When I listen to Mark Knopfler, I think of the element Mercury --- what comes out of his guitar quietly and efficiently fills every available space. And it's been that way since the late 1970s, when Knopfler launched Dire Straits with “Sultans of Swing.”
In that era, we were listening to New Wave bands like Talking Heads and the pounding disco of “Saturday Night Fever.” But here was a group that seemed to champion old-fashioned music and pride itself on old school musicianship --- “Sultans” was a hymn to retro, just played by a band light years better than any duffers who might have performed it on a Saturday night in a smoky club in Newcastle.
Over a thirty-year career, Mark Knopfler has proved that virtuosity has its charms. At one point in the mid-1980s, Dire Straits was the most successful band in the world; in a single year, the group gave 234 concerts and played for 2.5 million people. Knopfler's projects have sold a hundred million-plus CDs; he's produced CDs for superstars and written soundtracks for movies (Local Hero is the rare film that's as lovely to hear as to watch), and turned out-of-the-box collaborations (like All the Roadrunning, with Emmylou Harris) into crowd-pleasers.
Kill to Get Crimson continues Knopfler's series of restrained solo albums. Many of the songs are short stories in miniature; their lyrics are precise and evocative. Cranking the volume won't turn most of them into rock anthems --- as with Chopin, you often have to lean in to get the nuance. This is complex, adult music: sophisticated and sincere, wry and guardedly hopeful. And the charm of it all is that, in his songs, one of rock's greatest icons still seems to see himself as a bit player in a traveling carnival.
Knopfler lives in London. Third wife, four kids, several motorcycles, no scandal. He's generous in his charity, thrifty in his media --- the one-time journalist usually talks to the press only when he's got a new CD. Which is how, with “Kill to Get Crimson” just out, my phone rang, and there was Mark Knopfler's genial baritone. Knopfler is exceedingly polite, and I try to be; we began, as form dictates, with his new music.
Jesse Kornbluth: The cover art is a painting of parked red Vespas. Why?
Mark Knopfler: The title of the CD comes from a song with the line “kill to get crimson,” about an artist's lust for color. The painting, by John Bratby, seemed to me to be connected to the record.
JK: Could there be a deeper reason? You ride a motorcycle. A few years ago, you had an accident and broke some ribs. “Kill to get crimson” --- a coded reference to your crack-up?
MK: Oh, no. It's simpler. I have a red scooter of my own. And about my accident: I still like biking. It's one of the last few freedoms --- or the illusion of freedom.
JK: You have a tour coming up. If the arena audience wants big, loud and brash, how much of this CD will you be playing on tour?
MK: I'll find out. I'm playing with a little outfit now on radio specials. It's great fun --- with this bunch of wits, I may have pulled a muscle laughing --- and we play a few of the songs. The old band --- the frame for that group was bigger. It was about scale and size. I still see a big scale; it just feels more manageable.
JK: Still, there will always be many who want the “old” Knopfler. Is it possible you grew up and the audience didn't?
MK: It has to be the other way around. I'm always amazed when it gets to the end of shows and I see all the young kids running to the stage.
JK: Your lyrics taste like songs, but the words go down as poems. You started as a journalist. Ever think of...writing?
MK: I'd be shabby dreadful. We should do what we're supposed to.
JK: But you're said to be a huge reader.
MK: No, I am a huge lazy bones. I can just as easily be found horizontal on the sofa as reading. I can pretend to be an intellectual --- I've usually got some book on the go. But I always feel behind, I'm always trying to catch up. I'm a victim, like others, of the laptop.
JK: When Knopfler listens to Knopfler, what does he hear?
MK: I just hear the music. I have to listen to it quite it lot before pressing time. It's alright then, because I know it's going to end.
JK: You're both an artist and a scientist of the guitar: Is there a technical explanation for the effect your playing has on listeners --- or is it a mystery?
MK: Scientist? I ought to have lessons. I'm about to pick up a guitar --- a cello guitar --- made by a great builder, and I'm going to learn to play it. I intend to improve as a player. But with my little ditties, I can only do what I do: I hum and strum.
JK: Yes, you're just a busker from the North who got lucky. Seriously...
MK: It seems to make no difference whether I'm playing vibrato on my left hand with a whammy bar on my right, or a bottleneck --- I can get a sound that resonates. That's the closest to an explanation I come. It's something to do with touch and vibrato. And what that is, I'm not sure.
JK: Rolling Stone rates you as the 27th best guitarist in rock. If you keep at it, could you get to 25? 20?
MK: I doubt it --- I'm going in the other direction. With any luck, I'll soon slip below l00.
JK: Five words: “Mark Knopfler guitar charity auction.” Can you predict how old you'll be when you say those words --- if ever?
MK: I do give guitars away as much as possible. And they're starting to make money. Someone paid 35,000 pounds the other day for a half-hour guitar lesson, which is one of the nice things about having some recognition. But I have to hold a few back --- one of my boys is playing guitar and he may want some of mine.
JK: Let's talk about your work ethic.
MK: My two least favorite words!
JK: The popular image is that playing this music is money for nothing. Please tell the children that you still practice at least an hour a week.
MK: You really have to want to do this job. It always amuses me when kids put a band together, get some success, and are presented with a tour --- and they look at the schedule and say, “I didn't get into this to work.” There's a tradition of musicians who play most nights a week --- I've done that. Beats being home and watching the Olympics...
JK: What about being at home and practicing?
MK: Nothing comes of nothing. You have to put yourself in the driver's seat. Chet Atkins said, “Learn to fall asleep playing.” I started doing that as soon as I started to play --- to the detriment of other activities. I didn't feel as I if had any choice in the matter. I still feel that way.
JK: Your domestic songs are catnip to those of us who have families. I'm thinking especially of “All That Matters” and “True Love Will Never Fade.” Because I don't have $1 million to give to your favorite charity, I have to sing your songs to my daughter at bedtime. Do you sing to your kids?
MK: Singing to your kids is one of the great joys of life. I don't know where it comes from, but with kids, I can make up a song on the spot --- just as some babies do. Push a kid on the swing, that seems to happen. But when a little kid sings, nothing I do adds to it.
JK: I get the sense that there's a big part of you that's still a kid in Northumberland. Scratch the man, find a Geordie?
MK: A Geordie --- and a boy. There's a lot of boy in me, and I try not to let that die. If I were a kid, I'd be looking at guitars and cars. What is that? Life makes us grow up in so many ways; why in every way? If you had a train set as a kid, why give that up?
JK: “Punish the Monkey” --- if I put a political interpretation on that song, would that be vulgar and wrong?
MK: Yes. Although from the point-of-view of politics and business, it's accurate from the things that have happened in both our countries --- they never get the guys who really do it. I try to keep this stuff out of my CDs, but it creeps in. Please make my apologies. And tell people that, next time, I really will try to record “You Are My Sunshine.”
To buy “Kill to Get Crimson” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Shangri-La” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “The Ragpicker's Dream” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Sailing to Philadelphia” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “All the Roadrunning” (with Emmylou Harris) from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Neck and Neck” (with Chet Atkins) from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy the soundtrack to “Local Hero” from Amazon.com, click here.
For Mark Knopfler's web site, click here.