Chris Isaak isn’t bothered by a little heat. Upon answering the phone, the Stockton, California, native asks the typical Arizona question.
“Is it hot?” he asks.
When he’s told the temperatures are in the 100s in early June, Isaak exclaims, “Whew” and launches into stories of his first tour bus, which lacked air conditioning, and his days of roofing in his hometown. The conversation quickly turns to his new tour, which will bring him and his longtime backing band to the Arizona climate this July.
The rockabilly crooner debuted in 1985 with Silvertone and has produced 11 more albums and several major hits since then.
“The special part of it (the tour) is we haven’t played in a little while,” he says. “We’ve been off the road for a little bit. I’ve been writing, and I’m dying to get back on stage and play.”
Among his dates are July 20 at the Celebrity Theatre, where he performed last summer, and July 21 at the Fox Tucson Theatre. For Phoenix fans – and the band – the Celebrity Theatre’s famed revolving stage makes for a positive experience, he says.
“That stage is a great stage because there’s not a bad seat in that house,” he explains.
“You do have to remember that people can see your back,” he adds with a laugh. “If you turn around and you’re talking to your drummer, they’re going to hear what you’re saying, and so you have to be careful.”
When Isaak performs, he ensures fans will hear an array of songs spanning his 33-year career, including “Wicked Game,” “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” and “Somebody’s Crying.”
“I want to make it fun, but I also want to make sure I please the audience,” he explains. “People come to this show and maybe they’re only going to see me once every five years, it may be the only time they see me. They might have to drive a long way and hire a babysitter. And I try to think, ‘What song did they come to hear?’”
He views balancing different moods, from ballads to upbeat songs, as equally important to playing the hits. Sometimes this involves making impromptu decisions and adjusting his setlist.
“Over the years we’ve found which songs we think work and then we switch it up, because the nice thing about having played for 33 years with people is we’re not stuck with a setlist when we walk out on stage,” he says.
“Sometimes I’ll walk out on stage and I’ll go, ‘You know, tonight there are a lot of people who are ready to dance, and this place that we’re playing lets people stand up,’ or ‘Tonight is a great sounding room. We can do ballads. People are sitting down and they’re enjoying it, and they can hear really well.’ You can adjust every night a little bit.”
His love of playing live is reflected in his performances, and he feels that contributes to his large following.
“We have a good time. We put on a show,” he says. “We dress up. We look like I stole Liberace’s clothes. I mean, I wear a 30-pound suit covered in mirrors. We’ll go out in the audience and sing. We’ll get them up on stage. We talk to the audience. We really make an effort—and that effort has paid off over the years.”
Though known for his Elvis- and Roy Orbison-inspired tunes, Isaak isn’t a one-trick pony, as he has a lengthy resume in television and film. Aside from licensing his songs, he has guest-starred on numerous television series, hosted his own show, The Chris Isaak Hour, and worked with film directors David Lynch and the late Jonathan Demme.
“(Demme) was always on my side and always trying to get me to do stuff,” explains Isaak, who had small roles in The Silence of the Lambs and Married to the Mob, and was offered several other roles by Demme over the years.
Lynch notably used several of Isaak’s songs in 1986’s Blue Velvet and 1990’s Wild at Heart, and directed one of several music videos for “Wicked Game.” He later cast Isaak in a major role alongside Kiefer Sutherland in his 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
“I’ve worked with David Lynch since early on,” he says. “He called and said, ‘Hey, I love your record. Would you think about doing music for the film?’” he recalls, attempting to impersonate Lynch’s distinctive voice.
Rather than sending ideas back and forth, he says he welcomed the director into the studio to collaborate.
“It was really fun working with him,” Isaak remembers. “He’s a very creative guy and very fun to work with because he doesn’t have an ego.”
Later this year, Isaak will use his creativity when hosting the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction & Celebration. He helmed the ceremony last year.
“It worked out pretty well. I had a good time,” he says. “I always feel like, ‘Well, I’ll just be honest and I’ll say what comes into my head and keep it clean and we’ll see how it goes.’
“I like music, so it’s not a problem for me to get enthused. I don’t have to pretend to be excited when I’m out there on stage and introducing Raul Malo (of The Mavericks) or listening to Elvis Costello or something. I remember playing those things and I go, ‘Man, I used to buy these guys’ records.’” He lets out a laugh. “It’s a fun job.”
Chris Isaak, Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd Street, Phoenix, 602.267.1600, celebritytheatre.com, 8 p.m. Friday, July 20, $65-$100.
Chris Isaak, Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress Street, Tucson, 520.547.3040, foxtucson.com, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 21, $37.30-$68.