Q&A: Chris Isaak
Calling him a cult artist would be selling him short, but Chris Isaak will likely continue to fill music venues with fans of his custom brand of roots rock as long as he wants to. Already possessing a devoted following when “Wicked Game” became a Top 10 hit in 1991, Isaak became a star easily recognizable for his Orbison-esque croon, Elvis coif and stylish stage presence. His 2015 recording First Comes the Night rekindles his vintage sound without recycling past material, as attendees of his July 30 show at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel will be able to attest. He spoke recently with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
First Comes the Night is a great album. Got me to slow down and use my ears for a change. It was an aural pleasure.
Thank you. I love giving aural pleasure … wait, that didn’t sound right.
I walked right into that one.
It’s really fun when you finish your record. You don’t listen to your own records much. I will hear my own music—I’ll hear it on the radio or I’ll hear somebody else playing it someplace—and it’s fun when you hear it later. You work on it, you write it, and a year later you hear it on the radio. You could be in a store and you’ll hear it. It’s kind of fun.
I don’t think people realize once you’ve recorded something you’ve heard it so much that you almost can’t listen to it anymore.
Well, when I’m done recording, not that I’m sick of it or anything because I’ll play songs that I play every night, but it’s that when I go home I don’t pick up my guitar and play “Wicked Game” because I already wrote that song. I usually pick up my guitar and I’ll start writing a new song. I’m always working on the next album, but it is fun once in a while to listen to something I haven’t listen to in a while. “Oh, that’s how I make those chord changes.” (laughs)
I’ll bet you listened to your Sun Records homage (2011’s Beyond the Sun) after you were done recording a little more than most of your albums.
That one was really fun to record. If I just was goofing around at my house … usually when I play guitar at home I’ll go sit in the hall and the stairway, and I’ll sit on the stairway because it sounds good. It always sounds good in stairways because you have a big open space. Funny, when I bought my house the real estate lady was showing my the house and she says “Blah, blah, blah, this would be nice for this, you can entertain in this lovely room.” And I said, “No, I don’t entertain.” I never have people over for parties and stuff. I thought, “When I entertain, it’s on the stage.” And then she talked for a minute, and then I started singing. She looked at me like, “What is he doing?” And I’m just sitting there going (sings) “I’ll never let you go-o, ’cause I love you … yeah, it sounds nice in here.”
I’ve read that you spend a lot of time by yourself. It’s not surprising that you go home and pick up your guitar for companionship.
The main thing I do—A lot of people go, “What do you do in your time off?” and I go … I’m talking to you now and there’s one guitar, two guitars, three guitars, four guitars. They’re just all around me. That’s just sitting in my bedroom. I’ve got four, five guitars within 6 feet of me. I love playing, you know?
Which guitar are you most likely to pick up at home at any given time? I know you like your white Gretsch and you’re often pictured with a Gibson acoustic that has “Chris Isaak” written above the sound hole.
The ones I’ve got here are Gibsons. I’ve always been playing Gibsons. I’ve got four Gibsons and one Epiphone. My first guitar was an Epiphone that I bought when I was 14, 15. I’m looking at it, and it’s got holes worn in it. The face of the guitar, just from fingering it, it’s got holes in it. That’s what you want. You want to wear out guitars, you know? You don’t want to just leave them in a box.
That reminds me of Willie Nelson’s guitar. Is your guitar on its way to becoming a Willie?
It’s on the way. It’s got holes like that. The only difference is Willie can play. God, he’s a great guitarist. I like his style. You know something? I always think of myself as a lousy guitar player, but I think, you know, give me another 20 or 30 years and I might get better.
(Laughs) I was really glad, on your latest album, to have discovered your keyboardist. I’m a Scott Plunkett fan now.
Scott, I can’t say enough about what a great guy he is. If anybody ever got lucky and found a musician … you know, when we started our band we were a four-piece. We didn’t have a keyboardist, and when we found Scott I said to somebody it was like a football team that drafted and they got the guy that makes you go “Oh my God, we got the best running guy. We just increased our game.” He can write, he can sing, he can play. He plays B-3 (Hammond organ) like a champ. He can play boogie-woogie like a champ. He can play jazz. You can give him anything Most of all what blows my mind is the guy is so good, but if you give him a piece of music he goes back and works on it. He’s good enough that he can fake anything, but if you say, “I want to try this song” he’ll come back the next day—he’s got notes and charts worked out. He’s spent five hours working with it.
You can hear his contributions throughout the album but he really shines on “Runnin’ Down the Road.”
Oh, that’s fun. He tears that one up. We play that live a lot of times. I love hearing him just nail that. It’s funny because when I wrote that song, I wrote that on piano. I usually don’t write much on piano myself because I’m a lousy piano player, but I wrote that on piano and I showed it to Scotty and I said, “Here’s what I have in mind.” It was a one, then he played it and it was a 10. I really have the right band. Some people have bands and they don’t get along with each other or one guy in the band wants it to be a fusion band or country, but I think everyone in my band, we like the music we play, we like putting on shows. We like going onstage. Nobody stands there looking at their shoes during the show. Every night we go out and look forward to it. You know they’re good guys if, after 30 years, you still look forward to 500-mile bus rides because you can talk.
The camaraderie comes through in live footage, particularly with your drummer. You guys are in lockstep when you play.
My drummer Kenny got sick. He got leukemia a few years back. And not there’s a happy ending because he whooped it, but when I first heard that news, when he first told me, he left me a message. We see each other every day, all the time. Always on the road, even promoting. When we’re not playing or promoting, we’re working in the studio. So we see each other all the time, and when we have a week off we don’t go fishing every day. He’s got his wife and his friends to see, too, so here we have time off and I get this message: “I really need to talk to you.” I’m going, “What the hell? Must be asking for a raise,” you know? And he calls me and he says, “I’ve got leukemia.” Man, I just about went to the floor. When I got it, of course, I was just terrified for him and worried about him, and he took it like Gary Cooper in a movie. “It’s just a scratch.” It makes you realize, when one of your friends might really be sick, you realize how much they mean to you. I spend more time with him, I spend more time with my drummer, than anybody in the world.
You’ve got good chemistry with him, and his vocals are great, too.
He’s a great harmony singer, we finish each other’s sentences; we know each other’s stories. I told him one time, “You could do an interview for me over the phone. You know all the answers.” (laughs)
It sounds really cohesive even though you worked with separate songwriters and producers on different tracks. Do you attribute that to Nashville itself, or was there a master producer for the record?
Well, I’m there for everything and I produce a little bit, but the reason I think it holds together is that some things become an identifying sound. You hear my voice, you hear my guys playing. I wrote or co-wrote the songs, so that kind of holds it together. But I mean, we got lucky. I worked with two new producers I haven’t worked with and both of them are … I love those guys. Dave Cobb is a hot new producer out of Nashville. I didn’t really know he’s a hot new producer. Somebody just said, “You should talk to him.” And I talked to him and I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to like this guy. Let’s see.” I met him and he’s got fairly long hair, a beard, wearing a Levi’s jacket. We meet up and we started talking, and I played him bits of songs. Every idea that he had, I liked. I just went, “Oh my God, this guy’s right on the money.”
It made me want to seek out more work by him and Paul Worley, your other producer. They managed to make an amazing sounding record.
Dave is just, you’ve got to work to keep up with him. Not only is he a great musician, he’s just … I don’t use the word “genius,” but I think he has a genius for what he does. He can come up with ideas, he can come up with arrangements, he can play the instruments, he can get in there and work with the people and get better performances out of people. Great producer, really made it fun to record with him. And then we also worked with Paul Worley. I’d be in Nashville and I’d borrow Dave’s truck, and we’d drive from one studio to the other, back and forth, and I’d be singing in both studios some days. And Paul Worley, he’s done Lady Antebellum and he’s had big hits and stuff, but what was really impressive about Paul Worley is he’s been at it a long time and he has all the passion right there. You can tell he loves to go to work.
I read about his attention to detail and suggestions to you during recording.
I did a show in Australia. I was like a judge on X Factor, and some of the kids over there had been going into the studio to record something with some guy who was a producer. And I thought, “They are producers, and they’re good producers, but I wish they could meet Paul Worley and Dave Cobb, and they’d see that there’s like a whole other world. There’s people that are amazing, that can make your performance really better. They don’t just turn on a microphone. They direct you.
What songs have people been responding to at concerts?
We do stuff that’s kind of upbeat, like a Jerry Lee Lewis sound. “Runnin’ Down the Road” is a new one people like that we do. “Down in Flames” people like. “Reverie” … we end the night sometimes with one of mine, “The Way Things Really Are.” That’s something I know people wouldn’t expect me to throw in. It’s kind of a quiet song about a love affair. It works really nice and it’s always one of my favorite moments of the night. I get to sing something I really like, I really believe it. I love that song and I love the way it sounds live. I love my job. A lot of people have to go to work and they don’t like what they do. I get to go to work and look forward to it. This band’s been together, the same guys, 30-something years, and knock on wood, I’ve never missed a day’s work. I must like it.