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.
And I hear you had some guests in the studio who helped channel the vibe.
In the room with us, playing on some of the stuff and helping out, was Cowboy Jack Clement, who produced a bunch of the Johnny Cash Sun sides, and who wrote several songs for Johnny Cash, and who produced all the Jerry Lee Lewis, so it was fantastic to have him there. We also had Roland Janes, who played guitar on all the Jerry Lee, and I was nuts about him. Not a lot of people know Roland Janes because Jerry Lee takes up a lot of space on a record. But Roland is my favorite guitar player. To hear him on those records blows my mind. And he couldn’t have been nicer.
So it was kind of cool … we wanted to do it without doing overdubs, so we don’t have headphones, everybody’s doing this in one take and we’re in the room just listening to each other. And I go [to his band], “It’s just my voice, so you can’t play louder than me because you have to hear me singing.” And I said to Roland, “How loud did you guys play, because I’m worried about my voice. How loud do I got to sing?” And he goes, “We played as loud as we wanted to, Chris.” My guitar player [Hershel Yatovitz] gave me a look like, “Ha-Ha.” Then [Janes] said, “But it was 1956, so we didn’t want to play that loud.”
So you had your whole regular band there with you as well?
Oh yeah. It made such a big difference, too. To come in and do this instead of coming in with, I just, I don’t know how to tell people who aren’t in the music business, but your Guitar World people will probably get it. This was a project that, I guarantee, you could not go to the best session guys in L.A., hire them all, you couldn’t go in and cut this record. Because everybody is playing together. We’ve been playing together for 26 years, my drummer and I, and bass player, and you start to have a feel.
And then we rehearsed like, you couldn’t afford to rehearse as much as we did. We all stayed at my house in San Francisco. We would rehearse, go upstairs and eat spaghetti dinners, and about an hour later, you would hear somebody start playing piano downstairs and, one-by-one, everybody would get sucked back down to work. We practiced and rehearsed this stuff [so much that], by the time we went in, all we had to do was have fun. It wasn’t like, “How many bars is that?” Or “Where’s the end?” All those kind of questions had been solved. When we got to Sun, it was just like, “Now we get to play.”
Did you go with vintage instruments to match the studio, or did you have those already?
If you see pictures of me, all the time I’m playing the guitar that about 89 percent of the time you hear on the records. It’s a Gibson J-200, and I’ve got my name written on there in mother-of-toilet-seat. I’ve had that since the late ’80s or whatever. It’s just a great-sounding guitar and I play it a lot.
Who wrote your name on it?
[Laughing] I had them cut it out of wood at wood shop.
And yours was not the only J-200 heard on the album?
Jack Clement came and brought his J-200 that he’d used on all the Johnny Cash things. I thought more power to Gibson, because they sound good. They sound the same.
What other guitars did you use?
For the big guitar, I have a blonde Super 400 Gibson. For those people who don’t know, Scotty Moore played a blonde Super 400, or he had a big Gibson like that, that big hollow body, looked like a coffee-table-sized guitar. And we were trying to get a lot of that Scotty sound, and so my guitar player would alternate between those big Gibsons. I lent him my guitar for some of the leads, and he had a Fender Strat, which is his go-to guitar. And he played that on a few things that were kind of more bluesy.
I remember one song, we played it, sounded great, but I said [to Yatovitz], “You need a funkier sound, cause all these blues guys have funky guitars. They always had a $20 guitar. [At Sun], there was a guitar in the studio that they used just to take pictures with, and it’s kinda like there more for decoration than guitar. It’s got a Gibson neck and a Silvertone pickup. It’s a hodgepodge of different things and everybody signed it, and it’s got bumper stickers on the back. And I said, “Play that one.” [Yatovitz] looked at me like I’d asked him to have sex with a zombie or something. He said, “But it’s all out of tune up the neck and it needs to be ...” And I said, “Just try it.” He played it, and it sounded awesome. It made the record.
What was your approach to actually recording these iconic songs with iconic musicians? Is there a fine line between tribute and imitation?
Believe me, the idea came into my head, “You’ve gotta be careful not to” … there’s certain songs. I’ll give you an example. There’s certain Elvis songs that I don’t know how you’re going to do because he’s got a talking part in the middle. Like [he sings] “Are you lonesome tonight?” Then it’s [talking like Elvis], “The stage is bare and I’m standing there.” The minute you start doing the talking part on that song, it becomes an Elvis imitation. … So you have to look for ways to make it different. But I think that what we did on those songs — I knew all these songs coming in — I said, let’s learn them really good. Let’s listen to the songs and make sure we all know the changes and things that we like. We really honed in on them, and once we really knew it, then I said, “Now we just forget it, and play it our way and have fun with it.” That was kind of the method. I wanted them to sound like they came out of Sun Records, but were cut by somebody else.
I heard some of the tracks and they sound great. And not imitations at all. “Ring of Fire,” for one.
I think the “Ring of Fire” we did, it’s a little different. For sure it’s different than Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Johnny Cash doesn’t have a B3 organ on his “Ring of Fire,” and we’ve got a lot of B3 organ kicking through that. In modern records, there’s all kinds of instrumentation and overdubs and sound effects, but in those early rock ’n’ roll records, it’s usually just a three- or four-piece band. … Rhythm guitar is heard very little, just a little click-clack sound in the back. The drums are heard very little. And we kind of kept to that. Kept it pretty simple. But on “Ring of Fire,” yeah, that’s pretty different. We’ve got the B3 swinging along.
So now all these old songs on tour are new cuts from your new record?
The nice thing this is this is the stuff that I’ve [always] been playing. I don’t know what people imagine I play at my house. I guess they picture you at home playing “Wicked Game” or something like that. But the reality is that when you go home, you play what you want to hear. I would always go home and play this kind of music, sitting on my stairs. When the band would get together at sound check, we would always throw this stuff in. And now when we play it live, people love it.
It would seem that a lot of people like you because they like that style of music already. Or is it the other way around sometimes?
Part of me is hoping that. I listen to this music and I think everybody knows it. And I’ve been kind of surprised that a lot of people don’t really have the background, you know? And it’s a shame people forget how pretty these songs are. I love to take “My Happiness,” which I think of as a classic song, a love ballad that is really pretty, And I thought, Michele Branch and I singing on it, maybe somebody new will hear it and that will keep it going.
You tour a lot. Is that the plan going forward?
The last tour was about a four-haircut tour. I count them by how man haircuts I get. We were out all summer, at least four, five months on that. This one, I’m thinking will take us through Christmas and into the New Year, because we’re going to Australia, then coming back to the states for some more.
Does it ever become a grind?
We never stop and if that sounds like a complaint, it isn’t. So many people don’t have a job right now. I’m thrilled to have one. Plus my job isn’t like moving boxes at the back of a store or something. I get to wear a sparkly suit and stand up in front of people and play a fancy guitar. I was playing yesterday, playing to a bunch of executives. They were like radio and record people. It was all young women, beautiful, and I’m getting to stand up there playing a Super 400 guitar, my old Gibson, and I’m just having so much fun. I love my job.
I hope I get a chance to see you play these great songs. The last time I saw you live was in, I think, 1994, and you were opening for Tina Turner.
Oh my God, you saw us on our very first tour. We’re a much better band now. I’ve got Tina Turner stories I can tell for days. That was probably the toughest tour ever because she was just so tough to be on tour with. She wouldn’t let you walk backstage. She had security guys with guns back there. You couldn’t walk in the hallways. I go, “You know, we like Tina Turner but we weren’t, like, stalking her. We just wanted to get a drink of water.” Know what I mean?
Couldn’t have been your first tour. First big tour, perhaps?
Yeah, we played lots of clubs and bars before that. That was, I remember, the first time we had a tour bus.
How about acting? Are you going to get back to that?
I’ve been doing some hosting at Turner Classic Movies. [TCM host] Robert Osborne is on vacation and he’s a friend, so he asked me to come in and I hosted for a while.
How about acting roles?
Every time I have a down moment, somebody gives me script and I go in and do something.
Do you get to pick and choose at all, like you do with the songs you play?
I’m not Tom Cruise, They don’t come to me first, but when they come to me, I’m happy for the work.
Beyond the Sun, the new album by Chris Isaak, comes out October 18 via Wicked Game/Vanguard Records.