Music News

The Gentleman Classicist

It's been almost 25 years since Chris Isaak slipped his debut album, Silvertone, on to the pop music scene, but it could just as easily have been yesterday — or a half century ago. Why? Because Isaak, 52, carries the torch of tradition — steady, ready, and steeped in the kind of cultural history that is larger than nostalgia. Sure, you can hear echoes of Roy and Elvis and Hoagy throughout his work, yet his sound is not so much a throwback as it is timeless.

His music is also explicitly cinematic. The songs "Gone Ridin' " and "Livin' for Your Lover," both off that first LP, helped hue Blue Velvet for David Lynch, as did Isaak's massive hit, "Wicked Game," for Lynch's 1990 film, Wild at Heart. And thanks to a tip from Nicole Kidman, not only did Stanley Kubrick employ the dirty ballad "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" as a sort of de facto theme for his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, but Tony Scott chose to run Isaak's "Two Hearts" over the end credits of True Romance — perhaps the most violently beautiful love story ever set to screen.

And it's not only Isaak's songs that have made movie magic either; his mug's been featured in such flicks as Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Of course, there was the three-year run of Showtime's The Chris Isaak Show for television as well.

New Times was happy to get the California-based crooner to answer some questions via email (gotta protect the voice!) before his Pompano Beach show. Here's what he had to reply:

New Times: When's the next record coming out, and what's it going to be called?

Isaak: I don't have a title yet. I have a bunch of great songs but no title. I think it should be out around Christmas if I work hard and we don't have good surf...

You've long covered Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" — any other covers we can expect?

I never know what to expect when we play live... I have thrown in everything from "Sweet Leilani," an old Hawaiian tune we did on the Baja Sessions album, to songs that we never recorded and might not. The nice part of having a live show with a band of guys that know all the tunes is we change it up according to the audience, the night, and height of the tides.

When was the last time you played South Florida, and where did you perform?

I would have to ask my drummer; he is the band historian. I do know it has been too long, and it is time to come back.

Do you recall a monthlong residency on the fourth floor (Congo Bill) of Danceteria in New York? I caught at least four of those shows.

I can't believe that anybody saw us at Danceteria! I remember the power would go off all the time and we would do drum solos and sometimes I would tell long stories until the amps would light up again. I also recall an elevator that needed a full-time operator, and she was this pretty little punk girl with a Mohawk who screamed at everyone to leave the elevator alone. I of course always hopped in and ran it myself.

Any movies in the works?

I did a movie in Uruguay this year [The Informers]. It has Winona Ryder, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke. I'm in it a little too, but not enough to mess anything up. It should be interesting with that cast. I don't know the release date. I usually miss openings because I'm off someplace singing.

What's on your iPod these days?

I don't have an iPod, but I have been listening to Nicole Atkins. She is the best singer you are gonna hear in a long time. Really, really worth checking out!

What books are you reading on the road?

I read Atlas Shrugged. I like that it lasts a whole tour! I also read Oxford American magazine. They always have great stuff about... music, film... damn near anything cool is covered there.

What was the last movie you saw?

I just watched Ocean's 11 (with Dean and Frank and Sammy), and I think when people today try to put a cigar in their mouth and a hat on their head they still fall short of these classic hipsters. But we keep on trying.

You said Best of was compiled to make a "good driving mix" — that said, what model car would you prefer to drive?

I have a '64 Chevy Nova. When I take a long trip in it, I usually bring my boom box and plug it in the cigarette lighter. Great ride, and room for lots of guitars, amps, or surfboards.

Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings?

Merle Haggard I had the pleasure to meet out on the road. We were both playing at different ends of a small shopping area in two different theaters. He played a little earlier than us, so I snuck out and saw his show. He has written so many classics... and then talking to him, he couldn't be a nicer, down-to-Earth guy. I asked him about a prison he "attended" as a kid, one that my folks would point at and warn me "bad boys go there." It scared me enough that I stayed out of trouble.

Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds?

Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, both classic. Just met Debbie while doing a TV show; she is as cute and wild as ever. A born performer. I would like to meet Doris Day. I hear she is a big lover of animals and has done a lot to help animal rights. She sounds like a class act.

Peggy Lee or Dusty Springfield?

I have Peggy Lee in my car all the time... well, at least the recording. She really can sing so... pretty... and you still believe it came from the heart. That is all I could ask for.

Gentleman Jim Corbett or Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini?

As far as boxers, I will say my favorites all have great nicknames. Tommy "Halfamellon" Tedulle, Darrel "Pieman" Jones. You gotta have a nickname.

Somebody Up There Likes Me or Requiem for a Heavyweight?

Requiem for a Heavyweight is great; love the live TV version with Jack Palance. Rod Serling could write better than he thought he could.

Raging Bull or Rocky?

Raging Bull and Rocky, both great. I love a good fight film. I think there is one called The Set Up with Robert Ryan; that is my favorite.

Blue Hawaii or Viva Las Vegas!?

I can't rate Elvis films. Won't try.

Nashville or Memphis? Luaus or rodeos? Planes or trains? Long board or short?

If someone offers me a trip to Nashville or Memphis and says we are going to start at the Sands or the Flamingo, then stop off for a rodeo or a luau and we will be taking a train, then I will bring my long board and head out.