How many of us know the exact moment that our entire life and career was decided?
Davy Knowles remembers that very moment, even if he didn’t quite realize its import at the time.
While he’d always grown up around music in his family — with a father who played a bit and an older sister who was exposing him to all the popular music of the time — Knowles’s epiphany came when he was 11.
“It was when I first heard Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits playing ‘Sultans of Swing’ that I really wanted to play the guitar,” he recalled 20 years later. “I don’t know why looking back that it had that effect over me. I just vaguely remember the sound of his guitar and how quick it was, how it meandered like a second vocal around what he was singing.”
Great teacher, poor student
Born and raised in the Isle of Man, Knowles began taking lessons but never warmed to the discipline of them.
“My high school had a good music program, and my teacher was very good and very encouraging,” he said. “He was a very patient man, and I should have been more disciplined about learning to play and learning to read music. But in the folly of youth, I just wanted to be Mark Knopfler or Rory Gallagher or Eric Clapton. I’m sure it would have been beneficial to me to learn more conventionally, but I would still go down and jam with the teachers and my friends, and I know they still taught me a lot during those years. No one is ever completely self-taught.”
Turning that passion into a profession came easily enough. In fact, Knowles says it was never even a conscious decision.
“I stumbled into it with not really a clue about how I was going to do it,” Knowles said. “I just kept following a path. Playing the guitar very quickly became an obsession rather than a pastime, and I just kept booking gigs in the pubs and getting things played on the radio.
“I got into some bands that were formed in my school and playing with bands with people who were older than I was, more my Dad’s age. I played with a blues band and then with a singer-songwriter who was also older than me, and it was a great experience to play that kind of music when I was still only 14 or 15.”
Eventually he hooked up with three other friends to form Back Door Slam, a band that first took Knowles out of his own backyard and into a high-profile situation.
“We got into the Battle of the Bands and started playing at local pubs, doing quite well on the local scene. Then we got a manager, who is still my manager to this day, and after our exams, he suggested we take a gap year. After that we started playing in the States which we did quite a bit for about three years.”
Although gaining notoriety and success, Back Door Slam hit the end of the road, opening the door for Knowles to start his solo career.
“Well, things come to a natural end, and we were all around 21, 22 at the time,” he said. “It was a really difficult decision, but it was an easy one as well.
“In the end, you don’t want to feel trapped, and so the end of the band was very natural in that respect. We had some great tours and a great album, but it was time to try something else.”
Now on his own, Knowles was really able to move from wanting to be Mark Knopfler to being Davy Knowles.
“I’d still would love to be Mark Knopfler,” he laughs. “But the appeal of a creative job like this, musical or otherwise, is the chase of always getting better but never quite getting there. There’s always that constant push that keep you moving forward. It’s a constantly evolving thing.”
While he has recorded three solo albums to date, it’s been a few years since he’s been in the studio. But that should be changing soon.
“I love playing live and touring, more than anything,” he said. “There’s just a rush that I get from it. I’ve been slow to enjoy the studio process, but the last album was the closest thing to playing a live gig in the studio, so I think I might be getting better at it.
“And next week, we’re going to start putting some songs down and definitely record it along those lines. I’m old-fashioned about it and like to have everyone in the room at the same time. I think we’ve lost that human quality in recording.”
Asked how he would describe his show to someone who has never seen him before, his response is straight-forward.
“I’m really crap at selling myself,” he laughed. “But I’d say the show is no-nonsense, without any pretense. It’s just a good old-fashioned rock n’ roll show. We go up there in the clothes that we’d wear normally and play for a couple of hours without any other nonsense going on.”
Knowles is now based in Chicago, something he says happened because he met someone there, making his residency “entirely the fault of my wife.”
But he can certainly catch some great blues performances there, and he enjoys the nearby cities in which he gets to play.
“I always love visiting Fort Wayne,” he said. “It’s a fantastic hotbed for music. And with Sweetwater there and all of the great places to play and musicians in town, it’s just a great place to come to play.”