Straight down the middle
For the reunited local rock band Tesla, aiming for center field is the best way to nail a hit
Suburban Sacramento, in the Arden-Arcade area northeast of downtown, is crossed by major streets named after inventors. Running north to south, you’ll find these thoroughfares: Howe, Bell, Fulton and Watt, along with Wright and Morse. Running east to west are Edison, Whitney and Marconi.
The latter is named after Guglielmo Marconi, the man historically credited with inventing the wireless radio; at all four corners of the intersection at Fulton and Marconi avenues, there are new plaques commemorating Marconi’s achievement.
From there, drive a mile south on Fulton, and just past Cottage Way, on the right, you’ll find a tiny, dead-end street.
Tesla Way, it’s called.
It was named after Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the Serbian-American scientist who, according to many modern accounts, really invented the radio but got cheated out of the credit by the more aggressive Marconi camp.
It would appear that it has taken a long time for Tesla, like the Sacramento band that took his name, to get the respect he deserved.
Follow Fulton Avenue farther south until it dead-ends into Fair Oaks Boulevard. Make a right and take Fair Oaks until it turns into J Street, and follow that all the way into town. A few blocks past where J becomes a one-way street going the other direction, in a new two-story building behind a 19th-century Victorian house, is Brian Wheat’s studio, J Street Recorders.
At noon on a weekday, Wheat was wrapping up affairs before Tesla, the band he’s played bass in since the early 1980s (when it was known as City Kidd), went on the road again. The band was set to play three dates in Texas before flying home to play Friday’s homecoming show at the Memorial Auditorium. After that, it’s back to Kansas City—still one of Tesla’s strong markets outside Sacramento—the next day to headline a radio festival, and then it’s back to the West Coast to play Redding, Reno and other cities.
If it sounds a bit grueling, it’s nothing like Tesla’s schedule from 1987 (when the band’s Geffen Records debut, Mechanical Resonance, was released) through 1995 (when the band broke up). These days, Tesla—which re-formed in October 2000 to play a festival date for the local Entercom-owned station 98 Rock KRXQ at Arco Arena—has learned the value of pacing itself: a month or two on the road and three weeks off.
The band is touring to support its new record, Into the Now. Released early last March by Sanctuary Records, a BMG-distributed label that has done quite well by signing the so-called heritage acts the major labels have lost interest in, Tesla’s new album has proceeded to sell more than 100,000 copies in its first 10 weeks.
“No one thought this record would do as well as it has done,” Wheat explained, before going on the defensive. “We were under the stigma of being an ’80s hair-metal band,” he said. “We were never an ’80s hair band. That’s always been my pet peeve.
“We had two platinum records,” he added, “in the ’90s.”
Wheat doesn’t think it’s fair to categorize Tesla with Winger, Warrant, Poison and other spandex-clad poodle-head lite-metal bands from the 1980s, but that kind of convenient pigeonholing is common among many music critics. “If you’re going to lump us in with anybody,” Wheat said, “lump us in with the Black Crowes.”
Fair enough. Tesla has always been a working-class band, with its roots in such non-glam 1970s bands as Aerosmith, Montrose and Humble Pie. The emphasis has always been on blues-based rock—Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch on guitars, Wheat on bass and Troy Luccketta on drums, with Jeff Keith’s abraded, sore-throat vocals soaring over the din.
That combination has been together from the early 1980s, when City Kidd played the old Oasis Ballroom at 20th and I streets (now a salon called Lush) on a regular basis. City Kidd changed its name to Tesla upon signing with Geffen Records in 1987, and its debut, Mechanical Resonance, came out in April of that year, nearly four months before another hard-rock band signed to Geffen, Guns N’ Roses, released its debut, Appetite for Destruction.
Wheat still thinks about the two bands in comparison: “Guns N’ Roses is like the Sex Pistols meets Aerosmith,” he said. “We’re like Led Zeppelin meets Aerosmith.”
Unlike its former labelmates, however, Tesla would go on to release a number of albums, starting with The Great Radio Controversy in 1989. The next year, a fluke live acoustic show in San Francisco turned into the hit album Five Man Acoustical Jam, which pretty much ignited the whole “unplugged” phenomenon of the early 1990s. The distinctly non-acoustic Psychotic Supper followed in 1992, and by the time Bust a Nut came out in 1994, the wheels were starting to come off the Tesla juggernaut; that album was Tesla’s first one that didn’t sell more than a million copies. A best-of record, Time’s Makin’ Changes, followed in 1995. It included a couple of new tracks, recorded after Skeoch separated from the band because of a drug problem. Soon, Tesla and Geffen parted ways, too.
“We had our share of drug problems—the whole band, not just Tommy. Troy was the only guy who was completely straight, after ’91. Before that …” Wheat’s voice trailed off before he added, “Every one of us had problems with alcohol, drugs or both.”
These days, the band doesn’t profess to be completely sober à la Aerosmith. “I’m allowed two scotches: one before going onstage and one when I get off,” Wheat said. “And Jeff can have four beers.” Tesla’s members no longer practice Keith Moon-like debauchery. They also go to therapy together. “One of the biggest problems was, in the end, we couldn’t communicate,” Wheat explained. “It was like five strangers. Some nights, we wouldn’t look at each other onstage—and that’s not how we started.”
In the fall of 2000, Pat Martin, the music director who prefers to be known as the afternoon-drive deejay at 98 Rock KRXQ, was looking for a headliner for his station’s October Jamboree. Martin had moved here in 1988 and had discovered Tesla while he still lived in Southern California. He quickly became one of Tesla’s biggest fans. “I always thought they were just a great straight-ahead rock band,” he said.
Martin had been talking to various Tesla members for the previous year—“planting the seed,” as he put it. “I had my evil plan, even way back when. At heart, they probably really wanted to get back together, but nobody wanted to be the guy who stood up and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we?’
“They needed a mediator,” Martin said. “So, I was the excuse they used to get back together.”
Despite any lingering bad blood and old business, the band agreed. Wheat insisted that any reunited version of Tesla would have to include all five members, including Skeoch.
From the first rehearsal, things clicked. “We started ‘EZ Come EZ Go,’ and I swear to God, it was like … we had never not played together. It was unbelievable,” Wheat said.
Still, the prospect of playing Arco Arena—where 98 Rock had booked the show—seemed scary, even though Tesla had played there before. What if no one showed up? As Wheat put it, “I don’t want to be like Muhammad Ali coming back to get my ass whipped by Larry Holmes here, going to the ring one too many times.”
The show nearly sold out, and the reunited band soon was back on tour.
Wheat had been playing (and still plays) with another local band, Soul Motor, which was signed to Sanctuary Records. Wheat went to Sanctuary with the idea of releasing a live album, and the two-CD set RePlugged Live came out on a fateful date: September 11, 2001.
Tesla spent much of the next two years touring. The band members began writing new songs—“a couple good ones started to pop up,” Wheat said—and soon it became time to make another record. In January 2003, Tesla started recording at Hannon’s home studio in Pollock Pines. Nine months later, the band began mixing at Wheat’s new J Street location, which was still under construction. (Hannon, Keith and Wheat still live in the area, while Skeoch now lives in Florida, and Luccketta recently moved to Arizona.)
The quandary lay in finding what Wheat—a hard-core baseball fanatic who frequently lapses into using baseball metaphors—called center field: Too retro a sound, and you run the risk of being old-hat; too contemporary, and you sound like you’re ripping off Puddle of Mudd. “Not too far right, not too far left” is how he described what an automotive enthusiast might call the middle of the road. “And that’s what took a lot of the time.”
He needn’t have worried. Into the Now is a solid example of a modern hard-rock record, the kind that could win this Rodney Dangerfield of bands some newfound respect. Though it’s not the kind of album that will grab anyone by the lapels if they buy most of their CDs at Tone Vendor, it is as good an example of unpretentious, radio-friendly hard rock as you’ll find these days. As Martin put it, “The song ‘Heaven Nine Eleven’ is consistently one of our best-testing songs”—radio-biz lingo for “our listeners really love it.”
Wheat agrees with Martin’s enthusiasm. “We’re real happy with this record from an artistic point of view,” he concluded. “I mean, to come through all the shit we’ve been through, and to break up and come back and still be able to play and sell out shows in the 2- to 3,000-seat range? We do fine.”