For most artists with a 40-year recording history, completing a new 14-track album with many more bonus tracks for various release formats — and many other songs written but set aside — would be more than enough work. The fact that Mark Knopfler did all of that for his Down The Road Wherever album but also simultaneously wrote dozens of new songs for the stage production of Local Hero (a show inevitably delayed by the pandemic) says much about his insatiable appetite to create.
The new version of the story previously filmed by Bill Forsyth, with which Knopfler made his soundtrack-writing debut in 1983, opened at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in March 2019. The singer-guitarist’s worldwide fan base also savored the release, on his own British Grove label via Universal, of his ninth solo studio set, released on November 16, 2018. Down The Road Wherever was a noble follow-up to 2015’s Tracker, and one that saw Knopfler reaching well beyond the folk-roots base of his latter-day work.
Such acoustics continue to underpin his sound, but now they shared space on the album with elements of jazz saxophone and the slinky grooves of “Back On The Dance Floor.” There was the amiable lilt of “Heavy Up,” a touch of Rodgers and Hammerstein on “Just A Boy Away From Home” (in which Knopfler quotes the entire verse and chorus melody of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) and more. The album was introduced by the lead track “Good On You Son.”
“I think it will be different, because whether you want it or not, you develop, that’s just what happens,” said Knopfler, talking to us at his British Grove Studios in west London. “Sometimes the songs will tell you, after you’re done, what it is you’ve been doing wrong. So that’s a never-ending source of amusement — you can even find out from doing them what they’re about, or what you’ve been thinking about, perhaps. So it’s an odd business.”
The time between studio albums is explained both by the long recording process and, before that, the extensive world tour he undertook behind Tracker. “I suppose it has been a bit of a gap, but the reason for that is that I had a lot of stuff to record,” he says. “I was touring and writing this stuff, and being able to write on the road is a bit of an advantage.
Leaving a smaller footprint
“You just keep looking at the songs, and having a laptop has certainly improved that. I’m not just tearing up bits of paper and throwing them in the bin anymore, so ecologically speaking, I’m leaving a smaller footprint,” he jokes. “But it means that there’s more stuff. More stuff to throw away as well, of course, but I think we were quite a long time just putting recording sessions together.
“And possibly [there’s] the fact that there’s nobody to throw you out of the studio, which I got quite used to, using other studios. You can maybe just get a chance to get in and get a bit more studio time. So here and there, that is dead useful.”
Useful, that is, when he can get into his own studios, which are in great demand for all sorts of work, notably including the Rolling Stones’ 2016 Blue & Lonesome album. “Yeah, it seems to have grown,” says Knopfler of British Grove. “I think it’s because it’s so flexible. You can use the place for high-tech things like movies and surround sound, so it’s great for that brigade. I think we’ve done the last three Warner Brothers musicals here. And it’s great for rock’n’roll recording.
“So you can use tons and tons of vintage recording gear, and the band can all play together, and you can do lots of different set-ups,” he adds. “It has the latest digital recording gear, but it also has analogue gear from 1954 onwards. In fact the microphones go back even further, they go back into the 30s, even.”
From the opening “Trapper Man,” the new album adds the ingredient, little heard on Knopfler’s solo work, of female singers. “I think female b.v.s [backing vocalists] is something that was going to happen, [and I’ve] probably been meaning to have it a long time. I just get probably bored with it being guys.
Introducing a brass element
“Also, the brass is another thing. I’ve really been enjoying having the brass element in quite a lot of the songs, so when I go out on tour, I’m thinking I will just have to still have the elements I’ve always had, but then to have a brass element in there as well, because it’ll just be more people on the bus.”
Irish star Imelda May also appears on the album, on “Back On The Dance Floor,” and Knopfler professes himself a fan. “It was great to have Imelda on that song, I think she’s just fantastic,” he says. “She really did a lot to color it, she’s just so creative, and that was fun.
“It was open enough to try some keyboard sounds and different things as well as the guitars being in there, like they nearly always are, so it’s a good old mix of stuff. It’s a kind of a mystery song to me, but I really like it. That’s one of my favourites from the record.”
The 2019 tour was another exhaustive undertaking, opening in Barcelona on April 25 and continuing, over more than 80 dates, until late September. “That gets harder of course, the older you get,” confides the frontman. “The actual physical shifting of the songs over to an audience every night does become a reality. Who knows if it’s the last big go around. But I ain’t on a Zimmer frame yet, so I’ll try to get the most out of it that I can.”
Certain new songs were already in Knopfler’s sights for the tour set list. “You do find yourself thinking about being on a stage and playing a song. [The closing] ‘Matchstick Man,’ I’d really quite like to play that to an audience with an acoustic guitar. ‘Back On The Dance Floor’ will be fun to play with a band, so there are a few.
“I’m thinking about having Mike [McGoldrick] and John [McCusker], the folk players, as part of some of the songs, and having Nige and Tom [Nigel Hitchcock, saxophone, and Tom Walsh, trumpet] as part of the brass thing on some of the songs. I’m looking forward to it.”
At 69 on the album’s release, Knopfler’s enthusiasm for the entire process of being a musician is undimmed. “I feel the same way I always felt,” he says, looking around the studio. “So when I come in here and I see a couple of guitars in the corner, I get the same buzz that I had when I was a kid. You’ve got to have that. It’s almost a childish attitude that keeps you fired up about turning up.”
Buy or stream Down The Road Wherever.