SALT LAKE CITY — They didn’t become household names like some of the other bands from their era, ala Def Leppard or Bon Jovi. But consider that the Sacramento-based quintet Tesla have been around now for 30 years (minus a short 4-year hiatus). They still have four of their five original members. The “new guy,” Dave Rude, has been with the band ten years. The band still tours constantly. And, they just released a fantastic new single to go along with a new live album.
“I’m very satisfied with my career,” lead guitarist Frank Hannon told the Deseret News recently during a phone interview from Louisiana when asked if he thinks Tesla should have been ‘bigger.’ “Back in the 80s when I was young and egotistical, I was feeling we should be more famous. (Now I realize) That’s all a bunch of BS. There’s a million great bands that didn’t get half as far as we did. Longevity is bigger than over-the-top success. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to. I’m very happy with where we are.”
Since 1986, Tesla has released seven studio albums in addition to a couple of live albums, one of which produced the hit re-make song “Signs.” They found success in the late ’80s and early ’90s with songs like “Hang Tough,” “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out),” “Love Song,” “Song and Emotion” and “What You Give.”
I’ve had the chance to speak with Hannon and other members of Tesla multiple times for past articles. And this was the most upbeat and excited he has ever sounded when talking about the band and the new music.
Part of that excitement comes from the release of a new live album, Mechanical Resonance – Live. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Tesla played all the songs off Mechanical Resonance over the course of several concerts and recorded them. Hannon said they recorded about ten concerts in total, took the best performances from each, and put them together to release Mechanical Resonance again, but this time live.
The process of choosing the songs, he said, was easy.
“Our band is so much more consistent now that we don’t do drugs on stage,” Hannon said matter-of-factly.
In preparing for playing the songs off Mechanical Resonance live, Hannon said the band went back and listened to the whole album.
“I’d forgotten how great this album was. The songs on the record were so simple in a sense,” he said.
Some of the songs off the album have remained staples in concert over the past three decades, including “Modern Day Cowboy,” “Little Suzi” and “Gettin’ Better.” Some songs, however, “We definitely had to relearn and rehearse them and bring them back to their original format. We realized we ventured off and jammed a little too much on them,” he said. “Cover Queen” was the hardest song to relearn, Hannon said.
One of the key figures in pushing Tesla to do the Mechanical Resonance – Live project was Def Leppard lead gutarist, and long time friend, Phil Collen.
“One of those major, major stepping stones (in our career) was touring with Def Leppard,” Hannon said.
Tesla’s first American and European tours were with Def Leppard, who were riding their own success as the time with the Hysteria Tour.
Hannon said his band and the Leppards “hit it off instantly.”
“We are so blessed. They just really love us. Phil Collen loves us,” Hannon said.
That friendship has lasted for 30 years.
“We’ve known them forever. It’s refreshing to see bands out there who are still into it for the right reason,” Collen said.
The other reason Hannon is so excited about the current state of Tesla is the new single at the end of the Mechanical Resonance album, “Save That Goodness.”
The song mixes rock, with soul, blues, lots of harmonies, and even an Eagles-like banjo part at the end. It’s different than anything Tesla has done in awhile, and also the best thing they’ve done in awhile.
Collen, who wrote and produced the song, said the collaboration began when his side-blues project, Delta Deep, approached Tesla lead singer Jeff Keith about doing a duet.
“We were writing a song and I thought it would be great if Jeff did kind of a vocal duet with Debbi (Blackwell-Cook, singer of Delta Deep) And I played it for Tesla and I think it was Brian Wheat that said, ‘Oh, we have to do that song. We have to do it, and you can produce it if you want.’ And that’s really how it started out. Debbi actually sings on their version of it. And it turned out so exciting and fun, we (said) ‘We have to do an album like this. Are you up for producing it and doing this as well?’ So that’s how that came about. And the fact that I see them everyday because we’re on tour together.”
The video recently released for “Save That Goodness” includes appearances by both Collen and Blackwell-Cook.
That single was the start of partnership that has Collen and Tesla now working on a full-length album. Collen learned a lot about producing from his years of sitting next to Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who in addition producing four of Def Leppard’s biggest albums, including the multi-platinum Pyromania and Hysteria albums, also produced some of classic and hard rock’s all-time biggest albums. Not to mention the biggest selling country album of all time with his former wife, Shania Twain.
“I wouldn’t actually be doing it if I didn’t sit next to Mutt Lange for years and kind of got an idea of what he did. And it really comes down to hard work and most people are not prepared to put that energy in. So I definitely applied that,” Collen said. “The album is blowing me away. It sounds like a Tesla album you’ve never heard before. It sounds like Tesla but it’s got these ingredients…I can’t even explain it. We’re so thrilled with the way the energy of this whole thing is coming around. I’m really blown away.”
While the bands have been on tour together all summer, Collen and Tesla have been recording new material backstage, in trailers, on the tour bus or wherever they can find space.
“He’s teaching us some tricks that we never learned before,” Hannon said of Collen’s producing skills, such as how to “layer harmonies.”
Def Leppard’s unique combination of harmonies and heavy guitars make their songs instantly recognizable on the radio. But Hannon said the next Tesla record won’t sound like a Def Leppard album. What Collen is doing, however, is being a great coach, he said. He’s teaching little tricks “that make a huge difference” like how to hold a guitar when sitting down, Hannon said.
“He’s like a coach. Any good organization, whether its a football team or a basketball team, when you get a coach involved from the outside, on the sidelines, it brings the best out of each player. That’s what Phil is doing for us right now. He’s pushing Jeff hard, but he’s keeping Jeff in his range,” he said.
The new Tesla album, slated for the spring of 2017, will have 12 new songs, Hannon said.
Salt Lake City and Utah has always been a very good market for Tesla. Even when Hannon has come through town with his solo project it has been well received. Tesla returns to the USANA Amphitheatre on Friday along with Def Leppard and REO Speedwagon.