Chris Isaak, he of the perfect hair and one of the sexiest videos of all time, is in a reflective mood with the release of his latest album, Beyond the Sun.
The disc sees Isaak zero in on Memphis’ legendary Sun Studio, reimagining 14 songs from the studio’s most famous sons like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
The crooner recently spoke with Spinner about getting to hang out with Orbison and Perkins, recording covers of songs he first heard from his now-ill father’s record collection and why he carried a straight razor for protection. Isaak also admitted to playing bars he wouldn’t recommend patronizing and that he’d like to reprise his old Showtime series.
There’s a pile of people who’d love to see the return of The Chris Isaak Show. Would you ever want to do something like that again?
Chris Isaak: I would like to. I would just like to do something again with the guys. And another television show would be fun. As opposed to most people I know who’ve done television shows, all the people on my show were really nice. And Kristin Datillo — who played Yola, my manager in the show — every guy in the band had a crush on her, but we treated her like the fraternity had a little sister. We all had a crush, but we all knew that she was not for us.
Let’s talk about music now. How big is your record collection?
I have a lot of records. For one thing, I’ve been on a record company for 25 years, so every time I’d walk down the hall I’d go, “Oh, that record’s out, give me one…” So if you work at a shoe store, you get a discount on shoes. If you work at a record store and all your friends are musicians, you have a lot of connections to get records. And to me that was a big deal because I loved records even before I got into the business. When I got in I was like, “I get free records!” So yeah, I have a pretty big record collection.
So when you were selecting the songs for Beyond the Sun did you have to sit there, staring at a giant wall of vinyl going, “OK, what do I pick?”
In my head there’s a big Rolodex of songs. But when I started off my parents had very few records. They loved records but we were always broke so they had this little cabinet that had all the records in there. But they let us play ’em. And we played ’em over and over. My dad had just gotten out of jail and he had a great record collection that was black music and white music and country and soul. So he had Leadbelly and Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and all these early country artists, which I grew up hearing, but then he also had Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Orbison, Jerry Lee…
What were some of your favourites?
“Bonnie B” by Jerry Lee was one. We used to get up and go to school and put that record on. That’s energy man, that’s something hip. I recorded “Bonnie B,” and it’s weird to me in a way because it’s my dad’s record that I’ve been listening to since I was a kid and I’m playing it now, so things have come full circle.
My dad’s real sick, he’s lost both his legs to ill health, he’s in a bed and my mom takes care of him. But I went back and I had a test pressing of the thing and had a little mock up of the cover and played the record and after the whole thing went by he was sitting with my mom — my dad never says much of anything — but he says, “Jesus, that’s the way he woulda sung it.” So for him it’s probably neat, because he goes, “That was my record. And now my kid’s got it and here it comes all back around again.”
Why did you decide to stick so narrowly to Sun Studio artists, and mostly to the bigger names?
I wanted to start with the main guys. I think you need to give people enough of “OK, I know this tune” and that’s the door. If you give people something and it’s got Blind Lemon Jefferson, people are going to go “I don’t know what this is” and they avoid it. If you go, “Here’s Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash,” and they also go, “Oh, it’s got ‘Miss Pearl’ by Jimmy Wages.” All of a sudden for Jimmy Wages, the door opens up for him a little bit.
You’ve met a lot of these guys you covered. What was that like?
I remember sitting in a room with Roy and it was the two of us, just sitting and singing for a couple hours and just playing guitar. And I had a tape recorder but I never turned it on because I was having so much fun. I didn’t want to go, “Hold on, let’s record this,” because it might have made it weird, but we were just having fun singing. I’ve never had so much fun in my life. I mean, usually when I sing with people I sing harmonies because I have a high range, I can go around people. But when I sang with him I went, “This guy can do anything he wants.”
You’ve also met Carl Perkins.
Yep, we did his song “Dixie Fried.” It’s a rave up and it’s also such a strange thing because that’s where he’s from. He really played — as opposed to a lot of people who say they played in dives — he actually did play in dives. I’ve played in dives. I remember playing in clubs where there were three hookers and three sailors and that was the only people in the club besides the bouncers. And I went, “Who are they waiting to throw out?” And the bathrooms had no lights, they turned off the lights in the bathroom. I wouldn’t go in the bathroom. I was like, “I’m not going in a room that dark.” I’ve played some dive places.
That song “Dixie Fried” really reminded me of when you play some really honky-tonk places where a guy pulls out a straight razor. And I go, “Who carries a straight razor anymore?” And as I say that, I’m thinking I took off to go on a trip to New York recently and my brother gave me a straight razor. He was like, “You’re going to New York, here.” And I was like, “I don’t have any use for a straight razor. I’m legitimate. I’m going to be in a nice hotel. Nobody’s going to mess with me.”
But I took it anyway.
This story originally appeared in Spinner (RIP) on November 7, 2011.