Thursday, October 6, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE interview with CHRIS ISAAK!

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     Memphis-based DJ and music fan Sam Phillips launched his Sun Records label in 1952, initially focusing on Blues and Rhythm & Blues artists. While the label didn’t score any huge hits for the first few years, their luck changed in 1954 when a young man named Elvis Presley walked through the door. From that moment, Rock ‘n’ Roll music as we know it was born. Add some Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison to the mix and you’ve got the most influential label of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era.
     Some 30 years later, 1985 to be exact, a young man named Chris Isaak released his debut album, Silvertone. While he may have looked, at the time, like the latest entry in a long-line of Rockabilly artists, one listen to the album was proof that this singer, songwriter and guitarist was much more than a Retro-billy throwback: Isaak had depth, charm and a heartbreaking beauty in his voice and songs. More Elvis and Roy than Johnny, Carl and Jerry, Isaak’s music was heavily influenced but not dictated by the sound of Sun Records. His melodies were timeless, the arrangements were simple and the production did not carry the weight of ‘80s studio trickery. Isaak, like those Sun artists that influenced him, was the real deal.
     Since then, Chris Isaak has continued to travel his own path, taking his influences with him but always staying true to his own musical vision, which seemed to incorporate numerous genres. Scoring a huge hit with “Wicked Game” in the early ‘90s, the sudden brush with fame lifted Isaak into the spotlight, a place where he has seldom strayed ever since. From rapturously received tours to critically-adored albums, and even the odd acting gig and TV series in between, Isaak has continued to perfect his unique sound without compromising his integrity or losing his large fanbase. In fact, he is now more popular than ever.
     With a solid catalog of originals behind him, Isaak finally decided to revisit the music that inspired him as a child. Along with his ace backing band, Silvertone, Isaak entered Sun Studios in Memphis to record an album of songs by the artists who created Rock ‘n’ Roll within those very same walls over 50 years before. From hits like “Ring Of Fire” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” to lesser known tracks like “Dixie Fried” and “Miss Pearl”, Isaak and his band had completed nearly 40 tracks before deciding they had enough to work with.
     While it may have been difficult to decide which 14 tracks were going to make it onto his 2011 album, Beyond The Sun, the results are stunning. A few of the tracks may be remarkably close to the originals, yet Isaak and his band add their own personalities into the mix and put the Rock ‘n’ Roll passion right back into the songs. This isn’t just a stop-gap tribute album to tide his fans over: this is an artist revisiting the magic and reigniting the fire that set him in motion so many years ago. The Deluxe Edition of the album is even better since it includes a second CD containing an additional 11 tracks.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Chris Isaak to chat a little about Beyond The Sun, his career and so much more…

SPAZ: Beyond The Sun is just about ready to drop. How are you feeling about this project and everything leading up to it?
CHRIS ISAAK: You know, I’m really excited and I’m dying for people to hear the record. For a record to be a hit, people have got to hear it, first of all. So far, everybody that’s heard it that I’ve played it for went, “Wow! You should have done this record a long time ago! (laughs) I love this kind of music! What is this?” When I was a kid, I was listening to this music. In the packaging, I put in pictures that I had from when I was about 20 or 21, the first pictures that I took before I had a band or anything else. I worked all summer and I got a Shure microphone and a Silvertone guitar, I borrowed my dad’s jacket, I snuck into the college theater and stood up on the stage and had my picture taken. And I said, “Look! Now, I look just like Elvis and I’m ready to go!” (laughs). And that’s all the music I wanted to play was that Sun Sessions music. I’ve been wanting to make this record a long time.

SPAZ: What inspired you to do this project now as opposed to any other time in your career?
CHRIS: Because when I started off, I thought I looked a little like Elvis when I combed my hair back. When I was boxing, everybody who was on my boxing team, their nickname for me was Elvis. That was before I even sang. When I went to Japan, I cut my hair short and that sort of killed that. But when I was starting off, I didn’t want to fall into a thing where that was what I did, somebody else’s music. I wanted to make sure I could write my own songs and have my own sound. On purpose, I struggled hard to write my own songs and not to do cover songs in the beginning.

SPAZ: I really liked the different approaches to the songs, both in the arrangements and at the mixing stage (with a few tracks being recorded or mixed down to mono). In essence, you’ve re-created these songs as Chris Isaak vehicles. Was it a little daunting to record these tracks, knowing that they are iconic Rock ‘n’ Roll classics?
CHRIS: Thank you. I appreciate what you just said because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I said, “This is not a throw-away record. We’re not going in and like, hey, let’s have some fun and cut a few oldies and then be done. Let’s really work on this like we do any other album.” We rehearsed more for this album because we were going to cut it all live… and we did. The vocals you hear, those were done with those guys all at one time. If I make a mistake, we do another take.

SPAZ: All these tracks were one take?
CHRIS: Yes. I’d try it in three four takes, but we’d get it in one pass. We wouldn’t fix it. I’m proud of that but hardly anybody goes in without wearing headphones and being separated so that they can, later on, fix the mistakes. But in the old days at Sun, everybody was in the same room, everyone bled into everyone’s microphone. Elvis was standing there singing and you heard him. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano heard the piano over in the vocalist’s microphone. You could kinda feel like it was party going on. You could tell where people were standing in the room because you could hear it between two or three microphones. And that’s what we did. When I went in, I told the guys, “Listen, we can’t play forever in there because I’m singing this stuff, so if I’m singing it good, you better hit it because that’s the one we’re gonna use!”… and we went in and everybody played great. I never had so much in the studio. I think part of it was that everybody realized that this isn’t a rehearsal, this isn’t a practice, we’re making a record. Everybody could hear what the other guy was doing. You’re playing together instead of through earphones and hoping that somebody else later makes sense of it.

SPAZ: Your passion for the material is apparent in every track. Did any first takes make the album, or was it a long recording process?
CHRIS: I’m so proud of the band. Talk about passion for this music! If somebody listened to this record and said “Oh, I’ve got a great singer. We should make one of those records. Let’s hire some guys in L.A. and let’s do it,” I don’t think you could. My drummer, Kenny (Dale Johnson), loves this kind of music and he’s a natural fit for it. He plays in shuffle, which a lot of those songs have, or a ‘stripper beat’… they didn’t have very many straight ahead rock beats on those recordings. He plays with a real subtle groove that nobody else has got… and that’s tricky. The bass player (Rowland Salley) comes from background where he played early Country Western and Bluegrass. He played a standup bass and he totally loves this kind of music. My piano player (Scotty Plunkett)… how many guys can cop Jerry Lee Lewis riffs and then throw their own riffs in with it and make it sound like its blended? Scotty is a monster on piano. But for him to be able to capture that style of Jerry Lee and some of those simple Gospel piano riffs… When we started off, we said “Let’s learn all these songs and then when we’ve made the record, let’s not listen to it at all. When we’re done with rehearsing, let’s go into the studio, let’s cut it, let’s have fun and let’s do it our own way.” So, on “Ring Of Fire”, Scotty’s playing a B-3 Organ, which is not on the original. We’d do stuff like have a guitar and piano go back and forth on a solo that isn’t on the original version. I said “We’ll just do whatever feels good to us. We already know the songs.” At the end, the only time I listened to it was at the end when I was done mixing. I thought, OK, now I wanna hear: what did we come up with versus the originals. I still have to laugh because I’ll listen to some things that those guys did and I love those guys so much. When we were recording, we had Roland James, who played guitar on all Jerry Lee Lewis’ stuff… he’s just a great guy and my favorite guitar player. He was in and I remember asking him “Hey, Roland. I’ve got a question. It sounds stupid, but I just don’t know who else to ask but you were there: how loud did you play in the room, because I’m singing, you know?” He said, “Chris, we played as loud as we wanted!” My guitar player (Hershel Yatovitz) was standing there right next to me and just gave me a big grin, like, oh boy, all bets are off. And then I could have kissed Roland because he continued on, “You gotta remember though, Chris. It was 1956 and we didn’t want to play very loud!” (laughs)

SPAZ: Being a fan and artist from the days of the record LP, when putting the tracklist together, do you still think of things in ‘vinyl’ terms with the songs making up a Side One and a Side Two?
CHRIS: We’re actually putting this out on vinyl, so we actually have a real Side A and Side B. This is a perfect record for that. What was fun for me is that you usually make a record and you have 16 songs you record and then you cut it down and put out 13. On this record, we had so much fun recording it…my manager asked “How many songs did you guys cut?” I said “We’re up to 38 songs and we’re still going.” And she’s like “Stop! Please! You have enough for three albums!” And I s aid “Let’s put out a double,”… and we did! (The Deluxe Edition of Beyond The Sun has 11 additional tracks.) It was fun because we knew these songs and we practiced a bunch. When we’d go into cut ‘em, it wasn’t like, “Oh, we have to go in and overdub and we’ll fix that…” No, some of the songs we cut, I bet we cut ‘em in three takes. We’d rehearse it plenty and then we just went in and played.

SPAZ: It’s been over a quarter century since your debut album, Silvertone, was released. Did you think that you’d still be at it in 2011?
CHRIS: You know, when I started off, you never dream where life’s going to take you. It could take you bad places or it could take you good places. You just hope it’s going to be something nice and I’ve just been really really lucky. I hooked up with Kenny and Roly, Hershel and Scotty, my crew… people I’ve worked with I’ve been with forever. Some people don’t understand that if you are a musician, the road can be your life and if you don’t have friends out there on the road with you, it can be a really lonely ride. I guess that’s why people end up getting in trouble. But they’re my friends. Here I am, years later with those same guys… and it’s a ball.

SPAZ: You’ve cultivated your own unique sound over the years, which is as timeless now as it was then. Have you ever been tempted… or even encouraged by the powers that be, to alter your sound and try to fit into whatever cookie-cutter sound is popular at the time?
CHRIS: I’ve been lucky. I have good producers. I always kinda knew what I wanted to sound like. I’ve always been drawn to a pretty vocal and song that’s got some kind of truth to it. So, I always thought that if you had a song that has a ring a truth and you’re singing well, it’s going to be fun, good music. The trend just kind of went around us. I do remember at one point, a person at the record company said “Chris, you’re a surfer and you’re in good shape: you should take your shirt off when you’re up on stage!” And I said, “Why would I do that?” And they said, “For the girls.” I said, “I’m a singer, not a stripper!” (laughs). And I was thinking ahead and I said, “You know, if I start taking my shirt off now, my career’s going to be over in about three years! I don’t want to do that!”

SPAZ: What’s next for Chris Isaak?
CHRIS: I’m going to go out on tour all over the U.S. We’re going to tour Australia. The record’s coming out and I think that there’s a lot of interest in it. So, we’re so excited to actually play it live. It’s so much fun to play this music live. The look on people’s faces when you kick into “Ring Of Fire” or something… it’s just a ball

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your record, CD and DVD players?
CHRIS: I just introduced a bunch of films for that Turner Classic Movies channel… I watch old movies all the time. They called me and asked me to come down to the studio for a bit… I watched Rebel Without A Cause a couple of times in a row so I could talk about it. What a fun, strange film. I always find something new in it. (Audio-wise), when I travel, usually in my car, I’ve got Jerry Lee Lewis going on.

Thanks to Chris Isaak

Special thanks to Jacki Feldstein and Kimberly McCoy


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