Retro rock, rockabilly and pop crooner Chris Isaak gives good e-mail.
Under normal circumstances, I loathe doing interviews via e-mail and all of the rushed, impersonal one-word answers that typically go with ’em: “Yes.” “No.” “Boise at night, with lots of maple syrup.” But Isaak — who requested an e-mail interview to ensure his “Wicked Game” falsetto stayed intact for a performance on his “Best of Chris Isaak” tour — wound up the entertaining antidote to the crappy e-mail interview.
The full-time musician/part-time actor known for his love-lost and love-drenched rockers and ballads replied from a City of Light tour stop armed with a wicked, sarcasm-dripping sense of humor, and apologies.
“I would write more,” he teased, a week or so away from a Saturday show at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. “But I’m sitting in a hotel in Paris and I’ve got to get down to the Moulin Rouge before all the good can can dancers leave. … That’s me, always supporting the arts!”
His swingin’ answers to my questions follow, baby.
How do I know this is really you e-mailing me answers?
Hmmm … I’m probably the only one who has ever seen you in a dress or knows you by the nickname “Yolanda.” Is that good enough? Besides, who else would be doing this? A guy in India? Elvis? No. Just me. Hey … how do I know it’s really you asking the questions? Yolanda?
You surf on tour whenever you’re able. Have you surfed here in Hawai’i?
I have surfed in Hawai’i, and it was great. I surfed on Moloka’i and the folks were very nice and the surf so different from back home. In San Francisco it is always cold and foggy and there’s never anybody out but me.
Do you have a good Chris-Isaak-surfing-in-Hawai’i story you can share?
I did go surfing one day and thought I was doing pretty good, then saw a couple of little girls paddle past me and take off on a wave bigger than anything I would ever ride. I spent the rest of the day building a sandcastle on the beach. I wear plenty of the zinc on the nose just to give me the full tourist thing.
You did eight studio albums before putting together “Best of Chris Isaak.” Hilary Duff did the deed after just two studio albums. Would it be fair to say you were reluctant to put out a “best of” set?
I think it is fair to say I’m no match for Hilary Duff.
What made you finally give in to doing a “best of” disc?
You make it sound like making love with the village idiot. “Give in” doesn’t describe it. I put on oils and came willingly to the party. I even brought four new songs, and I was happy doing it. I like making records!
One of my favorite songs of yours — “Don’t Make Me Dream About You” — didn’t make the “Best of Chris Isaak” final cut. Did you feel the need to mess with my enjoyment of the disc or do you simply dislike the song?
OK … busted. We were just messing with your mind, Derek. Did you hear the backward singing — “Derek … It is me … open up your mind and let your freak flag fly?” Whew. Nothing gets by you, baby. You are a one-man backstop.
I was happy you decided to include “Somebody’s Crying,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Can’t Do A Thing (to Stop Me)” on the disc, though. In the liner notes, you write that you composed “Somebody’s Crying” in a closet. Should I be inferring anything else from this story?
Uh … that I write wherever the spirit finds me? What are you so timidly hinting at, son?
Your acoustic version of “Forever Blue” on “Best Of ” is devastating. And I mean that in a good way. What made you want to revisit the song, and in such a spare way?
I had been doing an acoustic version of the song live sometimes. … And like most of my songs it starts with just me and a guitar so it feels pretty natural to play that way. I had fun. I got to record it myself in my living room. I found out that the best time to record is about four in the morning — the doorbell rings less — and that all my chairs squeak.
Are you really the hopeless romantic dude in your songs? Because I have a good friend who says she can cure that for you.
Sure, give me your friend’s name and I will tell her all about it. … Hey. Wait. It isn’t Yolanda, is it?
How many times have you been dumped, and what was the worst excuse someone ever gave for why she was dumping you?
I never counted the times I was dumped. But the worst reason was probably when the girl told me she was moving to Norway and her twin sister was going to be coming to school in her place. And then her twin wouldn’t even talk to me either! Holy smokes!
How else have you suffered for your art?
I think most of the suffering comes before you get to do your art. When you are putting on roofing or throwing hay or setting tile, you do all that stuff to buy the guitar and eat while you are trying to get somebody to listen. And most people hear somebody that they know singing or writing and just look at ’em with that “you-are-never-going-to-make-it-but-you-don’t-know-it” look. If you like doing it, you just go on.
Besides yourself, whom do you consider to be a musical genius among all musical geniuses — a Yoda of musical geniuses, if you will?
Well, I don’t consider myself a genius at anything. I work hard, and if I work hard and show up early, I can be in the game. But genius would be … Chopin … Lennon and McCartney … oh, and that guy (Cole Porter) that wrote “Begin the Beguine.” Listen to those lyrics. That man has got more “what you need” than he needs.
You occasionally dabble in acting. What part in any film in history would you have killed for, and how would Chris Isaak in the role have made the character way cooler?
There are a bunch of films I would have loved to have been in. “Night of the Hunter.” “Miracle on 34th Street” (I would have played Santa). And any of those Hitchcock movies with Cary Grant. Yeah, I would have loved to have been in them. But I would have wrecked ’em. I think we all like to imagine ourselves in the roles our heroes play. But having been in some movies, I think it is harder than it looks. I’m just glad when I hit my marks, know my lines, and they let me off for lunch on time.
Your character Special Agent Chester Desmond disappeared in a flash of bright light midway through “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” while looking for homicide clues in a trailer park. Did you do something on the set to tick David Lynch off?
No. David and I are pretty good friends. He is such a nice guy (that) I honestly don’t think he has any enemies. But you did catch something that I often wonder about. In the script I was supposed to disappear in a flash of light that was otherworldly. But just before we shot the scene I heard these huge lights they brought in just “pop” and give out a whiff of smoke. Then David and the special-effects guy had a long talk and David sort of shook his head and said, “Oh. … OK. … Well, we’ll shoot it like this then.” I always wondered what went on.
You filmed the video for “Wicked Game” on our Big Island’s Puna coastline, very close to where lava from the Kilauea eruption was spilling into the sea. What was hotter: the steam rising from the molten lava entering the ocean or yours and Helena Christensen’s molten passion for one another?
We shot right next to the lava flow, and I noticed that the Hawaiian fellas that were the park ranger guides never got near where we were standing. On the second day of shooting when we went back, the whole area we had been shooting in was gone.
Helena was only pretending to like to wrestle with me on the beach. But I enjoyed it for the both of us. She still looks as good as she did in the video.
Were you even a little grossed out by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman making out to your “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”?
Not one little bit, baby.
Did Kubrick call you up personally to ask for the song or ever tell you why he dug it or how he was gonna use it?
I got the call backstage at “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” I was just about to go on and someone asked if I was interested in having my song in a film. I asked who the director was and they said, “Uh … A guy named Kubrick.” I asked what the scene was and they said, “Nicole Kidman is stripping.” I said yes, and did they need any extras or stunt work.
Please share some of the guilty pleasures in your music collection or on your iPod and what you see in each that others can’t?
I like Nino Tempo and April Stevens. They sing great harmony. They had some great hits in the ’60s and people love them when they hear them but don’t get enough of a chance to.
I also love Connie Francis. Get her greatest hits record and put it on. Man, nobody sings better. I think people pass her by because they think of her as not rock enough, but she swings and outsings ’em all.
What are some other guilty pleasures you have that aren’t music-related?
Sardine sandwiches. Nobody seems to like sardines anymore, but I like ’em, so the hell with it. More for me.
Oh, and here’s one for you to try — (an) avocado milkshake. I was bringing them by to my neighbor when he was losing weight. He was 86 and the first time I told him I was bringing him an avocado shake he looked at me like I was crazy. But he dug it when he tried it.
I was really impressed by your honky-tonk cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” on “Best of Chris Isaak.” If you did an all-covers CD, what would your dream track list include?
“You Win Again” by Hank (Williams). Maybe a couple of Jerry Lee Lewis songs. I just did a duet with him and he still is “The Killer.”
It’s been, like, four years. When is your next CD of original work coming out?
I have a bunch of new songs ready, and if I get a few months I can finish a record. I am really excited because I think I have some pretty songs and a great band. That’s all you need to have a good time.
Should we be looking for you on television in a pilot? Perhaps in a theater near you?
I have some offers to do another TV show. We did “The Chris Isaak Show” for three years and it was a lot of fun and lots of work as well. I didn’t know there were two six o’clocks in a day until I did TV work.
You can have all the ink you want here, Chris. Why, in your humble opinion, should anyone who hasn’t already bought a ticket to see what’s sure to be a stunning performance by you at Honolulu’s Blaisdell Concert Hall run out right now and buy one?
We have a real band. We have been together for 20 years. OK — a little more — and we love playing live. We play fast, slow and we make it a show and a party. And if you have a cheap seat we hang around after so you can say “hi” and shake hands. And we start on time.
What would you write on my well-worn copy of “Forever Blue” post-show since we’re all, like, friends and stuff now after this e-mail interview?
“Yeah. Derek. Chris.” Ya know, I worked with Chet Baker once. And after the sessions I asked him to sign my copy of the music. He wrote, “Yeah. Chet Baker.” I think it may be my favorite autograph.
Guys don’t usually say this to one another, but you look fabulous for a guy who just turned 50. What’s your secret?
Thanks, baby, back at ya. My secret is I like what I do, and I guess I never got side tracked with booze or pills or things like that. I just keep swinging. What else can ya do?
Will you play my wedding next year? It’s in the spring. It’s in the country near some surf spots. And we’ll feed you.
Well, I have a lot of commitments, so it is hard to say now. But bring along your bride-to-be and we can throw in a free total body massage at the concert. For her, not you. You’re too loose as it is.
Published: The Honolulu Advertiser, October 20, 2006