The Background Story
This story started 20 years ago, when as a young teenager growing up in France, I was making frequent trips to the public library to borrow records and fill my mind up with as much rock ‘n’ roll and blues as I could lay my hands on. The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan were amongst many on that list but one day a friend introduced me to a band with a guitar sound and a voice that would forever change my life: Dire Straits. The year was 1989 and I had missed the release of the phenomenal Brothers in Arms, but I made up for it by the number of times I listened to that album and all previous albums released to that point. A few years later, I would see Dire Straits in concert in Grenoble, France for the On Every Street tour. I quickly became aware of the man behind Dire Straits, Mr Mark Knopfler, and have had the pleasure to follow his very fruitful solo career since the last Dire Straits release. His music continues to provide a soundtrack to my life and I feel blessed that such an artist is still crafting such beautiful music.
In addition to producing albums, Mark has also collaborated with famous guitar manufacturers Fender and Martin to design signature series. Since I became a guitar player myself, thanks to Mark, I always thought it would be appropriate to get one of these guitars. A few months ago, I celebrated a birthday and my friends were inquiring what to give me. I decided the time had come to take action and asked for donations towards my goal of acquiring a Mark Knopfler Fender Stratocaster signature model before the year was out. In a timely fashion, that I can only think was meant to be, Mark donated an autographed Stratocaster to the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) charity program Katine: It Starts with a Village. That guitar was put on eBay and I was the lucky winner of that auction. The added bonus was that after a few email exchanges, I was invited to come by his studio at British Grove in London on January 23, 2009 to pick the guitar up and meet the man himself.
My wife, Jennifer, and I decide this trip would be a great way to celebrate 10 years of knowing each other and 9 years since we walked down the aisle to the sound of The Princess Bride, a Mark Knopfler soundtrack. We leave Missoula, Montana on January 20th, the day of President Barrack Obama's inauguration into office, to arrive in London on January 21st. That evening, we attend a very fun and convivial concert at the Eel Pie Club by the Garry Grainger Blues Band, which includes both former and current members of Mark's band: Danny Cummings and Guy Fletcher. The later is very appreciated within the Mark Knopfler community as he has worked with Mark since the early 80’s and keeps us fans up-to-date through his on-line studio and tour diary. We spend the next day touring Windsor Castle before the day of the meeting is upon us.
How does one overcome the nervousness associated with meeting the person who has shaped the musical landscape in your life for 20 years? Well, needless to say, I did not figure out the answer to that question before the meeting, but I needed not to worry as Mark made the whole experience so smooth and comfortable, far surpassing my expectations. Let's go back through it...
Wanting to allow extra travel time, we arrive at the studio 30 minutes early. We decide to wait outside a bit and take a few pictures. During that time, a man arrives on a red scooter (much like the one on the painting used on the the Kill to Get Crimson album cover: Four Lambrettas and Three Portraits of Janet Churchman by John Bratby) and rings the studio. A few seconds later, what had seemed like a large window opens, and the scooter drives into it in what feels like a James Bond moment.
Our appointment time arrives, and we ring the door. A man opens the door for us and promptly takes us to a room on the main floor where Robyn, Mark's Personal Assistant, makes us feel immediately at ease. We chat with her for a moment and she asks us if we want some coffee. We gladly accept and soon find ourselves walking up the stairs for the moment so awaited for. On the way up, we run into Guy Fletcher, the same Guy Fletcher we saw at the concert a couple of nights ago, who tells us he has made a few cappuccinos for us. I was so excited at that point that I did not fully register what he had just said, and it would only be later that my wife would clarify to me that Guy made our cappuccinos. How cool is that?
We step into a large windowed room with a large table in the center, a guitar case on the table, and on the wall to my right; the painting that makes the Kill to get Crimson album cover fills the whole wall. It is huge! I am so fascinated by it that my eyes are glued to it as I walk into the room. As such, I don't immediately realize that Mark is standing behind me at a counter with a kitchen on the other side. Mark steps over to greet us, and after some introductions, he points us to our cappuccinos and starts engaging us in conversation. Pretty quickly after that, he walks towards the table and opens the guitar case to pull out the hot rod red Fender Stratocaster and hands it to me indicating this is the guitar I purchased. He tells me he is really happy with the work Fender has done with his signature model and that he much prefers using these to his older ones. He goes on to show me the smooth work on the neck and frets. I then ask if he could play something on it, which to my great delight he accepts to do, but indicates we'll have to go find an amp as there are none in the room we are currently in.
We continue drinking our delicious cappuccinos and Mark shows me the espresso machine they came out of -- A real barista's machine with grinder and fresh Italian coffee beans! To help treat his musicians well, unlike the industry's standards that packs their schedule real tight, Mark tells me. I can already see myself thinking about Mark and Guy every time I make myself an espresso on my much more modest espresso machine. Marie-Louise, a representative from AMREF, the charity that put the auction together, walks in at this point. Mark starts inquiring about the charity, how well it did over Christmas time and how the program is going overall. Mark also brings up the recent case of fraud (perpetuated by Bernard Madoff) against charitable organizations and how appalling he finds it. It is evident that Mark is deeply concerned about charity efforts.
Cappuccinos done, Marie-Louise and my wife start taking pictures of Mark and I along with the newly acquired Stratocaster. Then Robyn starts taking pictures in place of my wife who joins Mark and I in the pictures. Mark then leads us back downstairs in search of an amp to plug the guitar in to. He actually ends up taking us into a part of the studio where his amp is currently setup for a recording session. The room is round with one large central area and several smaller rooms on the outside edges (studio 1 according to Guy’s recording diaries). Mark explains to us that the walls are configurable so that the rooms can be completely opened up to make the main room larger or closed up to create isolated recording environments. Additionally, the walls have flaps all around the room just above our heads to alter the sound within the room. Mark shows me how his amp is currently wired up for recording with microphones right in front of it to capture the sound directly from the amp while other microphones are placed in the middle of the room to capture the sound of the guitar and amp within the room.
Mark calls Glenn Saggers, his guitar technician, in the room to plug my guitar into his amp without altering the current setup. Once done, Mark starts ripping a few licks that only he can do on my guitar and I am in awe to say the least! Mark assures me that the guitar is a good one and that it has a good response. I tell him it sure sounds great when he plays it. Robyn then brings out a couple of markers and after trying to figure out where the best place might be for a signature, Mark signs my guitar just underneath the pickups. My original wish was to have the guitar signed with the quote "As you wish", inspired by The Princess Bride movie, to remind me of the power to manifest my dreams. But Mark assures me I'd come to regret it, for which he was right. Space is tight and his signature alone looks perfect where it's at. On our way out of studio 1, I introduce myself to Glenn to tell him I have appreciated his tech notes on Guy's forum, Glenn jokingly tells me that Guy makes it all up.
Just when I thought things could not get any better, Mark takes us into the mixing room (studio 2) on the other side of the glass window from studio 1 and goes on to describe the equipment in there, which blends old and new technologies: consoles, computers, racks, tapes, etc. I would recommend anyone looking for more information on these to refer to Guy's recording diaries as he does a much better job describing it than I would. Mark humbly admits to us that this studio is like his toy and his love for the place shows through his enthusiasm in showing it to us. And it is with the same enthusiasm that he discusses the process of crafting a song and how each song takes a different approach. For some reason, Secondary Waltz comes to my mind as I recall hearing a bootlegged version from the 90’s that sounded much different than the far superior version from the latest album. Mark tells me songs like that are ones where he just likes to put musicians together in a room and simply play it. I find it fascinating that the song took several decades in the making (Mark wrote the lyrics in the 70’s I believe), yet in the end it is one of the simpler ones to record.
For the final part, he takes us to a smaller recording room on the other end of the studio where Guy is working. It has several guitars in one corner, some chairs and a control board. Mark explains it is where he and Guy are currently working on songs for his new album. He then picks up his 1958 Les Paul ("this old thing" as he amusingly refers to it) and goes on to show me how the guitar is hooked to the amp in studio 1, and that the sound coming from that amp is fed back to Guy and Mark through a set of speakers in the walls in this room. Fantastic!
This wraps up our visit as Mark needs to get back to recording (and I sure don't want to be responsible for delaying it). So I say my good-bye's and thank you's to both Guy and Mark. My sweet wife senses my profound happiness and happy tears roll down her cheeks. Robyn walks us out of the building and back onto the street. Forty minutes had passed that I will remember for a long time. I had walked into the building expecting to pickup my guitar, see Mark sign it and take a couple of pictures with him. Ten minutes tops I was thinking. Instead, Mark took his time with us, shared cappuccino's and gave us a full tour of his studio, making this trip an absolute wonder. Thank you Mark and thank you to all involved in making this trip possible: