An interview with Rolling Stone

Dire Straits Bassist John Illsley on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Reunion

"It throws up more questions than answers," he says about the Hall of Fame induction and a potential performance. "But it's very exciting."


John Illsley, photographed near his home in Hampshire, on March 23, 2016. Joby Sessions

By Andy Greene

December 14, 2017

Dire Straits went through a lot of lineup changes over their relatively brief time as an active band. Nine musicians joined frontman Mark Knopfler during the run, some lasting for little over two years. The only person to make it all the way from the first album in 1977 to the final concert in 1992 was bassist John Illsley. He started the band with brothers Mark and David Knopfler in 1977, and they remain close to this day, even though the group is little more than a memory by now. But they're getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year, and we phoned up Illsley to hear his thoughts on the honor – and a possibility of a reunion performance at the ceremony.

Thank you. We're very happy about it.

How did you first hear about it?
Somebody sent me an email a while back saying we were on the list. I said, "What does that mean?" They say, "You go on this list and people vote for you." I said, "Hang on, the band hasn't been doing anything since 19… How is that going to work out? The Moodies have been touring in America for years. And Bon Jovi certainly has." Anyway, there we are. All I can say is thank you very much to the people that voted for us. It's a great honor.

How did you hear you were definitely in?
Somebody from France, of all places, sent me an e-mail saying just, "Congratulations." I said, "What are you talking about?" It was as if I knew. The communication levels here are obviously a bit slow. They said, "I think you've made it." I said, "That's very good news."

What was your first reaction?
It was surprise, I think. I don't know why. It's a club that I've always looked at and thought, "Hmmm. I wonder how you get into that one." Now I know.

I've always had the sense it's a bigger deal here in America than Europe. Do you agree?
All I can say is that I've known about it for years, but I've never understood how it works. Really, I suppose, anybody that's been in the music business can get nominated. I don't know. It might be a bigger deal in the States. I really have no idea. All I can say is that I am very happy about it.

There are taking in you, Mark Knopfler, Pick Withers, David Knopfler, Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher. Are those the right people? Did they miss anyone important?
I would say those are probably the main people who have made this thing what it is. But you can't do it without incredible good material, good songs. With Mark, we had a remarkable song master who could translate not just feelings, but ideas and circumstances to other people in a very clear kind of way. I think that's a very important aspect of it. In a sense, the band makes that happen in the way that they respond to the songs. Sometimes the songs would come to the band quite finished. Sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes there would be a lot of different variations. You don't have the actual means of communicating if you don't have the songs.

Do you plan on going to Cleveland in April for the ceremony?
I will certainly be there, yeah. Definitely.

Bands often reunite and perform at these things. 

Do you think that's going to happen?
I have absolutely no idea. It's all come rather sudden today. It would be probably a little bit difficult for me to say how that would work. I don't know. I don't know right now. We'd have to think about that and see how we do this thing. I couldn't say right now.

They managed to get Led Zeppelin, the Police, Cream, Talking Heads and all these bands that hadn't played in years. It's often the one place where it does happen.
Well, I think we'll just wait and see. [Laughs]

How often do you talk to Mark?
We communicate sometimes a lot and sometimes there's a break. We just communicate when we want to communicate, it's as simple as that. He's got a place pretty close to me in the countryside. When he's down I see a lot of him. I live out of London now, so that's my preference. We see as much of each other as we ever have. We're still very close and very good friends.

Do you think he's going to be excited about this? Do you think he'll go to Cleveland? Will he even care?
Oh gosh. You can't ask me that question. I actually put a call into him today, but I think he's in the studio so I haven't heard from him yet. I need to have a chat with him first so I can find out what his feelings are. This is kind of a one-off thing, an unusual conversation piece. [Laughs] It throws up more questions than answers, in a sense. It's very exciting. I don't mind the challenge, but I have to wait and see. He's pretty clear about most things in his life, which is part of the reason why he and I get on so well.

How did you coax the band back together at your wedding in 1999? It's the only time you've played together since 1992.
We didn't really. It was just Mark. He got up and played a bit with the band. I had this group of Irish musicians that I'd been playing around with for a bit. They were providing a bit of Irish music and I got up a did a few things with them. And then Mark got up a did a few things with them. It was a simple as that, really. There was nothing predetermined at all. I just made sure there was a proper guitar he could play and be able to use and an amplifier he could use. I just said, "Do you want to get up and do something?" If he'd said "not really" I would have said, "OK, fine. I'll just carry on and play some Dire Straits songs for you." Just joking. But he said he'd love to and he got up.

Just speaking for yourself, you aren't opposed to the band playing at the induction, right?
I think we'll just have to see how that's going to work. We're talking about a long time. David left the band in 1980. That's 37 years ago. Pick left in 1983. We're talking 34 years ago. It's quite a long time. There's a lot of water under the bridge, so to speak, a terrible British expression. A lot of time has passed. That's something Mark and I need to talk about and I'm not about to make any categorical [claims] right here. They'd obviously be unfair and probably misplaced and inaccurate. [Laughs]

The night is going to be you guys, Bon Jovi, the Moody Blues, the Cars and Nina Simone. Are you fans of all them?
I know all of them, of course. Nina Simone has been on my playlist for a long time, as has the rest of them. In a sense, I've grown up with the Moody Blues. In the late 1960s, I remember lying on my back and listening to "Nights In White Satin." The Cars, I know the music very well. It's a nice little group.

Why do you think you were the one member besides Mark that managed to stick around for the entire run?
That's a good question. I think probably because it sort of made sense, somehow. It's very difficult to analyze friendships and relationships, but I think that Mark and I had an understanding and a mutual respect and we felt that we'd created the thing in the first place. I think in all the time that I've known him we had one very, very small disagreement about something that was sorted out in about 35 seconds. Otherwise, we've just managed to agree about how the thing should work.

You've got to remember that when a band starts to take off, there's a lot of energy going off. There's a lot of feelings of frustration and fear and wonder and "can we make this happen?" Suddenly, you're not playing in front of 500 people. You're playing in front of 5,000 and then it's 10,000. When things happen very quickly like that, you've got to be prepared for almost anything that can happen. I think that Mark and I were prepared for anything that could happen. Between the two of us, we were able to hold the whole thing together and make it work, in a sense. We ultimately decided to say, "I think that's enough. That's very nice, thank you very much. Let's get out before we go completely mad."

Do you ever think the band simply got too big? You were playing soccer stadiums at the end. It couldn't possibly have gone beyond that.
I don't know what "too big" is. I think you just get to the point where you're not sure where else you can take it. That probably happened to Zeppelin and a lot of bands. It doesn't seem to worry the Stones at all. They seem to keep crashing on. But I think theres's a point where you suddenly find yourself in a position where you don't really want to be there because you feel that your sense of identity is being compromised. Your sense of what's real is getting lost.

How did you feel right after the band broke up? You were relatively young and suddenly the band is gone.
That's good question. Even though Mark and I discussed it and we really wanted to put it to a close since the On Every Street tour [1992] was pretty bonkers. I had something else that I could go to outside of music. I paint a lot. That's my other life. I was able to channel all my energy into something else. I worked really, really hard at becoming a painter, which is what I do as well as play music now. It's become 50/50, painting and music. That filled my vacuum. It was a big vacuum to fill. You say "I've had enough of this" and one day you say, "That was a big thing to give up."

But then you've got to take life as it comes. Life changes. Life moves on. Thankfully, I come from a pretty sound sort of family background. I met my present wife and we had some children and that filled a huge amount of the space. It's been beautiful ever since, really. I've been very fortunate to get to this particular point in my life and have my life still intact after having a remarkable experience with the Dire Straits situation.

A bunch of former Dire Straits members toured as the Straits a few years back. How did you feel about that?
Well, they were sort of members. It was kind of weird. If I'm perfectly honest, I wasn't particularly happy about it. They did actually approach me to front it. The thing is, I'd just come out of the hospital. I was quite ill. Apart from everything else, I wouldn't do it, but I wasn't fit to do it. But I said, "If you're going to do it, will you please call it something else" It would be like some people coming together and calling themselves the Stones or the Floyd. You can't really do that. You were members of the band for a while, but you don't own the name. You have no ownership. Can you please it call it something else? Call it what it is, which is basically a tribute act." There's a lot of tribute acts. That's what happens when there's a vacuum. You just have to accept that, but I found it very difficult. It didn't last very long.

The thing is, if a big band stops and doesn't do gigs anymore, then a lot of people are going to go around saying, "This is an easy target. I can have fun with this. I can play the music and enjoy playing the music and pay for my beer on a Saturday night." Everyone says to me, "It's a compliment, isn't it?" In some ways, it is a compliment. There's a lot of people out there doing this stuff. When I go out and play in Germany with my band I come across a lot of extraordinary names the Germans have made up to call themselves. The best one was Dire Strats. I thought that was fantastic. In a sense, you've just got to nod your head and go, "OK." It goads a bit, but it's not doing anyone any harm.

Well, I guess I'll see you in Cleveland. I'm really hoping you guys play. It will be a nice way to end the band.
Well, I should be there, that's for certain. What's it like? Tell me.

It's Cleveland Public Hall, which is a really old building where the Beatles played. There are tables on the floor and fans in the seats. They serve a dinner. HBO broadcasts the show a few days later. Somebody will induct you, you'll give speeches and hopefully play. If you don't play, they'll probably get someone else to play your music.
A tribute band!

It'll likely be a major band that's been influenced by you.
I was joking. But if anyone gets up and plays, I'll certainly be a part of it! 


2017 UK Tour Confirmed

The Daily Telegraph called John’s Live show ‘ferocious” and after several years of touring Europe with more or less the same band, this is truer than ever. With confirmed appearances from Robbie McIntosh (Paul McCartney, Tom Jones) and Paul Stacey (Oasis, The Black Crows) the band is gearing up for what is to be another run of exciting performances.

Tickets are now available for all UK dates: 

Long Shadows is now Available to Pre-order

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“An astute lyricist” ~ MOJO

from 9.99

Book your tickets to see the album performed live at the iconic Half Moon in Putney.

Multiple Brit & Grammy award winner John Illsley is set to release his sixth solo studio album ‘Long Shadows’ on May 13th 2016. The album follows his 2014 studio release ‘Testing The Water’ and last year’s live album ‘Live In London’.

After cutting his teeth as bass player and one of the founding members of Dire Straits, Illsley has also released a steady stream of solo material, an output that, although never rushed, has been critically acclaimed. Undertaking lead vocal, acoustic guitar and bass duties on all of the album’s eight tracks, Illsley’s unmistakable sound, approach to arrangement and song writing is paired with his faultless lyrical storytelling. A departure from the previous album’s themes of personal trials and tribulations, Illsley comments that the lyrical content pertains to “the obvious political and social elements which have always concerned me.” 

Although Illsley has never been one to comment extensively on the meaning behind his lyrical inspirations (preferring to leave interpretation to the listener), some tracks on ‘Long Shadows’ do have a defined and contemporary relevance. Illsley remarks “'In the Darkness' for example is a take on the internet and how it seduces us all in some ways, but particularly those young people who get influenced to join radical religious groups.”

Opening with the solemn instrumental ‘Morning’, the album swells and dips with each musical movement. Energetic numbers, like ‘In The Darkness’ and ‘Long Shadow' are indicative of Illsley’s rock and blues background, demonstrating his ability as a seasoned musician and composer who can move with the times, whilst slower tracks like ‘There’s Something About You’ and ‘Ship Of Fools’ showcase Illsley’s story telling, as his vocals become reminiscent of the blues troubadours of old.

Illsley enlisted a roster of top friends and musicians for this release, including Simon Johnson (Lana Del Rey, James Morrison) on electric guitar and Guy Fletcher performing keyboard duties, as well as co-producing the album with Illsley. The Mark Knopfler owned British Grove Studios along with Room with a View Studio & A Bay Studios were used to record and produce the record, with Illsley’s children Jess and Dee Dee Illsley also contributed backing vocals.

John also expresses himself through painting, a passion he has developed over the last twenty years, and has now had solo exhibitions around the world. “For me art and music are interlinked - you start with a blank canvas and work away until you are satisfied that you have made something which is as close as it can to be to what you are trying to achieve. There is a great element of mystery in both processes which can surprise you and upset you in equal measure.” His most recent art exhibition took place at Belgravia Gallery in May last year.

‘Long Shadows’ track listing:

1 Morning

2 In The Darkness

3 Comes Around Again

4 There’s Something About You

5 Ship Of Fools

6 Lay Me Down

7 Long Shadows

8 Close To The Edge




John Illsley - Lead vocal, electric & acoustic guitar & Fender bass

Simon Johnson – Mandolin, electric guitars, acoustic lead guitar, slide guitar

Paul Beavis Drums and percussion

Phil Palmer – Electric lead guitar, electric guitar

Steve Smith –Yamaha grand piano, piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond organ, Taurus bass pedals

Guy Fletcher - Hammond organ, backing vocals, Yamaha CS80 synthesiser, electric piano

Jess Greenfield, Jess Illsley & Dee Dee Illsley - backing vocals

Robbie MacIntosh – Slide guitar

Everton Nelson -1st violin

Ian Humphries - 2nd violin

Bruce White - Viola

Caroline Dale – Cello

John Illsley will also being playing select shows in the UK during 2016: 


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