Interview by Chris Galea
TESLA were formed back in 1986, after having changed their name from City Kidd during the recording of the band’s debut album “Mechanical Resonance”. A rough calculation reveals the band has sold around 5 million records. That’s an impressive statistic to say the least. Life wasn’t always a bed of roses though and the band split up in the mid-1990s, only to get back together 6 years later.
I recently met with founding member/guitarist Frank Hannon while the band was touring to promote “Simplicity”, the band’s 7th and most recent studio album. First I ask about the ongoing tour…..
FH: The European tour? It’s been fabulous. We had a few funny things happening to us on the bus such as the air-conditioning going off and it becomes sweltering inside. We Americans are so spoilt when it comes to our air-conditioning! [laughs]
But musically, the shows have been fantastic and the audiences are being beyond belief at how they’re loyal to us and showing us a lot of love.
CG: Let’s talk about the new album, released barely a week ago. “Simplicity” is Tesla’s 7th studio-album, which when you consider the band has been together for about 25 years, it isn’t a huge amount new material. What are your views on this?
FH: You know, we’re all family guys and the way we write our music is a sort of democracy. There are 1 or 2 guys that contribute writing to start with, myself being one of them and Brian, our bass player, being the other. He and I are the main directors of the band. But when we get together to write a record, we have to spend time together as a group, collaborating, and we have to focus on just that. So we don’t write when we’re on the road or when we’re home – we have to make special time to write our records. And it takes a lot of time for us to do that.
CG: Why the title “Simplicity”?
FH: The title came from the lyrics of the first song on the album – it’s called ‘M.P.3’. Jeff, the singer, had a lyric in there “Oh my God, it seems to me the world is overrun with technology”. So I had the idea that we’ve got to get back to simplicity. One day I was driving back to the studio and I was trying to think of a one-word title and I realised ‘Simplicity’ was perfect.
CG: It’s a simple title…
FH: Yeah, and it’s something that we’re all looking for, simplicity.
CG: My colleague at The Power of Metal webzine, Matt Fabi, gave the album a glowing review. It includes heavy songs, power ballads and lyrically bitter but light-hearted themes. In other words I reckon it effectively encapsulates what TESLA is all about.
Would you agree?
FH: Absolutely correct. You know, the concept of ‘simplicity’ might imply that it is one-dimensional but it’s not one-dimensional. It’s definitely broad like every TESLA album. Even our first album, “Mechanical Resonance”, which some people think is our best album, has heavy songs such as ‘Modern Day Cowboy’ or ‘Easy Come Easy Go’. But then it has beautiful epic songs such as ‘Changes’ and the ballads. This album (“Simplicity”) has the same direction TESLA has always had having different styles in one album.
Some of my favourites on this album are ‘Life Is A River’, ‘Other Than Me’…’Break Of Dawn’ is a heavy song…..
CG: Were there any songs you found it hard to nail in the recording studio?
FH: Not really. Some of the songs were done at the last minute, like ‘Time Bomb’ and ‘Flip Side’ which were done very quickly at the end. With regards to ‘So Divine’, I’ve had that music for years but I had never worked on it until now. (In the ‘So Divine’) lyrics, Jeff was talking about ‘You are the star that never fades’ for one of our friends who died. So I started thinking of lyrics about flying with the angels and being so divine and we put it all together in that song. That came at the last minute but it’s actually an old song.
CG: TESLA are known for their mix of acoustic and electric guitars and you hinted at this earlier on. “Psychotic Supper” had very little acoustic parts and is quite a heavy album. Would you be willing to consider doing another album along those lines in the near future?
FH: I don’t know. We don’t really plan what we do with the albums. It just happens at the moment. When we first started doing “Simplicity” we had a song called ‘Taste My Pain’ – it was a heavy song. And at first we said “Oh let’s do a heavy album then.” But two weeks later we said “Fuck that, that’s not TESLA. TESLA is about everything.”
CG: “Simplicity” is the first recording you’ve done after your old studio had burnt down.
[On the night of 30th September in 2010, a fire burnt down TESLA’s recording studio in Sacramento, California. Apparently the fire had been caused by a power surge.]
CG: How do you remember reacting when you found out about the fire?
FH: Well we were lucky to have saved the hard-drives when the studio burnt down and a lot of that music ended up on “Twisted Wires” acoustic album [released in 2012]. So that was the end of an era for us. Now this is the new studio.
CG: You built another studio from scratch?
FH: Yes, it was Brian Wheat, our bass player, who built the new studio.
CG: I believe this was the first time you’ve produced the album yourselves, right?
FH: Yeah, but we also co-produced it with Tom Zutaut, who is a legendary music A&R guy.
[Tom Zutaut, who found fame with Geffen, Tesla’s ex-record label, is credited with having discovered bands and musicians such as Mötley Crüe, Joan Jett, Guns & Roses and many others.]
FH: [Zutaut] has great listening ears…..he can really hear stuff. He was like our sounding board. He would be in the studio with us listening.
CG: Yeah, I guess you always need an outside pair of ears when producing your own record since you risk being unintentionally biased.
FH: Yeah, right.
CG: Another ‘first’ with “Simplicity” is that you’ve begun a relationship with another record label. Obviously the music environment is different from that of the Geffen days so what are your expectations from this deal?
FH: Well…..with the “Forever More” album we had our own record label, TESLA Electric Company mixed with Frontiers and eOne but it was more of our responsibility. On this album [“Simplicity”] we’re now sharing responsibility with eOne and Frontiers. And it’s great because there’s more freedom to them to do their job now. It’s much better than the Geffen days because we have more creative control over our music.
CG: When a band such as TESLA sells millions of records, does it get harder to maintain a relationship with fans?
FH: No, no. It gets easier really. We were never really a band that was too big, you know. We’re not the kind of band like Bon Jovi or Kiss or something that’s so famous that you get harassed all the time.
CG: At the same time you’ve got a loyal fanbase….
FH: Yeah. So we’re kind of very fortunate to be a middle-of-the-road band.
CG: “Five Man Acoustic Jam” is one of my all-time favourite live recordings. The album was released in 1990 when the band’s reputation was growing fast. Considering that almost half of it contained covers, didn’t you think at the time that you were jeopardizing the identity of TESLA?
FH: No, not at all. I mean we didn’t really think too much about things like our identity. We just did our stuff and had fun. So we weren’t conscious of whether it was going to hurt our identity or not. It was just real and that’s probably why you like it. It’s just real and it’s just us having fun. We just had some days off….and the album really happened by accident. It’s 100 per cent live……there’s no mixing or fixing on that recording. It’s all live.
CG: Musically I would place TESLA in the same category as Great White, Y&T and Night Ranger, meaning U.S.A. Rock bands that aren’t so flashy but whose music is appreciated by both musicians and non-musicians.
On a personal level though, of all the bands you’ve toured with, with whom did you get along particularly well?
FH: We had a great relationship with Def Leppard and with Steve Clark [Def Leppard guitarist] when he was still alive, Rick Allen and Joe Elliot [respectively Def Leppard’s drummer and vocalist]…..Alice Cooper was and still is a good friend, we see him a lot. The Night Ranger guys are from Northern California and we know them very well. Y&T are good friends of ours….
CG: I love Y&T. Change of subject: are you still in contact with Tommy Skeoch?
[Guitarist Tommy Skeoch was one of Tesla’s founding members. He left TESLA after having played with the band for about 17 years, reportedly as a result of his battle with drug addiction.]
FH: No. Tommy has a lot of problems and he’s not reachable. He’s just too angry and has too many problems.
CG: ‘Angry’ with you?
FH: Just in life. With anything. He can be very unpredictable and you can’t help him.
CG: TESLA toured a lot when Tommy was in the band. Was there ever any real danger that other band members were affected by the same issues that affected Tommy?
FH: No, no. He’s one of a kind. And it’s very sad really. Kind of like Syd Barrett.
CG: That’s an interesting comparison. When the band had re-united in 2000, had it been difficult to convince all the band members to get back on board?
FH: No, not really. Only Tommy, really. And then it was still because of the same problems.
CG: Apart from Tommy’s departure, TESLA’s line-up has been very stable. What’s your secret?
FH: We love what we do. We all come from a very poor upbringing in California and we lived in a rough area. We grew up poor but we worked very hard so we appreciate what we have. And we all get along very well. I mean we still argue and do have problems but we learn to accept each other for what we are. And we appreciate our career so much.
[After Tommy’s departure…] I had auditioned 3 guitar players but when I found Dave [Rude] he was a perfect fit. You just learn each others personality. It’s like a team. On a team you can’t have all quarterbacks or all defense. It has to be a team. And we all have our roles and contributions in a team.
CG: Earlier on you mentioned that Brian and yourself are involved with other issues in TESLA, apart from the music, such as band management and record studio management. Is it hard to simultaneously have both a creative and a rational mindset?
FH: Well….no. For me it goes hand in hand. Personally speaking, I manage more of the artistic direction of the band. So that’s part of it. You know…artwork, photography, album covers, posters, videos…..
CG:…I see, so creativity is still a part of that work.
FH: Yes. I also keep an eye on what the record company is doing. For example if a video doesn’t look good, I make sure they fix it. The only problem in life is time. You have to really manage your time, with the family and your kids and the business and the music. You have to make time for stuff.
CG: From all TESLA’s band members, I know that you are the one most inclined to listen to Metal.
CG: Are there any bands or musicians from the Metal genres and sub-genres that you enjoyed listening to recently?
FH: Well I’ve been so closed-minded to old Metal, you know. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden…Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynrd…older music. But just lately I opened my mind to give new musicians a chance. For example Muse, with Matthew Bellamy, right now are one of my favorite.
CG: Wow, you’d be surprised at the number of Metal bands I’ve interviewed that cited Muse as one of their top bands. Even a singer of a notorious Norwegian Black Metal band once told me how much he loved Muse.
FH: Yeah, that guy [Bellamy] is a fucking genius. He’s my favorite new musician. I’m also starting to like Jack White and his guitar playing.
CG: Frank Hannon, is there a specific musical ambition of yours that remains unfulfilled?
FH: Yes…..you know I have several solo albums. One is called “Gypsy Highway” – it’s an acoustic album where I play my flute and my acoustic guitars. I have an album with some special guest guitarists – it’s called “Six-String Soldiers”, with myself, Pat Travers, Rick Derringer, Dickey Betts, Dave Meniketti [Y&T]…..
CG: Has it been released yet?
FH: Yes. My next ambition is for “Simplicity” to achieve a break bigger than the other records. ‘Cause it’s a great record, to me. I love the record and I certainly put a lot into it.
And then in my next solo album I’m probably going to expand on my piano playing.
CG: So you play guitar, flute, piano…..that’s impressive.
FH: I play all instruments except the violin…that’s tough. I play multi-instruments – like Mat Bellamy. So maybe I’ll do a Muse tribute and I’ll call it ‘Fuse’. [laughs]
[After the interview I asked Frank whether I could take a photo of him. As I prepared my camera, he grabbed a flute from the table behind him and played a few melodies with it. Check out “Simplicity” if you haven’t already done so and I strongly recommend experiencing the band ‘live’.]
Frank Hannon and his flute.
Original article : http://www.powerofmetal.dk/interviews14/tesla_interview.html