John Illsley

Bassist’s first-hand description of new memoir: My Life in Dire Straits

By Gary Graff
March 7, 2022

There’s long been a certain mystique to Dire Straits and, by extension, bassist John Illsley. Despite enormous worldwide success — to the tune of 120 million records sold worldwide, four Grammy Awards and memorable videos for “Money For Nothing” and “Walk of Life,” among others — the British group maintained performance over personality. It was all about the music, stretched over six studio albums between 1978-1991, with 1985’s Brothers in Arms selling more than 30 million copies itself. Illsley, now 72, offers the most insightful look into the band yet in his new memoir, My Life in Dire Straits. As the only constant member other than singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler, Illsley is certainly a trusted source, and the 300-page book tracks his own life story, from childhood to finding his way into music, and his adventures both in and outside of Dire Straits. These days Illsley, who has homes in Britain and France, owns a pub, paints and is a partner in two hotels. And he makes his own albums, with a new one, VII, is due this year.

FBPO: It’s interesting to read in the book that you came to playing bass because you were the little brother who wanted to be in the band.

Illsley: That comes from the absolute sort of massive desire to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Everybody wants to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band at some point, or open a pub and be in a film or whatever. And the only way I could get in the band was by playing bass, so I kind of figured it out. I knew because of the size of my fingers…I’m a modest guitar player, let’s put it that way, but I felt very comfortable with bass. As soon as I put it on I thought, ‘Ah, what’s this? How does this fit into the music?’ And I listened to a lot of different players because this was the early ‘60s, of course, when pop music was emerging on a massive scale.

FBPO: Who were some of the players you listened to, who became influences or sources?

Illsley: John McVie from Fleetwood Mac. I’ve always loved his bass playing. He’s very economic as well, and I loved that. I think the ones that allowed the space in the music, let the music breathe a little bit, those are the ones I liked listening to — still do. Tony Garnier in Bob Dylan’s band, I love his playing, the feeling that band’s got. There are loads of fantastic bass players out there. Pino Palladino I love a lot. What Flea does with a bass guitar is something…kind of weird (laughs), but it’s wonderful.

FBPO: It seems like you picked up early on the adage of less being more.

Illsley: It’s all about feel at the end of the day — just how long the note’s gonna be, whether you dampen it slightly. It’s just feel. People who just plunk their way through it, it doesn’t make any sense. You have to respect the song. You have to go with the sort of majestic nature of the song, give it the best chance in a way. The engine room, the bass and drums, is the starting place for the foundation of the track.

FBPO: Was there a lot of deliberate construction that went on while making Dire Straits records?

Illsley: Not in the early days — that was very instinctual, what we did. But later on, when the music was starting to develop and open up, we would spend a lot of time getting the bass and drums right — especially on the Making Movies album, for instance, there was a lot of consideration about what was gonna go where. The freshness of the first-time albums was lovely, but as the music becomes more complex you have to really consider what exactly you’re going to put in. Then you get a Making Movies album, which was a much more considered way of approaching the songs. The songwriting was changing, as everybody knows, so the playing did as well.

FBPO: Why did you want to write a book?

Illsley: It was quite a cathartic piece of work, really. I was sort of bumbling away for a few years, back when a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you write a memoir for your family? They might want to hear a bit more about your life at that particular point in time.” I was busy doing other songs, so it didn’t feel right. Then I was sitting next to someone at some sort of charity function and she introduced herself and said…”Have you ever thought about writing a book?” I said, “Why are you asking me?” and she said, “I’m a literary agent,” and we got to talking and one thing led to another, and then of course with this lockdown it seemed like a perfect opportunity to spend a bit of time trying to remember most of what went on — before I was going to forget it. (laughs) It took a while to get started, but actually I really enjoyed (writing) it because I felt it was kind of a celebration more than anything else, of what we did. It gave me a chance to sort of celebrate those people who wouldn’t necessarily celebrate themselves — Mark (Knopfler), particularly. He’s never gonna blow his own trumpet, so it gave me a chance to do a bit of that.

FBPO: He wrote the foreword for the book, so I assume he was OK with it?

Illsley: We are very good friends. We still have a wonderful time together, never a dull moment with him, really. I did say to the publishers that this (book) was not going to happen unless it’s got the blessing of the partner in crime. It needed the both of us to find it a good idea. I told him, “Look, I’ve been asked to do this book,” and he said, “Omigod, why’d you want to do that?!” (laughs) I said, “It gives me a chance to talk about you without you having to talk about yourself,” and he goes, “Oh God…” I said, “If you think it’s a bad idea, I’ll dump it.” He said, “Omigod, no. Do it!” and he wrote the foreword, so it is the two of us in a way.

FBPO: This is really the first or at least the first credible book about Dire Straits. That had to add a little weight to the task.

Illsley: Funny enough, when you’re involved in something yourself you kind of just accept what it is because you’re there, you’re in it. You’re traveling, you’re making records, you’re on the planes and buses and goodness knows what. So you understand it as what it all means to you at that particular point. So at this particular point in my life, my early 70s, I wanted to really try and kind of understand a bit more of what it means to put a thing like that together and hold it together. It started off incredibly simply, and then the speed of change…when “Sultans of Swing” came out was really difficult to handle, so we had to really learn a lot very quickly about how to deal with the onslaught of attention that was coming at the band. When I look back on it, it was pretty serious. It was a matter of survival a lot of the time. So in doing this I thought, rather arrogantly, that people might be actually interested in how a band of that size actually works and survives.

FBPO: There has never really been a cogent explanation of why Dire Straits ended, really without comment, in 1995. Not even in the book. Wanna give it a try?

Illsley: (laughs) By the end of that last tour, we both decided pretty much at exactly the same time that we didn’t want to do it anymore. I think we both felt we’d taken it as far as we could, and I knew he wanted to just get away from this, what had become a much bigger thing than anyone ever considered possible. I wanted to go and do something completely different, so I went and turned myself into a halfway decent painter, I hope, and he wanted to do different projects and stuff. He’s one of those rare people who have actually come out of a successful rock ‘n’ roll band and has actually had a successful solo career. So as far as the ending was concerned, it was completely mutual between the two of us.

FBPO: And yet the music lives on.

Illsley: The Dire Straits thing still exists, in its own way. It’s completely fascinating that so many young people are getting into this band now. I get these messages all the time — “I’m 18 years old, I live in China and I’ve just discovered the band.” That’s really wonderful, and that’s the reason I got into it in the first place, because it touched me when I heard Chuck Berry and Elvis and all that crowd and wanted to be part of it somehow. So in my mind it’s still going, but in a way that’s feeding the musical world still. Other bands do it, too — Fleetwood Mac, Queen, the (Pink) Floyd, the (Rolling) Stones. We thought we’d all be dead by now — but we’re not.” (laughs)

FBPO: Dire Straits was pretty disrespected during the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony — you yourself had to make the induction speech as well as an acceptance speech. You deserved better.

Illsley: I think it was a bit…off. It felt a bit strange to be honest. It’s a first when you induct yourself. It was very odd. I just felt that somebody should be there and represent the band. It just felt right to actually accept something as recognition of the band in America, and it felt very relevant to me and to Guy (Fletcher) and to Alan Clark. I’m not sure politically it was handled very well, and I better leave it at that. It was joyous and sort of weird all at the same time. We got back to New York for a couple of days to try and recover and we just looked at each other — “What the hell was that?!” But life throws up these things, and you just have to deal with it.

See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.


The audio version of Illsley’s autobiography, My Life in Dire Straits, is available here:

 

My Life in Dire Straits

 

 

 

 

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