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Dire Straits Keyboardist Alan Clark On His New Project, The Straits

Image via TheStraits.com

There’s no doubt that Mark Knopfler carved out quite a legacy with the music he composed and released under the banner of Dire Straits. The group logged a series of successful singles that continue to get radio airplay to this day, including ‘Sultans Of Swing’ from their 1978 debut, which landed inside the Top 5 here in the U.S. — not a bad result when you’re taking your first shot at the charts.

Dire Straits reached their apex with the release of ‘Brothers in Arms’ album in 1985. A soft showing by ‘So Far Away’ — the lead single from the album that only inched its way into the Top 30 — barely hinted at what was to come on the horizon. It was of course the now-classic ‘Money For Nothing,’ featuring a special guest appearance from Sting, which broke things wide open, giving Dire Straits their first No. 1 single. The song name-checked MTV in its lyrics, and the accompanying video would certainly end up making Dire Straits a household name for anybody that owned a television that year. With ‘Walk Of Life’ waiting in the wings, ‘Brothers in Arms’ eventually became the most successful Dire Straits album ever, eventually selling more than nine million copies in the U.S. alone.

That would have been a good place to wrap it up and, indeed, in our conversation with former Dire Straits keyboardist Alan Clark, he says he’s quite surprised the band even managed one more album (1991’s ‘On Every Street’) and tour. At the end of the touring for ‘Brothers in Arms,’ it was clear that Knopfler was already looking at the idea of going his own way. After one final album and another round of marathon touring in support of ‘On Every Street,’ Dire Straits would play its final show in 1992 and effectively cease to exist.

Aside from featuring a smattering of Dire Straits material in his own solo sets, it would seem that Knopfler doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back. Until recently, the same was true for Clark. That changed when he got the offer to put together a band to play a set of Dire Straits classics for a benefit show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011.

The positive reception to the performance by Clark’s new group, dubbed the Straits with a lineup that also featured former Dire Straits saxophone player Chris White, left Clark open to the idea of continuing. Thanks to the presence of guitarist/vocalist Terence Reis, Clark saw the possibilities for a group that could do justice to the history of Dire Straits and the legendary music that remains.

Reis is a key piece of the puzzle. As Clark shared on the band’s website: “Dire Straits without Mark Knopfler? He’s such a huge part of Dire Straits and such a huge talent, I always thought that was impossible. Until I found this guy.”

Since the Royal Albert Hall show, the Straits have played a number of successful shows overseas and recently wrapped up their debut U.S. tour.

We caught up with Clark in Los Angeles, where he was working on some new music with friend and drummer Steve Ferrone prior to the start of the tour. (Ferrone has also been the drummer for many of the Straits shows, but was unable to participate in the 2014 tour due to his commitments with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.) Clark had plenty to say about the group’s current activities, and also shared his memories of working on the classic Dire Straits albums.

Let’s start at the top. How did the idea for the Straits come about?

I was presented with the opportunity to put a band together for a charity show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I had just discovered Terence Reis, who is now the Straits singer and lead guitar player. It made sense to put a band together around him and play Dire Straits material, which was what had been suggested by the charity people themselves. So I called Steve Ferrone and I called Chris White and several other great players and we got together and it was such a tremendous success that we thought, “Well, we can’t stop here.” So, we started doing some more shows and one thing led to another and here we are doing some serious touring now.

It’s been a long time since you’ve played these songs. What does it feel like being onstage again immersed in a set full of Dire Straits songs?

Well, back in 1992 I had pretty much had enough of playing Dire Straits songs because Dire Straits used to go out on the road for a long time. So in 1992, I was quite happy to take a break, but after 20 years I kind of got over that. [Laughs.] So it’s good. I mean, if somebody said to me three or four years ago that I’d be doing this, I would have bet quite a lot of money that I wouldn’t be doing it. But now that I am doing it, it’s actually good fun. It’s great music and we have a lot of fun playing it — and so far so good.

The roots of this band start with Dire Straits, a group which was unique on so many levels, from the sound of Mark Knopfler’s vocals and guitar tone, to the songs themselves. It would seem possible that the idea of taking the stage to play these songs without Mark could be a daunting prospect.

Well, I thought it would be impossible, actually. Like I said, three or four years ago I would have said, “It is impossible,” and I wouldn’t have considered doing it. But when I discovered Terence Reis, one thing led to another and the opportunity to put this band together came. Suddenly it became a realistic prospect, because what he does is he covers Mark Knopfler extremely well without being a soundalike copy. It’s a good blend of himself and just the right amount of Mark Knopfler to carry it off, so it works very well.

What was the science when it came to putting together a setlist? Looking at some of the setlists for the shows that you’ve played, it’s interesting to see the stuff that’s in there: There are the expected hits, but also some deeper cuts for the diehards.

When people come to hear Dire Straits songs, there are probably eight that we can’t leave out and then after that there are others that we can kind of play around with, and that’s pretty much what we’re doing. We play some more obscure ones because we particularly like them. For instance, the song ‘Communique’ was the first thing that I heard Terence playing.

Well, it wasn’t quite the first Dire Straits song. I heard him playing ‘Sultans of Swing.’ That’s what perked my ears, actually. I heard him on the internet playing that. But then when I got in touch with him, I asked him to send me some stuff of him just playing by himself and he played ‘Communique,’ just him playing guitar and singing at the same time — and it was so damn good that that’s what convinced me that this was going to work. We do that onstage now. He sings ‘Communique’ by himself, and then at the end on the playout, the band join in and it turns into a big Hammond solo for me, actually. So that’s one of the more obscure songs. I mean, all of the time that I was with Dire Straits, I don’t think we ever played ‘Communique.’

That was one that stuck out to me.

I think I might have played it when I first joined the band in 1980, because it would have been relevant then. But we didn’t play it for very long and we dropped it.

When working up the set, were there any songs that you either stayed away from or felt didn’t work?

No. We haven’t played anything that didn’t work. Chris White, the sax player, wanted to play ‘Local Hero.’ It’s called ‘Going Home: The Theme from ‘Local Hero,’’ obviously because it’s a sax solo played by Michael Brecker on the original, actually. But I decided not to do it because actually it’s not a Dire Straits song — even though Dire Straits used to finish [their concerts with it]. It was the last thing you ever heard, the final encore kind of thing on the Dire Straits show, [but] it wasn’t actually a Dire Straits song — it was a Mark Knopfler solo [track], so I decided to stay away from it for that reason. But other than that, it’s an open book, really. When we do the U.K. gigs, we’ll be including ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going.’

How did you join Dire Straits back in the day?

A friend of mine was a big Dire Straits fan, so I’d heard quite a lot of their music. Obviously, I’d heard ‘Sultans Of Swing’ on the radio and stuff like that. He used to play the albums every time that I was around his house. I was working with a variety of different people. I was working with a duo called Splinter who were signed to George Harrison’s label. One of the other people I was working with was Gallagher and Lyle — they had a series of big hits in England and possibly in the States. So I was working with them [also] just before joining Dire Straits.

Dire Straits had cut the ‘Making Movies’ album and Mark was adding keyboards — he had Roy Bittan from the E Street Band play some keyboards on the record. Mark was very interested in bringing in a keyboard player, so they asked around and one of the people who was asked was Gallagher and Lyle’s manager, who recommended me. So in a way, I was kind of headhunted. I went along and played at the rehearsal and never came back [to Gallagher and Lyle], basically.

Your first album with the band was ‘Love Over Gold,’ which is an album that really reflects how detailed and exquisitely constructed the music of Dire Straits could be. It spans a mere five tracks, and you get the impression that it was a hard fought mission to capture the songs both individually and as an overall body of work, with every inch of music analyzed to make sure that it was right.

We spent a fair bit of time rehearsing and constructing the arrangements of the songs. Dire Straits have always been meticulous about rehearsing. Mark and I both agree that the rehearsing is the most enjoyable time of the whole process, because it’s totally creative and it’s like anything goes. You get such a buzz from creation that it was a joy to rehearse, whether it was rehearsing to make a record or rehearsing for a tour or even rehearsing midway through a tour.

If we took two or three weeks off in a tour, we’d rehearse for five days before we started the next leg and so on. During those five days we might completely revamp one of the songs. A classic example of that is ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ I’d been on holiday in the Caribbean for like three weeks and I’d had an idea to revamp that song and the intro that appears on the ‘On The Night’ record, I think this happened during the ‘Brothers in Arms’ tour, so we started playing it thereafter with the sax solo and the intro and everything, which was my idea. So I came back from the Caribbean with this idea and we spent at least two days, possibly three, building that arrangement up. That is just great fun doing that.

That ‘Love Over Gold’ album is a really interesting set of songs to walk into for your first album with the band.

It was great because Mark sort of gave me carte blanche, really. He was very interested in writing and incorporating keyboards into the band, obviously. So I just jumped on the piano and started doing my s— so to speak.

‘Telegraph Road,’ he actually wrote it bit-by-bit when we were on the road. At every soundcheck for every gig afterwards, he and I would get together and we’d sort of formulate the next bit of the song. He’d written where we’d gotten up to, and we would then start making it work between us with the piano part and his part and that’s how the song was built up. I was actually present when he started writing it, which was sitting in the front of a tour bus during the ‘Making Movies’ tour when we were heading to Detroit — because the Telegraph Road is actually a road that runs into Detroit.

We were driving up that road and it’s a big, long, straight road and I recall it had one slight kink in it, but other than that it was perfectly straight and it went on for miles and miles and miles into the city of Detroit. The whole song was based around that journey and how somebody else might be making that journey in the early days when the road wasn’t there and how the road came about. So it just fired Mark’s imagination, sitting in the front of the tour bus.

It’s interesting that ‘Private Dancer’ came about during those sessions. How different was the song when you guys were working on it during those sessions from the version that Tina Turner eventually ended up doing?

The arrangement was different. That’s essentially the major difference. I think Tina might have done it slightly faster. But I played on Tina’s record, so I sort of brought the keyboard parts and in fact, John Illsley, the bass player, played on it — and I think it was pretty much the Dire Straits band without Mark that played on it from what I recall. So we pretty much brought it over.

But the producer, whose name was John Carter, had basically revamped the arrangement to make it a bit more of a single, I guess. But other than that, it was pretty close to the Dire Straits way, because we had recorded it with Dire Straits. Obviously, it sounds a bit strange with Mark singing it, which is why it never got any further. But other than that, it was kind of very similar, really.

Dire Straits toured a lot after the ‘Love Over Gold’ album was released. How had the band changed and evolved by the time you went back into the studio to start working on what would become the ‘Brothers in Arms’ album?

I think after the ‘Love Over Gold’ [album, because] it was heavily keyboard oriented, Mark doesn’t like to stand still and the reason for that is largely because when he made the very first Dire Straits record and the ‘Communique’ record, he realized that the producers were trying to recreate the first record and that was a lesson he obviously learned and one that he vowed he would never repeat.

So every record that Mark made with Dire Straits was different to the previous one and quite rightfully so. We made a conscious decision to not include much piano for instance, which worked out fine because we ended up recording the record in Montserrat in the Caribbean and the piano there wasn’t great anyway. [Laughs.] So that’s one of the reasons why there wasn’t a great deal of piano on that record, actually. He decided to write a bunch of stuff in a different area really, which worked out very well, actually.

Knopfler had certainly released hooky material in the past, but ‘Brothers in Arms’ really featured some material that, of course, got a lot of radio play. On the heels of the ‘Love Over Gold’ album, was there a feeling that there needed to be some viable singles in the lineup?

No. Not even a tiny little bit. If there ever was, Mark would have dispelled it immediately. There was no record company pressure whatsoever. I think maybe on the second record, ‘Communique,’ he might have felt that pressure, but then he was new to the game and went along with it and realized his mistake very early on of trying to recreate the first record. So after that, there was no pressure whatsoever.

When the final Dire Straits album came out, the band spent a long time on the road promoting that album. Was there any hint at that point that the Dire Straits journey was heading towards a conclusion?

Absolutely. I was surprised that we did that record, actually — because after ‘Brothers in Arms,’ I thought that might very well be the end of Dire Straits. Because I think [for] Mark, it would have been a great idea to leave it on a massive high like ‘Brothers in Arms’ was. Mark was very interested in doing his solo projects. He was also very interested in producing other people and doing movie scores. I think if things had worked out differently, then that might have been it, actually.

The songs that made it onto the ‘On Every Street’ record may well have become a solo record for Mark. It’s hard for me to say, but I think that really one of the reasons why Mark decided to keep the band together and make that record was because he was going through a divorce — and I think it kind of got him out of the house. I think it gave him a good distraction and kept him busy and out on the road.

What can you tell us the stuff you’re writing for the Straits?

I’m the last person to be able to accurately describe what my songs are. I think they’re good. [Laughs.] They’re great fun to play. Steve and I have been having a ball recording some of them. Not all of them are going to be Straits songs. I’ve recorded a bunch of songs with him that I wrote before the Straits existed. It’s going to be good, that’s for sure, and it’s heading in the right direction.

When are you looking to release something?

I think the first thing we’ll release is more like an EP. Maybe four or six tracks or something like that. But then again, who knows? As time goes on, you know, we don’t feel any pressure to do this. That said, I’d like to get something done this year, that’s for sure. We’re underway. The songs are being written and they’re finally being recorded. Basically, I’m just cutting them here with just keyboards and drums at the moment, so let’s see where it goes. This year, definitely, we’ll have something.

Are you still in touch with Mark these days?

Yeah, we haven’t spoken in a couple of years because he’s out doing his own thing, really, but yeah, we’ve been in touch since the band split up and we’ve seen each other.

Has there been any feedback from him and his camp regarding this new project?

I haven’t spoken to him directly about it, but I think they’re all quite happy that what we’re doing is of a terrific standard. He knows his music is in excellent hands with me and this bunch of musicians.

Next: Top 10 Dire Straits Songs

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