James Wilsey, former Chris Isaak guitarist: Something Else! Interview

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Chris Isaak’s studio journey toward the haunting Top 10 1989 hit single “Wicked Game” actually began on January 10, 1985, with the release of Silvertone, featuring lead guitarist James Calvin Wilsey.

Wilsey was part of Isaak’s band from 1980-93, a period that included his four Warner Bros. albums. They shot to fame aboard a soundtrack, however, when David Lynch included “Wicked Game” in the 1990 film Wild at Heart. Wilsey initially left Isaak’s band Silvertone aiming to retire from music, but he’d return to release the all-instrumental El Dorado in 2008, his first — and thus far, only — solo release. More recently, Wilsey contributed to another soundtrack, this time for the 2012 Brad Pitt film Killing Them Softly which included his update of Johnny Cash’s ageless “The Man Comes Around.”

James Wilsey stopped by for a Something Else! Sitdown to talk about his comeback with El Dorado — “it’s something,” he tells us, “that I think I just kind of needed to do for myself” — as well as those early days with Chris Isaak, their dramatic breakthrough and his eventual departure from Silvertone …

STEVE ELLIOTT: For me, when I first put the El Dorado album on, the title track sets a mood. I knew it was your sound, right away.
JAMES WILSEY: I drive a 1969 El Camino Super Sport — until gas hits $5 a gallon, then it’s gone. I always like listening to instrumental music when driving in cars, especially like on long trips. You know, it makes it your movie. I love driving out in the desert in California here, Arizona and stuff. So I wanted to make a record that was my initial concept to listen to while driving to the desert.

STEVE ELLIOTT: There’s definitely that feel, for instance, with the song “Untamed.” It sounds like a lost Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western theme song.
JAMES WILSEY: Yeah, I tried to get to avoid clichés. That’s actually a six-string bass on that. I heard that sound years ago, like on a Billy Strange record. For years, I tried to get that sound and, finally, I got to see Duane Eddy play live. This was about ’84 and he picked up this guitar with a real long neck and played “Because They’re Young,” and a couple of things. I thought, oh, that’s the sound of the six-string bass. And for years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my guitar to sound like that — like the six-string bass.

STEVE ELLIOTT: I wanted to get some quick thoughts on some of the Chris Isaak albums, as well. Let’s start with the first one, Silvertone.
JAMES WESLEY: That one took three-to-five years to make, and we went through a lot of band members and this and that. There were basically three years of demos, and then we finally got a record deal, and it came out. We had a really great producer for all the Isaak albums we worked on. It was Erik Jacobson who did all the Lovin’ Spoonful albums. He did (Norman Greenbaum’s) “Spirit in the Sky,” too. So, that was like my chance to like learn about music, and pretty much everything I know about music and recording I owe to Erik. I think that’s still kind of my favorite of the albums. Part of the reason is because there were things that started out as demos over that three-year period. So, we were trying a lot of different stuff; trying to get the record deal.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Had Silvertone become a band at that point, or was there still a rotating group?
JAMES WILSEY: The way it started was, I was doing sound with Chris. I had lied and said, “Yes I could run the echo machine.” (Laughs.) I thought, “Wow, this guy’s a pretty good singer.” They had maybe one original song, and they did a lot of covers. I was on the side, hangin’ out with them and trying to teach them some of the songs he was trying to play. The original Silvertone broke up, then we reformed later with me on guitar and a couple of other people, and played around and started doing these demos. After a while, we started playing live and it was just me and Chris and Erik, the producer, and we had different drummers and bass players. Prairie Prince from the Tubes played on most of that album. When we got signed and the album came out, we didn’t have a band. It was just me and Chris. So, we had a little money where we could afford to hire people that were good enough to make money. We found (drummer) Kenney (Dale Johnson) and Rolly (bassist Rowland Salley) so we could start playing live again — and they’re still with him.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Let’s move on to the Chris Isaak album.
JAMES WILSEY: The green album. That contains a few songs, like “Blue Hotel” and “Lover’s Game,” I think that were written in the early Silvertone band days that we just never got good recordings of. So, we started with that. But there was always the feeling where a band has their entire life to make the first album, and then they get six months to make the second one, you know? It’s always that sophomore jinx thing. But overall, I think Chris’ songwriting was maturing. I think we were getting a better feel for what we could do in the studio. That album still has a lot of really good stuff on it, I think. Some of it’s a little dated technology-wise to me and mixing-wise, but that’s basically what sticks out in my mind on that.

STEVE ELLIOTT: When I first heard it “El Dorado,” it felt to me like it picked up where “Heart Full of Soul” left off from that second Chris Isaak album.
JAMES WILSEY: Ahh, interesting. Yeah, I don’t know. That was just one when we were practicing, and jamming it at this loft I used to have. At some point, I was trying to make sense of the album as a whole, and I saw this friend of mine’s photographs of Los Angeles. The city is basically rotting in the sun here. People have this image of this golden city of Hollywood and movie stars, and it’s mostly just strip malls. So that became my overall concept for the album, once I really started to get into it. When I started recording, I think it took. I started the first six months of 2007. Basically, I had a day job, and I’d come home and work for a couple of hours a night before dinner for six months, and every weekend when I didn’t have things going on. So, I finished it within six months, just working at it a couple hours a day.

STEVE ELLIOTT: What would you say was the starting point for El Dorado?
JAMES WILSEY: Uhmm, a long time. One of the songs, “Tierra Del Fuego,” I wrote just after I left the Avengers. That’s from say like 1978, ’79. I’d written the song and we’d messed around with it. I’d never really recorded it. I’d compose in my various home studios, over the years. So, and then there was a period after I’d left Chris and I moved to Los Angeles. I met a guy that played steel guitar that I started this instrumental band with. We both liked the Shadows and things like that. I thought it would be cool to do like a guitar and steel guitar band. We had a band called the Mysteries for a little while. So I’d say five or six of the songs were written during that period.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Let’s move on to Heart Shaped World, your biggest album with Chris Isaak.
JAMES WILSEY: It wasn’t big when it was released, in ’89. It’s interesting, after the first Silvertone album, David Lynch got in touch with us and it happened to be while we were recording the rhythm tracks for the second album and they were mixing the (soundtrack) at some sound stage over in Berkeley. He was wondering if we’d cut a couple of things for Blue Velvet. So, there’s a couple of tiny bits in Blue Velvet that we did. The first album sold, over the first year in America, it only sold like 11,000 copies; we sold more in France than we did in America. So it was amazing for him to pick it up, and like it, and put that in there. By the time Heart Shaped World came out, we were getting good reviews. We were doing better shows, but we had never really broke through. And then, he wanted to use some music for Wild At Heart. We basically gave him the 24-track tapes, and he remixed a lot of stuff. There’s like 10 or 15 minutes in Wild At Heart of Chris Isaak music basically remixed without vocals and sometimes slowed down or whatever. But the entire “Wicked Game” song without vocals is in this one kinda creepy scene in Wild At Heart where the whole movie turns bad, you know — when they’re out on the highway and they have that wreck. But it didn’t catch on, and then some guy in Atlanta — some radio programmer — heard the instrumental (version of “Wicked Game”) and looked up the vocal version. He liked that, and started playing it and got calls. It started breaking on the radio out in Atlanta, and kind of took off from there. So, we were already working on the next album and then all of a sudden, we had a hit record from something we released two years previous.

STEVE ELLIOTT: One of the songs on that album I remember from the tour after “Wicked Game” went Top 10 was “Diddley Daddy,” which was a great feature song for you.
JAMES WILSEY: It’s actually funny. I just came across a bunch of live footage from the 1989 tour when we were supporting the Heart Shaped World album, but “Wicked Game” wasn’t a hit. That really struck me and I hadn’t seen it for years. I just came across a box of tapes that I moved out of my parent’s house after they moved. They had all these old tapes that I’d sent them, and they’d found this whole collection of live stuff that I hadn’t seen for a long time from those tours. Those moments where we start off playing “Wicked game,” and I play the first two notes and nobody claps — it liked shocked me because, after playing it on the other tour, it was like people hear those first two notes anywhere in the world and they can identify the song and everybody claps. (Laughs.)

STEVE ELLIOTT: San Francisco Days, your final album with Chris Isaak, came out about three years after Heart Shaped World.
JAMES WILSEY: We were basically on tour during ’91, because of “Wicked Game.” Then, we started that album and things had changed. I only played on maybe half of the songs on that. I think basically we were just kinda going our different ways, and that was kind of what that represented. That was kinda where we kinda grew apart.

STEVE ELLIOTT: What led you leave the group?
JAMES WILSEY: Ahhh, technically, under contract I’m not even really supposed to talk about Chris. But, there’s really no deep dark story there. It was pretty much like I said. We had already been playing together for 12 years. In the beginning, I was only like 20-something years old. I’d been committed to being in this band. That’s your main plan, and you can’t have like lasting relationships. You can’t have a family, you can’t have this or that. You’re committed to this thing. But, by then, it wasn’t everything to me anymore. It wasn’t really making me happy, and I think it was pretty clear to all of us that we wanted to go our own way.

STEVE ELLIOTT: I always thought when the albums were released, they should’ve had the band Silvertone credited on the cover, along with Chris’ name — versus just having Chris’ name alone. It always felt like a band to me.
JAMES WILSEY: Yeah. The band was originally called Silvertone, and during the time when we were getting closer to signing with Warner Bros, their legal department did a check. That term came from the Sears music products — like Sears Silvertone stereos, guitars, blah, blah, blah. That’s where the name came from. Warner Bros. did a check, and they weren’t gonna let us use that name. So, with the way copyright laws work, it’s kinda strange: We couldn’t call the band Silvertone, but we could call the album Silvertone. When we played live, we said “Chris Isaak and Silvertone,” but if we called the act Silvertone (on the albums), we could’ve gotten in trouble, basically.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Do you foresee a day when you and Chris might play together again?
JAMES WILSEY: I’m generally open to anything, but I don’t see it happening on a long-term basis. It would be fun to record something, should that ever come up. I’m still in contact with some of the guys in the band. I saw Chris a few years back. I talk to Erik at least a couple of times a year. I’m not closing any doors. Never have. It’s funny, I ran across like three hours of footage from that 1989 tour, after not seeing it for almost 20 years. It was like: “Hey, those things are not so bad, at times.” (Laughs.) It was cool, a real live band — a five-piece and not too much shtick. We had good guys that could play. We showed up and played every night, which is always fun.

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Steve Elliott
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