Published Nov 01, 2011Considering that his retro yet timeless style owes so much to the early rock'n'roll of the '50s and early '60s, it makes perfect sense that Chris Isaak would release an album that pays homage to that pivotal period. Beyond The Sun features Isaak's distinctive croon on classics of that time, tunes made famous by the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. It pays special attention to songs cut at famed Sun Studio in Memphis under rock'n'roll visionary Sam Phillips. Released on Oct. 18 on his new label, Vanguard, and recorded at Sun, Beyond The Sun features one new original, first single "Live It Up," alongside 13 covers. A Deluxe Edition features another ten covers and one original, and a double album vinyl edition of the deluxe package comes out in November. Now a veteran at 55, he retains the good looks that make him a female fan favourite, while his reputation as one of the nicest guys in the biz was reconfirmed by our chat. He punctuated some of his answers by picking up his monogrammed guitar and singing, a cool touch.
We did this ritual once before, a phoner back at the time of "Wicked Game" [Isaak's hit 1991 single]. I see neither of us has a real job yet.
Thank God. We're hanging on to what's left of the record business. A lot of people I know in the business are out of the business, or they're marginal. You know the same people I do. It is strange. You talk to people I call civilians, people who have a steady job. You tell them a lot of people are out of the business, and they go "really." And you look at their record collection and half is stuff they've just ripped. It doesn't occur to them that there really is a guy out there someplace who actually wrote the songs. Me, I've got no complaints. I've done well. I've always had people willing to sign me to a record deal, and I've always toured and had an audience. I do movies and things. I've got work. But there are people who only had the $5,000 they made a year from their songwriting, and that was enough to keep them going. When you cut that out, they have to take a job at the dog grooming place.
Hopefully some writers will benefit from Beyond The Sun.
This album is a labour of love. It's one I've been wanting to do for a long time. I'd always say "How about I do an album of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and so on?" and they'd always go "You're a songwriter. Don't you have songs?"' And I'd go "Sure, I have a whole bunch. I'm always writing. I have songs for the next record already, but I want to record some of these too." It was really fun to make this record. I'm tooting my own horn here, but I'm so proud of my band. When you have a band and you record it with everybody playing in one room, playing together, no headphones, what you hear is one take. I'm singing, I'm playing and we go for it. That is what Sam Phillips did with those guys. Go in there, make it happen, and if it's magical, then we've got it. We don't have to go fix it later. We went in there after doing plenty of homework. We rehearsed, learned songs, worked on stuff. Everybody brings into the room 20 years of bar chops and gigging, but when you came into that room... I looked at the piano player and said "I know you've got a lot to play, but let me just tell you something. As long as you hear me singing good, that's the take."
I visited Sun over 20 years ago. Have they changed it much?
No. It is as it was and getting better, I would say. The people who run it are not only smart but they're cool. Sometimes you'll go to places and they'll have a corporate thing. Like "We can't allow you to use the name Sun without talking to our lawyers. We can't have you take a picture." If you look at the album cover, that's a picture of me standing outside the front door of Sun Studio. I asked if that was OK, and they said "Take pictures wherever you want and use them for anything you want." I was like "That's so damn cool of them." I can't thank them enough, but in a way it's nice that it's going to come back to them. People will hear this record and go "Hey, that's a good-sounding room. I should go record there." Or "I should go visit that room because Elvis and Jerry Lee recorded there."
I imagine you'd made a pilgrimage there earlier on?
I had. Pilgrimage is a good way of saying it. It's a holy land for rock'n'roll. I know they built a rock'n'roll museum in Cleveland, and I'm glad they did, but Cleveland wouldn't have been my first thought of where rock'n'roll started. That would have been in Memphis in Sun Studio. If you ask "Where's the beginning of rock'n'roll?" well, where did Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all get their start? It was this one room. B.B. King played in that room. The list is endless, the talent that walked through that door. It is just a mind-blowing little room with a great big sound. Technically, as a musician, it's a great sounding room. There's a reason people want to go in there. Half the reason is it's a great-sounding room, the other half is that Sam Phillips was great in that he didn't have a clock going on the wall. Everyone else would go "a session is from 1 til 2." He'd go "It's til we find something fun."
Did you sense a vibe in the room?
People ask me that. Carlos Santana always talks about angels and stuff and I always make jokes about that. But maybe Carlos was right and I was just close-minded. I never put things in those terms. I didn't see a spirit, but when you walk into that room it is humbling. You just stop. You go "It started right here." If I had a time machine and I could turn time back, I'd give everything I own. I'm serious, I'd give every penny I own, my house, everything, if I could go back and be standing there watching Elvis come into that room. Wouldn't you want to see the look on his face when he walks in? "I'd like to make a record for my mom" [Isaak sings "evening shadows make me blue" from "My Happiness"]. When you listen to him sing that original one, you go "Holy.. what a voice. So pure." The guitar is all out of tune. He likely had a $20 guitar that had been out in the sun, yet you can hear it. I always say if he'd walked into any other studio in America with any other engineer, they'd either have kicked him out or said "Mmm, that's a great voice. We could turn him into a Southern Dean Martin." They'd have made him that. The genius of Sam Phillips, and I and a lot of people don't have that genius, is he could look at somebody and go "There is something special about you. Instead of trying to cut that off to fit you in a box, I'm going to let you go and find out what that special thing is." The Johnny Cash tunes you hear with his band [he plays that rhythm], that's the backing on most of Johnny Cash's big hits. Any other studio would have said "We'll keep the singer and fire the guitar players." There's a Johnny Cash song I love [sings part of it] and you hear the guitar player get lost, and Johnny taps his mic and goes "key of A, Luther." Those were his buddies, a car repair guy and others who had day jobs and were hoping to be musicians.
Then he hooked up with Scotty Moore
Well, Scotty Moore. I don't often make political proposals, but I propose that ― and I never like taxes ― but I propose that we put a two cent tax on every rock'n'roll record, and those two cents should go right to Scotty Moore's house. Without him there wouldn't be rock'n'roll.
As well as being entertaining, do you think Beyond The Sun, could be educational. To me, these songs are The Great American Songbook.
Those guys may be American, but if you're a kid growing up in Canada or England or Australia. Rock'n'roll belongs to the world. It is youth, it's energy, it's excitement. Yes, it started in Memphis, but I wasn't from Memphis either and it was part of my growing up. I always make a record for selfish reasons, because I love singing these songs. It is so much fun, but it's a cool thing to think there might be some kid who's 15 or 20 and they pick up this record and go "Who's Carl Perkins? Who's Jerry Lee Lewis?" They listen to the songs, think they're good and want to hear the originals and other stuff they did. You'll never go wrong buying a bunch of Jerry Lee records. You're gonna have a ball. If you haven't got them yet I envy you. You're going to have so much fun.
I read you first came across a Sun record when you were boxing in Japan. That shows the international spread.
I remember walking into that record store. I still have that record. It's funny, a lot of things in your life are like important touchstones. My first Silvertone guitar I still have. I got it out of a pawn shop, right next to the boxing gym. I used to look at it every day. And I still have the first tape recorder I got so I could be a songwriter. I was about 13. All my friends were buying footballs. I saved my money and bought a tape recorder. They said "What's wrong with you? Why would you buy a tape recorder and not a basketball or football?" I said "I don't want to play basketball or football as much as I want to write songs." The first Sun record I got out of Japan and because it was Japanese they made Elvis look a little bit Japanese in the painting. He kind of could. He had the black hair, but they made his eyes just a little Japanese.
Did you like the challenge of writing a couple of new songs in the Sun style? I heard them before getting the credits and just thought they were lesser-known Sun gems.
Well thanks. That is high praise, because that was my goal, with the arrangements and everything. I didn't want it to be a jarring moment on the record. I don't know how people listen to music these days. they have so many different ways to do it. They can chop things up, put it in a blender and have one of a million songs come up. But I always imagine people listen the way I do. I put on an album and I let it spin in the background. I might do my homework or the dishes or clean or wash the car or make love. If it's good for all those activities, that's a great record. It should never have a bump, where you go good song, good song, ooh bad song, I don't like it. I never like records where somebody makes a joke in the middle, like "I hope you guys like this one." After you hear it 20 times it wears thin.
Is this the first record you've totally produced by yourself?
No, I did a Christmas record. I'd never have the guts to produce something if I wasn't working with Mark Needham, the engineer. I really trust him. You need somebody on the other side of the glass if you're going to produce and sing. I've worked with him my whole career. Such a talented guy. If you know somebody looking for a guy to make a record with, you could no better than him.
In your official discography, what number album is this?
To be honest, I lose count. I think I'm past ten. When I started off, I thought "I just hope I can get to three records." Finally my producer said "Why are you worried about three records? You're going to have a long career, with many records." I said "I know, but if you get to three records and get hit by a bus, then you've got a box set."
Do you take pride in having a large body of work now?
Yes, but I just want it to be of good records. I'm proud that I don't have any records out there I'm ashamed of. Nothing where I go "Oh god, my disco attempt. Or the one where I rapped."
To me, a benefit of your timeless sound is that it doesn't sound dated.
It doesn't sound dated to me. The songs we play were never in style and they're never going to be out of style. I never tried to jump on a trend. I remember hearing bands of a certain moment and with a certain sound, and people said "Why not put that effect on your guitar?" or have your keyboard player run around with a keytar?' I said "I don't like keytars or synth drums." I did have one thing I guess you could call a synth drum. Remember Mattel made a toy drum. I bought one and used it for a kick drum, but I played brushes and snares on "Unhappiness," a real early track. I played it once live, getting that snare sound, and my producer at the time, Erik, said "Want to do another take?" I said "I can't, I broke the snare and wrecked the drums, cos I was hitting so hard." That's the kind of drummer I'd be.
When you started out, people called your sound retro and had all the Elvis and Orbison comparisons. That bother you?
I thought it was where I was coming from, but that that was kind of reductive. I worked very hard to write my own tunes and I think the melodies and changes I was making weren't rockabilly changes. I was using a lot of different chords. I didn't fit in that genre. But most of the people saying that weren't record reviewers or the music people. It'd be like the 7 O'clock news shows, who had 20 seconds to assess you and they'd go "He looks like Elvis." That would be their take. I had to dodge that for a while, or else explain to them "No, it's not me doing Elvis. I look a little alike, but I do my own music."
You pleased at the peer respect you've gained, as when Sam Phillips singled you out as one of his favourites?
Sam Phillips meant everything to me. I can't find a person with more credibility. When I read quotes of things he'd said, and when I saw him talking to a bunch of kids that someone had filmed. A mixed group of black and white kids, and he said "Any time you kids spend making music is time that is never wasted." That's true. So much time spent as a kid is watching TV or playing games on your computer is wasted. Chasing girls maybe not so. That's part of growing up. When you are making music it is never wasted. And I love his quote about Howling Wolf, "Where the soul of a man never dies." He was really looking for something. That music meant something to him, it took him to another place. Maybe 'cos of guys like him, a lot of the segregation and racism we had, it helped more than a bag full of politicians.
I think you did Sam Phillips proud.
I hope so. A lot of it is with his memory in mind. I was one month away from meeting with him. We had a meeting set up. I always thought we'd have got along really well.
A quick final question. I know you shot your TV series The Chris Isaak Show in Vancouver for four years. Feel part-Canadian after that?
I had a great time. I have a lot of Canadian friends. I'm an American who knows what a toque is [laughs]. My bass player still lives in Vancouver. I was just up there visiting him.