John Illsley talks about Testing The Water

Testing The Water is John Illsley's first full-length release since 2010.

How long has Testing The Water been in the works?

I have to confess I’m a bit of a slow one really, because I also paint. I tend to fluctuate between the two, so these are songs that have been floating around in my head for two or three years. I’m not like Bob Dylan, writing an album on a bus in one afternoon. I have to ruminate a bit. This just felt like the right time to make a new record. I was missing being in the studio.

Is the album named after one of your paintings?

It is actually. I did a whole series of what I call the ‘Bathroom Series’. I’ve been doing them over a number of years and they’re abstract elements of physical forms within a bathroom environment. Looking at it quite literally, you feel this sense of being immersed, of being cocooned in this warmth and comfort.

Your old bandmate Mark Knopfler was on your previous solo albums…

I’ve used a couple of other guitar players instead this time. Robbie McIntosh, who does gigs with me, is one of them. And there’s Simon Johnson [guitar], who’s local and a really nice player. Guy Fletcher [keyboards, ex-Dire Straits] is on there too and he co-produced it with me. Plus there’s Paul Beavis [drums], who’s Andy Fairweather Low’s regular touring guy. I’ve stuck to bass duties, apart from on a couple of tracks.

You sound very Knopler-esque on Testing The Water…

It’s interesting really, because when you start singing you discover all sorts of things about your voice and it does change. I probably found my voice better on this album than the last one [2010’s Streets Of Heaven].

Will you be touring this record?

Yes, there are some dates in the bag for September and October. The first one is at the Jazz Café in Camden on June 19, then I’m hopefully doing a festival in France.

Was there some trepidation when you first went solo in 1984 with Never Told A Soul?

Oh yes. Though having said that, even before the Straits I was singing in bands. I think it takes a while to find your own space within it and that only comes with doing a lot of gigs. I really do love playing live, how the relationship between the band and audience works. The energy you get is fabulous. It’s very difficult to give it up.

At the same time, were you relieved when Dire Straits finished and you realised you didn’t have to be on the road so much anymore?

I have to say that the On Every Street Tour [August 1991-October 1992] did both Mark and I in. It was pretty exhausting. It was probably a bit mad to do actually, but things were going well and we had a great band and an audience that was incredibly receptive. It really was the pinnacle of the band’s touring. Anyone who’d seen us back then would have seen a band at their best. That was one of the reasons why we decided to cool it down, because we felt we’d achieved pretty much most of what we could do.

Dire Straits never came across as wild and crazy rock’n’roll guys. Was there ever any bad behaviour?

Ah, you’ll have to wait for the book! I think we were probably very professional in our approach. Drugs were pretty much a no-no and, like everybody else, you’d like to have a glass of wine or two before and after a gig. If you’re doing six or seven nights a week, in front of a lot of people, you’ve got to be on your mettle. It’s knackering. Do you really want to go to bed at five in the morning then get up and do it all again? It’s going to kill you or you’ll do a bad performance. And we enjoyed playing so much. Of course we had wild times, nobody’s a saint in this world. But you won’t discover any stories about us that are quite as outrageous as some other people’s. Let’s just leave it at that!

The obligatory question: will Dire Straits happen again?

Well, I would like it to happen again, but I completely understand the reasons why it won’t. Mark is a very successful solo artist and enjoys the music he’s making now. I think he’s really enjoying moving forward. He’s not the kind of person who wants to look back that often, but I pepper my live set with those songs. I love playing them because they’re great songs and it makes me feel good. But he’s moved on and that’s fine and we’re still great friends. And maybe we should leave it at that. Though if he turns around one day and says, “Let’s go do some gigs,” I’ll say sure. Why not? The time has to be right and you have to be in the right kind of mood.

John Illsley launches the album with a show at London’s Jazz Cafe on June 19th, and tours the UK in September and October.

Sept 24: Milton Keynes The Stables

Sept 26: Skegness Embassy

Sept 27: Derby Flower Pot

Oct 2: Wolverhampton Robin 2

Oct 3: Fletching Trading Boundaries

Oct 4: Southampton The Brook

Oct 5: Watford Colosseum

Oct 7: Cardiff St David’s Hall

Oct 9: Isle of Wight Shanklin Theatre

Oct 10: Exeter Corn Exchange

Oct 11: Ipswich Cameo Hotel

Oct 12: Horsham Capitol Theatre

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.