When they formed in the early 1980's, Tesla was a pleasant anomaly, a group of regular guys from California that for some reason got lumped in with the seemingly endless array of hair metal and glam bands. Although Tesla's music always had its pop/metal side, the band members themselves seemed a lot more like your neighbors than the dudes in Poison.
Tesla's heyday fizzled out as the 80's lingered on, but tracks like "Love Song" and especially "Signs" still resonate today as pleasant classic rock radio fodder. Although the band was on hiatus for six years in the '90s, the near-original cast hits the House of Blues on Tuesday night. Speaking from his home in Sacramento in anticipation of the show, singer Jeff Keith talked with DC9 about the band's colorful history and how choosing the right song to cover can make all the difference in the world.
DC9 at Night: Were you an original member of Tesla?
Keith: Well, I joined the band in 1982. Bassist Brian Wheat had started this band called City Kidd. [Guitarist] Tommy Skeoch joined in 1984. We went to Guam and played this club for two months. The club owner had this option to keep us for longer if he liked us. He kept us for another month and I ended up meeting my first wife over there. I was happy to stay. [Drummer] Troy Luccketta joined late in 1984 and that's when we knew that we had all the right people.
Not many bands make it so long with so many original members.
We really are brothers. Unfortunately in 1993, Tommy left the band. We stayed as a four piece hoping he would come back. We kept the place open for him. We stayed as a four piece until I lost my voice at a show in Reno and we broke up in '96. In 2000, I got the band back together. I was in another band called Bar 7. I was playing with Tommy, but there was still a lot of animosity between the other members and Tommy.
But eventually the band got back together.
I finally got things smoothed over enough to get a reunion show together. That was at ARCO arena and we sold it out. That was 18,000 people up to the rafters. We realized that our fans were still there. [Then] in 2004, I decided to go clean and sober to inspire Tommy. We've been clean and sober since then and we are stronger than ever.
Tesla was initially lumped in with the hair metal and glam bands. How did you feel about this association?
Well, we did go out on a tour with Poison and then David Lee Roth and then Alice Cooper. We even played the Texxas Jam at the Cotton Bowl. We hooked up with the manager of Def Leppard and we toured the whole world. Poison's C.C. Deville made the comment that we needed to go to our sisters' closets and get some clothes. I simply made the remark that we would leave the sister's closet to them.
The glam life doesn't really seem like it would've fit your sensibilities.
We will write songs from the heart and be regular guys. We didn't get caught up with that stuff. We never relied on some image. I think that is why our fan base is still there. We can come to the House of Blues in Dallas and sell some tickets. Our fan base allows us to do that.
It's been a while since you've come to Dallas.
Yes, it has been a couple of years. I have a lot of friends come to the show from Oklahoma. I spent some time growing up in Oklahoma. I graduated high school there. I was in the Future Farmers of America of all things.
You have said that some bands are "cheating" by using auto-tune and Pro Tools. Is that why the new record is called Simplicity?
The problem with all this technology is that you can literally do a thousand tracks and layer them. You use auto tune so your voice will be perfect. You can even move a track around to be in time. When we did Simplicity, we wanted to do it like our first records. We went to this farm from the late 1700s. We didn't have an internet connection, so no one's face was glowing from their phone. It makes it hard to do stuff when everyone's face is glowing from their iPhones. It is kind of annoying.
The band has always had an iconic logo. Who designed it?
We were called City Kidd and we were halfway done with our first album, Mechanical Resonance, and management told us to come up with another name. We couldn't come up with anything good, so they came up with Tesla. They said they had to start working on the artwork. They sat us down and told us everything about Nikola Tesla. They told us what an underdog he was. He wouldn't get a patent for some of his inventions and his ideas were stolen. That's why we called the second album The Great Radio Controversy.
Did you develop a connection to that name over time?
At first, we thought the name sounded weird, but it sounds normal today. The logo was inspired by Tesla's tower and his idea of providing free electricity. The companies didn't like that. JP Morgan and Edison had him shut down. Tesla died penniless, but he had a passion for inventions like we have a passion for music. We write songs from the heart. We've always stayed true to ourselves. We've remained a blue collar rock and roll band. People see us on stage and say, "That could be me." We are regular guys and I think that is appealing to our fans.
Your biggest hit was "Signs," a song originally done in 1971 by the Five Man Electric Band. How fortuitous was that cover choice?
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We were on tour with [Mötley Crüe] in 1990, but they had prior engagements that gave us a couple of nights off a week. We didn't want to sit around the hotel room, so we went to a club and asked if we could do our songs acoustically. We decided to each come up with a couple of covers. I had heard "Signs" because it was a big hit in Oklahoma. The other guys had never heard the song and they wanted me to get a copy of it. The shows were going so well that by the time we got to Philadelphia, we asked the label to bring down a mobile recording truck.
And then the song just kind of blew up?
Five months later, we played "Signs" on a radio station and the phones went crazy. Geffen approached us and wanted to put out the show as the Five Man Acoustical Jam. Geffen wanted us to rerecord this and that. They complained about how bad I was singing. They told me to listen and see how rough the recording was. I told them that it was how I sang live. We said that if they didn't put it out completely live, then we didn't want to put it out. They told us that we were going to be sorry, but they did put it out. It is still our best-selling record.
Tesla performs on Tuesday, July 15, at the House of Blues.