David Knopfler, singer songwriter and founder member of Dire Straits, chats with Kevin Cooper about his admiration for the late Rick Parfitt, his views on technology, the release of his Anthology Volumes 2 and 3 and The Grace Tour.
David Knopfler is a British guitarist, pianist, record producer and singer-songwriter. He is also a poet and author. Also a co-founder of the rock band Dire Straits with his brother Mark, he quit the band after three years. He then embarked upon a solo career as a recording artist.
After leaving Dire Straits, Knopfler released his first solo album in 1983, entitled Release. Brother Mark and John Illsley both played on the album. Harry Bogdanovs, a lifelong friend of Knopfler, is credited with co-writing three of the tracks and playing the synthesizer. He has since released fifteen albums.
Whilst touring the UK he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
David, good morning, how are you today?
Hello Kevin, I’m fine thanks how are you doing?
I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?
Life at the moment is very good thanks. I have been playing decorator for the past few weeks (laughter). I have recently bought a new house which is a fixer as they say over in America and it needs a lot of money together with quite a lot of TLC (laughter). Having said that, I am gradually getting there now.
Will you be building a studio at the back of it?
(Laughter) that’s the one thing that isn’t done as yet. It’s a drag because at the last house I had just got the studio working exactly as I wanted it to. However, I had to dismantle it all in order to move down here and so I am once again faced with fifty boxes of equipment waiting to be assembled. In fact I am actually thinking that it is probably time to get rid of the lot (laughter). Most of it is now over twenty five years old and what is it that they say, technology gets obsolete every three years (laughter). I should probably just start again really.
Don’t do that, all the young kids now think that it is retro (laughter). In fact they are even releasing their new material on cassette tape.
You are kidding me. You couldn’t make it up could you?
So if you sit tight the studio will once again come back into fashion.
My friend Harry (Bogdanovs), who I play my gigs with, used to make some amazing sounding things on a small four track Tascam cassette recorder. It really did have a special type of quality. It really was fantastic. The secret to it all was that Harry knew the equipment inside out. He knew just what it could do to its absolute limits. If you know your equipment then it doesn’t really make any sense at all for you to have fancy equipment if you don’t know how to use it. Time and time again you come across people who have got all the money in the world who have absolutely no clue what to do with it. You will find people who have got a ten thousand pound guitar who can scarcely play. Whereas you will find other kids who are virtuoso on a two hundred pound guitar.
What amazes me is that they have gone back to the cassette tape which at best was the most unreliable medium ever (laughter).
(Laughter) I have to agree with you on that, they were always terrible. I remember back in 1985 when I was working in a recording studio in London, we had just taken delivery of the then new Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape machine. We also had a 24-track analogue machine, cassette recorders and various other tape machines. So just for fun, with our eyes closed we decided to hold our own blind testing of all of the machines which we had at our disposal and I have to say that the cassette came last every time (laughter). It is easily the worst format ever. Having said that, you can argue about the differences between analogue and digital because there are things about analogue that you could say, for example, had quite a nice compression on the bass. It actually coloured the sound and I quite liked what it was doing but with a cassette all that you could hear was sssssss (laughter).
Vinyl was probably worse still but it is much beloved and is back in fashion now. Of course vinyl all depends upon the quality of your records. My records were all played on a five pound Dansette record player for twenty years when I was a student first starting off in life. Now I play them on a nice Technics deck and they still sound like they did on the Dansette (laughter). They sound totally wrecked (laughter).
I personally am very pleased to see vinyl making a comeback as I have been collecting vinyl now for many years.
It’s nice to own vinyl; the albums look great and if I could wave a magic wand I would ask the people who were making CD’s when they were first invented to please keep the format and the packaging the same and to put the CD into a 12” package in order to keep all of the artwork the same. I think that people bought records as much for the artwork as they did for the recorded content. It was never the same to have a bootleg cassette that you had taped off your friends records. You never really felt that you properly had the record.
I just feel that the price of vinyl has got to come down a little bit as I think that paying almost £30 for an album is taking it just a little too far.
I totally agree with you on that point, its bonkers isn’t it. Once again its marketing gone mad. On the other hand there is nothing quite like going out and seeing an artist playing live who you know knows their stuff.
I photograph quite a few gigs around the country and what never ceases to amaze me is that people pay good money to see an artist or band playing live, and then watch the entire show through their iPhone.
I know what you mean and let me tell you, from an artist perspective that is so depressing. Some of the people even go so far as to have their flash on and you are trying to play but they are right in your face with either their camera or as you say their iPhone. They are so bright and fierce that they are almost sending you into a fit. When you multiply that hundreds of times by the punters in the audience it gets quite frightening. Is anybody actually watching the show or are they all merely watching these tiny screens. Then what happens is that they stick it up on YouTube, infringe your copyright, whilst giving the public a very bad impression of how you sound because it has all been recorded through their tiny little fiddly microphones.
They are standing some twenty odd feet from the stage and their microphones simply cannot pick up any of the real nuance of the sound; it is just picking up the ambiance of the room. When you think that people would complain about the quality of a recording back in the 50’s and 60’s, the one microphone that they would setup would have been worth by today’s prices ten thousand pounds, and it would have gone through the best state of the art equipment together with the best musicians that money could buy. The whole thing would have been recorded properly. And now you fast forward to today and people are recording you on a damn iPhone (laughter). Where did we go wrong?
I find that people in general are not there for either the artist or the music, they are there simply so they can say that they were there.
I totally agree especially with some of the bigger gigs. That is one of the reasons why I no longer enjoy doing the bigger festivals and stadium gigs. I really don’t enjoy anything bigger than 500 people because you find yourself always running the risk of exactly that phenomenon. You almost become treated as a film rather than theatre. The difference is that if it is a film and you crackle your crisps then that is not going to distract the actor, whereas if it is theatre then you run the risk that the actor is going to breakout and ask you to shut up (laughter). I’m very lucky in the fact that the majority of my audiences are of my generation and so they come along to listen to what it is that I am playing. They are polite, referential and they don’t make a racket. In fact they actually police themselves and will tell other audience members to be quiet (laughter).
I recently went to a Fleetwood Mac concert which was so loud that I had to go and have a word with a friend of mine who just happened to be their manager. It was so loud that everyone in the audience was wearing earplugs. How on earth can you listen to a band when you have to wear earplugs in order to listen to them (laughter) I found the whole experience to be totally absurd. Why can’t they just lower the volume and then no one would have to wear earplugs.
The whole music industry at the moment appears to be upside down.
Yes it does, but there has always been something to complain about hasn’t there (laughter).
The big problem at the moment are the third party ticket outlets who are in my opinion nothing more than glorified ticket touts.
(Laughter) it doesn’t matter what name you give them it is just ticketing touting isn’t it. My agent over in Germany is always complaining about that because we set our ticket prices at something that we think the market can bear and it generally makes it viable for him to do that without us having to make a loss and then someone like Ticketmaster will come along and take five or even seven euros off the top. The punters are happy to pay twenty-two euros for a ticket but then good old Ticketmaster push that up to twenty-nine euros which in anyone’s eyes is a big commission. Of course I understand that Ticketmaster have got to make a living too, but in my eyes it is simply pure capitalism.
The thing which really amazes me is when you get sent an e-ticket which you have to download and print off yourself only to then be charged a £5 handling fee (laughter).
(Laughter) that’s right, they have the nerve to charge you for doing the job yourself. You have to admit that the internet has been both a brilliant invention but has also been a curse too. The problem is that we are not going to uninvent it now.
Has the internet helped artists such as yourself now that you can simply send an MP3 file all around the world within seconds instead of having to physically get on a plane and fly everywhere?
In some respects yes, things are easier now but in my opinion there is nothing to quite compare with artist sitting together in a room with microphones and a sound engineer. This idea that you can do it all remotely, sending a tape to someone and they will record their part and then send it back, literally just isn’t the same. You are not performing together. You are not getting the infinity which you get when you are playing at the same time. You are not getting the feedback of one another’s feelings and thoughts on how it is going and what should be improved and changed. There is something ponderous about the self-taught and there is something similarly ponderous about something that isn’t organically moving at the speed that a live session would move at.
Live sessions are wonderful. A good collection of musicians can record very quickly if they are all assembled in the same place and are all focused upon the same job, then what you get is timeless if it all turns out right. For example, if you listen to a Van Morrison record, it doesn’t really age simply because it is real musicians who have nailed it on the first or second take every time. Real musicians are now a dying breed; you too, journalists who write about music and who actually give a damn about music are also sadly now rapidly becoming a dying breed. There are so many people now who just want to talk to us artists and use us as wallpaper background.
A lot of journalist are not really interested in either the artist or their work, they are just trying to use them in order to further their own careers.
That is exactly right. I did an interview recently when I was over in Europe for a big national radio station and they couldn’t wait to get shot of me the second that they had got me on air (laughter). By the time that they finally got me live on air we had about four seconds, it was like ‘blah blah blah David Knopfler blah blah blah Dire Straits blah blah blah’ and that was it (laughter). I just sat there thinking ‘what the hell was that’ (laughter). What was the point of asking me two or three really crass, completely badly thought through questions, with no preparation, no sense of who I am, no sense of context, no sense of my history and no sense of what I have done since in the last forty years of my life or any of it. It was an absolute travesty of populist radio of the worst kind. It was everything that we hate about channels such as Fox News personified; all gloss and no substance with a horrid narcissist fronting it all up.
What frightens me is that when you do read some of the published interviews that the young kids who are straight out of university have written, they are written in txt speak.
(Laughter) let’s be open and honest about this, basically they are illiterate. Back in the old days of journalism you would firstly get your facts checked by two sources; you would check to see if the claims being made were true or was it merely an allegation, you would do all of that and then the editor would proof it, the sub editor would proof it and then the editor would throw it back at you saying ‘well its great but I want another four hundred words here, I want that paragraph rewritten, this part of the story isn’t really relevant, let’s look at it again’. On a couple of the books that I wrote the editing was far more work than writing the book (laughter). That’s as it should be, that’s how it ought to be. I am the same whenever I am writing a song; I spend far more time fine tuning it and worrying about a phrase that isn’t quite what I want it to be.
There are a lot of people out there who haven’t got the first clue about all of the other stuff that goes on whenever you are writing. It really is shocking. What I have to say Kevin is don’t we sound like our grandparents (laughter). I can still remember the old men in the pub when I was sixteen years old speaking like this and me thinking what the hell are they banging on about. The war is over for god’s sake, what are you going on about (laughter). Also, when people would talk about music and the artists of the forties I would think who are these people, I’ve never heard of them. When my uncle would start talking about the people who he liked, I could barely conceal my yawns (laughter). So I suppose that it is just what it is. Time moves on, things change and the young ones find it natural.
I often see two young kids sharing the ear buds on their iPods so that one is listening to the left side and the other is listening to the right side. The worrying thing is that they don’t see anything wrong with this (laughter), it’s bonkers. They certainly do have a very different concept of music. One of the major problems is that thirty years ago now music ceased to be an auditory experience and became a visual experience because of television and MTV. So the artist that were visually interesting like Madonna who made great videos suddenly came to the fore. It no longer mattered that the music was quite possibly not as good as the video.
Unfortunately music today has become a disposable commodity. The kids download it, listen to it then delete it.
That’s right. It is as cheap as chips and there is an infinite supply of it. The problem is that there are no gatekeepers anymore. To be a band you had to be able to play to an audience, to make a record you had to have a record deal, you could not get away with just having an audience who enjoyed your shows, an A and R man would come to your show in order to work out if you were in fact good enough to be offered a record deal. You would then work with a Sir George Martin character in the studio who would take you through the process of recording a record. So from their very first experience they would always have a very experienced guy at the helm. And so by the time that the records finally got made it was less likely that it would be unlistenable tosh (laughter).
However, now you have no way of discriminating between the genius in the attic who is going unrecognised and the idiot in the attic who has no talent, they are simply becoming interchangeable. I get people sending me tapes and CD’s all of the time but I simply don’t listen to any of them. I don’t go to the link; I don’t listen to the MP3, there is simply far too much stuff coming at me. I have reached the point where one, I can’t do anything with it anyway even if I did like it and two, it is so likely to be below par and have no potential whatsoever to be made into something better. Even if it could be made into something better, who has got the twenty thousand pounds to do it. I don’t even know anymore. Back in 1998 I wrote a book called Bluff Your Way In The Rock Business but of course none of that is relevant anymore because it was written pre-internet.
The internet changed every rule and everything. Nothing remains of how things used to be done. Getting a record deal is pointless; having a publishing deal is pointless, and in fact playing live is the only thing that is going to get you any traction.
So in your opinion what has brought the music industry to its knees?
When we were making our very first Dire Straits album back in 1977 Muff Winwood said to me “one of these days we will all be able to download this stuff through telephone wires. You won’t have to make a vinyl record anymore as it will just come down your telephone cable”. Muff later went onto be the head of A&R at CBS which later became Sony and if Muff knew that back in 1977 then the industry as a whole must have known what was coming. They saw it coming; they saw the train approaching, they watched it getting closer and closer and closer and instead of addressing the problem they simply released more and more Best Of albums. They started relying more and more on one big blockbuster, for example a Michael Jackson album, and they realised that if they had a moderately successful album, together with mass marketing then they could make it global. So the whole industry suddenly became globalised, a bit like what has actually happened with the public in terms of income.
You now have eight billionaires who own half of the entire wealth of half of the world. These eight people have the same wealth of three and a half billion people; something is rather out of kilter. Well, if you look you will see that the same thing happened with the music industry. It went in the same direction ever stretching the extremes. So the margins got squeezed and the people in the middle, the artists and the smaller record companies, simply got squeezed out. We were left with a few very large companies, fewer artists and the artists that remained were increasingly dependent upon a visual spectacle rather than an auditory spectacle. Bands like Steely Dan got squeezed out and that was the beginning of it and the internet was simply the icing on the cake for killing it all off. Bands used to tour in order to promote their latest CD. However, now bands make the CD in order to promote the tour. To me the whole industry is not a very viable business model.
The music industry could have and should have done what Apple did back in 1994. They could have introduced online streaming professionally and properly right from day one. They could have run it professionally and introduced MP3’s and MP4’s early on. They could have introduced a whole manner of things in order to engage with forward investment together with forward protection and forward planning. The system was totally at fault because you were seeing CEO’s being fired after having just one bad bottom line. A good friend of mine who was a publisher with a major international publishing company had one bad bottom line like everybody else did that year because publishing was being sucked dry and that was it; he was gone after forty years of making them billions, he was out. He took his golden parachute and fled and he hasn’t been back to the industry since. A hell of a lot of the best people were taken out that way too.
I remember going into the Warner Brothers offices in New York back in 1980 and seeing a group of people huddled together in one corner of the offices. They were listening to the new Gil Scott-Heron album that had just been released that wasn’t even on their label but they simply couldn’t resist playing it (laughter). When they saw me they invited me over to sit and listen to this fantastic piece of music and we all had a little party (laughter). That sort of thing just doesn’t happen anymore; it all got wiped out along with two thirds of the staff at Warner Brothers; they have all gone. The big companies simply became distribution companies so primarily I blame the music industry itself and in particular the key players for not having more vision. Also the blame has to lie with the boardrooms too, where all that mattered was how many widgets you were shifting rather than what were the future plans for this artist and the industry.
I always thought that the CD played a major part in the demise of the music industry simply because it was so easily copied.
That’s right, and unfortunately nothing could protect them from digital reproduction. Once they had invented digital they couldn’t then put the genie back into the bottle. However, having said that they could have done more than they did; where there is a will there is a way. In my opinion they didn’t even really try. There was an interesting interlude when CBS/Sony bought out the DAT tape machine which was designed to make infinite digital copies that would be the same quality as the original CD that you were copying. Sony had the DAT machine and so they bought out CBS because they wanted their content. However, they then thought that they could make far more money from the contentment and back catalogue than they could ever make with the new DAT machine so they killed off the DAT side of operations.
There were so many things that could have been done, so many crossroads where the industry took the wrong turning. You could argue the same in politics, you see our political leaders making one bad decision. It’s rather like a game of chess, you start from a bad position but eventually you get to the position where you can move left or right. However, the music industry found itself in an end game where there was just the one conclusion.
We really should talk about your tour. You are currently finishing off The Grace Tour. Are you enjoying being back out on the road here in the UK?
Yes I am, I really am. To be honest I think that this is now a hybrid of The Grace Tour and is officially the launch of the fortieth anniversary tour, or the official end of The Grace Tour, in fact I’m not quite sure what this tour is (laughter). I personally think of it as the end of The Grace Tour but I know that it is being touted as the fortieth anniversary tour. I don’t think that it really matters but people have to come up with a name for a tour in order to say what I have been up to for the whole year (laughter). Anyway, having said all of that I am in particular looking forward to playing The Huntingdon Hall down there in Worcester on Thursday 26th January. I have never previously played there but I am hearing only good things about the venue and more importantly the tickets are going really well too (laughter). It really should be a great gig.
Good venues will always sell out, so if a promotor picks a recognised decent venue then the punters will come not just because they think that the artist is worth taking a chance on but because they feel that the venue itself is a reliable and trusted brand. Whereas if a promotor puts you in some dodgy industrial estate somewhere where it’s cold, drafty with drinks of dubious quality with no food, limited seating and the sound is going to be booming, then you are not going to sell out. You know how it goes, the people who chase bums on seats then that is usually the last thing that they get whereas people who chase quality will usually get the bums on seats. So yes, Huntingdon Hall should really be a great gig. I am looking forward to it enormously.
You have recently played The Great British Folk Festival at Butlins. Did you enjoy the experience?
I did, it was a nice show. The audience was very quiet; there were five thousand very quiet people all listening to what I was doing, but I would much rather play a venue like Huntingdon Hall for less money. Festivals are difficult whatever you do because you never have any control over the PA, the lights, the sound system, and the audience have not necessarily come to see you. They may be surprised by you, they might even enjoy you but you know that this wasn’t their primary reason for coming. They are there for sixteen acts, together with the event. That is a totally different thing to people coming to see you. You have to accept that there are different horses for different courses, whenever you play at a festival you only get an hour and then you are off.
Whereas at my own show I will play two forty-five minute sets at a nice comfortable pace for both me and the audience. I take a little break in the middle and the whole thing is more laidback and so the two are entirely different beasts. You never know what you are going to get at any gig. Until you are on the stage performing you don’t know whether it is going to be a good one or a great one. Famous last words which I probably shouldn’t say but there are no bad ones anymore. Harry and I don’t do bad shows; as far as I know it’s not happened, we have never played a show where we have looked at each other after and said ‘what the hell was that’ (laughter). After twenty odd years of playing together I think that we have finally got it figured out.
But obviously when you are a musician there are some shows where the angels tread across the room and wave a certain magic and we have moments in that show where there is something happening which is a great deal more than just what the two of you are playing. You can’t bottle it and you can’t put your finger on what it is. It’s a bit like the three cigarettes a day if you are a cigarette addict, which I was back in my twenties. There are three cigarettes every day that you love, you merely smoke the other forty-seven for those three. I think that we probably love most of our shows now, but there are sometimes a few that we really love. The stinkers are now very few and far between, if at all (laughter). It’s like a bottle of good wine, when they bottle it they have no idea what they are going to get.
You try to put the best possible ingredients in, you try to have control as to what goes into it, but in the end there is an alchemy that goes on that is entirely out of your control. So when it comes to a live show the audience play such a big part in that. Some nights they are really up for it whereas some nights they take a little longer to warm to what it is that you are doing. You soon find out (laughter). Sometimes they just want to see you working hard and sweating (laughter). You have to give a hundred percent when playing a live show; the audience know if you’re not, they know if you are faking it. You have to give your all. There is no other way around that.
You recently released Anthology Volumes 2 and 3, are you happy with how well it was received?
Yes I am. It is Volumes 2 and 3 to follow on from Volume 1 which I released back in 2007. I wouldn’t say that it is a definitive collection but the tracks have been taken from fifteen of my studio albums. I have taken what I think are the best and I have also added another six songs that were outtakes from other sessions which I found whilst going through some of the old tapes. After listening to them I thought ‘why on earth didn’t I put this on an album’ (laughter). Some little thing that niggled you after the original recording session, one note that is flat, something was set at the wrong level, something bothered you about the track at the time and now later in your life you realise that those things that were bugging you at the time are not important. You are missing the wood for the trees. So yes, it is all manufactured, ready to go and is currently available to buy at the concerts.
I have to say that I still really do like Soul Kissing from your first album Release.
It’s a good song but I was never a huge fan of the recording. We never quite gave it everything that it should have had. It is a well written song and it has certainly had its moments. From my point of view there are far too many chords and as such it is a bugger to play live (laughter). I put about thirty chords into that song; I don’t know what I was thinking or why I had to make it so difficult. I like songs now with three or four chords.
Well sadly there is now an opening at Status Quo.
(Laughter) now there is a much underrated guitarist. He’s gone now bless him but he was a terrific guy and a great guitarist. They were never given the respect that they were due. Status Quo were always on the cusp of being disregarded. They were great at what they did and they knew exactly how to do what they did. They knew exactly how to play the popular card. In the past I would write a popular song and throw it straight in the trash and have all of the people around me saying ‘you can’t throw that one away, that’s your hit’ (laughter). I have always perversely dragged myself down the low road with my work and my bank manager has never thanked me for it.
I have always had an elitist attitude and I was always drawn to having so called artistic integrity but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t respect those who seemed to be able to effortlessly glide between being very good at what they were doing whilst still having mass appeal. And believe me that is not an easy thing to do. I certainly applaud those who can do it. I never really think that I had that gift although I was the sound of Dire Straits with Mark my brother at one point so I must have got it right once (laughter). Let’s not forget that.
On that note David let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a pleasure.
TOUR DATES 2017
Thu 26th,Huntingdon Hall Worcester
Fri 27th,Music and Arts Centre Barnoldswick