Chris Isaak - Sun Worship
Isaak working on his new album at Sun Studios,
surrounded by images - and the vibe - of some of his most vital musical
Photo © Vintage Guitar Magazine
by Ward Meeker
Most pop-music fans became aware of Chris Isaak through his 1991 hit,
"Wicked Game," and its uber-high-profile video, directed by famed
photographer Herb Ritts and featuring the singer/guitarist gettin' all
From Here to Eternity with supermodel Helena Christensen. Musically, the
moody track - with Calvin Wilsey's memorable reverb-infused guitar lick
- not only put Isaak on the pop-music map, but kept him there
perpetually via "appearances" in film and on TV programs and
With its basic, brushed-snare—drum beat, laid-back melody, clean
single-note/arpeggiated-chord guitar solo (rendered via Fender
Stratocaster and a blackface amp with reverb), and classic torch vocals,
the song had a deep throwback feel. But for Isaak, it was simply true to
form, and reflected the deep influence of early rock—and—roll
performers, many of whom emerged from Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in the
Isaak's new album,
Beyond the Sun, moves from being simply influenced by
his predecessors to a straight-up tribute, spurred by a comment Phillips
made in an interview more than a decade ago, Asked by Oxford American
if any contemporary recording artists grabbed his attention, Phillips
replied, "I don't keep up with the business like I used to. But I love
to listen to Chris Isaak. He's very talented, and his music is so damned
honest. It's incredible?
Isaak was blown away by such praise from a man he idolized, and he calls
Beyond the Sun — which was recorded at Sun — a
"labor of love." The
affection traces to his childhood, when he and his brother became
obsessed with music being made by Phillips and the artists he mentored.
Isaak took the phone call from VG as he ran through a few chords on a
guitar. The first question was obvious...
What are you strumming on?
Ummm, it's a "Los Lauriars" or something — a half—size guitar a little
bigger than a baritone ukulele...nylon-string. I got it years ago when I
traveled all the time, and I'd put it in the overhead or in the back of
the van or whatever. I actually have a nicer one now — a half—pint
version of a Gibson J-200 made in the '60s. The J-200 I play onstage has
my name across the top in mother of toilet seat (pearloid), and I wanted
the little guitar to have the same thing - they look like father and
son! Lefty Frissell did something like that, but on a pink pickguard,
which was really cool. I want to do that sometime. And I've seen a
version of Johnny Cash inlaid on the neck, but I'd never fool with the
neck. When they put me in a box or something, then somebody can pry my
letters off and keep playing (laughs)!
Beyond the Sun
is an ode to some of the music you heard as a child, much of which was
recorded at Sun Records in Memphis. What prompted you?
The songs I picked were all by artists who got their start at Sun,
recording for Sam Phillips, the famed producer who worked with Elvis
Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis... He
also recorded guys like B. B. King and Howlin' Wolf. That's a great
bunch to pick from, and on the album I do some songs they recorded at
Sun and some stuff they did later, like Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of
Fire" and later Elvis stuff like "It's Now or Never."
Some people don't know it, but Sun is really a simple studio. Like you
walk in and the first 10 feet is a room to keep the sound off the
street; that's the office. Then there's another door, and then there's
like a 25-by-20 room with a high ceiling- that's the studio. And in the
back is a little room just big enough to swing a cat — that's the
control room. It's just awesome.
What do you recall about your earliest exposure to music?
I remember as a kid, my older brother putting records on our player -
one of those that looked like a little suitcase, with two little
speakers about the size of a Kleenex box. It was funky-sounding, but we
thought we were very hi-fi, because it played in stereo! My brother
would put on Jerry Lee Lewis rock-and-roll songs before we went to
My parents had a great record collection - Johnny Cash, a bunch of
Elvis. In fact, the first thing I did when I finished this record was
take a mock-up of the artwork, put the album inside, and take it to my
parents, because it was a thank-you to them. They never said to me,
"Hey, get a real job." Maybe because we came from a funky enough
background - we didn't have connections or money or anything like that,
so it wasn't like we were gonna go downhill! It wasn't like, "Why aren't
you going to be a lawyer like your father?" It was like "Hey, good for
you, you're staying out of jaiI..." (laughs)!
Nowhere to go but up?
You know, I think my parents were really proud that I went to college,
got a scholarship, and was boxing as a light heavyweight for Aoyama
Gakuin University, in Tokyo.
When I was over there, I discovered another Sun sessions album; I went,
"This what I want to do. I want to sing." I didn't know at the time, if
you had asked me, "Are you gonna become famous? Are you gonna travel the
world?," I would have looked at you like, "Uh, yeahhh."
Were you comfortable with your singing voice?
It wasn't a matter if I thought I was good or not. It was more like...
(chuckles) it was like sex; It didn't matter, it was just so much fun.
And I'd sing all the time. Actually, my older brother was better; people
would always say, ""You can sing good, but your brother really can
sing." So it was competitive, you know?
What about guitars?
My first guitar was a Checkmate, and I remember it well; it was a really
cheesy nylon-string, and on the headstock was a piece of metal, stamped
and screwed on — it looked like the knight chess piece. I had that
guitar for years, then after I got a better one, I lent it to my friend,
Anthony Franks. He was a great guy, but he lost it! I went, "Lesson
learned." Never lend a guitar. You lend it. it's gone. Anthony's a great
guy, and a straight arrow.
Has he been apologizing ever since?
Nah. We were kids. You borrow stuff and people move, things change.
What was your next guitar?
I graduated to a much better guitar - a Silvertone! I got the hollowbody
one, which I still have. It came with futuristic-looking pickups, a
single cutaway, not real big and fat... it's kind of like the precursor
to the Gretsch 6120. I went, "Wow! Now I'm getting professional."
How old were you at the time?
What kind of music were you playing?
Well, on guitar, it was funny because... You know, I always loved this
music and really, it's easy for me to sing that style - it comes
naturally. And later, when I read about the people those Sun Records
artists were listening to at the time, in some odd way they were the
same ones I listened to growing up - Hank Williams, Earnest Tubb, Gene
Autry — guys from three generations back. And later, when I heard Jerry
Lee Lewis, I'd go, "I hear some Gene Autry in it." Or I'd hear a song by
Elvis and go, "Oh, that's a Hank Snow song." When I started out, I
thought, "Man, if I could be as big as Hank Snow..." I still wish I
could be as good as Hank Snow or Lefty Frissell. Then, when I heard
Elvis from his Sun sessions, I went. "Wow! This put a little more youth
into Hanks stuff." It had a little more kick—took it off the farm and
brought it to the city a little. And then there's the guitar playing by
Scotty Moore, who I believe should get paid for every record. Without
Scotty Moore, we'd all be sweeping streets (laughs)!
Isaak early in his career with his Silvertone
model 1446 guitar (and 1484 amp in the background).
Photo © Vintage Guitar Magazine
All of your Sun heroes had heavyhitter guitar players. Do you have
favorites amongst them?
Oh, yeah. For example, my favorite guitar players ever were represented
very well on
Beyond the Sun. Scotty Moore, of course, who you just can't
give enough credit to—without Scotty, you might not have Sam Phillips.
What if Elvis had walked into a different studio with different people —
maybe somewhere that wouldn't have seen the talent and maybe said, "Hey,
let's put a string section behind this kid and we'll have a Southern
Dean Martin." And they would have cut two or three albums, maybe had a
regional hit. You know what I mean? But when you add Scotty Moore with
all those riffs, it was obviously something new. Scotty's a big part of
it. Elvis was part of a band, it wasn't just him. He had a great
producer and a great guitar player.
I don't know what the odds are for that. I've been lucky, and I'll take
my life over Elvis'. I've lived longer, I've had great friends, and my
band is great - I've been with them for 26 years and they're really fun
guys. But when a guy walks into a studio and the first guy you see says,
"Here's your producer, Sam Phillips. Here's your guitar player,
Scotty Moore. Bill Black on bass." You just go,
"Huh?!" That's what you
call lightning striking.
A whole lotta luck.
All at one time!
Luther Perkins and Johnny Cash had a similar story...
Oh, I love Luther Perkins (sings "I'm all alone, alone and blue. I've no
one to tell my troubles to.") And all of a sudden he stops the
instruments and goes, "Key of A, Luther." I'm dying!
And there's another one for Sam Phillips; so many guys would have walked
in with that and said, "We want the singer, but let's use our session
guys." And we would've lost the coolness of his sound. I mean, his
records are so cool because they're so simple.
There was another great player represented on this record, and he
actually sat in and gave us some insight on some of the songs — Roland
Janes. It was so much fun to hang with him; he's hilarious — a gentleman
and a really nice guy. He played on all those Jerry Lee Lewis records;
think about being the guitar player with Jerry Lee
Lewis - maybe the world's best piano player. That's a hard road, you
know what I mean? Yet, he doesn't have a bit of ego in him. He's smart,
and his choices on the guitar are like (sighs)... My god! I was talking
to James Burton, and I said, "James, why don't you teach me somethin'?"
He goes, "I'll teach ya somethin'. When in doubt,
play out," (laughs)! And it's hilarious, but it's true. And Roland is
the guy who has enough ego control that he doesn't start endlessly
noodling. He lets the song breathe. And he plays understated. Yet you
listen to him play, and there's such passion. It's so perfect. And
nobody sounds like him. Man he plays some stuff. I told Hershel Yatovitz,
my guitar player, who's damn good, "I listen, but I can't figure out
what he's doing." Hershel goes, "I can figure out what he's doin', but I
can't do it." It's his feel - so sophisticated it sounds simple. But it
Anyway, Roland was there. And when I introduced Hershel to him, I said,
"Uh, Hershel... meet Roland Janes," and his eyes went wide and he said,
"Oh, my god. I'm sorry, but I've been hearing your name a million times-everytime
we play something, he goes, you gotta listen to Roland Janes." And he
was right- I'd always told him that!
You've worked with Hershel for what, 15 years?
A long time. I mean, since the Dead Sea was sick! He was clean-shaven
when he started!
What does he bring to your music?
He is the man for the job in this band. Nobody could do what he does. If
you think about what we do live; I might ask him one minute to play,
"Forgot to Remember to Forget," where he'll be comping a part kind of
like Scotty Moore, then I'll ask him to play a part he made up, then
I'll ask him on the next song to be jammin' on something we're making up
that night, then I'll ask him to play something from a record we did 15
or 16 years ago. And they have a lot of different sounds. Most guitar
players have one sound or thing, but Hershel can play a lot of styles,
with lot of different sounds. He's got his own style, which I like very
much — it's very pretty. He's a pretty, melodic player. And he's a good
On top of all that, if I tell Hershel, "I wrote this song, and I want to
record it tomorrow. Can you come up with a part tonight?," it's done.
But sometimes what blows my mind is, I'll say, "Hey, listen to this
record. What's this guy playing? Can you learn that?" Twenty minutes
later, he'll play it for me, flawlessly. What might take me all night to
learn, Hershel learns in 10 seconds.
I played with Michelle Branch on this Buddy Holly special; I spent all
night learning the riff for (sings) "Heartbeat, why do you...." And I
wasn't gonna play it, but I just wanted to see if I could learn it,
right? It took me a long time; I'm a lousy guitar player. Well, I like
to play rhythm, that's my thing. I play leads a couple times a night
because it's so different. Anyway, it took me all night, but Hershel
learned it in seconds.
Then, at the show, Waddy Wachtel was the guitar player that night, and
Waddy and I played together—Waddy is so good. Anyway, we started to play
and I said, "No, Waddy. Play it like the record." And he goes, "Chris, I
learned 20 songs today..." I go, "Wait, I know it." And I played it for
him, and I got lucky and played it right. That never happens (laughs)!
When I finished, I looked around, because everybody in the band stopped
while I was playing the riff, and Waddy's listening; I said, "Did
anybody film that? Me teaching Waddy Wachtel something." He laughed.
Really, though, I couldn't carry one of his strings. He's amazing.
Do you have a favorite guitar amongst those you play regularly?
Yeah, Gibson J·200. My house is like the Stevie Ray Vaughan video for
"Cold Shot," where his girlfriend would take his guitar away, but he'd
pull out another one. There was a guitar behind the couch, behind the
door, under the chair... The First time I saw that, I laughed and said.
"That's my house!" My ex used to say, "How come you got a guitar
everywhere?" And I said, "You never know when you might want to play
one!" (laughs). But the J-200 is ubiquitous. I don't think there's a
finer guitar; Gibson guitars are my favorite, by far. The acoustics...
I've sang with Martins and they're nice — they're brighter — but a
Gibson is warm from top to bottom, a big, full sound. To me, it's just
thrilling. I sit in my hallway or on the stairway because there's good
echo, and sing with the J-200. It's like I'm in heaven.
Isaak with his preferred guitar - a Gibson J-200
Photo © Vintage Guitar Magazine
How about electric guitars? Do you have any that you like better than
I played a little show once— I think it was for iTunes - where they
said, "Bring a guitar." I thought, "I'll bring an electric." So I
brought a funky little Silvertone amp and a little echo box, with my
blond '56 Super 400 (laughs)! Talk about overkill! People are looking at
me like, "Uh huh...That's a nice guitar." I go, "Yes, it is. You have no
idea!" Some people think you shouldn't play that sort of stuff outside
the house. But you know, I'm never going to sell this stuff. And it only
comes out boots first!
How many '50s and '60s guitars do you have?
My guitar collection isn't that big, money—wise. I'm not somebody who
has them all lined up goes, "This is my blond '49, this is my..."
They're not all organized and they're not all perfect. If you took all
my guitars there's probably not that expensive of a collection. 'Cause
I'll have guitars in there that... I've got a red Hagstrom from the
'60s. And it's funky, but it's a great sound for certain things. I've
got an Italian guitar with a plastic body, and it's got microphonic
pick-ups. My bass player gave it to me; he said. "I know you like these
kind of things." It was kind of a joke, but of course I brought it to
the studio and recorded with it and went. "Oh my god, it doesn't sound
like anything else you've heard. I like this!"
Making the new album, Hershel was playing the Super 400 for a lot of the
Scotty kind of stuff, and at one point we were playing an old blues tune
and man, it sounded good. But it didn't sound funky enough. But there
was this little practice guitar laying in the studio that people would
use to pose for pictures or write their name on. It had funky strings,
it wasn't intonated very well, and the nut was rattling and everything
else. I said, "Play this track on that one." He picked it up and he
goes, " But it's out of tune, and it rattles." I go, "Perfect!" And of
course, because his playing is so good and that guitar was so bad,
together it sounds like all those blues guys. Those guys were playing
million-dollar riffs on $20 guitars! Me, not being that great a player,
I'll take a great guitar like the Gibsons. Plus. when you're at home
playing a Hagstrom and it slips out of tune, it's no big deal. You just
tune it and keep going. But when you're onstage...that's a problem.
There's a reason I'm playing a Gibson through a Fender blackface Twin.
It's like driving a Chevy - you can get parts anywhere, and it always
starts. And I always liked Gretsch guitars, but onstage, they didn't
hold up as well for me.
They keep you a little busier...
Yes. Brian Setzer gave me a Gretsch, it was just beautiful—and what a
class act he is. I'll never play it as good as he does, but he cracked
me up because he's so into it — such a guitarhead, and motorhead. He
said, "Yeah, these are good ones because the top of this guitar is only
this thick. they used to make them thicker, but this one's thin."I'm
goin', "Yeah, okay... It's red!" (laughs) and I like it. It sure is
nice, Brian! VG
Page added December 21, 2011
This article and the photos in it are copyright Vintage Guitar,
Inc. It was originally published in their January 2012 issue
reprinted here with permission courtesy Ward Meeker.
Beyond the Sun
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Scotty Moore and his site is not responsible for the ordering, sale or
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