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Chris Isaak

interview by Cynthia Robins

Chris Isaak

“My mom was a real eccentric. I really appreciate her. She gave me my ability to think I had a chance to be an artist, because she always talked about artists being good people. A lot of people don't. They talk about artists like they're junkies or deadbeats. They wouldn't want their daughter to marry one.

Six years ago, Chris Isaak and Silvertone were playing 5-hour-a-night gigs at small clubs like the I-Beam and Club Nine in San Francisco. They had a loyal following who just knew that, some day, this Stockton boy with the Gene Pitney voice, gaudy clothes, surfer physique, boxer's nose and Elvis pompadour would get to be a major star.

But stardom remained elusive until a dj in Atlanta named Lee Chestnut got hooked on a moody Isaak melody called "Wicked Game," which had been featured, sans lyrics, in the movie Wild at Heart. He was curious enough to look up the song and the rest of the Heart-Shaped World album—which, out for 18 months and not selling, was languishing in the cut-out bin. The song took off, due in part to Chestnut's obsessive airplay, but mostly because the atmospheric, black-and-white video, which featured the good-looking Isaak rolling around on Kona sand with an artistically unclad Helena Christensen, was taking up loads of airspace on MTV and VH-1.

The album, belatedly, went platinum, and Isaak and Silvertone were made. Last summer he and the band toured stadiums and huge halls with Bonnie Raitt and Tina Turner. They released a new album, San Francisco Days. And now, at 37, Chris Isaak is also on the brink of film stardom. This January, Isaak, who has appeared in small parts in Jonathan Demme and David Lynch movies, will be featured in the biggest role of his life in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha.

We caught up with Isaak at his favorite San Francisco eatery, the Irving Street Cafe, where the women who run the place treat him like their long-lost kid. It was a rainy afternoon and Isaak, dressed down in jeans and a smoky-blue wool shirt (which made his dark blue eyes even more swoonable) and a black leather biker jacket, ordered up a teriyaki burger, no mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes and a huge, frosty mug of orange juice. It's the same thing he orders there all the time. He says that he's a creature of habit.

Q: Since we last talked, six years ago, it's like your fondest wishes have come true. That's got to be a strange feeling.

CHRIS: I've been happy about everything that's happened. The music and the success with's been great. But you've got to keep on remembering what you're doing it for.

Q: What are you doing it for?

CHRIS: Because I like to make music. Like you say, time goes by pretty quick, and a lot of the rest of the stuff looks pretty small (in the long run].

Q: You still put the Tiki lights up during your shows and you still wear all those tie clasps on your lapel. Are you superstitious?

CHRIS: Not really. I don't feel superstitious. And I don't feel lucky. I always kind of felt like something bad would happen to me when a cat crossed my path, but I never walk into Las Vegas and think: "Man, this is my day." I never gamble... except with fashion.

Q: I don't know about that. You really gambled on a new guitar player. I can't tell you how many people were upset when you let Jimmy Wilsey go. Why did you do that?

CHRIS: I don't think "let go" is the way to put it. I still think Jimmy and I will be working together again. In fact, I called him probably a couple of times in the past week, but he's been in France.

Q: You hired a guy, Gregg Arreguin, who seems to be much more of a mainstream rocker than Jimmy.

CHRIS: I don't think he's more of a rocker. It's a different sound. It's pretty spooky, Gregg's guitar, pretty out there. It's a different thing. Not the same as Jimmy Wilsey. I don't think anybody will ever have the sound he's got.

Q: Was his sound too limiting? Did it put you in one place you couldn't get out of, artistically?

CHRIS: I don't think so. I think it was really more about that one tour and who was ready to go right then. And Jimmy had other things lined up that he was trying to get down (on tape]. We just had it out. Erik (Jacobson, Isaak's manager] and myself and the band, we all feel real good about Jimmy. I'm sure we're going to work together again.

Q: You have decided to stay in San Francisco, and you've called it being "isolated" from the music business. And the film business. There must be some reason.

CHRIS: I like San Francisco. Close to my family and friends.

Q: Is it possible to have a hot career without living in Los Angeles?

CHRIS: I hope so. I want to have a good career, but I don't want to have to live there. I don't think it makes a big difference if you're in Los Angeles. Bad air. Crowds of people. But the weather's nice. And I love that only in Los Angeles do they have places where they have colored lights on the plants outside. They point them up at palm trees, red lights, blue lights.

Q: Is the surfing better in L.A. than in San Francisco?

CHRIS: Never surfed down there. Always worked in L.A. Never played. Say, I'm going to China. Playing Hong Kong in about a week. We're going over to do a show, some MTV interviews. Should be good. We're going to be there for four days.

Q: This is not your first trip to the Orient. You spent a lot of time in Japan when you were a student. And then you recently spent time in Bhutan, right?

CHRIS: Bhutan is really fantastic. If you ever think things are too busy and your life is scurrying along at some surface level, that you're preoccupied with a lot of things that don't mean much, you go there. It's an agricultural economy. And there's no television. People's enjoyment at the end of the day is that they sit with their kids and eat. In some way, you go, "Wow, that's neat." It's just beautiful. Beautiful! Like someone built a community in the middle of a national park. Right in the middle of the Himalayas.

Q: How did you get the part in Little Buddha? Is it true you play Keanu Reeves' dad?

CHRIS: No. Not Keanu Reeves. He is Siddhartha. My son in the movie is a little 9-year-old white kid who may be the reincarnation of Buddha.

Q: The directors who have chosen you to work with are all pretty impressive: David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, and now Bernardo Bertolucci. What quality do these filmmakers see in you?

CHRIS: I don't know. I have no idea. Because I don't see anything in myself that is that special. Like Little Buddha—I think Bertolucci could have gotten 15, 20 other guys from Hollywood who could've probably done just fine.

Q: Bridget Fonda played your wife in the Bertolucci film. Is she cool?

CHRIS: She is cool. Even though she's littler than I am and younger than I am, she's as bull-headed as I am. And she can cry on cue. I don't know anybody (else] who can do it. They'd say, "Bridge, we're ready to do the take," and she'd look far away for a minute and the next thing I'd know, tears were running down her face and she was looking at me crying. I was ready to say, "OK, Bridget, let's not break up. Whatever you want. I'll buy you the dress. You're right, I was wrong." Tears do that to me.

Q: It destroys you to see people cry, or just women?

Chris IsaakCHRIS: Somebody I care about, if they're crying. I've had people I couldn't leave because I knew they'd cry and when they cry, I couldn't leave... so I'd sneak away. I did, I snuck away, but that doesn't work either.

Q: Look at the music you write. It's full of tears. Full of sentiment, recrimination. When you write stuff like that—and people obviously write what they know—does it make you feel better?

CHRIS: A little bit. What makes me feel better is when I get to the point where I can sing about it, at least I'm moving. When I'm really having a hard time, I can hardly move around or have the energy to pick up the guitar.

Q: Your music is moody. Your pictures, or the way your management has chosen to present you, is also very moody. But you don't strike me as a moody guy on stage.

CHRIS: When I'm doing my work I'm the most focused and the most together. My personal life has been rough, pretty much. People have said to me: "The songs you write, you must have been with terrible women," and it's not like that. If anything, I worry it must have been me.

Q: Do you have a girlfriend now?

CHRIS: If you mean, do I have a love life? No.

Q: Because of the Wicked Game video, a lot of women have had their fantasy life fed by you. I think they all fantasized being Helena Christensen who, I heard that you said, wasn't romantic with you at all.

CHRIS: What I really said about her was: "Look, the girl is an actress. It's a job. You should applaud her for how beautiful she was and what a good job she did, convincing you that it was real." She brought a sense of reality to it. I gave her a lot of credit. She was involved with a guy at the time.

Q: Were you sexually aroused?

CHRIS: Not really. And it wasn't because of her. She was not unappealing. She was beautiful. But to tell you the truth, they were literally throwing buckets of cold water on us. Literally. Sea water. We were standing by the ocean and they wanted us to look wet and damp and it was windy. If you look at us closely, we were covered in goose bumps and we're rolling around, like, half naked in the sand. (laughing) And her feet were bleeding. It was a rocky, rough coral beach. And she'd be looking at me all sexy-eyed and they'd go, "Cut," and you'd look down at her feet and they're bleeding. She never complained.

Q: Since you're food for women's fantasies, what is your fantasy about the perfect woman?

CHRIS: Somebody who would say, "Forever and ever," and really mean it. I have been with, without saying exactly who, one woman who was my fantasy. She didn't particularly turn heads. Not a model or an actress. She was short. Medium-length hair. Kind of skinny. Little bit bow-legged...but the stuff that was great was her sense of fun. She was really funny and really smart. When you're flirting and being charming, you have a persona that some people will look at and either like or be immune to your charm. They look at you and say, "What is that? That's obnoxious." Other people are close to your wavelength. Once in a while, you'll find someone who'll go: "That's exactly what I think charming is." The beautiful thing about this particular person was, when she was charming and amusing, it felt like a ton of bricks. Nobody else ever had the ability to nail me like that.

Q: I have heard that during your recent tour, when you were opening for Tina Turner, Tina's people didn't talk to you, that there was this kind of wall between you. What happened?

CHRIS: It wasn't only me. Someone said she'd worked with Robert Cray and she never said boo to him either. And then I heard that Aaron Neville worked with her and was upset because she didn't speak to him either. I don't know, maybe she's just shy. I'd been out on the road with Bonnie Raitt before and that spoiled me. Going out with her... to me, it was like having a sexy sister who teased me. She was real funny. Sexy. She's one of the guys. Know what I mean?

Q: And boy, if you could only play guitar like she does!

CHRIS: Or sing like she does. She's got a lot of talent. Since she's come up, even with a dad in show business, she's paid her dues. She's played a lot of places. She knows what it means to miss sound check. She doesn't screw around. She's there on time. She'll come back and eat in the cafeteria with everyone else. And she'll make jokes. Like, the last night with her on tour, I was singing and all of a sudden I heard the audience laughing and I looked over and she and her band and her road crew had come out on stage in coconut bras and grass skirts. They even had a dog in a grass skirt. Just came on stage and were singing along. So, it was really fun to be on tour with her. But in all fairness: Tina, I don't know what she's been through, I just heard she had some worries about security. I met her one time in a radio station in a hallway, and I've got to say, she was the nicest person you'd ever want to meet. Real friendly. She's real pretty. I don't know how old she is. People tell me she's over 50 and she looks just fantastic. She looks like guys should be chasing her.

Q: You've always had this great retro eye for clothes. Where does a 12-year-old kid in Stockton learn about thrift-shop chic?

CHRIS: Necessity is the mother of invention. All my clothes and stuff came out of the junk stores. My mom was a real eccentric. I really appreciate her. She gave me my ability to think I had a chance to be an artist, because she always talked about artists being good people. A lot of people don't. They talk about artists like they're junkies or deadbeats. They wouldn't want their daughter to marry one. I remember some parents would ask me when I went out with their daughters, "What do you do?" and I'd say, "Well, I'm trying to be a musician." And the parents would look at each other like: "Please, get him to" There's very little respect for musicians or artists. But there is a lot of respect for people who make money. And once you make some money, it's like even if you're in organized crime, if you make enough money, people respect you.

Q: You may look like a rocker, but you've got this reputation for being squeaky clean.

CHRIS: Well, I don't smoke dope. I don't do any drugs. But I am a troublemaker from Day One as far as questioning authority or if people make a rule I don't like, I'm right there on it.

Q: You come off like  this wise-guy on like MTV or VH-1. You do have a hard time being serious?

CHRIS: How can you be too serious about this? I'm real serious about some things. Somebody was reading me the paper yesterday about this young girl who got kidnapped. That's serious. I had a good, horrible cry about Polly Klaas. What I do is not serious at all. I make records. They are a distraction and an amusement for people. I make them for myself. I try to be honest and try to do my best job. But in the big picture, this is not curing tuberculosis or driving somebody with AIDS to go get a hot meal. I have to keep what I do in perspective. I'm a clown.

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