BF = Bill Flanagan, interviewer and writer of the book "Written In My Soul"
MK = Mark Knopfler, lead guitarist and lead singer in Dire Straits
BF: Let's run through some history: Your first album, Dire Straits, released six months later in America than in the rest of the world, was a smash, sold millions of copies. The second album, Communiqué, was already in the can when the first one came out. In America it was often written off as a rehash. During this time the band toured constantly. Then, in early 1980, you pulled the band off the road and made it clear you were calling the shots. You wrote the making Movies album, went to New York that summer to record it, and came back with a stronger sound and a positive attitude. Is any of that wrong?
MK: Not really. Just for the record, Communiqué did sell three million copies. In a lot of countries it did better than the first. Tha hang-up about Communiqué was an American thing. But having said that, I still don't think it was a very good record. Making Movies was closer to what I like to do. On that record I was determined I would not be immobilized by anything. I was going on, to do what I knew I could do. I just kept on working. I decided against being waylaid, to be a survivor instead of casualty. That break gave me the time to consider all that had happened and to express it in terms of music. Retrospect's a really good thing. Time to think and write it down. Some of those songs were written during a period of turbulence. I wasn't felling good or collected when I wrote "Solid Rock"; I deliberately wrote and recorded that and "Expresso Love" fast. I took more time to record "Romeo and Juliet" because it took more time to write and demanded special attention.
To crystallize: If you can turn negative energy into positive, turn a dire straits situation, excuse the term, into one that is positive, you're not going to go under, you're creating. Like someone who could write a book in prison. The songs are linked in that sense. It wasn't conscious, but I see the Sultans, Les Bouys, the roller skate girl, and Romeo all change disadvantage into advantage. Rather than leave it thay make something with it. I'm not advocating adverse circumstanses, but if they come you have to create from it.
BF: What have you been unable to write about?
MK: Well, I've never felt moved to write about particularly obscene people - I've gotten close, writing about people who are very, very different from me like "Les Boys" [Making Movies]. You take the part of somebody else, you're just not that person. On "The Man's Too Strong" [Brothers in Arms], I tried to do a study in guilt and hatred and fear. On some levels, you can almost see a Hess-like figure, in the depths of Spandau. You might see somebody who's just not at peace with himself. It's always interesting to me that any kind of heavy censorship, like book burnings, has always failed in the long run. That kind of suppression. I was just trying to get in the mind of somebody who's lived his life that way. There's nothing very heavy about it, it's just an experiment in character and playwriting. That song is absolutely not me. It's like Randy Newman talking about being a closet gay truck driver.
I think if I was to sing "Private Dancer," "All the men come in these places," the audience would know it was a character, they'd be able to make that adjustment. It's really a song that a woman should sing, but to my mind, a man should be able to just as easily, and if it's done well, you should be able to make that adjustment. If it's done properly, then part of the fun is to make that jump - it's good for the imagination. I suppose there's nearly always some connection. I mean, look at "Les Boys." We're not gay, but they did cabaret and we do loads of shows. We had done our turn when we saw them and I thought, "God, what's the difference?"
The lead character in "Money for Nothing" is a guy who works in the hardware department in a telvision/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He's singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real. It just went better with the song, it was more muscular. I actually used "little faggot," but there are a couple of good "motherfuckers"in there. I wanted to do a second version that way but I never had time. I'd still love to be able to do it. Even if just the band had it, because it would be the real version. I mean that is the way people speak. I think people still get the general idea. You can use other words that will suggest the general feel.
It also has to do with the context in wich a song's received. If we walk into a hardware store and hear someone say, "Look at that motherfucker" it means nothing to us, but if you hear it in a pop song . . .
If you hear it in New York it means nothing. If you're living in Tallahassee then maybe it's a different thing. There is no way that I would except people to receive all that in the spirit in wich it was intended. They'd probably think I was just being vulgar.
On the first two Dire Straits albums the narrator never spoke to anyone. He was always standing in the background watching the woman on the train, the Chinese merchants, the Sultans of Swing. The third album, Making Movies, still had songs like that, but also had tracks such as "Expresso Love," in wich the singer made direct contact. Do you think of yourself as an outsider? Or do you find it easier to write from that perspective?
"Brothers in Arms" is sung by a soldier who is dying on the battlefield. You can't just write off the top of your head; you have to dig deep to get those things. You have to experience, if a thing is really going to be realistic, if you're gonna try and get whatever you feel across. So, in a sense you're an outsider, but you're also digging inside to do it properly. I don't think you can get away scot-free with these things; otherwise, it's just not going to work. If you stay outside of these experiences, they're just not going to translate to people. That whole area of creation plays all kinds of tricks on the writer. It can fool him into thinking that itäs easier than it really is; it can fool him into thinking that it's harder than it really is; it can fool him into thinking it's working when it's not; it can fool him into thinking it's not working when it is.
You might write something down and not really know. It might seem that there's logic to it, there's a flow to it, there's some kind of reason to it, there was some kind of cause that's coming out in terms of this effect. But the reasons might make themselves more clear to you afterwards. You could be having a fairly clear vision, but there could be some mechanism, wich for a good reason gets in the way of that. Perhaps you're getting more involved in the finer technical points of rhyme. So, it's a weird business, all that.
The thing has to have a whole, harmonic balance. You try to create something that's going to work on a number levels: it's useful, it's functional, it's beautiful, it makes a point, it has its own reality. And it's based always on music you like to play. I'm not saying that everything is a crisis, I'm just saying that everwhere there are choices - at every level of the game. Doing a movie score or making a record there's so many choices, so many possibilities. You talk about being an outsider. Well, you try standing outside while being inside, too. It's important to be able to be outside, dispassionate. You do have to stand back and look at what you're painting. You can't just enter into the depths of this thing and have bits of paint flying all over the place. You have to look at what you're making.
BF: The precision that you bring to your work at every level, and how careful you are of choices, stands in direct contrast to some of the people you've worked with - Bob Dylan and Van Morrison - who do in fact seem to jump in there with the paint flying.
MK: Well, A lot of Paint flies around me as well. It's just that perhaps the thing gets sculpted a bit more.
BF: You're so much the ringleader of your own circus, is it tough for you to join somebody else's? When you're recording with Bob Dylan, is it tough for you to have to defer to him, when you have your own vision of how this record can be perfect?
MK: I don't believe in perfect, I just don't believe that. There's so many ways to do any song, perfection's just a cloud in the air. People say I'm a perfectionist and all of that. It's just not so.
BF: I think it's fair to say that you have great self-confidence.
MK: Well, I have the self-confidence to go gaily steaming off in completely the wrong direction. (Laughs.) Yes, that's the kind of man I am. As far as music goes, it's very easy for things to get way out of hand with me, just because I've got the confidence. "This is the way it is!" I'm very glad that I'm continually outting myself in situations where it's being made absolutely obvious that the directions wich I feel like charging off in aren't the right directions at all.
BF: Did you feel when you were a kid like you'd live in America someday?
MK: Yeah. I think just because of music. It wasn't because of Hollywood. It was because of rock & roll music, more than anything. I've always felt an affinity with America, Americans. It's because America's made up of Everyman - in some ways I feel as though I'm made up of a little bit of Everyman, too. I feel I have things in common with almost anywhere I am. The only time I've felt really, really at odds with all the people around me was when I've been anywhere near a mob. Where there's brute ignorance in a mass of people, like a lynch mob mentality, I always feel very separate. Pictures I've seen in magazines of people getting killed by soldiers or anything like that. I played all the war games as a kid and nobody played them with more intense seriousness than I did, with more enjoyment. I was really into it. I loved to play them. Having grown up, there's something about a mob of people that worries me, that makes me really feel like an outsider. I get as angry as anybody else does when an old lady's beaten up or murdered, I get very mad and start saying, "We've gone soft in the head, we're letting these guys out of jail," and I probably sound a bit reactionary. But I remember once going to a football match when the guys like to fight one another, and I remember feeling so utterly separate from this energy. Maybe they were the kind of kids who were made to feel like they were rejects and this was their time to get rid of that energy, to sream blue murder and maybe get into a fight. That always worried me. I'm used to it because I grew up in Glasgow and Newcastle and got into plenty of fights. I learned how to fight there. But I still fear it terribly. I'm still distressed that there are so many people who see quite content to follow that as a way of life. They're not adverse to standing on a corner with a broken bottle in their hand, waving it in somebody's face. It seems that it's acceptable to them that violence is part of our lives. It's acceptable that Bernhard Goetz can talk about the need for people to walk around with guns. Or that it's perfectly alright to send armies into places to bang, bang, shoot 'em up. Stick a bayonet in his ass. What the hell is that? My grandfathers were probably fightin in the British Army and the German Army. They probably tried to kill each other and if they had, that would have been that. There would be no strumming.
This interview is taken from the book "Written In My Soul" by Bill Flanagan.