Despite repeated multi-platinum successes with Dire Straits, on such hits as “Sultans of Swing” and “Money for Nothing,” Mark Knopfler seems absolutely sincere when he says, “I’ve never been commercially motivated.” For the fifteen years he spent as the singer/guitarist of Dire Straits, Knopfler always appeared to be the reluctant rock star. His disdain for doing press and promotion, as well as his consistent refusal to capitalize on Dire Straits’ success, earned him the label of enigma.
Talking to Knopfler today, one realizes that he’s not as curmudgeonly or enigmatic as one might believe. He’s simply interested in keeping the music first. And while such actions as putting Dire Straits on hiatus for six years after Brothers in Arms made the band superstars may have confused the public, that staunch dedication to the music has earned Knopfler the respect of his peers around the world. Over the past twenty plus years, Knopfler has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to Chet Atkins and Van Morrison.
Sailing to Philadelphia, Knopfler’s second solo album and first since 1996, finds him once again making the CD he wants to make. It is a mature, literate record on which Knopfler draws from his wide range of tastes, including Delta blues, country and rock. In addition, he teams with fellow veterans James Taylor and Morrison, each of whom turns in a guest vocal appearance. Rolling Stone.com spoke with Knopfler about his new album, the possibility of a tour for the record, film scores and whether or not he’s heard of Pink Floyd.
Sailing to Philadelphia is an unapologetically adult record. Something there doesn’t seem to be a lot of right now.
I know it’s kind of difficult these days, especially in America. There’s a real sort of an ageist thing going on there at the moment, isn’t there? Somebody was telling me John Fogerty hasn’t got a record company. And Rickie Lee Jones has an album on a tiny label. It’s like it was ten years ago, only worse. I don’t mind. Although I seem to detect a tone about a lot of the stuff that’s out there that I’m not keen on. I’m not really sure whether I’d want my kids to get involved in all of it. I think maybe the most poisonous are these little choreographed acts. I’d rather my kids were watching bands that were perfecting the art of spitting than watching some of this choreographed stuff.
In the four years since your first solo album, you did the scores for Wag the Dog and Metroland. Did working on those films affect Sailing to Philadelphia at all?
Yeah, I can be counted on to go wandering off into a film score for a while. That’s why this album’s taken far too long really. The trouble is I do a couple of tunes and then there’s a gap where I write a film score. Then after the gap I’ll write a bunch more songs. So when I come back there’ll be six or seven more songs I want to record. It got to where I had a double album’s worth of stuff for this record. And of course I don’t want to do that.
Will we hear that other stuff down the road somewhere?
Some of it gets heard. Some of it comes out and it finds its way out with singles and such. I recorded a couple of things with Emmylou [Harris] that I would like to then add to. Instead of them going on Sailing to Philadelphia, I thought it would be nice to make a record with Emmy.
It seems like there really isn’t anybody you haven’t recorded with over your career. What artists have you learned the most from over the years?
At the very beginning, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I learned a little bit about making records with Barry Beckett, who I did Slow Train Coming and the second Straits album with. In terms of record making that was useful. I learned a lot about making records from the great engineers that I’ve worked with, Chuck Ainley and Neil Dorfman. Also I learned a lot from Chet Atkins, obviously. Not so much about recording, but the stories. I learned all the time from the guys in Straits too. I come away from the studio most days learning something.
Do you miss the circus that comes with rock stardom at all?
I don’t miss it at all. I had a great time with it and I’m really glad that I’ve been there and done all that. I loved it, but I just always felt that I wanted to go on and express myself through other ways; do movie scores, sessions, make an album with Chet or something, whatever. Now I’m doing this and I’m just digging it. I feel as if I’m getting an awful lot of pleasure out of the writing and the recording, those two are fantastic. If I can get the third bit, which would be touring, then I’ll just consider that a tremendous bonus.
You mentioned earlier that your kids are just starting to get into rock & roll. Do they have a good understanding of what you do?
I hope not. They’re just at the age where they say funny things like, “Hey dad, have you heard of Pink Floyd?” They just tickle me.