“Right now it’s electric! It’s rock! It’s Tesla! It’s energized – it’s replugged!”
An enthusiastic Brian Wheat, bassist for Tesla, is discussing the band’s reunion tour, and detailing why there was a break up in the first place.
“We were tired, it had been twelve years – we were burnt out,” he says. “It wasn’t fun at the end – that’s why we quit. Now it’s fun again.”
Exploding out of Sacramento in the 1986 with Mechanical Resonance, Tesla wielded a twin guitar assault, heavy bottom end and classic rock screamer in singer Jeff Keith. Named after inventor and true father of radio Nikola Tesla, the group hit big in 1989 with the single “Love Song” from The Great Radio Controversy. Unavoidable on radio and MTV that summer, the ballad-sounding track was also instrumental in many considering the band as just another of the new pretty boy, big hair rock bands on the scene along with Poison, Warrant, Winger etc.
There was only one problem: Tesla was never a hair band.
They never had big hair, wouldn’t really be considered “pretty boys,” and didn’t fall into the category now referred to with such disdain. There were never songs by Tesla where cherry pie is used as a metaphor for the female genitalia, nobody was doing an unskinny bop with half dressed women in the videos, and the bad dye jobs, make-up and bottles of hairspray were kept safely at a distance.
“There was such a backlash when the whole Seattle thing came,” recalls Wheat. “Everyone was screaming “hair band.” The problem was – they started screaming it at us. We were no fuckin’ hair band – period.”
Wheat is understandably angry. Who would want to be included in a genre of music that is more often laughed at and known more for it’s image than by how bad some of the songs actually were?
“We weren’t a fucking hair band,” Wheat continues, ” We weren’t an MTV image band. We were a blue jeans and T-shirt rock and roll band with good songs. People don’t scream “hair band” at the Black Crowes – I don’t know why they scream it at us.”
In all fairness – the Black Crowes never toured with the likes of Fire House, a bona fide hair band replete with sappy ballads, super high hair, cheese lyrics and a singer with one of the all-time dumbest names in music: C.J. Snare.
“Hindsight being 20/20 – we probably shouldn’t have put them on the bill,” says Wheat, chalking up the faux pas to the mechanics of the music industry where if a band is going to bring in more people, 14 year-old girls or not, throw them into the mix. Nonetheless Tesla was considered guilty by association.
“People say ‘Oh, you’re an 80s band,’ but fuck man, we were together until 96 – what’d we do for the six years in the 90s?”
After putting out two of the greatest yet overlooked rock records of the 90s, Psychotic Supper and Bust A Nut, the drug problems of guitarist Tommy Skeoch threw the band into a state of disarray. Skeoch would be at one show, and out of commission for the next – a repetitive scenario that left guitarist Frank Hannon to pick up the slack.
“Frank should get a medal for it – but we’re a two guitar band,” says Wheat of the tumultuous time. “Tommy was in, he went to rehab, he came back, he was out – it wasn’t a good time.”
Ultimately the band decided not to continue on as a four piece, and disbanded after a tour in 1996 to support a greatest hits collection.
It was also in the 90s that Tesla are credited with what became an MTV sensation – UnPlugged. On a touring break, they played a handful of acoustic only shows, recorded one in Philadelphia at the Troc and released Five Man Acoustical Jam which yielded the smash cover “Signs.”
Though responsible for their biggest hit, the acoustics will be left at home for this tour, which winds through Philly next Tuesday at the Electric Factory.
“We want to rock right now,” says Wheat, ” We haven’t played in five years, and there are a lot of people who want to see us play, so we’re addressing that right now.”
A live album is in the works, and a proposed all covers release has been shelved so that Tesla can begin work on a new record first.
A cleaned up Tommy Skeoch has been welcomed back into the fold.
“He’s one of my best buddies,” says Wheat, “My relationship with Tommy has evolved over the years, and I think today we dig each other more than we ever have. We’ve both done a lot of growing and a lot of forgiving.”
Hair bands are now a thing of the past and Behind the Music, the rap-metal should be dead by years end and mainstream rock is edging its way back in with the popularity of bands like 3 Doors Down, Buckcherry, Creed and American Hi-Fi. The time is right for Tesla to make a comeback Wheat theorizes.
“You’re starting to hear more guitar solos on rock radio again, less alternative things, less rappy things – more of just straight ahead rock things. I think there’s a place for us today.”
“Tesla was away, Tesla is back and we’ll serve up some rock again – definitely.”
If you go:
Tesla. Electric Factory. N. 7th St. above Callowhill. Tuesday, April, 3. 8:00 p.m. $22.50-$25.