It takes guts, integrity and talent to walk away from a wildly successful rock band and strike out on your own as a singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what David Knopfler did in 1980, three years after founding Dire Straits with his older brother, Mark.
“[I’d] expected [Dire Straits] to be a vehicle for my songwriting, and after three years of increasingly becoming a strummer for someone else’s dreams … I just wanted to get myself back to being the architect of my own fate, and so I did,” Knopfler said in a series of technologically jinxed Skype, phone and email interviews earlier this week.
Touring internationally and putting out a dozen solo albums in the process, Knopfler has followed his own muse for the last 33 years.
Sunday evening, Knopfler’s muse is bringing him to the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.
Usually, Knopfler performs with his longtime friend and musical collaborator Harry Bogdanovs, but medical problems kept Bogdanovs back home in Britain for this tour.
“I will be playing solo,” he confirmed.
Although he plays both keyboards and guitar (and drums), he’s just hauling three guitars on this trip.
Rather than let Bogdanovs’ absence hold him back, Knopfler said he is using this as an opportunity to “take a few more risks” as a solo performer. For instance, “I played a song last night I’d only half-written than afternoon. I don’t usually make a habit of doing that,” he wrote Monday.
He doesn’t make a habit of being rigid about his playlist either because “it would be boring.” At any given performance, “You get a sense on the night of what is going to work best in any given venue,” he said.
Nevertheless, he did say that for the Grass Valley show, “I’ll probably be doing a couple of the songs I played with the Straits, a selection from [my] albums and then a couple of surprises.”
Knopfler didn’t say whether he’ll play “Sultans of Swing” — Dire Straits’ breakout hit single. He did reveal, however, that he argued against releasing “Sultans” as the band’s first, critical release.
“I didn’t totally ‘dislike’ ‘Sultans.’ I just wouldn’t have picked it as the single, so it was lucky for me that my opinion didn’t hold sway,” he added.
Asked what his favorite song is, Knopfler just laughed.
“When you have a whole gang of children, you don’t play favorites.”
Later, he wrote to amend that to say, “My favourite song is usually the one I most recently wrote, though I generally don’t play favourites.”
Although some of his songs reflect the signature rhythm of Dire Straits (he was, after all, the rhythm guitarist), it’s his thoughtful and insightful lyrics that distinguish David Knopfler from the pop rock of Dire Straits.
You don’t dance to David Knopfler. You listen.
Regardless of what he decides to play, Knopfler said he is looking forward to playing the Center for the Arts.
“I like art centers because the concerts are intimate, and the audience gets it,” Knopfler said.
Most of this tour, he’s been playing clubs from Texas to Illinois to Washington to California.
Moreover, it’s been a tour of “airplane hell” with more flights than concerts, he said Sunday from Texas, contemplating being crammed into Row 38 on a flight from Houston to Seattle for a Monday show.
The reality of being a touring musician isn’t as glamorous as it might seem, he asserted firmly. For him, the ideal tour doesn’t require a visit to a chiropractor when he gets back home to the British countryside, he joked.
When it comes down to it, he reasoned: “They don’t pay you for the playing really. It’s for the grief in getting there and setting it up and breaking it down.”
Although he has a bachelor’s degree in economics from an extension campus of London University, he laughed it off as “one of those hippie degrees when you could still get one.”
Basically, he said he majored in social activism and had a social worker “day job” before his music career took off.
Even though music is his life and passion, he’s never given up on his social activism commitments.
“I’ve always been sort of a leftie,” he admitted.
He is a longtime supporter of organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace, but he keeps his political rants offstage.
“If I talk about saving the whales, I get hassled about not talking about global warming,” he said. In other words, he doesn’t want to alienate his audience. He wants to entertain them.
After all, he concluded, writing and performing music is all he’s ever really wanted to do.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.