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Cover Story: Chris Isaak

| April 1, 2009

Chris Isaak
Luck Of The Draw


Talk about Renaissance men. Stockton-born strummer Chris Isaak has worn so many hats throughout his 25-year career, you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of them all. To date, he has punched the clock as a film actor (Little Buddha, Silence Of The Lambs, and Gregor Jordan’s upcoming adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel The Informers); sitcom star (Showtime’s “The Chris Isaak Show” from ’01-’04); the go-to soundtrack guy for directors like David Lynch and the late Stanley Kubrick; and now, believe it or not, talk-show host, via his new “The Chris Isaak Hour,” wherein the brainy singer chats — and jams — with fellow musicians like Stevie Nicks, Billy Corgan, and Yusuf (Cat Stevens) Islam every Thursday night on the Bio channel. He has also just returned with a melancholy set of rockabilly-infused tearjerkers, Mr. Lucky (Reprise), his first studio album in seven years. Are there any worlds left for this Alexander to conquer?

Mr. Lucky hints at one. Its cover and 16-page booklet feature elaborate, ’50s-retro pen-and-ink drawings, all done by Isaak himself. Some feature an Edward Gorey-ish little girl that he has drawn so much over the years, he’s considering publishing a children’s book about her, her flower friend, and her evil twin sister who gets into constant trouble with a credit card. “I’ll draw whenever I can,” admits Isaak, 52, who carries sketchbooks wherever he goes and has filled more than 70 with his unusually stylized characters. “Some people go to bars, some people go to games. But I’ll go to an art store on my day off and blow 60 bucks on pens. But I burn through ’em fast, because I do a lot of drawing.”

How did this surreal sideline start? Childhood, Isaak recalls. Back when he was hospitalized, hovering near death for a full year with double pneumonia. “I was in an oxygen tent, and Catholic nuns would come by and say, ‘He’s still alive! Feed him again!'” he deadpans in his trademark droll wit. “And I had nothing to do, so I drew all the time. And when I got out and went back home, I just kept drawing. We had a woman who lived next door to us who was really ancient, and we’d go hang out at her house and she’d say, ‘Why don’t you draw me a picture?’ So I’d draw for her. She looked like Maude Frickert or something — 100-years old with the black lace dress and black lace collars.”

Isaak reckons he’s a minimalist — he completed his pompadoured Mr. Lucky self-portrait in just a few deft strokes. “And when I do a cartoon of a TV, it looks like a 1940s TV, and my telephone will be a rotary Princess phone,” he adds. “I draw things based on the old movies and cartoons that I like, so that’s my style. I can draw modern stuff, but I don’t much.” And as if on cue, the conversation quickly shifts to classic 1960s television shows like “Wild Wild West,” whose opening-credit montage and melody Isaak knows by heart. “This is the stuff I will have in my head to the day I die, and I’ll never know anything important,” he sighs. “‘What are the three branches of government?’ ‘I dunno. But I do know the “Wild Wild West” theme song!'”

And how he wants his craft presented. During a shoot for his new “We Let Her Down” video, Isaak chuckles, the director asked him to fake it. “He said, ‘We need you to look like you’re drawing something, and we can have somebody else actually draw it later.’ So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you hold the camera up and shoot my hand drawing it right now?’ And he said, ‘But it’ll take time, right?’ And I said, ‘It’ll take about 10 seconds while you’re filming me to do it!’ I sketch all the time.”

Isaak still lives in the same modest two-story cottage in San Francisco, out in the avenues, not far from the ocean where he indulges another lifelong passion — longboard surfing. “And downstairs in my laundry room is where I do all my drawing,” he explains. “I’ve set up a special light in there, it’s out of everybody’s way, so I just disappear in there and sketch. And if you put in a load of clothes to dry,” he adds, “it gets nice and toasty down there, too!”

Like a painter at his umpteenth exhibition, Isaak has acquired the time-honed skill of accurately appraising his own work. He has noticed his own regular characters, like the gothic tot, and a lot more, as well. And he has come up with some unusual metaphors to explain it all. “In a band, you go through your stages, and the first stage is, you’re very dark and you’re very sarcastic,” he notes. “And when you get five guys together, what’s the safest thing to do? Everybody’s sarcastic, everybody’s dark. And the counterpart to that for me has always been that my music was very romantic.

“So half of my drawings will be gorgeous, half-naked women,” he confesses. “But then the other half are really sweet, like this little girl, who’s a really sweet kid. So it’s kind of a balance for the other dark stuff. I had a bunch of my drawing books on the road, and I happened to be over at my manager’s house. And her nephews came over, these little boys who were like 10, and the next time I saw those kids they were like, ‘Hey, Chris! We like your drawings! Good stuff, man!’ And I was like, ‘Huh? Oh yeah! There were women with big boobs in there!’ So a 10-year-old boy was like, ‘This guy? Hey — high art! Cartoon women with breasts!'”

Tom LanhamTo find out what the story is drawing at, find the continuation in the April issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.


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