Interview with James Wilsey, the genius behind Chris Isaak wicked game


His name is not well known at all but his sound has travelled around the world and it is easily recognized by any Chris Isaak fan.

He started in a punk act called The Avengers but soon, James Calvin Wilsey became lead guitar of the Stockton crooner during the first stages of his musical career, from 1980 to 1993, and he was responsible in a high degree for Isaak early sound.

Playing mainly a Fender 62ri Stratocaster, he created the 50s atmosphere that surrounds Isaak first 4 records; Silvertone, Chris Isaak, Heart Shaped World and San Francisco Days. His haunting guitar on “Wicked Game” single, not only did help propel the record to 6 on the Billboard Top 100 chart and the album to multi-platinum status but the instrumental version of this song, was included in David Lynch “Wild at heart” movie during an impressive night driving scene.

In 1993, after recording San Francisco Days album, he parted ways with Isaak for an extended retirement but he reappeared in 2008 with a new solo album, “El Dorado”. In this interview we review James Wilsey career, we dissect his working methodology and we find out more details on his current work.

The Avengers; When did you learn to play the guitar? what are your main musical influences? what artists did you listen when you started to play?

James Wilsey; I started playing in high school, mostly just with friends for fun. I was not very good compared to most of them, but it was fun and challenging. This was during the prog rock era, they were all trying to play like Steve Howe. I was more into Lou Reed and the Stones etc. I wanted to play rock and roll, which was a bit unusual at the time, where I lived (St. Louis).

James Wilsey The Avengers

Rockabilly, psychobilly, Sun records, 60s surf music, spaghetti western… How do you define your musical style?

I just play like me…. People associate me with playing a certain way, but I like to play a lot of different styles…. I like to play soft and love to get crazy and mean with it.

Your first band was a punk set from San Francisco called “The Avengers”, what’s the story of this band?

Long story, Punk was a huge break from what was currently going on at the time and it was exciting to be involved at the beginning of the movement, in a great band. I was 19. I learned how to play in a band, even though I was playing bass. It got me serious about wanting to play music.

Why did you split in 1979? Did you think that the end of the first punk wave was near?

Personally, I wanted to play something more similar to rockabilly, which is what I was listening to. And the original spirit of the movement had changed, from something that was very creative to something more stagnant and violent.

With The Avengers you opened Sex Pistols last show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1978. Did you meet any member of the Pistols; Rotten, Vicious..? How do you remember that venue?

It was Winterland actually, It was like playing in front of a snake pit, It was one of those things that you look forward to doing for weeks and then it seems that it’s over in 5 minutes. I’ll remember it the rest of my life. I hung out with Sid a little, he was actually a very sweet guy, like a big puppy dog.

James Wilsey The Avengers

In 1979 you were playing bass in a punk band and in 1980 you were playing the guitar in Silvertone with Chris Isaak. To some extent, there is a relationship between both musical genres but how do you explain your movement? Was there an emerging rockabilly scene in San Francisco?

I always played guitar at home, even when I was playing bass. There were not a lot of live music venues, and the punk scene created a lot. These venues booked a lot of different groups and I got to see a live rockabilly band for the first time, I loved the music and it was cool to see it being played live. There was not a rockabilly scene, just f few bands around the world.

Billy Zoom from X is a great guitar player, and a great friend. He used to play with Gene Vincent before he died. One day we were hanging out and he started playing some Eddie Cochran songs, just like the record, I was amazed, I remember thinking “I want to do that”. I started studying.

Chris Isaak and Silvertone

How did you meet Chris Isaak? had he already started Silvertone and you just joined as lead guitar or did you both form Silvertone together? Was Silvertone a full band or was just a name for Chris Isaak backing musicians?

He had a rockabilly trio called ‘Silvertone’. He was playing guitar and singing. I knew the original drummer and the manager from the punk days (the year before). I was asked to help mix the sound. I met Chris and I showed him how to play some riffs, the band reformed a few months later, and I was the guitar player. It was still called Silvertone, and it was a real band. We played the same places I played with the Avengers.

How did the band meet former Lovin’ Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen? Why Jacobsen decided to work with Silvertone?

Erik’s girlfriend knew mine, it was a coincidence. We went out together one night. A few weeks later one of his friends told him about our band, and he thought “I know that guy’ and he came to one of the gigs, and saw something there”. We were very lucky to have found him.

James Wilsey Chris Isaak's Silvertone

You first met Jacobsen in 1981 and he got you signed to Warner Bros label in 1985. Four years is a long run, what did it happen during this 4 year period?

Learning the craft of recording, writing, and playing. We made a series of demos, and kept getting turned down, but they were still interested in us. We stopped playing live, and after a while it was just Chris, Erik and I. Those demos eventually became the ‘Silvertone” album. After it came out, we formed a band to play live.

In 1985 self-titled album “Silvertone” was published but “only” 12,000 copies were sold. How did Jacobsen manage to keep the band signed to the label? Was he funding the project?

The music biz was different and we were lucky to be with a great label (Warner Brothers). They had Prince, Madonna, Van Halen, ZZ Top, etc. They could afford to take a chance with a band they believed in that didn’t cost them a lot. That doesn’t happen much anymore.

Next came “Chris Isaak” album in 1987 and “Heart Shaped World” in 1989 which contained the later super hit song “Wicked game”. All original songs are signed by Isaak and you have stated that a lot of Chris songs followed the same chord pattern all the way through the intro, verse chorus, bridge, etc, …. and that the challenge was always to make it sound like distinctly different parts, to make the chorus sound different that the verse, the second verse to have some development from the first verse. What was the creative process? Did Isaak usually came with a new song that he played with the acoustic guitar, then you compose the electric guitar arrangements and then the rest of the band their parts?

Yeah, usually Chris would play a group of songs he was writing for me, and I’d see what I could come up with. Chris and Erik and I would hammer out arrangement at rehearsals. It was often a challenge to make the the parts sound different when it was a one or two chord song, but it was always fun. Kenney and Roly contributed a lot to the arrangements on drums and bass.

In the recording studio, what was the band methodology? did you record some demos before or did you recorded live?

It depended on the song. This was mostly the pre-computer era. Tape. We recorded rhythm tracks with a drummer in the studio live, and often edited those to make the track. I got involved with music on computers pretty early on and that changed the process somewhat.

James Wilsey Chris Isaak's Silvertone

In your albums it seems you doubled quite a lot of guitar tracks. When in comes to record two guitars in the same song, for example one that is going to be panned to the left channel and another to the right, what’s your approach? do you use two different guitars, amps or amps settings?

Different reasons, sometimes I don’t want a backing element to sound like a distinct part, doubling helps that. Sometimes I’d double the guitar line with a six string bass to make it ‘bigger’. Sometimes it’s the same track cloned with a different effect on one. When I was mixing my album, I wanted people to feel they were ‘inside’ the guitar instead of the guitar coming at their face, if that makes sense.

You use often reverb, delays, some tremolos… what’s your favourite effects chain and settings?

I like what fits, I love echo when it’s used well, and I’ve become a big fan of compression. It’s also nice to have a very clean guitar to blend in so you don’t get lost in the sea of echo.

“Wicked game” is one of the most beautiful electric guitar solos ever. Did you write the guitar arrangement?

I came up with the riffs and the arrangement was hammered out at practice as usual. That was an easy one, actually, it fit into my ‘bag’, the stuff I like to play. No one saw that as being a breakthrough song until many years later. It was a pretty song, but we just considered it a nice ballad for the album. Nobody picked that as a ’single’. I had mocked up a nice demo of the song on my computer at home. We tried to capture a similar arrangement for the record.

In that ages you were playing a 62ri Fender Stratocaster through a silverface twin. Did you used this guitar to record “Wicked Game”? What was the effect chain? Did you use a compressor?

I used a Twin, the same one I used live, with just a little built in reverb and some digital delay, we had to be careful it was never ‘too wet’ to allow some room in the final mix to add the right amount. More delay and any compression were added in the mix.

James Wilsey Chris Isaak's Silvertone

Did you modify the guitar and amp or was all stock? The sound of “Wicked Game” solo is very clean, how do you deal with the single-coils hum when recording? was your Stratocaster shielded, do you use any kind of noise-gate or this kind of stuff goes to the mixing engineer?

Stock Fender reissue strat, basically. You just find the spot in the room to point the guitar to where there is less hum, I still do that.

Let’s say that we want to build a Stratoparts to match your sound, any advice on sustain blocks, bridges, electronics… alder or ash?

Rosewood neck, alder body, and stock Fender parts. Just get a ‘62 reissue, it’s the same thing. I use light (009) stainless steel strings and a floating trem.

Regarding “Wicked game” intro, why did you use the machine head and not the talent lever to change the pitch of the first notes? It seems quite complicated to be playing with one hand and moving the peg with the other…

I used the bar, I noticed that live I would often reach for the peg to make sure the open note was in tune, I had a tuner on my little pedalboard.

Did you record two tracks, one for the solo and one for the chords or is it all just one track?

We recorded several tracks and edited to get the best performance, but I always played the song all the way through as one part.

Your Strat had a custom midi setup to cover some keyboard sounds. How does this setup work? how do you trigger a pad from your guitar and how do yo control it?

It was fairly complicated back then, that stuff wasn’t being used much, and it was a lot of fun. I had two volume pedals side by side on my pedal board, left was guitar and right was synth. I could control the mix with one foot. I use the volume pedal on guitar a lot. I first learned to use a volume pedal recording “Western Stars” on a lap steel. I’ve used it on guitar ever since, for swells and other effects. Programming the sounds and mapping them out to play in only certain ranges was important. Often the synth sound would have a very slow attack to follow the guitar sound like an echo. I love synths, and programming them, I’m just not much of a keyboard player. Being able to play them on guitar was very cool.

James Wilsey Chris Isaak's Silvertone

Next thing that happened is that David Lynch included the instrumental version of “Wicked game” in “Wild at heart” soundtrack. How did the band manage to have the song incluided in the soundtrack? was it as a result of Jacobsen/producers work or did David Lynch like the song?

He used a couple of bits in Blue Velvet years before, and he seemed to like us, not may people had heard that record at the time and he picked the stuff to use on his own. He came to the studio when we were tracking it, he’s a really wonderful guy, and very funny.

When he was doing “Wild at Heart” he wanted to remix stuff from ‘Heart Shaped World’, from our original 24 track tape to fit the film.

In your last record with Chris Isaak, “San Francisco Days”, Danny Gatton is credited on 3 tracks; “Can’t Do A Thing (To Stop Me)”, “5:15″ and “Beautiful Houses”, did you meet Gatton?

I played all of “Beautiful Houses”. Danny only played one verse in “Can’t do a thing” I didn’t get to meet him, but would have loved to. I saw him play with Robert Gordon many years before. It’s a compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence with him.

With Isaak you opened for Roy Orbison, how do you remember Roy?

One of the sweetest, most humble guys I ever met. His talking voice was very similar to his speaking voice, I could listen to him for hours.

El Dorado

After splitting with Isaak, you started a new band, the Mysteries. No albums left but the re-interpretation of “Wicked game” that you did in “Wicked thang” is memorable, even more suitable for a Lynch movie. What did it happen to the new group?

It was just a revolving group of friends, not really a band. I started with a friend who played pedal steel, I always wanted to do an instro band with a pedal steel player. We played Shadows stuff with the steel, it was cool.

Finally, you published your first solo album “El Dorado” in 2008. The sound of your guitar solos is very close to your sound with Isaak, but how has your creative process changed now that you write your own songs?

I wanted to make the album for years and just finally buckled down and dove into it. I had songs and pieces of songs I had collected for years, and wrote more during the process. I had to do everything myself, it was a lot more work and a lot of learning as I went along…. I am working on new stuff now, and the experience from doing that album was great, I’m much further along now as far as engineering and producing and mixing….the next round will be much better, and a lot easier!

James Wilsey El Dorado

Do you still use the same equipment, guitars, amps, effects… what’s new?

I love my old amps, I have a couple of Twins, and old Princeton and a Quad Reverb. For recording I go direct through a pod UX2 and record that in stereo along with a mono track of direct guitar. I can ‘re-amp’ the direct sound through the amps later, or do a lot of different things with it. I use mostly strats, sometimes a b-bender tele, and love my Danelectro 6 string bass. A friend gave me a tele with a strat vibrato, I used that a lot.

Did you record all instruments for the album?

I had a guy come in to play drums for 4 hours, and spent weeks editing them. I did everything else myself.

Do you involve in production tasks like mixing or mastering?

I engineered mixed it myself, and the label has a studio it uses for mastering, I’d rather leave that to a pro with the right equipment. I was very nervous at the mastering session, it was like turning in your final exam. It ended up being pretty painless, and he did a great job.

After having finished the album, you found a record label pretty fast and you signed with Lakeshore Records on July 17th, 2007. You claimed that it was just an odd set of coincidences and that you were the first artist that they’ve signed in a few years. What did it exactly happen? What work was left until the album was actually published on Jan 22nd, 2008?

They heard an early version of the record while I was working on it, via a friend. They liked it and we kept in touch, and they wanted to put it out. The release date would have been near Christmas season, which is a bad time to release new records, and got delayed until the next year. I used the time to form a band to play live and did a few shows.

James Wilsey El Dorado

How has been the experience? Are you happy?

It’s been good, they have been able to get it out all over the world and I don’t have to run my own record company. The have gotten a couple of songs in movies, it’s been good so far, but the future is wide open.

What’s next? any new album in mind?

I’m currently recording every day. Some will go to an album and some may go for other stuff. I’m starting a new company to supply good music for films and tv etc. I’d love to do more sessions with singer, songwriters, and write more stuff.

Not sure what the album will be at this point, it’s still evolving. It won’t be ‘El Dorado II”, hopefully it will grow more and be better.

From a business side of view, now that every album goes straight to the mule and it is downloadable for free, does it still make sense to publish records?

The music business has changed so much, and it is in such a state of flux, it will never be anything like it was. That’s a whole other long story. I hope that it doesn’t stifle some creativity in the music that people get to hear, but I fear it will.

At this point, to make, and try to sell an album of music, you have to do it because you love it.

James Wilsey El Dorado

What’s wrong with the recording industry that almost has no space for good bands or musicians but it strives in promoting any kind of musical horror?

People always had the same feeling, even back when the industry was healthy. A lof of good stuff did make it through, and a lot didn’t. The world has changed, there is more information at your fingertips now. There is room for a lot of musical niches.

Do you regard yourself as an influential guitarist?

I’m always surprised that anyone knows who I am. Sometimes I’ll hear stuff on TV or records and think ‘that sounds like me’, but I probably had nothing to do with influencing it. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people that learned to play or bought a strat because they liked my records.

That is always the big payoff, that is why you do the work. Because someone might be listening, and it might make their day suck a little bit less, just for the moment.

I am the worlds biggest music fan, and fan of so many artists, and it’s truly humbling to me that some people out there dig what I do. It inspires me to keep doing it at times when I feel like giving up.

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