Very early in life, Mark Knopfler had a connection with music. His mother cared for the family while BBC programs like “Listen with Mother” played on the radio with its child-oriented stories, songs, and nursery rhymes. But it was an uncle named Kingsley who had the biggest impact on young Mark’s informal music education when he entertained the family by playing piano, harmonica, and banjo. Though the boy very much wanted to jam along on a fancy red Fender Strat like the one played by Hank Marvin, like every other kid in England at the time, he had to settle for something like the Höfner Super Solid bought by his parents.
At 16, Knopfler formed a vocal duo with a school friend and the two played folk clubs in their hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne. Several years later, while studying journalism in college and working as a cub reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post, he interviewed a local musician named Steve Phillips, who not only introduced him to the music of many more folk and blues performers, but turned him on to the resonator guitar. By his late 20s, Knopfler was firmly focused on making music, writing songs, and performing. In early 1977, he and his guitarist brother, David, formed a band with bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers. Within a few months, they had recorded a five-song demo that included a song called “Sultans of Swing” that was getting airplay on BBC Radio London. The exposure led to being signed by the Phonogram label, recording their first album, a tour opening for Talking Heads, and in turn a U.S. record deal with Warner Brothers.
With their self-titled debut album as springboard, Dire Straits spent the next several years rising to stardom. The disc reached the top 20 in the U.S., and in some parts of the world shared Top 5 sales spots with the band’s own follow-up, Communique. By the end of 1980, they’d released a third album, Making Movies, and were the recipients of growing acclaim that already included Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (both garnered thanks to the international success of “Sultans of Swing”).
In May of 1985, the band released its fifth studio album, Brothers in Arms, which included the song “Money For Nothing.” Though it contained a controversial lyric line, its wit, irony, intro (with vocals by Sting, borrowing the melody from “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” while singing “I want my MTV!”), huge ZZ-Top-inspired guitar riff rendered on a Gibson Les Paul Standard, and super-hooky chorus made it an instant – and huge – international hit. The album has sold 25 million copies worldwide and in the U.K. was the biggest-selling album of the ’80s. It was also the first album to ship a million copies on compact disc, all but cementing it as the preeminent format for music distribution at the time.
In the nearly 30 years since, Knopfler has written music for several films, played and recorded with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, the late Chet Atkins and many others, been invested by the Prince of Wales with England’s OBE designation, had a dinosaur named after him, and become known for his charity work and passion for the land and people of northeast England.
His most recent recording, Privateering, is his eighth solo album and first double disc. Delivered with the help of fellow guitarist Richard Bennett and bassist Glenn Worf, both of whom have accompanied him since the mid ’90s, it has the bare-bones sound and approach that has largely defined Knopfler’s style and holds strong to the tradition of the singer/songwriter, emanating from myriad musical experiences and personal emotions.
“I have always thought in terms of the transatlantic nature of music,” he says of the album. “My idea of heaven is somewhere where the Mississippi Delta meets the Tyne. What I wanted, from the very first album with Dire Straits and songs like ‘Sultans of Swing,’ was to write my own geography into the American music that shaped me, to identify the English, Irish, and Scottish landmarks on Chuck Berry’s road. I think what I’m doing now is both synthesizing those influences and separating them. The band I have is so talented and so flexible they give me a kind of palette to go anywhere I want. I can jump from a hill farm in the north of England and go straight to the streets of New York city or down to the delta for a straight-ahead blues.”
We recently spoke with Knopfler to discuss Privateering and get a feel for his sentiments regarding his life and music.
What do you remember most about your early exposure to blues music and other American styles?
I remember clearly; I didn’t actually know that it was blues, per se, because I was six years old, maybe even younger. But I was listening to my uncle, Kingsley, playing boogie-woogie piano, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “This is for me.” And of course, later, when I got deep in the blues, it made complete sense. At the age of 15, I was getting into electric blues, which music fans were starting to get switched onto – the B.B. Kings and the Buddy Guys, Paul Butterfield, and others playing at the time.
About three years after that, I started hearing a bit of Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, and then, when I was 19 or 20, started to get much more into country blues, as well. So, I sort of worked backward with the blues, and I’m still loving all of it, of course.
When I got to know Steve Phillips, we got to do a lot of playing together. Steve had a record collection with a lot of good blues, so it was like “University of the Blues” for me; I was deeply immersed in that stuff for a lot of the time and wanted to play a lot of blues. It was good, because in my younger days, I couldn’t afford an amplifier, so I borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar and played in folk joints, getting exposed to folk music, as well; I’ve always had an interest in folk music and the blues, acoustic music and electric music – always a wide front. And learning to do a basic fingerpick at an early age is a good thing for any guitar player because it opens their world. I was doing a lot of straight pick playing, then slowly but surely, the fingers started to win. I started breaking the rules a bit and developed what you’d call my “style.” Really, it’s just from sitting and falling asleep while playing (laughs)!
What influenced you most as the songs came together for Privateering?
I’d been writing a lot, and I’ve always written different kinds of blues as well as the other stuff. I’m that way about folk music, too; I want it to be its own thing and don’t really believe in any “kind” in particular. Certainly, where folk music is concerned, I don’t believe in any orthodoxy at all. I like the idea of putting in whatever I like.
We cut the blues songs with Kim Wilson, who was great on the sessions, and what you hear is pretty much exactly what we did. I didn’t want them to have a heavily mixed feel, so they were cut to the bone on the floor and they’re very much the way we did them – they don’t have overdubs except for a small bit of guitar on “Miss You Blues,” where I played the picked part with Tim O’Brien playing mandolin and Kim [on harmonica]. Those sessions were great – so much fun. And when we “mixed” them, I wanted it to sound like it did when we cut the songs. So, I guess some of the songs are very orthodox in a sense that they are very much period blues, in their way – they don’t have synths (laughs); it’s mostly straight piano as far as the keyboards are concerned, with some Hammond on “Blood and Water.”
You cite your band often. What makes it so special?
Well, we’ve been playing around each other for a long time, and everybody trusts everybody else, basically. We’re used to working with each other, but some of these guys I’ve been with since ’95, so I know what they can do, and they know what they can do, so nobody chases other people around their parts. There’s a lot of confidence. If somebody feels a part isn’t right for them, he’s happy to lay out – nobody feels they have to be in on anything. Certainly, I don’t get in their way… I try not to, anyway.
The album is a showcase for anyone who appreciates guitar music; there’s electric, slide, resonator, acoustic, and you have guests like Tim O’Brien on mandolin. Does the choice of instrument guide the music, or is it the other way around?
It’s vice-versa, I think. In terms of the songwriting, what I’m holding certainly tended to dictate. I’ve usually got an acoustic guitar when I’m fooling around at home, so most of the writing would be around that. And, if I’m taking a look at the songs, it will usually be with an acoustic in my hand.
The guitar I’ve been playing more than any other over the past few years is a D-18 Martin from 1935. It was a present from a friend and there’s just something about it; it has a lot of character – very slatey, kind of dry, but a beautiful sound.
Another acoustic that gets itself onto records is the Gibson Advanced Jumbo from 1938, which has the Brazilian (back and side) tone. It’s a different thing. They’re both interesting in that they’re jumbo-shaped flat-tops, but you can fingerpick on them. If I want to use a pick and strum a part, usually I’ll use my ’53 Gibson Southern Jumbo, which has a nice, even strum thing going on with itself.
Another guitar that finds its way into a lot of songs is a mini Martin they did a run of a few years back. They did about 100 of them, and I really love it. It’s a six-string, but tuned up a third of an octave, so it’s just great for little parts. And of course the National tends to find its way onto records all the time – I don’t know why! It’s a Style O from the early ’30s.
I’ve also been enjoying a Danelectro 59 DC, which I used for the slide part on “Miss You Blues.” Onstage, I started using a white ’65 Strat for slide. I used that guitar on Sailing to Philadelphia and brought it back out to the stage. It’s a beautiful-sounding thing for slide. I usually play my signature Strat or, if I’m doing a pick-and-whammy-bar thing, my ’54, which is another present from the same friend. I put heavy strings on it, with a wound third. It’s usually a toss-up between the ’54 and the Gretsch 6120 from ’57. I like those for just playing notes with a pick and holding the whammy bar in my hand and get the vibrato from my picking motion. Believe it or not, those early Gretsch pickups have a very similar sound. But every now and again, I’ll press my Telecaster into action, which is a ’54. And sometimes I use a ’66 Tele Custom I’ve had since the early Dire Straits.
Your sound through the years has mostly been associated with a clean, slinky, Strat tone, but on your biggest hit song, “Money For Nothing,” you played a vintage Les Paul Standard. Which Les Pauls do you play now?
My ’58 [Standard]. Every now and again the ’59 will come into it, and I really like playing an ES-330 that Tony Joe White gave me a long time ago; it’s a great guitar.
Are there any non-vintage instruments that have caught your favor?
I really like the Grosh ElectroJet – it’s a great guitar. And the 12-string Burns Double 6 – a more-recent hand-made one, really precision-made and beautiful. It works really well.
Which guitars did Richard Bennett use on the album?
He used a lot of guitars, because we were over [in England]; he’d usually pick an old Kraftsman, a Harmony Meteor, or a J-45 I had. He played my Advanced, and I have a ’37 D’Angelico he loves.
Did Glenn stay fairly traditional in his choice of basses?
Glenn played various basses, but usually an early Precision I have. He’s always very happy to play that when we’re in England.
Which amps do we hear most on the record?
The usual suspects; there are four or five I go to all the time. On the blues stuff, I’ve been playing my ’59 Fender Bassman. For a lot of the other stuff I used a Reinhardt Talyn, which is a fantastic amp, I love it. There’s a Reinhardt Storm that’s great, too. I also have an older Komet that’s a great amp, as well – very powerful if ever I need it. In fact, it has so much power that sometimes I have to keep it back onstage – put an Airbrake on it. Ken Fischer built it himself and it’s just great. I talked to Ken about it quite a bit; it’s called Linda.
I also have an old Marshall and I use an old 4×12 cabinet with it; I like a lot of the big amps, like the Komet and the Reinhardts, but for the smaller stuff I’m very often just playing my old Tone King Imperial, which sounds great again – like the old ones. If you buy a Tone King now, you’re getting a really great amplifier. It seems they’re getting closer to the original sound.
For really pure tone, I need a real Fender Vibrolux – the old brown-tolex one. Just bashing around on the road, just done three lump tours – two with Bob Dylan and one on my own around Europe, and I took a couple Tone Kings – one for playing with Bob’s band. If ever there was a contest for that kind of sound, I’d put up the Vibrolux and the Tone King and see which is right for the song. Though I must say, the Reinhardts can often beat those two – they’re phenomenal.
Most of the sounds on the album where you hear a straight, clear tone, very often it’s the Tone King on the rhythm channel.
From its inception, Dire Straits didn’t fit any musical mold, and surely didn’t fit into the scene of the late ’70s, where punk rock was the flavor of the day. Still, the band had immediate and lasting impact. As a performer today, Knopfler remains beyond classification. And while rock stars mostly “survive” trips to the top by simply living to tell, with Knopfler it was more about tolerating overwhelming mass-media attention that flew in the face of his personal sensibilities. But he sallied on, and today continues to make music of the highest caliber.
This article originally appeared in VG Febuary 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.