Interview with Mark Knopfler

By Neville Marten – Guitarist Magazine, 2002.

The article was removed from the Guitarist Magazine website.

As the creative force behind one of the most successful bands of all time, Mark Knopfler’s position among guitar players is an enviable one

After the success of Mark Knopfler’s last solo album, the 3.5 million-selling Sailing To Philadelphia which featured one of the most successful duets of recent years, with the great James Taylor, the Geordie picker is about to launch its follow-up.

Lyrically and musically, The Ragpicker’s Dream continues where Philadelphia left off and where Knopfler’s first solo album, Golden Heart, had begun. It comes full of themes and stories; of geographical juxtapositions and the thumbnail sketches that characterise his best writing. And, of course, it brims with the most tasteful, toneful and melodic guitar playing this side of anywhere.
Since Sultans Of Swing broke the established guitar hero mould with its clean, country-influenced Stratocaster licks way back in 1978, Knopfler’s playing has never stood still. His ability to coax the sweetest tones from a range of beautiful vintage instruments – three of which he brought to the interview and generously allowed us to play – is perhaps unsurpassed. His friendship with the late, great Chet Atkins has added to his palette of styles, and he admitted to us that he still checks out guitar books to further his musical knowledge.

Mark also recently reformed his two old bands, Dire Straits and The Notting Hillbillies, for a series of concerts in aid of a number of worthy causes…
“The way that came about was that a neighbour asked if I’d do one charity concert and I said yes,” begins a croaky Knopfler, whose voice sounds like it could pack up at any time. “Then I thought, What’s the point of getting the Billies and the Straits together and just doing one show? All that rehearsing would have been pointless for one gig, so I got in touch with various other charities and we did four shows instead of one. Nothing that complicated.”

The Ragpicker’s Dream has a rootsy, intimate quality to it, but it seems even now there’s pressure on the guitarist to recreate his Dire Straits themes and sounds. “There’s probably an element of that,” muses Mark, apologising for his tired tonsils and sipping honey and lemon tea between replies. “I think there might even have been a bit of that in the way Chuck Ainley, my co-producer and very good buddy, wanted the record to sound. I think even Chuck was trying to get a sound like Philadelphia, while I wanted it to sound more like it actually turned out. I wanted to get the drums further back and record in another kind of way. I think now we understand each other a lot better.”

Reaction to the album seems to be very positive. “Unbelievably so,” agrees Mark, now almost animated, “which actually surprised me, because I thought they’d want it to be a bit more rocky. Philadelphia would have sounded more like this if I’d had anything to do with it.”

It also seems like a very reflective record, harking back to the north-east and to simpler times perhaps. “Yes,” says Mark, “there’s that north-eastern thing, and it also does my transcontinental geography trick. There’s a lot about travelling in my life. Southbound from Newcastle to London was an important journey for me, and it’s the same as the journey southbound in America.

The chorus of the album’s opener, Why Aye Man, with its curious ethnic chanting mixed with obvious Geordie-isms, has already been picked up by the makers of the new Auf Wiedersehen, Pet series. “I found it very ironic during the Thatcher period, that Geordies were becoming refugees but going the other way – to Germany rather than escaping from it,” explains Mark. “Seamus Heaney sent me a copy of his Spirit Level poems and inside he wrote, Keep your level high. That reminded me of the big spirit levels the carpenters and bricklayers used on those German building sites. Then Jimmy Nail was telling me that the American Indians sounded very like Geordies in their singing – that ‘why aye man’ is like an American Indian chant. I didn’t write it for the new series, but they took the chorus and used it for the credits and it does connect with the North American Indian thing.”

Another track, You Don’t Know You’re Born, could be construed as a modern day Money For Nothing, with its subtly biting lyrics. “That’s an expression which strangely the Americans don’t know,” continues Knopfler. “It’s actually not as cynical as Money For Nothing, but it’s relevant to today. In the end you become the old fart yourself, saying that kids are fat and lazy and illiterate and foul-mouthed.”

Mark’s comments about the album’s more laid back sound are confirmed by a distinct folk element creeping in to certain numbers. “Well, a couple of the tracks start with Richard Bennett strumming his bazouki and that certainly helps in that regard,” he elaborates. “It’s a wonderful instrument and I first encountered it when I ran into Donal Lunney from Dublin. My good friend Paul Brady helped put together a group of heavyweight Irish musicians for Golden Heart, and it was then that I realised how important an instrument the bazouki is. So Richard learnt how to play it so we could do those songs live, bought a cheap one, which he still has, and it ended up starring on several new tracks.”

Whether deliberate or not, there are also tips of the Knopfler hat to some of his heroes, including Hank Williams (lap steel and fiddle on Daddy’s Gone To Knoxville), Eric Clapton (some bluesy lead in Fare Thee Well Northumberland) and of course, Hank Marvin.

“Oh yes, the Hank Marvin thing,” smiles Knopfler. “That sound at the end of You Don’t Know You’re Born was done on a 1954 Strat that was given to me by a great friend. It just seemed the right thing. It’s one of those guitars that just has to have heavy strings on it and a big wound third. It’s actually number 59, made in the third month of production, and it’s not really for playing fast. I’ve also got a ’54 Telecaster. What happened was, the girls used to wind the pickups by hand back then. They’d be talking to each other and they’d be saying, He did what? Then keep on winding and winding. And if you get those back pickups from those Teles they’re the size of hamburgers; that’s the real reason for the sound. And, of course, the tensioning was different because of the hand winding – I think Fender are looking at the tension thing now.

“Plus, over the years, the pickups become more microphonic and the guitars themselves dry out and consequently sound better. So if any readers have got these new Fenders and they’re worried that they don’t sound quite like the older ones – close but no cigar – part of that is age. You’ve got to let the wood dry out – give it another 40 years and it’ll be fine!”

Knopfler’s collaboration with James Taylor on the title track from Sailing To Philadelphia – the story of the creation of the Mason-Dixon line separating the Yankee north from the rebel south – received huge acclaim and remarkable UK airplay. “So my mum tells me,” grins the now relaxed and smiling Mr Knopfler. “It was a real pleasure having James in and he did fantastically well, because the song was really too low for him. When I was writing it I kept hearing James singing the chorus, with that wonderful voice, and so it had to be. Mason and Dixon were Brits, but it didn’t matter because James’ delivery is very British, even though he is quintessentially American. Actually, like Dixon, he’d make a very good astronomer. It was a bit like casting for a film in that sense, and I thought it was a good call.

I was really pleased with the record, and surprised it did what it did around the world.”

A lot of readers will wonder whether Taylor played the acoustic guitar on the track. “No, I did,” counters Mark, “but it seemed to tie it all together. I cut the track with the lead guitar that you can hear on it – a white ’65 Strat – and added the fingerpicking guitar afterwards. The picked acoustic just finished it off.”

Maybe you can’t hear James Taylor’s voice without… “Without hearing the acoustic? Exactly! Actually, James is completely on top of his game. We recorded another couple of folk songs he wanted to do. I don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day, but what was so impressive was he’d sing and play take after take, really, really well. His playing is so good.”

Since Guitarist last spoke to Knopfler, around the time of Sailing To Philadelphia, his great friend and mentor Chet Atkins has died. He looks reflective at the mention of Chet’s name and then begins. “There’s a song on the new album called Daddy’s Gone To Knoxville, which made me think about Chet a lot when I was writing it. When I would talk to him about his early life, a lot of it was about movement, about endless shuffling between places, both as a child and as a musician.

“Now when you look at the weather or the traffic news in Tennessee, they talk about the traffic on the Galeton road and you see all these lanes of traffic and a truck’s overturned on exit nine, helicopters buzzing over the traffic and you see the headlights are all on because it’s six o’clock in the morning but the rush has already begun. Even from when I started going down to Nashville, the town was starting to grow, but it was nothing like it is now. The Galeton road and the road to Knoxville are huge things now, but they were once just little tracks. And not that long ago. The march of development has really been on an accelerator and I suppose I was writing that song with all that in mind. When Chet was young it would have been so much smaller, just a tiny track.”

There’s an impression that Knopfler spends a lot of time in Nashville, perhaps even living there much of the year. But no, it’s simply a convenience thing. “I’ve got nothing to do with it all, really; I live in London,” confides Mark. “It’s just that Nashville is really nicely placed for my band. Me and Guy Fletcher go from here and Jim Cox comes from Los Angeles. Three of the other guys work out of Nashville, even though none of them are from there. It’s a really good place from that point of view, though it’s typical that I would have the least practical recording band in the world. Mind you, when a record like this comes out of it, you feel it’s all been worthwhile.”

So which musicians helped record the album? “Well, Paul Franklin’s on pedal steel on three tracks – he always gets in there somewhere. Mike Henderson’s on harmonica on one track and Glen Duncan’s on fiddle on one track. The rest of it’s the basic band: Guy Fletcher on keyboards, Richard Bennett on guitars, Jim Cox on Hammond and piano, Chad Cromwell on drums and Glenn Worf on bass.”

It’s acknowledged that Dire Straits were one of the first bands to fully take advantage of the CD format, capitalising on the clarity of sound available and producing the highest quality recordings. Does Knopfler have amazing ears or is he simply a stickler for detail in the studio? “Neither really,” he says, self-effacingly. “I think I was just really lucky to get to work with some brilliant engineers, from the first album all the way up. Really that’s it. Recording and engineering-wise I’m pretty illiterate. I’ve only been taking a bit more of an interest lately because it seemed that the records were getting away from me. And because of that, this one is closer to what I wanted than most.”

Like James Taylor, Knopfler’s technique hasn’t stagnated. He’s developed as a fine fingerstyle acoustic player and his electric playing seems to have refined over the years. Is that through deliberate study? “No, I don’t think so,” reasons Mark. “I think all that’s happened is, picking up the ball and running with it early on in the band, I realised I should learn something about what the hell I was doing. I was being asked to do some pretty high level things, so I got a couple of books and started learning and just tried to move myself on. It still happens sometimes: on the last tour Richard Bennett gave me a thing called Atomic Power In Every Chord, from Mel Bay – great title. There’s a lot of very good things in there and when I get stuck into things like that it shows me things that I put to work; something somewhere will get used and I like that.

“Chet gave me a load of stuff too. I’ve got a couple of big envelopes filled with stuff he gave me but I can’t bring myself to open them yet. I must sit down and do something though. He gave me them years ago and I’ve got to sit down and learn something on the guitar again.

“I really think I should do that. I did do it in New York when I was living there for a while; started to extend my chord knowledge; be able to call the same thing up in another position on the neck and all that stuff.”

Knopfler’s range of tones is also a lot broader these days, but he won’t even attribute that to personal achievement. “Well, I think that has mostly to do with the fact that I’m using a bigger array of equipment now. Les Pauls feature in my sound as well as the single coil sounds. But generally speaking it’s really because it’s fingers rather than a pick. I’ve a mongrel’s technique, a mongrel’s style of playing, and in that sense it’s never going to be as good as a pick, but at least it’s always going to be different.”

Mark has recently been honoured by Martin with a signature model dreadnought, but his electric Stratocaster tone has become legendary. Are there plans for a Knopfler Strat from Fender? “Well, first of all the guitar that I used on all of these songs is the guitar I also used to write them, which is the MK signature Martin. It’s such a beautiful guitar. I tried other acoustics but nothing really came close. It’s a really exceptional instrument.

“And yes, I’m getting a Strat organised at the moment with Fender, but it’s what we were talking about earlier – looking at different pickups and also finding the right body so it’s going to sound great out of the box. I really want the whole thing to work. There might be one position on the five-way that’s great, but I want it to sound great on the front one and the back one as well. It’s down to neck sizes and all the rest of that stuff too.

“There’ll be different colours, but obviously there’ll be a red one. Actually it should be flamingo pink, because Hank’s was flamingo pink. That was what the whole thing was all about: flamingo pink and sonic blue! Nick Lowe’s sonic blue Precision bass is gorgeous. I love the colours the old Fenders become.”

And if signature Martins and Fenders aren’t enough, there are things happening at Gibson too. “Yeah, Gibson is working on a couple of Les Pauls. They’ve made one that’s very like my ’58. An interesting thing about Les Pauls is that the Americans are really into this flamed maple business, but mine’s a much plainer top, a quite plain yellowy top, and I think they sound better because of the evenness of the wood.

“I do love Gibsons though. My ’58 is just a ridiculous sounding thing. I really wish I’d known about them before, but nobody told me. I’ve had it since about 1995. The thing is, I just couldn’t afford one. The blonde ’59 335 I’ve brought along today is out of this world. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing. And they’re all different. Like that old ’54 Strat or my ’61 red Strat; they’ve all got their own thing.”

Speaking of that famous red Strat, the one responsible for those classic Sultans Of Swing licks, has the old girl been retired now? “Oh no, I’ve been using it. The only reason I didn’t use it on the recent charity shows is I was playing the new ones to sell afterwards, for the charities.

And as we’re talking about old Fenders and new Fenders, what does Mark make of the Relic phenomenon? “I think it’s fine,” he replies. “Actually the instruments themselves are very high quality indeed. Mind you, I think I’d have them made to that quality and let them distress naturally. But I tried a swamp ash-bodied Tele the other day and it was fantastic. Of the ‘stone washed’ guitars, as I call them, those Fender Relics are fantastic.”

As our enjoyable chat with one of the most individual and creative guitarists of the last 25 years ends, we ask if there’s anything more he’d like to say about the new album he’s so quietly happy about. “It’s the closest I’ve come to making a record that sounds like I want it to sound,” he says in summing up. “It’s recorded the way I like to record -16-track analogue – and the themes are the same as always: work and travel. The things that broke my heart as a young man are the same things that break my heart today. But after a while you’ve got to stop talking about it and let the music speak.” Hear hear!