This interview first featured on Blog on the Tracks on Stuff here.
Mark Knopfler has a new album, Get Lucky, on the way. It will be released next week (here’s an audio link). I got lucky, in the sense that I was able to speak to Knopfler. He even called me (“Hi, is this Simon? Simon, this is Mark”).
With a new album to speak about, that was the focus – but Knopfler, careful, often guarded, is always engaging and is happy to talk about that band, specifically how happy he was to retreat from the big lights. That comes out in his opening comment concerning the new material: “It’s about the songs – it is always about the songs. It is about the writing and then it is about the performing.”
So what does Knopfler think of the new album, due on September 14?
“Is that when it’s out, is it?” He has a chuckle and makes a comment about that being “the marketing side of it” and so I ask what happens then, for him, when an album is complete – in the space between finishing it and seeing it released.
“Well, you know, you play the album a few times,” he begins, careful to make it sound like the universal experience – and it probably is, at least it’s a version of it – “and then it’s gone. Like a child leaving home…the songs have their lives and you leave them to go off and do…whatever, really. I get to play some of them live and that’s always good fun, but of course it has to come after the writing; so it’s thought of afterwards.”
For Knopfler, regularly rated among the world’s greatest guitarists and a reluctant guitar-hero when Dire Straits was at its peak, playing live is still – and always – “a beautiful affirmation of what I get to do for a living”. He says there are always “different versions of the songs to perform, just by nature of lifting it up from the page (or the record) and taking it to the stage it becomes different. And that is important.”
There is one show booked the week after Get Lucky is released. It will be September 23, Sheppard’s Bush, Bush Hall. But “there will be a tour on the books”. And then, another wry chuckle, before Knopfler adds, “there always is”. Lately, he’s been enjoying charity shows rather than full tours, telling me that it is always hard slog being out on the road.
Songwriting is the key, though. It’s the thing that keeps Knopfler in music; it’s the art behind the artifice that is the live show. “It surprises me that I go on writing this stuff. It really does. I don’t know what’s going to happen – I never know,” and it’s here that Knopfler really gets passionate, his voice speeding up, his tone changing from that casual drawl that is often heard in his singing voice. “I never know what I’m going to write next, I’m a parent to some particularly distant children in that sense. I like it that way though, I mean if I knew the answer behind what made a perfect song, if I knew what worked every time then I wouldn’t be speaking to you, because I wouldn’t have to prove myself time and again. And that’s as it should be. There are no clear-cut answers. But songwriting suits me best – it’s the most important thing to me.”
It is easy, especially these days, to view Knopfler’s old band, Dire Straits – essentially a vehicle for his songs – as one of the low-points in dinosaur rock; as an example of a band that was never (and never will again be) cool. But that’s because people have the (lasting) image of the headband and wristbands, of the neon and pastel, of this video, and of an album that went from being the high point of 1980s pop to the low point (seemingly overnight). It’s easy to forget that before the Brothers in Arms album, Dire Straits, while clearly not appealing to punk and post-punk hipsters, was a band with an immaculate track-record. Four superb albums. That word, immaculate, became part of the problem.
And when it became about so much more than the songs, that’s when Knopfler decided he had to pull this particular vehicle over. “That’s when I put the brakes on the band – when it became about more than the music. There wasn’t enough time in the day to keep up with the schedules. I needed breathing space.”
The breathing space started, arguably, with the soundtrack albums that Knopfler provided for Local Hero, Cal, Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Princess Bride and his production work for Bob Dylan’s Infidels and Aztec Camera’s Knife and then collaborations with Willy DeVille, more production work, this time with Randy Newman (it’s possible Knopfler’s Money for Nothing was the inspiration for Newman’s It’s Money That Matters) and of course the first move towards a form of anonymity with The Notting Hillbillies.
Knopfler assures me that all of those moves were just jigsaw pieces, part of the puzzle, a way to explore other avenues within the song. He returns to that basic idea, the idea of creating a song, telling me he feels “fortunate to have found the activity I ought to be involved with – it’s all I can do”.
Before he wrote songs, Knopfler trained as a journalist.
“It was a great thing to do as a kid. I went to college after being a newspaper lackey and I found I could organise stuff. I liked it. It was a great introduction to ‘life’ as a concept, to the world in general. I then moved into court reporting. I just remember it all as being a very good thing to be doing, a way to see how society is organised. A lot of kids don’t have a clue about that form of introduction to life. It influenced me and allowed me to meet people, to eavesdrop too, to take stories of other people home.”
And then to add them to songs – and create songs based on these ideas?
“Well, it certainly helps to have an imagination as a songwriter and to have some source material to draw from, sure.”
Knopfler’s approach to writing songs has been, so often, as a storyteller – putting characters into the songs, rather than being the confessional singer/songwriter. And while his journalistic background has often been used as a metaphor in his writing, as well as informing a character’s traits (think: “I go checking out the reports/digging up the dirt/you get to meet all sorts/in this line of work”) the listener has been rewarded with learning about Knopfler through his character-writing; the same way we learn about journalists through the pieces they file. Maybe not every article (or in Knopfler’s case, song) but piece by piece it builds up. All of a sudden there’s no surprise that Knopfler would write a tune like Private Dancer (essentially gifted to Tina Turner; “there is a version I worked up, it’s slower, moodier, more reflective. A quiet portrait, but I don’t think people need to hear that now” – that in itself says a lot about the man).
And there’s also the fact that so often the story is told, at least in part, by his lyrical guitar playing. That is still obvious when listening to Get Lucky, which follows on from 2007’s Kill To Get Crimson, but, in terms of relating this child to its siblings, it most closely resembles Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album, Golden Heart.
Knopfler says the same things still fascinate and inspire him about the guitar. That idea that “I am transported back to childhood and instantly nostalgic for the music I heard as a child and tried to make; in many ways I am still trying to make that”.
He tells me that he would fall asleep playing the guitar (“sometimes I still do”). The difference now is that he respects the talent and knows it’s something to still work at. “I didn’t respect the talent I had, now I try to visit it more. I work at it. Particularly the craft of writing. You don’t write songs unless you sit down and get behind the plough, I think people forget that. And I try very hard to stick to that philosophy, to stay behind the plough.”
Knopfler’s been compared to J.J. Cale, Robbie Robertson (of The Band) and Richard Thompson. Cale’s voice has that warble and his lines mumble and grumble away, burbling and gurgling rather than stinging out all at once in an obvious fashion. But Knopfler has never enjoyed the comparisons. I see them as being obvious in the sense that all are reluctant guitar heroes; more interested in the song than the histrionics. But again, Knopfler’s different for actually being forced into and through that stage.
He’s done his best to be the shy, retiring type ever since. But in terms of actually retiring - that seems a way off. I point out that he’s been far more prolific as Mark Knopfler Solo Artist than he ever was as Leader of Dire Straits or as Mark Knopfler Soundtrack Composer.
“I’m still standing behind the plough. I’ve always been behind the same plough. I just show up more often now.”
And then we’re done. Mark points out, in keeping with his journalistic training, that he’s given me five minutes beyond our allocated time and he must ring Russia. He concludes with the obvious interview comment that he’s hoping to get down to visit us in the new year when the tour is sorted. But the way he delivers it makes it seem believable. “It’s just too far away to get there every tour – but I love the audiences there and I know I owe you a show.”
In the meantime fans can check out Get Lucky.