David Knopfler walked away from being a rock star, but he never walked away from music.
Back in 1977, Knopfler founded Dire Straits with three fellow Brits – his brother Mark, bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers. The band had some quick success with its great song “Sultans of Swing” and was on its way to becoming much bigger when David Knopfler decided to walk away in 1980.
According to Knopfler, the world of drugs, nonstop touring and phony, overbearing music executives was not to his liking. And he felt musically dominated by his talented brother, who quickly made the band his own.
“Believe it or not, for about five minutes, I was the leader of that band,” Knopfler said in a telephone interview last week. “Mark just took over. I don’t blame him. I’d just rather be the director of my own life than the strummer for someone else’s dreams.”
He’ll probably never reach the level of stardom of Dire Straits, which broke up in 1995, or his highly regarded, still-a-rock-star brother, but Knopfler, now 60, has proudly done things his own way ever since.
He’s recorded about a dozen well-received albums, and he still tours the United States and Europe, playing small venues with his guitarist friend Harry Bogdanovs. They’ll make a Buffalo visit Sunday, playing a 6 p.m. show at the Sportsmen’s Tavern, 326 Amherst St. Tickets are $25.
Knopfler’s voice is a near dead ringer for his brother’s, and some of his songs will remind listeners of Dire Straits’ work. But his music also bears the unmistakable influence of one of his biggest musical heroes, Bob Dylan. Knopfler is a first-rate folk music balladeer.
“As a rule, we play my own material,” Knopfler said. “It’s a stripped-down sound – acoustic guitars and occasionally a bit of piano.”
Knopfler knows he walked away from a lot of cash and exciting times when he left Dire Straits, but he seems to be at peace with the decision.
“There was a lot of depravity around. … I’m not a fan of celebrity and fame,” he said. “You can climb that ladder and find out that’s not where you want to be.”
Knopfler came from a musical family in northern England. His mother was a piano player, and an uncle played banjo. Mark, four years older than David, excelled on the guitar, and sister Ruth became a classical cellist.
As a kid, Knopfler was playing guitar, piano and drums. By age 11, he was playing in bands. At age 14, he was playing his own music in folk clubs.
Growing up in England while British bands were taking over America’s music scene, Knopfler loved the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. But Dylan was the artist who really inspired him.
“My sister brought home two of his early albums one day, and the music just stopped me in my tracks. I could not stop listening to those songs,” Knopfler said.
Though he has a home near London and travels all over the U.S. and Europe, Knopfler spends a lot of his time just 65 miles away from Buffalo in Geneseo. He often stays there with his longtime girlfriend, Leslie Stroz, a painter and art professor at SUNY Geneseo State.
He has become an astute observer of America’s culture, media and politics. He said it distresses him to see how big business controls many of America’s politicians.
“I have a very good handle on how politics work in New York State, and it despairs me,” he said. “America seems to have the best of everything, and the worst of everything.”
Knopfler rarely sees his famous older brother these days.
“Just weddings and funerals, that sort of thing,” he said. “We’re not really in touch.”
With that said, Knopfler added that he respects his brother’s music and would not rule out performing with him again someday.
“It would be lovely, but I don’t think so,” he said. “The ball’s in his court.”
What: David Knopfler with Harry Bogdanovs
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Sportsmen’s Tavern, 326 Amherst St.