He can play honky-tonk just like anything

Dire Straits founder David Knopfler talks about his DIY solo career, Bush and Clear Channel's deals with the devil and why he hates "Sultans of Swing."

Published November 10, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

While so many members of the big classic-rock acts have strip-mined every last bit of their fading stardom with endless reunion tours and gigs at Indian casinos, Dire Straits founder David Knopfler has purposely escaped into obscurity. Knopfler started Dire Straits with his virtuoso brother Mark in 1977 and the band was quickly propelled into AOR stardom with the haunting hit "Sultans of Swing" off their self-titled 1978 debut album. As Mark handled the guitar solos, David's moody chords moved the melody and propelled the tune as it spun its tale of a down-and-out jazz band passed over by changing times and tastes. David's contribution to this late-night radio mainstay gives him a piece of rock 'n' roll immortality that few can equal, whether he wants it or not.

David quit the band in 1980 before the runaway success of the "Brothers in Arms" album and the MTV stardom somewhat perversely gained by the anti-MTV hit "Money for Nothing." While his brother and former bandmates packed people into arenas, David embraced a DIY musical ethic and started recording his own solo records with little care for industry expectations.

On his latest album, "Wishbones," Knopfler captures the soul of his earliest work and combines it with Biblical references ("Jericho," "St. Swithun's Day") and angry political rhetoric. On the song "Karla Faye," about the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War (on Gov. George W. Bush's watch), Knopfler chides the now president with more intensity than can be found in a half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates. "Karla Faye, Karla Faye/ You gotta die for Georgie boy," Knopfler croons over a sad piano tune, "'Cause Georgie boy is on his way/ Georgie Porgie pudding and pie/ Blessed the girl then let her die."

Salon caught up with David Knopfler by telephone in his Santa Monica, Calif., hotel. He talked about his current small-venue tour, his early days with "the Straits" and the contemporary fusion of music, business and politics in what he calls "the devil's courtyard."

Tell me about forming Dire Straits. The most distinctive thing about that band was the guitar interplay between you and your brother, combining folk with jazz chords.

Well, more folk back then. There were a few jazz chords slipped in, but we weren't really jazz. We were playing together since we were tiny, so it was a very intuitive and instinctive thing. Every time Mark went out I would kind of steal his guitar and copy what he'd been up to.

I used to play in a school folk club and I was writing my own songs. I didn't know if you were allowed to, then. I was only about 12 or 13 so I would come in and say, "This is a traditional Irish song ..." I thought you weren't supposed to write your own songs, so I kept that a secret. It's funny now if you think about it, but I thought that I was doing something that you weren't supposed to do and that I would get into trouble.

How did you come up with the division of guitar labor between Mark and yourself where you're playing rhythm and he's playing lead?

When he was playing lead I had to cover basically, so I would be playing rhythm. I was never a lead guitarist and I'm still no lead guitarist. I have really no interest in doing that. Mark was always really the star performer.

When you were putting together that first record and you came up with "Sultans of Swing," did you ever imagine it would become the almost inescapable anthem that it is today?

I hate that song. It's an albatross. It's made me a lot of money but I hate it. It was never my favorite song then either. No, I had no concept that it was going to be huge. In fact, it was a piano song originally and it migrated into a strange, kind of hybrid "Greensleeves"-y kind of thing with a 1950s rhythm groove to it. It was an odd track altogether.

Back in the 1970s there were these haunting ballads and haunting big rock songs like "Hotel California," "Stairway to Heaven" and "Dream On." They're all songs about being trapped or about futility. "Sultans of Swing" is one of them. What do you think that that was about?

I haven't really considered it, to be honest. I have no idea. You're probably better at that than me. You're the writer. Vietnam was the deal and Woodstock and I suppose that there was a kind of post-Woodstock malaise with people kind of falling around not quite sure where they were at. England just kind of followed slavishly in the American tradition. I started writing songs when I was very young but my own songwriting didn't really get serious until after the Straits. I didn't get professional with my writing until my first solo record in 1983. I really don't know what the 1970s songwriting was really about. There was angst in it but then there's always been angst in songwriting. It was nothing new. I mean, Henry VIII wrote "Alas my love you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously" in the 16th century. Is unrequited love any different now?

You left Dire Straits before the success of "Brothers in Arms." Do you ever second-guess yourself for that?

Oh, no. It was the best decision I ever made in my life, and it wasn't really a decision. It felt like if I didn't take that step I would be crushed by a 1,000-ton weight. I felt this weight coming down towards me hurtling through the sky.

What made you feel that way?

I felt that I was losing myself in the process of the machinery of fame and celebrity and I didn't think that it had much to do with what I was interested in.

Which was what?

Songwriting and creative art -- the artist aspect of it. The Straits were meant to be a cult band. My ambition for the Straits was that we were going to be like an English Little Feat, not that we were going to be some sort of household name. I didn't ever want that for the band. It turned into this mega-million thing that was never meant to happen as far as I was concerned. It kind of failed when we did that. It kind of frightened me, our success.

Listening to your new solo album, "Wishbones," it actually sounds like Dire Straits' first couple of albums.

I haven't taken any great detours. I've just carried on doing what I do. All my albums are just a continuation of the same line.

Several songs on the record, such as "King of Ashes" and "Jericho," have these biblical themes. What led you to that?

We can blame St. Bob [Dylan] for that, I think. I think he kind of wrote the book on that one, didn't he? He was the first one there for all of us on that one. He was the one that sort of tipped us with songs like "Tell your Ma, tell your Pa, our loves are gonna grow ooh-wah, ooh-wah" [actually from the song "Talkin' World War III Blues"]. He opened it all up, didn't he? With songs like "Gates of Eden." He wrote the book on it. I was an 11-year-old just eating that stuff up. I think that's part of it.

The other part is that I do actively pursue the questions. I do investigate the issues of the questions. I've been reading Joseph Campbell for the last 15 years. I'm aware of those issues as long as I'm allowed to. In the 1950s you weren't allowed to -- the songs had to be in a cartoon formula. If you're writing "Spider-Man" comics and then one day someone says, "Have you ever seen this play by this guy named Shakespeare called 'Hamlet'?" You suddenly go, "You can write about that too? I didn't know you could do that. I didn't know that the rules allowed it."

I think what the 1960s and '70s did do, to get back to your earlier question, was to open up the possibilities of what was legitimate and what was OK to call a song. Now there are no restrictions on what you can and can't do when you're making your work, so why not? If the shoe fits ...

In the United States in 2003, as far as religion and the Bible are concerned, the radical right wing has totally absconded with it and controls all debate about it.

Well, I don't think they do. I think that the margins are huge. What the right have done -- the extreme right I think they are really -- they've tried to con us into believing that this is mainstream. The truth of the matter is that the margins are now so big. I work in the margins. Anybody who works in art rather than commerce is working in the margins. I think the margins are now so huge that the mainstream is completely buried. They have to spend billions on advertising and marketing to bullshit us about the fact that they're the mainstream. They're not the mainstream. They're just pressure groups lobbing money and bullshit. The margins are going to win. The margins have got it. There are more liberals in the margins than there are right-wing people in the mainstream.

It was always the way. I mean Thatcher and Reagan were a minority clique that stole power just as this bunch have with their money and their oil. They're not going to thrive forever on this bullshit. They're just telling us bullshit and lies and expecting us to swallow it. George Bush is just bullshit from start to finish. He was bullshit before he was president too. Everything that he said and did was absolute bullshit too -- that's why I wrote "Karla Faye."

That was my next question. You chastise him pretty hard in that song.

I think he deserves it, don't you? I think that he got off lightly there. I think anyone who can sneer at somebody on death row, and anyone who has the possibility of offering a reprieve and redemption and just says "God bless you" after icing them, is going to go to a special kind of perdition. There's a special place in hell for someone who can do that.

Because you speak out so strongly against Bush on the album, do you worry about any kind of backlash from Clear Channel, the chain that owns so many radio stations and seems to be so conservative?

(Laughs.) Yeah, like Clear Channel are really going to play me! That's really funny. I thought that you meant it seriously but of course you don't. You've got to be ironic. I'm so far away from the possibility of Clear Channel ever playing me. I have moved from the Straits to the most remote recesses of where art is or where art can exist. The possibility of me ever becoming a mainstream artist now so escapes my consciousness I can't even begin to think about it. I'm playing tomorrow night to 130 people. This isn't Clear Channel territory.

I don't care about the great monoliths. To me it's all the same thing as the Halliburtons and the Monsantos. Clear Channel is just another great, horrible conglom that cares about the money. It doesn't interest me. All that shit is the devil's courtyard. Anything that George Bush or the big corporations are interested in are the devil's courtyard. Don't go there. If you get caught playing in the devil's courtyard, sooner or later you have to make a Faustian pact and sooner or later you'll have to pay for that pact. I just don't go there. I leave it alone. I work in the margins. The margins are where you'll find the nice people. You'll find real friends. You'll find honesty. You'll find integrity. You'll find relationships that will last you for a lifetime and will be there to support you in the bad times, which are the only relationships that matter anyway. Relationships that are all about power and money aren't worth having.

Do you find that because of the conglomerates and the Clear Channels and the Viacoms, there are fewer niches for an artist like you?

They think that they know where the ballpark is, but if the public don't turn up and don't buy the tickets and don't show up for the game, what have they got? No one's listening to their radio stations. They're actually in big trouble because they can't fool the people forever. People are going elsewhere and buying independent records. They're going to independent stores. They don't want to drink their coffee in Starbucks anymore. They're looking for independent coffee shops. The radio stations that the students are playing music in are better stations. Every action produces a reaction, so I'm not worried about them. Martin Luther King only had a fan base of three when he started. Gandhi was only minding his own business when he took a walk to get some salt and ended up overthrowing the British Empire. You can't set out to overthrow an empire, but if you have to get some salt then get some salt. If you have to write some independent songs that are honest, just write them. If you have to do a day job stacking shelves, so be it. I could go back to social work tomorrow and enjoy it. I loved being a social worker. It wouldn't give me any sense of loss at all to be helping people for a living.

How is the music industry different now than it was in the 1970s?

It's a lot tougher if you want to make it. The record companies now are talking about million-dollar budgets. When a major wants to sign a new artist they budget a million dollars because of the marketing that it requires to get noticed. They need to bang people over the heads very loudly with very large hammers until their ears bleed. It's become a very expensive operation.

I noticed when I went into Tower Records last week in Nashville that the No. 1 album in there was Warren Zevon's album. It's ironic, really, that you have to die to get there but there he was. Warren spent his whole life never going anywhere near it. He had "Werewolves of London," but he basically never went anywhere near the charts with anything he did. "My Shit's Fucked Up" is one of the best songs that he ever wrote. One of the best songs ever written by anybody. A sublime little song that probably nobody knows about. If you're making good work, does it matter if you're selling 50 copies or 50 million? I would say to any young artist who's making the work just to enjoy the work.

Now you're going out on the road in support of "Wishbones" and playing shows in more modest venues. Is there ever a moment of sympathy for those Sultans of Swing that you're so tired of -- the characters in that song?

I'm one of those characters now. I've almost grown into the role, haven't I? I've been sliding down the pole since 1980 since I left the band. There's not a great bit of difference between what my band did playing to 300 people and a pub band. We're almost in the same league. I don't think I'm a celebrity. I've got more time for the guy driving my taxi than I've got for myself quite often.

By Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun is a longtime Salon contributor and the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (2013). Follow him on Twitter.

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