Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An interview with Chris Isaak

courtesy Vanguard Records
A version of my interview originally appeared at

Once musicians make their initial visit to Sun Studio, it’s like finding the Holy Grail. Just ask Chris Isaak, who had a concert tour bus driver go to 706 Union Ave. – an address he’d memorized - while passing through Memphis years ago. 

“It was three in the morning. My drummer and I got out, stood there and had a very stilted, quiet conversation because both of us were in awe,” recalled the singer/guitarist, in a phone interview from home in San Francisco.

Commonly called “the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll,” the small recording facility is where producer Sam Phillips first oversaw sessions by (and in many cases, discovered) Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and others during the 1950s. 

“If you could take a time machine and go back, thinking of everyone who’s gone through that door just makes you stop in your tracks,” marveled Isaak, 55. 

Best known for the pop single “Wicked Game,” which reached Billboard’s top 10 in 1990, Isaak has had several CDs (“Heart Shaped World”, “Forever Blue,” “San Francisco Days,” “Baja Sessions”) go gold or platinum over the past quarter century. He has also acted in feature films (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “That Thing You Do!,” “Married to the Mob,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”) and done TV work (“The Chris Isaak Show,” “Friends,” “Ed,” “Wiseguy”). 

When the opportunity came to return to the Memphis studio and record an album that pays homage to his Sun inspirations, Isaak jumped at the chance. The idea was a no-brainer, since the sharp dressed musician favors reverb-drenched, roots rock music. 

“It was the most fun I’ve had making a record, by far,” he enthused. “I sing this stuff at sound checks all the time. People haven’t heard me because they hear my records, but when I’m home, I don’t pick up a guitar and play my own songs: I either write something new or I’m singing Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis or Johnny Cash tunes.” 

The solid new collection “Beyond the Sun” finds Isaak and his veteran backing band paying homage to Sun artists with faithful arrangements of hits like “Great Balls of Fire,” “She’s Not You” and “Ring of Fire.”

Vocalist Michelle Branch, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Cowboy Jack Clement (a producer/engineer/songwriter in the early Sun period) also lent a hand. “These songs come second nature and are a big influence on me,” noted Isaak. 

While Presley popularized songs are well represented (“Trying to Get to You,” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” “My Happiness”), Isaak also covers lesser known selections (Perkins’ “Dixie Fried,” Jimmy Wages’ “Miss Pearl”). Howlin’ Wolf’s “Everybody’s in the Mood,” The King-associated “Love Me” and “Doncha’ Think It’s Time” are among the material on the deluxe edition. 

During “I Walk the Line,” Isaak, who can break into a marvelous falsetto voice at any moment, sings in what is probably his lowest register since “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.” 
“That’s the lowest it goes, boy.” 

Upbeat Isaak original “Live it Up” is in the same vein as the classics. The track came quickly for the songwriter a day after telling the band they needed a “real straight ahead Chuck Berry rock beat,” because “everything was either a shuffle or stripper” rhythm [he demonstrates both]. “I finished it between the time I jumped out of bed, got shaved and went to band practice.” Disc 2 contains Isaak’s own “Lovely Loretta.” 

“I wanted to suck people in to loving this music as much as I do,” said Isaak. “If I made it all obscure - which I could do easy because I [dig] so much” of the Sun catalog, then “people won’t get it. That’s why it’s titled ‘Beyond the Sun.’ People can hear ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ or ‘It’s Now or Never’ and see these guys’ [careers] all started with Sam Phillips and this is where the music went.” 

Ideally, he envisions a scenario where some teenager enters an independent record store, comes across his album and eventually gets turned on to the original versions. “If it makes people discover this music, then my job is done.” 

Next month, Isaak will be seen on PBS performing Buddy Holly’s “Crying Waiting Hoping” during “Listen to Me.” The all star concert special was filmed two months ago in LA to commemorate the same-titled Holly tribute album put out by Verve Forecast. (Other participants from the collection who appeared live include Stevie Nicks, Lyle Lovett, Cobra Starship and Patrick Stump).

Isaak chose the forlorn ballad “Hoping,” a longtime fave, then“took it back to what the words were” for the tribute album. “If you just broke up with someone and put that on, you’re going to cry like a baby.”

Although Holly’s widow Mary Elena was in attendance, Isaak said he was more apprehensive about singing it with Phil Everly “sitting 15 feet in front of me. I’m so nuts about the Everly Brothers. I think they’re the greatest harmony singers of all time.”

Fans headed to the upcoming shows can look forward to a mix of Isaak’s radio hits, Sun tracks and possibly some holiday songs from 2004’s “Christmas.”

“I’m a big believer in giving the people what they want to hear; that’s how I stay in business...My piano player is so good. We got an upright piano. I love that it blows smoke out of the top and flames. It’s so corny and hilarious, but it’s awesome. I don’t think there’s any symphony orchestra in the world that can compete with us.”

Upcoming tour dates:

11/23 Santa Rosa, CA   Wells Fargo Center For The Arts
11/25 Thousand Oaks, CA   Fred Kavli Theatre
11/26 Solana Beach, CA   Belly Up Tavern
11/27 Anaheim, CA   City National Grove Of Anaheim
11/30  Honolulu, HI   Blaisdell Concert Hall
12/1 Kahului, HI   Maui Arts & Cultural Center
12/06   Ashland, KY      Paramount Arts Center
12/08 Flint, MI      Flint Cultural Center
12/09 Carmel, IN      The Palladium
12/10 Skokie, IL      North Shore Ctr. For The Perf. Arts
12/11 Louisville, KY Louisville Palace Theatre
12/14 Allentown, PA Allentown Symphony Hall
12/15 Tarrytown, NY The Tarrytown Music Hall
12/16 Collingswood, NJ   Scottish Rite Auditorium
12/19 Alexandria, VA Birchmere

No comments: