For the members of the hard-rocking band Tesla, the late '80s and early '90s were a dream. The critical success of its debut disc Mechanical Resonance was followed by the commercial success of The Great Radio Controversy and the cover of "Signs" from the unplugged Five Man Acoustical Jam. The band was headlining arenas, selling CDs, and enjoying life. While changes in the marketplace probably would have doomed Tesla's chances for continued success, internal problems played a larger role. Drug use was one factor. A dead pony was another.
Two former members of Tesla--Tommy Skeoch (guitar) and Jeff Keith (vocals)--are trying to put the past behind them and focus on their current project, Sofa King, but there are still unresolved issues. Skeoch sounds like a man holding a substantial grudge against his former bandmates. "They just had a lot of ego and jealousy problems with me for whatever reasons," he says. "So they really wanted me out. It wasn't like when we called each other 'bros' like we were 'bros.' We weren't helping each other out. I was always really sweet to them. They always had a problem with me. I think it was a jealousy thing. I think Frank [Hannon] wanted to be some kind of guitar hero thing, and a lot of people liked my gig."
Things started to unravel for the band in 1994, when Skeoch's drug use got out of hand. He admits, "I deservedly should have been fired." The talented guitarist was left behind on the Bust a Nut tour with the hope he would clean up his act. Never a fan of twelve-step programs, Skeoch still uses, but he says he doesn't go "out to the outer limits anymore."
"There was a lot of hypocrisy there too, because they were doing some of the same things that I was doing," Skeoch says. "Maybe not getting to the point where they couldn't stand up."
While he tried to get his life in order, a second attempt at touring met with disaster, when the band flew to Detroit to mount a greatest hits tour. Skeoch was once again out of control. "I just wasn't ready to stop doing what I was doing, medicating my pain for whatever pain that was," he says. "So I got fired again."
As the quartet finished their tour obligation, Keith, the band's singer, became more reclusive. When he wasn't onstage apologizing for Skeoch's absences, he was alone in the back of the bus, wondering about not only the band's future, but his own. "If you ask me, the day Tommy was given that ultimatum, 'He's going to have to clean up or get out,' is the day Tesla died," Keith says. "Because naturally when Tommy came back and played for a while, he had so much animosity. It's understandable."
All hell broke loose in Nevada. When the bus pulled into Reno, Keith was an emotional mess. His band was breaking apart, and he was having marital trouble. And then, the pony.
Apparently, one of Keith's treasured ponies died--circumstances still un-known--leaving him with just his pony. "I cried for two days when I was home because my one pony died. My wife, thinking she was doing something for me, had the pony taken away and all that stuff before they even told me that the pony died. I had just built a barn for him. I still love that one to death."
Keith tried to go on stage in Reno, but ended up walking off. The crowd tore up the place. Tesla was done.
While Keith contemplated his future--he worked as a DJ at a strip bar--Skeoch started jamming with a few musicians. One thing led to another, and after two years of not speaking, Keith joined their band. Sofa King was born. Keith playfully describes how their name is a play on words. "I wanted something that was just fun, like Motley Crue. Everybody always says, 'That was so fucking bad. That was so fucking cool.' I was like, 'Sofa King!'"
Doing research for this story, I came across a band in Texas named the Sofa Kings. Keith, with Spinal Tap innocence, explains why there shouldn't be a legality problem: "Ours isn't 'the.' They're called 'the Sofa Kings.' Perfect, because we're just 'Sofa King.'"
So what does Sofa King sound like? I have no idea. The band doesn't have a label or a disc. "Some of the songs are kind of like Tesla," says Skeoch. "Some are a little bit edgier."
"For the people who were into Tesla," says Keith, "there's a big part that is carried on in Sofa King. But also, we're not Tesla either. Sofa King has given us that extra chance to go beyond where we might have wanted to go with Tesla."
The band has mounted a month-long club tour to tighten up its sound and play a few showcases, hoping to gain major-label interest. Keith eloquently sums up the long road that lies ahead for the band: "We fucked our way to the top. We fucked our way right to the bottom. We're ready to fuck our way back to the top. It's the way I look at it, in a joking manner."
Sofa King. 8 p.m., Tuesday, January 26, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Rd., $11.50 ($13 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.