Mark Knopfler tells of coping with the demands of the road with Dire Straits and a new life of relative stability that has led to his first double album in a 35-year career. ‘I need to practise more,” says Mark.
The former leader of Dire Straits, a man routinely hailed as one of the world’s greatest guitarists, visibly blanches when he was ask how he rates himself as a musician. “If I had to make my living with just the guitar, I’d have to concentrate a lot harder.
“I’d have to have a teacher who came round and made me do things I didn’t want to do. The way I approach the whole thing is not orthodox, I break a lot of guitar rules. I just fiddle about.”At 67, Knopfler has record sales in excess of 120 million, solo and with Dire Straits. He has performed live in front of countless millions. He has collaborated with artists of the stature of Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton.
Yet he scoffs at the notion that he is a particularly gifted musician. “In my band, I’m probably the weakest link. I’ve got a lot of admiration for musicians who excel because they are really deep into their instruments, but that’s a whole universe away from what I do. I see the guitar as something to write songs with. It’s a lifelong love affair, but the song is king.” Knopfler releases Privateering, his first double album in a 35-year recording career, set in a musical landscape he characterises as “where the Mississippi Delta meets the Tyne” – 20 tracks of consummately crafted folk, blues, country and rock relating subtle, detailed narratives of hard lives and tough choices. “The older I get, the more I want to write. Whether that is just panic at time running out, I’m not sure. I’m almost tripping over songs.”
Born in Glasgow and raised mainly in his mother’s home county of Northumberland, Knopfler recalls that he fell in love with songs when he was very, very small. Chuck Berry made a huge impression, where the rhythm of the lyrics is as important as the music, there’s a ricocheting effect. By 12 or 13, I was listening to Bob Dylan. I was in love with the twang, the immediacy of rock and roll, but I was also concerned about words. It was never just music.”
Knopfler recognises different strands to his writing. “There are portrait songs where there is a character. And there are situation songs, where I’m in the picture. The Sultans of Swing are playing, and there’s nobody in the pub except a guy playing pool, but you are there observing, or there’s a store with TV screens playing videos and the delivery man is complaining about rock stars and you are into Money For Nothing. Other times, I could be reading a book and travelling and there is a collision of time and place, Telegraph Road or Sailing to Philadelphia, there’s a geography to the thing.”
He doesn’t carry a notebook but says he often picks up on stray phrases and observations. “I think I’ve got a junk yard out the back of my head, and instead of motorcycle parts as far as you can see, it’s just couplets and verse fragments. On Money For Nothing, I heard this guy talking and had to ask for a piece of paper and sat down and wrote the song in the window display of the shop itself.” Knopfler acknowledges that “a song has to relate to me in some way. You’re messing with time, something on the surface that might seem to be historical but has resonance now. And that relates to the musical form, too, playing music with deep roots. Times change, but people don’t – that’s one of the things that interests me.”
So while the title track of his album is an invitation to join a ship’s company in a bygone era of seafaring plunder and licensed piracy, Knopfler recognises an analogy with the modern rock and roll life. “I get a buzz out of having this little group of people that sallies forth across the world. I enjoy being in command of it, the band, the crew, travelling through this ever- changing landscape and playing in all these different places. A privateer is what I am, really.”
“But not quite so much rape and pillage,” I suggest.
“No,” he says, straight-faced. “That was the old days.”
Knopfler may be the most well-adjusted rock star I have ever met. He is courteous, humble, respectful to people around him, with a quiet, self-contained demeanour that can render him nearly invisible. There is a scene in a Sky documentary, A Life in Songs, where Knopfler is filmed sitting at an outdoor café directly across the square from where he is about to play a concert. Draped down one wall of the venue is a massive billboard of the man himself. But nobody notices the rock star in their midst. This, you sense, is the very thing he was seeking when he turned his back on the stadium rock of Dire Straits in 1995.
“I put the thing to bed because I wanted to get back to some kind of reality. It’s self-protection, a survival thing. That kind of scale is dehumanising. I always enjoy talking with the truck drivers because they are independent-minded, interesting people. I remember going into catering on the last Straits tour and not recognising the drivers, and I just knew then that it wasn’t right.”
Knopfler was 28 when Dire Straits scored their first success. “I’ve always worked since I was 14, different jobs, building sites, factory, warehousing, farming, a lot of manual work, and then journalism and teaching. They’re all good experiences for a young guy, I think, it gives you sympathy for other people’s lives, but nothing prepares you for this.”
Knopfler looks back on his superstar days with a mixture of affection and horror. “It’s what you wanted. You pick the ball up and run with it. You run into things, but you keep moving, you keep going. It’s hard, it’s great, it’s exciting but it’s traumatic, believe me. There’s a lot of insanity. I can remember doing a whole raft of interviews in 1978: the first album was number one, and it felt as though someone got hold of the thread of my sweater and pulled it, and there was nothing there, just a shredded feeling of losing control, really finding it difficult to hang on.” Knopfler, normally so articulate, shakes his head as if lost for words.
“Yeah, God,” he mutters. He remains close to Dire Straits bassist John Isley (“my great mate”), but I suspect this is one band that will resist the lure of a reunion. “It’s pretty amazing to think about how you actually survived it because the casualty rate is really high. It makes you think about whether you’ve lived a charmed life. I’m not a superstitious person at all, but sometimes when you are touring, if you are on a long voyage, you realise how lucky you’ve been – the narrow escapes, the many that you’ve had – and you start wondering about how we got away with that. How did we avoid some kind of disaster here, there and everywhere?
“And you’ve got to come home at the end of all this stuff and the problems that you had when you set out have not gone away. I feel lucky to have got through it and lucky not to be going through it any more.”