A sure sign of summer in San Francisco is scanning through the concert schedule for Saratoga’s Mountain Winery and once again seeing — like seasonal clockwork — the name of our own rockabilly rebel Chris Isaak listed. As he is tonight, midway through his customary fair/festival/winery annual jaunt, backing his recent “Live At The Fillmore” set.
Afterwards, he’ll return to work on his upcoming Sun Records-themed album, tentatively titled “Beyond The Sun” or “Lucky Old Sun,” featuring some of his own slapback-retro originals alongside obscurities from the Sam Phillips catalog.
Isaak checked in with us on his way through. Click the picture at right for more.
So you have your own label now, Wicked Game Records? Well, I’m not like Madonna or something. I’m not signing people up and I don’t have an office. It’s just that nowadays you can just put out a record yourself — it’s easy, and you can have a label this afternoon.
Every kid in high school can have a label — you have an album, you record it on your computer. You create a site and say “That’s my label” and you put out a record.
So believe me, I’m not competing with anybody like Warner Brothers in trying to have office space and people running around. I’m not trying to be a mogul— I’m just a guy in a band, man!
And I’m still in this business while anybody smart has jumped off the sinking ship.
The music business has collapsed into itself, then reinvented itself from the ground up. Have you been affected by any of this? Naw. From personal experience, I’ve probably done as well as anybody. So I don’t think the system has hurt me very much. I think the system, in a way, probably helps artists like me who are already established. Because I already have an audience and people know who I am, they know what to expect and they continue to buy my records and come out and see my shows. So it’s all been pretty OK for me.
But it’s really tough on the new artists, because when you’re starting out, you need somebody for the first couple of years, and a record company is helpful. To put gas in your van and buy drumsticks and guitar strings for you. And that support is not there for those groups right now.
And now you’re finally making the rockabilly album that your fans have been dying to hear. But you met tons of your Sun idols over the years, right? Yeah, I did. I worked with Roy Orbison, who was about the nicest man, ever. And I met Carl Perkins, and I’ve got two pictures hanging up in my house — one is a picture of my mom when she was a little girl, smiling, which always makes me happy, and the other is a picture of Johnny Cash, signed to me. And when I had him sign it, I was working with him, and I said “Johnny, I brought an older picture, but I really thought it was a striking shot, and I was wondering if you’d sign it.” And he took it out of my hands and just stared at it for a minute, which felt like an eternity. And I thought “I’ve offended him somehow! He’s gonna drive a nail into my foot now!” But he looked at it a long time and then turned to me and said “Damn! I was a good-looking man!” And I’ll always remember that.
How is your art coming along? Those great pen-and-ink drawings you’ve been including in your CD booklets? You know, I draw more than I ever have. I draw a couple of hours a day, at least. And I am gonna do something with it someday, because I’ve got 40 or 50 books that are just filled with my drawings. And page after page, I just keep working at it and doing more drawings. And if I pull out of that whole pile of sketchbooks, say, my best 90 or 100, I think I’ll have an entire book there.
And you recently played shows in Russia? Yeah. And Russia was pretty cool. And it’s amazing how little I knew about Russia — I thought when you walked into Russia, it would be really black and white. But I walked out realizing that I probably had the same knowledge of Russia as the Japanese tourists who come to California wearing spurs and cowboy boots. They’re modernized and there are a lot of changes going on there.
When I came in through the airport, they pulled me out of line and said “Stand here!” And I stood over there, and this big Russian woman comes down a long hall — click, click, click — and she goes “Hand search!” and takes me back down this long hall. I go into this room, and she puts these rubber gloves on a table, and I was thinking “This is unbelievable! Where’s Allen Funt?” But another guy comes in and goes “Chris Isaak? ‘Blue Hotel?’” And I said “Yeah! That’s me!” And he goes “Oh. OK. Come.” And we go right through the line. Like Django Reinhardt, I was spared by virtue of my art!
And then you wound up in Luxembourg? A lot of times this is something I’ll say to the guys in the band — we’ll be on tour and I’ll say “Who lives like us?” Because one day, you could be at the Fresno Holiday Inn, and I’ll be having a ball. And in two weeks, you’re in Luxembourg, staying at a palace.
So really, who lives like this? We get to have so many adventures and we’ve done so many things. So it’s really a charmed life!