TESLA – Crossing Hearts
Tesla (l-r): Troy Luccketta, Dave Rude, Brian Wheat, Jeff Keith and Frank Hannon
June 2014 outing Simplicity – the seventh studio record proper by Sacramento, California-based hard rock outfit Tesla – was cut at J Street Recorders in the band’s hometown, J Street Recorders being under the ownership of bassist Brian Wheat. Preceding the album’s issue was ‘Taste My Pain’; a single release cut during a two-day recording session that occurred on June 5th-6th, 2013, ‘Taste My Pain’ surfaced through iTunes roughly two months later on August 13th.
“We had time for pre-production, to really prepare ourselves for going into the studio,” reveals Jeff Keith, vocalist of Tesla. “Things even change after you go through pre-production, and go into the studio; the song evolves even more so in the studio. Forever More (October 2008) we recorded in Brian Wheat’s studio that he had behind his house in downtown Sacramento. Unfortunately, there was a fire that burned the roof off of that place (on September 30th, 2010), so he rebuilt his studio ten blocks from his house, and changed things because he had the opportunity to do things differently. He built a nice little studio, and that’s where we recorded ‘Taste My Pain’ and this new record, like you said. ‘Taste My Pain’ was just a single to be downloaded just towards the end of 2013.
“It’s an awesome studio; it’s got a great vibe. Once again, it’s all about being at a place that you feel comfortable with and has a great vibe. He has a very nice studio that really played a big part in making this new record. It used to be called J Street Recorders, but I’m trying to think of what he calls it now… Jeez, I should know that, huh? He might’ve changed the name of it. It used to be J Street Recorders because he was on J Street, but now that he’s moved, he might’ve changed the name. I love the studio, but I don’t know the name of it (laughs).
“We then did all of our pre-production back at Tom Zutaut’s farm in Virginia. Tom had signed us to Geffen Records, and then worked with us on the first few records – so we definitely wanted to… We always stick to live basic tracks. When we’re then adding tracks and doing overdubs, we’re careful with not adding too much so that it can always be recreated live. We just wanted to go back to that old school feel, though, like the first three records, keeping it simple and keeping it raw and live. We feel that we hit the mark. We love the way it turned out, and just had fun with it – we just had a blast doing it. That’s how we write songs; we like to have fun, and build it, and try everything, and give everything an opportunity. By the time it was said and done, we really loved the way that it all turned out.”
‘Keeping it simple’ – to quote the frontman – is a comment reflected in the platter’s title, although the sentiment didn’t ultimately spawn the name Simplicity. “We actually got the title Simplicity from the song ‘MP3’, which talks about how we went from a phonograph record to an mp3 with all of today’s technology,” he divulges. “We definitely wanted to keep it simple, though. Especially these days with all of the technology, there’s an unlimited amount of tracks and stuff that you can just stack upon and stack upon.
“When it then comes time to playing and performing it live though, it’s like ‘Uh oh, how are we gonna do this? We’ve got 2,050 tracks.’ It’s really easy to get yourself in a hole, which sometimes people do. Then the next thing you know, they’re rolling tape like in the old days, or like now, where they’re playing stuff through the speakers via computer. We’ve always been about no machines. Any time we write, we’re always keeping in mind playing the song live, and how it will come across live. It’s really easy to do all of these overdubs, and it sounds great. It maybe sounds big and thick and all that, but when it comes to playing it live, you don’t have that – you’ve just got the five members of the band.
“Hey, nothing against the bands who play tracks via computer, or roll tape, or whatever. This is nothing against them, but we’ve always been about no machines, and we’re gonna stick with no machines. Even though we use some of today’s technology like ProTools and all of that stuff, we’re always careful to not overdo it. We like to keep ourselves under the impression that it’s like a 24-track, two-inch reel, when you used to punch in and out with the two-inch tape and the 24 tracks. When you punched in, you punched out, and you had to be on. Nowadays, you can just record something, and then move it and slide it all around and stuff. We still try to keep with that reel feel of punching in and out, and just limit ourselves to not using too many tracks, making sure that anything that we write we can recreate live. We also make sure that everything that we do is straight from the heart, and definitely intend to keep it as simple as we can.”
Nevertheless, Simplicity includes overdubs. “There are certain overdubs that we’ll do, and so absolutely,” Jeff confirms. “When we record a basic track, we’ll record it with an overall feel of the feel was great and we captured a vibe. Sometimes we’ll then come back and re-record everything, but always along to the rhythm track that we’ve recorded, and so it always has that live feel. We’re the kind of band that would just do it in one take, the way they used to do it in the old days, where they used to play it live on air or just have it like The Beatles with four tracks or something.
“We feel that if it’s a great song, it could be put out in any form. The way I feel is that a great song will come across, and hit you straight in the heart over a transistor radio. We always try to have that true, straight from the heart vibe when we write music, so we like to keep it real. But, absolutely. Whenever we go in to record, everything that I sing is a scratch vocal, so I definitely go back in and re-sing everything.
“Sometimes some of the guitar players, and the bass player Brian, and Troy with the drums, they’ll keep things that were from the initial basic track because it had such a great vibe to it. For me though, I do scratch vocals on not so good of a mike, and then when it comes time for me to record the vocals, we’ll usually rent a good mike that sounds good with my voice – a particular mike. I’m still capturing my performance from that first basic track though, that raw feel. We definitely use overdubs, but we’re careful with it.”
Albeit vocally strong on recorded output, many veterans cannot sing as greatly as they did 20-30 years ago in the live arena. “Going by the statistics, by numbers, sometimes some of them bands will sell 20 million records, but we would rather sell 2,000 and just keep it real,” the lyricist ponders. “There’s no autotune; if we’re on or off on a particular night, then we’re on or off, but we definitely, definitely want to keep it real and keep it as live as we can. We’re out to find the success of how many records we can sell. We’re out to write songs straight from the heart and from the gut, and that’s what we’ve always relied on. That’s what we will always do, regardless of how many record sales we might do.
“We’re not about that; we’re about no image, and not worrying about what clothes we’re wearing, and just keeping it real – straight from the heart. The fanbase that we have is not as big as a lot of these other bands that sell millions of records, but we’d rather have it small and simple and real than to try to do something that we probably couldn’t pull off anyway. We’re more of a blue-collar rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s all we’re ever gonna try to be.”
2014 recording methods greatly contrast with recording methods prevalent in the 1980s. “There’s definitely a different method,” Jeff concurs. “When we started, there was just a two-inch tape with 24 tracks, and so you couldn’t shuffle things around. Not that we ever use it, but there’s like Auto-Tune and all this kind of stuff. Definitely the technology of today, we use it, but we still try to base ourselves off of the first records we made, which were definitely the 24-track, two-inch tape which had a warmer feel.
“When Dave Rude joined the band in 2006, that’s why we went to to this studio in Texas and did Reel To Reel (June 2007), which were all cover songs that we grew up listening to. We did it on two-inch tape to go back to the first methods that we knew of, because tape is known to have that warmer feel and all that kind of stuff. Like I said, no matter what time period we’re making a record, we always try to stick with those basic techniques, and always be careful that whatever tracks we’re putting on. We can recreate it live, because playing live is where things really come across. That’s what we love to do and that’s what we’re known for doing the most, is playing our music live. We’re always careful with that new technology, because you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.”
Tesla aren’t an ensemble which heavily concentrates on single releases. “Even today, we try to make a record that’s a record as a whole, just like back in the early times,” the singer cites. “When we came out in the late 80s, people were still making records as a whole; you could put the record on, and listen to it from start to finish. We feel that with Simplicity, we’ve made a record that we love from start to finish. That’s what we’ve always started with, us writing songs that we love and making a record that we love in hopes that other people will love it too.
“Just incase nobody else likes it though, and they go ‘I don’t like it. I don’t think it sounds very good,’ at least we can say ‘Well, the place that all of us started from is we made the record, and we like it.’ You have every right to not like it, but we’ve never tried to make a record to please or to sell it to any audience that’s not really us. We’ve always stayed true to who we are. We’re a band from the 80s, from the hair band days. We’re okay with that, and that’s who we’ll always be. We’re not writing music to try to broaden our audience. We’re just writing music that we’re happy with, and we hope that our fans will be happy with. So far, we’ve had pretty good luck with that.”
Working in co-operation with Tom Zutaut yet again was “great,” Jeff enthuses.“Tom has always been passionate about Tesla. He signed us to Geffen Records; when he signed us, he told us that we weren’t ready to make a record, so to keep practising on our writing skills. It was like a year to a year and a half before we put out our first record (Mechanical Resonance); he signed us in ’85, and we put it out at the end of ’86 (December). We followed his advice, and so he helped us hit the mark. We were really excited to work with him again, because he’s really got a good, fine-tuned ear for when a certain vibe is captured.
“He’s passionate about when he hears something, and he’ll stick to it because that’s what he feels in his heart. There were times when maybe we would’ve changed certain parts of something, but he would really bring things to our attention and say ‘Oh no, no. This vibe, you definitely captured here.’ Instead of trying it again and trying to recapture that vibe, we already had it in the can. As opposed to us making a record on our own, it’s always good to bounce off of somebody else, and Tom Zutaut’s a great combination for Tesla to bounce off of. We went back to that first three records kind of mode, and we really had a blast making it with him.
“He’s very passionate about songs and we are as well, so we were really excited to work with him again. I’m hoping for the rest of our career that we always work with Tom, because he’s a great guy to bounce ideas off of. He likes to keep it real and so do we, so we have a blast doing it. I can’t wait to make another one with him.”
Tesla full-lengths one through four experienced issue through Geffen Records. In a 2014 interview conducted to promote Simplicity, fellow member Brian Wheat was dismissive of Geffen, explaining how the quintet simply refused to issue a new greatest hits package via the label. “The music industry was definitely different,” Jeff reflects. “With someone like Geffen Records, they gave us a lot of push and really helped us in a lot of ways. Today the music industry is totally different though; everybody’s going on independent labels, and all that kind of stuff, and there’s the downloads and all this kind of stuff.
“The whole idea of making a good old-fashioned record is totally different. I don’t know too much about the business end of it, but we ended up just making our own record label (Tesla Electric Company Recording) and doing everything ourselves. Brian Wheat and Frank Hannon (guitars) co-manage the band, and we’re just happy with that – we’re content with that. You don’t get a lot of the big pushes that a record company can give you, but that’s okay. It’s a lot tougher to get a big record deal these days from what I understand, but we’re just happy and content where we are.”
While Tesla Electric Company Recording oversees the distribution of Tesla outings in the North American territory, Frontiers handles European distribution. “See, I don’t know too much about the business end of everything,” the composer apologises. “But yeah, Frontiers Records is really a great company to work with, and we’re really excited to be working with them.”
Jeff prefers to solely concentrate on the musical aspects of Tesla. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “I’m better off just concentrating on rocking the mike, and writing songs from the heart. I never paid too much attention to the business side of it and that’s okay, ’cos my other buddies in the band, they were keeping track of things and stuff. That’s why Frank and Brian can co-manage the band the way they do, because they paid attention to certain aspects of the business. I don’t know much. They just hand me the mike, and point me to the stage. That’s what I’m best doing, is just keeping it simple like that (laughs).”
On May 26th, 2014, it was disclosed that the publishing rights to Tesla’s entire song catalogue had been acquired by Round Hill Music. “The guy that was interested in signing the deal with us just heard ‘Love Song’ (The Great Radio Controversy, February 1989) one day,” the vocalist shares. “He just thought ‘Well hey, this kind of music is the kind of music that we need to get out there.’ Next thing you know, we got a publishing deal, and they’re really excited to work the catalogue. We’re really excited about that; hopefully they’ll be able to do things with our music and stuff, and we’ll hear it out there. We’re very excited about that, but once again, I don’t know too much about that end of the deal and stuff. I know that they’re very passionate about Tesla’s music though, so that’s what counts.”
Penning lyrics for Simplicity was a group affair. “On especially Simplicity, Frank and Dave helped me on a lot of the lyrics,” Jeff elaborates. “What I normally do is, we’ll build the song musically, and then I’ll capture my melody for the vocals. A lot of times, I’ll come up with a storyline idea for a verse and a chorus, and then once I’ve got the melody established and a good idea of how the vocal melody is laid out, those guys will help me fill in the blanks. At times they might come up with this great, poetic lyrical idea, but sometimes I’ll have to say ‘Well, wait a second. It has to be coming from me.’
“I’m not exactly some poetic kind of guy, so as long as they keep it in the realm of I’m the one who’s selling the song with the vocals. They’re good at that; they really helped me out a lot on this record by doing that. I couldn’t have done without them. Back in the day, when they used to just give me music and I used to just write lyrics for it, we had more time to do it and stuff on the timeframe that we were on. I’m glad that we weren’t, because those guys really, really helped me come up with some great lyrics that I can feel as though are my own.
“The 14th track for example – ‘Til That Day’ – was a song that we had recorded in the studio, and then we went and did the Monsters Of Rock Cruise. Me, Tom Zutaut and Brian Wheat came back to the studio, and finished recording that song. That song is about helping guide a child or something down a path, and letting them walk their own path. I’m really close to that one, because it’s just a simple song where the words came straight from the heart. There are songs that are really from the heart that Frank helped with though, like ‘Life Is A River’. I would just have a verse and a chorus, but the next thing you know, he changed the second verse that I wrote, and then helped me write the first verse, and then changed up the choruses.
“Something like ‘So Divine…,’ Frank really was involved with me, with the lyrics, and then with something like ‘Time Bomb’, Dave was really involved with me, with the lyrics. One of them would help me on one particular song, and then the other one would help me on another particular song.”
In recording vocals, technical precision isn’t the frontman’s primary concern. “First of all, I just try to sing in key,” he chuckles. “If I can’t, as long as it’s reaching people, because I’m a firm believer in it’s the performance, and how you touch people, and are able to reach them. Some of my favourite inspirations, like Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), Bob Dylan – the list goes on – Bon Scott (AC/DC), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin). Like I said, the list goes on and on, but a lot of those people that have inspired me, they’re not the kind of people that might win a talent contest, but they touched me in a certain way. I just like to feel that I’ve captured a certain feeling, and not be too critical on it, too technical.
“It’s really easy to make it where I feel it’s too sterile. Sometimes imperfections are the great nuances in a song that I think really capture people, so we definitely believe in capturing that nuance and not worrying about technically where it is. If it’s a little off, it’s just about how it hits home or not. Yeah, we’ve never been what listeners could consider anal about something. We’re more about capturing that vibe.”
Compositions like ‘Cross My Heart’, ‘Other Than Me’ and album swansong ‘’Til That Day’ are more laid-back in demeanour, the numbers purposefully sequenced throughout Simplicity’s track listing. “Frank and Tom and people like that, they were better at having ideas of what order the songs should be in; how it should open up, how it should end, and how it should be laid out in-between,” Jeff accredits. “It kind of has that up and down, all-round feel, but for myself, I just love a great song. I’m not too good at putting songs in order and stuff like that, but I really like the way they arranged the songs and how the record as a whole – from start to finish – catches all different kinds of feelings. I think they did a great job of arranging the songs.”
‘So Divine…’ is Simplicity’s lead track. “‘So Divine…’ was first inspired with the idea of this kid named Keith who was 22 years old,” the wordsmith discloses. “He ended up getting killed in a car accident, so that was the first initial idea of writing the song, about losing somebody that you’re close to much too soon in life. The whole idea then kind of just evolved into all of the people that we’ve lost too soon, like some of our favourite artists, and some of our favourite people in life. The song just evolved into this thing that people actually see as somewhat spiritual, and we feel that it’s spiritual to ourselves as well.
“We had fun making the music video. We did it in this big American factory down in Oakland, California, and just had fun capturing a live performance. Then the director put in some nice touches, with a girl that’s kind of like found an artist that she’s very passionate about – the storyline ended up putting the two together. It was fun to make. Videos sometimes are a bit tough to make, because you’re lip-syncing and all that. I try not to think about that stuff too much, and just have fun making it, and we had a lot of fun.”
A six-year gap separates Simplicity and predecessor Forever More. “We’ve never been able to pull off an album every year, even an album every two years,” Jeff observes. “It usually takes us three or four years to put one together, because between touring and writing and everything, we don’t mean for it to be that long of a span of time between records. We just like to release nothing until we feel good about it, like with Forever More. We worked with Terry Thomas, who worked with us on Bust A Nut (August 1994), but the difference between Forever More and Simplicity is we didn’t have pre-production time for Forever More.
“We made it a point to have plenty of pre-production time, and to really put all of the time we needed into making the record that we wanted to make. That’s what we feel came out with Simplicity. We made time for pre-production; we were well prepared for the songs, and so by the time we went into the studio, we had a good idea of how we wanted to record it. Like I said, sometimes you go into the studio and things will change, and you can go in a little different direction. We always try to make sure that everybody around the campfire’s happy.”
Ideas exist for further material, but whether these aforementioned ideas surface on future Tesla output is uncertain. “Sometimes we’ll go back to older ideas and stuff or earlier demos, but there were a couple of tracks that me and Frank wrote probably a couple of years ago in this garage when it was 110 degrees, like ‘Honestly’ and ‘Burnout To Fade’,” the singer notes. “A lot of times when certain songs and certain demos don’t make it on the record though, more often than not we don’t usually go back to them. We just try to come up with new ideas and stuff, but there were a couple of older ones that made it onto this new record. I was happy to see that.”
Simplicity was released on June 6th, 2014 in Europe (excluding the United Kingdom), and on the 9th in the United Kingdom, all via Frontiers Records. The album was subsequently issued in North America on the 10th, through Tesla Electric Company Recording.
Interview published in June 2014.