I remember at 16 sitting up all night trying to play the guitar, driving my poor parents nuts. They were begging me to go to bed, to stop banging my foot on the floor. In my head I had already left school, and I was playing guitar on stage. I was an optimistic kind of boy, I was always a glass half-full kind of person. I think I’d already started to think I could make a living out of the guitar. It’s what I always wanted to do. I was learning how to finger pick, I was playing at folk clubs, I was very excited by it all. But I remember being frustrated as well, ’cos I couldn’t afford an amplifier. I didn’t have the nerve to ask my dad for one ’cos he’d already forked out for a guitar.
I was reasonably close with both of my parents, but I wanted to get the hell out of the house and get started. I wanted to get a band together, start touring. In the end it actually took quite a long time. The thing is, I didn’t see myself as a songwriter, just a guitarist. So it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I slowly started to write songs. It’s quite a realisation, that you could be a songwriter – it marks you out from other musicians in a way. As far as being a singer – oh god, I still can’t stand the sound of my own voice! I think I’ve just started to live with it. Mind you, it’s improved from the mid-Nineties, when I was still smoking. I sounded like a dying animal then.
I’ve got to such a decrepit state that playing anything fast just worries me now. As I’ve got older I’ve listened to a lot of different stuff, people like Chet Baker and all the rest of them. And that does influence you. So I’ve done a lot of slower songs on my new album. I think they’re more fitting for a man of my advancing years.
When you play with people like Bob Dylan or Randy Newman you connect with your childhood
There’s a song on the album, Matchstick Man, which describes me looking down on a vision of my young self setting off on his adventure. It’s a real memory – it was Christmas Day, it was snowing, and I was trying to get home. And I still had a long way to go. It was a moment when I was saying to myself, well, this is what you’ve chosen to do. You take the good and the bad. There are times when I’ve been tested but the desire has remained. The love for the guitars, and for the music.
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I really have managed to make a few dreams come true. And I mean childhood dreams, childish dreams. Like playing with people like Bob Dylan or Randy Newman. When you do that you connect with your childhood. I remember being very excited to see Van Morrison in Newcastle when I was 18 and thinking maybe I was getting good enough to play with a band like that. And I decided to give it a real shot. Then one day later I found myself in a band with the Everly Brothers. And they were playing a song I’d written. When I was a kid I idolised the Everly Brothers. I thought, wow, my goodness me, who would have thought? Or to be at Bob Dylan’s house in Santa Monica, in his office, running down songs for an album, then going to record with him. I was still officially living in my council flat in Deptford when I did that. It’s been phenomenal.
With Dire Straits, the scale of it all got too much and I had to step back. [After the worldwide success 1985 album Brothers In Arms and the subsequent world tour the group initially disbanded in 1988; they reunited before splitting for good in 1992 following the shows which followed their final album On Every Street]. I needed to get things back in proportion, and get my sanity back. All I really cared about was writing better songs. Don’t get me wrong, success was what I wanted and I tried to get it. But then it got so big that I didn’t recognise half the crew. They were putting all these extra stages up at these vast gigs and I just didn’t connect to it any more. If I was going on the road now, I wouldn’t take more than about 11 people. When you do these big long tours an element of ritual kicks in as well. You’re going through the motions. I want it to mean something every single time I play it. But I love playing the old songs, don’t get me wrong. They mean a lot to people. For some people there’s one song that made them buy the ticket.
I love Local Hero. [Knopfler wrote the score for the 1983 Bill Forsyth film]. It makes me emotional. I’ve written new songs for the stage play [which premieres at the Edinburgh Lyceum next March] but the music from the film is still there too. The play is going to start quite low key in Edinburgh then work its way up to a bigger opening, where it will appear, like a Scottish fairy godmother, on a grand stage. Whenever I’ve been at a read through and when the actors get to the end I get emotional. Does it end with the sound of a phone ringing out across the theatre? I’m not telling you.
If I could go back to relive any moment, it would about 20 years ago, after a gig, walking down a corridor. This guy was coming the other way and he stopped me. He said, “I want to tell you – I was suicidal tonight. But my mates came round and dragged me out to this concert. I just want you to know, I’m going to go on.” I thanked him, and I walked on and I felt fantastic. I felt I’d done some good in the world. That’s the power of music.
Mark Knopfler’s new album Down The Road Wherever is out now.
Image: Joby Sessions/Guitarist Magazine