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Interview: Chris Isaak

After three albums that didn’t sell, his career was going nowhere fast. Then a movie gave new life to his single ‘Wicked Game’

Chris Isaak

Chris Isaak in Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1990.

Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN was calling for tickets. So was Madonna. And Sean Penn. And Sylvester Stallone. And Laura Dern. And Rickie Lee Jones. And Mickey Rourke. And some of the cast from Twin Peaks. They all wanted to see one of the most compelling rock & roll acts to hit the Top Ten in years: Chris Isaak.

“Bruce called about tickets?” says Isaak, every inch the Fifties-style rocker in his tight black jeans, pointed shoes, white T-shirt and brown leather motorcycle jacket, as he looks up from his plate of noodles at a cheap Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. In a few hours he will headline a sold-out show at the Wiltern Theater, in Hollywood.

Adopting the voice of a rube, Isaak, who grew up in Stockton, California, drawls: “They gonna give ’em free tickets? They git in for free?”

He’s grinning now. “Come on, Bruce,” he says. “You sittin’ on a big ol’ pile uh loot. Git up off it!”

Then, returning to his natural voice, Isaak says quietly: “If he comes, that’s pretty nice. Any time another artist shows up, it’s flattering.”

Isaak can afford to poke fun at the superstars who are interested in him; suddenly, he’s becoming one of them. His latest single, the dreamy “Wicked Game,” is an international hit; his album Heart Shaped World has sold about a million copies worldwide. He’s been on The Tonight Show recently and plays a cop in the Jonathan Demme film The Silence of the Lambs. The powerful entertainment agency CAA wants to handle his film career, and at least one executive from a major studio has been whispering sweet nothings about getting him up on the screen in a major role.

Chris Isaak has abruptly become a star. But he hasn’t forgotten that the last time he played Los Angeles, the club he was booked into wouldn’t give him a sound check. So even as Warner Bros. executives tell him that his album is the hottest in that company — yes, hotter than Madonna’s — Isaak wonders just how long it can last. Fingering a wooden tiki head that hangs around his neck for good luck, he says: “Five years from now, it could be like ‘Oh, man, him? Plays a guitar. Everybody else has got keyboards, he’s still got guitars.’ Or in ten years: ‘Oh, those guys still actually try to sing. It’s boring. They sing.’ You never know.”

Isaak adjusts a pair of wraparound shades that look like something Jean-Paul Belmondo wore in the Jean-Luc Godard classic Breathless. As if he were quoting from some official music-business rule book, he says, “Usually, right after you make it, you can count about seven years until people go, ‘How totally square.’ “

THE SHIP HAS SAILED,” one Warner Bros. executive told Isaak’s manager-producer, Erik Jacobsen, in the summer of 1989. “The ship has already sailed.”

The meaning of those words couldn’t have been clearer. Heart Shaped World, Isaak’s third album, was dead; the company had no interest in spending another dime promoting it. Jacobsen contends there was never much enthusiasm at Warners for Heart Shaped World. Executives from the company had flown up to San Francisco to hear it that spring. “Not a favorable word was spoken,” he says about the awkward playback session. “It was just the most deadly reaction that I have ever seen to anything in my life. As for getting it on the radio, all they said was ‘Tough, very tough, extremely tough.’ “

For Isaak, those were dark days. Although he was loved by the media when his debut album, Silvertone, was released in 1985, his songs didn’t get on the radio and his videos never made it onto MTV in any kind of meaningful rotation. No less an authority on authentic American rock & roll than John Fogerty described Isaak as being “like a skyscraper against the landscape,” predicting that he’d “be a big star.” Yet Isaak’s intensely atmospheric rock & roll was out of step with commercial radio. His records didn’t sell.

“Everybody convinced us we were a failure,” says Jacobsen, who as a young man in the Sixties had produced a string of hits for the Lovin’ Spoonful. “We were sitting there, wondering: ‘Is it the record company? Is it the production? Is it the songs?’ ”

And then, months after Warner Bros. had abandoned Heart Shaped World, a call came from David Lynch’s office. The director, a longtime Isaak fan, wanted some songs for the film he was completing, Wild at Heart. Lynch ultimately used an instrumental version of “Wicked Game.”

Enter Lee Chesnut, the music director at Power 99, a rock station in Atlanta. Although Wild at Heart flopped in America (it won the Palme d’Or last year at the Cannes Film Festival), Chesnut managed to see it three times before it was pulled from the theaters; he became enchanted with what he called “this hypnotic instrumental.” When Chesnut hunted down a copy of the soundtrack album, he was surprised to find a version of the song with, he says, “this incredibly cool vocal.”

The music director put the song on the air in mid-October, a year and a half after the release of Heart Shaped World; calls from listeners poured into the station. Word spread to other Top Forty stations around the country; four months later, “Wicked Game” was in the Top Ten.

“I think at that point the fix was in,” said Isaak, with his tongue firmly in cheek, to a disc jockey during an on-air interview about how his record became a hit. “People ask me, ‘Are you surprised to finally have a hit?’ But it’s not really that way. There is a meeting. Let’s see, who was there? Madonna, Prince, Phil Collins. They say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ They say, “From this point on, anything you do is cool.’ “

The song that gained Isaak entry to “the club” was written late one night. “There was a girl on the way over,” says Isaak. “It was one of those things where they call, they say, ‘I’m comin’ over.’ You know you shouldn’t, but you let ’em. Hang up the phone and go, ‘Oh, no. Now we’re gonna be in trouble.’ “

A wry smile crosses his face. “You know you’re not, uh, star-crossed,” he says. “But it’s just like ‘Here I go!’ There’s a line in a Jerry Lee Lewis song that goes, ‘Waitin’ on the corner like an old tomcat … who walks by/Me oh my/ Jumpin’ Jehosophat Big Blon’ Baby … Big Blon’ Baby, glory be, here I go….’ Kind of an attitude like ‘I know this won’t work, I know I can’t handle this, but here I go! Watch me try!’

“Anyway, I wrote ‘Wicked Game’ real quick,” Isaak says. “I hung up the phone and wrote the song. By the time she got there, I had the song pretty much finished.”

Isaak pauses, his timing perfect, and adds: “We didn’t do much guitar playin’ after she got there.”

THEY CALL HIM the Orbison of the Nineties,” says Isaak’s lead guitar player, James Calvin Wilsey. There is more than a touch of sarcasm in Wilsey’s voice as he tosses aside a copy of the Los Angeles Times.

Isaak and Wilsey have been hearing the comparisons to Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson and Duane Eddy for most of the eleven years they’ve been making music together. “Everybody draws from stuff,” says Wilsey as he picks out the melody to an obscure Sixties surf instrumental on his silver-fleck Fender Stratocaster. “It’s really hard to create something completely different that nobody has ever heard before. So you try to think about what you want to sound like and start culling all your most favorite cool stuff.”

Isaak says of the comparisons: “It’s flattering but unrealistic. Elvis was an original. In a league of his own. When people compare me to Elvis or Orbison, there’s no way I’m not going to fall short. But when you actually listen to my songs, there’s not much that’s similar.” Listen to the songs — “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” “Nothing’s Changed,” “Lie to Me,” “Blue Spanish Sky,” “Gone Ridin’,” “Don’t Make Me Dream About You” and, of course, “Wicked Game” – and you enter a dark, lonely world where love never lasts, where intoxicating romantic memories from the past overshadow the present, where, as Isaak sings in “Wicked Game,” “nobody loves no one.” Elvis passed through “Heartbreak Hotel,” Orbison certainly took a room there now and then, but Isaak seems to have taken up permanent residence.

“Sometimes you get a desperate feeling, you want love to work out so bad,” Isaak says. “And it’s so tough. It’s hard to think smooth sailing when all around you see everybody cracked up on the rocks. Sometimes you just think: ‘Am I ever gonna find it?’ “

Though it’s easy to play “find the influence” when discussing Isaak’s music, that’s ultimately beside the point. Certainly his songs are vaguely reminiscent of work by his idols. Same for his image. Yet the signposts pointing to the past tend to obscure Isaak’s own vision. Just as Isaak’s idols took from country and blues, reworking the music and images into something new, so Isaak takes his source material and reworks it until he has made it truly his own.

Perhaps Roy Orbison, better than anyone, understood Chris Isaak’s talent. “Chris’s songs, when you hear them, sound like something from the old days,” Orbison said not long before his death, “but they’re not.”

GOIN’ DOWN TO LONESOME TOWN, where the broken hearts stay.” Chris Isaak stands alone on the stage of an empty theater, strumming his guitar, singing an old Ricky Nelson ballad. “Maybe down in Lonesome Town, I can learn to forget.”

From his records, one might imagine Isaak as being terminally depressed. What one misses is the other side of Chris Isaak. As Wilsey puts it, “He’s got a pretty wild sense of humor.”

Everything is fair game, from his band to himself. “When we’re hanging around, we just try to see who can crack each other up the most,” says drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, who, with bassist Rowland Salley, forms a potent rhythm section. “I always lose, but I always try. He is awfully funny.”

Humor is Isaak’s way of putting those around him at ease and of keeping his own dark vision of the world at bay. Jacobsen says, joking, “I read somewhere that he hired some guy to suffer for him and then asks him what it was like so he can write about it.” Then he adds: “To what extent are the songs autobiographical? I would say very autobiographical. He’s not like a guy who’s cranking out pop jingles around some cute hook line. His stuff is serious, and he’s a serious guy.”

Like the characters who populate his songs, Isaak is a loner. He may know a lot of people, but he doesn’t have any close friends. “No, not really,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t like people, but to have friends, you have to be around someplace for a little while. I don’t get any rest when I’m weary. I have to pack my bags and go. I gotta be some place tomorrow with a smile and do my show. Travel around from town to lonely town…. Oh, wait a second, that’s Ricky Nelson. I get my life and his confused.”

Turning serious, he continues: “I was gone in Europe a month. Came back to San Francisco for three days. Worked every day. Now I’ll be gone for another month. So that’s like two months you don’t see somebody. Then when I come back, I’ll go right out on another tour. So that’ll be three months they haven’t seen me. Then I’ll go in the studio and start working on a record. It’s not like when I was in Stockton. We’d just hang out all the time, play basketball every night, drive around, look for girls. I’d say now my best friends are the guys in the band.

“And I hire them,” he adds. “They have to laugh at my jokes.”

Isaak is obsessively focused on his work: writing songs, making records. For years he lived in a cramped, one-room garage apartment in a foggy, wind-swept area of San Francisco not far from the ocean that he still loves to surf in. Isaak had so little money that when Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson played San Francisco clubs, he had to listen to their sets from the street. Meals often consisted of a can of sardines.

Now he lives in a roomier apartment, complete with a Fifties-style suburban rec room that looks like it was lifted off the set of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet where he works, alone, on his music. His kitchen is filled with all kinds of tiki heads, that object having become enough of a trademark that Salley, a talented artist, is toying with the idea of merchandising tiki pendants that say, ISAAK, across their foreheads and glow in the dark.

ISAAK WAS BORN in Stockton in the summer of 1956, three months after Elvis scored his first Number One hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Isaak’s mother, Dorothy, swears she was singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in the delivery room.

His dad drove a forklift; his mom raised Chris and his two brothers. Both parents were self-styled beatniks (“kooks” is how Isaak puts it, adding that he means that as a compliment) who loved country music and rockabilly. It wasn’t until he was living in Japan, as part of a University of the Pacific exchange program, that he decided to become a rock star. There he came across a reissue of The Sun Sessions, the classic collection of songs Elvis recorded at Sun Studio, in Memphis, in 1954. “Hearing that record was a turning point,” Isaak says. “That body of work is probably the Rosetta stone of rock & roll. All of a sudden it clicked: ‘This is what I want to do!’ “

Back in America, Isaak finished college, graduating with a degree in English and communications arts. Then he moved to San Francisco, figuring he was not going to be discovered in Stockton. With the help of his former manager Mark Plummer, Isaak put together a three-piece rockabilly combo that he called Silvertone. The group often played the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco’s key punk club at the time, and at each gig the club’s soundman would show Isaak a few more cool guitar licks. Finally, Isaak decided it made more sense for the soundman to play the licks himself, and thus Jimmy Wilsey, one of the most gifted rock & roll guitarists to come along since Robbie Robertson, joined Silvertone.

Within a year, Erik Jacobsen had discovered Isaak. “I was most impressed by his charisma and the audacity of what he was trying to do with his voice musically,” says Jacobsen. “He took a lot of chances.”

Jacobsen figured it could take years to turn Isaak into a star. “I recognized that it would be a long road,” says the producer. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND HIS GIRLFRIEND, Patti Scialfa, practically bounce up the steps leading to the backstage area at the Wiltern Theater. It’s just moments after Isaak and his band have left the stage following a stunning performance capped by encores of the Trogg’s “Wild Thing” and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully.”

Spying bassist Rowland Salley, Springsteen pats him on the shoulder. “Good show, man,” says Springsteen, grinning from ear to ear. “Give Chris and the rest of the band our best. We had a great time.”

Isaak has already disappeared into a dressing room to cool out briefly before heading next door for a party being put on by Warner Bros. at which he will be presented with his first gold album.

At the party, Isaak and band proudly accept the framed gold discs, then join a Hawaiian band, complete with steel guitar, and perform a traditional song, “Sweet Leilani.” It’s reminiscent of a scene from one of those star-is-born films: Isaak is in a glittering, custom-tailored $1000 baggy rocker suit, hair greased into an awesome pompadour, guitar slung low on his hip; barefoot Hawaiian girls in bikini tops with leis hung around their necks sway on either side of him; the crowd presses up to the front of a stage gilded with two towering gold tikis.

As Isaak finishes the number and the applause dies down, there is a shout from the audience. It’s Isaak’s mom, Dorothy, who has flown in for the party. From a table close to the stage, she shouts: “No more sardines, Chris!”

In This Article: Chris Isaak, Coverwall

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