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INTERVIEW – Jeff Keith, Tesla – June 2013

| 23 July 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

They’ve been up and they’ve been down, but Tesla are still very much Comin’ Atcha Live in 2013, and are halfway through an extensive trek across the length and breadth of America when I pinned singer Jeff Keith down for a chat on the phone from Texas.

“Hey pardner,” Keith hollers laughingly down the phone, his Oklahoma accent still strong after 25 years rocking around the world, “They say ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ so nobody’s messin’ around with anybody tonight. I’m just foolin’ around Shane – that’s just a saying they have out here, I’m from Oklahoma anyway and we jack stuff up, y’know!”

Jeff Keith Tesla 01

Jeff Keith laughs a lot during our 25 minute call, cracking jokes about… well, just about anything, and he’s obviously loving what life is throwing his way in 2013, especially being on the road with his beloved band.

“You know what? It’s very good – it’s better than ever Shane, we’re playing tighter than ever, we’re feeling better than ever, we’ve got new songs we’re writing – our crew tells us ‘You sounded alright tonight’ which is better than the old days when they went ‘man you sounded like crap’!” he says, laughing loudly again.

The band have a new single due to drop shortly – Taste My Pain – about which Keith says “It’s kinda a straight forward, straight ahead song, but as all Tesla songs, it’s from the heart, straight ahead, full throttle [and] not stopping for stop signs or red lights! It’s pure Tesla, I gotta tell you.

“Right now we’ve just got the single. But all of our time off will be put towards making a new record – we want to put a new record out next Spring [that’s March-May 2014 for those of us in Southern climes], so we can come on over there and play for y’all too!”

The prospect of an Australian tour will excite Tesla’s many fans Down Under, as they’ve only visited our shores once before, a few years ago. On that tour travel plans went slightly awry and the band experienced first hand the magnitude of this country when tour dates changed but their flights stayed the same.

“The last time we went, well the only time we’ve been to Australia,” he explains, “we flew to Melbourne and we had intended to play Melbourne and then fly to Sydney, but then the gigs got swapped but the flights didn’t. So we flew to Melbourne, had to drive to Sydney to do the show, then drive back down to Melbourne to do the show, then drive back to Sydney to fly out! But we did it – it was awesome man, we loved it. But we really wanna come over to where you are [100% ROCK MAG are based in Perth, Western Australia – the world’s most remote regional capital city], I’ve heard it is REALLY nice!

Jeff Keith Tesla 02

“[So] the chances for next Spring, I think they’re pretty good. It all depends on the demand of you guys wanting us!”

Keith explains that there’s no great stockpile of Tesla tunes in the songbank, each album is created on the fly, as it were.

“We need a specified writing time to get our heads together – because our heads are like, way out there, bro!” he laughs. “Some people go ‘I wrote this song in a cafe on a piece of napkin’, and it’s NOT that way for us! We can’t write on the road – a lot of people write songs on the road – [but] we can’t do it. Our heads are wrapped up in the touring and when we come home we go, ‘Okay – 180 [degrees], let’s go!’”

With various members having side projects – guitarists Frank Hannon and Dave Rude both have eponymous bands, drummer Troy Luccketta produces and does session work and bassist Brian Wheat has been a part of several outfits over the years, notably Soulmotor, and is currently writing his autobiography – it’s no surprise to see that Keith released a solo EP earlier this year. What may come as a surprise though, is that it is a country music project.

“Well, it’s like this – I did it out of pure passion, so whether I sold 1 or maybe 500 – my goal was just to create this little record of my passion for country music. So it was successful from the get go in my heart.

“Some of [Tesla’s fans] go ‘I don’t like country music’ so I go ‘Don’t buy it then you won’t like it’“, he deadpans. “And then some of them bought it and said ‘You know, I don’t like country but I like this!’ “

Keith explains that if the EP sells well enough it will finance “a full blown record in Nashville with session players and all”, but until then the focus is squarely on his day job, despite all the side projects and other interests.

“Well sometimes they get us a little bit lost and strayed,” he chuckles, “so we go [whistles] ‘C’mon everybody, back to Tesla, here we go’ and we all come runnin’ back like dogs.”

The original Tesla lineup

The original Tesla lineup

Apart from Rude, who joined Tesla in 2006 after original guitarist Tommy Skeoch left for the final time, the band has been playing together on and off for almost thirty years. After all the break ups and the drugs and the egos, I ask Keith how the working dynamic of the band has changed over all of those years.

“Wellllllllllll, sometimes a little piece of ego still walks into the room,” he laughs loudly. “Nah man, I’m just kidding! We definitely leave the partying to the crowd, and they haven’t let us down yet! Seriously, since 2012 when we went on tour with The Scorpions and we went clean & sober – it’s wonderful – and we’re playing better than ever! And I was just kidding about the crew earlier – they say ‘Man, you kicked ASS tonight!’”

The late nineties were barren for Tesla, having broken up in 1994 forcing Keith and co to look for day jobs – in his case, DJ-ing at a strip club. It paid the bills, he says, but he always knew what he’d rather be doing, despite the see-sawing relationship of some of the band members.

“You know, I started off [at the strip club] in the day time, but I went to night time, then somebody came up two years later and said ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said ‘I don’t know!’ and I quit!

“It was very humbling. But it was more stabbing – because I just missed my Tesla, so much! Serious dude, I had people from Alice In Chains and others wanting me to sing for them and I was, ‘I just want to sing for Tesla!’ Four years later we got back together and viola! [But] Tommy kept up doing his antics [due to substance abuse], and in 2004 we went ‘No no!’ and in 2005 we went ‘Yeah yeah!’ and in 2006 we went ‘We ain’t quitting this time – we’re movin’ on!’ So here we are in – what is it, 2013?

“It has been one helluva ride…” he says in a rare wistful moment. “And we’re still at it!”

Tesla 01

Having sold 14 million albums in The States alone and many more worldwide, it would be easy to let the ego get carried away, but Keith is resolute that he prefers the status of ‘cult hero’ to being a Bon Jovi-styled ‘superstar’.

“I’d much rather be the cockroach infiltrating from underground! Hey man, I’m serious – the cockroaches, they’ll survive a nuclear blast! Bon Jovi,” he declares with a ‘puff of smoke’ noise, “…dust – gone!”

100% ROCK MAG sure knows who we’d rather listen to, as does Jeff Keith.

“You’d rather hang out with us cockroaches – wouldn’t ya,” Keith laughs raucously again. “I hear ya, buddy, I hear ya! Hey man, we’re good cockroaches – we try our best!”

In a recent interview bass player Brian Wheat mused that part of his role in the band was to be the glue that holds Tesla together. Keith’s response to that is amused but warm.

“Yeaaaaaahhhh…,” he says slowly, thinking, before cackling again. “I think actually, we’re all Elmers [a US brand of glue] and he’s the glue – he’s the manager Shane, and then there’s the band. Frank does the managing of the website and the merch. And with both of those in house, we’ve got our own record company, so now David Geffen isn’t making all that money off those Tesla discs you talked about – we’re making less album sales, but we’re gettin’ more of the cut, you know what I’m saying!”

Keith doesn’t stop joking even when asked how he thinks the band will be remembered.

“Well hell, they were them tomato farmers from Sacramento,” he says, referring to a famous Nikki Sixx quote. “Ha! Yeah you know, Nikki Sixx was just joking when he said that – he loves us though, we just played with him a while back. Hehe, we’re tomato farmers from Sacramento and we’re proud of it!!”

Jeff Keith Tesla 03

As for the future of the band, “we just plan to go on keeping on breathing. If you go on, take a deep breath and make sure you come back up before you need air, try to make a new record for next year, and just have fun touring – that’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’ll always continue doing”, he says.

It says a lot of the unpretentious nature of the band that Keith can laugh off being accused of looking like a tomato farmer so easily, and when our mobile phone line briefly drops out today he’s quickly dismissive of the hi-tech gadgetry many wouldn’t leave home without, while still realising it plays its part.

“It’s this new technology,” he sighs, “it freaks me out sometimes. But it’s kinda nice we can have this interview on the new technology so it’s kinda a love n’ hate thing…”

As a final question, I want to know which record he would go back in time magically to be a part of the recording of. It’s usually a good way to get some insight into an artist’s musical inspiration, but Keith’s answer reveals far more about this very down to earth man and his journey than any mere album could.

“Well,” he says without hesitation, “if I could do magic like that Shane, I’d probably do a couple of other things rather than do what you just said. Seriously man, I’d try to feed the children that are hungry and stuff like that, if I had that kinda magic!”


Category: Interviews

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