Squeeze's Chris Difford on England, John Cale, and the Paul McCartney-Produced Record That Never Came to Be
Coachella is a weird beast: In addition to hotly tipped acts like Avicii and Justice, big name standard bearers like Radiohead and The Black Keys, and holy-hell-they're-reuniting bands like Refused and At the Drive In, there's always a few bands that have just kept soldiering on, whose break-ups and hiatuses have been quiet or nonexistent. This year's no different. Look closely at the lineup and you'll see classic bands like The Buzzcocks, Atari Teenage Riot, Madness, and Squeeze.
If that last name gives you pause, just think about it for a second. "Tempted?" "Pulling Mussels from The Shell?" "Black Coffee In Bed?" All stone cold classics. The UK band -- lead by songwriter Glenn Tilbrook and lyricist Chris Difford -- harnessed the energy of punk and pub rock and paired with with melodic sophistication, wry wit, taut R&B rhythms, and New Wave sheen. The band is still going, too. In 2010 they released Spot the Difference, which featured their greatest hits re-recorded. A strange choice, sure, but a smart one (for licensing) and it gave keyboardist Stephen Large a chance to play the first iPad solo in the history of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Squeeze, looking cool for cats.
The record also gave the band a chance to get back to the head-space of their early years.
"In those days we were touring and recording a lot," says Difford over the phone, in the midst of a move and prepping for tour, which finds the band visiting the Indio festival and a stop at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix. "You didn't question what you did, you just were somebody in a band. Speaking for myself, I didn't really fuss about it, I just did it. But here one is, all these years later, you can't help but try and by philosophical about what you did and what you're doing."
Difford has a new batch of songs in the work (tentative title: English Love Affair), and plans to release two solo albums (one comprised of pre-Squeeze demos) this year, but was more than happy to discuss the band's approach and why he tries to make his lyrics sound like a conversation.
Up on the Sun: How are you, Chris?
Chris Difford: Well, I'm in the middle of a move...
Moving is never fun.
I've been doing it every six months for...pretty much my entire life. [laughs]
So does that help you pare down any hoarding impulses or are you lugging things like a record collection around?
My record collection is in storage. I still don't know what to do with it. I've got tons of vinyl, and when you show it the younger generation they just wonder what the hell you were doing playing it. Just so much effort [laughs]. But there you go.
There's a vinyl resurgence going on here in the States...but as resurgent as it may be, it's still an antiquated format. I have a bunch of records, but every time I move I find myself thinking, "Maybe these iPod things aren't so bad after all."
I'm actually bringing out two records on vinyl -- my own solo stuff --this year. Because [a label] approached me and said, "You can produce 500 copies of this and people will buy it." There are enough people out there. So in this country people are interested in it. That's my plan for the year, coincidentally.
So you're issuing two records this year?
Well, my first solo album is coming out on vinyl for the first time. That brings up all kinds of possibilities. It's kind of long, so it needs to be on four sides. And there's not enough music for the fourth side, so I found some old demos and they'll go on side four. And I found some demos, pre-Squeeze, that I made when I was a teenager. I don't know whether I'm brave or stupid, but I've been talked into putting those out as a stand alone vinyl record. That will come out in August...
What kind of stuff is that?
It really...I love listening to my voice, because I sound like someone who really wanted to be successful sounding like David Bowie. Lyrically I'm kind of a little bit all over the place...but I love the sort of passion there is in my voice, like this is a young kid who really wanted to be in a music industry. This is pre-meeting Glenn, so I sound quite intense and busy on being me.
I was in the grocery store last night, and I heard "Pulling Mussels from the Shell" over the radio. I was struck how fresh that sounded; it sounded very current, like it could be on a Spoon record or something.
You're hearing young men who are passionate about the journey they are about to take. They don't know where they are going, but they're kind of happy making records. In those days we were touring and recording a lot; you didn't question what you did, you just were somebody in a band. Speaking for myself, I didn't really fuss about it, I just did it. But here one is, all these years later, you can't help but try and by philosophical about what you did and what you're doing. And then that kind of hinders sometimes.
In what way?
Well I mean, if you over-think your game, you end up tripping up. You kind of just have to be in the present and go with what you've got, despite your possibilities. Which is kind of difficult when you know what your possibilities are.
You recorded Spot the Difference in 2010. Was it an interesting process for you guys to go back to what you had done and was there any level of reassessment?
To be honest, it was Glenn's baby. He did most of the work. He was the Todd Rundgren of the studio at that time, spending hours and hours perfecting the original sound. He was the brains behind that album. I think I spent like three hours on it, as opposed to spending three months. He's the one you should be asking, but I think he did a brilliant job mimicking Squeeze, which can't be easy.
Going back much further...you guys took the band name from the universally despised fifth Velvet Underground album.
Yeah, sadly that's true. It's the one with just Mo Tucker on it.
And I don't even think she's on it much...it's mostly a Doug Yule vehicle.
It's an odd record, but the name came from that, definitely.
Do you remember listening to that record? I'm actually like a lot of it.
I'm fond of it. I love it, actually. In a retrospective way I really enjoy it. It has kind of a naivety about it. I was a massive Velvet Underground fan. It was music I could play, you know? It was simple, in a way, and it gave me hope that I could take drugs and play drums or guitar like they did. It was a joyous time.
When you worked with John Cale on the debut Squeeze album, did he mention anything about that record?
John Cale really was...not very talkative when we made a record with him. I was kind of there asking questions and probing him...but he wasn't very talkative. He would point in a direction and we would go, but he didn't make much small talk at the time. But just to be in the room as someone as famous as him at that time in my life was enough. I've got all his solo records, and still play them. I adore his eccentricity.
I read something in Mojo Magazine that suggests he wasn't at his most lucid or productive time during the making of that record. Is that fair?
He was a bit off-pieced. But it didn't really matter. It was just great having them. Sometimes people can be in the room and just change the order of events just because they are there. Sometimes when people have been flying and they have jet lag, I get jet lag too just from being in the room with them. It just shows how powerful human personality can be really.
Are you working on any new material?
I've got some lyrics, and I've handed them off to Glenn. That's traditionally how it works for us. The working title of it is an English Love Affair, and it's about life in England, and how life has changed in this country over the past couple of decades. It's not politically inspired, it's more the emotions of how people have changed. How I guess people in general have changed, and how everything is so urgent now. Time used to be something you could slow -- you could be in a boat and just float in time. Now you go from one hour to the next so quickly, with so much information. And the way the music industry has changed with iTunes and...it's just really raced ahead. So it's about my view of how England and London have changed.
I read a really interesting interview with Lionel Richie in this month's Esquire, and he said something like, "Even with the constant stream of information, Facebook, Twitter, it doesn't seem like people are actually deciphering or digesting all the information."
We've become emotionally unattached to conversation or words. As you say, it just comes flying at at us. I did an experiment last year where I didn't watch any TV or listen to the radio for just over a year. When I turned it back on, it was exactly the same was it was when I turned it off. Exactly the same. The news was similar, the radio was still dishing out the same rubbish. It was like, What did I miss? Strangely enough, I use the Internet a lot, and Facebook and Twitter are things I immerse myself in. But I can see that there will be a time when I have to turn it off. I don't know what value I get from it apart from people sending me one line replies to things...
Do you listen to music on the Internet, with Spotify or Rhapsody?
Glenn is a massive Spotify fan, but I'm fan of the way they pay the musicians. I think it's very cruel the way they will not disclose how they pay people. I use iTunes daily to listen to music. If there's something I catch on the radio, like if I'm listening to an obscure radio station, I'll catch something and quickly go and find it and maybe download it and listen to it in the car. But I don't collect music like I used to; I used to have a whole library of CDs, albums, singles, but it's all in storage.
What does it take for a song to catch you ear and attention?
It's emotions, and lyrics for me. Does the story touch me? Where am I going to go if I come on board this story? It has has to be emotive for me, otherwise I'm spoiled and bullied into listening to things I don't really want to hear, I guess. I've always been like that. The compilations I make probably sum up who I am. When I get in the car I've got a mix in there, and the first song is the Allman Brothers Band, live at the Fillmore West. The opening riff of "Whipping Post," it just makes me feel so happy. I feel like "Yeah, these guys are making music and really enjoying themselves. I just want to be an Allman Brother. There are not many bands on the radio that do that for me.
Your lyrics have such a conversational quality. It's easy to relate to the imagery. You're talking about normal life. I am routinely blown away by songs that Lou Reed, or Leonard Cohen, or Nick Cave have written, but very rarely does it feel like I'm having a conversation with those guys; they are above me, and I'm okay with that. Your lyrics though, I feel like we're talking.
That's very kind.
But it's very powerful -- that's such a great thing for a writer to accomplish.
That's what I grew up with, listening to David Bowie records, and people involving me in their life in a kind and gentle way. The boundaries I work within, I'm comfortable with. I've been pushing my solo work to involve more conversation. That's what people want: they want to be part of your life. And of course the do, they paid money to be part of your life. So I welcome them in and make them some tea, because that's what Ive been doing subconsciously all my life. Now that I'm aware of that, I'm really quite thrilled.
Like Nick Lowe's records.
I was just going to say that. I went to see Nick play last week, and I sat in the third row and it was like he was having a conversation with me. He writes very delicately about subtle subjects and relationships that he's obviously taken part in himself. You know you've taken part in them as well.
You guys recorded one of his songs, right? "Too Many Teardrops?"
We did a week of recording with Nick Lowe. We recorded an awful lot. It does exist; I don't have copies of it. We did do that [song] it was a very intense recording session. We had great fun doing it. Paul Carrack singing. It was extraordinary. Brilliant.
Was that session originally for East Side Story?
Yeah, the goal was to make a four-side LP, with Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney all producing a side [the completed record featured production from Costello]. They were all keen to do the production, but our manager just couldn't get everybody around the table at the same time. It was a nightmare. But we did recorded with Nick, and Dave. We did the original version of "Tempted" with Dave.
Any chance that those recordings could surface?
I don't see why not. We have them, and I think they should come out at some stage.
Squeeze is scheduled to perform Sunday, April 15, at the Crescent Ballroom.
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