'It was pretty crazy': Dire Straits guitarist John Illsley on gigs, pubs and cancer - and will the band get back together?
JOHN ILLSLEY breaks off mid-sentence as we talk in the sunny garden of his pub, the East End Arms.
He’s performed in front of millions, won an Ivor Novello Award, and sold more than 120 million albums – but as a regular arrives at the door, John knows not just the man’s name but what he’ll order and when he’s likely to catch a taxi home to his wife.
The pub was a “spontaneous” purchase not long after arriving from London to live in the little hamlet of East End in 1989 as Dire Straits started to “wind down”, as he puts it, from the frenetic pace of its global tours and recording.
The band was founded in 1977 by John, Beaulieu home-owner Mark Knopfler and his brother David – who later acrimoniously fell out – and drummer Pick Withers. Hits before they disbanded in 1993 include Money For Nothing, Sultans of Swing and Brothers in Arms.
It was Pick who apparently inspired the group’s name, says John, after he mentioned during discussions that a friend had told him he was always in “dire straits” – and it somehow stuck.
“It was pretty crazy but it was also incredibly good fun,” John remembers. “You have got to realise that we had a lot of very good material for us to play. So it was never an issue to me playing those songs over and over again.
“They were well-crafted and one felt very close to the feeling of them – not just what they meant to us but to other people. I can see when music is touching other people, and it touched more people than I can ever have dreamed of.”
But there was a dark side too, he hints: “You start off in a rock and roll band and you do it for selfish reasons – I mean, who would not want that? But there’s a moment when things get pretty hectic and difficult to rationalise.
“When you talk to anyone who’s been in an intense, successful situation – most of the time it’s fabulous and you feel very privileged. And other times it’s kind of, my god – I can’t remember where we are.
“We were in Germany but were not sure where. When it gets a bit like that, you realise you have not really got a handle on it any more. It tries to really get away from you. That’s when me and Mark decided to put a hold on it.”
Dire Straits’ last tour ended in 1993 but John says: “The band as a thing lives on and it’s still an entity. It’s essentially Mark and me and lives on as a thing.”
John is still good friends with Mark so, as the core of the group, would they ever get back together?
He thinks not but noticeably doesn’t rule anything out: “It’s a question that gets asked a lot but it’s not relevant any more. I do not think it’s probably going to happen. If it did, it would happen very quietly and nobody would know about it.
“It’s very difficult to go back for me and him. We are both proud of the legacy of that time and there was an incredible energy at that moment. We’re talking 25 years ago – that took a lot of energy. We both do things at a much more leisurely rate now.
“Things have a natural way of coming to a sense of completion and you have got to accept that. But I am always amazed at bands saying we’re never going to play together.”
Like Noel and Liam Gallagher, the brothers of 1990s Britpop giant Oasis? “I can’t see those two getting back together again,” he laughs.
“I am very fortunate that Mark and I are still good friends. That’s more important to me than getting the band back together again – that moment has passed. I would rather share a bottle of wine with him than a stage.”
His highlights of the 15-plus years of Dire Straits are performing at Live Aid in 1985 and for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at Wembley in 1988, two years before the future president of South Africa was released from prison.
Live Aid, which put Dire Straits on the same bill as rock giants Queen and U2, was broadcast live to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. It was an “extraordinary moment” for John.
“It awakened people to the possibility of making a difference in a place where it was felt one could not make a difference.”
So is he political? Yes, but he’s in the centre ground – and vehemently opposed to the London-Birmingham HS2 rail link: “the most ludicrous thing on the planet”. He jokes: “Stuck in the middle; that’s a good title for a song.”
He won’t name his proudest musical achievement, instead saying: “We were very fortunate with the band in having [in Mark Knopfler] one of the best songwriters that this country has ever produced. Those songs have legs and people will be listening for a long time.”
Why? “I just think they’re bloody good songs. They open up to people. They are accessible. It’s like every good painting. Whether Tracy Emin, I just use her as an example, will last for 20-30 years, I do not know. Some might last two to three months and then they’re gone. Some music just has legs.
“There’s a craft involved in writing a good song. What’s happened now is people are writing songs just to get on the radio. They’re limiting the scope of music generally. When we started we ignored those requests.”
What about the talent shows of today’s music, like TheX Factor? He says: “I’m not crazy about that stuff but it’s indicative of another kind of exposure. It’s part of the business and unfortunately ‘the music’ is now ‘the music business’.
“It’s about business and Simon Cowell is very clever, and occasionally you see clever stuff – but it’s not for me.”
At 68 years old, it’s his four children – aged between 19 and 34 – who mostly keep him up to date with contemporary sounds, including 21-year-old son Harry who is at music college.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for…” John starts, forgetting the name.
“Ed Sheeran. It’s a little contrived but he’s done amazingly well. I saw Tom Odell perform at the Curious Arts Festival and I thought he’s good. He’s got a good attitude and he wrote well.”
John himself has headlined at Curious, hosted every year at nearby Pylewell Park, and this summer was invited on stage to play along with one of the bands.
He also gigs on occasion at the East End Arms and The Brook in Southampton, and seems to have embraced the spirit of local life – one of the motivations for buying the pub.
“One of the reasons I was interested in buying it was because I liked it the way it was – and everyone else liked it the way it was too,” he says.
“That’s what people are realising; it’s local pubs they’re losing, that sense of community. There are not many things that are holding people together. For example, post offices and local pubs are closing across the country.
“There’s no money running this place but it keeps itself tidy and on the level. That’s really all you can hope for in a small business. People call them vanity projects but it should function as a going concern.”
The morning of the interview he was up and out of the house where he lives with his wife Steph at 5.30am for a walk in the sun – a stark contrast to the hectic pace of life based in London in the 1980s.
“For anyone with a very intense existence, I think it’s natural to want to escape to some-thing a little more rational and sane and a bit more local,” he says of his relocation to the New Forest.
“It’s much healthier living here than in London. They say living in London with all the fumes means one year is worth smoking 10 fags a day.
“The New Forest is just really charming and very special. It’s one of the best preserved, now it’s a national park, areas of countryside in the south of England.
“I went for a walk at half past five in the sun. That’s a pretty good start to the day. You could not do that in London where it’s smoggy and smelly. You get the big skies here.”
In between gigging with his own band, John is now putting more focus on his passion for art that started in school. It had to take second place to his music career, the roots of which started growing before he was a teenager.
“By the time of the early 1960s, I was 11 or 12 and I was really attracted to the feeling of it, there was something that drew me to it. It’s one of the most powerful times of life as a teenager. The music was the Beatles, Stones, Chuck Berry and Elvis, and the Kinks, the Who – we had it all.
“And there’s the blues guys and you just feel you want to be part of it. It means you sit in a room with just a guitar and work it out.”
His first guitar was a Rosetti Lucky 7: an “appalling piece of kit” – but one which he wishes he still had. His first performance was a rendition of Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley at 15 years old in front of his school.
“I had to master only two chords. But you have to start somewhere and you meet people and work things out and play more. I loved playing with other people.”
He launches a new six-month tour in October, starting in the UK before heading to the Netherlands and Germany with a show featuring Dire Straits favourites plus songs from his latest album, Long Shadows, which was released in May.
“I do not feel 68 at all. I am still surprised at how much energy I have. I love playing live, I can play two hours nonstop no problem at all,” he says.
His health was a problem in 1999, however, when he was diagnosed with leukaemia – a “shock” he kept within a small circle of trusted friends. His sister turned out to be a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant and he has been clear for years.
“It’s interesting being diagnosed with anything that’s potentially fatal, even just to take that on board. It makes you reflect quite deeply on a lot of things. I do not want to dwell on it too much.
“I did not want it to be a topic of conversation every time I met people. ‘How are you? How’s it going?’ I did not want that. I told Steph and a couple of people that I could trust. I did not want to it to be an issue because it’s very personal, really.”
What does the future hold?
“I’m just doing things at my own pace. If I get asked to do things, I will consider it, and I fix things up for myself to do. In reality I am probably touring a maximum of two to three months a year, that’s all.
“I really enjoy playing with the people I play with and travelling a little bit and a different kind of space. It’s not as intense as it used to be. We take a few days out so I can come home.
“It’s a pleasure and as long as it stays a pleasure, I will keep doing it.”