Ive read that you started writing songs
when you quite young, but you didnt know if you were supposed to do
that so you would call your songs traditionals. How long did it
take you to realize that songwriters were allowed?
KNOPFLER: LOL. Its true I used to go to the school folk club with my songs
when I was only 13 or so and say this is a traditional folk song
and sing it with a bad Irish accent to disguise the real source. The school
was prone to dishing out punishments for anything creative that didnt
fit with expectation I just followed the logic and figured the folk
club was probably much the same. I didnt really escape that gravity
until I moved 300 miles south to go to college at 18, where authorship no
longer seemed something liable to induce vengeful punishment. In some ways
its taken me decades to come clean and make honest work and still
to this day, sometimes I find myself wanting to hide behind my work and deny
the more biographical aspects. Trust the tale, not the teller.
How did the original Dire Straits get its start?
I was sharing a flat with the bass player, who had taken to rehearsing
with a singularly loud punk band of an evening. The only solution I could
conceive to the racket was to wean him back to something more in keeping with
what I liked. So I told my brother Id found the perfect bass player
for our duets, and introduced my brother to my flat mate.
By 1980, before the hit Dire Straits album Brothers
in Arms, you had dropped out of the band to pursue a solo and very independent
career. What were some of the factors behind this decision? Do you ever regret
the route youve chosen?
KNOPFLER: I left for
the same reasons everyone leaves jobs that are no longer fulfilling their
hopes and aspirations. I didnt see myself spending the rest of my life
being a strummer for someone elses dreams. Whatever the opposite of
regret is best describes how Ive always felt about that decision
it opened me up to a million creative opportunities I needed to experience
away from the bullshit and distorting mirrors that fame engenders.
Your music is better known in Europe than the
US. Is the US musical scene more corporate and radio hit-driven than
in Europe? Do you think youd have a harder time as an independent here
in the US?
Im pretty much below the radar of commercial visibility everywhere,
though the US is indeed the place Ive sadly most neglected. The Clear
Channel syndrome of pay-for-play, hard marketing-driven commerciality has
an effect too but its been largely a situation of my own making.
I didnt really want to spend months and months away from my wife and
son in the late 80s and 90s touring Id seen the price paid for
that in too many other peoples marriages and I was making a pretty
decent living selling 70,000 to 100,000 albums per release instead of millions.
So why sign your name in blood for more? It seemed like a sensible arrangement
for me. I didnt sell large numbers of records and the record company
paid advances they rarely recouped. The business has lost the facility to
accommodate such anomalies now margins are squeezed and sales
are crucified by combinations of CDRs, online downloads, an ever increasing
volume of product exceeding demand and so forth. Now Im having to live
with sales of around 50,000 per album but Im pretty content with
my place in the general scheme of things, even if its meant I dont
drive a fancy car and cant afford grand vacations.
How do you finance and manage your career as an independent? Do you
do everything yourself, just like most sole proprietors in any line of work?
I took the process of doing as much myself as I could like a duck
to water. I set up my own label and publishing, etc, and it was a fun learning
curve two decades ago. In the early days I really enjoyed the freedoms it
offered because I was happy to work the long hours as long as I was working
from home a lot. Now that Im staring down the barrel of the last act
of my life, Im less excited about control and solo effort, and I resent
the way the business aspects interfere with my space for creative writing.
So I much prefer to get help and support from anyone generous enough to offer
it. Last November, however, in a fit of sheer bloody mindedness I put together
a mini-tour of California which was so much fun to do. Id FAR
prefer to have an agent take all that spade work from me. I dont take
no for an answer very readily though.
My impression of the music scene is that almost
everyone starts out as an independent and then gives up more and
more independence to achieve success. Is that how you see it?
KNOPFLER: Thats often the way it works, yes though usually the small print
of artistic careers contain lots of forced hands that get glossed over in
the PR. As Oscar Wilde said: I can resist anything except temptation.
Theres much false nobility in the margins. Many an Artist treading the
lonely low road gives it up to get their name onto Mephs global major
What are some of your chief musical influences?
First and foremost Dylan for redefining what was permissible in the pop
song. The influences are fairly predictable, as with most of us in the acoustic
singer-songwriter tradition. Im inclined to think that the 24th Century
will have Dylan and Joni Mitchell as the two largest footnotes of the 20th
Century. Then maybe well also see in the secondary footnotes Van Morrison,
Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Lowell George and so on. Wish I could
be there to see it.
What would you tell a young musician about breaking
into the business? Can one go independent from the start and find a way to
make a living as well as good music?
KNOPFLER: Yes, but to learn the craft properly
integrate it with your own artistry and vision there are probably
no shortcuts if you want to be more than just an entertainer. I dont
know to what extent someone can BECOME an artist you either are or
you arent and if you are youll HAVE to make your way to
some kind of sickly light, no matter how terrible the soil you were seeded
in... your nature will out somehow. If you feel driven and compelled to make
your work and to be fiercely original and have something unique to say, in
a compelling way, then chances are the helpers will be there for you... the
doors will open some, the ice will crack. You just have to be sufficiently
driven not to give up, even when youre feeling about as popular as Vincent
Van Gogh did when the good people of Arles sent him packing. The low road
is a life choice, so its no good whining if having chosen it, you find
its exactly as described: stoney, difficult, unappreciated, and so on.
You just have to love what you do, and do it obsessionally, and then maybe
in a decade or so youll notice youre getting better than you used
to be. Thats reward enough. Its not for butterflies.
your work in music, you also write poetry and create art. Have you always
had diverse interests, or did some of them develop before or after music?
How do they work for or against each other?
KNOPFLER: Im pretty hopeless at fine
art its a noodling hobby and I doubt if I were offered
a perfect exhibition space I could fill it in even another decade. I may be
naive, but the poetry I still hold out some hope for. Ive been getting
pretty focused about that recently, and even considered doing a masters degree
to polish up the craft. Ive been pretty lucky in that I seem to have
found people online who are willing to constructively tear it apart for me,
and indicate its weaknesses. Theres nothing like doing something wrong
to learn how it might be done better. Im now at the stage of being quite
frequently, jaw-droppingly impressed by the artistry of other peoples
poetry. I always liked the magic of poetry but now Im just starting
to see behind the curtain of even the best poets, how theyve used, tried
and tested craft to create the illusion. Wonderful feeling of exhilaration
to finally be there.
Your music has quite a few spiritual references.
What is your spiritual background and experience, and do you consider music
to be a spiritual path in itself?
Actually I feel like Im stepping into a place
of spiritual contemplation every time I enter a studio; its always had
a certain magic to me that has never worn off with familiarity. My faith,
inasmuch as I have any, is more like a kind of Joseph Campbell thing, and
even that frequently finds itself tested to oblivion in siren waters. The
biblical stuff has somehow found its way into my work because it contains
a rich mix of symbolism, metaphor, archetypes; in short, it resonates, and
its already survived centuries of quick expediencies. God save us all
from being too fresh!
Also, Ive been doing the I Ching pretty much all my life, though Im
a rather poor practitioner of its tougher precepts. Im not even sure
how feasible it is to live in the real world in such monkish fashion. Somewhat
childishly, it peeves me whenever I dont get special dispensation from
the higher powers, even though its blindingly obvious thats not
how it works. I just keep asking with increased irritation come on
guys, cant they do this one simple miracle I need!? ;) Then when that
fails, having refused to accept the discipline required of the answer I dont
like. . . Ill sulk and slump. My faith will also slide sometimes to
the edge of extinction, then something seemingly inexplicable will happen,
like a dream that then materialises in reality the next day and Ill
be back wide eyed and fascinated, excited again.
Id make a terrible practitioner of any religion in any formal setting.
In general Im just as happy to light candles in a church of any denomination
I wasnt raised with any religion (unless my fathers Marxism
counts) but Im able to feel the hushed reverence of a cathedral, like
the childhood memories of visiting an art gallery or a library. Ive
always liked those architectural spaces that have silent guardians in uniforms
ready to say hush! to us poor plebs.
Join David's Patreon "Coffee Club"