The music on his new album has been in Chris Isaak’s life since his boyhood.
“My dad had records from Sun Studio,” he told The Star recently. “I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Later on, I remember being 14 or 15, and I was at a secondhand store with my mother, and you could get a stack of records for a dime. I remember finding a 45 (rpm) of ‘I’ll Never Let You Go,’ and that record knocked me out.”
An inspiration to record his new album came to Isaak unexpectedly more than 10 years ago as he was reading a magazine article.
“I was reading the ‘Oxford American,’ a great, great music magazine,” he said. “It’s like getting four years of ‘Rolling Stone’ all in the same magazine. I was reading an article about Sam Phillips, and toward the end, someone asked him what he was listening to. And he said some very nice things. He said he listened to me, and he really liked my music. It brought a tear to my eye.
“It’s about as good as it gets. Sam Phillips is one of the reasons I went into music.”
At the very least, Phillips, the legendary producer and owner of Sun Studio and Sun Records, is the reason Isaak made his new album, “Beyond the Sun,” a collection of songs from the star-studded Sun Records catalog. Issak didn’t just make a tribute album. He and his band went back to the source, to Sun Studio in Memphis, to record the project, although it took some reconsidering.
“I’m not much of a touchy-feely guy,” he said. “I’m pragmatic. When I go into a studio, I usually blow out the candles and turn on the lights. At first I thought, ‘Why record at Sun Studio? I have a microphone at my house.’
“But I went into that room and went, ‘This is a great-sounding room.’ You can sing in there and it sounds beautiful. The kind of music it was built for, three- or four-piece bands, really sounds wonderful. It sounds bigger than any place I’ve ever recorded.”
Issak’s plan, as much as there was one, was simple: Make a list of songs and go in and record them.
“My big picture was in a small frame,” he said. “It was, ‘Sure. Why not make this list of songs that would be fun to sing and record them in that great-sounding room at Sun? And do it all in one take, with no overdubs, no headphones. Everyone walks in and plays.’
“I’ve always wanted to try something like that. I came into music at a time when everyone was doing the opposite — using drum machines and overdubs — which aren’t my things. This way works perfectly. My first instinct was to go in, have fun and do things the way I feel like doing them. It’s pretty true to the spirit of Sam Phillips.”
The process came with some requirements, like a deep familiarity with the music and some intuition. It also meant things would happen fast.
“Some people take six months to make a record,” he said. “They go, ‘The first week we listened to the snare drums; the second week we listened to the bass.’ We went in the first day, set up in 15 minutes and started cutting. There was no overdubbing, no listening to anything in headphones. Everyone was listening to me. When you hear the singer, it’s me, in the same room. Everyone had to listen to each other and pay attention. If you make a mistake, that’s it. There is no separation of tracks.
“But we were ready. I worked the guys hard during rehearsal. That made if fun and fast to cut.”
How fast? Think days, like “about a week.”
“I got a call from my manager after we’d been in the studio a bit,” he said, “and usually those calls are like, ‘How’s it going? Are you getting anything? Will you have a song cut this week’ She asked how many songs we’d done, and I said we were doing good, and she thought I was trying to hide that things weren’t going well.
“So I told her: ‘We have 38 songs already.’ She said, ‘Stop! That’s enough. That’s too many. They’re going to have to mix all that.’ But there wasn’t a bunch of mixing. There was no fixing to do.”
“Beyond the Sun” comprises 25 songs on two CDs. They include well-known standards like “Ring of Fire,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” “I Walk the Line” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The rest are lesser-known within the mainstream, Isaak said, but still among some of the best in the Sun catalog.
“I wanted to go in and do a record that had the rave-up rockabilly stuff but also some ballads and pretty singing and stuff you know and not everyone knows,” he said. “I’m proud of the band. We’ve done something different. No one has tried to do what we did.”
Anyone who goes to Isaak’s show Friday will still get a large dose of his own material, he said.
“I’m the kind of guy who likes to please his audience,” he said. “People who come to see us will want to hear the new record, but they’re going to want to hear ‘Wicked Game’ and ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.’ I can’t be the guy who goes, ‘I know you’ve come to hear the hit songs, but I’m not going to play them. I’m only playing songs from the Navajo folk album I just released.’ Right. No. ‘We got a sitter and we parked the car and walked up here and you’re going to play your damn hits.’ ”
The show will include a “Sun” set in the middle, Isaak said.
“We have a special Sun Studio set with a neon sign and venetian blind,” he said. “We use a standup bass and roll out an upright piano and play a bunch of the stuff. It blows people’s minds when ‘Ring of Fire’ kicks in. We aren’t just another bar band doing these songs. People are really happy to hear it.”
It all starts with Phillips, Isaak said, who orchestrated so much of the music that came out of Sun.
“He changed my life,” he said. “You think of all the names he is associated with, starting with Elvis and putting him together with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, recording Howling Wolf, building the studio and making records and promoting them. Yeah. That’s a guy deserving of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They ought to put his picture on the front door.”