Hard rockers Tesla talk songwriting, The Beatles ahead of San Antonio performance

The band behind 'Signs' and 'Modern Day Cowboy' plays Wednesday, June 5, at the Aztec Theatre.

click to enlarge While loosely associated with the '80s hair metal trend, members of the band Tesla insist they're more rooted in earlier hard rock sounds. - Courtesy Photo / Tesla
Courtesy Photo / Tesla
While loosely associated with the '80s hair metal trend, members of the band Tesla insist they're more rooted in earlier hard rock sounds.
San Antonio got its first taste of California hard rockers Tesla when the band supported Def Leppard at the legendary HemisFair Arena on November 16, 1987.

At the time, Tesla — who will appear Wednesday, June 5 at the Aztec Theatre — was supporting its debut LP, Mechanical Resonance, which included “Modern Day Cowboy.” The single featured Tesla’s signature strong songwriting, powerful riffs and the raspy, high-register vocals of one Jeff Keith.

After that strong start, Tesla dropped several more studio albums and hit singles before releasing Five Man Acoustical Jam, arguably the group’s standout achievement. Mixing stripped-down acoustic versions of Tesla originals plus some ’70s rock covers, Five Man offered another smash in “Signs,” not to mention being the opening salvo in the “unplugged” trend that dominated the early ’90s.

Like Def Leppard, Tesla is loosely associated with the hair metal trend of the ’80s, but its members insist it’s always been more rooted in the hard rock of the prior decade. Unlike Def Leppard, which was already moving in a more pop direction by the time the bands played together at HemisFair Arena, Tesla stuck to its roots and has spent decades delivering hard rock anthems.

We caught up with Tesla bassist Brian Wheat on Zoom to talk about songwriting, Def Leppard and his love of the undisputed best band of all time: The Beatles. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tesla supported Def Leppard here in San Antonio in 1987. What are your memories of that tour?

That tour was just incredible. You know, it was in the round. Lots of tickets were being sold. Def Leppard were like mentors and big brothers to us. They said that we reminded them of [themselves] when they were our age and young. Not that they’re that much older than us, actually, because they started really young. But young in a career sense. I don’t think we’d be sitting here speaking today had we not done that tour. You know, the brotherhood between us will always be there. I’m real tight with [Def Leppard guitarist] Phil [Collen] and I’m real tight with [singer] Joe [Elliott]. Joe wrote the foreword to my book. And I’ve got to tell you, out of all the bands that we ever toured with in our long career, they treated us the best.

You never hear anything bad about those guys.

Well, there’s nothing really bad to say about them. Stand-up dudes. I mean, outside of Joe Elliott being homely. We kind of look alike. No, I love Joe Elliott.

The enduring appeal of Tesla may be that you guys have clever arrangements. “Modern Day Cowboy,” “Love Song” and “No Way Out (Heaven’s Trail)” have tricky riffs, unusual sections or weird phrasings. Would you agree? And if so, was that by design?

I think that you see it like that, right? Or someone that looks from the outside would see it like that. Me, I don’t study it. We didn’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, let’s try to be clever here. Let’s try to be clever there.’ We’re just like little workmen. I’m of the opinion that on the eighth day, God created Paul McCartney. I never really analyze his songs, but I am aware that stuff like “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Band on the Run” and “Live and Let Die” are pretty fucking cool. And the arrangements and stuff are tricky. I don’t know if he sat there and said it or if it’s just what he naturally did. When you hear Tesla and you hear those songs, it’s just what we did while we were working.

Five Man Acoustical Jam dropped around the time of what you’ve called a “changing of the guard,” when grunge came along. The band that’s represented on Five Man could very easily have opened for The Black Crowes.

Well, it’s funny. They came to one of the first acoustic shows we did and hung out with us. And I think [Black Crowes guitarist] Rich [Robinson] got up and played with us. It was in Boston at The Channel. There’s many more similarities in Tesla and The Black Crowes than in Tesla and a lot of bands that they try to lump us in with. But if we’re an ’80s hair band, what was The Black Crowes? Because they came out at the same time, and The Black Crowes were a blues-based rock band. Call it what you want. It’s still Tesla to me.

Hard question. What are your three favorite Beatles albums?

That’s easy. Revolver, the White Album and Let It Be.

No Sgt. Pepper?

Nope. Revolver is the greatest record ever made.

We can agree there. But you could drop Let It Be off that list and—

No, no. Let It Be. Watch the documentary. Look how McCartney pulls “Get Back” out of his ass. I love Let It Be. It’s a great record. “Across the Universe,” “Dig a Pony,” “Two of Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road.” I mean, come on. George didn’t have the great songs on that record. Sgt Pepper? It’s a masterpiece. There’s The Beatles and there’s everyone else. Period. I don’t care who it is.

$64-$193.50, 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, Aztec Theatre, 104 N. St. Mary’s St., (210) 812-4355, theaztectheatre.com.

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