John Illsley Of Dire Straits: ‘You Can Break The Rules’

Amy Kelly  Ultimate-Guitar.com

Dire Straits could easily be described as “iconic” during the late 1970’s and 1980s, with the albums Making Movies and Brothers In Arms garnering multiplatinum statuses and number-one singles.

A glimpse of the band’s heyday can now be revisited in Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, a Blu-ray edition of the legendary Hammersmith Odeon show that was originally released as a concert album in 1984.

Whether or not the musicians had a sixth sense about how well they would perform, it was fortuitous that they opted to record that one near-flawless show. Bassist John Illsley vividly recalls the London concert and revealed that everything just fell into place musically that evening.

Dire Straits officially called it quits in 1995, but much like vocalist/guitarist Mark Knopfler, Illsley has continued to make music via the solo route. Because Knopfler usually came up with the initial songwriting ideas in Dire Straits, Illsley’s work as a solo artist has been an entirely new creative venture. And it just so happens that after decades of writing sessions, Illsley has never had an easier time penning material. His latest record Streets Of Heaven contains some of his most personal topics to date, with the majority of material composed by Illsley on piano or guitar. Although Illsley would at some point enjoy the opportunity to reunite with his Dire Straits bandmates, he doesn’t take for granted the fact that he’s still able to thrive making music at 60 years old.

UG: Rewinding the clock back a bit, I’d like to talk about the performance that is featured in the newly released Alchemy: Dire Straits Live Blu-ray. Can you give us an idea of what the band’s mindset was like during that filming?

John: It was recorded in London, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. We had been in the habit of playing in one particular venue every year for about four or five days. We just decided to record one of the nights. One particular night became Alchemy. We didn’t make changes to anything at all. There was no mixing or anything. There was an atmosphere in that stadium that night, which somehow was very special. We had done a lot of touring and the band was playing incredibly well. Everybody was really in sync with each other. It’s special that it happened. When you build up a wonderful musical relationship, everybody knew what they were supposed to play, but there’s another level. It’s when you get a certain sensuality to the music, and that’s when you get a performance. That’s thankfully what we recorded that night.

We knew that when we stepped on the stage, wherever we were in the world, this was going to be a good, quality show.

One of the comments that many Dire Straits fans make is that the band somehow is able to never play a song the same way twice. Had that desire to continually make songs fresh been a part of the band’s vision from the very beginning?

I think so. We did used to spend a lot of time getting things right. We knew that when we stepped on the stage, wherever we were in the world, this was going to be a good, quality show. So it would not only be interesting for the band, it would also be interesting for the audience. When we go out to do sound check, we would spend time on the outro on “Going Home” or something. We were just constantly fiddling. That’s something that not all bands do, but it’s something that we do. I think it made it more interesting. Also we were experimenting, joining a lot of the songs together. We would actually create what would be like a play within the performance. We would spend hours thinking about what would follow what and how we could join things together. It was quite an enterprise. It was an engaging way of making music.

Dire Straits is a band that has been able to go against the grain in terms of the typical radio song format, with many of your songs going well beyond the five-minute mark. Did some of those songs develop during jam sessions?

I guess you could get a sense of what Dire Straits thought about three-minute songs when you hear “Sultans of Swing,” a six-minute song that was our first single! I’ll never forget at one particular point in time the record company said, “I’ve managed to get ‘Telegraph Road’ down to five minutes.” We listened in complete astonishment, but that’s record company policy. You have to respect that, but we never really set out to do three or four-minute songs. One of the most successful songs we had on the British charts over here was “Private Investigations,” which was six minutes long. It was unheard of! You can break the rules.

As far as the songwriting is concerned, Mark would bring ideas to the band. We’d sit down in a small room and hammer out most of it in pieces. Then we hammered that out again. It’s very – I don’t want to use the word “organic” because it’s overused. But we all put our eclectic ideas out. Mark was very responsive to people’s ideas. As long as the song was working, it wouldn’t get thrown out. I think he, at that particular time, was writing some fabulous songs. I mean a song like “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s just an incredible piece of music. It was an absolute pleasure to work with such an extraordinary writer.

When you started the band, where were you coming from as a bassist? Were you heavily embedded in a rock and roll background?

Pretty much. I started playing when I was 15. I picked up the guitar up and played everything from Elvis to Buddy Holly, but it all changed when I joined the local school band. I had to play the bass because they already had a guitar player. I suddenly switched from playing guitar to bass. So I ended up being a bass player! I actually ended up being quite happy. I think it fit my persona. I was playing in blues bands and rock bands and all sorts of music, some jazz occasionally.

So I come across Mark, who was in a band called Café Racers in Essex doing sort of college gigs. I was in a blues band at my college, and he asked me to come over and play the bass in his band. So that’s how I actually got to play with Mark in a band. He was just a guitar player then. Then he moved into my flat because he was Dave’s brother, so we would just sit around and play together. That’s how we developed the Dire Straits sound, sitting around in a flat in South London.

There was a ceremony at one of your old flats, which was bestowed the PRS for Music Heritage Award. Was that the particular place?

Yes. I have to say that it looks a lot better now than when I was living there. As students we were given flats, which the council had said were unfit for habitation! We were in college, so we couldn’t afford anything. It was a few years that we spent there, so the plaque that was put on the wall at the flat was to recognize that it was where the very first Dire Straits gig took place. It was in front of about 10 bored people! That was a little plaque that was put up on the wall. It was nice to visit there.

There’s another level. It’s when you get a certain sensuality to the music, and that’s when you get a performance.

In one interview at that PRS ceremony, you had discussed that there were quite a few punk artists with whom you interacted back in the day. I understand they had a very different approach to their musical instruments, in particular the desire to leave them out of tune.

Oh, yeah. I don’t think any of them had actually learned how to tune their guitars. David and I were sitting around working on a song, and we were tuning up. One of them said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, tuning my guitar.” “Tuning your guitar? How do you do that?” It was a different time, though. People tend to forget there was a lot of other music besides punk music.

Out of the Dire Straits catalog, was there a song or an album that you would consider the pinnacle of your songwriting collaborations?

I think “Sultans” would be the main one. That really made it big in America in ’78. There was a massive impact. It wasn’t just big in America, but it was big everywhere in the world. It was quite interesting when we were in a Greek café, and we heard “Sultans of Swing” coming out of a Greek café. Even now, 33 years later, it still seems to sound fresh. That’s the thing about music. You make music, and you make it as well as you can. You make it for not necessarily posterity. You make it in attempt that the people will enjoy it. What’s wrong with that? I can still listen to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, and I think it still holds up over time.

Was the first solo material that you released originally proposed to Dire Straits?

I’ve always thought it would be my own. Dire Straits had a certain kind of format. I didn’t want to upset that format or challenge it. Why change something that actually has been successful and had a good, positive outcome? I had just written songs and I just wanted to record them, which is what I did. I had a moderate amount of success with them. The album that I’ve coming out, Streets of Heaven, I had only started writing it in 2009. It took me about six months to get it together. I took a few years off and enjoyed some time off. I just came back and felt I wanted to write again.

On one of the new tracks, “Only Time Will Tell,” there’s almost a Celtic approach. Talk about the songwriting process for that one.

“Only Time Will Tell” is really an acknowledgement of when you start a relationship or when you’re in a relationship, in a sense that only time will tell if it will work out or not. A friend of mine said, “You’ve just written a classic song to be played at a wedding.” I said, “What are you talking about?” “Only time will tell.” I thought, “Well, that’s fine. Why not?” A lot of these songs came together quite easily. For some reason the songwriting on this particular record was not too difficult. It came together quite well once we got the jigsaw part over with. There was a natural flow to everything. “Streets of Heaven” was basically about my relationship with my wife. She came up to me one day when I was busy working in the house and she said, “You said something to me one day that I wrote down.” I said, “Well, what?” She said, “May the streets of heaven be paved with gold.” I went, “Oh, I might use that. It will be for a song that I was thinking about writing about you.”

Would you say this is one of the most personal albums that you’ve ever written?

Yeah, it is. Definitely.

Did you write everything on the acoustic?

I write on the acoustic, and I also write on the piano. I’m not a very good piano player, so it’s basically just chords and things. I use a digital tape recorder beside me. So if I get an idea, I can quickly get it down. I have an appalling memory!

You mentioned that Streets of Heaven was one of the easiest albums to write, but were there one or two songs that might have been a bit more laborious?

There was one song that was actually written by a friend of mine, which I sort of changed a lot. He gave me the initial idea for “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” The version on there is a lot different than the one he gave me. That was quite an interesting process getting that together. I wanted to get that French café feel to it.

I guess you could get a sense of what Dire Straits thought about three-minute songs when you hear “Sultans of Swing”.

As someone who has been a steadily working bassist in the ever-changing music industry over the past few decades, what is your opinion on the current state of the business?

I think you’d be in denial if you didn’t embrace what’s happening. I think technology has created a completely different space, which some people don’t feel comfortable in. I don’t mind it all. The only think I object to is that some people don’t buy the music. They download it and it goes straight on to their iPod. They don’t have any idea of what the album cover looks like. They don’t care who might have produced it. It’s a different world we’re living in. I’m still slightly old fashioned, but I have to embrace what’s going on in the times. You can’t stick your head in the sand and say, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do that.” People want to cherry pick their albums. They’ll say, “I like Brothers In Arms, but I don’t want to listen to ‘So Far Away.’” So be it. That’s fine as long as people are listening to the music. The music is the most important thing. How you get it out there is slightly irrelevant, as long as you can get it to where people can hear it.

There’s this court case with Pink Floyd. I don’t think Pink Floyd wanted Dark Side of the Moon broken up into bits and sold as individual tracks. I completely and utterly understand that. I absolutely understand that. The record company is saying, “Well, things are now getting broken up.” I think Pink Floyd actually won the case. I thought, well, in some ways they’re absolutely right. They had basically devised a concept album, and that’s the way they would like it to stay. In another way, the record company was right in saying, “When you made that record, this kind of technology wasn’t available.” It puts you between a rock and hard place. I’m pretty open to that whole thing. I think a lot of good things have happened over the last few years to get music out to people.

Will there be an international tour coming up to support the new solo album?

At the moment, we’re just doing some promo gigs around Europe.

In the past it did not seem like there was much of a chance that Dire Straits would reunite. Do you plan on just focusing on your solo career for now?

I can’t say it will, as much as I know people would like for that to happen. Mark has a successful solo career right now and he really doesn’t need to do that. He’s going out, playing gigs across the world. We’re all still making music – we’re just not making it together.

Interview by Amy Kelly
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2010

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