When it comes to taking the retro-flavored, roots-savvy rock ’n’ roll he has called his own for over three decades to the stage, Chris Isaak subscribes to a rather elemental work ethic.
Be on time. Be involved. Look like a million. Play like a million. In short, deliver the goods but still have fun.
“At some point, it’s not about the paycheck, at least not in my life,” said the veteran musician, who plays Saturday at the Lexington Opera House. “I mean, I’ve still got the first dime I ever made. I saved every penny, so it’s really not about that. It’s about going out and playing. I love putting on a good show.
“I know there are many more famous, more celebrated bands than us. But whoever you are, if you put yourself on a bill with us, get ready because we’re going to bring it. I don’t care who you are. We’re going to put on a really good show. The band is dressed in suits. They’ve got sequins. I’ve got a suit that looks like Liberace gave it up because it was too much. I’ve got one suit that’s covered in mirrors — 35 pounds of mirror, in fact. We’re going to entertain the audience.”
Perhaps best known for the 1990 hushed twang serenade “Wicked Game,” Isaak has maintained a 32-year recording career that has seldom strayed from vintage rock inspirations. His most recent album, 2015’s “First Comes the Night,” reflects them in a series of recording sessions cut primarily in Nashville with a trio of producers that included Americana juggernaut Dave Cobb.
“Working in Nashville was an eye-opener,” Isaak said. “I don’t know why, but I actually thought, ‘They’re going to want to put steel guitars and fiddles on everything. And it ain’t that way. I bumped into Robert Plant at breakfast in Nashville. He’s hilarious, by the way, and really smart. He knows so much about music. After we were talking, I was thinking, ‘If Robert Plant is recording in Nashville, and he’s rock ’n’ roll, then I’m in good company.”
“Working with Dave was interesting because it was like recording in 1961. ‘Let’s get it. Sounds good. Let’s put it down.’ He doesn’t get lost in details that aren’t important. I remember saying, ‘Dave, don’t think I’m the kind of laid back guy who doesn’t say anything. Usually, I’ll fight tooth and nail about stuff. It’s just that so far, you haven’t been wrong.’ I think he has really good instincts.”
The album preceding that, however, may be the most revealing work of Isaak’s career, even though he penned little by way of new material for it. For 2011’s “Beyond the Sun,” Isaak headed to Memphis — specifically the historic Sun Studio — to record tunes popularized by the vanguard artists who called the recording facility home a half-century earlier.
“The Sun Studio is where Elvis (Presley) started with Scotty Moore. It’s where Jerry Lee got his start, Johnny Cash got his start, Carl Perkins got his start and Roy Orbison got his start. Those are all my favorite singers. Best of all, it’s a great room and a great place to record. I just love the simplicity of it. We went in there and said, ‘Let’s not fix anything on a computer. Let’s just go in and I’ll sing it and we’ll play it.’ It was so much fun to make that record.”
More than anything else, making “Beyond the Sun” stands as a simple affirmation of everything that still thrills Isaak about rock ’n’ roll: the songs, the performances and the sense of discovery they trigger.
“I never made music for any other reason than I love music,” Isaak said. “So here I am. I’m 61, and I still get really excited about a good song. I still love writing, I still love playing and, dammit, I go down to the guitar shop and it’s still like a toy store to me. I keep telling myself that someday I’m going to get good on playing guitar. I’ve just got to work harder. But I’m loving it.”
In summing up his own continued fascination with music, Isaak turned to another inspiration who wasn’t part of the Sun Studio heyday, but served as another faithful disciple of its influence.
“You know, seeing Tom Petty pass away was so sad,” Isaak said. “He fought a good fight, lived a good life, he brought us all that wonderful music, all that work over the years. Then at the end of his life, he was still on top. That makes me go, ‘What do you want to do with your life? Try doing what you believe in.’ Maybe there’s a message there.”