Photo credit: Char Crail
JEFF KEITH (vocals)
FRANK HANNON (guitar)
BRIAN WHEAT (bass)
TROY LUCCKETTA (drums)
DAVE RUDE (guitar)
If there’s any one thing that TESLA epitomize more than the tried-and-true spirit of rock and roll, it’s the unwavering character and blue collar pride of the country where rock and roll was born and raised. On new release REAL TO REEL, they not only pay tribute to the classic tracks that have paved their collective musical paths, but also serve credence to their status as one of America’s preeminent purveyors of no-frills rock, delivered in their long-underrated signature style.
For two decades, TESLA have embodied the intrepid spirit of hard rock’s enduring grandeur, releasing five studio albums and selling 20 million records worldwide, all without any concern for trends or fashion. Such is the case with the timeless collection that they’ve dubbed REAL TO REEL, which embraces their past while setting their sights soundly in the future. The tracks that they’ve chosen are more than songs, they’re classics. Yet they deliver them with a warmth and vitality that rings with the same clarity, hope, zest and vigor that has driven TESLA’s catalog, from early cuts “Gettin’ Better” and “Modern Day Cowboy” on their MECHANICAL RESONANCE debut in 1986, to the title track of their 2004 release INTO THE NOW.
“Everybody had a good year, everybody had a good time, everybody had a wet dream, everybody saw the sun shine… Everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, everybody pulled their socks up, everybody put their foot down…” sings Jeff Keith on “I’ve Got A Feeling,” originally released by the Beatles in 1970. It’s only one of the 25 songs that comprise the two-disc set, but like many of the others – from the R&B-driven soul that explodes on the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” to the enduring allure of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – rustles with an enduring pertinence to match the musical brilliance. TESLA translate both with unequivocal power and grace. Or, taking a cue from their own past, translating not only the song, but also the emotion, forging a musical landscape as rich as those of the artists that came before them.
“We tried to own the songs,” says Keith of the collection, the first disc of which will be available via traditional retail outlets on the band’s own Tesla Electric Company Recordings (through Ryko Distribution), while the second disc will only be available, free, to fans who attend TESLA concerts on the band’s corresponding tour to support the album. “We don’t have a horn section like the Temptations, so on a song like that we do our own thing, throw down some heavy guitar and change the chords around a little bit, but on something like ‘Thank You,’ how can you come up with anything better than that? You don’t want to get too far away from that, too far off their path.”
By “their path,” he’s referring to that of Led Zeppelin, who originally released “Thank You” in 1969, but would no doubt cast their blessings on TESLA’s rendition of the enchanting love song, and the first single from REAL TO REEL. From Keith’s effervescent vocals and Frank Hannon’s supple guitars, to the encompassing pocket of drummer Troy Luccketta and bassist Brian Wheat, “Thank You” resonates with the same conviction and warmth of TESLA hits “Love Song” and “Song and Emotion.”
“With this album, I think you really get to see where TESLA came from and what TESLA is about,” says Wheat. “This is what TESLA grew up on before they became TESLA. This is where Brian Wheat learned how to play bass listening to Paul McCartney, or Frank Hannon listening to Jimmy Page, or Jeff Keith listening to Aerosmith or Humble Pie…” Adds Keith, “A song like ‘I’ve Got a Feeling,’ Brian and I have been singing that backstage for years, on tour with Def Leppard, Scorpions, whoever, we’d always be singing that in the hallways, in the dressing rooms, wherever we were, so when it came time to pick songs from the ‘70s, we knew we had to do that one.”
As remarkable as the recordings themselves, is the manner in which they were recorded -- all analog, using only 24 tracks, no ProTools, and captured live, rather than instrument-by-instrument, as modern technology enables recording to be done today. “That’s why it’s ‘REAL TO REEL,’” says Wheat, “you can’t manipulate the reel. This was all recorded old-school, just like it was in the ‘70s…I think that’s why the record pops so much -- you couldn’t layer things, so it’s just the important things that are in there. It gives the record more space…And just like the ‘70s, it’s even a double-album! This is definitely a look into the soul of this band.”
A kindred spirit to the soul of TESLA, and integral to the REAL TO REEL process, is the band’s current manager, Tom Zutaut. It was Zutaut who initially signed the band in 1984, remaining close in the two decades that followed and partnering with them to start Tesla Electric Company Recordings earlier this year. It was also Zutaut who, following the band’s reunion in 2000, planted the creative seeds for the latest release, his input that led to many of the song choices, and his co-production and mixing ideas, along with the band, that makes REAL TO REEL as timeless as the original recordings themselves.
They say that you shouldn’t mess with the classics, but TESLA deliver the musical goods in a manner that would rival UFO on “Rock Bottom,” Hannon and Wheat unleashing metallic thunder on the song’s instrumental drop; not to be outdone, Keith’s vocals shimmer with a classic vibrato on Uriah Heep’s “Feelin’.” The band are a collective powerhouse on the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman,” Keith capturing the sexy swagger, Hannon and new guitarist Dave Rude trading riffs, and Wheat and Luckketta rolling a groove so thick, you can just picture Mick Jagger’s hand on his hips, nodding his head and prancing around in approval.
“We’re probably one of the last real rock and roll bands that would sit there and attempt to make a record on two-inch tape and in analog,” laughs Keith, “but when we did it, we had no idea how much of a difference there would really be. It brings a whole different warmth to the sound, and it required us to bring a whole different performance, because you’ve got to just nail it. You’ve got to really dig in and become part of the song, rather than just put the song together in parts and pieces. Recording it live, as a band, we had to gel and vibe off of each other in one take, rather than cutting and pasting.”
With the majority of REAL TO REEL recorded and mixed at Sonic Ranch, a full-service recording studio just outside El Paso, TX (the remainder were recorded and mixed at Wheat’s Sacramento, CA, studio) it was the unlikely stereo system in their manager’s rental car that became the ultimate vehicle for final mixes and levels. “When it sounded good in the PT Cruiser rental, we knew it would sound good on anything,” the frontman laughs once again. “Through the whole process, we just wanted to do what sounded good to us, because that’s what we’ve always done, and that is our fan base – Our fans are so much like us, it’s unbelievable. We are the blue collar rock and roll band, so we just stayed true to ourselves in hopes that they’d feel it, too.”
--Paul Gargano (May 2007)
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