Off the Straits and narrow

As well as giving up the cigarettes, Mark Knopfler has had his fill of playing giant stadiums with that icon of Eighties excess, Dire Straits. His new solo album even has a song inspired by a Thomas Pynchon novel and, as he tells Patrick Humphries, he's a better person for it

This week, same as last week, same as the week before, and the week before that... Dire Straits' 1985 album Brothers in Arms will sell its customary 1,000 copies in Britain alone. From the start, it was one of those albums that sold by the skip-load to people who don't usually buy albums, so - 15 years on - can there be anyone left who doesn't own a copy of this soundtrack to red-braced Thatcherism, this CD-defining album?

This week, same as last week, same as the week before, and the week before that... Dire Straits' 1985 album Brothers in Arms will sell its customary 1,000 copies in Britain alone. From the start, it was one of those albums that sold by the skip-load to people who don't usually buy albums, so - 15 years on - can there be anyone left who doesn't own a copy of this soundtrack to red-braced Thatcherism, this CD-defining album?

Dire Straits burst out of Deptford during the saliva-soaked summer of punk, but the band always had more in common with the pub rockers - more Ducks De Luxe than The Clash. In that age of three-minute-heroes and bondage-trousered vandals, Mark Knopfler was a bona fide, plectrum-picking, string-snapping guitar-hero; and "Sultans of Swing" one of those songs you felt you'd known for half your life.

At first, "Sultans of Swing" was kept off the Radio 1 playlist because - Knopfler can laugh now - "it had too many words"; but when it did eventually hit, it hit big-time. The band's popularity was reinforced by albums such as Communiqué and Making Movies, and before long, Knopfler was also much in demand as a session gun- for-hire (Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Steely Dan); film composer ( Local Hero, Cal, The Princess Bride); and record producer (Bob Dylan, Aztec Camera, Randy Newman).

Even then, there was nothing to indicate, to Knopfler or anyone else, that Brothers in Arms would cement itself as one of rock's all-time bestselling albums: 20 million and counting, last time anybody sat down with a calculator. But as with any album that hits that big ( Thriller, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Dark Side of the Moon) the follow-up proved problematic, and Dire Straits fans waited six years for On Every Street and the accompanying world tour.

Since then, aside from greatest hits packages and archive releases, Knopfler has quietly wound down Dire Straits. "It's been the same basic crew pretty much since the beginning," he says, "but then it gets so big - extra guys coming in, extra trucks... Once we got to the point of carrying our own stage, I felt the whole thing was just too big.

"I think it's wonderful for people who like that, and can do it, and enjoy it. But it's a trap that I just wanted to get out of. I needed to do something else, to try to improve as a writer and as a player. And I don't think being stuck in that kind of circus is where that's going to happen."

In conversation, Knopfler is engaging and laconic, a delightful companion, apparently far more interested in talking about your activities than his. This curiosity about the mechanics of your craft is more than mere politeness - though it is undeniably flattering. But, whether by accident or design, it also gets seriously in the way of getting to him.

Although his hair is greyer now, the Geordie accent is still marked - and the manner almost painfully self-effacing. You have to keep reminding yourself that the unassuming chap slipping out for more coffee really is Mark Knopfler, guitar hero to a generation; the man who led a bunch of south London misfits to become the most successful British band since Pink Floyd - and the creative force behind Britain's best-selling album after Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.

However, summer 2000 finds Knopfler preoccupied with matters other than the staggering success of a 15-year-old album, or indeed the promotion of his new record, Sailing to Philadelphia. The fact uppermost in his mind, and the achievement of which he is proudest, is that he has, finally, given up smoking.

"I really like it in jazz clubs: somewhere like Ronnie Scott's, if there's good air-conditioning. But if you've been to a restaurant, say, and you're surrounded by it you really do feel it the next day.

"Patches certainly don't work. Alan Carr didn't work. I went to see a woman in Swiss Cottage, who deals in eating and smoking, and she said it's a mental trick: you have a choice. And if you choose not to, it's quite a different thing to saying 'I mustn't'.

"I said to her, 'I don't know how I'm going to get through my first session, never mind after with the boys', and she said, 'well, your first session will be your first. Your second will be your second...' The physical symptoms disappeared after three days. I'm proud of myself - I'm probably prouder of that than of anything."

This seems like the perfect moment to bring the conversation back to the new album, but on this subject Knopfler modestly reserves his enthusiasm for his co-star's rather than his own achievements ("James Taylor is in great shape... he's really on top of his game. He was fantastic on the session. Really, really good.")

Nevertheless, Sailing To Philadelphia is a rewarding voyage, and a marked improvement on 1996's solo début, Golden Heart: Knopfler's playing is as fluid as ever, his vocals as beguilingly smoky, but the songwriting is more focused, carrying the material confidently into new territory.

In the past, Knopfler has talked of his love of research, his delight in unearthing details of distant and different lives. In the case of the title track for the new album, much of the inspiration came from Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon's book about the two 18th-century English astronomers who gave their names to America's Mason-Dixon line.

"I suppose any good work, like the Pynchon book, makes you think about the present. It's a book about many things. And in a way, a song is only an attempt at a miniaturisation of something like that - it's a huge great baggy book, which goes in any one of a million directions. So, if you like, the song is my three-minute take on a three-year book.

In the quarter-century since his first trip to America, in 1976, Knopfler has worked with all manner of American legends: Dylan, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings... ("Lots of times I've thought, why haven't I got a tape recorder going? Or why haven't I got a record of this? But that's not the way life is"), and American influences hang over much of Sailing to Philadelphia.

"The first time I went to the States, I bought a Greyhound ticket and just travelled. At that time I was so wide awake to the world. I was in a strange place that I'd wanted to go for so many years, and it was overwhelming. There's a line in an early Wim Wenders movie - that America has colonised our consciousness."

Amenable in conversation but, despite all his years in the business, self-conscious in interview, the 51-year-old Knopfler still seems ill at ease with his own celebrity. "Oh, it's excruciating. I can't bear it," he says. "I can't bear listening to it and I can't bear watching myself talk. If I go to a restaurant and there's a mirror opposite, I have to sit the other way.

"It's a long, long way I've travelled from the narcissism of being 14, and all that preening yourself in shop windows. It's something I genuinely don't welcome. I was doing a video recently, in Edinburgh, standing on the pavement, outside the catering bus, looking at all these trucks and people... You feel like saying, 'It's not my fault!' But of course it is."

Perhaps because of this self-consciousness, his new scaled-down career seems to suit Knopfler in a way that mega-stardom never really did - and playing in the relatively intimate surroundings of the Albert Hall on the Golden Heart tour, he looked visibly more relaxed.

"I don't know if it's the best venue soundwise, but there's something I always like about playing in round places," he says. "I enjoy bullrings a lot, I don't know why... The Roman amphitheatres in the south of France are beautiful, and it's a thrill playing the Juventus stadium when it's bursting with people. But I like playing Ronnie's, too, just to play be with Lonnie Donegan or Chris Barber."

As we wind down, I remark that one thing that really impressed me the first time I heard "Sultans of Swing" was that he had managed to rhyme "creole" - rather than the over-used "soul" - with "rock'n'roll".

"Rhymes are funny, aren't they? I remember Bob Dylan telling me," - and here he goes into an eerily accurate Dylan impression - "'I always liked "Private Investigations"... I really liked the way you rhymed "diary" and "inquiry".'"

So that's what songwriters talk about when there's nobody listening.

'What It Is', the album's first single, is out now; 'Sailing to Philadelphia' is released by Mercury on Monday

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