Mark Knopfler... Let the music do the talking
Mark Knopfler is the most low-key rock legend alive. The songwriter, founder and front-man of Dire Straits tells why he'd rather have success than fame
On the ground floor of Mark Knopfler's light-filled, state-of-the-art recording studio in South-West London, is an indoor garage housing several cars and a snazzy scooter. The scooter is Knopfler's only concession to the live-fast rock-and-roll status that a super-band front-man like himself might well feel entitled.
Knopfler has never been a typical rock star. When he first started playing gigs with Dire Straits, the group he helped form in 1977, he tried to stand at the side of the stage, so that it would be the songs, not the man who created them, that would be front and centre. "There's a picture of me [playing] in Deptford standing at the side. I wanted to try that. To go so anti that it would just turn the thing on its head. But you can't do it," he says. "You have to come to some kind of arrangement with yourself, reminding yourself that this is what you wanted, this is what it is."
Knopfler has clearly always felt ambivalent about what he calls "the associated nonsense of fame." Which is why many of those millions of fans who grew up with his music, might not immediately recognise his name, even though his influence on contemporary pop has been every bit as great as Mick Jagger or, say, Freddie Mercury. "If you can think of anything good about fame, I'd like to know what it is," he says. "A lot of kids, because of the damage that's done by a lot of these reality TV shows, they say it would be cool to be famous," he says disapprovingly. "Whereas success is great. I mean look at this place," he says, casting a glance at the studio around him.
He's grateful that when success hit, he was old enough and experienced enough to know how to handle it. "Not being 18, being in my late 20s was the thing that made me survive it. I can't think of a kid that's been exposed to an awful lot of success that ever really made it through on stage. It's like a kind of child abuse really, when you think about it."
Knopfler has always taken a rather workmanlike approach to the business of being a pop star, plugging away, churning out hits with apparently little ego involved. He reckons he was raised that way. Born in Glasgow, he grew up in the north of England. "When you come from the north - probably it's a similar thing in Ireland and Scotland - there'a a sort of mistrust in anything that's not really rooted in common sense. So maybe it's to do with that, not getting above yourself, just staying rooted and focussed and not getting out of yourself."
Certainly, he seems to be an almost peculiarly measured man. Even the scooter parked downstairs is evidence of that. About ten years ago, Knopfler was knocked off his motorcycle by a car. He was left with nine broken bones - injuries which almost destroyed his career and took over a year to recover from. But not enough, apparently to stop him getting back on two wheels.
"Someone else said to me, 'I've got to introduce a new concept to you - it's called a car,'" he says with a chuckle. He promised his wife he "would do no more track days. And I thought if I said that then I'd get a pass on the other." In any case, it "was just one of those things that can happen." I wonder if this sangfroid is characteristic? Maybe, he nods, "Or just not intelligent enough to see the real serious ramifications. Riding is just a kind of freedom, I do enjoy it. It's important. It's too much fun to give it up."
That last phrase seems to describe quite neatly his attitude to writing, recording and performing music. He's incredibly prolific - there's a new album Tracker, out now, and he has consistently released one every couple of years. It seems like writing and recording is almost a compulsion for him.
"Everyone knows that I'm only touring because I want to be. I want to tour, not because I have to. So it's great. It's a great position to be in. I can do it the way I want to do it, which makes me feel very lucky." His life now is dedicated to family, writing, touring and recording. "I try and look after myself, go for a walk, go to the gym, but other than that, if it's a day off, I get some work done. Whether or not it comes to anything - that's another matter. But I don't worry about that, I just get up and go and do something else."
Since his earliest days as the founding member of Dire Straits, Knopfer has been known for his narrative, storytelling approach to songs, influenced in some ways by his first career as a cub reporter on a local paper in Leeds. Indeed, his new album features a song in which he revisits those days as 'Copy boy at the Chronicle." Much of the album seems preoccupied with the past, but he insists that he's not nostalgic. "I'm not nostalgic about it because I don't think I was tough enough for journalism really. The printers ink wasn't coursing through my veins. But I've got a lot of admiration for it. I still think about it a lot. I was really, in a lot of ways, I was quite green and I don't think I really knew how society worked at all. I don't know that kids do. And it's a great way for a kid to find out."
In the past, he usually wrote in the third person, borrowing other characters' voices to narrate his lyrical tales. But these days, he says, he is more comfortable inserting himself and his own direct experiences into his lyrics. "I suppose it's not caring anymore," he says.
Though listeners often insist on taking his words more literally than he means them. "If I've written a song called Broken Bones people say 'are you a boxer?'. But actually, that one is more just a figure of speech. A friend of mine said, 'This getting old shit, it ain't for wimps.' Somebody else said, 'You know, you carry your injuries.' And that's what got me thinking about that - just to use the imagery of boxing. But it's funny what people think about songs. Once the song is out there, it goes out the door, and you don't know what's going to happen to it, but that's part of the joy."
Even now, after all these years, he seems slightly awed by the independent lives many of the songs he has penned have had. "It is great that people can use them - they're signposts for peoples lives. It's quite astonishing. If you are actually up on stage and you're getting ready to play Brothers in Arms for example, you realise just how important it is for some people. What it's meant to them - all the generations as well. And you're thinking to yourself, I hope I don't mess this up - you know, this had better be good. There are astronauts that have taken it up into space. People say what they were doing and you realise that you've written half of the soundtrack to their lives. People getting married and walking down the aisle, all sorts of things."
In some ways, he compares writing songs to parenting children. "The song is the king - the song is in charge of you. And then it goes off and has it's own life. It goes off to college, hopefully. Then you don't hear it talking to you any more. It's gone," he says with a laugh. Certainly, he should know a thing or two about parenting. Knopfler has been married three times and has four children. He married his school sweetheart, but the relationship collapsed before the foundation of Dire Straits. His second marriage, to Lourdes Salomone produced two boys, both now in their twenties. In 1997 he married the actress and author Kitty Aldridge and the couple seem to have a happy, stable family life. They have two teenage daughters, which means Knopfler's days of driving dad's taxi are not yet over.
Despite the complicated family ties, all the kids he says "get on very well". And he's enjoyed raising a set of boys followed by a set of girls. "Boys are really simple," he says. But, "there's nothing in the world as sweet as a little girl. Nothing. I suppose now, my thing is a bit more touring around school holidays and actually I'm having a break at the moment because of half-term. Dad's breakfast bar is temporarily closed. And also I do the chauffeuring a little bit. But to tell you the truth, I get off very very easily. I think men do. I do certainly." He sounds in awe of the way his wife juggles things. "Kitty writes books, how she manages to balance it all. . . She's so involved with the girls lives, their work and everything and still manages to work. I mean nobody asks me 'how do you manage to balance the family with work.' I get off easy."
'Tracker' is out now. Mark Knopfler plays the 3Arena, Dublin on May 15.