An Interview With John Illsley

Posted on: 25 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The musician talks to 50connect about his latest album, art and Dire Straits.

John IllsleyAfter 13 years of spending time painting, helping run a charity and taking care of his pub and hotels, Dire Straits' bass player John Illsley is back with a new album.

When the legendary 120 million selling group split in 1993, John switched from music to painting. When he was younger he had been keen on both artistic endeavours.

"There was an enormous vacuum when the Straits stopped and painting helped me get over that and fill that artistic vacuum. Secondly I realised that I wasn't bad at it."

"When we decided to call it a day I thought it was an opportunity to indulge - I hate to use the word - another passion which was painting. So I got a small studio, bought paints, paper and canvases and got on with it. After a while I realised that it was extremely enjoyable and I was actually starting to produce work that was half decent. I started doing the odd show here and there and achieved a relative amount of success - people were interested in the work and some people were mad enough to buy something, and so that's what I did for a long time. I haven't had a huge amount of time over the last twelve months to do any painting, although I did do a small show in Palma in Mallorca this year."

All kinds of subject matter inspire John's painting, from the French countryside to guitars and an abstract bathroom series, and even portraits from time to time. Though music and painting are both artistic, there's one major difference.

"Producing a piece of work on a canvas as opposed to producing a piece of music is a completely different experience in many ways because invariably producing music involves other people whereas painting is a very singular area. You are basically completely responsible for the thing from beginning to end which puts an interesting slant on it."

John is now running both facets of his career together. He returned to music after meeting Irish rock group Cunla. Greg Pearle, who worked with John on their new album Beautiful You, was singing with the band. John joined in.

"I was in a pub in Leicestershire at a friend's party and there was a band playing. I ended up playing with these guys and just having a bit of fun. I liked their attitude and their music. They were playing covers basically, old songs that I knew most of."

When Cunla covered some Dire Straits numbers, with their fiddle player and so on they gave the songs an Irish flavour, which worked well.

"The combination of playing with these lads and listening to ideas that Greg had for songs and suchlike put me in the frame of mind when I was thinking, 'Oh crikey, this is going to open the box again,' which I thought I'd closed. I'd put the whole notion to bed, but I bumped into these Irish lads and music resurrected itself."

Working with Greg, John decided to give the project a couple of years and see what happens. He enjoyed recording the album with Greg.

"We get on well and we're good mates now. It's good to be involved in the creative process again, making something happen. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it to be honest. We started recording last year so it's taken 18 months to get to the finished product. The album was released in October. Everything seems to take such a long time. It does with me anyway. So now we're having fun with it, going out and doing a few shows."

Though he played bass for 18 years with Dire Straits, with Cunla and on the new album John took up the guitar rather than the bass.

"I suddenly really started to enjoy that aspect. So I kept playing with these lads and developing my own ideas, of being a guitar player as opposed to a bass player. I've always played the guitar, but not live. It's been my first instrument, though the bass is what I earnt my living at. It's a question of finding the right vehicle for it. Cunla already had a bass player, so I couldn't play the bass, so I had to play the guitar."

Of course in Dire Straits Mark Knopfler took the lead, but playing as a guitarist is a skill John always wanted to explore.

"I've worked quite hard over the last year or so to become a better player and I'm enjoying playing guitar - why not? Comparisons are onerous and when we play Sultans of Swing for instance I hope people don't expect to hear a Knopfler type solo at the end - they're not going to get it because I can't do that and I wouldn't pretend to do that. Also we interpret it in a slightly different way. There's obviously elements of the Straits in there because that was part of my life for so long so for me that's the way one makes or records music."

The sound of the record is important to John, who wanted to avoid the disappointing patchiness of some albums.

"I think we've made a record that you can put on at the beginning and take off at the end; you can just let it run, which was the intention. and I think it’s worked on this record. What I wanted to try to do, and I made this clear to Greg, was that it should have a certain consistency and quality and I think we've achieved that. I'm very pleased with the result."

So John is back into music after a 13 year break. The phenomenal success of Dire Straits meant that he needed to take that break.

"When you're doing something all the time like we were with the Straits you tend to take things for granted and don't think that it's ever going to change. But of course then there was a big change, deciding we didn't want to do it in that kind of way any more. We'd had enough of doing it at that kind of level, and it was very much a personal decision. Mark and I agreed that the Straits had probably reached its pinnacle so it was time to give it a rest. He wanted to do different kinds of music and I was happy to back off from the whole thing because I was emotionally and physically exhausted."

John would be happy to work with Dire Straits again, but is content not to.

"I wouldn't be averse to doing something with a Dire Straits label attached to it, but if it doesn't happen it doesn't matter. At the moment there's absolutely no need for Mark to want to resurrect the Straits, because he's become a successful solo artist in his own right, and he can play the songs whenever he feels like it. Mark and I speak about this on very rare occasions. He and I are mates; we don't need to do all that stuff again."

Having played plenty of huge venues in the past, John feels no burning need to go down that road again.

"Putting the Straits back together sort of opens up a can of worms because then what do you do? People say to me all the time, 'You could fill this, you could fill that, you could do this and that' - and? It's got to be enjoyable and there's got to be the right reason for getting back together - filling stadiums is not the right reason, and I certainly have no intention of doing something just for the money. It would be wonderful to go out and do a few dates with the old band, but I can't see it happening to be honest, it's not on the cards right now - but I never say never."

John is clearly enjoying his current musical direction. Leaving the scene for over a decade meant that he could come back and appreciate it.

"Suddenly it becomes an enjoyable thing to do again. But I'm doing it very much under my own terms, keeping it simple, playing in small places with Greg and some Irish musicians. We can get the whole lot in the back of a van just like it was 30 years ago and it’s a very enjoyable experience."

Anyone expecting an evening of Irish or Dire Straits sounds may be surprised.

"I like to keep things open. The Irish thing is great but it can restrict you a little bit too. This band is a new bunch of guys we're working with, so we dispensed with the fiddle. On our Irish dates I'm taking Chris White, the sax player from the Straits, out with us which is great, so Chris will do some solos and it'll give another dimension altogether. I really like playing with these guys."

There should be some UK concerts in 2009 for fans to look forward to.

"Performing this new record has been an eye opener, because after making a studio record you go and play it live and the songs start to come alive again, so that's quite interesting. When we played at Shepherd's Bush, the Bush Hall gig on 7th October, it was fantastic and worked well so I'm looking forward to the live performances. We want to do some UK shows in the new year - it's a question of getting the right places and the timings and all the rest of it so we'll probably start working on that soon."

With his new musical career taking shape, at age 59, John appreciates the benefits of being a second timer.

"At this stage you can do whatever you want."

By Cherry Butler

Beautiful You - John Illsley, Greg Pearle - CDWeb Links

New single Secret Garden and One can be downloaded for free from www.johnillsley.com, and you can purchase Beautiful You at all good record stores, or online from Amazon for £11.99.

www.johnillsley.com - John Illsley's official website, for news, tour dates, music downloads and more.

www.lifeeducation.org.uk - John's charity.

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