The MusicNerd Q&A With Chris Isaak

Photo by Andrew Macpherson
Photo by Andrew Macpherson

Though he might be best known for his 1989 hit “Wicked Game,” the latest studio album from pop crooner Chris Isaak boasts a vitality and energy that betrays the fact he is now more than three decades into his career.

In an exclusive interview with The MusicNerd Chronicles, an amiable and casual Chris Isaak spoke from Sydney, Australia (where he is serving as a mentor on the X Factor Australia television show) about his new record, First Comes The Night, along with a myriad of other topics.

With the exception of a 2010 live effort and your excellent 2011 Sun Records tribute Beyond The Sun, First Comes The Night marks your first original studio effort in six years. What have you been up to these last few years otherwise?

It’s funny, whenever I am in an interview, people will often say ‘You haven’t made a record in three years,’ when I actually haven’t had a vacation since probably the last record [laughs]. The way things tend to go is that as soon as any given record is done, I promote it and go on tour. I’ve had the same band for 30 years and we get up, get on a bus and play all over the United States, Europe and Australia. Aside from that, I’ve done some cartoon voiceovers and a television show, but a lot of people just assume I’ve been on a beach in the Bahamas. It just doesn’t work that way. I work all the time. I like it though.

I had a manager one-time that asked me what I wanted to be doing when I was 80, and I told them, this is what I want to be doing. I’d be thrilled to be playing live shows when I’m 80!

In 1999, I posthumously inducted Bob Wills into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Because I’m a former honours student, I wanted to read up on Bob Wills before I made this presentation; I thought I should really know more about the man. There was one story in particular that made me cry and made me love Bob Wills because I felt like I understood him.

Here he was this Big Band leader, and he ended up buying five or six parcels of land all next to each other. He called his band together and told them he was giving each of them a plot of this land so they could build houses next to each other. That way, he said, when they retired and got old, they could still get together and play music. It made me cry because it was obvious it wasn’t about money to Bob; he just loved music so much that he was thinking he wanted to be 85 years old, go next door and play music. I get that.

Is it safe to assume you’ve bought your band members parcels of land next to each other for your retirement years?

I bought them all ukuleles. It was cheaper. [laughs] I’ve had the same guys in my band for 30 years. I hate the thought of not being able to play music with them. They’re all better musicians than me. I think a lot of times, I come up with the cockamamie ideas of what to do and they are the guys that make it happen.

The kind of loyalty you’ve had from your band is outstanding. It’s largely a rarity these days to have a band that will stand by you through thick and thin.

I’ve been lucky. We kept working all these years, but you have to give them enough work that they’re able to eat, otherwise, you can’t have a career. I say that because I feel bad for a lot of young people now trying to make their way in music. When the music business took its downturn, it didn’t hurt me particularly because I’ve been making music and will continue making music. I’ve got a great touring band and we put on a great show. And if you put on a great show, people are going to come back to see you play. For younger musicians today, it’s hard to make a living and it’s hard for them to get started.

Given your extensive history in music, has being on X Factor Australia been eye opening for you that this is where the music business is at these days?

Nobody has slagged off those television shows more than me sitting on a tour bus with my band, going ‘How real could it be? It’s a television show!’ Having said that, I was wrong and didn’t know what I was talking about because being on this show has taught me that the venues where I used to play when I was coming up don’t exist anymore. If you want to be a musician today, television is the way to be seen. I wondered how good they could get if they hadn’t done a lot of bar gigs and toughed it out. But man, there are people on this show that make me wish I was as good as they were at their age. I’m supposed to be helping mentor these guys, but they have been teaching me more than I have been teaching them. Working with the contestants on the show has pushed me to work harder because I’ve seen how hard they are willing to work. The whole experience has been great for me.

Your new record First Comes The Night features co-writes with Cape Breton native Gordie Sampson, Michelle Branch and others. Is this in fact the most collaborative effort of your career?

Absolutely. I never did much co-writing before this, but I liked it. It was a lot of fun. A big part of it was that I don’t want to ever reach a point where I don’t try something new. You have to keep switching things around and keep learning.

One of the aspects I like most about your new record is that it sounds like you’re having a good time. It’s been 30 years since your debut, the fact you’re still loving what you do and having fun speaks volumes about your character, that, at the end of the day, you’re not taking yourself too seriously.

I’m glad you heard that in this record because that was my mantra: Make it fun, whether it’s a ballad, romantic or sad song, you can have fun doing it. The guys I worked with on this record – Dave Cobb and Paul Worley – really encouraged that. They were fun to be around, but also just knew so much about music in general. You could throw some obscure musical reference their way and they would know exactly what you were talking about. I hope to work with them again down the road.