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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Tesla

By: Justin Donnelly

When Sacramento based hard rock outfit Tesla decided to take a break following the release of their fourth studio effort ‘Bust A Nut’, the future of the band looked uncertain. But after a six-year hiatus where the band kept themselves busy with a host of side projects such as Bar 7, Moon Dog Mane and Soulmotor, the five piece act decided to reunite once again, with 2001’s ‘Replugged Live’ proving that classic hard rock was still very much alive and well, and in high demand.

Taking things a step further, the band finally returned to the studio for their fifth album ‘Into The Now’ in 2004, their first new material in ten years, which was another welcome addition to the Tesla legacy. But for all the success the band were enjoying with the release of ‘Into The Now’, behind the scenes was another story. Guitarist Tommy Skeoch’s ongoing problem with substance abuse was having a damaging effect on the band, which inevitably led to his resignation in late 2005. In 2006, Tesla announced Dave Rude as a permanent replacement for Skeoch, followed with the band’s U.S. Electric Summer Jam Tour introducing fans to Rude within the band. In June, Tesla and new guitarist Rude returned once again with a new studio effort in ‘Real To Reel’. Paying tribute to the music that inspired them, ‘Real To Reel’ is a collection of classic cover songs performed in classic Tesla fashion. In celebration of their new album and strengthened line-up, Tesla announced their first world tour in August, which will finally see the band playing in Australia for the first time.

Having just completed a show in Austin (Texas), and on the road making their way through to Memphis for the last date of their current U.S. tour, I caught up with bassist Brian Wheat to talk about the addition of guitarist Dave Rude to the Tesla camp, the upcoming Australian tour, the much talked about in the works box set and just why Tesla decided to release a covers album at this point in their career.

“The reason for recording an album like ‘Real To Reel’ now really comes down to three reasons really. The first reason was that we always wanted to make a covers album. I know there are a lot of bands out there that have released cover albums in recent years, but we weren’t following anybody or anything like that. We always wanted to do one. The second reason was that when Skeoch left Tesla at the end of 2005, and we replaced him with Dave Rude in 2006, we actually played a lot of cover songs on that 2006 summer tour. The third reason was we started our own record label, Tesla Record Co. Recordings. So because we hadn’t been into the studio with Rude yet, it made sense to get used to Rude in the studio with a covers album. ‘Real To Reel’ is also the first release that we’ve put out on our label too. So getting used to running a record label, all on our own, made sense with something like a covers album. It all made sense when you break it down. And so far, I think ‘Real To Reel’ is going really well. Especially given that it’s a covers album, and it’s the first album that we’ve released on our own record label. So yeah, everyone’s happy with the way it’s been going so far.”

Much like the idea for recording a covers album, the idea of forming their own record label Tesla Record Co. Recordings is one that had been in development for some time.

“In all honesty, in 1994, before we broke up, we were actually talking about forming our own label sometime in 1995. But then we broke up. When we got back together, we weren’t really in the right frame of mind at that time to go ahead with the plan. Now we are, and it’s not really that hard. I just got sick and tired of asking our former labels to put out tracks that we all believed in, and hearing them say no. We were also tired of getting ripped off! (Laughs) I mean quite honestly, when you have to audit a record label and see how much money they’re lying about, that’s disheartening. The big record label model is finished with as far as I’m concerned. For us, the name Tesla is more than a band. It’s a brand name. It’s been around for twenty years. So why pay anybody else a bigger piece of the pie to do a job that you can do just as well, if not better. I personally run the label most of the time, and it’s really not all that difficult. If you’re a person that pays close attention to detail, you can do it. You know exactly where everything is, and you have the band’s best interest at heart.”

Although the departure of Skeoch was a blow to both the band and fans alike, Tesla has managed to find a suitable replacement in Rude. And according to Wheat, MySpace can be thanked for helping the band Rude in the first place.

“Hannon found him on MySpace. He was surfing his buddy’s MySpace page, and he saw a picture of Rude. He thought it looked interesting, so he went and checked out Rude’s MySpace page. One thing led to another, and Rude eventually he went out on the road with Hannon with his solo band thing (The Frank Hannon Band). After that was finished, he came to us and said that he thought he found the right guy for Tesla. He brought him to a rehearsal, and he fitted immediately like a glove. That’s how he came to be. Hannon got a hold of Rude through MySpace! (Laughs) All I can tell you is that the change has been all for the better. Everyone is in a good space. Everyone’s positive these days. And with Rude now in the band, and being the youngest, he gives us a good shot in the arm. He’s a very good guitar player, and he’s a very nice guy. He’s always positive, and the rest of the band walks around with smiles on their faces all the time. He’s a great addition to the band.”

Having officially inducted Rude into the band throughout the band’s 2006 U.S. tour, the band set about working on their covers album ‘Real To Reel’, which according to Wheat was a relatively easy album to put together from a song selection point of view.

“‘Real To Reel’ was all about having fun, and not having to put up with the serious grind of writing a brand new Tesla record. Selecting the tracks was quite easy, because we knew there was going to be a focus. We knew that the tracks were going to be by ‘70’s rock bands. Once we knew that, it was a case of playing the songs that we thought felt right for us. They’re the ones that made it. We talked about a lot of songs, but when we sat down to listen to them, learn them and play them, some of them didn’t stick. There’s not a Queen song on there, and Queen was a very big force in ‘70’s rock. But Tesla doing ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ or ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ just didn’t feel right. So it didn’t wind up on the album. Basically we would pick a group, try a couple of different songs, and go in and record it. In the case of Led Zeppelin, ‘Thank You’ was the one that felt right to us. It’s the same with The Beatles. We listened to quite a few tracks from The Beatles, and even Wings, and the only one that stuck was ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’. The one song that really stands out for me was ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ (Which was originally performed by Derek And The Dominos). I heard that song a lot when I was a kid. I’m the youngest of six boys, so I heard a lot of late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s music. Keith really liked it, and we ended up recording it. I think he sang really well on that particular track. I think it sounds great. I really like that one. Uriah Heep’s ‘Stealin’’ on the other hand was a hard one to record. There were a couple of different tempo changes. But having said that, nearly all of them were pretty easy to put together. We would go into the studio in the morning, learn the song and then record it later that evening. We recorded like twenty-six songs in fourteen days. We were on a good roll. We were just having fun.”

While ‘Real To Reel’ has been released worldwide, the second half of cover tunes recorded, commonly referred to as ‘Reel No. 2’, was initially only available at Tesla concerts in the U.S. But Tesla fans outside of the U.S. needn’t worry, as Wheat ensures that the second disc of ‘Real To Reel’ will soon be available to purchase separately.

“We’re working on that right now. In a couple of day’s time, I’ll be on the phone with Rykodisc to discuss the distribution rights of the second disc to Australian fans, and for the rest of the world. It’s available here in the U.S. now, because we already got that distribution deal set up. We’ll try and get the rest of the world sorted out soon enough though.”

Apart from the release of the two disc edition of ‘Real To Reel’, Tesla have also been busy behind the scenes working on several different projects, with the first being a long overdue and much talked about box set.

“Initially, we were planning to release a two disc audio/two disc DVD package kind of box set. But the problem is that there’s more material than that now! At this stage, the box set will include material from when Hannon and I started the band in 1981 (When the band was known as City Kidd), right through to 2005 when Skeoch left the band. It’s all unreleased stuff. There is the last sessions we did with Skeoch, early demos and a lot of very different stuff from the band. The stuff on this box set is all unreleased stuff. It’s not like you’re going to get an acoustic version of ‘Signs’ from The Trocadero Theatre! (Laughs) It’s probably going to be two or three audio discs, and two or three DVDs, along with a book of some kind as well. It’s quite a big project. But besides that, we changed management, which only pushed the box set to the backburner. Prior to recording ‘Real To Reel’, we were managed by others. We’re now managing ourselves, so that kind of threw a wrench into this project a bit. At this stage, I would say that Christmas 2008 is a good target date for the box set’s release. The impending box set is something that we thought we were going to have ready by Christmas this year. But I can tell you right now that it’s not going to be ready in time. What we will have for fans this Christmas though is a seven track iTunes exclusive EP. Those seven tracks will actually be samples from the upcoming box set. So you’ll get a peek at it before the end of the year.”

Another project that Wheat hopes to get off the ground is an anthology release containing the various b-sides the band recorded throughout their years on Geffen Records.

“Well the thing with that stuff is that Geffen Records owns them. So I’m currently talking to the people at Universal Records (The parent company of Geffen Records) now about doing a two-disc audio anthology set of all the b-side stuff that was released on the singles. I’m working with them on that project. I’m not too sure at this stage what will happen with this, but it could be the case where only some of the b-sides will be included on this planned two CD anthology. Maybe I’ll get them to license the rest back to Tesla so that we can release the rest to the fans. All I can say at this stage is that we’re in negotiations with them about that. Either way, they will be released one day.”

Last but not least is Tesla’s plan to return to the studio for an album of brand new Tesla songs.

“You can be rest assured that there will be a new album out in September 2008. That will contain all new Tesla music. We go into writing mode in December.”

In amongst the endless negotiations with former labels, deals with distributors, future recording plans and the final sifting through of old material for the upcoming box set, Tesla plan to hit the road throughout the rest of the world, which include their first ever shows to Australian fans.

“We’ll be take a break for about three weeks, and then we’ll be heading down to Australia to see you guys. We’ve been asked so many times if we’ve been offered to come down to Australia before, and the answer is no. The people that used to handle us kept us pretty much in the U.S. all the time. I don’t think that they thought it would be worth their while to have us play outside the U.S. We’re big in the U.S., and we made a lot of money in the U.S., so they thought it was in their interest to keep us there. Had we been offered, we would have come down to play to Australian fans a lot sooner. We’re really excited to come down to Australia. None of us have ever been down there before. Fans can expect us to cover all the albums, including some of the more obscure Tesla songs and a few songs from ‘Real To Reel’. You can expect to hear the band that you hear on the album, and a band that has a lot left in the gas tank. When you think about it, we’re a bit of an oddity in today’s scene, but even throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, we were an oddity as well. We weren’t like the bands of our time period, or like the bands that came out of L.A. back in the day. Tesla were a no image, melodic hard rock band that where you couldn’t say what one member of the band looked like. There are no stars in this band. We don’t have an Axl Rose, or a Steven Tyler in this band. I guess we’re a bit of an oddity, but people still come and buy tickets and buy the albums. We’re fine. We don’t really worry too much about it. We have a good time, and people enjoy our music, and that’s really why we do it. We’re nowhere near tired. We’re actually quite an energised band. If you like honest rock music by an honest rock band, all I can say is that you should come and see this show.”

I would like to thank Brian Wheat for his generous time, and Annie Hudson (KMW Productions Pty. Ltd.) for making the interview possible.

Tesla tour dates are:
Wednesday, October 17 at the Sydney Forum (18+ only show)
Thursday, October 18 at the Hi Fi Bar in Melbourne 18+ only show)

For more information, visit

www.teslatheband.com