Straight talk from Straits' frontman For Knopfler, music matters

February 21, 1992|By J.D. Considine

For a guy who has sold millions of albums across the globe, Mark Knopfler doesn't seem terribly impressed with what he does.

It's not that he looks down on his work; far from it. But unlike a lot of rock stars, who dote on discussing the significance of their sound and the importance of their albums, the Dire Straits frontman would rather talk about music in general than his work in particular.

Ask him about the differences between Dire Straits' albums -- for instance, if the current "On Every Street" is more typical of the group's approach than "Brothers in Arms" -- and he confesses that such considerations never even cross his mind. "I've never even really thought about that," he says over the phone from a tour stop in Phoenix. "I'm not trying to be difficult or anything, it just doesn't apply."

As for the Dire Straits "sound," he's equally self-deprecating. As he sees it, what makes his music sound the way it does is simply "a combination of not being able to sing, and playing [guitar] with your fingers, basically."

Not able to sing? Isn't he being a bit hard on himself?

No, just "different," he says. "Most people know how to sing and stuff," he explains. "I've just got a low voice that doesn't sing."

Still, it's enough to put his ideas across. "If you write the song, it expresses," is the way he puts it. "But that would use the term 'singer' loosely."

"Singer," maybe, but there's no doubting Knopfler's musicianship. From the first time "Sultans of Swing" rippled onto the airwaves, it was obvious that this dark-voiced Londoner was a player in the best sense of the term. It's one thing, after all, to be able to sing and play guitar at the same time; quite another to be able to spin off the sort of eloquent counterpoint Knopfler managed on that single.

And it's the player in him that kept Knopfler from going solo instead of making another Dire Straits album. "I could have come back and done a solo album," he admits, "but I wanted to do it with these guys because it [their playing] has very much its own character. I appreciate input, and I get it."

Part of what he likes about his bandmates, he adds, is their sense of ensemble. "Everybody thinks like an arranger, and everybody's a musical musician, which means that they listen to what everybody else is doing," he says. "In fact, quite a lot of the record is as it was played in the room. Some of the stuff on the record is recordings in the real sense of the word -- they're just recordings of what happened. I don't think anybody really makes records like that anymore.

"It was highly enjoyable," he adds. "It's the only record I've ever made I can listen to, anyway. All the other stuff makes me squirm."

More modesty? Perhaps. But most of what Knopfler says stems from the fact that he is ultimately more interested in making music than in making albums. That's one of the reasons he's so happy to be out on the road, because once he and his bandmates get onstage, the playing takes precedence over everything else.

"It's my favorite feeling, to be involved in making music with my own band," he says. "I really like the way we work together; it just feels right to me. It has the best elements of everything to it. And it never gets too serious -- that's another reason why I like it. I think if you didn't have a sense of humor, you'd be pretty much doomed."

That's one of the things he likes about country music, by the way. "I like Nashville a lot for the jokes," he says.

But he likes country music even more for the way it has changed over the past decade. "There's a lot more attitude in the music than there was for a long time," he says. "A lot of country music offers people who like songs more satisfaction than a lot of rock music does.

"Of course, the terms get pretty blurred a lot of the time. Now, for instance, there's a far more hillbilly rock element in country music than there was, and more pop influences in all the rest of it. I think that they should take it even further, personally."

Knopfler, by the way, is no stranger to the Nashville scene. In fact, "Neck and Neck," an album he cut with fellow picker Chet Atkins, earned two country Grammys last year. But he maintains his humility in this arena as well.

"Somebody told me the other day that he thought that I'd influenced Nashville to a tremendous extent," he says, sounding still a bit astounded. "I've been going down there for a few years, and I know they've been recording a lot of my tunes, but I'd never thought about it before.

"But it is definitely a two-way process, as far as I'm concerned. They influence me a lot too. But I certainly don't have to be fTC bound by it. For instance, with a straight-ahead country-style song, I can take liberties with the sounds I would use on it, which a country artist working in Nashville would not -- because he or she would be concerned about country radio, which is a fairly conservative set-up.

"But again, you have to be in there to change it, and it is changing," he adds. "There will always be room for people to do

what they want, and for it to get a response."

Dire Straits

When: Monday at 8 p.m.

Where: Capital Centre.

Tickets: $22.50.

Call: (410) 792-7490 for information, (410) 481-SEAT for tickets.

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