Interview – Glenn Tilbrook: ‘I’m optimistic about the human spirit but I’m pessimistic about our politics at the moment’

Squeeze singer Glenn Tilbrook is playing several dates in Yorkshire this autumn.
Squeeze singer Glenn Tilbrook is playing several dates in Yorkshire this autumn.
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Currently on a UK tour, Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook is on a mission to raise food poverty awareness. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Squeeze singer and guitarist Glenn Tilbrook’s autumn tour is about more than rummaging through one of the most highly regarded catalogues of songs in British rock and pop.

At his 28 shows up and down England and Wales he will be encouraging fans to make donations to the Trussell Trust, the charity that supports a network of food banks all over the UK.

Most venues will have food drop points and collections banks while the 61-year-old performer will also be donating all profits from his merchandise, including an exclusive four-track EP, to the organisation.

Having been raised in a low-income household, Tilbrook evidently feels empathetic towards the work of the Trust. “I don’t want to overplay this hand,” he says cautiously, “but I was relatively poor when I was growing up and – not making anyone feel sorry for me – I couldn’t go on school trips, my mum couldn’t afford it, I had free school meals – there’s a little bit of a stigma attached to that, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about it.

“The Trussell Trust does such a great job of combating that sort of feeling. People falls through the cracks, and that could be any one of us in any of those circumstances, they find themselves in a position they didn’t anticipate, didn’t want, didn’t plan for, when you can’t afford to put food on the table. So I want to try and help out there.”

Glenn Tilbrook is encouraging fans to donate food to the Trussell Trust on his tour.

Glenn Tilbrook is encouraging fans to donate food to the Trussell Trust on his tour.

As well as reading about the subject and talking to people involved in the Trust, Tilbrook says he was particularly moved by watching a BBC Scotland documentary “about people who are struggling to exist on what they have”.

“There was one mum and her son who lived in London. London got too expensive and they ended up moving out to Essex and ended up living in Scotland and this woman was in tears, it was cheaper there but she still didn’t have enough, she’d go without food so the son could eat, and I just find it incredible that we haven’t sorted this problem out now. That’s the only political thing I’ll say, but I just want to do the very small bit that I can.”

The singer hopes people will donate non-perishable tinned and dried food to the collection points. “We’re doing a little harvest festival,” he says. “We’ll be collecting on behalf of each local branch of the Trussell Trust that’s relevant to where the gig is.”

Reflecting on the turbulent state of modern Britain, Tilbrook says: “It is very odd. To me, it feels like we’re sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff and I don’t know what’s beyond that edge. I’m very worried that people don’t have long enough memories of our history to know where we’re going. This factionalism can create real problems.

I changed the last verse of Cradle To The Grave really on the spur of the moment because I’d listened to what David Cameron said about council estates being ‘sink estates’ and I just felt really angry with him. Angry at his lack of understanding.

Glenn Tilbrook

“I’m optimistic about the human spirit but I’m pessimistic about our politics at the moment.”

For perhaps the first time in their 40-year-long history, Squeeze even ventured in political territory on their most recent album, The Knowledge. Tilbrook feels things began to change when the band made an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show in January 2016.

“[The then-Prime Minister] David Cameron was on and I changed the last verse of Cradle To The Grave really on the spur of the moment because I’d listened to what David Cameron said about council estates being ‘sink estates’ and I just felt really angry with him. Angry at his lack of understanding. You can turn anywhere into a really horrible place if you don’t sufficiently fund its upkeep, that’s what happens if you sell off council estates and they become something different or if you don’t maintain council estates. I grew up in council housing that was fantastic for me and my family and they remembered and told me about when you didn’t have an inside bathroom. I remember my mate down the road having a tin bath and he used to bath once a week. It sounds like Victorian times but this was the 60s. That had such an effect.

“It was scary for me to do that but I felt like I had to do it and the reaction got through to Chris [Difford, Tilbrook’s longtime songwriting partner in Squeeze]. I had not consulted anyone before I did that.

“For a couple of years [afterwards] people would come up congratulating me for doing that. It was a big thing in my world and yes, I think it did have an effect on our palette of subjects [for songs].”

Tilbrook feels Squeeze have been rejuvenated by the success of their two most recent albums, Cradle To The Grave and The Knowledge. “I said before if we ever do any more records they’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and have nothing to do with our past, but be something else that Squeeze is doing. The band now to me honestly sounds the best it’s ever sounded. We’ve got the best line-up, the most exciting. We’ve had some great line-ups before but this one if really fantastic. We’re in a great place but we worked really hard for that. It takes hard work and it takes being diligent about the way you approach everything.”

The singer also feels his working relationship with Chris Difford has evolved. “Chris is not a great communicator, he communicates most of his stuff through lyrics but that’s OK, because that’s the way I am too,” he says. “I’ve become more involved with lyrics – I was never involved before – but it’s something that I have to learn to do and it’s like you can’t put the cork back in the bottle once you’ve started doing that.

“Equally doing solo work is a really great outlet for me and it allows me to develop my own wing.”

At these autumn shows Tilbrook says he will perform a mixture of solo and Squeeze songs. “I’ve been going to such a long time, there’s such a tremendous amount to choose from. As well as some songs that I think are absolutely standard for my set that I love playing, I’m sort of digging a bit deeper and doing some songs that I’ve never done before live, which I think is interesting for the crowd hopefully and challenges me too.”

Glenn Tilbrook plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on October 26; Hebden Bridge Trades Club on October 27; Halifax Square Chapel for the Arts on November 21; The Welly, Hull on November 23 and The Civic, Barnsley on November 24. www. glenntilbrook.com and www.trusselltrust.org