Chris Isaak is a bachelor. As such, as he packs for his upcoming tour, he says his living room looks like a “bomb went off.” He laughs at that. Laid back, Isaak talks about the process of preparing for a tour. He has his suitcases in the middle of his room, his possessions spread out, t-shirts and underwear, socks and shoes and belts. He’s wondering what Hawaiian shirts to bring. At least, he says, this isn’t the type of tour where he’s going to a range of climates. It’s a summer tour and he’s looking forward to it, so he’s packing light. “And as I said to the guys in the band,” Isaak tells American Songwriter, “it’s not like we’re going out to the Amazon. If we forget something, there’s always a Macy’s.” Isaak isn’t worried. In fact, he’s excited. He loves his band and is titillated at the idea of hitting the road with them. It’s about the music and he’s always had a “really good response” to music.
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“I still have cassette tapes of me trying to write songs when I was maybe 12,” says Isaak. “But I can’t say I was going ‘I’m going to be a songwriter.’”
Isaak remembers his birthday as a boy. He remembers a big value store in his hometown of Stockton, California. He remembers having some money saved up from his birthday and going to the value store with friends, who asked if he was going to get a new football or basketball. They rode their bicycles down there, excitedly. But when Isaak left the store with a cassette recorder, his pals were nonplussed.
“I came out and said, ‘Look what I got!’ and my friends were like, ‘What the hell are we going to do with that?’” he says. “And I said, ‘We can write songs with this!’”
Little did his friends know he would grow up to be a wonderful songwriter—the author of the insanely popular song “Wicked Game” and the protagonist of its sultry music video. Though, later in life, he did experience something funny along those lines. As a teenager, Isaak had learned some guitar chords from a friend, Mark. At that moment, Isaak was thrilled, he felt the new musical knowledge was his “in” to the music business. It was then when Mark handed him a piece of paper, telling him to sign it. The paper said that when he grew up and would later become a rock star, he’d owe Mark half of whatever he made financially.
“And when I [eventually] made it,” Isaak says, “when I was on TV, Mark came to the show and said, ‘Chris!’ and he showed me the paper. I was dying! I said, ‘Mark, I owe you now!’”
Isaak has always been ambitious. He used to get to school three or four hours ahead of the morning bell. His father had to go to work early in the morning and he’d give Isaak a ride, sometimes dropping him off in his beat-up truck as early as 5:30 a.m. He’d get there before the custodians and wait there for them to open up. He was the first guy at school every day.
“It was gruesome,” he says, with a laugh. “So, I met everybody, all the people who came to school early, I knew and I talked to them.”
Isaak is a people person. So much so that he later became class president in all three of his first years in high school and later school body president as a senior. He attributes it to the fact that he just knew everyone. He made lots of friends, not because he was some popular, handsome jock, but just because he was there. He was in the chess club, he played music, and was the first person in the building each day. He also loved Elvis and the Beatles.
“My big heroes were the same as everybody else from my generation,” Isaak says. “Elvis was just like, okay nobody’s that good looking, nobody sings that pretty. The sound of that voice echoed. I just went, that’s the best sound I’d ever heard from anybody.”
Isaak remembers being in a second-hand store, combing through the records. He’d go there often with his mother to buy clothes. He found an Elvis 45” and put it on his 1940s record player and it “changed” his life. Later, he remembers being in Japan and finding another Elvis LP full of early recordings. He had a short haircut at the time, like a Marine. But that’s when he decided to start growing it out so he could comb it back like Elvis. He just wanted to play guitar and be in a band. Later, that Elvis influence would come out in spades on Isaak’s incendiary track, “Wicked Game.” The song and accompanying music video are hot.
“You know,” Isaak says, “I have some place in my tapes where I have the first time—probably 20 minutes after I wrote it, I made a little tape of it so I could remember it.”
He brought it to the band, they played it and they liked it. He wasn’t sure that they would but they did. And when they began to play it live, they noticed the bars and clubs they performed in would hush, even before the track had hit the airwaves. Suddenly everyone would go quiet.
“My drummer said, ‘I think we have something here,’” Isaak recalls. “People really liked that song. That was probably our first real sign that yeah we had something different here.”
Isaak liked tremolo bars and he asked his guitar player if he’d get one to use for the song. The guitar player initially resisted, saying, “What, so my guitar sounds like it’s out of tune?” But he eventually acquiesced, and as Isaak says, “killed it” on the main lead riff. Today, anyone who knows the track knows about that lead guitar bend that’s simply the sound of a heart breaking and building all at once. The song helped Isaak become famous and it led to some major acting roles, as well. Today, Isaak is known as much for his acting prowess as he is for his musicianship. He’s worked with David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, John Waters, Bernardo Bertolucci, and more.
“My dream would be,” Isaak says, “I love film noir. I love old ’40s movies like that, I watch them endlessly. I could play a good guy, a bad guy, I don’t care. I still have hopes that maybe somebody will say, ‘Why don’t we tap him for that.’”
But in lieu of that for the moment, Isaak is heading out on tour. He’s set to play in L.A. on June 17, and at The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas the day after, with more shows beyond. He’s also recently finished a Christmas album that he’s planning to release later this year during the holiday season. He takes holiday records very seriously, he said, adding, “I’m weird that way.” But more than anything else, he’s thrilled he still gets to play music live and to do so with his band. To him, it feels like being invited to a birthday party every night.
“For me,” Isaak says, “it’s a really natural way of telling about my fears, my happiness, my blues. It’s like releasing everything. For me, it always came very natural to sing and let people know how I feel. And I love being in a band—every night when I get up on that stage and play, it’s me living out my fantasy. I think I’m going to do this until they drag me off the stage.”
Photo courtesy CSM MGMT