Love Song, What You Give, Before My Eyes, and Signs; if these songs don’t trigger images of a group of long-haired blue-collar boys from Northern California, helping to change the scene and climate of rock n’ roll in the early 90s, then you need to go back to school and re-read your history. Nikki Sixx once remarked that they were a bunch of ‘tomato farmers’ from Sacramento, CA. Sixx would know; they’re all the best of friends. What an era it must have been to be grouped together in a space and time with the likes of those who carved a new sound in rock with such names as Queensryche, Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses, Slaughter, Kix, Skid Row and Motley Crue; just a few names by the way. They made history. Another astounding epiphany is that this band of brothers, grew up to be men not necessarily on the road of life but on the road of rock n’ roll; and that’s usually a more dangerous path to follow because a lot don’t make it past the booze and drugs. At a time when Tesla was commanding huge audiences and became a household name on the lips of every viewer of MTV, drugs were unraveling them from the inside. Sustaining longevity in this “business” is challenging enough and if you don’t have your wits, you lose. Drugs became the downfall for Tesla and eventually the reason for the split with original guitarist, Tommy Skeoch.
Looking back at the legacy of Tesla, Jeff Keith sounds as boyish as he did when they first graced the cover of Screamer Magazine back in 1989, but we didn’t stop there; Tesla also smiled from the front pulp page in January 1991 and January 1992. Keith recollects a few of those covers in conversation which is happy and chatty as he puts Tesla all into perspective on an overcast and cool May morning. “Well what happened was,” he begins with a philosophical tone, “Tommy Skeoch left the band in ’95 and we carried on up until ’96 as a four piece hoping that Tommy would, as we saw it, come to his senses and see that we weren’t tryin’ to replace him but waiting for him to come back and fill his spot. And that didn’t happen so in ’96, we kind of just threw in the towel. In 2000, we had the opportunity to get back together. We ended up committing to shows and made a commitment to do a record which was Into The Now, which is one of my favorite records.”
“We wrote it, produced it, mixed it; we did everything ourselves and like I said, it’s one of my favorite albums by Tesla.” Keith takes short breath and continues as the twang in his voice gets stronger with conviction, “So, we headed back out on the road and everything started happenin’ again just like it did in the 90s and we said, ‘Hey this is a dead-end street’ so we all went clean and sober to help Tommy out but he couldn’t pull it off in the long run. And you know we’ve all been clean and sober to this day out here and going stronger than ever! We’ve now got Dave Rude and he and Frank are the double axe guitar players of the band cause we’re that type of band. Dave Rude is a great guy; he’s an awesome songwriter and player. He brings everything we need to the table plus more so we couldn’t be happier with Dave in the band.”
Keith and the rest of Tesla; Frank Hannon, BrianWheat, Troy Luccketta and Dave Rude seem very settled at this time in their lives ranging in age from the mid forties to early fifties. Age has brought them individually and collectively something most of us figure out when we hit mid-life; worrying doesn’t change what is going on and a deer in headlights gets hit. You just take it as it comes and don’t sweat the little stuff because in the end, it doesn’t matter and Keith knows this now. The world doesn’t seem to be so chaotic anymore and it’s reflected in their 7th full studio album entitled, Simplicity.
To write this collection, the boys locked themselves away to work the magic that exists between them as songwriters. They brought Tom Zutaut on board to round out the talent of making their new record and Keith couldn’t be happier with the results. “We worked with Tom Zutaut, from Geffen Records; he was an A&R executive,” explains Keith, “he helped us make our first three or four records and so to have Tom to bounce off of and co-producing the record, it really worked out great for us because Tom has a great ear for music. We wanted to make a record like Mechanical Resonance or The Great Radio Controversy where you play the whole record in its entirety and love it; so that’s what we feel we’ve accomplished with this new one, Simplicity. We feel it’s a great record to put on from start to finish and listen to and we’re lovin’ the record; we always make a record that we love in hopes that everybody will feel the same because sometimes you gets bands who try to make a record that fits in with the times or the latest fad but we’ve never done that. We’ve always stuck to our roots because we are who we are; we don’t want to try to be somebody else. We just try to be ourselves because that’s always been the best policy for us. We’ve made a record that we’re totally happy with and we hope the rest of the world will see it the same and this album has a lot of different ‘feels’ and we try to do that—make an album that ‘feels’ like Life Is A River. See I love the harder stuff and the softer stuff that Tesla does and we sing mostly about ‘love,’ I mean, that’s what we’re all about anyway. I feel we’re still one of those bands who can sing about love and still get away with it! Our fans have always been there and they let us do what we do so on June 10th get Simplicity, give it a listen and hopefully our fans will love it and come out to the shows when we come around their town. ROCK N’ ROLL LIVES BABY!”
Even though fans have not heard the new music yet, Simplicity has been referred to in certain circles, as an acoustic CD and acoustic is what Tesla does extremely well yet Keith feels this isn’t exactly unplugged per se; the band always uses acoustic guitars when recording so the sound isn’t absent as he explains. “Well, with Tesla every CD we’ve ever put out, there’s an acoustic track laying under there somewhere. We’ve always put acoustic guitars in there whether you can hear them or not but it plays in our favor like when we did Five Man Acoustical Jam, which was completely acoustic. So if you’re listening to the new music, it’s definitely there from track to track but when you’re layering other guitars on there, the acoustic sound can get lost.”
Five Man Acoustical Jam; now that was and is some of the best music they’ve ever put out; it’s live and truly special; just the fans, the band and their instruments unplugged. Tesla had no idea how big that recording would be but it has been their best-selling release to date and as Keith describes it, nothing was ever planned it just happened out of boredom and not wanting to sit in a hotel room for two days. “Well, actually that was a mistake—just a great mistake that happened,” laughs Keith, “we were on tour with Motley Crue in 1990 and they had prior commitments where we had two nights off in a row sittin’ in a hotel room so we thought, ‘Well why sit in a hotel room for two nights?’ So we figured why not find a few clubs or a club that will allow us to come in and play some of our songs acoustically and the next thing you know, we did a couple of shows and thought, ‘Wow, this is really feelin’ good’ so we brought down a 24-track mobile truck, which back in the day was ‘REAL’ reel to reel stuff, and ended up recording the show.”
“We had some cameras come down to record a video because that was back in the days when MTV was actually playing music videos,” laughs Keith, “so we recorded it, forgot about it, went to some station a few months later, played Signs acoustically and the phone’s ringin’ off the hook and Geffen says, ‘Hey man we got an entire evening of this.’ So they came back to us and said, ‘Hey why don’t you re-record this and re-record that,’ and we said, ‘Hey that’s not live,’ and they replied, ‘If you don’t re-record stuff then we’re not going to put it out,’ and we said, ‘Fine, we had fun with it so just let it be.’ Now that wasn’t what they wanted to hear but they let us put it out completely live from top to bottom, it’s the real deal and it ended up being our biggest selling record to this day. It was awesome and so much fun to do and I think that’s what came across to people, they knew it and were probably sayin’ to each other, ‘This is the real deal and these guys are really havin’ fun,’ because when you play acoustically you get to approach a song differently and you don’t have those electric guitars sustaining and all that so you have to take a different approach. So it really made it exciting and fun for us and like I said we had a blast and it came across to the fans; they really picked up on it and probably liked the honesty of it.”
Simplicity is not only the name of Tesla’s newest CD, it’s also the way Keith prefers to live life; he’s traveled all over the world, been in and out of a lot of mischief and could live anywhere, but being the humble country “tomato farmer” is more his style; he prefers to stay close to the rural area he called home when he first started singing with City Kidd; better known today as Tesla. “We’re still based out of Sacramento and always will be; that’s our home; we’re still up in ‘Northern California where the girls are warm’ as Steve Miller would say,” sings Keith, who starts laughing as he continues. “But really that’s where our family is and where we’ve always wanted to be. In the early days, we’d go down to L.A. and showcase; and we’d pay to play. We finally got noticed by Tom Zutaut and the next thing we know; he’s coming up to our hometown in Sacramento. There was this club we’d play in up here, and they let us play all our own originals and Tom came up and watched us play in front of our own crowd. But after we’d come home from showcasing down in L.A., we’d come back and sit around the drawing board and discuss, ‘Okay now what are we doing wrong, what’s missing and what ingredients do we need to add or do to fit in and still be ourselves,’ so we liked coming home to Sacramento. See we didn’t do the typical things bands were doing; we didn’t move to L.A., we didn’t want to be influenced by the L.A. scene so we stayed home.”
Imagining Tesla paying to play is mind-boggling; were they ever that small and insignificant? Keith remembers when they were once unknowns like everybody else in this biz and paying your dues was what they did no matter how it had to come about. “Oh man that’s how it works especially in the beginning; you pay to play,” states Keith. “You want to play in front of somebody and invite all these record company people out and you’re lucky if you get one or two to show up.” So what if Tesla was trying to make it big now? It’s a lot different today than when they first started; and if you think about it; there wasn’t even an internet yet. How would Tesla be true to their music if they were starting out today? “Well, we always go with the game plan to play from the heart and write songs from the heart,” states Keith, “if things go right you’ll be playing those songs night after night and the last thing you want to do is keep playing a song night after night that you just can’t stand so we please ourselves first before we can please anybody else and don’t try to be somebody that you aren’t. We’re happy with whom we are; we’re a blue-collar rock n’ roll band; that’s what we’ve always been and what we’ll always be.”
The phrase, “blue collar” brings to mind the backwoods towns across Americana; men in cowboy hats, white starched shirts, Levis, ‘shit kickin’ boots and the best in country music. If you listen to Five Man Acoustical Jam, Tesla does country very well; just listen to the song, Down Fo Boogie. So it’s no surprise that Keith has already released a country album as a side project. “I did release an EP and hooked up with some guys,” states Keith with enthusiasm. “Chet Goodson played with George Jones for 29 years. Tesla did an acoustic tour in 2005 and we happened to cross paths with George Jones; he was going one way and we were going another and we intersected. So these members of his band, Kent and Pat invited me out to Nashville to hang out and the next thing you know we’re out on a pontoon boat on Old HickoryLake having fun and writing country songs! I’ve always been a country boy at heart; I know rock n’ roll has always been my bread and butter but I love country music. I lived in this little town up in the foothills about an hour out of Sacramento and then moved to Oklahoma when my mom and dad split up, lived there for six years and graduated high school, came back to Georgetown and the next thing you know I’m in a band called City Kidd, which as you know later changed our name to Tesla, but I’ve always been split; a country boy and rocker at heart so I had the opportunity to write some country songs, put it out and it’s just…it’s a passion.”
One of the bands’ collective passions is playing live all over the globe but for some reason, they’re not going to be coming through the FL or any of the other southern states on this tour. Keith isn’t really sure why as these were markets the band had always done fairly well in. “You know I don’t know how that works out,” explains Keith, “cause it’s not like we get to pick the places that we play but for some reason, over the last seven or eight years, we used to do good down in Florida and down South and stuff but I don’t know if maybe we’re not getting the offers or deals down there but like I said it’s not like you get to choose; it’s all about promoters coming to our agency and sayin’ ‘Hey we’d like to get Tesla down here,’ but like I said, we used to do well in Florida but it just hasn’t come about but it’s nothing intentional we’d love to play everywhere!”
Love has always been the word Keith uses when he describes his world; he ‘loves’ most everything and you can hear it in his voice; you hear the passion he has for everything he does even through the jokes but all joking aside, he’s very involved with animal welfare and rights and his organization, benefiting children in foster care. “Yeah the ARF award!” laughs Keith. “When we did Real to Reel in 2006,” he continues, “outside of El Paso, we went to the grocery store to get food and stuff and I saw this dog hanging around and she was just skin and bones and she had milk; we could tell she had new puppies somewhere so the next day I went back and started snoopin’ around and sure enough in a hole in the ground in this empty lot was six puppies movin’ around. They couldn’t have been more than five days old. I befriended her over the next couple of weeks. Next thing you know I had her staying outside of the place we were staying. So when the band flew home the day before Thanksgiving, I proceeded to get a van where the seats tuck down under the floor board. I got this 52-inch big screen TV box, 15 towels at target so I could change them as I drove home and me and Cali; I named her Cali because we were goin’ back to Cali, and it took me a little under 24 hours; you know I would stop and sleep a little at a time. So I got her home and that’s where Tony Larussa and his organization, ARF [in Walnut Creek], helped me find homes for them. Tony and Elaine Larussa are wonderful people! I just couldn’t turn my head to that stuff and I brought her home so I support their organization. I also have something that I do back at home called, Jeff Keith’s Ride For Reason benefiting foster kids. So for the past few years I’ve done the ride and we are plannin’ on doing it again this October 17th or 18th, I believe, but we raise money for foster kids. I love to help; for me it’s anything I can do to help because it’s all about love; I’m all about that.”
The morning overcast has slipped into early afternoon sun and Keith is now laughing about not being the sharpest tool in the shed at sunup; but then again, who is? His day still as miles to go but he’s not in the same rush he used to be and neither are the rest of the guys. Being known as a famous rock n’ roll outfit, recording, touring, promoting and trying to live a normal home life has been a challenge in the past, but today, the world is rotating at its normal speed and life in their neck o’ the woods is peaceful. This is the existence the members of Tesla have carved out for themselves today, and there really is no hidden secret on how they did it except to say that breaking it down to its purest form, Tesla has come up with the answer; Simplicity.