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A Capital Idea: Tesla Takes Tunes, Tech, Tenacity On Tour

Frank Hannon of Tesla
Frank Hannon of Tesla performing in 2010. CC BY SA 2.0. Credit: Nick Ares

“Not to be cliché, but I think when it comes to the United States we’ve been through pretty much every city. Like, (singing) ‘I’ve been everywhere, man.’ You know that Johnny Cash song.”

Hailing from California’s capital city of Sacramento, Tesla has been on the road for over three decades. Touring is central to what the five man – sometimes acoustic, always electric – band is all about. Hard work and hard rock is at the core of what frontman Jeff Keith, guitarist Frank Hannon, drummer Troy Luccketta, bassist Brian Wheat and guitarist Dave Rude build the foundation for their longevity on.

Unwilling to rest on their hard-earned laurels and unquestioned rock and roll credentials, Tesla is – to reference the title of their 2003 album – stepping Into The Now with yet another 16-city North American tour, which kicked off September 1st in Loveland, Colorado. I had the pleasure of speaking with Frank Hannon on the eve of the tour launch date. We talked tours, towns, tunes, technology, travel and Nikola Tesla (the band’s namesake), among other subjects. Here is our conversation.

Frank, how are you?

I’m pretty good, Jim. Good morning.

So, let’s kick this off, but before we dive into talking about your current tour, I wanted to ask you about your last tour with Styx and Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, which of course I saw just down the road here in Wheatland (just outside Sacramento). What’s the guest list like when you play a hometown show?

Well, you know, whenever Tesla comes to the Sacramento area, or even San Francisco, the guest list gets crazy. People calling you that you haven’t heard from in years. We try to take care of everybody, and we don’t want to make anybody unhappy, but it gets a little ridiculous when 150 different people show up. I have cousins and nephews and uncles that I never knew I had all of a sudden (laughs). But we had a great tour with those guys and coming through our home turf here was really cool. We didn’t really know what to expect. Styx and Joan Jett are so different. But it was a night of great songs and great music. It really tuned out well.

It was. It was a fun night. All hits-filled, as they say. So, let’s talk about this current tour.

Well, like we were just talking about, the Styx, Joan Jett and Tesla tour all summer was really big venues and a lot of tickets sold. But a lot of our fans will always tell us, we wanna hear Tesla play a longer show. So, we’re gonna finish out the year playing our full set of songs. And we’re gonna do a little stripped-down acoustic – five man acoustic jam set – in the middle, and relive some of that album (1990’s Five Man Acoustical Jam). We try to touch on a song or two from each album. So, that’s what we’re doing on this tour.

What about the stage, production-wise? What can people expect to see in that regard?

You know, it’s funny. Tesla is still using the same stage that we used in 1987 when we built our stage for going on tour. A lot of the diehard fans will recognize the drum riser that we use. It has a very unique set of stairs that go up the front. So, at some levels, our production is the same Tesla show that we’ve been doing forever, but we have now since added some really cool LED visual screens that play videos behind the band. We’ve got three of them. For instance, on “Modern Day Cowboy” we have a lot of great footage from the original video, with cowboys shooting it out, and bang, bang, shoot ‘em up stuff. And on “Edison’s Medicine” we’ve got some great footage of Nikola Tesla in his laboratory. And so, we’ve added some visual enhancements to the shows that make it really exciting and interesting for us. And it’s been quite a progression for Tesla.

I’m looking forward to that. I know you guys are playing practically right across the street from me at Thunder Valley Casino (in Lincoln, California). I hope to be at that show and get a chance to say hi to you. So, as I mentioned to you before pressing “record,” I produced (former nationally syndicated radio program) Rockline from 1992 to 1997. I was fortunate enough to have you guys on several times. Of course, whenever we could – and you guys were willing – we asked you guys to perform live. Usually unplugged. As a guitarist, what’s more challenging, playing unplugged for about a dozen folks in a little studio or plugging in the Marshall amps and performing to thousands?

Well, you’re absolutely right as far as the idea that playing acoustic guitar in that setting is more challenging. But you know, we had a great time with (late, longtime Rockline host) Bob Coburn and Rockline. One particular memory is that we did an acoustic version of “War Pigs,” and the recording came out really good. We were covering the Black Sabbath song “War Pigs.” Playing acoustic guitar in general is more challenging because you don’t have all the sustain and the ease of effort. It’s a lot more physical. And you have to strip down the songs, and when it comes to playing chords you have to learn to play more open and let the sound ring out to compensate. Especially when you’re redoing a rock song that people are used to hearing with electric. So, playing acoustic is definitely more challenging when you’re taking a rock song like “War Pigs” or a rock song like Tesla’s “Modern Day Cowboy.” You’re stripping it down to a very intimate, vulnerable setting of just an acoustic guitar. That’s definitely more challenging.

Yeah, thanks for the answer in that, no pun intended here, you stripped it down to the essence of the challenge of it being intimate and changing things up. Especially a song like “War Pigs” that you mentioned Talk about Marshall stacks (laughs).

(Laughs) Yeah, taking one of the most heavy metal songs there is and turning it into an acoustic version. And if I remember right, when we did Rockline with you and we did that, that was probably the first time that we’d ever done that, playing “War Pigs” acoustic. I remember there was a recording of that circulating around for a while. Tesla has always mixed acoustic guitars into our music. Even within a rock song we would slide in an acoustic in the verses there. That was of course influenced by The Rolling Stone and The Who. “Pinball Wizard” and stuff like that by The Who. Led Zeppelin. Mixing acoustic guitar into an electric song always gives it kind of an organic, natural feel., and that’s what Tesla’s always been about.

Absolutely! As I mentioned to you earlier, I moved up from Los Angeles eight years ago and live in Rocklin, or as I always say, Rockline without the “E” as it happens (laughs).

(Laughs) That’s funny!

Total happenstance, but I guess meant to be, right. It’s a great town outside of Sacramento, and of course the band’s home base is here. So, Frank, pretend to be a member of the chamber of commerce for me here, for a minute, and tell me why people should visit California’s capital city.

Well, Sacramento is known for many things. It’s the river city, the city of trees, it’s the capital city, it’s where gold was discovered in California. For me, it’s always been a natural place, being born and raised here. When we were young we would go to L.A. or we would drive up to Boise, Idaho – just drive everywhere to play our music and get the word out because Sacramento has never been to be a music capital like L.A. or Nashville or New York. But there’s a lot of talent here. A lot of great musicians. A lot of bands have come out of here. The Deftones, Tesla, Cake, just to name a few. Papa Roach. There’s a lot of history here, and it’s centrally located between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, so it’s a great location.

Speaking of cities, you guys are hitting about 20 of them on this tour. Are there some on the itinerary that you haven’t played before?

Not to be cliché, but I think when it comes to the United States we’ve been through pretty much every city. Like, (singing) ‘I’ve been everywhere, man.’ You know that Johnny Cash song. I see a lot of Southern California dates that are spread out, so we’re gonna be doing about four different Southern California dates here, coming up at the end of the month.

I guess on the flipside of that question is there a city or venue that you recall that you haven’t played yet that may still be on the bucket list?

There’s a lot of countries that Tesla hasn’t been to yet. We haven’t been to the Soviet Union (now Russia), we haven’t been to China or Thailand or places like that. We’ve only been to Australia once and I’d sure like to go back there again and play places like that. New Zealand. Mexico City. We went to Monterrey, Mexico last year and that was a great time. The Mexican audience is really fantastic. We finally went to South America. That was killer.

Hmm! I say hmm, Frank because I was born in Peru. Did you happen to hit there, or what countries did you hit?

No, we went to Brazil, we went to Chile. We flew across from the east coast to the west coast and it was amazing. The people were amazing. The stadiums. We were there with Deep Purple and Cheap Trick, and it was a fantastic little run we did down there.

Well, now it’s my turn to play the role of member of chamber of commerce for Lima, Peru, and say, Tesla, come on down! I think you guys would really enjoy it. And of course, Machu Picchu. And Lima’s a great town. It sits right on the Pacific Coast, so I always say that the weather is almost exactly the same as Los Angeles. Generally, not too hot, not too cold, and they have some great venues there, so hopefully you guys can get down there at some point. But let’s bring it back stateside. You guys are also playing a handful of casinos, including as I mentioned Thunder Valley near Sacramento. My question is, does the staff at casinos treat you guys any better or different than staffs at regular concert venues?

Casino gigs for a band of our generation and our genre have really become a great thing. The food is great, the parking. The staff treats our fans really good, because they’re real accommodating. Casinos treat older people really good. So, we enjoy playing them because usually the theatres are really nice, the venues are nice, and the staff is usually really great at a casino because they’re there to entertain the people. If we’re playing at a nightclub or something, sometimes the security can get kind of tough. But if we’re playing a really nice venue like the Golden 1 Center (in Sacramento) or an outdoor amphitheater, usually those are pretty nice, too. But it seems like casinos are a great place for people to come see us because the staff is usually really friendly, and the food and the hotels are all right there onsite.

Yeah, that makes sense. They want people to be happy and stick around and come back. Cha-ching, cha-ching, right.

You know, the majority of our crowd is our age. I’m 52. People that are our age, from 50 to 60, they wanna be able to park their vehicle and go into a hotel, go into a restaurant and relax, and casinos are all set up for that.

I see we have a few minutes left here, so let me take you off the stage for a second, Frank, and put you in the studio for a couple of questions. What can you tell us about the upcoming album, produced by your pal Phil Collen of Def Leppard?

Well, I have to tell you, there’s probably a good chance that Tesla would have resigned from making albums. The last album we did, (2014’s) Simplicity, we worked really hard on it, and in this day and age, making an album is sometimes not even worth it. You know, we’ve got such a catalog of old songs that people want to hear. But the flipside to that is that Phil Collen from Def Leppard is so full of energy and positive motivation. He started coming into our dressing rooms on tour a couple of years ago, and he was giving us a lot of positive energy and positive ideas, and said he wanted to co-write with us. And so, we started doing that and next thing you know, we’re in the dressing rooms recording an album. And the whole album was recorded pretty much on the road, in the dressing room, hotel rooms, bathrooms, showers, locker rooms. And you know, we captured a lot of ideas on the road with him being a coach. I tell people all the time that an older band is like an older football team that’s been playing together forever, but without a coach giving you some ideas, you can get kind of stagnant. So, coach Phil Collen came in and he kicked us in the ass, and we got a great new, energetic album that’s gonna be coming out in January called Shock. You know what, and it might be a shock to some people because we definitely tried some new stuff that we learned from Phil, as he was coaching us alone, and it’s exciting.

So, I gotta ask you, is that great song “Save That Goodness” gonna be on it?

No, “Save That Goodness” is on Mechanical Resonance Live as a bonus track.

Gotcha. That’s a great song. And I know where you shot the video. Right down the street from me.

Yeah, that old church is an old historical church in the City of Rocklin. I’d gone to a wedding there a couple of years ago, and I thought, man, this would be a great place to make a video. So, that’s where we did that video, there.

Last question for you, Frank, and again thanks for the time today. It’s always great to talk to you. It certainly had been a while. I wanna end with a fun question to end the conversation. Radio. The great radio controversy. So, you mentioned him earlier in this conversation. Give me your best argument as to why your band namesake, Nikola Tesla, actually invented the radio, and not Marconi.

Well, you know, I wasn’t there, but I read a lot of different accounts, and we did a lot of research on Nikola Tesla in the very beginning when we were considering using the name Tesla for our band. We were blown away by the fact that we had never heard of Nikola Tesla, and that he’s not ever taught about in history classes of high schools. Most people don’t know about him, except for a select few. The information that we got from the select few that we met along the way; at the University of Michigan, and different people that are actually scholars about Nikola Tesla had told us that Nikola Tesla was a young man with these ideas at a very early age. The idea of transmitting electricity in the atmosphere. He had figured out that the earth and the atmosphere are conductors, and that invisible energy can be transferred through the air. He had figured that out and he was working as an electrical engineer and as a laborer for Thomas Edison. And he was working as an employee of Westinghouse and developing all these ideas. But those companies were more interested in making money and controlling electricity, so they kind of stifled his ideas. So, when he went on his own, from what I understand, Marconi was a laborer and an assistant to Nikola Tesla. People started following Tesla, and Marconi was one of them, and started working for Tesla in his own laboratory, and started borrowing some of his ideas. And developing his own ideas on transmission of radio. But it was Nikola Tesla that had the idea originally, and discovered that electricity can be transferred through the air without the use of wires.

Got it!

And in fact, Nikola Tesla had made a statement early on, back in the horse and buggy days, that someday there will be a handheld device, where you can take a picture and instantly send it in a message across the country. And, that is what we’re doing today with this iPhone that I’m holding in my hand. So, he was a visionary, and we’re just glad that we stumbled across it for the name of our band, because Nikola Tesla was awesome.

That’s great. Alright, Frank, thanks for the time again, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to say hello face-to-face and see you at Thunder Valley.

Sounds great, Jim. Yeah, come see us at Thunder Valley, and alright, man.

Cool! Have a great day. We’ll see you soon.

Okay, buddy. Bye.

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