Chris Isaak’s been hitting that high note for 30 years.
The rocker, singer and guitarist’s most famous song, “Wicked Game,” was released 30 years ago this month, and he’ll be at the Memorial Park concert on Friday to play it for thousands of fans.
Isaak, whose other hits include “Blue Hotel” and “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” will be celebrating his 1989 album, “Heart Shaped World,” by incorporating more of the album into his rollicking setlist as he tours this year.
Before he came to Omaha, we talked to Isaak about his band, his show, his breakout album and how “Wicked Game” came to be such a big hit.
Q: You have a lot of tour dates coming. Are you excited?
A: There’s never a show where I don’t have fun. After 30-some years with the same band, you’d think you just roll out of bed and do it. Nope. I think I’m gonna work on the setlist. We’re getting the guys together and having a rehearsal in Nashville. I’m still the same guy as when I went in.
Q: You’ve been with your band for a long time. What has that been like?
A: If you pick something you like to do, and if you’re lucky enough to meet people who are fun and good people to be with, man, what a life.
The band, they’re not just musicians in the band. I look forward to being on the bus ride with them. They’re funny and they’re good guys. I read about other bands and they’re suing each other or they got in a fistfight. I’ve got good men, so it makes it a lot easier.
Q: “Heart Shaped World” came out 30 years ago. Can you tell me about making that record?
A: I remember where that title came from. We had a roadie and he had a little girl, really sweet. We were in some nightclub, and we were just starting out. She was drawing pictures. I looked at one of the pictures, and I said, “What is that?” She said, “It’s the world.” I said, “It doesn’t really look round like the world.” She goes, “It’s a shaped world.” I went, “Thank you.”
Q: What did that record do for you? How did it change things?
A: I remember I wrote “Wicked Game,” and I thought, “The last thing we probably need is another ballad.” They were always telling me, “You’re a good ballad singer, but write more rock ‘n’ roll stuff.” I wrote that song and I really liked it. I brought it down to the band and we played it and we liked it. We recorded it and it came out like it had a life of its own. It wasn’t on the radio, and it wasn’t a hit. Nobody really knew us that well yet.
Everywhere we played, we noticed when it came to that song, people would pay attention. We went, “We got something.”
I never called the record company ever in my life. I thought, maybe they’ll forget about me and they won’t fire me. But I actually called up and set up a meeting and I said, “I think this song could be a hit. We’re getting a great response. I want money to make a music video.” They went, “Nope. We don’t think so. You know, it’s a nice song, but this isn’t the year for guitar-driven ballads.” There’s always an expert at the record company. They told The Beatles, “Guitar bands are out.”
David Lynch came to the rescue. He said, “I’m using this song in a movie. Hey, why don’t we have a video?” I said, “David, because I don’t have any money.”
Pretty much on his own, he drove the project to make that video. People forget, but he made the first video for “Wicked Game.” They played it on MTV, but they would only play it while the movie was in the theaters. It played for a while, and the record was doing well, but they pulled it. By that time, it had caught on to some radio stations.
Then they came back and said, OK, let’s make a video with Herb Ritts. I remember Herb saying, “There’s this girl and she’s not really known, but she’s good. Her name is Helena Christensen.”
Herb asked if I had any notes. I said, “Cut me out and put more of her in.”
It was an introduction that showed what we are. We’re a band that plays American music, and we love ballads and we like traditional singing, and if you heard that and came to the show, you wouldn’t be disappointed.
Q: You couldn’t escape that video. It was on everything. What was your experience with it?
A: I remember seeing it and I said, “It’s a great video. I don’t know if they’ll play it.” When I saw it, I saw a lot of me in it. Every time I’m on it, I thought, “That’s not sexy. That’s boring.”
I remember being in Europe right after we shot the video. I knew it was a hit when I walked down the hall of the hotel, and I could hear from room to room, “The world was on fire ...”
Q: It’s had crazy life. You just did it on “American Idol.”
A: There’s certain songs. “Blue Hotel” keeps getting used. “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” it’s been used in films. “Wicked Game” gets used a lot. It just seems like a lot of filmmakers have found it’s sort of evocative of something. I’m glad for that.
Q: What were you thinking when you were going to make that record?
A: I never know what’s going to be a huge hit or not. People always ask, “What’s your idea for this album?” It’s very simple. I write 40 songs. I pick out the best 12 or 15 of the 40. And then the best 12 make the record. You’re always just trying to make it better.
I think as we went along, making the first record we were kind of amateurish. The second record, we were learning. I think the band was getting better as we went along.