A Conversation with Chris Isaak
Mike Ragogna: How ya doing, Chris?
Chris Isaak: I'm doing good. It's a sunny day in San Francisco.
MR: And you're all excited about the holidays?
CI: I am! I made a Christmas album years back. You only get to sing Christmas songs one time a year and this is it. My drummer Kenny and I got together yesterday and we were singing Christmas songs all day. So we're ready.
MR: It's amazing, the department stores put up Christmas decorations before Halloween now.
CI: Yeah, I don't think I love it that much, but Thanksgiving on is usually fine.
MR: I think so too, but on the other hand, I think there's a little bit of a hangover after New Years where you just want it to be Christmas a little longer.
CI: Yeah, you're right. We actually did "Auld Lang Syne," too, so I'm covered up to New Years' even. I think I have one of the only Christmas albums that has "Auld Lang Syne," so mine's good for an extra week.
MR: Chris, you're kind of on a Christmas tour, right?
CI: Well, we put Christmas songs into the set, and I've got this mechanical Santa that we bring out. But I don't want to go and do Christmas songs and have somebody say, "He did 'White Christmas' but he didn't sing 'Wicked Game' or 'Blue Hotel' or 'Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing'" or something that they came to hear, so I try to do everything that people came to hear.
MR: Nice. And of course, you do "Blue Christmas."
CI: I do. I like singing "Blue Christmas," it's one of my favorites. Elvis did that, but do you know who else did a version? Ernest Tubb. If you listen to my version you'll hear influences from both.
MR: Hey, Chris, you know your music. What are some Christmas recordings we should know?
CI: I heard a song, it's called "Somebody Stole My Brand New Santa Suit." Have you heard that song? It's sort of by a jug band, and that's the whole story. "Man, I sure looked good in that Santa suit and someone ripped me off!" It's a hilarious song.
MR: It's by The Christmas Jug Band with Dan Hicks.
CI: That's it! That's the version I heard, it's Dan Hicks. He's a genius. He's hilarious.
MR: Yeah, do you remember his older stuff, too? All of his older records?
CI: I remember every time I saw him he'd bring down the house. He's a great entertainer.
MR: Commander Cody is in the same bag. They'd make a great double bill. Or a great double feature.
CI: I was going to say, Commander Cody and Dan Hicks had a bit of a crossover. They brought a lot of entertainment with them.
MR: Yeah. What do you think is the most overplayed Christmas recording ever?
CI: You know something, they only come once a year, so even when I hear, "White Christmas," every year, I'm happy to hear it. The song that always surprises me? Judy Garland did a Christmas song.
MR: Right, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
CI: Yeah, I recorded that song and when I was singing it, I went, "Wow." That's a really hard song to sing without breaking up. I got to the end of the song and I listened to the lyrics as I was singing it and I went, "This is a really sad song." It's like, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas" but it's like, "We'll try to muddle through 'til things get better." That's a tough one. I like Christmas songs that have that tough edge too because I think somebody said one time, "Christmas is one of the toughest times of the year because if you're not with Bing Crosby and your family having a turkey, then you feel like a tramp standing out in the cold looking in through the window at the family having a turkey. Do you know what I mean? That's why I wrote "Christmas On TV," What could be worse? Watching your ex-girlfriend or wife and she's in her house with his car parked out front and they're having Christmas.
MR: This sounds like the theme of the Rhino Collection Bummed Out Christmas.
CI: That's it.
MR: Speaking of awesome Christmas songs that are under the radar, there's a song on that collection that is amazing. The Everly Brothers were on RCA for like two albums and they did a song called "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" that was originally on Stories We Could Tell.
CI: [laughs] As somebody said once, "I'd listen to The Everly Brothers sing a phone book." I've met Phil Everly tons of times and he just couldn't be a nicer guy. Every time I meet him I introduce myself like, "Hi, I'm Chris Isaak, I'm a singer," because I'm nobody to him. He's Goddamn Phil Everly; he's like The Beatles. I always introduce myself because he probably meets so many people and I don't want him to have to do what I do sometimes. People come up and go, "Bet you don't remember me," and then you're kind of on the spot, right? So I always introduce myself. The last time I introduced myself, he looked at me and he said, "Chris. I know who you are. How's your mom doing? The last time we talked she was sick." I felt so happy. He's such a nice guy because he remembered me and he remembered my mom. Phil Everly singing anything I'll take.
MR: Yeah. I remember in the seventies he used to show up a lot as a background singer on various projects, plus he had a nice album, Living Alone.
CI: Why is it that the state of California can add a tax to me with no problem, they can just take my money and force me to run with it, and they can do that to anybody? I'm going somewhere with this, just follow me. Why can't we make a law that forces The Everly Brothers to perform again?
MR: [laughs] Great law, I'm in.
CI: Damn it, let's force them to perform. The state of California should pay them top price, we'll give them what they want. I just want to see them sing together again. They're the best singers of all time, you know? They're not playing together anymore, you know? My older brother and I sing together, he goes out on tour with me. I guess I'm lucky that I didn't have to sing with my brother my whole life. Those guys have done it since they were kids, so maybe they went, "Hey, we did it enough."
MR: Well, they're famous for one particular breakup, that's for sure. When you look at the acts they influenced, you get Simon & Garfunkel, you get The Hollies, you get some of the best vocal duos of all time.
CI: And I always think, "What do they listen to?" Did they listen to The Louvin Brothers?
MR: I think they might have, I can't remember. I'm imagining they did because the family also had a radio show.
CI: You know, I almost called my Christmas album Satan Is Real, and I wanted a picture of me in front of a burning Santa, like The Louvin Brothers' album.
MR: [laughs] Oh, wow, Satan Is Real, right.
CI: The people at the record company went, "Chris, only eight people will get that reference," and I said, "Yeah, but they're really going to like it!"
MR: [laughs] That has to be one of the best album covers of all time.
CI: I love the album cover. They said it was so toxic they almost died, they were standing next to a bunch of burning tires. Classic.
MR: Chris, you're going to be touring, but when are you going to put out another Christmas album?
CI: I actually have the songs for it. I love writing Christmas songs. It's easy for me, I really get into it. I remember my manager saying, "That's enough." She said, "If you write one Christmas song that's plenty for an album." I said, "I wrote five" and she said, "Nobody writes five Christmas songs! You're nuts."
MR: One for each forthcoming Christmas album, good.
CI: [laughs] I've got plenty of other Christmas songs I'd like to cut, I've got a new album. Right now, I drive around and I've got four CDs that I made of compilations of new songs that I'm working on. I have four CDs of new songs and I'm trying to pick out of those the ones that I want to turn into real songs for the album. Some of them are good, and some of them, I laugh so I hard and say, "What am I thinking?" It's crazy stuff.
MR: Does this particular batch that you're working on lately tend towards a certain style?
CI: You know, I've always written songs the same way. I just try to come up with the best melody I can. I want something a little different, I don't like to come up with the same standard thing, but I want a good melody and good words and that's it. The only thing on top of that I like to have is some energy. My pet peeve is records that start slow and then get sleepy. Downer kind of records. Maybe other people like that in their life, kind of real slow, low-beat lugubrious things, but I want some energy in a record because I find that helps me get through the day. You can have a couple of ballads, but you've got to have some energy on the thing.
MR: You recorded "Mele Kalikimaka," which tells me you had that classic Bing Crosby Christmas album with The Andrews Sisters.
CI: It's funny. I'm going to tell you something that nobody else knows about this--if you listen, in the background, it's got this Hawaiian chanting, right? I went, "I want that chanting sound I've heard on Hawaiian records, but I don't want to just make up words," because that's as bad as the old movies where the natives are just making up gibberish. So I said, "I can't just make it up," and I don't know anybody who speaks the Hawaiian language, so I went out and got a Hawaiian dictionary and I looked up words that were "red" and "green" and I looked up all these different Christmas words to see which words had the right amount of syllables and I put them in there. The background is at least my attempt not to have gibberish but to at least have some Hawaiian words. Once again my manager's like, "You know, nobody cares but you," and I go, "Yeah, but I don't want to offend some Hawaiian dude who actually speaks the language and goes 'Why's he making fun of me?'"
MR: [laughs] You don't want to do the F Troop version of Hawaiian Christmas.
CI: Although anything that Larry Storch was in, I'm for.
MR: Me too.
CI: I actually met Larry Storch in Vancouver. He could not have been a cooler guy. Just hilarious in real life and a sweet man. He came out and he said, "I wanted to say hi. I was laying in bed with my wife, we were watching TV and we were watching you do an interview, and my wife said, 'That guy's a nice guy. I think he's probably smart.'" Larry said, "Yeah, he does seem really smart." On the interview, they said, "Chris, what are you trying to do?" and I said "I'm just trying to be the next Larry Storch, but I'll probably fall short." He says they both looked at each other and went, "He's a genius!"
MR: The comedic timing that guy had was genius.
CI: Do you know who Lord Buckley is? He was a comedian. He did records in the fifties, he was kind of a jazz-speaking comedian. He spoke in the lexicon of the jazz world and he did these spoken word oratories that were just funny. He's a hilarious guy, and Larry knew him. It was interesting to meet somebody who actually met one of these people who you go, "Oh my god, that guy?" He goes deep. He's not just F-Troop, believe me.
MR: Two things about Lord Buckley, he influenced Tom Waits and Jimmy Buffett. Bob Dylan once said, "Buckley was the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels." What a sound too.
CI: Yeah, he has a great voice, very sonorous. I love it when you listen to someone talk and you want to keep listening. Buckley really had that, somewhere between a bebop guy and Sydney Greenstreet.
MR: Classic album, Hipsters, Flipsters And Finger-Poppin' Daddies.
CI: You put it on and you go, "Oh, that guy!"
MR: Right. Hey, Chris, what are your Christmas plans this year?
CI: My plans are to see my mom for Christmas. For years, every Christmas, my mom would make ravioli, and that was a highlight. My mom's Italian and she really can cook. I know people always say, "My mom's a great cook," but when my mom cooks and she puts the ravioli on the table, everything stops. Nobody talks because they're stuffing it in their face as fast as they can and looking at other people thinking, "I wish you'd die so I can eat your portion." She's such a good cook, so come the holidays, we all go back and hang out with her. My dad passed away about two years ago. It's a little bit sad because he's not there, but it's great to see the rest of my family. When you're a kid, it's all about the presents you get, but when you're older, it's all about the family. The cool thing is I go back and I have a nephew and a great nephew, so I'm able to buy toys for them. My nephew's five and I dressed up as Santa Claus. I did that unwillingly. My mom had the Santa Claus suit and said, "You should put this on." I was like, "Ugh, mom." But she said, "Go in this garage, put this on. It's Christmas, have a little spirit!" I put on the suit that she got from Goodwill from like 1950, and it was awesome. It's a full Santa suit with gloves and things that clip onto your shoes to make them look like black boots with belts, the whole deal. It looked awesome! I put the pillow under the suit and the beard, and I walked into the house and everybody's standing around and I'm thinking "They're going to look at me like, 'What a jerk, here comes Chris in a Santa suit.'" I'm kind of halfway into it and I look across the house and my little great nephew looks at me and you just see him gasp, he can't even breathe because he's seeing Santa Claus. It's not like "There's a guy in a cheap suit," or "There's my great uncle," it's like, "There's Santa," and I was like, "Okay, I've got to get into this." I walk in and I say, "I'm here to give out toys and I hear there's a good little boy here? He was just like, "That's me!" and I went, "Yep, as long as there's kids there's going to be Christmas."
MR: Chris, I have to ask you once more, what advice do you have for new artists?
CI: Get in a band and play every dive and honky-tonk you can find because not only will it teach you how to tune your guitar and put on a show, but you're going to have a ball. Look at me. I'm still doing it!
MR: Beautiful. Happy Holiday Chris!
CI: Have a good holiday.
2013-12-10 Boulder, CO - Boulder Theater
2013-12-13 Waukegan, IL - Genesee Theatre
2013-12-14 Kent, OH - The Kent Stage
2013-12-16 Charlotte, NC - Knight Theatre
2013-12-17 Durham, NC - The Carolina Theatre
2013-12-20 West Palm Beach, FL - Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
2013-12-22 St. Petersburg, FL - The Mahaffey
2013-12-27 Rancho Mirage, CA - Agua Caliente Casino
2013-12-28 Sparks, NV - The Rose Ballroom at The Nugget
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
"BABY I'M BROKEN" BY THE RECORD COMPANY
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