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  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!