Early on, Tesla would learn to stick with their beliefs. They had a song called “Love Song” that wasn’t exactly the definition of “radio-friendly,” but it was one that they believed in. So when a rep from their record label, Geffen Records, came to the band and said, “If you don’t change it, it’s not going to go on the record,” the band fired back and said, “Fine, then don’t put it on the record — we like it the way it is!”
The band got their way and “Love Song” became a smash when it was released as a single in 1989, and Tesla added another notch to their belt of successes. Their success had been carefully built with the combination of hard work and good songs. Legendary A&R executive Tom Zutaut had signed two bands to Geffen Records at the same time, Tesla and Guns N’ Roses. In a phone conversation, frontman Jeff Keith recalls that Zutaut had given the band some really important advice early on.
“We’ve always been told to write from the heart,” he says. “If things don’t work out, you want to write songs from the heart, because that’s the best place for them to come out. Then if things do work out, you’re going to be playing them night after night and it’s nice when they come from the heart, because you don’t get sick of doing them.”
The Sacramento-bred hard rock group has reconnected with Zutaut in recent years. He produced their two covers albums that were released under the Real to Reel banner and was there to oversee and offer important guidance to the band as they began to work on their latest album Simplicity, which was released in June.
They spent two weeks at Zutaut’s 150-acre ranch in the woods of Virginia writing songs for the album and, as Keith shares, it was the right way to do things. “It’s just a fun record,” he says. “This one’s very personal, because we took the time for pre-production and writing the songs. [The album] Forever More, we were working with Terry Thomas, who did Bust A Nut with us, which was fun, but you know, I was literally writing lyrics while the guys were putting down bass tracks on the song. It was not put together before we went in, so it was fun doing the pre-production. The idea was to have 20 songs. We narrowed it down to 14 songs and that’s what we’ve got on the record. It came out just right and we’re happier than pigs in shit.”
Tesla performs at the House of Blues this week for a show, something that’s become a bit of an annual occurrence. The group loves to play Cleveland and there’s always a dedicated audience there that mutually shares that love. We spoke with Keith to talk about the new album and the longevity of the band.
This album seems like it came from the right place. You probably can’t go wrong when you start out by spending a couple of weeks writing songs on a ranch in Virginia.
Hey man, it was awesome. We actually went there twice to Tom Zutaut’s farm there in Virginia and the juices were flowing. You know, we actually took the time to do pre-production, which we haven’t done the last record or two. So it was really great and it was really inspirational. We feel that we made the record that we wanted to make.
The band has a good amount of history with Tom. What led to the two camps reconnecting for this project?
Tom Zutaut is like a walking jukebox. I’m telling you, this guy just has a great ear for music. He signed us to Geffen Records and he worked with us on the first three records, so we wanted to go back to that kind of setting. Tom co-produced the record with us and [he brought] the vibe of capturing moments and just capturing the vibe of the track and going with that. Tom’s good with that -- he’s got a good ear for it. I don’t think he can play an instrument, but by golly, he’s got a good ear for that stuff. It was just great working with Tom again.
What sort of advice did he have for you guys as a band, being somebody who knows the band’s history so intimately?
Well, he already knows our history and we know the history of him and we want songs from the heart that we believe in that we can play day after day and night after night. They’ve gotta feel right and we’ve got to believe in it. That comes from the heart and we’ve always had that relationship where it’s about making a record that we love, because everybody else out of the gate, they might go “I don’t like this -- as a matter of fact, I hate it.” As long as we go, “Well, we love it,” that’s a great place to start. It might not go any farther than that.
The liner notes describe the early part of the process, where the goal was to knock out a song a day in the recording studio. Is that something that Tesla has done in the past on any of the albums?
I’m not brushed up on the liner notes. I know that we worked on “Life Is A River,” me and Frank were up all night, which inspired “Break of Dawn” when we were doing the pre-production. When we were doing the recording though, what we always do is we get a live rhythm track and then if you’ve got to replace a part here and there, that’s fine, but we always will take about three to six takes of the song and pick the best take that’s got that live feel and then feed off that and build off of that. But sometimes, you know, it’s funny, the songs that you go, “Oh, this is going to be an easy one,” don’t say that -- because that’s when it takes two or three days to capture. Then the song that you think is going to take a couple of days or something, POW, it pops right out. So we just take each song and try to capture that vibe on each song. I think we stayed within the budget and I don’t know if we got a take a day, but I think we just about did. There might have been a song that took a couple of days to get and maybe another song or two that we got a couple in a day.
You know, I don’t think that a lot of folks would consider Tesla to be one of those bands that gets overly analytical about the process, although it seems like that’s often a thing that bands, artists and songwriters do. Where do you guys get hung up?
When we did Real to Reel, we wanted to do it on that two inch tape, because when you punch in and you punch out, it has to be on. With today’s technology, Pro Tools and all of that, we still try to be careful. Because you stack track upon track and stack ‘em up and get yourself in a big world of hurt and not be able to reproduce it live. So we always [think about that]. Even when we made this record, you know, guitar players, they want to put four tracks of this and that and we’d say “Hey, let’s pop it down to one or two.” What would you do if we played the song live, which we do -- we’ve already played like six or seven of them live. We try to keep it realistic, with the dominant parts that you play live, so it’s like “Well, let’s try to keep that in mind,” so we don’t just stack too much. Because you could do a hundred thousand tracks today and some people do do a hundred thousand tracks and it sounds like this big thing and to us, we feel it’s kind of over-saturating things.
The stripped down feel of some of this stuff really comes through on a track like “Cross My Heart.”
Yeah and “Cross My Heart” is one that we were in pre-production in Sacramento before we got to Tom’s farm. Frank had the song put together and something wasn’t right and they go “What would you want, to make the song better?” and I [shared a couple of ideas], but I said “I don’t want to change the song there, that’s not fair to Frank and all of that” and Tom and even Frank and all of them were like “Oh, my God, do it like this!” and I remember literally crying a couple of tears, going “Frank, I am sorry that your song is going this way” and he’s like “No, no — dude, I love it!” So it kind of had that Humble Pie kind of feel, which is very much an inspiration to us. It’s the kind of stuff that we grew up on. So that’s where the song went, but I really genuinely felt bad that the song went from a straight ahead kind of Eagles feel to the Humble Pie thing. It’s one of our favorite songs to play and it’s one of our favorite songs on the record and a lot of people love it.
On that subject, what’s a song on this record that really changed from where it started out?
“Cross My Heart” was definitely one of them. “Rise and Fall” was cool, because that was inspired by Tom and his daughter. They told us a story that a ghost on a horse rode down in the living room and they had to get out of the way, the living room where we moved all of the furniture to do the pre-production stuff. I have not witnessed [this] myself, but I do believe they’re there — I just think they find me very unappealing, but that inspired the lyrics, “I swear to God it rode on a horse/ With a sword held up to the sky.” The song “Flip Side,” that started out just as a straight ahead song and Frank wrote most of the lyrics on it. When we went in the studio, Brian Wheat came in and said “Hey man, why don’t we do something where it’s swampy” and the verses came out all swampy and stuff and it’s killer. So “Flip Side” went through a lot of changes and I love the way it came out. “Life Is A River,” I love playing that one live — I titled it “Let It Flow,” but I got outvoted.I already titled a song ‘Call It What You Want,’ for Bust A Nut, so ‘Life Is A River’ is fine for me. I just love the way the song came out.”
At the time that this band came back together in 2000 for the initial reunion show, you probably couldn’t have imagined that the reunion would stick as long as it has. It seems like you guys really did it right, really perhaps rediscovering on the road on that tour what this band means both as the members playing in it and to the fans that still love it. That really seemed to carry a lot of good energy forward when you finally did end up making a new record with Into The Now.
I had this band called Bar 7 with Tommy [Skeoch] and then I had a good relationship with the other guys. So in 2000, we got back together and played the reunion show and that’s all anybody committed to was just one show at the Arco Arena and we filled it up with 18 thousand people who flew from all over the country to come to that show. There was still a lot of animosity stuff, so the next commitment was three Northern California shows and we did those and then the next thing was “Well, let’s put a leg together” and the commitment at that time was only those dates. Then it got to the point where the next commitment was making a record. We didInto The Now and here we are in a whole new era, a couple of new eras ahead now. And we’re from the ‘80s and we know who we are, we’re just a blue-collar band. So we made Into The Now, we wrote that, produced it, mixed it ourselves and were very happy with it. Then of course, things started going down the same old dead end street with Tommy. So he ended up leaving the band and we found Dave Rude, man what a great guy. He brings a lot to the table — he’s a great songwriter and he and Frank helped me with the lyrics on this record and we’ve just got a really great team going on right now, man. It’s better than ever. We went clean and sober in 2004 on the road to help Tommy and he wasn’t able to pull it off. We’ve stuck to it and it’s the best thing that we ever did.
What’s the key to keeping things going? You’re now three records into this reunion and the way things ended with Tesla the first time, I think that’s three records more than fans thought they would ever get.
You know what I can tell you, and I think I can definitely speak for the guys, we love to write songs. We love to play together. I know one of my favorite things in the whole wide world is to write songs and go through the whole process. It’s therapy for ourselves and you hear people come out and go “Man, that song really helped me through this” and it’s therapy for us as we’re writing it. We just love to write songs and of course then we love to play ‘em live for people. So things are just going better than ever and we’re very grateful every day. Every second and every breath, we’re very grateful to still have the opportunity to do what we do and we enjoy it. We like to make it show and even if we don’t try to make it show, we just know that we’re having fun with it and people pick up on that and they just have fun and that’s the number one ingredient. The top of the list is let’s have some fun!
Tesla with American Dog, the Vegabonds, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $27.50-$37.50, houseofblues.com.