have ambition. If you get it wrong, you get it wrong. I always grew up thinking, “I want to do that, and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.” But so far, pretty much all of the things I’d been dreaming of, have happened. You got to have to the ambition in the first place. And I still have that ambition.