July 01, 2014

Interview: John Illsley, Formerly of Dire Straits, Celebrates Survival with New Solo Album

From the late ’70s through to the early ’90s Dire Straits—founded by lead guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler, rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, drummer Pick Withers, and bassist John Illsley—reigned as British rock royalty, selling over 120 million albums, racking up a stockpile of classic hits (including “Sultans of Swing,” “Money For Nothing,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Walk of Life”) and forging a permanent residency on radio stations around the world. 

While Knopfler has enjoyed more critical and popular success since the band’s demise, Illsley has nonetheless produced a string of respectable solo works as well, including his latest LP, Testing the Water. Enriched by warm guitar phrases and narrative lyricism, the album is informed by themes of both adversity and resilience—not least of all his own. 

In 1999 Illsley was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), an illness he kept mostly under wraps for fifteen years. “I didn’t want it to become a topic of conversation,” says Illsley. “I felt that I had it reasonably under control from what I could work out.” His condition worsened over time, however, culminating in Illsley undergoing a stem-cell transplant—his sister was deemed a match—and an extensive period of recovery. 

Illsley affirms, “I consider myself an extremely fortunate man.”  

Testing the Water has traces of some of the softer music you made in Dire Straits, with the JJ Cale-styled shuffles in particular.

That’s really the way that I’ve been sort of playing and working—with that kind of style of music—for a long time now, since Mark and I met in ’76. We had a mutual love for certain kinds of approaches to music and I suppose that just carried on over all these years. You add bits and pieces to it as you progress, but I suppose the fundamentals are always going to be there. It will have a certain resonance with the past, but I hope in some ways also that it’s not bogged down in the past.

It doesn’t sound derivative. It sounds reminiscent. 

That’s a better word. Reminiscent’s good. I don’t mind reminiscing. 

Is being a songwriter something you’ve had to grow into to be more comfortable?

It’s always quite difficult talking about songwriting. You’ve probably spoken with a few people about that in the past. I think I have grown as a writer. I would like to think so, anyway. Writing songs is most of the time, for me, a pretty laborious business, but there are certain elements of joy and clarity which emerge in the process. I just think that over time you probably just get a bit better at handling the medium. You’ve got to remember, I had quite a good teacher, in a sense, working with Mark. That’s a pretty important element in the way that I approach writing. He doesn’t really let anything go until he’s absolutely, one-hundred percent sure about it. 

There were a couple of other songs that I could’ve put on this record, for instance, which I left off because I just felt it would’ve been slightly less strong with them on it. It’s quite a short record. I think it’s less than forty minutes.… I’d rather try to get the intensity right or the attitude right—the feeling right, if you like—on those few songs and make them work as little vignettes rather than crowd it out with a lot of padding.

I don’t know about their running times, but there were a couple Dire Straits albums that had only seven or eight songs.

Love Over Gold was only five, and of course that was produced at a time when vinyl was the medium. So on one side there were two songs, “Telegraph Road” and “Private Investigations,” and there were three songs on the other side. It still took as long [to record] as an album that’s got seven or eight songs on it, but that’s the way it comes out. “Telegraph Road” is still one of my favorite songs to play. I was playing it recently with some boys over in Italy. It’s a fabulous journey. 

I was watching some old concert footage of the band in preparing to speak with you, and I was struck by the effect those songs had on some absolutely massive audiences. 

It is an extraordinary kind of thing. In some ways you never really get used to that. And of course the last tour which we did was quite a biggie. We were playing to fairly large audiences and it never ceased to amaze me how quiet they would be when we were playing something like “Private Investigations.” How thirty-five or forty thousand people could stay that quiet I always thought was quite extraordinary. That sort of mass of people can create an extraordinary atmosphere which is completely unique.

Just on a basic human level, how did you maintain a sense of purpose as a musician when you were contending with your illness? You wrote some of these songs while you were in the hospital. 

It’s a good question. What I’ve discovered, though, is that a lot of people go through some difficult things in their lives. Some are more difficult than others.… I think in some ways we spend our lives dodging bullets. Thankfully, I’ve managed to dodge a few on this particular thing, but I think the initial shock was pretty devastating to be told at the age of fifty that you’ve got ten years to live, and you’ve got two very small children and you’ve got two older children as well. Basically, I thought, I’m not going to waste any bloody time. I was painting at the time, and I carried on painting. I went to Ireland; I worked with some Irish musicians and had some fun over there. I was feeling pretty much okay because I’d already had a whole load of chemo and that’s what gave me a new lease of life for a few years; it sort of knocked it down for a bit. I just sort of carried on and, I thought, I’m just going to keep working and just take every day as it comes. I actually managed to do quite a lot in that period of time before I got hit with it hard after the second load of chemo, which really only worked for about eighteen months to two years and then I went downhill very rapidly. 

When I knew I was going to be in hospital for a month I asked if I could take in my guitar and my sketch books and all the rest of the paraphernalia I usually have in my life, and they said, “Sure.” I was in what you would call semi-isolation. You couldn’t just walk in the room. You had to have all sorts of things done to you before you came in because I was very susceptible to disease and infection. But while I was there it gave me time to think and ruminate and to work out what that was all about. One of the songs, “Railway Tracks,” is specifically about being in there. And also, in a sense, “When God Made Time,” as it says, “When God made time He made plenty of it,” and basically you’ve just got to use as much of it as you can and get on with things. It taught me a lot about myself. It taught me a lot about how other people responded to that and I got a tremendous amount of support from everybody, friends and family and such.

About a year and a half. You have to take these anti-rejection drugs for a long time. The body is dealing with a kind-of-foreign body and gradually that foreign body takes over and your own body says, “It’s okay for you to be here.” That takes quite a long time. I think I got the all-clear about eighteen months ago. About eighteen months ago I was told there was no trace of leukemia on board anymore, which was a fairly amazing day. It was quite an extraordinary moment. I have to say, we did open up a couple bottles of champagne. In a sense this album is really a celebration of survival. 

The album is not only a testament to survival but in a lot of ways, it seems, your music actually helped you through all that.

Without a doubt. I played that guitar every day in there and just fiddled around with these ideas and it just gave me a focus away from all the other bloody stuff. I had drips in me twenty-four hours a day for about a month, and every hour somebody would come in to take this and do that, fiddle around with this… Amongst all that the music just kept me absolutely centered. It was quite remarkable. 

I want people to know that it’s not necessarily a death sentence. There’s a register you can sign up to [anthonynolan.org] where you can offer your stem cells to somebody you don’t know—could be on the other side of the world—and you can help them to have a life just by lying on a bed for three or four hours. You have your stem cells taken off and you replace your own within twenty-four hours. It’s extraordinary.

For more information please visit the artist’s official website.