Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler on fame and family
Forget the tantrums and flashy lifestyles associated with most stars, Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler is at his happiest when surrounded by his family or riding his beloved scooter. Julia Molony meets this thoroughly normal rock legend.
On the ground floor of Mark Knopfler's light-filled, state-of-the-art recording studio in south-west London is an indoor garage housing several cars and a snazzy scooter. The scooter is Knopfler's only concession to the live-fast, rock-and-roll status to which a super-band frontman like himself might feel entitled.
Knopfler has never been a typical rock star. When he started playing gigs with Dire Straits, the group he helped form in 1977, he tried to stand at the side of the stage, so it would be the songs, not the man who created them, that would be front and centre.
"There's a picture of me (playing) in Deptford standing at the side," he says. "I wanted to try that - to go so anti it would just turn the thing on its head. But you can't do it. You have to come to some kind of arrangement with yourself, reminding yourself that this is what you wanted, this is what it is."
Knopfler has always felt ambivalent about what he calls "the associated nonsense of fame", which is why many of those millions of fans who grew up with his music might not immediately recognise his name, even though his influence on contemporary pop has been every bit as great as Mick Jagger or, say, Freddie Mercury.
"If you can think of anything good about fame, I'd like to know what it is," he says. "A lot of kids, because of the damage that's done by a lot of these reality TV shows, they say it would be cool to be famous. Whereas, success is great. I mean look at this place," he adds, casting a glance at the studio around him.
Knopfler is grateful that when success hit, he was old enough and experienced enough to know how to handle it. "Not being 18, being in my late 20s, was the thing that made me survive it," he says. "I can't think of a kid that's been exposed to an awful lot of success that ever really made it through on stage. It's like a kind of child abuse, really, when you think about it."
Knopfler has always taken a rather workmanlike approach to the business of being a pop star, plugging away, churning out hits with apparently little ego involved. He reckons he was raised that way. He was born in Glasgow but grew up in the north of England. "When you come from the North - probably it's a similar thing in Ireland and Scotland - there's a sort of mistrust in anything that's not really rooted in common sense," he says. "So maybe it's to do with that, not getting above yourself, just staying rooted and focussed."
Certainly, he seems to be an almost peculiarly measured man. Even the scooter parked downstairs is evidence of that.
About 10 years ago, Knopfler was knocked off his motorbike by a car. He was left with nine broken bones - injuries which almost destroyed his career and took over a year to recover from. But they were not enough to stop him getting back on two wheels.
"Someone said to me, 'I've got to introduce a new concept to you - it's called a car'," he says with a chuckle. He promised his wife he "would do no more track days. "And I thought if I said that then I'd get a pass on the other," he adds. In any case, it "was just one of those things that can happen".
I wonder if this sangfroid is characteristic? He nods but adds: "Or I'm just not intelligent enough to see the real serious ramifications. Riding is just a kind of freedom. I do enjoy it. It's important. It's too much fun to give it up."
That last phrase seems to describe quite neatly his attitude to writing, recording and performing music. He's incredibly prolific - there's a new album, Tracker, out now, and he has consistently released one every couple of years. He's also worked with local singer-songwriters such as Bap Kennedy and, more recently, with Van Morrison to record a reworking of the Belfast man's classic track Irish Heartbeat from his forthcoming album of duets. It seems like writing and recording is almost a compulsion for him.
"Everyone knows that I'm only touring because I want to be," Mark says. "I want to tour, not because I have to. So it's great. It's a great position to be in. I can do it the way I want to do it, which makes me feel very lucky."
His life is now dedicated to family, writing, touring and, of course, recording. "I try and look after myself - go for a walk, go to the gym - but other than that, if it's a day off, I get some work done. Whether or not it comes to anything, that's another matter. But I don't worry about that, I just get up and go and do something else."
Since his earliest days as the founding member of Dire Straits, Knopfler has been known for his storytelling approach to songs, influenced in some ways by his first career as a cub reporter on a local paper in Leeds. Indeed, his new album features a song in which he revisits those days as a copy boy at the Chronicle. Much of the album seems preoccupied with the past, but he insists that he's not nostalgic.
"I'm not nostalgic about it because I don't think I was tough enough for journalism really," he says.
"The printer's ink wasn't coursing through my veins, but I've got a lot of admiration for it. I still think about it a lot. I was really, in a lot of ways, quite green and I don't think I really knew how society worked at all. I don't know that kids do. And it's a great way for a kid to find out."
In the past, he usually wrote in the third person, borrowing other characters' voices to narrate his lyrical tales. But these days, he says, he is more comfortable inserting himself and his own direct experiences into his lyrics. "I suppose it's not caring anymore," Knopfler says.
Despite that, listeners often insist on taking his words more literally than he means them.
"If I've written a song called Broken Bones, people ask, 'Are you a boxer?' But actually, that one is more just a figure of speech. A friend of mine said, 'This getting old s**t, it ain't for wimps.' Somebody else said, 'You know, you carry your injuries.' And that's what got me thinking about that - just to use the imagery of boxing.
"But it's funny what people think about songs. Once the song is out there, it goes out the door, and you don't know what's going to happen to it, but that's part of the joy."
Even now, after all these years, Knopfler seems slightly awed by the independent lives many of the songs he has penned have had.
"It is great that people can use them - they're signposts for people's lives," he tells me.
"It's quite astonishing. If you are up on stage and you're getting ready to play Brothers in Arms, for example, you realise just how important it is for some people... what it's meant to them, all the generations as well. And you're thinking to yourself, 'I hope I don't mess this up'. You know that it had better be good. There are astronauts that have taken it up into space. People say what they were doing, and you realise you've written half of the soundtrack to their lives. People getting married and walking down the aisle, all sorts of things."
In some ways, Knopfler compares writing songs to parenting children. "The song is the king - the song is in charge of you," he says. "And then it goes off and has its own life. It goes off to college, hopefully. Then you don't hear it talking to you any more. It's gone."
Certainly, the star should know a thing or two about parenting - he has been married three times and has four children. Knopfler first married his school sweetheart, but the relationship collapsed before the foundation of Dire Straits. His second marriage, to Lourdes Salomone, produced two boys, both now in their twenties. In 1997, he married the actress and author Kitty Aldridge, and the couple seems to have a happy life. They have two teenage daughters, which means Knopfler's days of driving are not over just yet.
Despite the complicated family ties, he says that all the children "get on very well". And he's particularly enjoyed raising a set of boys followed by a set of girls. "Boys are really simple," Knopfler says. "But there's nothing in the world as sweet as a little girl. Nothing. I suppose, now, my thing is a bit more touring around school holidays, and actually I'm having a break at the moment because of half-term. Dad's breakfast bar is temporarily closed. And also I do the chauffeuring a little bit. But to tell you the truth, I get off very, very easily. I think men do. I do certainly."
He sounds in awe of the way his wife juggles things. "Kitty writes books, how she manages to balance it all," he says. "She's so involved with the girls' lives, their work and everything and still manages to work. I mean nobody asks me, 'How do you manage to balance the family with work?' I get off easy."
- Tracker is out now. Mark Knopfler plays the 3Arena in Dublin on May 15. For details, visit www.3arena.ie
Musical treasures from the Sultan of Swing ...
Some of Mark Knopfler's most memorable works include:
- Local Hero (1983) - his first soundtrack was to this heartwarming Eighties story based around a US oil executive trying to negotiate the purchase of a Scottish fishing village. Knopfler's title track is often used as an encore at many of his concerts
- Cal (1984) - another iconic soundtrack, this featured the title theme The Long Road, which evoked the drama of the Troubles film, based on Belfast author Bernard MacLaverty's novel, and starring Helen Mirren and Newry's John Lynch
- Brothers in Arms (1985) - the fifth studio album by Dire Straits, it reached number one worldwide, became the eighth-best-selling album in UK chart history and produced a string of hit singles, including Money For Nothing (featuring a cameo from Sting) and Walk of Life
- On Every Street (1991) - the sixth and final studio album by Dire Straits, it reached the top of the UK albums chart, although it was not quite as popular or as successful as its predecessor