top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarkus Brandstetter

A conversation with Mark Knopfler: „The Tyne bridge is the perfect symbol for my life“

Mark Knopfler
(c) Murdo MacLeod

For Mark Knopfler, the River Tyne is more than just a river. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1949, Knopfler moved with his family to the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne, which has a population of 300,000, where he grew up. In his twenties, he was drawn back to the other side of the river - to London to be precise, where he founded Dire Straits in 1977 and became a superstar.

Dire Straits are long gone, Knopfler is an established solo artist with an extensive discography full of highlights. What remains is the euphoric, melancholic feeling when the now 74-year-old crosses the Tyne Bridge once again. He pays tribute to this with his new, tenth studio album One Deep River.

Recorded in Knopfler's British Grove studios, the guitar legend and his established band are in their usual playing mood. Another factor that has not changed over the years: Even at 74, it's still the greatest thing for Knopfler to hang out with the band. He himself is regarded as one of the greatest and most distinctive guitarists in music history, but doesn't see himself as a particularly good musician, as he explains in our interview.

Disclaimer: I had the pleasure to conduct this interview for uDiscover music, who I'd like to thank for letting me publish the English version on here. The German version can be found on uDiscover Music.

Mark Knopfler standing in front of the Tyne bridge
Murdo MacLeod

Mark, the front cover of your new album One Deep River features the bridge over the River Tyne. Crossing the Tyne has an important biographical significance for you. What feelings do you have when you cross the bridge, whether it's into Newcastle, where you grew up, or out again?

It has long since become something of a myth for me, or at least a semi-myth. This bridge is a perfect symbol for my life. You know, when you grow up in a city like Newcastle upon Tyne, at some point you're going to leave that city and go to London. You have to leave the city to come back - and you have to come back to leave the city again. That journey is always there, it's never too far away. It's always in the back of your mind. Every time you come back, you sit on the train and see that river. Fortunately, I can now afford train tickets. When I come back to Newcastle, I always go to the end of the last compartment and look across the bridge at the river. It just still has a lot of meaning for me. Look, I recently had this guitar made[Knopfler shows an acoustic guitar with a mother-of-pearl Tyne bridge inlay on the twelfth fret].

It looks marvellous! And what's on the other side of the Tyne for you?

I am now married to Londontown. I've lived here for so many years now and have my studio here. I've had a love affair with London since I was a teenager. A romance. I've always had romances with other places too, but this is where it all comes from for me. I have my studio here. I no longer have to travel to record music, I can now do everything a few kilometres away from home. And it's wonderful. I've never had a bad day in my studio!

Your British Grove Studios have long been a renowned recording venue for many other well-known artists. What is your own working process like there?

When other artists work there, I always leave them alone. Let them do whatever they want to do. But when there's time and I can get my own band together there, it's always a highlight for me and for all of us. But that doesn't always work. Sometimes I just work with Guy[Fletcher, Knopfler's long-time musical partner, editor's note]. Guy used to be an assistant in recording studios. He loves the recording process dearly. It's great to have Guy as a partner. Not only as a musician, but also as someone who can operate the studio. He and I work perfectly together. Sometimes we go to Studio Two in the British Grove, a place that sounds great. The control room is not fundamentally different from Studio One. Even though Studio Two is quite a small recording room, we've recorded a lot there. It's a great place to disappear to with your songs and we wrote quite a few tracks there.

How do you approach recording sessions as a band?

I usually play the songs to the others in a band session. From start to finish. Glenn[Worf, bassist, editor's note] then transcribes it, often while I'm playing the song, and gives the musicians the note charts. Even if he's never heard it before. Then there's a man in every corner and it's a great feeling. I don't preach to the band, they usually don't talk much about it. Maybe someone asks if they can hear a part of the song again, just so that their sheet music fits. It's usually straight down to business, we get into position and start playing. Occasionally in the past, I've started a song with Guy and we've worked it out and written it down. But these sessions are always the highlight! It was great to have Greg Leisz [pedal steel and lap steel player, editor's note] in the studio for the first time. It was as if he had been with us for many years. It was a seamless transition, as if he had always been a part of it. And he is now. The recordings were simply a wonderful experience. I just had a lot of songs - that might have something to do with the fact that it's been a long time since the last record, or with the time during the Covid pandemic, but we recorded a lot. So much that I'll soon be releasing an EP with four more songs that are loosely connected thematically. It felt good to release them all, get them off my shoulders and onto a tape machine.

How finished are the songs when you present them to the band?

The songs are complete. The verses, the bridge, whatever the form is: I've already finished writing everything at home. I don't write anything myself in the studio. But of course things happen in the studio, you hear something, change something. You make adjustments, grab a pen, change the song. My musicians don't care about the lyrics, my band mates don't need the lyrics, they don't work with the lyrics like I do. Being a songwriter is different from being a musician. My musicians are great musicians. And I'm not usually that good a musician. I once apologised to the band: "Sorry guys, I made a few mistakes." And one of my colleagues said: "Well, as you say, the singer is always right."

You're also known for your great licks and fills. How worked out are they when you get into the studio?

It's just the colours you add. Maybe I've already decided on an acoustic guitar beforehand that fits in if it's an acoustic song - or I have a certain electric guitar floating around in my head and an approach I want to take with an electric guitar. But maybe Richard [Bennett, guitarist, editor's note] has an idea - and then he gets a free hand. In general: The band is so good, I don't want to hold them back with specifications. That would be like telling great actors how they should play. I present them with the skeleton and they put the meat on the bones. Then it becomes something beautiful before my eyes, something I'm really excited about. Once we've found a direction, I just let things flow. Sometimes I make small adjustments. We listen to each other very carefully. Occasionally during a session I'll see two band members hugging - and afterwards I'll realise that one of them has changed their part a little and the other has immediately responded and played along. Each of us has a similar headphone mix so that we're actually playing the same song.

The first single on the album, Ahead Of The Game, is about musicians who keep their heads above water with cover shows.

It's really part of the scene now. I noticed that in Nashville, where tourism has really blossomed. Not that it hasn't always been like that, but I think it's even more present now. Cover gigs are simply lucrative gigs for many musicians. I have friends in London who play pub gigs where they perform other people's big hits. They can hardly save themselves from orders. You don't play your own songs there. It's a huge thing, in England it's as big as horse racing. It ensures that many musicians have jobs. I'm not snobbish about it at all. Some of them are really great bands. And what's wrong with playing Creedence Clearwater songs? Nothing at all - and people love it. It's only when someone insists on playing their own songs that the audience suddenly gets smaller.

Many of these bands also play your songs.

Yes, Money For Nothing, Walk Of Life, the hits.

You're also one of the great storytellers in rock music. I'm thinking of songs like Telegraph Road or What It Is, songs that immediately pull you into the action, that have a literary quality. Who has influenced you as a lyricist?

The biggest one for me is definitely Bob Dylan. I grew up listening to his music. My sister gave me his first album - back when he was still playing folk music. I was good at memorising lyrics from an early age and could sing the words to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when I was about 18 months old. Comedy songs were also important to me as a child, lyrics that I could laugh at. I can still memorise many of them today. At some point, Chuck Berry and rock'n'roll songs came into play and that was a natural transition for me. I was ready. After all, I could sing Big Rock Candy Mountain before I could walk. Sure, I didn't know what a "hobo" was. I didn't know what the songs meant. But I just liked it.

There is also a folk influence that's crucial to your work - both Irish and Scottish.

Yes, absolutely - after all, half of my ancestors are Scottish. On my mother's side, there are the Geordies from the north-east of England, but they are of Scottish descent. This Scottish influence that you hear in songs like Going Home (Local Hero), for example, always came naturally to me. When people from there say to me: "Oh, that phrase there, it's very West Highlands - and that strathspey[Scottish dance, editor's note]", I never quite know what they're talking about. But it's just in me because I listened to Scottish dance music early on. I heard Jimmy Shand and his band when I was four. That influenced me as much as my uncle Kingsley playing boogie-woogie piano to me. So it feels just as natural to me when I listen to boogie woogie today, geniuses like Lester Young.

Boogie woogie is also an influence that can occasionally be heard in your work.

You know, the boogie woogie bands were early rock bands. It's all connected, and for me, boogie and blues were other building blocks that came together quite naturally. I wasn't afraid of it back then. Today I am, I mean, let's be honest: many of the people who play boogie are really from another planet. I gave up trying to be a good musician a long time ago. What I want to achieve today is to write a good song. That's all I'm trying to do. I just hope that I can write a good song and maybe I'll manage to record it. That's another challenge. It's a great way to spend your time. I'm a lucky guy.

My last question is about your guitar tone. It's distinctive and original. How did you find your own voice on the instrument?

You start by copying others. You imitate so much that you do something original before you know what you're doing. You make something that is your own. B.B. King, who influenced me a lot, loved the playing of Elmore James. That's where his vibrato comes from, this powerful vibrato from B.B. King. At some point I read that Elmore James listened to a lot of Lonnie Johnson. Part of the fun of music is finding out who influenced the people you like. Who would have thought that a bottleneck player like Elmore James would influence B.B. King of all people? When you imitate something, you want to achieve something and you do it for good, understandable reasons. Imitation is also an absolutely honest appreciation. And at some point you play so much that you crystallise something that is your own style.


bottom of page