The interview: Chris Difford

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Some 17 years after their last album, Squeeze return with another this autumn, and a first national band tour in three years. MALCOLM WYATT found out more from Chris Difford.

Catching up on Chris Difford’s blog this week, it sounds like we’re pretty close to a new Squeeze album.

Fitting it in is the easy bit. The difficult bit is getting time off

Chris Difford

It’s their first since 1998, following a project also serving as the soundtrack to the Cradle to the Grave BBC comedy drama, based on broadcaster and close friend Danny Baker’s Going to Sea in a Sieve autobiography.

It seems Chris is really happy with it all, as he confirmed when I spoke to the band’s co-founder and chief lyricist at his South Coast base this week.

“It’s going really well. It’s just all happening at once, like these things do. You’re not expecting it, and then suddenly… there it is!”

I have something of a vested interest in the world of the ‘At Odds Couple’, Chris and co-writer Glenn Tilbrook, having loved Squeeze’s recorded and live output for many moons.

From early hits Take Me I’m Yours, Goodbye Girl, Cool for Cats, Up the Junction, Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) and Another Nail in my Heart on, what’s not to love?

By the time they reached the East Side Story and Sweets from a Stranger albums, they were rightly lauded and loved the world over, continuing well beyond their 1982 split.

The hits didn’t altogether dry up, but they arguably became more of an LP band by the time of a 1985 reformation, with founder member Jools Holland briefly back in tow.

What albums those next ones proved, even if the final effort in 1998 wasn’t so hot. Thankfully that wasn’t the end of the story though, a 2007 reunion paving the way for what is now finally coming to pass.

And Chris – like Glenn in his own solo career – is now in a rich vein of songwriting form again, as heard on his The Last Temptation of Chris album in 2008 and Cashmere If You Can in 2011.

To my ears, the words suggest plenty of introspection too, and – no doubt inspired by Danny Baker’s venture – Chris has an autobiography coming too, fittingly titled, I Never Thought It Would Happen.

“Yes, I’m hoping that’s going to be next year. But every time I get close to finishing it, it seems to start again. It’s never-ending.”

Is that because you keep remembering stories you feel should be in there?

“Yes, and then I look at the last chapter and go back to the beginning, thinking, ‘That could be written better’ or, ‘There could be more of an angle to that’.

“The guy I’m working on it with is very busy too, so I don’t have a lot of time with him. When we do, it gets very heated, and we get lots done. I’m writing it, and he gives his opinion on how it should be.”

Back to Cradle to the Grave, due this autumn, I read that it includes an old Squeeze number with new words.

“That’s a song called Tommy, now called Sonny. We thought it was such a great string arrangement that we should keep it.”

At this point, Chris briefly sorts out a domestic mini-crisis, the Difford clan clearly ready to set out for a day-trip, just me holding them back. But he’s soon back and we crack on.

With this new LP under the Squeeze umbrella, it will be the first since 1998’s finale Domino. But as far as Chris is concerned, it’s the first he’s felt a proper part of since the marvellous Ridiculous, 20 years ago.

“Yeah, this is definitely cohesive and sounds very strong.”

Meanwhile, Squeeze have a month of dates ahead – 21 altogether. But his fellow co-founder, guitarist, tunesmith and chief collaborator Mr Tilbrook is with his own band in America at the moment. So when will they finally get together?

“He’s out there until the end of the month, and we start rehearsing on September 9. And now we have Lucy in the band, so that’s going to be brilliant.

That’s Lucy Shaw, fresh from Glenn’s band The Fluffers, replacing long-serving John Bentley on bass, drummer Simon Hanson and keyboard player Stephen Large completing the quintet.

It’s the first Squeeze tour in three years, and they have cracking support in the wiry shape of legendary Salford bard Dr John Cooper Clarke.

“I can’t wait for that, I’m a huge fan! It should be good fun.”

He’s not known for his time-keeping. Have you got him under lock and key?

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

I think it’s like with Ken Dodd – once he finally gets on, he never wants to go. You might need to drag him off with a crook.

“Well, I look forward to that.”

There has also been an At Odds Couple tour – involving Chris and Glenn playing acoustic sets and talking about their songs. Has that been a cathartic experience?

“I think so. It’s been very good for us to go out and play with the bare bones, and I think people enjoy it.

“We’re taking the show to America at the end of the year, so we’ll see what they make of it there. That should be an experience.”

Do you tend to find as you talk on stage that you remember a fair bit more about the good and the bad old days as you go along?

“No.”

Well, that was almost diplomatic.

“Yeah, almost! No, I’m still trying to remember.”

Chris is a man of few words, but he’s more shy than rude, more droll than gushy.

The fact his household is waiting for him to finish his call might not help. But I think he’s enjoying it all the same.

Before Glenn returns, Chris has a solo date in Dorset later this month.

He also heads songwriter workshops, has in the past managed Bryan Ferry and Marti Pellow and currently The Strypes. How does he fit it all in?

“It’s kind of what you do. Fitting it in is the easy bit. The difficult bit is getting the time off in between. But without it, what would you do? That’s what life is.”

It sounds like I recently missed a classic solo show not far off, in Oswaldtwistle, with a guest appearance from a certain comic by the name of Peter Kay. I’m a bit sore about that. Tell me it wasn’t worth the journey, Chris.

“It was a fantastic night. You should have seen it! Really good fun.”

I love Chris’ last two solo albums, even though I felt Cashmere if you Can is probably the least Squeeze-like album I’ve heard from him, maybe more in tune with The Divine Comedy, The Go-Betweens or The Lightning Seeds.

“Oh thank you. That’s interesting though. I’ve not really though of it like that.”

I also confess I always felt of Chris – and I’m sure this is the case for many of us - as the poet and Glenn as the musician. But the more recent solo work, for both artists, seems to have put all that to bed.

“I think we have, really. It’s important to know we can both do our own stuff. It’s really good that we can cover all angles when we’re not doing Squeeze.”

I’m sure that makes it more interesting for both of you too.

“It keeps you passionate, yes.”

The live shows start at Plymouth Pavilions on September 25 and go through to Harrogate International Centre on October 24.

That includes Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on October 5 and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on October 12. Does he get to do a bit of sightseeing, or is it just a case of moving on to the next town?

“Unfortunately there’s no time for all that, but Liverpool Phil is a fantastic venue, always one to look forward to, and the audiences are always so wonderful to play for.”

It’s a bit different with Glenn, who’s one to drive around in a big old bus when he’s touring.

“Yeah. I couldn’t do that, but he loves it. I’d rather cycle everywhere.”

That would be a good tour to see – Chris Difford Gets on his Bike. I remind him that Housemartins and Beautiful South founder Paul Heaton did something similar. He laughs, but won’t commit himself.

Talking to one of Chris’ former Squeeze bandmates recently, Jools Holland, I thought it was nice that he said what he misses most while he’s away touring is playing piano at home.

“Oh, that’s lovely!”

That sounds like a man doing the right job for a living. So I’ll ask you the same thing – what do you miss most?

“Mm… writing when I’m at home, I guess. A similar answer.”

Do you keep in touch with Jools?

“I’m playing with him in a couple of weeks’ time.”

I was lucky enough to be there for his recent televised big band show at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom.

“Oh, how great!”

Do you struggle to associate Jools the TV star with the young lad with Hell’s Angels mates who first came along to check out you and Glenn all those years ago?

“I don’t think so. He’s always had the desire to be successful. It’s really a lifelong friendship, I hope.”

Interviewing Tom Robinson last week, I was surprised he was 65. Now I’m talking to a mere 60-year-old. Has Chris got his head around that yet? Or does age not mean anything?

“Mmm… not today. Some days it means more than other days, but it’s not an issue today. I’m fine.”

I like to think the reluctant and shy Chris still posts his brilliant lyrics under Glenn’s door when he’s ready, like in the band’s early days. Or does that involve too much of a wander these days?

“Yeah – I’d have to run behind the bus!”

There have been a few well-documented fall-outs over the years.

Do you think you’ve learned better to deal with each other these days? You’ve always had tremendous respect for each other, but there have been a few ‘living in each other’s pockets’ tensions.

“I think in time you do get to understand each other much better, so the process of time has really healed a lot of wounds, and we’re getting on extremely well. So it’s all good really.”

Jim Drury, in the excellent 2004 Squeeze: Song by Song book, reckoned he was surprised the Odd Couple’s working relationship lasted so long.

But they’ve clearly got over all that now.

He also described Chris as the ‘introverted, urbane wordsmith’ to Glenn’s ‘outgoing inventive entertainer’. Was that fair comment?

“That’ll do.”

There were always plenty of big-money offers for Squeeze to get back together. What changed by 2007 for you to try again?

“Well, it wasn’t to do with money. It was do with friendship and we got to learn to be closer together.”

With that, Chris was soon away, save for a couple of exchanges about his beloved Louise and his house’s younger occupants, something he referred to as ‘Noah’s Ark’.

But it was 1pm by then and Chris had to jump in the car, closing with a cheery ‘Bye now!’ and no doubt with bucket and spade in hand.

It was definitely a pleasure to link up with this musical hero of mine, one – together with Glenn – right up there in the realms of the best UK songwriters for me.

Some 42 years since 15-year-old Glenn answered 18-year-old Chris’ ad in a South-East London sweet shop, the mighty Squeeze continue to impress.

If he came over as a ‘one-line answer’ man, don’t be fooled. There’s a droll sense of humour there from this pensive guy behind the deep voice.

Perhaps the autobiography will tell us more. But first there’s that intriguing Danny Baker drama project and that new Squeeze album and tour. And I for one can’t wait.

• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, whose blog can be found at http://writewyattuk.com.

For details and tickets of the tour, call 0844 811 0051 or 0844 826 2826, head to gigsandtours.com, http://gigst.rs/Squeeze, or ticketmaster.co.uk.

Tickets for the Royal Albert Hall in London are £25 to £75, with others ranging from £32.50 to £47.50.

Alternatively, head to the band’s official website at www.squeezeofficial.com