Chris Isaak - EMusician

Chris Isaak

A LABOR OF LOVE
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Isaak records in the Sun Studio tracking room.

Photographs by Sheryl Louis

On Beyond the Sun, Chris Isaak pays tribute to Sun Records, legendary producer Sam Phillips, and the visionary artists who shaped rock and roll .

Beyond the Sun is the record Chris Isaak has always wanted to make: a collection of Sun Records covers and offshoots. It''s not terribly surprising. Isaak''s style—from his perfect pompadour to his sequined sport coats, from the lonely reverb on his beautiful voice to his rhythm guitar chugging on like a train—owes a lot to Sam Phillips'' stable of blues and rockabilly pioneers.

In the liner notes to Beyond the Sun, Isaak recalls digging into the cupboard where his parents kept their old records when he was a kid: “My brothers and I would listen to these records over and over. I remember starting off to school every day, and the last song I heard would be a Jerry Lee Lewis tune. The record player was one of those old-fashioned ones that looked like a suitcase and folded out. It had two little speakers, one on each side, about the size of a box of Kleenex. We thought it sounded fantastic, and scratchy sound or not, the records moved you.”

Over the years, the great Sun recordings of Elvis Presley, Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash became more, not less, important to Isaak. As he listened and learned to play along to those records, his appreciation grew deeper when he started writing his own songs and developing his hybrid ''50s-meets-modern-day style. Sun music wasn''t just an “influence”; it was like home to him, like a lifeline.

“I was hooked on music,” Isaak writes of his early post-college days. “I didn''t have any big ideas of fame or fortune, but I was just dying to have an electric guitar, a flashy suit, and a real microphone stand instead of the broomstick taped to the back of a chair that I was using at home. It took a lot of looking, but I got the guitar, the microphone stand, and finally the great band I had always been looking for . . . I was writing a lot of songs, and we were recording and putting out records, and the action never stopped . . . touring, filming, TV . . . and if you saw us on the records, you might not have known that we were still playing those Sun Sessions tunes. We would sneak one or two into our live shows. For years, we closed our live show with a version of an old Jerry Lee Lewis tune that was my Dad''s favorite and mine, too, ‘Bonnie B.''”

Over the years, success has brought Isaak the opportunity to meet a lot of his rock ‘n'' roll heroes, and he''s played with a few. He says that being asked to perform a song with Jerry Lee Lewis for Lewis'' TV special Last Man Standing, Live (2007) was one of the “most fun and scariest things I ever did. . . .”

“These singers and their music just seem to always be a part of my life,” he writes, “always there somehow . . . a chance meeting, a record I find in a store in Japan, or a junk store in my hometown. I guess I just love the music and keep looking for it and finding it in strange ways and places.”

To record most of Beyond the Sun, Isaak decided to go to the source—the old Memphis Recording Service studio where engineer/producer Sam Phillips founded Sun Records. Serving as his own producer, the artist first gathered his bandmates at home, in San Francisco, for some serious pre-production, and serious fun.

“When we started off, I said, ‘What I don''t want to do on this record is make faster versions of a bunch of rockabilly songs that we think we know but we don''t really work on, and then end up with bar band versions,'' Isaak says by phone from San Francisco. “I said, ‘Let''s listen to the records, take what we like, really rehearse it, and then forget everything we learned and just play.''

“So we went to my house, and it was like the old days. Everybody stayed at my place, because we didn''t have money to get, like, 20 hotel rooms for a month. I said, ‘Come over, we''ll cook spaghetti at night, and we''ll play these songs, and that way when we get into the studio, it''ll be quick.''

“It was a good plan,” he continues, “and it''s a huge help that it was the right group for the project. My drummer [Kenney Dale Johnson] plays simple, straight-ahead; he''s a great shuffle player, and he''s got a great feel, a light feel. My bass player [Rowland Salley] comes from a background of playing bluegrass music, standup bass for country music, and that''s the background the original Sun musicians had.”

Isaak''s band also includes percussion player Rafael Padilla and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz. The group''s longtime engineer, Mark Needham, rigged Isaak''s wood-paneled basement for recording and captured the rehearsals.

“I put in a laptop with Pro Tools 9, Manley preamps and a little Toft console, and we bought some more microphones. It''s a pretty small wooden room that the band has rehearsed in for at least 20 years. We started recording in there, just to get an idea of what things would sound like, and of the 46 songs we eventually did, I think four or five of the ones we actually used on the album were from the rehearsal room.”

Needham also accompanied the musicians to Memphis, for the main recording sessions in the famed Sun studio. There, the group had to work after-hours, because the facility is open for public tours during the day. The musicians took the same approach to recording in Memphis that they had in San Francisco—know the original inside out, then make it their own. In order to understand as much as they could about how the original records were made, Isaak invited in legendary engineer/producer/songwriter Cowboy Jack Clement, who worked with Phillips from 1956 to ''59, including discovering and recording Jerry Lee Lewis.

“If we had any questions, Jack had an answer,” Isaak says. “He also played guitar, hung out, and he gave dance instruction to my manager!”

It was Clement who pointed out the little dime-sized hole in the middle of the linoleum tracking room floor, carved out by Black''s bass peg. “So, when you go in there to set up, the bass pretty much goes right there. If it''s good enough for Bill Black, I think it''s good enough for us, so that''s where we started.”

In the approximately 20x30-foot tracking room, the bandmembers set up with bass and piano at the center of the room; Yatovitz, on guitar, was close to the drums at one end of the room, and Isaak and Salley were at the other end.

Another Sun veteran, and another one of Isaak''s heroes, guitarist Roland Janes, also joined in on the sessions. “He played for Jerry Lee Lewis on all the big hits that Jerry had with Sun,” Isaak says. “Of course, Jerry Lee Lewis overshadows everything, but I''m that one guy in a million who listens to those Jerry Lee records and I turn up the guitar solos—this guy is awesome!”

Isaak and company tracked live in the little studio, vocals and all, and Isaak can''t say enough about how essential Needham''s engineering talent was to the outcome: “When you see the record, it says ‘Chris Isaak'' on it,” he says, “but the reality is, Mark Needham is all over this record. You don''t hear his voice, but he is such a great engineer, producer. He''s the guy, particularly on this kind of thing where we were cutting massive amounts of music in a very short time. If we come back tomorrow and listen to it, and say, ‘We had fun, we were playing great, but the bass sounds terrible,'' it''s locked onto the track because I''m singing with it. It makes you realize you better have an engineer who really knows what he''s doing. Sam Phillips had a little bit of gear and a lot of talent. It takes chops to record in this style.”

Needham''s approach to recording at Sun was not to copy a 1950s tracking session, piece for piece, but rather to use technical information about the Sun days as a jumping-off point. For example, rather than put up old RCA 77 ribbon mics like the ones Phillips would have used, he employed a number of AEA''s Big Ribbon microphones, which emulate the sound of the old RCAs.

“Chris'' vocal mic is a Didrik , made by Didrik De Geer. We also used some of those as room mics,” Needham says. “I set up multiple layers as far as individual mics on instruments, but on most things leaned heavily on the four to five mics: one overhead on drums, another one by the bass and kick drum; the bass was next to the drum, so a lot of time the bass and kick drum would bleed into the same mic. Then we had a couple of U 67 mics on the piano, and Chris'' vocal and guitar.

“On some songs I would add a little more of the close mic on the piano, or turn up Hershel''s guitar if I needed that, but mostly that happened organically in the room. We mainly stayed with the idea that back in the day, Sam would have had maybe a 6-channel console, so he had a limited amount of tracks and a limited number of mics in the room, so you have to place them in the right spot to be able to let the natural dynamics of the band work—you''re getting those licks and solos in the room mics.”

Needham also brought along some of his own Lavry Gold converters and he rented a mobile recording rig, including Pro Tools 9 and Neve 1081 mic preamps, from Gear for Days in Nashville, to duplicate the setup he uses in his own studio, The Ballroom in L.A.

“I integrated this gear into what they already had at the studio to make sure we didn''t have any problems, but it''s a fantastic room,” Needham says. He describes the room acoustics as “mildly live. It''s certainly not a very big room, and not quite as live as what we were getting in Chris'' basement, which is all parallel wood walls and really bouncy, but it definitely has a unique sound.”

And how did it feel for Isaak to record in Phillips'' studio, side by side with the likes of Roland Janes, Cowboy Jack, and his longtime bandmates? “It''s the most fun I ever had making a record,” Isaak says. “Nobody wore headphones. We could hear each other play, and we went for it all at once, every time. It gave a lot of power and energy to the band.”

Testament to those good times in the studio is the sheer number of songs they recorded. Beyond the Sun includes 14 tracks in a single-disc version, but Vanguard will also release a double-album version, and Isaak says he''s got at least another album''s worth of material in the can.

“I''ve been singing these songs my whole life, so when it came to choosing them and playing them, it wasn''t hard work,” he says. “When we''re making a record, usually my manager is going, ‘We need you to record a few more songs so we have B-sides.'' But my management was literally saying, ‘Enough, stop, please, no more!'' Because I was going, ‘I''ve got three more songs. We''re set up. Let''s do another!''”

CHRIS ISAAK ON SAM PHILLIPS
“It''s hard to look back in time and understand the meaning of what Sam Phillips did. I had so much fun making this record, and when I listen to it, I''m happy with it, but it doesn''t make me think for a second that I compete with those [original Sun artists], because they did the hardest thing of all. They stepped out of their time and made something completely new.

“Sam Phillips could have looked at Elvis and said, ‘I could make a Dean Martin type out of this guy.'' Because a lot of people loved Dean Martin. He could have recorded him with an orchestra. A lot of people would have gone in that direction, but instead he looked at him and said, ‘No, let''s do the kind of music nobody ever made before, that there''s no market for, and that probably a lot of people are going to be upset with. It''ll be great!''”

Phillips at Sun Studio.

In 2000, I interviewed Sam Phillips (1923-2003) for Mix magazine about the early days of his career, working in his Memphis Recording Service studio and starting Sun Records. Here''s what he had to say about the studio itself, and miking some of the most important singers of the rock ‘n'' roll era.

How did you design the studio at 706 Union?
I used the old 1-foot-square acoustic tiles, and I knew there were a lot of ways to approach it to make a live-er studio or deader studio. I never truly liked a dead room for what was I going to do with a very sparse number of people on the session—maybe two to four or five was a big band—so all that was taken into account.

I designed some angles in the little studio, about 18 by 32 or 33 feet long, and I designed a V-type ceiling with horizontal and vertical Vs on either end of the studio, and I just kind of played with it. I would go in and clap my hands. It sounds kind of crude, but that was the way a lot of people felt the vibe of a studio. I wanted to have a good sound that I felt was natural.

I never used EQ. I''d reset the mics or exchange mics. I never used EQ until we got to the mastering stage. I had very little limiting and compression. I had a homemade compressor that I made so if something got out of hand it would get it. I never complained about equipment then, even though I had to make quite a bit of it myself. I had an old, used RCA 70D board that I''d reworked that I got from a little [radio] station up in South Carolina, and I just had all I needed. I had six inputs.

I also knew that I had to use the right type of microphones. I couldn''t buy some of the more expensive microphones, but I knew what I was doing with what I had. I worked with how each different vocalist would work the microphone. Some I''d work directly in front, maybe six inches back, some I would have work across the mic.

Can you give some examples? How did Howlin'' Wolf approach a mic? How did Elvis Presley approach a mic?
Well, the Wolf sat down, and he played the harmonica, too. He never liked to stand except when he was onstage. The Wolf liked to have a microphone that was more or less nondirectional, because he was going to wiggle his head regardless. He had played these little spots over in Arkansas trying to grind out a few pennies on the weekend; he always played like he was in a show. So I knew working a directional mic was not going to work on the Wolf. You would lose some of those overtones of his voice, which are just amazing to this day to me.

On Elvis, in most cases I would use a Shure 56S or, on occasion, I would use a [RCA] 77D, which is an excellent microphone if you use it right. It''s just great for voice; it''s just great for just about any instrument and was one of the most versatile microphones then.

I had three different microphones that I normally used on vocals, and it depended on who it was. One was the Shure, one was the RCA 77D, and the other, if you can believe this, was the old RCA 44D. It was bidirectional, but surprisingly, on a few people, it worked to get a sound that was most complementary. It made your pickups elsewhere more difficult because it''s bidirectional and the vocal wouldn''t be as loud as instruments normally, but I was very much intrigued by some of the things I could do with the 44D. I was experimenting all the time.

—Barbara Schultz

Here''s more from our conversation with Chris Isaak about Beyond the Sun.

In your essay for the liner notes to Beyond the Sun, you write about always wanting to record an album like this. Why is now the right time to release this covers record?
A few reasons. Years ago, I would actually daydream and think, "I wonder if I would have had a good time recording in an earlier time when it wasn''t an overdub system, when people didn''t spend days and days poring over everything they did?" Because I''ve always enjoyed playing live, and people would always say, “You guys sound like the record.” It didn''t take the band a ton of fixing to sound like the band. And that''s in a way where music for a lot of people is now, recording live and quick again, whether they like it or not. There''s less money in music now, and it''s tough economic times right now for everybody.

Anyway, I never wanted to make records where you spend forever wasting money in the studio. It used to kill me when I would hear people say, “Oh, we went to Barbados for three months and recorded in a little studio. It''s got a wonderful kitchen and its own chef.” I would just listen to that, and I''d think, "You guys are idiots." I mean, nobody can see the studio, and they can''t taste whatever the chef was cooking. But this Beyond the Sun record kind of goes with modern times: You have to make your record fairly quick, fairly inexpensive to be in business, and I really always want to record like that. I think it''s fun to do that.

I guess it''s also because when I started out, I wanted to make sure people knew I wasn''t a cover artist and I was writing songs. But at this point, I have enough records out where I think I can do albums that sometimes you don''t want to start a career with. Although come to think of it, somebody should start their career with a Christmas album. No, no, that''s sarcastic on my part. “Start your career with a Christmas album, that''s my advice!” [Laughs]

Had you ever been to the Sun studio before?
I''d been there before a few years back, but we didn''t go inside. We were on tour, and at some point the tour went through Memphis, and I said, “We''ve got to stop at Sun Studios.” I remember my drummer, Kenney [Dale Johnson], and I standing out front. It was nighttime and it wasn''t open, so we just went and stood in front. You''d think, we''re musicians, we''re jaded guys who have seen a million bands and a million bars and traveled a million miles in a bus. How moving can it be to stand in front of a little building and look at the sign that says Memphis Recording? But we stood there for probably 45 minutes, just looking at it and talking to each other about what it meant. It was like a pilgrimage. If you''re a rock ‘n'' roll musician and you don''t understand what that place means, and who Sam Phillips was, it''s like playing baseball and not understanding who Babe Ruth was.

Can you describe what you feel made Sam Phillips such a special producer and engineer?
I agree with your premise that he had something special as a producer. Being called upon to put it into words, I''m afraid I''m going to fall short, but I''ll try. I''m going to say, every time I saw him interviewed, he would make me laugh, and he would educate me, and he would make me smile, and he brought so much energy and joy of the music that was right there on the surface. I''ll be dead in awhile, and so will everybody else; we''re here for a short time, and I know it''s a horrible thing to say, but sometimes in the back of mind, I think, why do we even make these sounds? Why do we make records? It''s a celebration, that''s why. It''s like, even the blues is a celebration of our life and our times, and it''s a beautiful, wonderful thing. It''s a joy to make the music, it''s a joy to give to other people, and it''s a joy to hear it.

And Sam Phillips always communicated that very well. It wasn''t ever about being a rock star, or, “I''m richer than you,” or, “I''ve sold 20 million records and I have a model for a girlfriend.” He was talking one time, and this stuck with me: I saw him talking to a bunch of kids, standing in the middle of them, and here''s this older guy talking to them, and they''re going, “What''s this about?” But he said this: “The time you spend making music is never wasted.” And I went, “Wow, that''s so true!” You watch TV? You just tossed away an hour of your life. It makes you think to yourself, I could have toured the world, learned to play an instrument, had a love affair, and what did I do? I watched Laverne and Shirley reruns. So his statement to those people is: “The time you spend making music is never wasted.” It doesn''t matter if it''s a hit; it doesn''t matter if you''re the best; it''s a beautiful way to express yourself.