The last time Glenn Tilbrook toured the U.S. was in 2012, in his role as lead singer and guitarist for the iconic British band Squeeze. This fall, Mr. Tilbrook returns for a 17-state solo tour, playing an eclectic mix of Squeeze hits and solo material, including several tracks from his recently released acoustic solo album, “Happy Ending.”
After two successful shows at the City Winery in Manhattan and one at the Brooklyn Bowl last month, Mr. Tilbrook comes to Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater on Thursday, Oct. 23. We caught up with him via telephone at his London studio a few days before he launched his American tour.
Q: We’re very excited that you’re coming out to us in Riverhead.
A: I’m very excited, too. It’s been a while since I’ve been out to the States, and also it’s a while since I’ve been solo, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Q: It’s really been a busy year for you, with a new solo album and a lot of concert dates. The touring life, I imagine, is not very easy. What keeps you going back to the road again and again after 35 years?
A: I love playing. I don’t love being away from home, but once I’m on tour, I love traveling. Touring is a way of keeping in contact with people. Letting people know what I’m doing, and sharing that stuff. It’s important to me.
Q: After writing so many plugged-in songs over the years, how much of a challenge was putting down the electric guitar and writing a completely acoustic album?
A: Well, I’ve never done that before, so it was a challenge. But it was more a question of adjusting my mindset to wanting to do everything acoustically, and then I found that, weirdly enough, that refocused me on the songs even more than before. And it became a really beautiful way to make things as simple as possible.
Q: Tell me about some of your instrument choices on ‘Happy Ending’ and how you came to make them.
A: It was more a question of what I didn’t want. I didn’t want there to be any drums, you know, like a drum kit. I didn’t want there to be electric guitar, cause they’re the two things that have always been on my records. So making that choice, then I wanted to try and restrict myself to a few sounds. I like the sound of an Indian harmonium, an acoustic guitar, an acoustic bass. I allowed iPad sounds, because that’s an interesting restriction in itself. It lets you open the door to electronics but be restricted by the fact that everything has to be in that little container, so I did that, too. And I had sitar … a couple of lutes, but really, mostly Chinese drums and some Middle Eastern percussion.
Q: I especially like your use of strings on several of the tracks.
A: I’m really proud of the strings. I worked with Lucy Shaw from the Fluffers on the string arrangements and she brought such a lot of vitality to the table, and it was great having the string players. I have meticulously created string parts on keyboards before, but I love the push and pull of people actually playing it.
Q: Your kids helped out on ‘Happy Ending.’ Was that their idea or yours?
A: Well, Louie, my second eldest boy, was around, so he played bongos on “Persephone,” I think. And then Leon, he’s 11 now; he was 10 when we co-wrote “Bongo Bill” together and he loves playing. And a lot of my kids love playing. And within the family environment that’s something that we gravitate toward, so for me it feels natural to include them.
Q: Seven of the 12 tracks on ‘Happy Ending’ feature people’s names in their titles, songs about interesting characters and their back stories. Was this planned or did it just evolve?
A: I was going to do a whole album like that, but then I found a couple of other things I wanted to write about, so I thought, you know what, I’ll just sprinkle the songs throughout the record and, you know, they all stand up together. And I thought that the other songs that I wrote were just other observations of situations. They’re all character-driven and the biggest influence on them is Chris Difford.
Q: Your songwriting relationship with Chris is very similar to that of Elton John and Bernie Taupin; you take the lyrics and run with them. When you read a Difford lyric for the first time, does a melody jump out at you or is it a very experimental process?
A: That’s the thing about writing is I never know how it works. You know, every time I say I know how it works, I find it works a different way. So it’s been everything from it jumps straight out at me to it takes weeks of work, and I never know which one it’s going to be, and I never know what the process will be. I just know if we stick at it, we always get there.
Q: How does Chris’ vocal role on a Squeeze track evolve?
A: Well you know, it’s interesting, cause we’re working on this at the moment. And the way we’re doing this internally with the new songs, I’m demoing them on either piano or guitar and voice, and then Chris is taking them home, we play through them, but then Chris learns the vocal and we sing it together. [On] the Squeeze record, which we’re going to cut between January and March next year, we’re going to do as much singing as possible together. We really want to get back to that sound. We’ve been through a lot of twists and turns and when we reformed Squeeze, it’s just undeniable, the sound of me and Chris together. It’s unique and so why not sing like that — why not?
Q: As a solo artist, how do you approach the songwriting process? Is it lyrics first, music first or kind of both together?
A: It’s almost always lyrics first, because I inherited that way of writing from writing with Chris. If I’m doing a song by myself it will be very occasionally music and lyrics together, but it’s almost always I write lyrics first. On “Happy Ending” I did all the lyrics. I can’t remember how many I wrote by myself — about half the tunes, I guess.
Q: The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead is quite an intimate venue. You seem to have an affinity for playing to smaller audiences.
A: I have an affinity for playing for any audience. The expectations change when the audience size is different, so you sort of cut your cloth accordingly. But I’ve never seen any difference in the size of the audience as far as my approach is concerned.
Q: ‘Bongo Bill,’ ‘Mud Island’ and ‘Ice Cream’ are particularly fun tracks. I imagine the best thing about working solo is you really have the freedom to do whatever you want without worrying about does it sound like Squeeze or not?
A: I think that doesn’t even enter my mind. And with all the songs you mentioned, I was just really doing what felt right to me. And you know, it’s a fun record because I relaxed into it, and it sounds like it, I think.