Interview: Chris Isaak Heads to Sun Studio to Record His New Album, 'Beyond The Sun'
Chris Isaak grew up in California idolizing the Million Dollar Quartet and other legendary artists nurtured by Sun Records visionary Sam Phillips.
He never abandoned those roots, even as he climbed the charts with hits like “Wicked Game” and gained wider fame as a film and television actor.
When he finally decided to pay tribute to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and the rest of those rockabilly pioneers, he went all-in, hauling his band and signature, monogramed Gibson J-200 to the place where it all began. The results — recorded mostly at Sun Studio in Memphis — are documented in his new Vanguard Records album, Beyond the Sun, which makes its debut on October 18.
Beyond the Sun will be offered in three trims: a single 14-track set with Sun-drenched gems such as “Ring of Fire,” "Great Balls of Fire” and “I Walk the Line”; a deluxe package with a second 11-track set that includes “My Baby Left Me” and “Lovely Loretta”; and a double-vinyl album (with all the deluxe tracks) scheduled for release in November.
Standing on or close to the exact spot “where Elvis started rock ’n’ roll,” Isaak stacked the deck with special guests including Cowboy Jack Clement, who wrote and produced several of Johnny Cash’s early sides and also discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roland Janes, who played guitar on most of Lewis’ hits and helped to shape rockabilly as a core member of the house band at Sun. He also brought in Michelle Branch to sing with him on one of his favorite Elvis sides, “My Happiness.”
Having spent most of the year on the road, Isaak and band are touring once again, adding many of the songs that appear on Beyond the Sun and have been staples of their soundchecks for years. If you can’t catch one of his shows, tune into Turner Classic Movies on cable and you might see him introducing one of your favorite old flicks.
GUITAR WORLD: Given your influences and signature sound, why didn’t you do a record like Beyond the Sun a long time ago?
You know, I always wanted to. If you had asked me early on, “What are your favorite songs to sing,” these are the songs. I found lists I was making when I was [growing up] in Stockton [California]. Everybody was listening to the radio, but I was listening to second-hand records. And on my list would be Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs. And then there would be Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins, those guys.
Even when I went into the city to be in a band — which I had no idea what the music business was about — but I imagined, based probably on some old movies that I had seen, that I would go to the city, and I would go to some nightclub, and somebody would ask me to come up and sing with their band. That never happens. But I thought, “I'd better know a bunch of these songs,” so I learned all this Elvis, Carl Perkins and all these things. But nobody was playing any of these songs.
This was around what time?
Early ’80s, and they were playing … Heart. It was a whole other kind of music that they were playing. Fleetwood Mac was probably huge at the time. It’s funny because now I’m friends with Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, but at the time it was like, “I don’t sound like that.” But I can kind of take my guitar and kind of sound like those simple, early rock ’n roll songs. Yeah, I always loved that music, always wanted to make it. But when I first got signed, I also kind of thought, “You know, I better show people I can write a song, or have my own style, otherwise they’re just going to think I’m a cover artist.”
From there, it took you about 25 years to do this. What was it like at Sun Studios?
Fantastic. And you say it the same way I do, which they say is wrong, It’s supposed to be Sun Studio, and not plural. I thought well, I guess they’re right. There’s only one studio. But it was fantastic. The people couldn’t have been nicer. Sometimes you go places and people go, “Oh, our lawyers won’t allow you to do this, or you can’t take pictures here.” [At Sun] They were like, “Well, we do tours during the afternoon, but if you guys don’t mind starting later, you guys can have it all night and into the day.” I said, “We’re musicians, we stay up all night anyway. No problem.”
I’ve taken that tour. Did you run into any tourists?
Some Swedish group was coming through, looking at the studio and one of them goes, “You’re Chris Isaak.” And I go, “Yeah.” She asks, “What are you doing here?” And I said we’re recording. And she’s like, “I saw you in Malmö.”
How was it working in the studio?
We’d go in there in the afternoon and play until really late at night. And they have a little diner next door that was there in the ’50s, and it’s still there, too. It’s just amazing that that place has stood the test of time. Most places that are cool, you go back there and they go, “Oh, they put a Wal-Mart there in the ’70s or ’80s.” And this place for some reason — I think the fact that it’s on the outskirts of Memphis — they just thought it’s not worth the property to tear it down.
Treasured American history preserved, almost by accident.
It really just blows my mind to stand in a studio and go, “Elvis Presley started rock ’n' roll right about here. Bill Black and Scotty Moore made up the riffs that Keith Richards, and everybody else afterwards, started copying, right about there.”
Any ghosts in the walls?
You know, I’m not like Carlos Santana. I’m not somebody who is always in touch with spiritual things. I don’t go on the roof and go “I feel angels guiding me.” I’m pretty pragmatic. But in that room, I get it. Now I understand what Carlos is talking about. I go in that room and I was singing a Carl Perkins song. And I looked up on the wall — they have pictures of all the artists — and there’s a picture of Carl Perkins, and the angle of it made it look like he’s looking right at me, smiling. … You feel good to be in there.