Dire Straits: low-key but climbing

When Dire Straits played their first gigs in British clubs nine years ago, they traveled in a van that held the four band members and all their equipment. ``Now,'' marvels leader Mark Knopfler, ``we have to use three or four semi-trucks everywhere we go.'' That's not the only change for Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, which has become one of the leading contenders in the competition for America's Grammy Awards (CBS, Tuesday, 8-11 p.m.) honoring recordings made last year. Stars in Europe for years, the band broke through in America in 1985 with the hit single ``Money for Nothing,'' the No. 1 album ``Brothers in Arms,'' MTV's top video of the year (``Money for Nothing''), and now four Grammy nominations, including nods in the top three categories: Record, Album, and Song of the Year.

All this means unexpected visibility and unexpected trendiness for a band that's always been resolutely low-key and unglamorous.

``I wouldn't say we're a fashionable band by any means, and we've certainly never worried about what trousers you were supposed to be wearing this week,'' says Mr. Knopfler, Dire Straits's soft-spoken leader.

Knopfler writes and sings the songs, plays lead guitar, and co-produces the records. On the side, he writes film scores and works with the likes of Tina Turner, whose hit ``Private Dancer'' is a Knopfler song. But he's hardly a rock-star type: thin and balding, he seems bemused by the very idea of rock stardom as he rests in L.A. before an Australian tour.

But then, Knopfler and his band have always gone against the currents. When they started, London's clubs were ablaze with the new, raucous, rabble-rousing fervor of punk rock; Dire Straits played gentle, folk-flavored tunes like ``Sultans of Swing,'' while as a guitarist, Knopfler's calling cards were grace and delicacy.

Those qualities made him an overseas star, something that didn't happen stateside until ``Brothers in Arms.''

``I'm not sure why this is the album that did it, except that it's quite a varied record,'' says Knopfler, whose earlier records did well but not spectacularly in the United States. ``There are quite a lot of different moods and feelings on it, and I think maybe that appeals to people.''

The most controversial part of the LP is ``Money for Nothing,'' a song Knopfler wrote after overhearing a Manhattan appliance salesman bad-mouth rock stars. Knopfler sang the ironic tune in the character of the embittered, foul-mouthed salesman, and included some blunt anti-homosexual language that drew considerable criticism.

``It's hard to be ironic in a pop song,'' shrugs Knopfler. ``The response reminded me of the response Randy Newman got to `Short People.' The songs are both about how wrong our prejudices are, and they both proved that stupid people will always be there to misinterpret things.''

Does he plan on writing similar songs on his next record? ``To tell you the truth, the reaction to `Money for Nothing' did make me reconsider what I'm doing. If my songs are going to be misinterpreted like that, maybe I ought to be more straightforward and simpler from now on.''

On much of the album Knopfler is far less ironic; side two, in fact, closes with a string of songs that are sometimes obliquely, sometimes explicitly about the senselessness of armed conflict, of raising arms against brothers.

It fits the tone of the times, with records like ``Sun City,'' benefits like Live Aid and Farm Aid, and the increasingly political stance of such musicians as Bruce Springsteen. Does Knopfler, then, think today's musicians have a responsibility to be politically outspoken?

``I don't know,'' he says haltingly. ``I think that if you look at our album, those aren't really political songs. They're songs about being humane. But if that's the political responsibility you're talking about -- the responsibility to come out in favor of humanity and against genocide or war -- then yes, I think everybody has that responsibility.''

When Dire Straits will next exercise that responsibility is anybody's guess. The band has been on the road or in the studio for most of two years, and when asked when we'll next hear from them, Knopfler quickly says he has no idea.

He will, he says, probably produce a song on Tina Turner's next album, and he'd like to do more sound tracks. He's written the score for the British films ``Local Hero,'' ``Comfort and Joy,'' and ``Cal.'' Though Knopfler says ``I had no idea what I was doing,'' the score to ``Local Hero,'' at least, is a quiet, haunting gem that ranks with his best work.

But Knopfler's immediate plans are far simpler. ``I want to lie on the couch and watch a lot of TV,'' he says. ``I like to turn off the sound and play guitar while I'm watching. Then when I fall asleep in front of the TV my hands keep moving, playing the guitar in my sleep.''

It's typical of Mark Knopfler's career: Even when he has a breakthrough record, he'll follow it up at his own deliberate pace. Don't even expect him to take center stage when awards are handed out.

``Am I going to the Grammys?'' he says, and laughs as if the idea never occurred to him. ``Naw. To do that I'd have to buy a coat and tie, wouldn't I?''

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