Dire Straits' Knopfler Changes His Tune--Again : Pop music: For the band's leader, five years away from concert tours to concentrate on other musical projects has renewed his hunger to return.

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Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler isn't necessarily the ascetic type--as his penchant for chain smoking during a recent interview will attest.

Still, Knopfler is one who believes in self-deprivation, if only to renew a hunger for one of the many musical disciplines--from film scores to concerts to side groups to Dire Straits albums--among which he alternates.

"We've just been on a break for two weeks and I've been writing like crazy. . . ," said Knopfler, 42, during a visit to Los Angeles between Straits' European and U.S. tour swings. (The group plays tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena and Friday and Saturday at the Forum.) "One of the great things about touring for me is that when you stop touring, you write.

" 'Cause it's just like when you're producing (somebody else's record), you get so hungry to play yourself. Or when you (score) a film, all you want to do is play some R&B; or rockabilly music. . . . That's one of the great things about a change, I suppose. They say it's as good as a rest."

Knopfler had such a long rest from the road--five years--after Dire Straits' 1985 multiplatinum smash album "Brothers in Arms" (with the U.S. hit "Money for Nothing") and subsequent world tour that many fans assumed the group was defunct.

Retiring back to his home in London, Knopfler concentrated on film scores for movies ranging from "Local Hero" to "The Princess Bride." In the last couple of years, he has devoted himself less to films ("Last Exit to Brooklyn" was his last) and more to "roots" music projects, including an affectionate country music exploration under the group name the Notting Hillbillies and a duet album with famed country picker Chet Atkins.

So it seems a surprise to hear Knopfler, whom you might expect to admit enjoying studio eclecticism more than the repeated nightly rigors of a stage show, profess that on Straits' current tour, he is "having a blast doing it--rarin' to get goin' again, in fact."

But, yes, he acknowledged. He did vow after the "Brothers in Arms" tour to never undergo one of those grueling worldwide jaunts again.

"I didn't feel like playing for about 15 minutes at the end of that," said the soft-spoken guitarist. "I went and made some tea and thought, 'That'll be it.' But I had a bunch of other things to do, and then I just turned around and somebody said, 'It's been five years,' and I said, 'What?' But time flies when you're having fun."

Knopfler paused and reflected on his changing musical desires and paths:

"Plus, it's important, for me, to step back from things and have a change. It recharges you. Also, you find out a lot of things you don't want to do by doing them. I'm not very smart. I'm a slow learner. So what happens is, I have to do things to find out that doing incidental music in films is not the best way I should be spending my time."

He said that "Last Exit to Brooklyn" may have been his final full film score.

"I like doing the themes. . . . There are people who are a lot more talented than I am who can do all that in-between stuff, and probably do it a lot quicker too."

The latest Dire Straits album, last fall's "On Every Street," has done respectably but hasn't been the monster seller that its predecessor was. Some critics have cited the disparity of tone between the album's more subtle, personal songs and its blunt, overtly satirical "character" tunes, which sound strongly influenced by Randy Newman (whose last album featured Knopfler's guitar work).

Surprisingly, Knopfler tended to agree.

"I thought of leaving out 'Heavy Fuel' and 'My Parties' because I didn't really like them," he said. "But they're there, they're part of it, so I just slung 'em in. I wasn't concerned with a theme to the album. But I do kind of like the idea of making a record you can live with for a long time. And I think those two songs kind of spoil it in a way because they're sort of like jokes, and I think once you've had the laugh, what's the longevity thing?"

Nonetheless, despite these mood interrupters, Knopfler remains excited even now about "On Every Street" for the more spontaneous way it was recorded.

"I don't like my albums; I can't listen to them. But I can listen to this one," Knopfler said. "I think one of the reasons is that I was just determined (that) everybody play together and off each other, and keep it and not mess with a lot of it. To me, they're just dead recordings, a lot of these things where everybody's just tracking. Whereas, when you're all playing together and keeping a lot of it, something happens to the air, the reverberations.

"All my favorite records were made that way. All of them. That was the only way they could record. . . . Like Chet (Atkins) said when we were doing an interview together, 'The way we used to do it, there might have been a mistake or two in there, but after a while those mistakes begin to sound right.' A great way of putting it, but it's true."

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