Thursday, January 3, 2013

Five Questions With... David Knopfler

David Knopfler really needs no introduction. As a founding member of Dire Straits and the brother of Mark Knopfler, he has carved out a niche' in rock and roll's rich history. He made three records with Dire Straits before calling it quits, although he was never given credit for the work he did on Making MoviesDavid left the band as the recording sessions were wrapping up in August of 1980 due to tensions that had formed while in the studio. His work was bumped off before the final release and his contribution was re-recorded.

Since then he has become the master of his own domain and continues to write music. He also writes poetry, and he even wrote a book called Bluff your way in the Rock Music Business. Knopfler now says that the book has become obsolete because of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the music industry.

In November he finished up an acoustic tour through Germany with guitar aficionado Harry Bogdanovs and is now preparing to go on the road again in 2013 in Germany, the UK and even the United States.

It's been awhile since we've done the Five Questions segment here at the Bigfoot Diaries, and I wanted to bring it back in 2013. It's an absolute honor to be able to feature a rock and roll icon, and I sincerely appreciate Mr. Knopfler taking the time to correspond with me. 

David Knopfler in 2011
You are highly regarded as a song writer, a musician, a poet and an author... What specifically are you up to these days? 

I just finished a successful tour in Europe... mostly sold out.  2013 will see more touring including the UK, US, Germany and so on. I'm overdue for a studio album too, which I'm debating doing... the hesitation being primarily raising sufficient funds to do the job justice... It's a great deal cheaper to release live work instead. 

Please tell me about your childhood. What it was like growing up in such a musical household?

I can recall being strapped by my Headmaster at my Primary School for playing the drum part to "Wipeout" on my school desk, getting detentions at the Grammar school for illegally playing the school piano and at the school folk club lying about my authorship of my own work because I'd assumed if I admitted to having written something I'd be banned from the club or worse... The assumption was that "no" would be the answer to any request of artistic support within the school. In the sixties you made progress in the rock-music business by indirection. It certainly didn't quality as "art" in any recognisable way. There was no officially sanctioned route and only kids with an authority problem tended to find themselves drawn to it then. Although my parents didn't "get it" at all, they never-the-less were liberal enough to allow us to find our own bliss and pursue our chosen fields... not that they wouldn't have preferred to see us with a more settled, and safe, career choice. My father made quite a financial sacrifice in buying my brother his first electric guitar.

What is the real story as to how Dire Straits got it's name? 

Pick Withers, our drummer came up with it. More than that I don't recall. There were several bands with similar names around at the time and it caused quite a lot of confusion initially.

Dire Straits circa 1977
L-R: John Illsley, Mark Knopfler, David Knopfler, and Pick Withers 
What events led to you leaving the band in 1980? 

I'm kind of astonished that in 2012 there are still people prepared to ask me about this. No musical regrets no... though I'd not have said "no" to the royalty cheques that would have ensued had I stayed a little longer. I founded the band to be a vehicle for my song-writing and as events progressed, it became apparent that the band was becoming a conduit, almost exclusively, for Mark's song-writing. There simply wasn't enough oxygen left to do anything more than perform set parts ad-nauseum in sports stadiums converted for the night to music venues... and the possibility of enjoying a show in those conditions is very limited. It wasn't the life I wanted and strained relations with my brother provided me with the tipping point to call it a day and leave. It was three years of intense work that revolutionalised my life though arguably, spiritually speaking, not much of it for the better. It did however provide me with a second education after my formal degree which I think did ultimately provide me with the tools to pick up, where I'd left off, and get on with making my own work.

"I kind of like this," says David of this photo. "Dirk' s little
work corner by the stage with my four guitars." Dirk Ballarin is
Knopfler's tour manager.  Photo taken in Germany, by Ballarin.  

Tell me about the tour you just completed throughout Germany. Are there plans for another one? 

The offers of work seem to keep arriving... in fact they seem to increase each year, oddly. You'd think, hitting sixty last week, it would be slowing down. Also I have a very loyal and gifted team of people around me, with a lot of organic real friendships based in and around it too, so touring is very rewarding both personally and professionally which has to help. I suppose I should start thinking about slowing down a bit soon though... it does start to take its toll physically if you're not careful. 

What advice would you offer to a young person who wants to pursue a career in music? 

In the beginning, the work you make, or help to create, has to emotionally satisfy and reward you... and for most of us I think this takes precedence over the-size-of said audience for said work... how else could anyone explain jazz.... or folk music, and so it really has to start with asking yourself, what is it you really love to do? The prospect of lightning striking and your work reaching millions, rather than thousands, is as likely as winning the lottery and about as arbitrary and out of your control too - so the best place to start is with honesty and making honest work that has something unique to say that will resonate with you first and foremost. The further down the creative rabbit hole you get though (and this is something of a paradox) the more you'll start to recognise that ultimately the making of your art is not for therapy or selfish reasons, but a kind of altruism, where something you expressed has it's own momentum, and reaches and effects your audience in ways you might not even have been able to imagine as the Artist and you find you start to value the giving aspect of the process.

On a more practical level, several decades ago, I authored the book "Bluff your way in the Rock Music Business," but the industry is no longer even remotely recognisable to the one I was writing about then, so the advice now would be very different: The record labels and publishers have far less power, if any at all; the media is far more complex and fragmented and finding ways to actually earn enough to avoid day-jobs has become a lot more perilous.  It's very hard to serve two masters: The Muse and Mammon... usually one will predominate, so as I said, it's a good idea to know why you are driven to make music, and what price you are willing to pay to pursue your dreams. If you get good at working the angles and being sharp at the business, don't expert this to be the best way to have wondrous streams of consciousness and be generously compared to the great romantic poets.  A head full of money won't deliver art and sooner of later you'll have to decide if you want to serve commerce or serve art... and be ready to pay a price, either way, for that decision. It is of course possible to be very creative at business but ultimately what is going to give you the biggest buzz? Closing a deal or making a record? If it's the deal, fine, but own it and don't then regret that all you have to show for your life are the trappings of wealth and the envy of others and don't then self-flagellate for a life of penury but greater artistic reward... and the same in reverse... almost nobody gets both... there's usually a fork in the road so try to recognise it. For most young musicians these days, they had better also take the time and trouble to be extremely good at what they do and build a live audience from the ground up because there aren't usually too many chances to circumvent the talent route. There are still gimmicky ways to make a name for yourself, with the occasional viral flash-of-lightning video etc, but as rule hard work and dedication will matter most, so be ready to forgo making money in favour of building a profile in the first phase of any youthful career.

David and his band waving to the audience after his first show
in Spain, 2011.  (Photo by Dirk Ballarin.) 

If you could travel backward in time and make music, what era would you choose, and why? 

That's an interesting question. I think I'd probably have liked to be a singer-songwriter in LA in the late sixties when the likes of Dave Crosby and Joni Mitchell were first recording solo-records there, or maybe jump forward a few years, into the mid-seventies and have tried to be a singer-songwriter on Geffin's Asylum label... a la Jackson Brown mode. Historically I suspect the greatest 24 track recordings were made from around the mid-seventies when budgets were less pressured, and the non-digital technology was at its apex. Steely Dan's first three records take some beating for technological magnificence and vibe... but, every era delivers a few gems, and all in all, the period I've worked professionally, from the late seventies on, has been pretty engaging too at least until general bankruptcy set in with the near-death of the CD. I rather miss the former luxury of being given a sufficiently large budget to go to an A-list studio and do nothing but make the record of your dreams with musicians whose greatest gift is to be able to enhance what it is you're trying to do. We lost much of that with the internet, copyright theft and all that happened in the late nineties and on that hollowed out the business and ultimately imploded it. But that said, from every collapse comes green shoots. We were just lamenting the death of the record business in the late nineties, and the collapse of the CD,  then along came an album like Norah Jones "Come Away With Me" in 2002, selling something like 25 million copies... and a decade later we have mainstream commercial artists like Taylor Swift, selling over a million copies in her first week, with Red... so you never really know.  Just as with the real economy the middle has been squeezed, so you get more extremes of a few uber-wealthies and a lot of poorer folk so too with the music business.. it's far harder to noodle around in the margins making a living and pleasing yourself as I have, but it's not totally impossible if it's what you really want. What you want and knowing what that is, makes everything else a whole lot clearer.


Unknown said...

Great interview. As a hard-core Dire Straits fan, and MK's solo stuff, I often wondered what the reasoning could be for David to leave such a successful band on the cusp of the band's most commercially successful period. Your interview helped me to understand this lingering mystery, & I thank you for that.
Personally, I think DS "Brothers In Arms" release was the best album of 1986(Simon's "Graceland" won the Grammy if memory serves) & I often wondered if the title song had some meaning to DK? After this interview, I doubt it. "Making Movies" was my favorite album & strange hearing how this 'Band of Brothers'seemed to not have enuf oxygen for both? Can't imagine the Beatles or the Stones having had the same issue. But then, The Kinks & the Davies brothers also can't seem to be in the same room little alone the same band. Too bad. Thanks again.

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