Tesla (Contemporary Musicians)
As Tesla bassist Brian Wheat told Billboard's Terry Wood in 1989, "We're the epitome of a no-makeup band. We just wear our jeans and T-shirts and go out and play. We're a good live band, and people like that. People notice we don't use sequencers or drum machines. We're just an honest rock band." Thus assured in their identity, Tesla have resolutely taken their career down an unusual path. Foremost in this approach has been their refusal to release a quick succession of formulaic albums to capitalize on their early success. Instead, the group records every two to three years, with each release taking a chance by featuring tracks that explore a new direction for the band.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the Northern California-based members of Tesla eschew the rock-star image or fast-lane Los Angeles lifestyle, remaining close to where they were raised and keeping out of trouble. Nevertheless, the hard-rock quintet enjoys touring, even submitting to grueling nine-month treks that take them through North America, Europe, and the Far East. Seasoned road warriors that they are, though, Tesla refuse to play the encore game with audiences in which performers run offstage until enough applause brings them back out; lead singer Jeff Keith simply tells the audience: "We're not going to hide behind the amplifiers," and asks, "Do you want to hear another?"
Breaking the mold has brought Tesla longevity in a genre in which bands either rise rapidly then fade away with similar speed, or become such icons that expectations for them are impossible to meet. "Falling prey to neither the glam image of the early '80s, nor the angst-driven grunge trend of the '90s, Tesla carved out a niche for themselves as 'everyperson's' band," declared RIP magazine. "Performing equally well on their aggressive, power-rock tunes as on their emotionally resonant acoustic ones, the band pleased a growing following who stood by them no matter what was in vogue musically."
Not Your Average Bar Band
Tesla came together in the Sacramento, California, area as City Kidd in 1984. They were a cover band hired to play music originally made popular by groups like ZZ Top. When they began including their own songs in their set, bar patrons didn't seem to notice the difference and even appeared to be enjoying the tunes. The owner of the Oasis, a frequent venue for the band, liked these originals so much that he booked them one night to play only their own material. This developed into a series of performances, which, combined with a demonstration tape, attracted the attention of Geffen Records scouts. The band soon signed a recording contract. But rather than quickly rush out an album, they rehearsed and sharpened their songwriting abilities for the next 18 months.
It was also during this period that they renamed themselves Tesla. The name was an homage to inventor Nikola Tesla, a forgotten genius who died in 1943. The eccentric scientist made crucial discoveries in alternating current that paved the way for modern applications of electricity, radio chief among them. His dedication inspired the band. "He did it for the love of his work, not for the hype or anything," bass player Wheat explained to Detroit Free Press writer Gary Graff. "We write songs straight from the heart.... We believe in what we do. " The band's first release, Mechanical Resonance, appeared in record stores in 1986. Tesla was described by Rolling Stone contributor J. D. Considine as "fast and flashy" in a review of Mechanical Resonance, and "offering little content but plenty of excitement." The reviewer also speculated on the band's future, predicting it "unlikely to offer more than a brief spark of excitement before fading away entirely."
Early sales of Mechanical Resonance were in fact dismal, but this was dramatically altered when the band went on tour with Van Halen, then at the height of their popularity. "Up to that point, [Mechanical Resonance] had only sold about 25,000 copies. During just those eight weeks on the road, we sold 200,000 more," Wheat told Billboard'writer Terry Wood. Tesla's next big break came later that year when when they toured Europe with British heavy-metal giants Def Leppard. Radio airplay on album-oriented rock stations helped boost U.S. sales further over the next few months, and Mechanical Resonance eventually went platinum, selling over one million copies.
Radio Controversy Praised for Diversity
The group released its sophomore effort, The Great Radio Controversy, in 1989. The first single, a ballad called "Love Song," quickly became a hit. Kim Neely reviewed the album for Rolling Stone and found its diversityrom the aforementioned "Love Song" to louder cuts like "Be a Man"specially commendable, noting, "Oddly, nothing seems contrived or out of place." Neely praised Tesla's second release as "a shining example of what can happen when a talented band puts on blinders, ignores what everybody else is selling and forges ahead on instinct." This instinct earned Tesla another platinum record for The Great Radio Controversy.
As they had become known for their heavy sound, Tesla took something of a risk in releasing a slow, love song as the first single from Radio Controversy; their third album represented an even bigger leap of faith. While touring with Motley Crue after the release of Radio Controversy, Tesla would show up at local clubs on the East Coast to play acoustic sets of their repertoire. This diversion so excited the bandmembers that they soon brought in a mobile facility to record some of these sets. They thought they might use some of the material as B-sides on forthcoming releases. Next, Tesla enlisted a video crew to tape the gigs.
The band's enthusiasm for these stripped-down performances was contagious, and Geffen decided to release the cuts as a live album and the footage as a companion video, which resulted in 1990's Five Man Acoustical Jam and the video Five Man Video Band. Tesla's first single from Five Man Acoustical Jam, the extremely popular "Signs," was a cover of a 1971 tune written by Les Emmerson, the lead vocalist of a long-forgotten act called The Five Man Electrical Band. In effect, Tesla can be credited with helping spawn the "unplugged" phenomenon of the 1990s, in which artists demonstrate to fans that they can shine without amplification, production assistance, or mechanical tricks.
Helped Unleash Unplugged Craze with Live Recording
Tesla objected when record company executives hinted at overdubbing (augmenting or correcting) some of the tracks on Five Man Acoustical Jam and insisted that the album be released just as they had played it. Since then, a plethora of rock actsost notably Eric Clapton and Nirvanaave released acoustic albums, many taped on a popular, live-before-a-studio-audience feature on MTV called Unplugged. A Rolling Stone review of Five Man Acoustical Jam remarked that when heavy-metal bands go acoustic, they often demonstrate just how talentless they are, but, asserted the magazine, Tesla possesses "better chops and tunes than most of the competition," which helped make the album "a lot more fun than it might have been."
With the 1991 release of Psychotic Supper, Tesla aroused a bit of controversy when they slammed guitarist/hunting advocate Ted Nugent in the album's liner notes. Lead singer Keith is active in the animal-rights movement and had been offended by Nugent's constant broadsides about the joys of bow-and-arrow hunting. Later, after a tart reply from Nugent, the self-effacing Tesla appeared embarrassed about the flap and tried to play it down. While touring for Psychotic Supper, the group demonstrated their altruistic side by staging a contest in which they awarded backstage passes to fans. Entrants donated canned goods to earn a chance at the passes; the food was donated to local shelters. Psychotic Supper marked the band's fourth platinum platter.
In 1994 the group released Bust a Nut, sending "Mama's Fool" to radio as the lead single. RIP called the record "a complicated piece of business. Boasting grand shadings of majestic guitars ('Shine Away'), bluesy soul ... and intense, thought-provoking lyrics ('Wonderful World,' 'Solution'), Bust a Nut could well be the album that boosts Tesla from 'facelessness' to mainstream status." To charges that the band is just another identity-deficient heavy-metal ensemble, lead singer Keith responded in RIP, "As soon as the music starts, our 'face' comes out. We're here to play music." Keith also pointed out in the group's Geffen publicity material: "What you're seeing and hearing is real. We're proud of that and people pick up on it. It's a bond with our audience we don't want to break. They know we're not going to shock everybody and start wearing mascara and they appreciate that. The loyalty of our fans is really something. We work off each other and have a good time together. Maybe it's because we're fans of Tesla too, and play what we really like to hear." By the summer of 1995, Bust a Nut had been certified a gold record, with platinum projections abounding.
On Geffen Records
Mechanical Resonance, 1986.
The Great Radio Controversy, 1989.
Five Man Acoustical Jam, 1990.
Psychotic Supper, 1991.
Bust a Nut, 1994.
Billboard, March 25, 1989; June 1, 1991; September 3, 1994.
Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, October 7, 1994.
RIP, December 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987; May 4, 1989; December 13, 1990.
Spin, August 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Geffen Records publicity materials, 1994.