Stories From Shangri-La / Interview with Mark Knopfler
Release Date: September 28, 2004
Q: Mark, since your motorcycle accident last March you seem to have been very productive, both writing songs and then recording the new album in California.
A: I found myself writing a lot. I was at home and not on the road, so the accident has had a happy side to it. I’m fighting fit now, raring to go.
Q: You’ve used your regular band and co-produced as usual, with Chuck Ainlay.
A: Yes, Chuck and the band have been ten years or so with me so we have a good shorthand and the same sense of humor. It’s a good feeling, a high point for me when we get together. I’ll just play them the song on guitar, we talk about it a little bit and then just go and do it.
The band are the usual outfit: Richard Bennett on guitar, Jim Cox and Guy Fletcher on organ and piano, Glenn Worf on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums.
We all play together, get some leakage going from the room so some of the guys are bleeding into each other a bit. We share the same air and there’s a minimum of overdubs. The band plays and listens so well and we don’t have to stop the tape. We’d do a few takes, but often used the first one.
Q: Did the recording location make a difference?
A: Shangri-La is a ‘60s vintage studio in Malibu. People like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and The Band used to hang out a lot there. The owner has done a lot to preserve the place and invited me to record there. Old California seemed to go with a lot of the stuff I was doing and some of it rubbed off on the recordings.
Q: You’re not always a big fan of explaining your song lyrics, are you?
A: Well, some I can. I like the way David Hockney talks about his painting, for example, and I try to be as simple and as direct as possible. But sometimes I find the more you try to explain certain songs, the more they can get away from you. And people want to make them their own, into something personal and private, and they do. It’s one of the interesting things about it - it moves away from you and becomes theirs after a while. In ‘The Trawlerman’s Song’, for instance, I’d want him to come from wherever in the world you want him to come from, so I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you by saying where I got the idea.
Some songs are easier to talk about than others. There are themes that link a lot of them. I’ll sometimes be trying to look at the present by looking at the past. Times change but people don’t. There are plenty of characters - lovers, fighters, fishermen, conmen, showmen, musicians, thieves, politicians. I found myself in the 60’s a fair bit and even earlier influences on me from when I was small, like Lonnie Donegan and The Shadows.
“5.15 am”: This is partly about the murder of a fruit machine man on Tyneside that figured very big when I was a young teenager. I can be slow to get around to writing songs! The body was in a huge Jag and discovered by a pitman coming home from nightshift on his bicycle on a frozen morning. The nightclubs were moving into Newcastle. The Americanization of our culture comes later but always comes. Notting Hill had its first drive-by shooting last week.
“Back To Tupelo”: I suppose I realized gradually as a kid that Elvis wanted to be a Hollywood star as well as a singer. I didn’t realize quite how badly. It surprised me to learn that there are music managers today who admire his manager, Colonel Parker. And thousands of youngsters today want to be famous, often just to be famous, probably more than at any time in the past.
“Boom, Like That”: This is about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonalds into a worldwide business. Again, there are conflicting views about him today: the anti-globalization movement on the one hand and the people who call him a visionary and business-model creator on the other. The song consists mostly of things Kroc said himself.
“Sucker Row”: I imagined a small time go-go proprietor-pimp with what he calls ‘a beautiful vision’ of Las Vegas. The founders of Vegas have been described by some as visionaries and ‘dream weavers’ and others feel differently.
“Song For Sonny Liston”: Well, Sonny Liston was a big figure for me as a kid. He was the supposedly unbeatable bogeyman who the young Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) had to knock over in order to become champion. He had shady characters making money off him. He had a wretched childhood; he never smiled. In some ways his story reminds me of Mike Tyson’s. There’s a powerful book about Liston, ‘Night Train’ by Nick Tosches, which really helped me with the song.
I did that one as a trio, one guitar, bass and drums and I did a similar thing with ‘Donegan’s Gone’ although Jim put a bit of organ in there with us. When I was six years old I started out with a couple of Donegan records. It felt good to get back on bottleneck guitar for that one. It was an honor to perform it with Joe Brown at a tribute to Lonnie at the Royal Albert Hall recently. I have a special memory of Lonnie in our kitchen singing softly to our baby daughter, who was spellbound.
“Postcards From Paraguay”: I imagined some errant individual doing a runner with the stolen loot. Someone suggested to me recently that the album is partly about the honest toiler versus those who thrive on ill-gotten gains. Perhaps the subject has been more on my mind in these days of corporate crime.
Q: Some people are going to hear the lyric ‘Got shot off my horse, so what I’m up again’ on ‘Everybody Pays’ and think you’re talking about your accident.
A: Whatever works for you! When you want to sing and dance - when a kid tells me he wants to be a professional musician, I look at him and think well great but I know it’s going to kick him sometimes. The highs are high but the lows can be pretty low, too. In that sense it’s a little like sport because it’s something of a supercharged atmosphere. There’s the influence of Hank (Marvin) in my guitar there as there is in ‘Our Shangri-La’. That’s a song about getting the most out of the here and now. I love Hank’s playing. He’s the reason my first guitar had to be red.
Q: In amongst all this creativity on your own album, you’ve also been working on a duets record with Emmylou Harris, haven’t you?
A: Yes, we’ve managed to get in the odd recording session here and there over the past few years. I hope we can get a record out before too long - it’s been so easy to do and Emmy is so fab, so we’ll hopefully have that too.
Q: Having had to postpone a tour because of the accident you must be itching to get back on the road.
A: I’m looking forward to getting out there. I missed a tour and that never happens. Playing live has always been such a big part of it all for me. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m happy writing and recording, rehearsing and playing live - the whole cycle.
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