Mark Knopfler: "This getting older stuff ain’t for wimps"

Exclusive: The rock legend on the Dire Straits songs that still matter, bands he loves and a great new CD [UPDATED]

Published March 28, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

Mark Knopfler       ( Bird)
Mark Knopfler ( Bird)

This story has been updated.

“Tracker,” the eighth solo album by Mark Knopfler, begins with a man remembering his youth and all the revelry that defined it. “Laughs and jokes and drinks and smokes, and no lights on the stairs,” he sings as a fiddle dances to a jazzbo rhythm section. “We were young, so young, and always broke… not that we ever cared.” Initially, his nostalgia sounds familiar: a backwards glance so common to rock stars of a certain age, reliving their glory days before resorting to that standards album. But Knopfler has always been a sly songwriter, first as the frontman for Dire Straits and later as a solo artist. Soon a story emerges, one set resolutely in the present. That narrator (who may or may not be the singer himself) looks up an old friend and visits her family, only to find that they have no idea where she is. So he simply leaves. It’s a small moment, a few quiet hours in the man’s life, but it resonates powerfully as his attempt to commune with his younger self is thwarted. The past, he finds, cannot be recovered so easily.

Knopfler’s own past is well known. He founded Dire Straits in the late 1970s with his brother David, and the band enjoyed a string of hits into the 1980s: “Sultans of Swing” showcased Mark’s nimble fretwork as well as his inventive storytelling in 1978, and 1985’s “Money for Nothing” became MTV’s unofficial theme song despite thoroughly lambasting the channel. Knopfler released a steady stream of collaborations and soundtracks (most notably for “The Princess Bride”), and after Dire Straits disbanded in the mid 1990s, he embarked on a solo career that has been eventful but only now seems to be hitting its stride with his excellent 2012 double album “Privateering” and now “Tracker.”

“Tracker” is populated with characters who are constantly examining their pasts as though looking for some way forward, often defying the world to define themselves. Some are real people, others fictional characters. The poet Basil Bunting shows up, writing newspaper copy instead of epic verse, but the novelist Beryl Bainbridge is merely a memory, “dead in her grave” by the time the world recognized her talent. They’re joined by a nameless crew of less-celebrated people, like the young man bristling against provincial surroundings in “River Towns” and the pugilist in “Broken Bones” who wears his crooked nose like a trophy.

Despite the liner notes by Richard Ford, “Tracker” is a casually literary album: Knopfler is just as comfortable with his characters as he is with his guitar. Just as he eschews long solos and ostentatious displays of technique for eloquent melodic lines and graceful finger-picked themes, he focuses on the small moments and quiet drama in his characters’ lives. There are few rock artists aging quite as gracefully as Knopfler, perhaps because he has managed to make aging such a compelling subject.

I wanted to start by asking about the song “Basil,” which is one of only a few songs on the album about an actual person.

Basil Bunting was a poet who was actually pretty well known at one point. "Briggflats,” which he wrote, was considered to be one of the most important epic poems since “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot. Basil unwillingly had to work at an office, where I had a little job when I was 15 or so. I worked on Saturdays and they paid me six shillings and sixpence. They would shout, “Boy!” and I would run over and put copy down into little tubes, down to the printers. It was clear Basil didn’t fit in at all. He was too old and slightly eccentric looking. He didn’t look like the other guys on the newspaper at all. But he needed the money to survive.

What did you think of him when you were a teenager?

He fascinated me at the time, although I was busy thinking about my first girlfriend, or my first potential girlfriend. Any girlfriend. I was dreaming about guitars and girls and my rosy future, while Basil was at the other end of life. I was up for the world, and Basil had already seen it. Now I can see where Basil was coming from. Actually “Briggflats,” when it was published, enabled him to escape from the newspaper office for a while and go to America. He got employment as an academic for a while, although he did end up coming back to the North East, and a period of obscurity did follow that period of success. He returned to Northumberland and died there, in my county.

Do you ever return to his poetry?

Occasionally. I don’t know that I read more than the average person. I don’t think I do very much. I tend to read more when I’m on holiday. That’s when I can go through books like you wouldn’t believe. I read a bit of everything, but the novel has always been very important to me.

You do seem to write in a very literary style, I think, in that you’re inhabiting characters and trying to depict the world through their eyes.

Sometimes it’ll be first-person, like the boy in “River Towns.” I actually got that from a short story that I happened to read. That’s the sort of thing that will influence a song. It’s the same with “Mighty Man,” for instance. It’s from reading about about the navvies who came over to the UK from Ireland and built the whole infrastructure that we have now — the dams and canals, then later on the railways and roads and houses. You name it, they built it. I happened to read a lovely book called “I Could Read the Sky.” It’s beautifully written by Timothy O’Grady, but Steve Pyke plays just as important a role with these wonderful photographs and portraits. It’s a very moving book, and one of the things that this character says he can do is, “I could read the sky.” I didn’t use that line, obviously. I wouldn’t. But the third verse of “Mighty Man” is about him listing the things he could do, like standing up on horseback. That was from “I Could Read the Sky.”

So a book will occasionally fire off a song. “River Towns” was a short story by a writer who’s not well known. He’s an American writer called Breece D'J Pancake, who wrote about the people of West Virginia. He actually committed suicide when he was 26. It was very tragic. He could really have been the future. Sometimes it can come from a remark that somebody makes, or sometimes it can come from being physically in the place. “Sailing to Philadelphia” is from flying over Philadelphia. “Sultans of Swing” from being in the pubs. “Money for Nothing,” "Telegraph Road".... Who knows where the next one is coming from?

In other words, you just have to make yourself open to all possibilities.

I suppose. It could be something you just say, and for some reason it will just lodge. You’re a kind of magpie without realizing it. For me songwriting is really where it’s at. I turn to use the guitar just to help me write the songs. That’s it. As a result, my guitar playing suffers pretty horribly. Fortunately my band are pretty wonderful. My guitar player Richard Bennett once told me… I must have made a mistake during a song, and Richard said, “The singer is always right.” So they do let me get away with it.

It’s odd to hear you say that, because I think most people think of you as a guitar player first and foremost.

I do love playing. It’s an obsession that started at a very early age. I have what they call a collection, even though I’m not a collector. People will give me things. My friend in America, Rudy Pensa, makes fantastic guitars, and he’ll make one and send it to me. Each one is better than the last one. It’s unbelievable. Or I’ll meet somebody like John Monteleone. He made me a guitar. But I think you’ll find that every guitarist always has another guitar. It’s just something about guitar players, although I don’t quite know why that should be. But I love playing and it keeps the child in me alive. All the things I used to love as a child, that I used to draw, I still like now, like bicycles.

I had an interview this morning at the BBC, and I was a bit early. I walked around the block and there’s a bicycle shop there. And I just started looking at these bicycles, and then I thought, What am I doing? I already have a bicycle. But I like bicycles. That’s what I’m doing. They’re beautiful bicycles. It’s obviously a cracking shop. And I’m just standing there, edging around this window, just the way I would in a guitar shop or a motorcycle shop. And it’s because I like them. I’ve always liked bicycles, and I’ll probably go on liking bicycles. I actually bought an old Colnago recently, an Italian racing bike — not because I can ride it, but just because it’s an object of such beauty. I’m afraid I can’t do justice to an old road-racing bike, and it’ll probably end up going to someone who can ride it properly. But it has this lovely steel frame, just a beautiful thing.

I like the idea of a bicycle as a piece of art, something you appreciate for its design as much as for its function.

Exactly. In a house we were renting once, I tried to get a motorcycle into the kitchen, but Kitty [Aldridge, Knopfler’s wife] objected. It was there for a few days, and she was kind about it. But it couldn’t live with us. So it went back in the garage. But it’s a lovely thing.

Does music work the same way as bicycles and guitars? Do you still engage with songs the way you did as a teenager?

I actually spend as much time listening to new music as to old. Probably more. I just try to get something out of it all. Take Van Morrison. His voice has been a part of my life since "Them," and it’s a wonderful thing to be singing with him. But it’s also wonderful to discover somebody new. I like to buy records for people, make a present of the music. I bought a couple of records for Kitty the other day, and she said what a difference it makes to actually be given music. It made her feel differently about the songs. So who knows? Maybe buying a record for somebody is going to come back.

Have you made any recent discoveries that you’re excited about?

It’d be a whole list of people. I love the Barr Brothers, Gregory Alan Isakov, Sharon Van Etten. There are loads of people. Pieta Brown’s another one. First Aid Kit. They sound like the Everly Brothers to me. It would be nice to mention Ruth Moody, who I think is a wonderful singer. She’s part of the Wailin’ Jennys and she writes beautifully, too. She came out on the last tour and we did a few songs together, and she’ll do a few shows in Europe with us for this album. What I can’t understand is that we can actually sing stuff together, because Ruth’s voice is amazing and mine sounds like a wounded animal. But it seems to work.

It’s funny about a voice, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s just this anointed voice. You don’t know quite what it is, but it has a way of beguiling you. It’s like the first time you hear Laura Marling, isn’t it? It’s just in her voice. And it attracts you. I’m talking male and female, by the way. It’s got nothing to do with one or the other. When Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sing together, it’s just wonderful. Something just hooks me, and I don’t know what it is. The heart recognizes it, though, doesn’t it?

Like “Privateering,” “Tracker” is an album that’s very concerned with the passage of time. It’s obviously something you’ve been thinking about, and I wondered if that affects how you relate to your older songs? Do they change for you as you get older?

Some you’d feel like playing, and some you wouldn’t. One or two I just go on doing. “Brothers in Arms” is one of those songs. It’s just a loaded moment, and it means an awful lot to me. And a lot of these songs have become signposts in people’s lives. So if you’re going to play them, you’re always very conscious that you’d better play them well. I can find something in them each time. You’re not reciting a song, so it never feels like cabaret.

As a songwriter, it’s just a wonderful thing when a song leaves your hands and you get to see what can happen to it — the way it gets used by people. When an artist tells you that they used your song to paint with or someone says they got through a painful period thanks to one of your songs, it pays you back. I happen to think that one creative act creates other creative acts. You drop a pebble in the well and it’s quite astonishing what happens to those ripples. They go out and sometimes they come back to you.

I remember hearing “Romeo & Juliet” as a teenager, and because I was a very serious teenager, I heard it as a very serious song. But as an adult, I find a lot of humor in it.

You’re dead right. That’s another one that’s still fun to play. I remember when I was younger and I was cut up about some girlfriend or other, my dad would tell me that there would come a time when I would laugh about it. I didn’t feel like laughing at the time, of course, but eventually I arrived at that place.

You have more experiences to draw from and you can realize it’s not the end of the world.

It isn’t. Although I guess it was for Romeo. Before I wrote that song, I started to see him as a figure of fun. I suppose when I’m songwriting now, I’m very conscious of time. Instead of receding, the past actually becomes more important. That’s what will happen to you. It sounds unlikely, but the past actually changes complexion as you get older. You see things differently. That’s really what I suppose “Basil” would be about. Twenty years ago, I’m not sure I could have written that song. It just means more to me now.

The opener, “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes,” seems to work the same way.

That’s about when you feel like you’re indestructible. You feel that till you’re whatever age, then you start picking up a few injuries along the way. You need to have the obsession to go on. As one of my musical friends remarked not so long ago, this getting older stuff ain’t for wimps. So you need to have a certain resilience. It’s the love of the thing that keeps you turning up.

Right now there seem to be so few examples of people who are content with aging, who aren’t fighting it.

You’ve got no choice. I just try to stay fit. That’s important — just to try to stay physically fit so you can go out there and play. You do need to be in reasonable shape. When you’re a kid, you’re not even thinking about that stuff. You’re just ramming through everything. I did learn eventually — perhaps far too late — to respect the talent I have. For a lot of years out there, I was just bashing on to the next thing and not really thinking about it too much. That’s what we do. But I’m learning to appreciate the moment.

By Stephen Deusner

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