"With him?" Mark Knopfler seemed amused about us coming along for an interview with engineer and producer Chuck Ainlay at Mark's British Grove Studios in Chiswick, London. Mark predicts it will only take two minutes. Of course, he knows that Chuck has more to say than that. The charming way Chuck and Mark wind each other up about their age and their time in the business shows their natural connection, which has been growing since the last years of Mark's band, Dire Straits, in the early '90s. Besides the Dire Straits releases On Every Street and On The Night, Chuck is probably best known for mixing and co- producing all of Mark's solo records. When we came by, they were mixing Mark's latest release, the double album Privateering, at the well-equipped British Grove.
What got you involved in engineering in the first place?
Chuck Ainlay: Like most people's story, I was a terrible musician but I love music. [laughs] I listened to music, always thinking about it and looking at the back covers. I kept my head inside the speakers all the time. In the band I was the guy who seemed gifted at getting the PA working. I went to Indiana University, and there was a studio in town that had a six-month recording program that I went to. I wanted to get into the studio somehow, but I grew up in a little farm town. There weren't schools for it there. I dropped out of the university and was going to go back home, get in another band and work in a factory. My dad had a client come in that said his son found out about a school in Nashville, so I went down there. Belmont University was the first to come up with a four-year BA program in Music Business. I lasted about two years; then I got a job and one thing led to another. When I got to Nashville I realized how bad a musician I was! There are so many great musicians there. If I wanted to be in the business, I figured I'd better concentrate on engineering.
I remember there was a story of how you got to work with Dire Straits on the On Every Street record. You got a call and didn't take it seriously?
CA: Oh yeah. I was mixing some terrible dance thing, and we were quite behind schedule. There was a lot of pressure. I got this phone call and it sounded like someone with a fake accent saying, "We'd like you to come and work with Dire Straits." I thought it was a friend of mine playing a prank. I said, "I don't have time for this" and hung up. [laughs] When I got home, my wife said, "The manager for Dire Straits called!" My heart sank. I thought I had blown it. Luckily he called back the next day and we made arrangements. I came over here [London] and didn't know anybody. They were the biggest band in the world at the time. I came from the whole Nashville scene, and of course Mark was very into that. But, at the same time, this was a rock-and-roll album.
He got you to bring the Nashville edge to it, along with Paul Franklin on the pedal steel guitar.
CA: Yeah, I think so. Mark's always been amazing that way, feeling trends before they happen. Even with the early Dire Straits stuff, Mark was ahead of the game. I don't think he thinks about it.
What should a project bring to the table to get you interested in it? Obviously with Dire Straits it was a great name and a great artist; but how about an unknown band approaching you?
CA: I'll take a call from an indie band, or some folk artist. It's really that I love music and I try to bring my best to everything I do. Generally, I wouldn't want to be involved with something that was a programmed recording. I literally can't stand it. When the tempo is so strict to the click because it's all programmed, it all feels like it's in a box. I don't get anything from that, and there are lots of better engineers for doing that kind of thing. You can take a recording with live, real instruments and take it to a grander landscape — that's me, that's what I do. I wouldn't say that I'm ideal for every project; but no matter what it is, I always try and do my best. Even if I think the material's not that great, I'm always going to find ways to make myself better. You can learn from anything. You have to keep working. You have to always stay involved in recording to stay sharp and stay on top. Sometimes it's where you did a recording. You'll pull it up and think, "This is terrible." And because it's terrible, you have to try and go really extreme with things. You can...