An interview with John Illsley of Dire Straits

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When it comes to Rock music, often the lead singer or guitarist gets all of the attention, but anyone who knows a thing or two about Rock music, as well as band dynamics, knows it’s the rhythm section that often makes the band and keeps things steady.

In the case of the world-beating band, Dire Straits, it was John Illsley who laid down the foundation for Classic Rock staples such as “Sultans Of Swing,” “Money For Nothing,” “Telegraph Road,” and more.

While Dire Straits may have laid down the proverbial gamut for FM Radio, and Mark Knopfler was given a lot of credit for that feat, it’s important to remember that as a founding member of the band, the ever-steady, John Illsley’s fingerprints are all over the music of Dire Straits, music which has come to define a generation of Rock music. John’s musicality and rhythmic interplay were integral to the success of the band in the late 70s, and 1980s.

Present-day, John has a new book out, My Life In Dire Straits: The Inside Story Of One Of The Biggest Bands In Rock History, which you can check out here. If you would like to learn more about the work of John Illsley, head over to John’s webpage, and dig in. Once you’ve done that, dig into this chat with John. Cheers.

Anthony:
John, how have you been these past couple of years?
You’ve got a new book out, My Life In Dire Straits: The Inside Story Of One Of The Biggest Bands In Rock History. Dig into a bit for us.

John:
Yes, I’ve been busy writing the book. I know the book’s available in America, and it’s done very well there. It’s been translated into lots of different languages, so it’s great. It’s just a celebration of the band’s time, and I hope a lot of people read it because they might find out things they never knew.

Anthony:
The book goes deep into your time with the band, and beyond. What was it like being one of the biggest Rock bands on earth so early on in your career?

John:
Well, that’s difficult to answer easily. I’ve never really been very comfortable with people saying, “It’s the biggest,” or, “The best largest.” We just did what we did, and I think that because we were selling a lot of records, it was like, “Oh, they’re the biggest this and the biggest that.” It’s not something that sat very comfortably…I think we were just very fortunate to have such a wide audience around the world, and I think that was what made playing in and being involved in the band so pleasurable.

The fact you could go to France, Germany, Australia, or New Zealand, and you could find a good audience wherever we were…that was a great feeling. You do realize when you’re in this game for a long time, that music is a uniting experience that crosses across this country, and crosses barriers. There are not many things that pull a lot of people together like music. I mean it’s not just America and the UK, it’s far as Germany, it’s in China now where kids are just discovering the band. I get things from eighteen-year-old kids in China saying, “I just got your first album,” and it’s like, “Oh really? Okay!” Music is a great unifying media, and I think that that’s why it’s so great to be involved with it, to be honest.

Anthony:
I certainly agree, John. Going back, what was your musical upbringing?

John:
I started playing bass when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. I wanted to join the school band, and the only way I was allowed to get into it was if I played the bass, because there were already two guitar players in the band. I don’t know whether this is the way most bass players started, but I think I found out quite early on that I was very comfortable with the instrument, with the bass guitar, and I stuck with that. That became my way with music and has been ever since.

Anthony:
Dire Straits 1978 self-titled record was a huge success, and featured the classic track, “Sultans Of Swing.” Dig into that a bit more or us.

John:
I think it went top-ten in America. Maybe higher? It did it quite well in the States, I believe. It seems a long time ago now, but sometimes it just takes one track to change people’s lives, and that seemed to be what it did with us with “Sultans Of Swing.” When we first came to America, touring in America, that was all you could hear when you drove into every single city to do a gig. All we heard was “Sultans of Swing,” and so, it was kind of everywhere, which was rather wonderful. [Laughs]. It felt very good at the time. We felt very connected to what was going on in America.

Anthony:
That must have been a surreal experience hearing your music on the radio while you’re on your way to a gig.

John:
Well, there’s nothing better than that. And of course, we didn’t know how many radio stations that were in America until we started driving into every city. [Laughs]. Every city seemed to have at least thirty radio stations, some even more than that. Every bit of the bandwidth on the radio was another station, so there were a lot of places where you could hear that music coming out. At the time, it was Dire Straits, or Breakfast In America by Supertramp, which was a big record at the time as well. So, we were sort of competing with Supertramp. I did a gig with Roger Hudson a few years back in Germany, and I talked to him about the fact that we were sort of competing for the radio, in 1978, in America, and he found that quite funny.

Anthony:
When Dire Straits was first gaining momentum, the musical landscape was shifting, can you dig more into the scene around that time for us?

John:
Yes, well, it was an interesting time because certainly in the UK, and America, Punk music, or what do you call it “new wave,” were getting big.

Anthony:
Right, you had bands like The Police and Blondie and such. What was it like breaking into an ever-shifting scene?

John:
The Ramones were on the edge of that as well. The thing is…Dire Straits always had its own unique sound and its own way of doing things. So, the music was influenced, I suppose, by a lot of different musical genres, Country, Rock, Blues, etc. Mark [Knopfler] and I found ourselves listening to pretty similar music, so, I think that when we started playing together, those are the influences that affected us both. Then, of course, you create your own style, which of course Dire Straits kept its style throughout all the albums which in effect was distinctive. I suppose, in a sense, if you listen to Pink Floyd or Supertramp, or, I don’t know, U2 or something, it’s recognizable, and they don’t play with anybody else’s stars, they’ve just got their own.

Anthony:
Can you touch on the stress you faced during the creation of Brothers In Arms, and the touring cycle associated with it?

John:
I think when you’re working that hard, there’s gonna be a bit of stress coming into the band. Some of us found it easier to deal with success than others. I think David [Knopfler] was finding it a bit difficult to handle. It came to a head at some particular point, and he decided to leave. I don’t think he enjoyed that sort of pressure as much as Mark [Knopfler] and myself did. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that comes at you when you become successful very quickly. You’ve got an ever-changing world around you, and it’s difficult to handle. Some people find it more difficult to handle than others. Also, we were a bit older, and it was easier for us, I think. I think if we’d have been younger, it would have been more difficult.

Anthony:
It was you and Mark that remained the two founding members throughout the entire run of Dire Straits. Take me through many lineup changes over the years.

John:
Well, I think we’re not unusual in the fact that people come and go, and over a long period, yeah, a few different people were coming in and out of the situation. Alan Clark was there for a long time, and Guy Fletcher was there for a long time. Terry Williams did a lot of touring with us, just depending on…certainly on the albums, depending on what was needed on the tracks. We’d get in the likes of Paul Franklin playing the pedal steel guitar, for instance, or the Brecker Brothers on Brothers In Arms and such. These were great people to have in the studio with you. It was a real pleasure to have them involved in what we were doing.

Anthony:
Live Aid was a watershed moment for popular music and intercontinental relations in the 1980s. What was it like taking part in that crucial moment in history?

John:
Well, I think for everybody it was a pretty extraordinary experience. I think all the bands that were involved really enjoyed it for what it was — it was a very special day when you’ve got a billion people watching the same concert, that’s probably never gonna happen again. it’s difficult to explain those kinds of numbers, but it had the desired effect, and people became much more aware of the problems in Africa, and the general problems with getting people fed. There’s still a problem in a lot of places in the world, don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been solved, but at least it was an attempt to try, and change what was a very desperate situation. I think everybody involved was aware of that, so, they gave their all, and they played with that intention in mind, you know? I think it was a very good concerted effort by all the musicians involved. It was a day where people’s egos were put on hold. Let’s put it that way.

Anthony:
What are your bass guitars of choice? What equipment do you use live vs. in the studio?

John:
Well, in the studio, I use the ‘61 Jazz Bass, with a 1960s Ampeg Portaflex. I find that the best combination for recording. When I’m playing live now, I either use an Acoustic Washburn guitar, with a pick-up in it for live acoustic performances. Then, I’ve got a 1980s Musicman Bass, which is Stingray, which sounds just great. I use the Markbass outfit, the 4×10, with an 800-watt head, and that does me very nicely. It’s got a great sound and is a great combination with a Musicman, very punchy. It’s very even sounding. They’re very good amplifiers, and the bass sounds great to that lead.

Anthony:
Do you collect any kind of music yourself such as vinyl, CDs, or cassettes?

John:
I’ve got a pretty big collection of vinyl, but most of it dates from quite a long time ago. [Laughs]. Interestingly, vinyl has suddenly become a very important thing again. I was talking to somebody the other day about the half-speed vinyl that’s being done in America, and we’re doing the same thing in the UK too. There seems to be a real demand for that quality, and I think that’s great. I mean, if you listen to half-speed vinyl, there are things on it that you’re never gonna hear on a normal CD player. It’s fantastic. I love it. I think it’s brilliant. But…it means that there’s a big cue now to get vinyl in the stores here, because everybody’s trying to press vinyl, and there are not many factories here to do it. I’ve gotta wait for my album to come out in January because I can’t get the vinyl pressed earlier than that. So, it’s been really…everything’s been held up.

Anthony:
As a veteran musician, having spent years on the road, what are some of your favorite places you’ve been to?

John:
Pretty much everywhere in Europe, you get good audiences. Dire Straits were pretty popular in most of the world, so, there’s always an audience there to welcome you. I quite like smaller clubs now, and I did a festival a few weeks ago in Germany before the summer finished. Two or three weeks after that, I played in a little club in London. It’s more difficult to tour in Europe from the UK because of the Brexit situation…that’s a bit of a mess. But people are starting to play again, which is great because this is a wonderful thing to do…playing live music in front of people.

Anthony:
So, you’re getting back to your roots
then?

John:
A little bit of that. It’s not like the Dire Straits days when we were playing in these big arenas all over the place, which was wonderful, but I don’t mind whether it’s big or small, to be honest. I get just as much fun playing in a cafe with people sitting at tables and stuff, and that would be an acoustics sort of thing, not a full Rock band.

Anthony:
Music is starting to ramp up here too. I went to my first show earlier this year since the lockdowns began two years back. Things are starting to open up a little bit. People are finally getting out once again.

John:
That’s good! People need to get out there and either play music or listen to it. Music is the great communicator. I think that’s the reason why I somehow got involved in it. I love that side of things, you know?

Anthony:
Yes! What’s next for you in the future, John? You mentioned a solo record on the horizon, can you tell us anything regarding that yet?

John:
Well, I’m pretty busy with this book. I’m doing a lot of talking to a lot of people about it. I’ve got another TV thing this evening, so, I’ve still got a lot more to do with that, and some literary fests and stuff. I’ve got the new album coming out in January or February, and it’s my eighth solo album. So, I’m gonna be busy with that. Then I’ve got a tour in the UK just after Easter for a couple of weeks…just to sort of go out and do a bit of playing, but that’s about it at the moment. I’m actually gonna have a bit of a break after that, but it’s all good…no complaints.

Interested in learning more about the music of Dire Straits? Check out the link below:

Dig this? Check out the full archives of A.M. Radio, by Anthony Montalbano, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/a-m-radio-archives/

About Post Author

Anthony Montalbano

Anthony Montalbano grew up in New York and North Carolina. Anthony is a baker by day and a contributor to the Vinyl Writer cause by night. With a passion for podcasts, Pop Punk, video games, and more, Anthony brings a unique and fresh perspective to the team. Anthony's column is a catch-all for the things he loves most, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
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