For Mark Knopfler, this year's 30th anniversary of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms — and its Number One hit, "Money for Nothing" — is bittersweet. In retrospect, the record marked the beginning of the end of the band. "It reached a critical mass and an awful lot of people wanted to see us live," Knopfler recalls from his studio in London. "It got much bigger on the live side of things. I wasn't altogether happy with that. Later, towards 1992 or 1993, we had three big stages leapfrogging around and a massive lighting rig and all that nonsense, and extra guys on the crew I didn't know."
During this period, Knopfler began composing material that was less rock, more atmospheric and distinctly non Straits-like. "I'd been writing songs that were turning up in my notebooks that needed different palettes of music, more and different instruments," he says. Disbanding Dire Straits in the mid-Nineties, Knopfler threw himself into those different textures and sounds — recording solo albums, soundtracks and collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Nashville guitar legend Chet Atkins.
Tracker, his eighth solo album, is quintessential Knopfler. Backed by his longtime solo-career band, which still includes former Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher, Knopfler sings of a lonesome gravedigger ("Mighty Bones"), a derelict ("River Towns") and a newspaper copy boy, inspired by his own youth ("Basil") to craft moody, mournful, Celtic-inflected arrangements sprinkled with his characteristic spiraling guitar lines. Some of the characters in the songs are haunted by memories of the past, hence the title. "It's called Tracker in the sense of tracking time over decades," he says. "Tracking down a song to the end."
Knopfler knows that making cohesive albums built around storytelling isn't exactly in vogue, but he says he doesn't care. "The 'music industry' is not a term I use," he says. "I tend to concentrate on music, and the music business is something different." In an old-school move, Knopfler even gave CDs of Tracker to friends, which, he says, positively affected their reaction to the music. "They said it made a real difference that I'd done that," he says. "It's a different thing from people downloading. If you actually buy the record and give it to somebody, it makes a difference. Maybe the idea of giving somebody a [physical] record as a present will come back."
Notoriously fastidious, Knopfler says he has Bob Dylan to partly thank for Tracker. Knopfler toured as Dylan's opening act in Europe in 2011, followed by a swing through the States the following year. Two songs on Tracker, "Silver Eagle" (named after the iconic line of tour buses) and "Lights of Taormina," were written during those dates. "I wouldn't have written those songs without doing two tours with Bob on buses," he says.
During those tours, Knopfler would often join Dylan and his band for the first four songs of Dylan's set, playing along with "Tangled Up in Blue," "Things Have Changed," and other Dylan songs. "Bob was quite thoughtful about it," Knopfler says. "I'd play and then change my shirt and jump with Bob and his band. I'd play about four songs and then I'd get on my coach and get on down the road and get a running start on Bob. Then they'd get on their buses and come on down the road after us." (In the CD booklet for Tracker, Knopfler included a photo of him and Dylan at the microphone, from earlier tours, as a nod to those collaborations.)
Knopfler, who first worked with Dylan on the sessions for 1979's Slow Train Coming, says he and Dylan both share an interest in "the same roots music" and also a lack of interest in schmoozing. Is Dylan a hang-out-backstage guy? "No," Knopfler says, "but then, neither am I."
When Knopfler hits the road himself this year, expect as always to hear a few — but not that many — Dire Straits hits. "I still enjoy playing some of those early Straits songs and I'm proud of what we did, and certainly we had some great times," he says. "It's what we all wanted when we were kids. But you've got to have the resilience to ride that thing, to pick up that ball and run with it. Because you will keep picking it up and keep running." A few years ago, former member of Dire Straits, calling themselves the Straits, began touring, playing the old repertoire that Knopfler himself often avoids onstage. "Poor souls," Knopfler says of that band, before softening his tone. "I don't know — it's not for me."
Tracker will be released on March 17th. Listen to full album below: