Welcome Back: Tesla

Six years after their last album, Sacramento’s melodic hard rock heroes – and early pioneers of the acoustic rock album – Tesla return with their seventh all-original, hard-hitting record, Simplicity. Not that it’s been an idle hiatus. Worldwide tours, an unplugged record (2011’s Twisted Wires & The Acoustic Sessions), and babies for vocalist Jeff Keith and guitarist Dave Rude have all been fitted in. Today co-founder/bassist Brian Wheat juggles Tesla life with producing newer acts, as well as metallic side-project Soul Motor.

Simplicity harks back to the early Tesla records. Was that the game plan going in?

Yeah, I think we went in with the mind-set of going for a simpler approach. I mean our last two records Forever More and Into The Now were more ‘produced’, so to speak, with a lot of layers and stuff. We thought, let’s just go back to making a record like we did the first record in Bearsville where we tried to do it in six weeks and did the tracks live… We just fixed the bits that we messed up instead of completely re-layering stuff.

You can hear your ballad, Paul McCartney-influenced side in something like Other Than Me.

We all grew up on The Beatles. I’m the biggest Paul McCartney fan on the planet, but Jeff really loves his sense of melody as well – I mean Other Than Me could be a Paul McCartney song. We draw from a lot of influences – we’ll take Frank’s bluesy influences, and my Queen/Beatles/Led Zeppelin and mix all that together.

You work as a producer in your own J-Street Recording Studios. Can you see yourself pursuing it full-time?

Yes, eventually. I’ll play in Tesla as long as there’s people who want to see us play. But how long can you keep going? I don’t know. And at that point, the natural progression is to be a producer, and take all the things you’ve learned and help some youngsters out – guide them and hope they don’t have to make the same mistakes you made by learning the hard way, over and over again… I really enjoy it.

Tesla pioneered the unplugged approach with 1990’s Five Man Acoustical Jam. How do you feel that shaped the evolution of your sound?

With that album, it was really a happy accident. After The Great Radio Controversy we won this Bay Area Music Award. And we played a couple of songs acoustically at the awards show. Later our manager asked us if we wanted to do a ninety-minute acoustic gig, and we basically told him to fuck off. And he said: ‘Well you probably can’t, because you aren’t good enough.’ So we said: ‘Fuck you, we’ll do it.’ So we put together what is the Five Man Acoustical Jam and we played these two shows… After, we were touring with Mötley Crüe and we went to a radio show in Boston; we played Signs acoustically, and later got a call from the station saying they’d been getting loads of requests for it. I still enjoy playing acoustically. You can’t rely on technology, and when you’re playing acoustically you’re pretty naked.

You and Frank were 18 and 15 respectively when you started Tesla. What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Don’t drink so much! Hindsight’s funny. There are so many things you can say: don’t make hasty decisions; save money; don’t do so many drugs because you pay for it when you get older… Just be cool, be cool to people.

Simplicity is out now via Frontiers.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.