His nose has been broken seven times during frank confrontations with Everlast boxing gloves, and he's rolled around in the waves on a deserted beach in the arms of a beautiful model and been well-paid for it. All for your viewing pleasure, of course, in a video for a song called "Wicked Game" that made tortured, visceral loneliness something to slow-dance to. He's now playing on big screens everywhere in a film called Little Buddha, but will be live and in person on Sunday at WestWorld along with Richard Marx and Taylor Dayne. If you haven't guessed his identity yet, let's flip all the cards and introduce--long-distance from a studio in San Francisco--the clean-cut and friendly Mr. Chris Isaak.
New Times: You're recording but doing shows, too. What gives?
Isaak: Well, I'm practicing my guitar for the new record; you gotta practice every day or you get lousy. . . . We're just beginning to record, I would say, but I try to go out every month or two months and do two or three shows. It's good to play live, and if you stop the guys from playing live for six months, they forget they're in a band. It's a whole different thing to go up on a stage than it is to rehearse.
NT: Do you have any grand design for the next release?
Isaak: Sometimes I have visions of what I want it to be, but I'm not any great craftsman who says, "This is gonna be this kind of tune." I write whatever I feel like writing and that's what goes on a record.
NT: What is your writing process?
Isaak: I have a cheap little tape recorder that I take with me wherever I go, and two or three at home--usually one has good batteries--and when I come up with an idea, I'll put that down. When I start recording, I'll grab literally 50 or 60 tapes lying around and take em and compile all the best pieces onto one or two tapes. It'll be 30 seconds or a minute of each, then I'll play those around the house, doing the dishes or shaving, then you take the ones that stick with you. . . . It's kind of like how gasoline is made. It's a refinement process.
NT: Like how a bill becomes a law?
Isaak: Yes, how a bill becomes a law. If I like a song, it moves on to the legislative branch. Then if that works, then I toast it and it becomes cereal.
NT: What does the Fourth of July mean to you?
Isaak: Oh, I love Fourth of July, that's a great day. It reminds me of being with my family. I grew up in Stockton, and it was still a small enough town that everybody kind of went to Yosemite Park. It had a lake in the middle, and they'd fire off the fireworks and we'd get there, three little boys and my mom and my dad, and we'd throw out the blanket, bring out the cooler and say, "Oooohh! Aaaah!" for like four hours. Then we'd walk back to the car and go home. Now I think it's getting a little bit more crazy. People are a little more violent, like somebody's going to shoot off a gun or something. When I was a kid, maybe I was too dumb or naive, but I don't remember things like that happening. NT: Any tips on keeping cool this summer?
Isaak: Take all your clothes off, that's my tip.
NT: You were recently touring in the Orient; how was that?
Isaak: Yeah, we were in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore and Bali. I was amazed to have people know who I was. What's fun about touring over there is, if you tour in Europe, it's kind of like being in the States to some degree. You go over there and it's like, "A sandwich?" Well, it's not quite the same as in California, but it's still a sandwich. And you go to Indonesia or Bali and it's, well, they've got some different ideas. I mean, Singapore, you wouldn't believe it. Very clean city. We thought we were driving through a golf course. They really make you obey the rules, whatever they are.
NT: What's the worst trouble you were ever in? Isaak: Oh, I got arrested one time in Japan. We were on the street, fighting in Tokyo. I just got involved trying to break it up; then a bunch of people started trying to beat me up, and I was just trying to survive. Next thing I knew I was handcuffed in a paddy wagon. Put me in the jailhouse for a little while. I was over there on a university boxing thing and I didn't want to call the university and say, "I've been here a week and I'm in jail."
NT: So this was the early years, prefame?
Isaak: Yeah. Prefame. The other guys sobered up, and they told em what happened and they let me go. And then those guys who were beating me up all came over and apologized to me. I don't know if they made em, but it was pretty nice.
NT: You had a starring role in Little Buddha. Have you had much reaction from the nonrock public?
Isaak: Yeah. They say mostly nice things. Most of the people that would see that kind of film, you know, they're the kind of people that would actually read Reader's Digest, you know? They're the reading public.
NT: But Reader's Digest isn't exactly heavyweight material.
Isaak: Hey, I didn't say they were intellectuals. But they read the whole digest. Like, "I Am Joe's Colon," remember that series? "I Am Joe's Testes," "I Am Joe's" whatever it was. It was a whole series--probably some old lady collected em all--it'd be a whole seven-page story about What I Do. "I am Joe's saliva gland, I produce mucus."
NT: You were a presenter at the MTV Movie Awards in among the Hollywood glitterati. Was the postshow party any good?
Isaak: It was a real trip for me cause I don't go to these things much, and you see all these women with cleavage and sequined dresses, and these guys in tuxedos, and to me it's kind of exciting. They have big trays of food and shrimp and you can eat all you want, so, being a musician, I gravitate over there and talk out of one side of my mouth and throw em in the other.
NT: But surely, at this stage of your career, you can have all the shrimp and cleavage you want at the snap of your fingers.
Isaak: [Snaps fingers.] Nope . . .
NT: What's it like doing Letterman? Isaak: I actually like Letterman's show; I watch it once in a while because I think he's funny. And, to me, it's like I get to peek backstage and see how it works and I still have no idea what makes David Letterman tick. When you were on the Carson show, between commercials he'd sit there and tap his pencil and be looking off like, "I don't really want to talk with people because I've done this a million years." Very calm and together. Letterman seems like he's thinking ahead, very focused, and you feel like you'd distract him if you talk to him. But it doesn't matter, every time I'm on his show, I say something like, "When are you going to have Pete Barbutti on?" He was like a Las Vegas jazz comedian. Letterman just looks at me like, "What?"
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NT: What does he say when he leans over as they go to a commercial?
Isaak: Well, last time he said something that I don't understand. I was sitting there and my drummer was offstage--we'd just played--and he says, "You've got a good-looking drummer. He's a handsome man." I thought, "Okay. Thank you."
NT: You have that mirrored suit, and other stage clothes made out of garish upholstery; you seem to rely on a more traditional show-biz ethic than a lot of contemporary musicians.
Isaak: Early on, a musician who's a lot older and wiser than me said, "When you go onstage, never go on looking like the audience." And I thought that's some of the best advice you could get. You do wanna act like you're cool and casual, but it's better to kind of admit to people, "Yes, I'm here to entertain, it's my job and you're supposed to be looking up here." Somebody gave me good advice for boxing one time, but I use it for music, too. It was, "Hit em hard in the head." That's it, you know? Hit em hard in the head.