Interview: Chris Isaak Tells of Going "Beyond The Sun"

Let’s go way back at the beginning. When and how did you discover the sounds of Sun Studios, and how did that influence your musical development?

Chris Isaak: Recently I just found a list that I made when I was a kid of my “Top 10”, as though I had a radio station. I was making a list of songs and it was the most varied list. It was Colonel Bogey March, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Connie Francis, The Everly Brothers, and even Japanese soundtrack stuff.

As a kid, I didn't listen to the radio as much as I listened to old records. My mom did all of her shopping at a second-hand store, so if she wanted clothes for us, or if she wanted to get a new pot or pan, or something, she always went to this place called Value Village in Stockton. It was like Salvation Army. So she would go shopping and say "Go on and get some records if you want."

So we would go to these second-hand places and the records were so cheap. I could always get a stack of records for like 10 or 20 cents each. It was like they were almost free! Sometimes I would get 3 records for like 50 cents.

Even early on, when my peers were buying things like the new Bread album or the latest Heart record, I was listening to people like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs, Floyd Tillman, and Connie Francis. And I would just wear them out. Plus, my parents had good taste in records, so they had sent me in the right direction. I just got to listen to a lot of cool stuff.

When I first heard Beyond The Sun, I was immediately reminded of one of your earlier records called Baja Sessions. For that album, you reached back through your own recordings and re-recorded a lot of things. Baja Sessions definitely has a very unique feel to it.  

Can you talk how Baja Sessions may connect to your work on Beyond The Sun? Are there parallels for you between these two records?

Chris Isaak: Baja Sessions is probably the closest to Beyond The Sun in a lot of ways. For example: when we were cutting "Sweet Leilani" on Baja Sessions, I remember saying to the band "I don't want to cut this overdubbed.” And the guys were all like "Huh?" I said “I can sing it. I don't need to overdub 15 takes. Let's just go for the great take in the room and everybody will sing the parts.” To me, it was a great way to cut it.

So when we made this record, we had everybody in one room. We didn’t use headphones, and we were cutting it all at one time. We were all playing together and I told the guys that “Since I'm the singer, if I sing good, you better play good, because that's the one we're going to use.” (Laughing)

You would think it would be more pressure, but in a way it was less pressure. I've played on all kinds of recordings and I've always much preferred to just get everybody playing and singing together. The more we can do it, the better. And doing this record was just the ultimate of that because it was all of us in a room, and we were all playing these things together. We all have played together for so long. We have all played in this band for 26 years, so we don't make a lot of mistakes every night. Sure, we make mistakes, but it's not like we have to stop the song or something.

So when we rehearsed these songs, we knew that when we would go into the studio, we would be ready. And when we did go into the studio, I said "We know the songs and let's do it exactly like what those guys would have done then, which is: “Don't worry about it. Let's have fun". 

I read that you and the band all stayed in your house together to rehearse and then you all went to Sun Studios to record the album.

Can you describe that experience together? What kind of energy would you say those experiences brought to the band, and were brought from the rehearsals into the recording process?


Chris Isaak:
Well, we were at my house first, and we have rehearsed and worked in the house for years. Downstairs is kind of like the “rumpus room”. It’s behind the garage, and it's just one big room with a bathroom on one end. It's got a piano, drums, stand-up bass, and a tiny guitar amp, and that’s about it. We would just go down there and play and sing. We would play for hours and then take a break. We would hang out in the kitchen, or make something to eat, hang out, tell stories, and shoot the bull.

At night, after playing together all day, you would think that it would get late and everybody would just want to go, but that wasn't always the case. There were times late at night when we would hear the piano player working on something, and then the bass player would slip down there too. It was seductive because people would be like "I want to go down there and play too.” And "Oh, they're playing something down there?" I'm going to go down and play.” We all just went down and played.

These guys are just an amazing band. They have this incredible ability to just listen. It's amazing how many people think that “being a musician” is all about how much they can play. But so much of it is about how much you can listen. I mean the good musicians listen and don't step on each other. I've heard bands where the piano player will play right through the singer's solo. I mean, right over the top of other players. It’s because they're not listening to anything, and they're just playing, playing, playing. And they'll play right over the guitar player and everything.

I feel very fortunate. My guys are amazing because they will actually leave you a big opening to play. And I like that. And I think that's what a lot of those early Sun records have that I love. When you listen to those records, they have the feel like the people on them are giving each other the space to play. They can hear each other and they're playing together in a room. It's not like overdubbing or something.

When you told the band about the kind of record you wanted make, how did they react?

Chris Isaak: They were thrilled. They all love this kind of music too, and they know I love singing it. We actually talked about doing it a couple of records back but I said "I don't want to do a Christmas record and then immediately do a “Sun Sessions” kind of record. I think I want to do my own original rock and roll record again to keep it all kind of balanced, and to show people that I didn't run out of songs to write. I wanted to do this kind of record purely because I love this kind of music". So I think that now was the right time.

We just had a ball doing it and I'm really glad we did it. Every time I would hear some else do a rockabilly record I would think "That's not the way I want to do it.” I love rockabilly, and I love rockabilly bands. But when I go hear them, and if every song starts the same, I just go "You know, if you really go back and listen to this music, there's lots of different melodies and lots of different songs.” I mean, I don't want to go out and hear somebody get up and sing "My baby's red hot/ She's got a red hot car/ Ooh yeah/ Ooh yeah/ Go, go" with generic-sounding rockabilly riffs that are really, really loud.

It's funny to hear you say that about rockabilly. I've been thinking a lot about when I go to see bluegrass bands play in some similar ways. I find myself less and less impressed with sheer speed, and focusing much more on melody, clarity, and the soul of the music.

Chris Isaak: I'm reading Ralph Stanley's book now. Have you read that?

Yeah. I loved it. It was such a great read!


Chris Isaak:
It's hilarious. (In a high-pitched Ralph Stanley voice): "I'm not going to hire anybody who's not from my side of the mountain.” He's a little cantankerous, but a lot of what he says is pretty right on. (Laughing)

I loved his introduction of the book where he warns the reader right off the bat that if you're the kind of person who can't deal with misspellings, improper English, and the way that he writes like he talks, then you should just put it down now!

Chris Isaak: (Laughing). Yeah, one of the things I really was drawn to was when he said "I'm going to make my music, my way.” And I agree that everybody should make their music their own way.

To me, that's exactly why Sam Phillips is so great. He didn't try to turn anybody into somebody else. He didn't try to make Elvis into Dean Martin. Anybody else would have. They would have said "Hey, we can make this Elvis into a “southern” Dean Martin.” I try to think what would have happened to Elvis if he walked into any other studio with some other producer other than Sam Phillips.

Sam Phillips had such an uncanny ability to see the talent inside the individual. Somebody else could have just as easily said "Let’s let's get him a little band combo and some strings and a horn and we'll have them do "Sway" with Elvis Presley doing it, but kind of like Dean Martin.”

And it would have probably been a big to moderate hit and made some people some money.

Chris Isaak: And you and I, being the music freaks we are, would be talking about music and records like this, and we would be going "Hey did you ever hear of a guy named Elvis Presley?”

Totally. (Laughing)

Chris Isaak: Thank God for Sam Phillips! I mean the best things about all of those records at Sun was that, for example, how he let Johnny Cash keep his band, even though they sounded a little funky.

When I started working on Beyond The Sun, I just went ahead and picked what was right for me. And I'm really happy, that in some ways, I picked some of the "pretty” Sun things that are too-often overlooked. A lot of times, people pick the fast tunes to do, but I really wanted to put in things like "How's The World Treating You" and "It's Now or Never”. These songs really show the pretty side of that music.

Those tunes are such a big part of the Sun vocabulary, and you're absolutely right: it is surprising that those songs are not performed by more people!

Chris Isaak: I don't know what the deal is. The only thing I can think of is maybe they are hard for some people to sing. To sing those songs, you really have to have a fair range. So maybe that's one part of it? Or, maybe people are uncomfortable with that amount of emotion? You know, today everything is so sarcastic and/ or tongue-in-cheek, that maybe some people are finding it difficult to just do a straight up love song.

I have no problem singing "How's The World Treating You" in a noisy bar, because even in a noisy bar, by the time you get three lines into it, people begin calming down and begin really listening.

Was there a song that was the most intuitive and most natural to you that you KNEW just had to be on the record?

Chris Isaak: I think some songs were new to the band. "Ms. Pearl" was one that no one had really heard before. But some were really challenging, like the ones that people may think are the simple ones.

"Ring of Fire" was one that we wanted to get our own feel to, while also getting it right. At one point I said "I want to use a B3 Organ on this" and they were like "There is no B3 on the original.” But I said "I think a B3 will sound great on this.” So, I did what I wanted to do, and I never felt like I was tied exactly to the originals. I just wanted it to feel like when somebody listened to it, they would think that it was just another guy who worked with Sam Phillips.

One thing I enjoyed the fact that it sounded like a Chris Isaak record, not a "Sun Records tribute" record. What was your philosophy starting out on the project?

Chris Issak: Thanks. We listened to records of all of these things and we learned them all. I told the guys in the band "I don't want us to do bar band version of these songs.” I think you have to learn the record so you can feel all of the good stuff, and then forget anything bad. Then, at that point, hopefully, you can bring something of your own to it that is new and good.

For me, I thought that I had an opportunity to do some Elvis songs, but I asked myself "What are you going to bring to it? If you can't bring anything to it, maybe you shouldn't touch it.”

That is good advice.

Chris Isaak: Man, Elvis is tough! You're never going to top Elvis or Orbison, or any of those guys. But then you can go do something different, or give one of those tunes a different feel that is yours.

So we learned the songs, and then when we went into the studio we weren't just playing them back or trying to match up to the originals. Our attitude was "Let's have fun.” And the more you do it, and the more you listen to the records, the more you just go into your own thing with the songs.

So by the time we went into the studio, I don't think anyone was worrying about things like "What is the original third verse?” I mean, we just didn't care about it in that way.

With all of the history behind these tunes, how did you put those aspects aside and follow your own vision while laying down your own interpretations?

Chris Isaak: I think that if you really want to pay tribute to those artists, you do it like they did with Sam Phillips. You go in the studio, have fun, and do it your own way. So at some point, yes, we're paying tribute by doing those songs, and we're doing it all in the basic styles of that studio, in that era, but I don't want to do an impression.

If I wanted to, I could do an impression of Elvis, or an impression of Orbison. But I don't want to do impressions of them. There were times when the band would pick out things that we were doing that were not like how they were on the originals, but I liked the way it sounded. There's not a B3 organ on Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire", but I said "I think it's going to be great. Let's try it!”

My favorite song on the record is "Forgot to Remember to Forget". We really had fun with that one. What I remember saying was “We have to have the guitar solo, but we're also going to have a piano solo too.” In my mind, it kind of feels like Jerry Lee and Elvis were in the same session. It's kind of sad that they didn't really do much recording together.

It's funny to think that all of those guys at Sun Studios couldn't get into the room together more than they did.

Chris Isaak: Jerry Lee Lewis is such a great singer and harmony singer too. He did a song with Charlie Rich.

(At this point, Chris Isaak begins to laugh and begins SINGING!)

"I'm gonna ride away tomorrow/ I'm gonna leave this world of sorrow/ I may live on an island in the sea/ I may find joy in some green valley/ Be a bum live in an alley/ Darling, I don't care if you're love is not there with me.”

I mean, I love it. "I may find joy in some green valley/ Be a bum, live in an alley (Laughing).” It's so cool to hear those guys sing together, and to hear Jerry Lee and Elvis sing in the harmonies with Carl Perkins in there. They were just so great together!

I actually just read a biography on the Carter Family, and one of my favorite parts of their story was when they were playing with Carl Perkins.

Chris Issak: I'm a big Carl Perkins fan. There's a song he did called "Her Love Rubbed Off". It goes: "See my baby walking through the park (bo-wow)/ See my baby after dark (cha-ba-bob)/ Her love rubbed off/ Her love rubbed off.” It's really mysterious and weird. It has this great “bending” guitar in it.

I asked Carl Perkins about the song, because if I wanted to sing it, I couldn't make out all of the words. I said "Carl, what is all of this about?" And Carl said "Chris, It's about a quart too many.” And I said "What?” And he said “Chris, I was drunk in the studio. I drank too much and went back into the studio at 2 in the morning and just started playing. That’s what it’s about.”

That is awesome.

Chris Isaak: It makes me think of when Carl Perkins' career kind of just fell apart, and when he said he was going to get out of the business, and Johnny Cash said "Come be my guitar player", and that kept him going for years. I mean, God Almighty! What a great guy to have! He's a great player, a great singer, and a great writer. There are a lot of great songs where you'll hear them and say "Wait. He wrote that song?"

That's so cool.

Chris Isaak: I think that when you're out there in the ship, and you can't see anything, you have to hold course. It's better than drifting around and looking to go left or right, because then you’ll find yourself going down in a circle.

If you listen to Johnny Cash's sound, or what people think of as Johnny Cash's sound, and I’m not saying this to be dismissive, but they think of the Sun sound. "Walk The Line": Sun Sessions. Real simple. The same thing with "Folsom Prison Blues": Sun sessions. All of those songs that he's really known by were all out of Sam Phillips' little room.

What's the room like at Sun Studios?

Chris Isaak: The room itself is very small. As a piece of architecture, it is not notable. If there wasn't anything in there, and you didn't know that it was Sun Studios, and I walked you in there and said "Do you want to rent this place?" You would probably say something like "Can't we find anything nicer?"

When you walk in the front door, it's just a small room that looks kind of like an office, and when you open the other door it opens up into the main room. The room is a very big room. The ceiling is acoustical tile and the floor is linoleum. Whenever I walk into a recording studio, I clap my hands to see how the sound bounces. When I walked in and clapped my hands I just said "Wow. This is going to be a great room". It has a great tone to it and really just has a great sound to it. For a four-piece or three-piece band, I think it's the best room, ever. Period.

We played in that room without headphones, just listening to each other, and you can just hear it. It sounds like a record. You just get excited. I mean, if you don't sound pretty playing, you're not going to give your best. But the room sounds fantastic!

Sometimes, we will go out and play a place live somewhere, and the sound is bad, but you have to be able to hit the notes so it sounds good out in the audience, even when it doesn't sound good to me up on stage. But when it sounds good it's always easier and more fun. I mean, when it sounds good when you're trying to hit a high note, chances are that you are going to go for hitting an even higher note. You just go for it. 

At Sun, I said "Man, this sounds great. I can do anything!" The studio makes you have that feeling. When you're in there playing, it's really exciting! It's like when I hear Elvis singing "Blue Moon", and he's just climbing up in the sky, I go "Yeah!" Because the room sounds so great, you want to hit it! 

What are your touring plans and the live show for your upcoming dates?

Chris Isaak: We've just been having a ball playing it live. The recording was us in a room, so it's easy for us to play it live together on stage. We go out and do our show, including songs like "Wicked Game" and “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing" and all of that stuff. But in the middle of the night, we bring out a stand-up bass and an upright piano. Then piano catches fire!

We also have an inflatable pin-up girl that comes out for "Pretty Woman". It's really fun and we want everyone who comes to have a great time. We just want you to come out, eat a corndog, and have fun.

Awesome. Well Chris, thanks so much for your time. As a fan of your work, it’s been a lot of fun talking with you about your new record. I'm looking forward to when you bring the show to New York City.

Chris Isaak: Yeah, that sounds great. Come on back and say "Hi". Thanks a lot Chris, and take care.

This post originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.

Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris plays the mandolin and drums, and teaches woodworking.

As a player, and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.

You can follow his posts here on No Depression, on his own blog: the Uprooted Music Revue at http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com/, and on UMR's Facebook page and twitter feed.

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Tags: Baja Sessions, Beyond The Sun, Carl Perkins, Chris Issak, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips, Sun Studio, More…Vangaurd Records

Comment by Tommie Staccato on November 11, 2011 at 4:19am

Thanx for the interview; when I listened first to it on the web I was pretty scared, it was a deception, so I was sceptical - but then - when the single record hit my dealer's place, the 2cd still not in sight, btw - and I listened to it on earphones - brilliant - and exactly what Chris tells ya in this interview; just one other remarque : on amazon.de , they - so far - did not even bother to point out that there are two versions - and it's Pretty Woman that I like a lot, and better than the Boss' version from the HOF concert with John Fogerty - ignorants !!

Comment by TenLayers on November 11, 2011 at 7:45am

I liked how he talked about his band members' ability to listen and give space to each other rather than play over one another.

It was shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1982 that I saw Chris play a small bar called The Stud.  The place was jammed beyond belief and no ventilation to speak of....it almost turned into some spiritual sweat lodge by the end because he was delivering the Message.  Great, great show.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.