Chris Isaak is on the phone from his New York hotel room, wrapping up a morning of media interviews in support of his current tour, which stops at Harrah’s Philadelphia (formerly known as Harrah’s Chester) this Saturday, November 3. Isaak has never been known for sharing his political views, but having returned from Europe the day before, and with the presidential election rapidly approaching, the 56-year-old full-time singer and part-time actor allows himself a few philosophical observations.
“I think that every night that we get to play on stage it’s magical,” he says. “Think about all the people in the world who have nothing. They don’t have food. They don’t have medicine. They don’t have freedom. They never get a day off.
“Night after night we play to a room full of people who have a little extra money and can go out and gather together and listen to the music of their choice. When you consider that there are a lot of people in the world who avoid crowds because they’re afraid something bad will happen, it’s a magical thing for everybody to get together and just have a good time.”
Isaak counts himself in the group that’s having a good time at his shows, especially since these he’s touring in support of Beyond The Sun, the 2011 album he calls “a labor of love.”
The album, Isaak’s first for Vanguard Records, is a tribute to the glory days of Memphis’ Sun Studio and the visionary artists who got their starts there—including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – all of them discovered and nurtured by the late, great Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.
“Those are my heroes,” Isaak says. “When I made this record, I sent one of the first copies to (Elvis Presley’s original guitarist) Scotty Moore. And Scotty wrote back and said, ‘I didn’t know they were still making good music.’
“He knew most of the songs, but he wasn’t familiar with ‘Miss Pearl,’ which is kind of an obscure one from Sun, originally recorded by Jimmy Wages,” Isaak says. “And he said, ‘I really liked ‘Live It up.’ Who did that?’ I was so proud because I wrote that.”
For Beyond The Sun, Isaak and his band – bass player Rowland Salley, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett, and percussionist Rafael Padilla – went into the legendary Sun Studios and took an authentically retro approach to recording.
“I’m very proud that we recorded it very much like they would have done it back then,” Isaak says. “We had rehearsed a bunch of songs, and I told the guys that when we go into the room, we’re going to play and record just like they used to do it. Everybody plays live and I sing. And I told the guys, ‘If I’m singing good, you better play good, because that’s probably the one we pick.’
“There were no headphones. Everyone just listened to each other playing live in the room. It was a ball. The room sounds good there and it made everybody bring their ‘A’ game.”
The room where artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, BB King, and Howlin’ Wolf recorded their earliest music is hallowed ground for any musician, and the significance of having the opportunity to record in that same space was not lost on Isaak.
“We were standing out in front of the studio,” he says. “I said to my drummer, ‘Look at that doorknob, all those legends put their hand on that doorknob when they were scared.’ It just blows my mind to think of the moment when Elvis walked into that studio hoping that someone would like his singing enough so that he wouldn’t have to go back to driving a truck for a living.”
Isaak says that sense of self-doubt was a feeling he could personally relate to. After he was signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1984, he says there were farmers in his hometown of Stockton, California still calling his mother to see if he could come work for them.
“They sent messages saying, ‘I want Chris to come throw hay, he’s good worker,’ he says. “You’d think I’d laugh at it, but I never threw those away. I always thought I might have to go back and throw hay.”
Fans who come to Isaak’s show at Harrah’s can expect to hear the singer’s biggest hits and fan favorites, as well as a generous selection of songs from Beyond The Sun.
“Since we’ve been touring behind this album, we go out and we do ‘Wicked Game,’ ‘Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,’ ‘Blue Hotel’ – all the songs people know,” Isaak says. “Then we have kind of show within the show, where we bring out an upright piano and a standup bass, and we do a set of songs from the album. It’s great to see people’s faces when you play something like Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire,’ or you break into Elvis’s ‘It’s Now Or Never’ and the guys hit all the harmony parts. Fans come up after the show and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you guys could do that live.’ But we did it live when we recorded it.”
Fans can also expect to witness a band that is enjoying itself as much as the audience.
“I hate it when a band comes out on stage and stares at their shoes,” Isaak says. “We put on a show. My guitar player is out running around in the audience. I’m out in the audience. The audience is up on stage. I love the look on the faces in the audience when the piano bursts into flames during ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and smoke pours out, or when we do ‘Pretty Woman’ and a 25-foot inflatable pinup doll blows up behind us. It’s fun.”
The band is having so much fun that Isaak decided to record a show on the tour and release it as a concert video. Entitled Chris Isaak Live! Beyond The Sun, the hour-long 14-track DVD and Blu-Ray is scheduled to be released November 19th on Vanguard Records.
Isaak says he’s already written a lot of songs for his next album, which he plans to record early next year.
“I’ve written a lot of new rock ‘n’ roll, but I’d probably record it live in the studio like I did Beyond The Sun,” Isaak says. I really enjoyed doing everything live together with the band, and I wouldn’t even mind going back and doing it at Sun Studios – doing modern rock ‘n’ roll, but recording it that old school way.”
Isaak’s current tour ends December 13 in San Francisco. After spending much of the past year on the road, Isaak will welcome the break, but even after nearly 30 years in the music business, he says he still feels extremely fortunate to be able to keep doing what he loves.
“My drummer, my bass player, and I all came from working-class backgrounds,” Isaak says. “We all had dads who had two jobs, blue-collar guys who were just trying to make it. So for us to play music for a living, we feel like we’ve won the lottery. Put it this way – we’ve spent 27 years in a band together and we’ve never missed a day. If you work someplace 27 years and you never miss a day’s work, you must like your job.”
Chris Isaak performs Saturday, November 3, at 8:00 p.m. at The Event Center at Harrah’s Philadelphia. Tickets are $55, $75, and $85, and are available by calling 1-800-745-3000 or by visiting Ticketmaster.