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What would you do if you started one of the hottest rocknroll bands of the 1970s? Ride the gravy train of fortune, fame, and fawning groupies as far as it would go? Or drop out and forge your own path as an independent musician?
The latter way was the one taken by David Knopfler, who founded Dire Straits which he says was always intended to be a cult band and with his brother Mark watched it climb rapidly to fame with the hit Sultans of Swing. But it wasnt long before he parted ways with the band and chose the route of independent self-production. Better known in Europe than the US, Knopfler has stuck faithfully to his musical vision, producing a number of well-received CDs full of songs that may never be destined for the Top 40, but that reflect his unique musical and lyrical style while mixing in more political and spiritual flavors than you usually get from radio airplay.
In this exclusive Fearless interview, David Knopfler talks about how he became an indie musician, why he prefers to stick to his alternative path, and how hes been doing with the I Ching lately. — D. Patrick Miller
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Ive read that you started writing songs when you quite young, but you didnt know if you were supposed to do that so you would call your songs traditionals. How long did it take you to realize that songwriters were allowed?
KNOPFLER: LOL. Its true I used to go to the school folk club with my songs when I was only 13 or so and say this is a traditional folk song and sing it with a bad Irish accent to disguise the real source. The school was prone to dishing out punishments for anything creative that didnt fit with expectation I just followed the logic and figured the folk club was probably much the same. I didnt really escape that gravity until I moved 300 miles south to go to college at 18, where authorship no longer seemed something liable to induce vengeful punishment. In some ways its taken me decades to come clean and make honest work and still to this day, sometimes I find myself wanting to hide behind my work and deny the more biographical aspects. Trust the tale, not the teller.
How did the original Dire Straits get its start?
KNOPFLER: I was sharing a flat with the bass player, who had taken to rehearsing with a singularly loud punk band of an evening. The only solution I could conceive to the racket was to wean him back to something more in keeping with what I liked. So I told my brother Id found the perfect bass player for our duets, and introduced my brother to my flat mate.
By 1980, before the hit Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms, you had dropped out of the band to pursue a solo and very independent career. What were some of the factors behind this decision? Do you ever regret the route youve chosen?
KNOPFLER: I left for the same reasons everyone leaves jobs that are no longer fulfilling their hopes and aspirations. I didnt see myself spending the rest of my life being a strummer for someone elses dreams. Whatever the opposite of regret is best describes how Ive always felt about that decision it opened me up to a million creative opportunities I needed to experience away from the bullshit and distorting mirrors that fame engenders.
Your music is better known in Europe than the US. Is the US musical scene more corporate and radio hit-driven than in Europe? Do you think youd have a harder time as an independent here in the US?
KNOPFLER: Im pretty much below the radar of commercial visibility everywhere, though the US is indeed the place Ive sadly most neglected. The Clear Channel syndrome of pay-for-play, hard marketing-driven commerciality has an effect too but its been largely a situation of my own making. I didnt really want to spend months and months away from my wife and son in the late 80s and 90s touring Id seen the price paid for that in too many other peoples marriages and I was making a pretty decent living selling 70,000 to 100,000 albums per release instead of millions. So why sign your name in blood for more? It seemed like a sensible arrangement for me. I didnt sell large numbers of records and the record company paid advances they rarely recouped. The business has lost the facility to accommodate such anomalies now margins are squeezed and sales are crucified by combinations of CDRs, online downloads, an ever increasing volume of product exceeding demand and so forth. Now Im having to live with sales of around 50,000 per album but Im pretty content with my place in the general scheme of things, even if its meant I dont drive a fancy car and cant afford grand vacations.
How do you finance and manage your career as an independent? Do you do everything yourself, just like most sole proprietors in any line of work?
KNOPFLER: I took the process of doing as much myself as I could like a duck to water. I set up my own label and publishing, etc, and it was a fun learning curve two decades ago. In the early days I really enjoyed the freedoms it offered because I was happy to work the long hours as long as I was working from home a lot. Now that Im staring down the barrel of the last act of my life, Im less excited about control and solo effort, and I resent the way the business aspects interfere with my space for creative writing. So I much prefer to get help and support from anyone generous enough to offer it. Last November, however, in a fit of sheer bloody mindedness I put together a mini-tour of California which was so much fun to do. Id FAR prefer to have an agent take all that spade work from me. I dont take no for an answer very readily though.
My impression of the music scene is that almost everyone starts out as an independent and then gives up more and more independence to achieve success. Is that how you see it?
KNOPFLER: Thats often the way it works, yes though usually the small print of artistic careers contain lots of forced hands that get glossed over in the PR. As Oscar Wilde said: I can resist anything except temptation. Theres much false nobility in the margins. Many an Artist treading the lonely low road gives it up to get their name onto Mephs global major contract.
What are some of your chief musical influences?
KNOPFLER: First and foremost Dylan for redefining what was permissible in the pop song. The influences are fairly predictable, as with most of us in the acoustic singer-songwriter tradition. Im inclined to think that the 24th Century will have Dylan and Joni Mitchell as the two largest footnotes of the 20th Century. Then maybe well also see in the secondary footnotes Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Lowell George and so on. Wish I could be there to see it.
To whom do you listen now, and are there any independent artists you admire that youd like more people to know about?
KNOPFLER: Oh yeah for sure hardly a week doesnt go by when I dont hear something wonderful that someone has made in some low-budget situation, primarily with a view to selling a few hundred copies at their concerts. I was up in North Scotland a couple of days ago and heard a fantastic song called The Suns Coming Over The Hill by a singer-songwriter called Karine Polwart Id not heard of before. There are other indie artists like Kate Rusby, Blame Sally, Megan Slankard, Amilia Spicer the list could go on and on. The music is still being made; its just that access to what is deemed suitable is filtered by the requirements of advertising revenue for radio and TV, so we wind up in a pissing competition for what generates the fastest route to the ids tickle knobs.
What would you tell a young musician about breaking into the business? Can one go independent from the start and find a way to make a living as well as good music?
KNOPFLER: Yes, but to learn the craft properly integrate it with your own artistry and vision there are probably no shortcuts if you want to be more than just an entertainer. I dont know to what extent someone can BECOME an artist you either are or you arent and if you are youll HAVE to make your way to some kind of sickly light, no matter how terrible the soil you were seeded in... your nature will out somehow. If you feel driven and compelled to make your work and to be fiercely original and have something unique to say, in a compelling way, then chances are the helpers will be there for you... the doors will open some, the ice will crack. You just have to be sufficiently driven not to give up, even when youre feeling about as popular as Vincent Van Gogh did when the good people of Arles sent him packing. The low road is a life choice, so its no good whining if having chosen it, you find its exactly as described: stoney, difficult, unappreciated, and so on. You just have to love what you do, and do it obsessionally, and then maybe in a decade or so youll notice youre getting better than you used to be. Thats reward enough. Its not for butterflies.
Besides your work in music, you also write poetry and create art. Have you always had diverse interests, or did some of them develop before or after music? How do they work for or against each other?
KNOPFLER: Im pretty hopeless at fine art its a noodling hobby and I doubt if I were offered a perfect exhibition space I could fill it in even another decade. I may be naive, but the poetry I still hold out some hope for. Ive been getting pretty focused about that recently, and even considered doing a masters degree to polish up the craft. Ive been pretty lucky in that I seem to have found people online who are willing to constructively tear it apart for me, and indicate its weaknesses. Theres nothing like doing something wrong to learn how it might be done better. Im now at the stage of being quite frequently, jaw-droppingly impressed by the artistry of other peoples poetry. I always liked the magic of poetry but now Im just starting to see behind the curtain of even the best poets, how theyve used, tried and tested craft to create the illusion. Wonderful feeling of exhilaration to finally be there.
Your music has quite a few spiritual references. What is your spiritual background and experience, and do you consider music to be a spiritual path in itself?
KNOPFLER: Actually I feel like Im stepping into a place of spiritual contemplation every time I enter a studio; its always had a certain magic to me that has never worn off with familiarity. My faith, inasmuch as I have any, is more like a kind of Joseph Campbell thing, and even that frequently finds itself tested to oblivion in siren waters. The biblical stuff has somehow found its way into my work because it contains a rich mix of symbolism, metaphor, archetypes; in short, it resonates, and its already survived centuries of quick expediencies. God save us all from being too fresh! ;)
Also, Ive been doing the I Ching pretty much all my life, though Im a rather poor practitioner of its tougher precepts. Im not even sure how feasible it is to live in the real world in such monkish fashion. Somewhat childishly, it peeves me whenever I dont get special dispensation from the higher powers, even though its blindingly obvious thats not how it works. I just keep asking with increased irritation come on guys, cant they do this one simple miracle I need!? ;) Then when that fails, having refused to accept the discipline required of the answer I dont like. . . Ill sulk and slump. My faith will also slide sometimes to the edge of extinction, then something seemingly inexplicable will happen, like a dream that then materialises in reality the next day and Ill be back wide eyed and fascinated, excited again.
Id make a terrible practitioner of any religion in any formal setting. In general Im just as happy to light candles in a church of any denomination I wasnt raised with any religion (unless my fathers marxism counts) but Im able to feel the hushed reverence of a cathedral, like the childhood memories of visiting an art gallery or a library. Ive always liked those architectural spaces that have silent guardians in uniforms ready to say hush! to us poor plebs.
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For more information about David Knopfler, see his website at www.knopfler.com.
Photos taken by D. Patrick Miller at Club Fox, Redwood City, May 2013.
Copyright 2013 by D. Patrick Miller. All rights reserved.