The Quiet Sultan

By Matt White

I confess. I’m a guitarist. A frustrated one.    

Like so many others I grew up listening to the greats ­- Clapton, Page, Santana, Waters, Jansch ­- and yes, Hendrix, of course Hendrix. Also the great guitar bands The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and, naturally, Dire Straits. Not the extensive list but all had such unique sounds ­- ones I happily murdered whilst trying to learn the instrument after school -­ testing my parents and neighbours patience in the process.

It was always apparent to me that I was never going to meet those dizzy heights so you can imagine my pleasure to be invited down to David Knopfler's West Country retreat for a conversation about his life, his approach to making music, experiences of being a crucial member of one of those iconic groups and his chosen path in the industry.

After a pleasant drive through the idyllic Cornish countryside -­ I find myself sitting across from a very approachable and affable man clearly very comfortable in his own skin, and in reflective mood having recently released the part crowdfunded album ‘Grace’- ­ the 14th solo album in a varied and accomplished career.  

I also find myself scanning his impressive range of electric, acoustic and bass guitars ­- the pre-­CBS Strat he used in Dire Straits is in prominent position, as well as several beautiful Furch acoustic models. All a far cry from his early days when at one point he tells me as a 15 year old he traded a heavy coat for a ‘Tommy Steel’ the dead of winter.

Later he graduated to a Harmony Sovereign on the advice of Steve Phillips’ brother (laterly of Notting Hillbillies fame) for £40 in 1975. Eventually he found himself fixed on the Fender route with Telecaster and Stratocaster his main guitars -­ he admits he never really got on with the flat neck of a Gibson -­ but, illustrating his sincerity, he says that this is as much down to serendipity as anything else.

After starting out playing working men's clubs whilst still at school things quickly escalated after forming Dire Straits with his elder brother Mark ­- but I get the impression that even then the two siblings were treading separate paths as guitarists and artists -­

I never saw it as a horse race, I didn't think I was as good as I actually was, I did have a bit of trouble hanging onto my brother's coat tails ­ who had a more than rare talent ­- but I was good ­- and I’m still learning.”  

Four years younger than his brother the sibling rivalry is clear -­ and like most siblings the relationships are formed young -­ David relates that even in the earliest years he would have to wait for his brother to go out so he could steal some precious time on Mark’s red Höfner Supersolid.

David has experience as an ex­-social worker to draw upon and this appears to be core in his grounding in the real world -­ something which must have been at odds with the fame of a stadium­rock sized band admitting he felt ‘...alienated and lost for the most part...’ but he always had his craft to fall back on -­ and even after taking part in the other side of the business ­ producing, setting up record labels he knew that “...songwriting always brought me back to dry land.” Which must have been comforting after admitting there was a time he couldn’t walk down Oxford Street in London without people whispering behind him.

After the major successes of the Straits early albums the brothers parted ways -­ for David this was opportunity to concentrate on what he loved best ­- songwriting.

A path he has followed ever since ­- the album Grace sounds like an artist who knows what he’s best at and the company and gear the brings the best out of him. He’s sitting in a room with a couple of 12­-strings but tends to stick with 6 strings and simple arrangements that suit his style (He says he agrees with Steve Stills regarding 12-­strings: “you spend half your life tuning and the other half playing out of tune.” -­ Though I think that quote actually goes back to Debussy about harp players ­- it still holds true!).

Grace is recorded with musicians he has long standing relationships with ­- Harry Bogdanovs, chief among them -­ and it’s clear he enjoys the collaborative approach to making music and is wary of chasing faultless performance -­ “seeking perfection is a recipe for trouble” -­ careful not to let that add to the pitfalls of procrastination which he has seen occur to others in the studio.  

A particular personal favorite on Grace is ‘Dawn Patrol’ a true boy's own story of daring do -­ harking back to a boyhood fascination with WWI aircraft -­ and inspired by memories of an earlier song penned and nearly forgotten some years ago -­ though his refined simplicity comes back into focus now as he admits looking back at old songs from 30 years ago and saying “...let’s forget that middle eight -­ too many bloody jazz chords!”.

As conversation turns to the question of style as a guitarist, its development and refinement it’s clear he can see the process at hand in his own development and it’s a lesson for us all, his retrospective view:

“You start doing other peoples dance ­- they leave the footprints in the sand and you step into those -­ eventually you start to leave your own ­- and you think you sound like your influences -­ but there comes a point when you create something that's uniquely you”

There’s little hint of arrogance in his self-­review ­- he’s still got his feet on the ground and it shows -­ I ask if there’s any major difference in his stage playing experience these days ­- it’s all about the encores:

“There was a time when, if I got less than 6 encores, I be depressed ­- now if it’s more than 2 I’m annoyed!”

It’s nice to meet someone who’s been put through the fame wringer and come out the other side not entirely unaffected, but with the sense of self assuredness that keeps it in context ­- as he shows me some other guitars which would make a lot of people jealous (including the Yamaha Bass which was used in Dire Straits and never has had the string changed since 1977!) -­ he offers:

“...anyway, a great guitarist will sound really good on a bad guitar -­ and an average guitarist will sound really bad on a really good guitar and that’s the truth of it.”

As he noodles on a picking arpeggio arrangement on his Furch acoustic ­- illustrating his approach to developing ideas (we both agree that unintentional mistakes are often the catalyst to greater creativity), it’s clear he is content both in his style and approach to songwriting, happy with his refined technique and in his own words:

"I just like to plough my own furrow -­ and be left in peace to do it.-­ It works for me..."

Alarmingly, having identified myself to him as a (frustrated) guitarist earlier he passes me the Furch -­ and I too have a quick ‘noodle’ on the fretboard ­- I’m sure it sounded pretty awful in such company but perhaps as if to underline the mark of the man -­ he doesn’t point it out ­- and I don’t feel frustrated -­ just happy to have enjoyed good company from someone who has been through it all and remains positive and at peace with his chosen path.