Tesla: The simplicity of an interview with Jeff Keith

At some point in a band’s career, time seems to stretch out and its members no longer want to rush things. That’s what seems to be happening to Tesla, thirty years after they first introduced their high-class bluesy hard rock to the world. Tesla want to take their time, manage things themselves and as they please, go on tour when the sun is shining and not for too long. Tesla also want to do things simply, genuinely, in a world that relies more and more on the complexity of technology. That’s precisely the basis of this new album, Simplicity, released six years after Forever More. Gone are the modern impulses of the later and of the much acclaimed Into The Now; the music is now back to “the bare minimum”, as vocalist Jeff Keith puts it.

In the following interview, Keith talks about the spirit that was driving the band during the making of this new album, and about his solo career in country music, which he only started up last year. We also got some intel about the band’s past and an explanation regarding the tomato story…

Radio Metal : A six-year break separates Simplicity to its predecessor Forever More. How can you explain this, did you guys need some time put this album together?

Jeff Keith (vocals) : Well yeah, usually it takes three or four years between each album. For whatever reason, all the touring we do, it takes time to get together and write and stuff. This time around, which we didn’t do on « Forever More », we did quite a bit of preproduction. We went to Tom Zutaut’s farm in Virginia – he’s the guy who signed us to Geffen and was involved with the first three records. So, it was great, with him co-producing and bouncing ideas off with him. We went to his farm in Virginia for about a week and a half, two trips. It was away from the Internet. It was just totally disconnected from everything but music. It worked out really well for us.

Since your reformation in 2004 you seem to have a less intensive rhythm compared to the 86 to 96 era when the band was on Geffen Records. Do you think this kind of rhythm would be too hard endure for the band now?

Absolutely. Yeah we are at a point now where we have a strong enough fan base that we can pick and choose a little bit more how much time we want to spend on the road. Back in those days, sometimes we’d go out for four to six months in a row, which is far too much for us nowadays. So, we’re fortunate enough to have a fan base where we can choose to preferably go out during the summer and do a lot of fly-out dates for about a month. We can last about a month and then we start unraveling.

In June 2013, you have released a single called « Taste My Pain » on iTunes, and it’s actually not present on the album. What was the reason for that move?

Last year we just wanted to give the people something to listen to, a new song, so they can download it. Which bought us some times to put the new record Simplicity together. I believe, for Europe and Japan, it’s on as a bonus track. And I think you guys might have been able to download it back when it came out last year. But for whatever they use it for the bonus track, because in Europe and Japan they usually like to have an extra bonus track, so we used it as the bonus track. We still play it in live, you know. We think it’s a great song. It was intended to show people last year we were still capable of writing songs. We think it worked well for us.

« We do things on a smaller level by doing everything ourselves but we’re more happy with doing things on our own terms. »

Simplicity is a much more back to the roots album compared to Into The Now and Forever More which both sounded quite modern. Did you guys feel the need to re-embrace your roots at this point?

Absolutely! We wanted to make an album that, you know, you put it on from the start and you play the entirety of the record, play it to the last song, and make more of an album oriented record. Because a lot of times, when you go out, you feel really strong about some songs and other songs, and they’re not filler songs but, you know, there are songs maybe not of the same caliber of some songs that you feel strong about. But this record, from top to bottom, we feel really strong about every song.

Simplicity features a lot of acoustic guitars and some piano, even within the more electric guitar driven songs. Did you specifically want to have this acoustic vibe always somewhere in the mix?

Well, actually, believe it or not, in every record we’ve ever made, there’s always an acoustic track laid back in the song somewhere. But we’ve had a couple of songs here and there with some keyboards in it, so it just so came about, you know, that a few of the song’s ideas started with a piano riff and we just built the song on that basis. I don’t think we intentionally said “Hey let’s have more acoustics than usual” or “Let’s have more piano than usual”. It just happened to turn out that way.

Did the Twisted Wires album inspire you guys, in any way, in the making of Simplicity?

Yeah. We kind of went back to those roots of doing the Five Men Acoustical Jam which was a very successful record for us, and it was just an entire evening of us playing songs acoustically. So yeah, I think it definitely played a part in inspiring us and making Simplicity, you know, getting back to the roots of that kind of stuff with the acoustic feel. It definitely played a part in the making of Simplicity.

The band has often performed its songs in the acoustic setting. Is stripping it down a way to show how really great a song is? Does a good song have to remain just as good on the acoustic setting?

Yeah, we’ve always felt that you can take a great song and break it down to an acoustic feel and the song can still stand on its own two feet. Acoustically, we feel that’s a great basis to stand on. So, with just about every Tesla song, we feel we can play them acoustically and the song still comes across as a great song.

The opening track is called « MP3 », obviously after the audio file format, and talks about technology. Considering the album’s title, would you say that technology tends to make things more complex?

Yeah. You know, with Pro Tools and all these nifty little technology things that you can use, you have to be really careful with it because you can actually overdo it. Because you can compile all these tracks to make a song, but we like to try to keep it more to a bare minimum so it keeps the song real and we can reproduce it live on stage. With all the world’s new technology, we feel we got to be careful with that stuff. Simplicity is a word from a phrase we use in the song “MP3” about all this new technology. We think things need to get back to simplicity so that’s why we titled the record “Simplicity”. Because we wanted to make a record that was more simple rather than all these complex stuffs that you can use, you know, like Pro Tools among other things. You can make a record with so many tracks and kind of basically oversaturate it. It takes away from the real true form of the song. So we’re very careful and trying to make it as simple as possible.

On the other hand, thanks to technology, music recordings have become more easily accessible to bands. So would you say that this is like a kind of « love and hate » relationship?

Yeah, you know, a lot these stuffs, like social media, we really feel that technology benefits bands in its own ways, get the word out there, people can download it, share with other people, and hopefully those people they share with like it and that’s when they go “I want to go buy it myself.” So it’s more like a modern word of mouth. I think it works out in a band’s benefit to have it available to download. You know, back in the day when you made a record, people had to buy the whole entire record. Nowadays they have the choice, if they just want to buy a few songs then they can, which I think is great for the fans. Like I said, we tried to make a record with Simplicity that’s an entire record that people will want to hear every song. We’re a band more on the album oriented kind of format. We want people to love the record from start to finish.

The album was produced by the band itself, what pushed you to handle the production duties by yourselves this time? Weren’t you satisfied with the production work on Forever More?

Yeah Forever More was great. We did it with Terry Thomas who also produced Bust A Nut with us in ’94, but we went into that record without any pre-productions, so we were actually writing some of the songs while we were in the studio recording. So this time around, we took the time, like I said, with Tom Zutaut co-producing it, and went to his farm for about a month in total and just got away from everything. We went to sleep, you know, playing music and then woke up to music. It was all about the music, making songs that were, as always, straight from the heart and it was a lot of fun because when you take time to do pre-production, you have time to build the songs, which we didn’t do for Forever More. So that’s the difference in making Simplicity as opposed to Forever More. Forever More was more or less unprepared, because we didn’t have all the songs written. This time we have all the songs written and in a form we were happy with.

With Into The Now the band was also involved in the production. But what difference did that make, since Into The Now was a more modern sounding album?

We wrote Into the Now, produce it ourselves, mix it ourselves and did everything ourselves which was fun and it was great, personally, it’s one of my favorite records. But the difference between that and Simplicity is that we had Tom Zutaut co-producing it, so we were bouncing off with him. We feel that it’s always great to bounce off somebody outside the band, because they help you to take the song to a different level. Sometimes, like for Into The Now, which like I said is one of my favorite records, we didn’t have anybody to bounce off for ideas. While with Simplicity, we might settle for something on our own and Tom Zutaut was there to co-produce it with us, to help us to take it to a different level. He went like « Okay you had it this way, how about we try something different like this, try something else?” which tends to make you artistically to take the song to a different level.

« A lot of bands were moving to LA because that was the happening thing to do, but we didn’t want to do the latest trend, we wanted to be ourselves in the band and we were. »

The band seems to do a lot by itself, you even have you own record company. Is it important for the band to have full control?

Yeah! That way we can do things more in our own terms. We don’t have somebody trying to push us in a certain direction or trying to get us to push things that maybe we’re not as happy with. So we like having our own record company. Brian Wheat and Frank Hannon , they co-manage the band. So we do things on a smaller level by doing everything ourselves but we’re more happy with doing things on our own terms.

Did you have some bad experiences in the past because the band didn’t have that kind of control?

No. I think at that time it was great, you know, working with Geffen. We think that they did a fantastic job and of course you have a lot more money to back things up, to push certain things. But they had a big part in picking and choosing the songs as the singles. So now, if we feel we’ve got a song that we want to push it as a single, we can do those things on our own terms.

It’s been ten years now that Tesla is back. How would you compare the Geffen years to these past ten years?

Well, we definitely played much tighter as a band in 2004. We broke up for ‘96 to 2000 and then in 2000 we got back together, all five original members. And then after the making of Into The Now, we saw things kind of going in the same direction that was a dead end street for the band, which ended up ultimately breaking us up in the late 90’s. So particularily, Tommy [Skeoch] was kind of going too far with things again and we thought “hey, this is a dead end street.” So the terms turned out to be that he had to be clean and sober so we all were clean and sober on the road and he was not able to do that while we were, and we still are to this day. And we found the perfect guitar player that fits the bands just great which is Dave Rude. He brings a lot to the table, he’s a great person, a great guitar player and a great songwriter. So we’re very happy with Dave Rude. We think he does a great job and, like I said, he brings a lot to the table and we are very happy with that and we are very content. We’re playing stronger than ever and better than ever, because we’re not self-medicating ourselves to make things better. Because in the older days, when things weren’t quite right, we would self-medicate with alcohols, drugs, whatever it may be, which didn’t make things better, it just makes things worse in the long run. So now, if an issue comes out, we deal with it with a straight, level head, and things seem to come out a lot better.

Do you think music business is easier or harder in comparison to earlier days?

Ah, you know, in a lot of ways it’s tougher. It’s a whole different animal than it was back then. And it’s a lot tougher to get things out there to people and especially with our own the record company, having our own band management and stuff. Things are, like I said, on a smaller level but we enjoy it, because we get to do things more in a fashion that we’re happy with.

You have released a solo EP early last year. How comes you didn’t go solo earlier, as all of the Tesla members have had solo projects before you?

Well I’ve always had a passion for country music, you know, and for a good part of my life I have lived in Oklahoma, graduating from High School there and so country music has always been a passion of mine. Last year when I released the six songs EP of the country music that I wrote with some friends in Nashville, I just released it, like I said, as a passion, just for fun. I really enjoyed it, I was really happy with it. But a lot of times, the other band members do more solo projects. For me, I keep myself busy with Tesla mainly, and so I guess I save as much as I can for writing songs with Tesla. But those guys, they enjoyed doing the solo projects which I think is great for them. They enjoyed it. It’s a passion of theirs. I totally supported it but I just don’t do it as often as they do.

Did your passion for country music inspire you in Tesla at some point?

Yeah, there are some Tesla songs that kind of have that country feel to it, like “What You Give” and songs like that kind of have that country little twang to it. With Telsa, we have five members who have a lot of different inspirations, so when we come together as a band to write songs, all of our inspirations come to the table and then we sort it all out and we end up with a Tesla song with all five members different inspirations coming together to make a song.

I’ve read you say that if the EP was selling enough, it would finance « a full blown record in Nashville with session players and all ». So is this going to happen?

Well so far I don’t know. We haven’t sold near enough to do that. That’s the goal and hopefully someday we’ll reach that goal. But if we don’t, at least we had the opportunity to release the EP, which was a lot of fun to do. But yes, the ultimate goal is to sell enough of those to make a full blown record with session players from Nashville and we have other songs that we have written for that. Hopefully we will be able to reach that goal.

« We’re perfectly happy and content with being tomato farmers from Sacramento making music. [Laughs] »

Most of the hard rock in the 80s seemed to happen in Los Angeles, whereas Tesla is from Sacramento. In one way or another, did that contribute to make Tesla different from the other 80s rock bands?

Yeah, you know, back in the days when we came out in the mid 80’s we would go down to LA, which is like six hours ride from Northern California as we come from Sacramento, we would go down to showcase and trying to get attention from the record companies. And then, once we did get that attention then we had the record companies coming up to Sacramento where we could play to our home town crowd. And every time we would go down to LA to showcase, we would just come back to Sacramento back to the drawing board and try to figure out what it was, what ingredients we felt we were missing, to write songs that were coming out that time but still being ourselves. Because a lot of bands were moving to LA because that was the happening thing to do, but we didn’t want to do the latest trend, we wanted to be ourselves in the band and we were. We didn’t want to be influenced by the LA scene. So we remained in Sacramento, and, like I said, we would go down showcase and come back to the drawing board to try to write songs from the heart and be ourselves.

We remember Nikki Sixx calling the band « a bunch of tomato farmers from Sacramento ». Where did he get that funny idea from actually?

[Laughs] Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe had made that comment, but we are really good friends. He said it in a jokingly way like “Tesla is a bunch of tomato farmers from Sacramento”. But we liked that, we were like “Yeah! We’re a bunch of tomato farmers from Sacramento!” That’s who we represent, the hard working blue collar people because that’s what we are ourselves. We weren’t about image, we were about writing songs from the heart until we kind of got a kick out of that comment. Nikki Sixx said it in a really jokingly like way because, like I said, we are very good friends. But that’s exactly who we represent, “the hard working blue collar class of people”, and so when people see us up on stage, they go “Wow! They were just like us! That could be us up on stage playing like they are.” So we like that people can feel that way about us. We’re perfectly happy and content with being tomato farmers from Sacramento making music. [Laughs]

Don’t you think about making your own tomato brand, the Tesla tomatoes?

Well, no actually and in all honestly, none of us could grow tomatoes. None of us could farm tomatoes but a lot of tomato farms are in Sacramento area. They grow a lot of produces in the Sacramento Valley, so they do a lot of farming up here. So we couldn’t farm anything for you, Nicolas. We’re not good at it, but we just come from the area that is represented by the farmers. We’re not farmers ourselves, we are rock’n’rollers [laughs]!

Actually a lot of bands have done their own hot sauce. You could have done your own ketchup brand for example…

I don’t see Tesla brand ketchup anytime soon. I know a lot of bands do that kind of stuff, like Sammy Hagar with his Tequila and another people with their hot sauce and barbecue sauce. I don’t see Tesla doing that. We’re just focusing on the music. We’re content with that.

Will we have the chance so see Tesla coming to Europe?

We are coming to Europe, I think. In about a week and half we’re coming over and we’re going to do a Europe tour. I’m not sure exactly what countries we are coming to, but I think there are like seven of eight. We’re going to play some festivals and then we’re going to play some shows on our own. And hopefully that will get enough people’s attention to actually come back to the States, finish out the rest of the summer here in the US, then maybe pick things back up in January here in the United States and hopefully we’ll have enough interests from Europe that we’ll be able to come back over there next summer and do a bunch of more shows

Do you think we have to wait six more years for the next album?

Let’s hope not. [Laughs] I mean we never release a record until we say it’s ready to be released. So let’s hope it doesn’t take six years, Nicolas.

Interview conducted by phone on may, 22nd 2014 by Spaceman.
Transcription : Thibaut Saumade.
Questions and introduction : Spaceman.

Tesla official website : teslatheband.com

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