When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, few bands have become so deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of generations of music fans. With legions of dedicated fans around the world, Tesla has firmly carved out their own space in rock and roll history. Never a band who is content with reveling in their past successes, this group of dedicated artists continues to push forward and challenge themselves musically. Tesla has just unveiled a brand new LP titled ‘Simplicity’ which is now available via Tesla Electric Company Recording’s arrangement with Entertainment One Music and Distribution. ‘Simplicity’ is the band’s seventh studio full length LP and fifteenth release overall.
For the ambitious album, the band locked themselves away for weeks writing the new material with long time A&R man Tom Zutaut on his 150 acre ranch in the woods of Virginia. There the band discovered and wrote the music that was still inside their imagination and quickly allowed the ideas to flow, transforming those ideas into 14 powerful tracks filled with emotional, powerful subjects relevant to the band’s current state. Legendary engineer Michael Wagener (Metallica, Skid Row, Motley Crue) was then tapped to put the final touches in place. Ultimately the process of making the album was very simple on a production level, but complex emotionally as the band and co-producer Tom Zutaut poured every ounce of passion and thought into the process during the two month period. This resulted in hours and hours of listening and collaborating over every detail but usually ending up being the most obvious choice; the simplest thing was always the best.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Telsa frontman Jeff Keith to discuss his music roots, the evolution of his legendary band and their songwriting process, the creation of ‘Simplicity’ and much more.
Anytime I talk to a musician, I like to take it back to the beginning and hear a little bit about their formative years. What are some of your first musical memories?
The first record I had growing up in Georgetown, California, the population was 900 and still is 900, is getting a “Peter Cottontail” record but I didn’t have a record player. Whenever I found someone who had a record player, I would have them play it for me. I loved singing “Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the bunny trail, hippity, hoppity Easter’s on its way! [laughs] Then I got a Davy Jones record, it was a solo record. Then I didn’t many records after that because it was so hard to find a record player. Then 8-Track tapes came along! My friends and I would pass around 8-Track tapes with no labels, so we never knew who the band was or what the label should have looked like because it was gone! We would put in those tapes and use a match book to make sure it played somewhat straight and enjoyed it. Sometimes during your favorite part of the song it would fade out and fade back in around track three or four!
Looking back on those early years, who would you consider some of your biggest influences?
The first concert I went to, when I was nineteen, was ‘Day On The Green.’ Aerosmith was headlining. There was also Foreigner, Pat Travers and AC/DC and Van Halen opened the show. It was 1978 and it was my first concert. There was all kinds of stuff that influenced me. Like I said, there were 8-Track tapes being passed around with stuff from the late 1960s, which was always a big influence; Jimi Hendrix and all that kind of stuff. There is stuff that I would never mention like Grand Funk, [sings] “Seems I got to have a change in scene, ’cause every night I have the strangest dreams.” There was also stuff like Foghat, Montrose and the big ones like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and the list goes on and on. I have been so inspired by so many things!
Was there a catalyst of some sort that made you know pursuing a career in music was something you definitely had to do?
My brothers and I had a little living room band; we didn’t have a garage band when I lived in Georgetown. After work, we would jam in the living room and play our favorite Black Sabbath and AC/DC songs and so on and so on. The town I lived in had two bars, two gas stations, a post office and a volunteer fire department, so I didn’t have magazines to look at and say “I want to grow up and be that!” I drove a truck for seven years after I graduated high school from Oklahoma and went back to Georgetown. I am a Cinderella story. I joined City Kidd at age twenty-four. What got me to where I got an audition with City Kidd was I put on a Walkman with headphones and joined a contest down in Sacramento. There were two songs to choose from and I chose “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy.” I won two hundred bucks from that contest. You would just sing into a live mic with the Walkman headset on and I could hear the crowd cheering. I came back to Georgetown, after I won my two hundred bucks, and all my friends were going “Little buddy, you should go down to Sacramento and be in a band.” I said, “I don’t know, man. I’m driving the truck. That just sounds too farfetched.” The next thing you know, these two girls who knew the City Kidd’s singer was quitting. It was a Wednesday night and they said “Come down to The Rock Factory tonight.” That was the place I did the contest with the Walkman. The next thing you know, they got me up with the band and I sang “You’re Love Is Driving Me Crazy.” I didn’t nothin’ about microphones, monitors or feedback. I didn’t know nothin’ about eating the microphone, as they call it. I happened to come over and share the mic with Frank [Hannon] and he heard me regular voice in his ear. The other guys, like Brian Wheat and a few others in the band at the time, said “We couldn’t hear nothin’! This guy knows nothin’ about nothin’ and we couldn’t even hear his voice.” Frank goes, “We shared the mic. I know he knows nothin’ about anything but I heard his natural voice and this is our guy!” That is what saved my career in City Kidd which was renamed Tesla when we were making the first record. That is my Cinderella story!
We are here to talk about Tesla’s new album, ‘Simplicity.’ A friend and I we talking recently about how the band has had a landmark album every ten years on “the four.” In 1994, you had ‘Bust A Nut.’ In 2004, you had a comeback album of sorts with ‘Into The Now.’ In 2014, what makes ‘Simplicity’ a significant record for the band this time around?
Songwriting is my second favorite thing to do after performing. I love the process of writing songs. It all starts with a little idea and it builds. It goes over here and you try a few things that don’t work but you find something that does. The next thing you know, the song comes to an end result. I love the process. We always like to keep things fresh and write a new album whenever we get a chance. It always seems to have to do with four! [laughs] An album every four years, except for “Into The Now,” which was after four years of breaking up. That is why it was about 8 years! [laughs] We love the process of songwriting and we are passionate about writing songs, like I said, from the heart. We were grateful to be back together and we are grateful to still be together. We are stronger than ever! We have a new record out that we are very happy with, so happy with! We are excited to go out there and work extra hard to promote this new record. We love the way it came out and that is how we have always made records. We make a record we love and if you guys love it; we are in a great place! If you guys don’t like it and everyone around us says, “We think it’s shit,” we can always say, “Well, we love it and that is a great place to start!”
Did you handle songwriting any differently this time around? What can you tell us about your process these days?
I will give you a little background. Dave Rude is a great guitar player and brings so much to the table with songwriting and playing. He is a great guy and a great person. When Tommy [Skeoch] was gone, first and foremost, we said we weren’t going to let the band breakup again and Frank found Dave Rude on MySpace or something, which is unheard of today! [laughs] At any rate, at that particular time, we found him on MySpace. My work theory is that I get a melody. I heard Paul McCartney say “It’s all about the melody,” so I come up with the melody from what the music is making me feel. Being there during the process of building the music and saying “Let’s go here. Let’s go there.” Dave gets me a feeling going and I get a melody. I hum the melody out and I just la-de-da a melody out. Most of the time I will write the verse and the chorus out. Then I will present it to the band and say “How do you like this idea and where it’s going? Otherwise, I am not going to keep presenting it.” The majority of the time, they will go “Love it, love it.” Frank and even Dave, on a few songs, helped me fill in the blanks for the second verse and chorus if we were changing it up.
Sometimes, those guys are even more prolific with words. I am just a dumb ass Okie and a truck driver from Georgetown, so if they get too prolific, I say “Remember, I am the guy going door to door selling this vacuum cleaner, so we have to knock it down a few notches because I can’t sell Shakespeare for ya!” They were really good with helping me fill in some blanks and stuff. It works really well and it was really a team effort on ‘Simplicity.’ I really loved it and everyone stepped up. Back in the days, they would all individually feed me songs. I would be holed up and they would feed me these songs and whichever ones I was clicking on, those are the ones that made the record for ‘Mechanical Resonance’ to ‘The Great Radio Controversy’ and all the way up to ‘Bust A Nut’ and ‘Into The Now.’ On this record, with time constraints, I need some help filling in some of blanks, ya know.
The say you learn something from every new project. Looking back on bringing this album to life, what did you learn along the way?
We write a song called “MP3,” which is about the technology of today. There is a line in the song, “We’ve got to get back to simplicity” is in the chorus and that is why we named the record “Simplicity.” But yeah, I learned that with Pro Tools and all that stuff you can do 459,000 tracks but we always try to keep a live feel to it. Playing is live is what it ultimately boils down to because we always like to keep a live feel. With this new technology, you have to be careful of how many tracks you get going because you can put stack upon stack and not be able to recreate it live. In order to keep hold of the reigns and pull back on that stuff was definitely a learning experience. Of course, it was a team effort and from the heart, as I said. I learned that we are more grateful than ever to be still out here doing it. We are lovin’ every minute of it!
When you look back at your career, what do you consider the biggest evolution?
The thing that sticks out is that we have learned to be closer to each other than ever. We have always been brothers but we have been through so much. We have had this second chance after breaking up when I didn’t think we would be together ever again. We got back together and did ‘Into The Now,’ wrote it, mixed it and produced it ourselves. Like I said, to still be doing it today, we are just so grateful. Gratitude is definitely the most important thing that sticks out to me.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring musicians looking to pursue a career in the music industry in today’s climate?
Play from the heart and really live every single note and word. That way you will always have that satisfaction because a lot of times when you are trying to make it, back then or even today, you may never get that break but at least you always have the songs that come from the heart. Always speak from the heart!
Great advice! Thanks for your time today, Jeff. ‘Simplicity’ is certainly an album to be proud of! We look forward to spreading the word!
Awesome! Thank you very much, Jason! Take care!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.