You won’t be seeing Mark Knopfler in melodramatic newspaper headlines or on talent show panels.
The much-travelled craftsman prefers to reside wherever the song takes him, from writing room to rehearsal space, recording studio to concert hall. He is, as tirelessly and inquisitively as ever, on the trail of some musical truth, just as he has been since the 45s of Ricky Nelson and Lonnie Donegan, or the playing of Hank Marvin and Duane Eddy, sent him down a path that led to 125 million record sales.
That approach to his life’s work is how the title of his new, eighth solo album (not counting a myriad of collaborations, productions and film soundtracks) came into being. It’s the other half, if you like, of his typically acclaimed double set Privateering, which graced top tens throughout Europe and beyond in 2012.
Privateering came about because, in a sense, that’s how I saw the whole thing, my operation,” he muses. “Tracker is a very similar sort of thing. You’re involved in tracking down subject matter, tracking down an idea, investigating the whole thing. Sometimes you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re tracking, and you find out as you’re circling it, and getting closer to it. That’s part of the thrill.”
Hence a delightful, deeply rewarding new batch of creations to captivate Knopfler’s millions of devotees, and to bewitch the next generation. Co-produced with his longtime confidant Guy Fletcher, it features an A-list of frequent collaborators, such as John McCusker on fiddle and cittern, Mike McGoldrick on whistle and flute, bassist Glenn Worf and drummer Ian ‘Ianto’ Thomas.
Tracker also contains a new cast of characters drawn from Mark’s endless fascination with people, both real and imagined, and places and times in his own life. “You’re also tracking back in time, and to me the question of time is much more important as I’ve got older,” he says. “Some of the songs will, I hope, reflect all that. Sometimes, as well, you’re tracking around the world playing to people.”
The prolific Knopfler set to work on this new endeavour after being asked by his old friend Bob Dylan to tour with him, not once, but twice, on a European jaunt in autumn 2011 and a North American equivalent a year later. There was also the little matter of Mark’s own Privateering tour, which as usual took him and his bespoke band all over Europe, with 70 shows over three months in 2013. The itinerary included another six nights at what has almost become his second home in London, the Royal Albert Hall.
“The tours with Bob, I hadn’t expected to turn up but they did, so that changed the recording schedule, and it’ll probably have changed the album, too, when I eventually got back into the studio. So I’m glad all of that happened, because I think that will have informed some of the stuff on Tracker too.”
The relationship with Dylan is an example of the way that Knopfler moves, with a marked absence of self-importance, in only the most distinguished musical circles. Their story goes back to the early days of Dire Straits, whom Dylan came to see in Los Angeles as they toured their first, self-titled album there in 1979, after which Mark co-produced Bob’s 1983 album Infidels.
Tracker also features the fruits of newer friendships, for example on two elegant saxophone cameos by Nigel Hitchcock on “River Towns” and “Wherever I Go.” The latter song is the graceful ballad that closes the album and features Mark duetting with singer-songwriter Ruth Moody.
“I came across Ruth through hearing her singing with the Wailin’ Jennys, her Canadian three-piece girl outfit,” he explains. “They always sounded great, and I saw Ruth singing on The Transatlantic Sessions. Then I realised that, of course, she was making her own records, and that they were beautiful. There’s just something celestial about her voice. It’s quite clear that she’s the right stuff. I guess it’s just something you recognise.”
The lead single is the sparky, uptempo “Beryl,” inspired by one of his favourite authors. “Beryl Bainbridge was a marvellous writer, as many people know, but the fact that she was a self-deprecating, working class girl from Liverpool — and her publisher was a man who didn’t have a very high opinion of the novel — all of those things conspired for her never to be given the Booker Prize, although she was nominated five times.
“Beryl never went to university, and I really think the literary establishment back then tended to favour people who came from a different background, and had a different kind of education. There was an ‘Oxbridge’ prejudice against people like her, which existed only at that time, thankfully it doesn’t now.”
Of all the songs on Tracker, this one has the loudest echoes of the early days of Dire Straits, and it’s intentional. “I think there was a definite nod to the early Straits with “Beryl,”” he agrees. “That was a deliberate thing, going back to a period because it seemed to suit the song. I took a sort of “Sultans of Swing” approach to it for that reason, because it’s something you’d associate with a time. So in your head, there’s an appropriateness to the style. You just hope you can bring it off.”
Also among the highlights is another vivid character song drawn from real life, “Basil,” about the poet Basil Bunting. “When I was 15, I was a copy boy on the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, it was a Saturday afternoon job that I had,” explains Mark. “I’d go in to the newspaper office, and you’d deal with all the sports copy coming in, and you’d be putting them in tubes, down to the printer’s, or going over to the sub’s desk.
“There was a chap working there who was very different from the others. He was grumpy and he was older, and differently dressed, and I learned that that was Basil Bunting. It was very clear that he’d rather be writing poetry than writing copy for the Evening Chronicle, and he didn’t really fit. So in a way it was the contrast between him and me, because at that age I had the whole world in front of me. I had a different way of looking at the world entirely, you’re thinking it’s all rosy promise. So he fascinated me.”
Another character acknowledged, if not by name, is one of Knopfler’s favourite musicians, the late and great JJ Cale, who did so much to inform the early Dire Straits sound. “”Broken Bones” is similar to a JJ production in the sense that I was just using a tiny little amp, without the band, more like a demo, and a lot of JJ’s things were done that way.
“It was an honour to play on the tribute to JJ [The Breeze] that Eric Clapton just made. When Eric asked if I would play on a couple of those things, that was very nice to be able to do that. JJ was playing in our rented rooms a lot in those early days, as were a lot of other artists. So you look back on those records with a lot of affection. The sounds that you grow up with, they’re just there all the time. That music is very important.”
That feeling of observing his younger self is also present on Knopfler’s opening composition for the album, “Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes.” “That was what it was all about when you were young,” he says. “You’re so resilient, you don’t even think about the wear and tear, at all. I certainly didn’t.
“Back in those days, I’d be listening to a lot of Van Morrison, and Dylan and all the rest of it. So when I hear it now, it just takes you back, it’s like food you used to eat as a kid. They’re wonderful signposts, in your life, some of these songs.”
Knopfler has been providing those signposts in a creative voyage of almost 40 years, which will put to sea again soon, as Mark and his band begin another huge international tour. They’ll introduce new songs from Tracker to old friends from a truly distinguished catalogue, and he can’t wait.
“As soon as there’s a soundcheck or a rehearsal, and the band’s there, you’re putting it all together, and I feel very at home. It’s something I can do. I like all the banter. Part of the joy of it is getting that little crew together and setting sail once more.”