Chris Isaak

Sun Worship
Chris Isaak
Isaak working on his new album at Sun Studios, surrounded by images – and the vibe – of some of his most vital musical heroes.

Most pop-music fans became aware of Chris Isaak through his 1991 hit “Wicked Game” and its uber-high-profile video, directed by famed photographer Herb Ritts and featuring the singer/guitarist gettin’ all From Here to Eternity with supermodel Helena Christensen. Musically, the moody track – with Calvin Wilsey’s memorable reverb-infused guitar lick – not only put Isaak on the pop-music map, but kept him there perpetually via “appearances” in film and on TV programs and commercials. With its basic, brushed-snare-drum beat, laid-back melody, clean single-note/arpeggiated-chord guitar solo (rendered via Fender Stratocaster and a blackface amp with reverb), and classic torch vocals, the song had a deep throwback feel. But for Isaak, it was simply true to form, and reflected the deep influence of early rock-and-roll performers, many of whom emerged from Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in the 1950s. Isaak’s new album, Beyond the Sun, moves from being simply influenced by his predecessors to a straight-up tribute, spurred by a comment Phillips made in an interview more than a decade ago. Asked by Oxford American if any contemporary recording artists grabbed his attention, Phillips replied, “I don’t keep up with the business like I used to. But I love to listen to Chris Isaak. He’s very talented, and his music is so damned honest. It’s incredible.” Isaak was blown away by such praise from a man he idolized, and he calls Beyond the Sun – which was recorded at Sun – a “labor of love.” The affection traces to his childhood, when he and his brother became obsessed with music being made by Phillips and the artists he mentored. Isaak took the phone call from VG as he ran through a few chords on a guitar. The first question was obvious…

What are you strumming on?

Ummm, it’s a “Los Lauriars” or something – a half-size guitar a little bigger than a baritone ukulele… nylon-string. I got it years ago when I traveled all the time, and I’d put it in the overhead or in the back of the van or whatever. I actually have a nicer one now – a half-pint version of a Gibson J-200 made in the ’60s. The J-200 I play onstage has my name across the top in mother of toilet seat (pearloid), and I wanted the little guitar to have the same thing – they look like father and son! Lefty Frissell did something like that, but on a pink pickguard, which was really cool. I want to do that sometime. And I’ve seen a version of Johnny Cash inlaid on the neck, but I’d never fool with the neck. When they put me in a box or something, then somebody can pry my letters off and keep playing (laughs)!

Beyond The Sun is an ode to some of the music you heard as a child, much of which was recorded at Sun Records in Memphis. What prompted you?

The songs I picked were all by artists who got their start at Sun, recording for Sam Phillips, the famed producer who worked with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis… He also recorded guys like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. That’s a great bunch to pick from, and on the album I do some songs they recorded at Sun and some stuff they did later, like Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and later Elvis stuff like “It’s Now or Never.” Some people don’t know it, but Sun is really a simple studio. Like you walk in and the first 10 feet is a room to keep the sound off the street; that’s the office. Then there’s another door, and then there’s like a 25-by-20 room with a high ceiling – that’s the studio. And in the back is a little room just big enough to swing a cat – that’s the control room. It’s just awesome.

What do you recall about your earliest exposure to music?

I remember as a kid, my older brother putting records on our player – one of those that looked like a little suitcase, with two little speakers about the size of a Kleenex box. It was funky-sounding, but we thought we were very hi-fi, because it played in stereo! My brother would put on Jerry Lee Lewis rock-and-roll songs before we went to school. My parents had a great record collection – Johnny Cash, a bunch of Elvis. In fact, the first thing I did when I finished this record was take a mock-up of the artwork, put the album inside, and take it to my parents, because it was a thank-you to them. They never said to me, “Hey, get a real job.” Maybe because we came from a funky enough background – we didn’t have connections or money or anything like that, so it wasn’t like we were gonna go downhill! It wasn’t like, “Why aren’t you going to be a lawyer like your father?” It was like “Hey, good for you, you’re staying out of jail…” (laughs)!

Nowhere to go but up?

You know, I think my parents were really proud that I went to college, got a scholarship, and was boxing as a light heavyweight for Aoyama Gakuin University, in Tokyo. When I was over there, I discovered another Sun sessions album; I went, “This what I want to do. I want to sing.” I didn’t know at the time, if you had asked me, “Are you gonna become famous? Are you gonna travel the world?,” I would have looked at you like, “Uh, yeahhh.”

Isaak early in his career with his Silvertone model 1384 guitar (and 1484 amp in the background).

Were you comfortable with your singing voice?

It wasn’t a matter if I thought I was good or not. It was more like… (chuckles) it was like sex; it didn’t matter, it was just so much fun. And I’d sing all the time. Actually, my older brother was better; people would always say, “You can sing good, but your brother really can sing.” So it was competitive, you know?

What about guitars?

My first guitar was a Checkmate, and I remember it well; it was a really cheesy nylon-string, and on the headstock was a piece of metal, stamped and screwed on – it looked like the knight chess piece. I had that guitar for years, then after I got a better one, I lent it to my friend, Anthony Franks. He was a great guy, but he lost it! I went, “Lesson learned.” Never lend a guitar. You lend it, it’s gone. Anthony’s a great guy, and a straight arrow.

Has he been apologizing ever since?

Nah. We were kids. You borrow stuff and people move, things change.

What was your next guitar?

I graduated to a much better guitar – a Silvertone! I got the hollowbody one, which I still have. It came with futuristic-looking pickups, a single cutaway, not real big and fat… it’s kind of like the precursor to the Gretsch 6120. I went, “Wow! Now I’m getting professional.”

How old were you at the time?

Probably 19.

What kind of music were you playing?

Well, on guitar, it was funny because… You know, I always loved this music and really, it’s easy for me to sing that style – it comes naturally. And later, when I read about the people those Sun Records artists were listening to at the time, in some odd way they were the same ones I listened to growing up – Hank Williams, Earnest Tubb, Gene Autry – guys from three generations back. And later, when I heard Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d go, “I hear some Gene Autry in it.” Or I’d hear a song by Elvis and go, “Oh, that’s a Hank Snow song.” When I started out, I thought, “Man, if I could be as big as Hank Snow…” I still wish I could be as good as Hank Snow or Lefty Frissell. Then, when I heard Elvis from his Sun sessions, I went, “Wow! This put a little more youth into Hank’s stuff.” It had a little more kick – took it off the farm and brought it to the city a little. And then there’s the guitar playing by Scotty Moore, who I believe should get paid for every record. Without Scotty Moore, we’d all be sweeping streets (laughs)!

All of your Sun heroes had heavy-hitter guitar players. Do you have favorites amongst them?

Oh, yeah. For example, my favorite guitar players ever were represented very well on Beyond The Sun. Scotty Moore, of course, who you just can’t give enough credit to – without Scotty, you might not have Sam Phillips. What if Elvis had walked into a different studio with different people – maybe somewhere that wouldn’t have seen the talent and maybe said, “Hey, let’s put a string section behind this kid and we’ll have a Southern Dean Martin.” And they would have cut two or three albums, maybe had a regional hit. You know what I mean? But when you add Scotty Moore with all those riffs, it was obviously something new. Scotty’s a big part of it. Elvis was part of a band, it wasn’t just him. He had a great producer and a great guitar player. I don’t know what the odds are for that. I’ve been lucky, and I’ll take my life over Elvis’. I’ve lived longer, I’ve had great friends, and my band is great – I’ve been with them for 26 years and they’re really fun guys. But when a guy walks into a studio and the first guy you see says, “Here’s your producer, Sam Phillips. Here’s your guitar player, Scotty Moore. Bill Black on bass.” You just go, “Huh?!” That’s what you call lightning striking.

A whole lotta luck.

All at one time!

Luther Perkins and Johnny Cash had a similar story…

Oh, I love Luther Perkins (sings “I’m all alone, alone and blue. I’ve go no one to tell my troubles to.”) And all of a sudden he stops the instruments and goes, “Key of A, Luther.” I’m dying! And there’s another one for Sam Phillips; so many guys would have walked in with that and said, “We want the singer, but let’s use our session guys.” And we would’ve lost the coolness of his sound. I mean, his records are so cool because they’re so simple. There was another great player represented on this record, and he actually sat in and gave us some insight on some of the songs – Roland Janes. It was so much fun to hang with him; he’s hilarious – a gentleman and a really nice guy. He played on all those Jerry Lee Lewis records; think about being the guitar player with Jerry Lee Lewis – maybe the world’s best piano player. That’s a hard road, you know what I mean? Yet, he doesn’t have a bit of ego in him. He’s smart, and his choices on the guitar are like (sighs)… My god! I was talking to James Burton, and I said, “James, why don’t you teach me somethin’?” He goes, “I’ll teach ya somethin’. When in doubt, play out,” (laughs)! And it’s hilarious, but it’s true. And Roland is the guy who has enough ego control that he doesn’t start endlessly noodling. He lets the song breathe. And he plays understated. Yet you listen to him play, and there’s such passion. It’s so perfect. And nobody sounds like him. Man, he plays some stuff. I told Hershel Yatovitz, my guitar player, who’s damn good, “I listen, but I can’t figure out what he’s doing.” Hershel goes, “I can figure out what he’s doin’, but I can’t do it.” It’s his feel – so sophisticated it sounds simple. But it isn’t. Anyway, Roland was there. And when I introduced Hershel to him, I said, “Uh, Hershel… meet Roland Janes,” and his eyes went wide and he said, “Oh, my god. I’m sorry, but I’ve been hearing your name a million times – every time we play something, he goes, you gotta listen to Roland Janes.” And he was right – I’d always told him that!

You’ve worked with Hershel for what, 15 years?

A long time. I mean, since the Dead Sea was sick! He was clean-shaven when he started!

What does he bring to your music?

He is the man for the job in this band. Nobody could do what he does. If you think about what we do live; I might ask him one minute to play, “Forgot to Remember to Forget,” where he’ll be comping a part kind of like Scotty Moore, then I’ll ask him to play a part he made up, then I’ll ask him on the next song to be jammin’ on something we’re making up that night, then I’ll ask him to play something from a record we did 15 or 16 years ago. And they have a lot of different sounds. Most guitar players have one sound or thing, but Hershel can play a lot of styles, with lot of different sounds. He’s got his own style, which I like very much – it’s very pretty. He’s a pretty, melodic player. And he’s a good showman, too. On top of all that, if I tell Hershel, “I wrote this song, and I want to record it tomorrow. Can you come up with a part tonight?,” it’s done. But sometimes what blows my mind is, I’ll say, “Hey, listen to this record. What’s this guy playing? Can you learn that?” Twenty minutes later, he’ll play it for me, flawlessly. What might take me all night to learn, Hershel learns in 10 seconds. I played with Michelle Branch on this Buddy Holly special; I spent all night learning the riff for (sings) “Heartbeat, why do you….” And I wasn’t gonna play it, but I just wanted to see if I could learn it, right? It took me a long time; I’m a lousy guitar player. Well, I like to play rhythm, that’s my thing. I play leads a couple times a night because it’s so different. Anyway, it took me all night, but Hershel learned it in seconds.

Isaak with his preferred guitar – a Gibson J-200.

Then, at the show, Waddy Wachtel was the guitar player that night, and Waddy and I played together – Waddy is so good. Anyway, we started to play and I said, “No, Waddy. Play it like the record.” And he goes, “Chris, I learned 20 songs today…” I go, “Wait, I know it.” And I played it for him, and I got lucky and played it right. That never happens (laughs)! When I finished, I looked around, because everybody in the band stopped while I was playing the riff, and Waddy’s listening; I said, “Did anybody film that? Me teaching Waddy Wachtel something.” He laughed. Really, though, I couldn’t carry one of his strings. He’s amazing.

Do you have a favorite guitar amongst those you play regularly?

Yeah, Gibson J-200. My house is like the Stevie Ray Vaughan video for “Cold Shot,” where his girlfriend would take his guitar away, but he’d pull out another one. There was a guitar behind the couch, behind the door, under the chair… The first time I saw that, I laughed and said, “That’s my house!” My ex used to say, “How come you got a guitar everywhere?” And I said, “You never know when you might want to play one!” (laughs). But the J-200 is ubiquitous. I don’t think there’s a finer guitar; Gibson guitars are my favorite, by far. The acoustics… I’ve sang with Martins and they’re nice – they’re brighter – but a Gibson is warm from top to bottom, a big, full sound. To me, it’s just thrilling. I sit in my hallway or on the stairway because there’s good echo, and sing with the J-200. It’s like I’m in heaven.

How about electric guitars? Do you have any that you like better than others?

I played a little show once – I think it was for iTunes – where they said, “Bring a guitar.” I thought, “I’ll bring an electric.” So I brought a funky little Silvertone amp and a little echo box, with my blond ’56 Super 400 (laughs)! Talk about overkill! People are looking at me like, “Uh huh… That’s a nice guitar.” I go, “Yes, it is. You have no idea!” Some people think you shouldn’t play that sort of stuff outside the house. But you know, I’m never going to sell this stuff. And it only comes out boots first!

How many ’50s and ’60s guitars do you have?

My guitar collection isn’t that big, money-wise. I’m not somebody who has them all lined up goes, “This is my blond ’49, this is my…” They’re not all organized and they’re not all perfect. If you took all my guitars there’s probably not that expensive of a collection. ’Cause I’ll have guitars in there that… I’ve got a red Hagstrom from the ’60s. And it’s funky, but it’s a great sound for certain things. I’ve got an Italian guitar with a plastic body, and it’s got microphonic pickups. My bass player gave it to me; he said, “I know you like these kind of things.” It was kind of a joke, but of course I brought it to the studio and recorded with it and went, “Oh my god, it doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve heard. I like this!” Making the new album, Hershel was playing the Super 400 for a lot of the Scotty kind of stuff, and at one point we were playing an old blues tune and man, it sounded good. But it didn’t sound funky enough. But there was this little practice guitar laying in the studio that people would use to pose for pictures or write their name on. It had funky strings, it wasn’t intonated very well, and the nut was rattling and everything else. I said, “Play this track on that one.” He picked it up and he goes, “But it’s out of tune, and it rattles.” I go, “Perfect!” And of course, because his playing is so good and that guitar was so bad, together it sounds like all those blues guys. Those guys were playing million-dollar riffs on $20 guitars! Me, not being that great a player, I’ll take a great guitar like the Gibsons. Plus, when you’re at home playing a Hagstrom and it slips out of tune, it’s no big deal. You just tune it and keep going. But when you’re onstage… that’s a problem. There’s a reason I’m playing a Gibson through a Fender blackface Twin. It’s like driving a Chevy – you can get parts anywhere, and it always starts. And I always liked Gretsch guitars, but onstage, they didn’t hold up as well for me.

They keep you a little busier…

Yes. Brian Setzer gave me a Gretsch, it was just beautiful – and what a class act he is. I’ll never play it as good as he does, but he cracked me up because he’s so into it – such a guitarhead, and motorhead. He said, “Yeah, these are good ones because the top of this guitar is only this thick, they used to make them thicker, but this one’s thin.” I’m goin’, “Yeah, okay… It’s red!” (laughs) and I like it. It sure is nice, Brian!

This article originally appeared in VG January 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

No posts to display