Mark Knopfler, Straits Shooter

All photos by Guy Fletcher

For a guy born in postwar Glasgow who spent his formative years across the border in Northern England, Mark Knopfler has a knack for writing songs based in an American ethos.

Since disbanding Dire Straits, which he led from 1977 to 1992, Knopfler has evolved from headband-sporting guitar hero to acclaimed observational songwriter. Commencing with his 1996 solo debut Golden Heart (Warner Bros.) and continuing through One Deep River, his just-released 10th solo studio album, on the jazz-centric Blue Note label, Knopfler tells character-focused stories in arrangements that might cause listeners to think he's from Nashville, not Northumberland.

Post-Straits songs like "Sailing to Philadelphia" (the Charles Mason/Jeremiah Dixon exploratory history-lesson duet with James Taylor), "Boom, Like That" (a chronicle of America's mid–20th century fast-food explosion), and "Tunnel 13" (a new track, from One Deep River, about a 1923 train robbery in the Siskiyou Mountains of northern California) have extended the narrative thread laid down in vintage Dire Straits songs like "Romeo and Juliet," "Telegraph Road," and "Brothers in Arms"—all Knopfler compositions (footnote 1).

Knopfler tells stories at the level of myth and legend. "I don't want to narrow it down for any one," Knopfler said in an interview with Stereophile. "Whenever I've tried to do that in the past, it seemed that they somehow lost their charm. The more specific you become in answering 'Was that about this? Was this about that?'—that just seems to make it smaller."

"Mark is all about the song," observes audio engineer, producer, and keyboardist Guy Fletcher, Knopfler's longtime coproducer and sounding board ever since he joined Dire Straits to record the band's 1985 blockbuster Brothers in Arms (footnote 2). "He just wants to immerse you in it and not be flashy about it." Fletcher's job is on the technical side of storytelling. "It's about getting the right atmosphere down for the story at hand. It's down to great engineering and great mixing."

Knopfler's songs are all about story and myth, but his guitar still has plenty to say, and lately it's had plenty of opportunity to say it. In 2021, Dion—yes, that Dion—was working on the latest in his series of collaborative albums on the Keeping the Blues Alive Records label, Stomping Ground. Each of the album's 14 tracks has at least one guest star, most of them great guitarists. "I really didn't write 'Dancing Girl' for Mark Knopfler," Dion said, "but on the way home from the studio after I finished the song, I was listening to it in my truck, and I wound up thinking, 'Mark Knopfler's gotta play on this.'"

Knopfler signed on, but on his own terms. "I had the song laid out and the formula for it a certain way," Dion continued, "but Mark recommended, 'Why don't you put the bridge here, put that there, and take out a few of the dancing girl references since you mention that a few too many times?' I was okay with it because Mark's a bright guy. He's got a lot in his bank of musical knowledge."

The gnarly, vocal, instantly recognizable guitar tone on "Dancing Girl" is the result of Knopfler's unique fingerpicking style, which he long ago dubbed "the anchor."

It involves planting the third and fourth fingers of his right hand against the guitar body just below the bottom string and strum-plucking the strings with the thumb and first two fingers. You can see the anchor in action on YouTube on the extended guitar solo in, eg, any live version of 1985's "Money for Nothing." That's the way you do it, indeed.


Clockwise from left: Greg Leisz, Mark Knopfler, Jim Cox, Danny Cummings, Ian Thomas, Glen Worf, and Richard Bennett, on the first day in the studio.

Just ahead of the release of One Deep River, Knopfler gathered a gaggle of notable guitarists, under the banner Mark Knopfler's Guitar Heroes, to record an updated version of his 1983 instrumental "Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)," a song that often served as the final encore for Straits arena and stadium dates and his own solo tours. The Heroes included most of the world's great rock guitarists: Steve Vai, Ronnie Wood, Pete Townshend, Peter Frampton—the list goes on. "We've got 67 players on it total, including the great Jeff Beck," notes Fletcher, who produced the new track and mixed the new version of "Going Home" in Atmos for the already-sold-out Blu-ray edition. "It was his last recording. What an amazing guy. Actually, Jeff and Mark were gearing up to do an album together before he passed." (footnote 3) David Gilmour, Peter Frampton, and Eric Clapton also make their marks on the track. Half the proceeds from the new "Going Home" will go to Teen Cancer America (footnote 4).

Will Knopfler tour the album? That isn't clear. Meanwhile, he's soldiering on, doing what he does best, writing songs and playing guitar. "I think I'd much rather be known as a songwriter than anything else," he said. "If I can write a good song, I hope we can make a decent record of it. That's all I want to do." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Mettler: I understand you've got vintage, Abbey Road–approved EMI consoles and a custom Neve board installed where you record at British Grove. Is that right?


The Neve 88R 96-channel console in Studio 1. .

Mark Knopfler: Yeah. We can use any one of three or four consoles in there and bring it to bear on any recording we're doing. We could beam stuff from Studio 1 into Studio 2. We could incorporate an early EMI REDD (footnote 5), and we could incorporate the first transistorized EMI desk, the TG. We do also have an API Legacy, which has been breathed on by British techs as well. [chuckles] It is a fantastic desk. That's the desk Guy and I use more than any other—and we don't use any EQ either. We don't have to.

The big desk in Studio 1 is Rupert Neve's last great analog 88R, so we're spoiled. We can bring other things to the sound chain if we want to, like Neve mike-pre's. We're not short of options. In fact, Guy and I try to keep that fresh by shaking it up a bit and trying different things in the sound chain all the time. We want to avoid getting into a rut by wiring things up the same way every single time. It might be a new microphone, but it might also be a new old microphone.

I'm interested in the old working with the new—but to get them to do that, you need clever people, who can match outputs, for instance. That's important. The output from the EMI TG, the transistorized desk, will match the output of the "big Rupert," the big 88R desk in Studio 1, because it sits in the same control room as the EMI REDD from the 1960s. What's fabulous about it is that you can be using all three at once. If you wanted to incorporate, say, the compressors from the TG—and they're fantastic compressors—you can use them on a recording that is based around another desk. You could be doing your recording in Studio 2, but you're bringing in info from Studio 1, and then it's all together.


Mark Knopfler's guitars.

Mettler: That must give you great flexibility when it comes to your final mixing choices. One of the mixes I love the most on One Deep River is "Tunnel 13." There are a few lines near the end of it that go "Tunnel 13 is the place in the song / Where the beautiful redwood for my guitar came from," and that ties directly into the guitar you're playing. What's the difference between playing wood and playing steel? You've certainly played a lot of both all throughout your career, so is there a difference to you?

Knopfler: Yeah, actually, there is. You can get beautiful sounds from Dobros because of having the wood in combo with a Resonator. I've recently discovered a fantastic guitar that I got to play on One Deep River. It's an exceptionally well-built guitar, just a beautiful instrument, and it has both the wood and the metal in it. That guitar is called a Pete Turner Marrakech Resonator. One of the things that I really like about Pete is he doesn't go around shouting about his guitar—and he doesn't have to. It's just a wonderful-sounding instrument, and it's used on a song called "Black Tie Jobs."

Mettler: That one has the line, "I don't like the black tie jobs," or something like that.

Knopfler: [laughs] "I hate these black tie jobs," yeah. So, that's a great guitar. And incidentally, I also used a Duesenberg guitar, which has such great character to it. They're not widely known instruments.


Footnote 1: "Sailing to Philadelphia" is the title track to Knopfler's second solo album, released in 2000. "Boom, Like That" appears on 2004's Shangri-La. "Romeo and Juliet" is on Dire Straits' third studio LP, 1980's Making Movies. "Telegraph Road" leads off 1982's Love Over Gold, and "Brothers in Arms" is the title track to the band's No.1–charting album from 1985.

Footnote 2: On Brothers in Arms, Fletcher played keyboards and sang background vocals. He was not yet part of the production team at that time.

Footnote 3: Jeff Beck passed away at age 78 in January 2023.

Footnote 4: "Going Home (Theme From Local Hero)" is available as a 12" single, on CD, and limited-edition Blu-ray, all via BMG.

Footnote 5: The REDD is a tube-based mixing console designed by EMI for Abbey Road Studios.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
remlab's picture

.

DaveinSM's picture

Nice interview! I can see that Knopfler always knew exactly what he wanted, though he’s obviously being modest about that being his only talent.

All the Dire Straits albums sounded great in terms of SQ from the get go, so they were naturals to be evergreen SACD releases.

The first album in particular sounds divine on SACD. Layered, dynamic, and detailed. It’s still my favorite Dire Straits record.

Glotz's picture

Hearing Mark's input on Atmos was great. I believe Atmos is that good but it really needs all of the elements in place for it work beautifully.

Funny, but even MQA didn't require that much effort! lol...

Still loved the love that Mike put into the interview!

rpeluso's picture

Is the "regular CD" in Atmos? I'm confused by this part of the interview.

Jim Austin's picture

Atmos is streaming (in compressed form) and on the Blu-ray Disc provided with the deluxe set. The "regular" CD is a regular CD.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

rpeluso's picture

Thank you. Disappointing, but thanks for the info.

X