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Q&A WITH CHRIS ISAAK : So '60s Square, So '90s Cool

April 21, 1993|JEAN ROSENBLUTH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

\o7 It's taken a while for the world to catch up to Chris Isaak. When the smoky-voiced singer started making records almost a decade ago, he sounded like a throwback to another era: soaring romantic vocals and moody guitar riffs a la Roy Orbison.

His strange mixture of cool-cat persona (pompadour hairstyle, thrift-store duds) and aw-shucks naivete contributed to something you would've expected to find at a country fair circa 1958.

Although his early albums didn't sell well, he quickly became a cult favorite. When director David Lynch used Isaak's "Wicked Game" in 1990's "Wild at Heart," radio programmers realized Isaak's music could be as viable today as when TVs only came in black and white.

Isaak is back with "San Francisco Days," his first album since the "Wicked Game" single, and he'll star in director Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha," which is due late this year. He plays the architect father of a young boy thought to be the reincarnation of Buddha.

Earnest and self-effacing, Isaak, a strapping 36-year-old with the wit of a seasoned raconteur, spoke in an interview about his musical development and his seductive image.

\f7 Question: I spoke with someone who grew up with you in Stockton, and he says that you are the real thing . . . that you were the coolest kid in town, always dressed in thrift-store duds before it was trendy.

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Answer: I was pretty square in a lot of ways, unbelievably square. My mom, we'd shop at the Salvation Army or the Value Village. And now when I look back on it, I think it's great. I got records that nobody else did. I got influenced by all sorts of music. I got to pick 50 records a day, because they were a nickel or less. You'd get 45s and stack them on your thumb and whisk through them, and you'd go like, "Ooh, Dot, ooh, Chess," going by labels. You'd learn a lot of stuff like that.

Q: In terms of money, were you getting by on what you earned as a musician before "Wicked Game"?

A: I got by as a musician since day one. I don't live beyond my means. I have real cheap tastes. I don't do any drugs. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't have to pay to go to clubs because I play there. My only expenses are probably guitar strings and records.

Q: Have you always been a clean liver or were you a wild, raucous guy who's sobered up?

A: I was wild and raucous, but never through drinking or drugs. I always figured, the way that they catch most people when they're being wild is because they're drunk. If you stay sober, you don't get caught. You have sense enough to leave.

Q: How did the Bertolucci movie come about?

A: I was in L.A. and somebody had given him my picture. They said, "Do you want to meet Bertolucci?" And I said, "Sure." I had just seen "1900," and I loved that film. And so I met with him and the first thing he said was, "No, he's too young." So then the pressure was off and that was perfect. I talked with him about the film and we got along, but we didn't get specific. So as I'm leaving I said, "If you want music for your movie, I'm your guy." I figured, here's my other card. Hey, I'm also a plumber.

And then they said to come back and do a screen test. You go over to a hotel room, meet some people who are nice, and then someone walks in with a Sony videocam and they just go, "You ready? Go ahead." And you feel like a total idiot. You're trying to be convincing and yet at the same time you realize you look like a jerk. It's hard. I mean, you're in a hotel room pretending like you're crying or something. And I'm like, I'm an adult, why am I doing this? I should have gone on and got a higher education.

Q: Are you to the point where you're turning down lots of acting jobs?

A: I've turned down stuff for a while. I don't think that's unusual. Because a lot of the stuff is like, "Chris, 'Bikini Summer,' two words, 'Bikini Summer.' You're a guy, you're working at this resort. With a lot of girls, beautiful girls, and you, you're trying to get lucky, know what I mean? And Kevin Costner's interested." I love it when they give you a big name.

Q: Have you ever done any stage acting? It would seem like that would be the perfect combination of your acting experience and your stage performance as a musician.

A: I was in my high school play, only because there were some great-looking girls in the play and my friends and myself all got together and said to hell with track practice and sweaty guys. And then when we got in the play, we were like, "What do you mean, there'll be people in the audience? Wait a minute."

Q: Back to music. In a 1985 interview, John Fogerty said the only new record he'd heard in a long time that he liked was by this kid Chris Isaak, "Silvertone." Is there anybody around today that's like that for you?

A: I like the Digable Planets. I think it's kind of like California cool jazz in a weird way. I hear pieces of things I like. I like (Los Lobos') David Hidalgo's voice. He has one of the prettiest voices I've heard.

Q: Do you listen to the radio?

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