Chris Isaak Talks NYCB Theatre at Westbury Show, His Love of Music & Johnny Cash

Chris Isaak
Singer/guitarist/eye candy Chris Isaak

Songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, actor, director and bandleader Chris Isaak is in the process of crisscrossing the Northeast, with stops on eastern Long Island, Connecticut, then back to Long Island for an appearance at the NYCB Theater at Westbury on Sunday, September 7.

Chris Isaak’s music entered my life when I first heard “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” released in 1986. It’s a fantastic, dark and original take on love and obsession, not the musical flavor of the day. The following year he performed at Jones Beach Theater (opening for the Thompson Twins), and remains a regular visitor to Long Island. His music may evoke sounds of many genres and eras, but his themes of love and romance are universal, his sound is timeless. And his shows are a here-and-now blast.

Isaak exchanged emails with me (WALK-FM’s David North) in-transit to a recent appearance on eastern Long Island.

DAVID NORTH: Welcome back! During a tour, not so long ago, I was having a conversation at WALK-FM with a gentleman in his 80s (Long Island Swing Music authority, the late Jack Ellsworth), and an intern, a 19-year-old woman. I mentioned I was going to see you in concert; neither of them recognized your name. I took a shot at singing, “But AYYYYYYYE don’t wanna fall in love…” They both lit up. He, a Bing Crosby fan, said, “Oh yeah, I know him—he’s great!” She said, “Oh yeah—I love him!”

(Note: Mr. Ellsworth, then-host of “Memories in Melody” on WALK-AM, had received a promotional recording of Isaak’s “Baja Sessions,” including a version of a Crosby classic, “Sweet Leilani,” and with open ears he decided Isaak “has it.” I suspect our intern wanted to share it…)

When you recorded “Wicked Game,” and stepped away from the studio that day, did you know you’d created a cross-generational, pan-demographic, fashion-proof musical masterpiece?

CHRIS ISAAK: “I’m so happy that people enjoy the music! I’m not sure exactly why I always write; I have been making up songs since I was about 12… But it really feels great if somebody hears it and gets it… it’s something that always makes my day! I never know what song is going to be a hit, but I can tell when we play some songs live that people are reacting profoundly.

“Before ‘Wicked Game’ was a hit or a video (recorded 25-years-ago) I remember playing it out and the reaction was so strong I went to the record company and asked to make a video. I never asked them for anything, and they turned me down! But it all ended great, so I have no complaints!”

[Note: Ended great? “Wicked Game” was MTV’s Most Sexy Video for decades; it’s the “Stairway to Heaven” of sexy-video countdowns!]

DAVID NORTH: Did you feel pressure to produce another global smash—or did the success of ‘Wicked Game’ assure you that you’d arrived, and bring you the confidence to express yourself as an artist, not simply as a performer? “Baby Did a Bad, Bad, Thing,” “Notice the Ring” and “We Let Her Down” are not Moon-in-June tunes.

CHRIS ISAAK: “I always just try to start by making a record that I like….then later I hope like hell other people agree!”

DAVID NORTH: What’s the sound and flavor of this tour?

CHRIS ISAAK: “Ha! I’m not sure about the flavor…um…American roots Rock n Roll with a side of Romantic Ballads? I have had this band almost 30 years, the guys know all the music, hell they made the records! We just have fun every night, I always try to throw a few songs in that my guys don’t expect… I think it keeps us all on our toes.”

DAVID NORTH: Your band, Silvertone: Listening to your recordings and seeing you performing together, it’s like enjoying the work of an All-Star at every position. You guys are a great BAND!

Your guitarist Hershel Yatovitz brings it all: exuberance, soulfulness, romance, an aggressive sound or a wistful sound, it’s his sound, but it’s YOUR sound. Kenny Johnson’s drumming and harmony vocals are always solid, but it must be daunting for him to drum and support a famously versatile singer. Scott Plunkett’s keyboards and Rowland Salley’s bass are skillful yet subtle; always appropriate. Editors call that quality “elegance.” And every member of the band is the subject—or the butt—of a good joke or story.

How did you find the right people to bring what you hear in your mind, your sound, to life? Was it similar influences, hard-fought collaborations, or do they just “get” you? When you play together, you play… together!

CHRIS ISAAK: “I am so proud of these guys; good men on and off stage. It makes all the difference in the world to have a real band not just hired musicians who learned the songs a day ago.

“These guys have a lot of musical influences in common, but it’s great that each brings something extra to the mix, for example my Cuban percussionist Raphael (Padilla) has probably picked up a lot of Elvis and Johnny Cash from me and he has shown me more about Cuban music than I even imagined… and we all laugh at the same jokes. If you have a band and one guy doesn’t laugh at the jokes… you have a problem. You might need a new band member… or better jokes…”

DAVID NORTH: You mention Elvis and Johnny Cash… The wonderful thing about being our age (somewhere near “middle”) is the gift of finding inspirations from EVERY generation. Who continues to inspire you?

CHRIS ISAAK: “There are lots of great singers, I keep hoping Nicole Atkins will get the hit she deserves and then everyone will know her. She is amazing, and hails from Neptune City, New Jersey. [Note: Nicole Atkins has a similar “circa ‘63” vibe; with flavors of Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and contemporary Neko Case.] I also still listen to a lot of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Orbison, Johnny Cash… I still love that music I grew up on.”

DAVID NORTH: Isaak has a strong connection with movies and movie-making. “Wicked Game” exploded into pop-culture history after director David Lynch used the song in his film Wild at Heart. “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” is remembered and enjoyed long after Stanley Kubrick exploited the tune in his final film Eyes Wide Shut.

Isaak also had significant roles in films by directors as diverse as Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha), Tom Hanks (That Thing you Do) and John Waters (A Dirty Shame). He directed episodes and starred in his own Showtime series, The Chris Isaak Show, about a musician very-much like Chris Isaak, and his adventures.

Will we see you acting and directing again?

CHRIS ISAAK: “I hope so, it’s a lot of fun. I turned down a lead in a musical movie, it sounded like fun but I didn’t think the music was right. I guess my dream would be to be in some black and white film noir… my movie heroes were always Robert Ryan or John Garfield… I pull for the underdog every time.”

DAVID NORTH: I hear the Ryan/Garfield influence in some of your songs, “the Desperate Man in Doomed, Epic Romance.” Many are very-much like mini-film noir movies! The happy songs can be screwball comedies.

You did some boxing as a younger man, and you’ve told stories about bicycling during downtime while on tours; do your ride here on Long Island, or surf our South Shore?

CHRIS ISAAK: “I’m in the surf plenty when I’m in San Francisco, either surfing or fishing. I bring home lots of sand, sometimes mussels and rock crab. Usually when I’m on tour I save my energy for the show! We don’t stand still on stage; I’m not really sure how it happens but I know by the time I come off stage every night my shirt looks like I’ve been swimming!”

DAVID NORTH: You guys have some choreography in your show, and your touring outfits are great to look at but must weigh a ton! Tell the truth: The Chris Isaak Show; “Gary Shandling”—or “Jack Benny?”

CHRIS ISAAK: “Wow! I’m honored to be mentioned in the same breath. I read Jack Benny’s biography on my last tour, I’m reading Bing Crosby’s on this tour… I love the stories of their lives because entertainers really haven’t changed in 100 years—you travel, you do your show and hope they like you, and then you go.

“I was on Gary Shandling’s show and I will always remember how nice he was, really a low-key, smart, funny guy… but just nice. I remember him calling me into his office, offering to share his lunch with me and just hanging. It’s nice when people you like on stage turn out to be really likeable up close. Ain’t life grand?”

DAVID NORTH: What do you look forward to when you visit Long Island?

CHRIS ISAAK: “The fall foliage and an ebullient crowd!”

“Postscript: Sorry about the spelling but I’m on a moving bus! All the best, your singing pal Chris Isaak THANK YOU VERY MUCH!”

Chris Isaak will be performing Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014 at NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury. His show kicks off at 7 p.m. and tickets are $49.50 & $69.50. For more information about the gig, past shows and future amazing performances at NYCB Theatre at Westbury, check out their website and their page in The Island Ear.