Interviews

Interview: Jeff Keith of TESLA

Jeff Keith’s band Tesla were one of the first rock bands that I saw live way back in 1986 when they supported Def Leppard in Belfast. Thirty-four years later, I am finally afforded the opportunity to chat to him about the history of Tesla as a band.


ANTIHERO: Hi Jeff. How are you?

Jeff Keith: Good. I’m doing great. How are you?

ANTIHERO: I’m pretty good. Just wonder how things are going over there? I assume it’s pretty much similar to the UK.

Jeff Keith: Yeah, everything is shut down just about everywhere, Mark. We’re hoping to get the green light so we can get out and about and everybody’s itching to go around the globe.

ANTIHERO: I just wondered if difficult times like this make you more creative or actually stifles your personal creativity.

Jeff Keith: Well, I mean we just got the new record, Five Man London Jam, that we did basically at Abbey Road Studios, very excited. So we were definitely ready to go out more and we love performing live. I mean that’s our most favorite thing to do. So with everything being shut down, it may turn out to be where it’s to start writing some more songs. Maybe it’s the thing to do, but we’re hoping that things open up and we can get out there and do what we love to do most. Place music right.

ANTIHERO: I see a lot of bands have done special shows, lockdown shows and put them on social media. Is that something that you and the band have considered or would consider?

Jeff Keith: I don’t really deal much with social media, I don’t go on the internet much. I’m pretty old school. I’m just the guy to hand the microphone to, but of course, lately, we’re itching to go. But, they opened up the gates and everything gets to be safe and we can go out and play some music live, but we’re going to try, I think we got something in to make things where somehow they can put things where everybody is live on a computer screen in different locations, but it’s still performing live. I know I saw the thing a couple of weeks ago. They had one on TV with all these artists and people were performing live. So I think it’s in the making that we’re going to try to do something like that. They got some kind of program where people can all connect from different locations. So it’s still different locations playing live, but of course, it’s not like the five of us on the same stage. But it’s about all we’ve got to choose from right now at this point. So, I think we’re going to try something like that.

ANTIHERO: When, when live music comes back, there’s some possibility then of venues and shows being reduced capacity. It’s not something that you see may be happening, gradually getting people back to live shows and stuff again?

Jeff Keith: Well, that’s the whole idea. I mean, everybody around the world is trying to piece things together. But I mean actually to have a concert and social distancing. I don’t know. That seems like that’s going to be a tough challenge. But hey, if they can work something out, I don’t know where seats are six feet apart or something. I don’t know how that’s going to work because forever it’s been just everybody just crowded into that club or the arena, whatever it may be. And the vibe is just, everybody’s just together just mixing, sharing, breathing. the same air and just on top of each other and just having fun.

That’s what a live concert is all about. So, they’re trying to come up with a lot of different ideas, but I’m hoping they worked something out and I’m hoping that we can find some kind of vaccine to this virus that’s going to literally shut the whole entire world down. And every livelihood now is shut down. So hopefully they’re going to figure something out and maybe get a cure for this thing sooner than later so we can get back. I mean, I’m in hopes that things will get back to what we’re accustomed to, whereas I said, the seats are packed and everybody’s just there and having a great time and just forgetting about all our worries and enjoying live music.

But to have people in every third seat, I’m not sure how that’ll work. But hey, that’s how we got to start out and that’s how we got to do it, then so be it. But we’re all hoping that it gets back to where, as I said, we can just fill the place up and everybody’s shoulder to shoulder and have fun. Enjoying the music.

ANTIHERO: Yeah, of course. Was singing always something that you wanted to do or did you have any jobs maybe before you became a singer?

Jeff Keith: No. It’s funny, I grew up in this little small town in northern California, still population 900. Just got stop signs, no traffic lights. I moved to Oklahoma for six years, graduated high school, went back to Georgetown, California, which as I said is Northern California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So we didn’t have any record stores, no movie theatre, nothing like that. Magazine stores where you see your favorite rock band. We were just a small town where we just passed around, to be honest with you I can date myself, the 8-track tapes, just passing them around. And enjoy jamming to the 8-track tapes. And me and my brother and a couple of friends got a living room band. We didn’t have a garage to play in the small town of  Georgetown. Next thing you know, I entered this contest singing the Sammy Hagar song,” Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy, “and won the contest.

And next thing you know, a couple of girls I knew from the small town I was from said, “Hey, we know this band City Kidd,” which Brian and Frank had been  the co-founders of that band. And I got an audition with him. And next thing you know, as I always say like from the Finding Nemo movie, “I caught the drift dude.” So, my first concert, I was 19 years old, Day on the Green number three with Aerosmith headlining, Foreigner, Pat Travers, ACDC. They’d been out for four years, but we never heard anything about them and just loved it. Bon Scott’s one of my biggest inspirations as well as Steven Tyler and then Van Halen opened the show because it was in 1978 and it was at the Oakland Coliseum. This huge show of like 55,000 people. So, I’m a late bloomer. So I never grew up. I was driving a truck until I got the audition for the band. So to say that I always dreamed of growing up and being a singer in a rock band, far from it.

But that’s what ended up happening. And I’m very fortunate and I’m very grateful to be in the band Tesla, and we’ve been out there for 30 some odd years and are still going at it. As soon as we get the green light, we’ll be going right back at it. And for now, we’ve got the Five Man London Jam that we recorded at Abbey Road studios and at least it’s something for our fans to listen to and hopefully love as much as we loved making it and to be there within the four walls. Where the Beatles made so many great records and a lot of other bands and it’s the best place in the world that we could have the opportunity to do the Five Man London Jam, which is a 30 year anniversary of a celebration of the Five Man Acoustical Jam that we did when we were on tour with Motley Crue.

ANTIHERO: You mentioned the length of time that Tesla has been around. How do you explain the popularity of a band like Tesla that is still going in 2020?

Jeff Keith: Well, you know what? Things are going great. And we went over last summer, and our management worked it out to get it to be able to have the opportunity to do the live acoustic record in Abbey Road Studios, which is just fantastic. As I said, it doesn’t get any better than that. And then we went out in February and came home on the 1st of March and was prepared to go out and release the record Five Man London Jam, which we released, but we were ready to go out and work it. Very excited to do it.

And next thing you know, everything gets shut down, so we’re rearing to go, as well as everybody else because it’s shut down everywhere. But, we’re just sitting here stir crazy, ready to go. So I mean to still be doing it 30 years later, 30 some odd years later, we’re very fortunate. And we’re brothers and we love each other and love what we do, the pouring on stage. And it’s what we love to do most and it’s what we’re missing out on right now. So, we’re still holding up. We’re still great. We love what we do. We just need the green light, and let’s hope it comes sooner than later.

ANTIHERO: Looking back on that long musical legacy of Tesla, how do you look at that? It must fill your heart with pride, what you created, and what you’ve achieved.

Jeff Keith: Wow. I mean we’ve achieved a lot, we even went through four years of breaking up, what people call on hiatus. But Tommy Skeoch left the band in ’95   and then ended up throwing in the towel and then in 2000, we got back together. And then of course in 2006 Tommy ended up leaving the band again. So we decided that Frank found Dave Rude, which was a blessing. He’s such a great guy, such a great guitar player, songwriter. And Frank Hannon found him on, I believe it was MySpace and saw that Tesla was one of his inspirations, the group of inspirations he had. So we were very fortunate to have Dave Rude come along and like I said, great guy, great guitar player, great songwriter and now we’re still doing it 30 some odd years later and still loving every minute, loving what we’re doing, loving every bit of it. And unfortunately, everything’s shut down, so let’s hope it opens back up. They get a handle on this virus so we can get back to doing what we love to do most.

ANTIHERO: Outside of Tesla, you have released a couple of albums and different styles. I’m thinking of Bar Seven and the country album. I just wondered if you had any further desire to do something out of Tesla, maybe in a different musical style.

Jeff Keith: No. Really Bar Seven, for me,I  really enjoyed doing that. But it was some dark times before that even got together to get back playing with Tommy and then eventually got Tesla back together. But Bar Seven was really just holding me over and I was just wanting to have Tesla back together and we never knew if it would happen. And it ended up happening. And like I said, in 2005 when Tommy decided going out on the road just wasn’t working out for him. And so Frank found Dave Rude and we couldn’t be more grateful.

And so, to still be able to have the opportunity to do what we do and the fans are still there. We still have a great fan base, so we’re a very fortunate band, to be able to be doing it. But the country record I did because when we were on a tour up in Canada in 2005, I ran across and hooked up with some friends from the George Jones band. And they said, “Hey, why don’t you come out to Nashville?” Next thing you know, we’re on a pontoon boat on old Hickory Lake there in Nashville writing some songs. And next thing you know, we put out this really glorified demo hoping to sell enough to do a full-blown country record.

But that was just a side project and all of us have side projects, and that was just the thing of passion. But I really don’t have any desire to do anything except for Tesla. I just love what we have with Tesla, and that’s all I really ever want to do. I know the other guys, they have some side projects and they know how to use all this new technology with pro tools and everything. And, Mark, I’m just the guy that they hand the microphone too, so I don’t know much about that stuff, but I just want to play with Tesla. That’s what I want to continue doing and I hope we still do it for years to come.

ANTIHERO: I just wondered, in terms of your own creative process- how you go about creating and writing songs, has that process changed for you over the years in any way, from your first Mechanical Resonance album compared to what you do now?

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Jeff Keith: Well, actually, usually for Tesla it always worked out where the guys would write music and then I’d write, just humming a melody to a song, and then we would start piecing songs together. And, when we’d make records, we would go into the studio and almost kind of do a live scratch take of a song, and then work on a particular song until we felt we had it in the can where it was exciting working with Phil Collen with the Shock record that we released last year, which was a great experience because Phil had a whole different approach on how to make a record. And it was fun to go into the studio and say sing. I’d sing the chorus to a particular song and then we’d just switch over and sing the verse to another song

And he helped us co-write that whole record too. Not just produce it, but he helped us co-write it. So we learned a lot of different ways and it was exciting to try it with a whole new approach. But with Tesla, we usually just, the guys will write a bunch of music, and the next you know, whatever we’re all kind of hitting on and we want everybody at the table happy. All five of us, and next thing you know, we get a vibe on the song and we just follow through and write it in that form. But it was fun doing it. As I said, it was a whole new experience doing it with Phil Collen where we kind of bounce around from song to song. And like I said, he helped us co-write it and with all his experience with recording he’s a great producer, great guy, great songwriter. So that was fun and exciting to do Shock in a different format than we’re used to doing with Tesla.

ANTIHERO: I want to ask you about your voice. Many of your musical peers from the ’80s have unfortunately suffered a decline and their vocal ability and range. Why do you feel that you have not suffered in this way? Because you sound as good live and I’ve seen you a few times, well quite a few times over the years, but you still sing as strong as you did when you supported Def Leppard way back.

Jeff Keith: Well, thanks, Mark. Yeah, some songs I do believe, I know for a fact that we kind of tune some songs down. You can tune the guitar down. So it’s a little easier for me to sing, because some stuff I did 30 years ago, it’s a little hard to recreate it on stage, live, and night after night. But we’ve tuned a few things down. But, really for the most part, just try not to think about it. And we really are up there having a good time. We’re five brothers up there on stage having fun and that’s, I think, the atmosphere that everybody picks up on and it’s really genuine. We genuinely love playing live, performing with one another, and making albums together and we still love making albums. Sometimes bands from our era, they’re just not writing much new material, but we like playing and we love writing songs. So far we’re still keeping that wheel rolling and having fun doing it and enjoying what we’re doing. And so when we get to play it live, that’s what’s coming across. We really do genuinely love doing what we do. And that’s performing live and making records.

ANTIHERO: Which style of songs, between ballads and the rocky numbers, do you prefer during live? Or is it just all a fun experience still for you?   Do you like the slower numbers, like Love Song or something heavier like Comin’ Atcha Live?

Jeff Keith: Absolutely, yeah. It’s fun, “Comin’ Atcha Live”, and just lately the past few years and stuff we’ve been throwing “Modern Day Cowboy” like the second song. Because usually sometimes that’ll be the song that you’ll wait until the end. But I love playing songs. Every night, singing about love and people are just enjoying, singing every word. And songs Stir it Up. And then to bring it down, since we did the acoustic record in 1990, a lot of times we’ll still bring it down and bring the stools out and do an acoustic little set in between the electric set. So I mean, that’s what’s great about Tesla‘s, we’ve got so many different inspirations from all of us, between us five, and when we come together and write a song, it’s like a broad range of musical inspiration.

So you know, it’s just fun coming together and playing those songs. And so they’re all fun. So to pick one, Mark, it’s tough to do. When people say, “What’s your favorite song to perform?” To play What You Give or to play Modern Day Cowboy, The New Love Song, break it down and do Paradise acoustically, or even to do Comin’ Atcha Live and to strengthen the acoustic version of it. It’s fun to do that stuff. Or the way we acoustically did Modern Day Cowboy. You take a song that’s just got this wall of amplifiers and to do it with a different approach, it’s fun. And so we’re very fortunate to be able to do all those kinds of things and still have fun doing it and enjoy performing it like that. So we’ve got a broad range of how we do things. So far we’re all still able to, what we feel, is pull it off. We know we’re having fun and usually, it seems like everybody else in the crowd’s having fun. So we’re very grateful for that.

ANTIHERO: Do you find that mixing up those all songs and doing them in a different style is what keeps them fresh for you? Because you must’ve performed those songs many thousands of times.

Jeff Keith: Absolutely. Absolutely. It makes it exciting and it’s refreshing to, like I said, to approach a song differently. And that keeps the excitement for us and I think the fans, they really appreciate it too. And they know it’s a whole different approach, and it gives a whole different side to a song. So absolutely. It’s fun doing things differently and it’s fun to change things up for us. Because any Tesla song, I’ll be honest with you, I can sing it every night for the rest of my life and really enjoy it because we wrote songs from the heart. But it is fun to do it in different forms and different ways and to change things up. And we like to change the setlist up. And there are songs that you always need to keep in there. But we like doing, what we call, pulling a rabbit out of the hat in a deeper track and throwing it in the set. It’s fun for us. And it’s also fun for the fans to do a different song, instead of just the same songs, all time.

ANTIHERO: What important lessons has a career as a professional musician taught you? What have you learned most from your time in the music business?

Jeff Keith: What has it taught me? Is that always play and write songs from the heart and play them from the heart. Sing them from the heart because we were always told right from the get go, “Write from the heart and play songs from the heart because that might be at the end of the day, all you ever get.” You never know if you’re going to make it or not, and we’ve been fortunate and still are doing it 30 some odd years later and we’re still going strong. But, it’s taught us just to keep it real, stay true to our roots. Don’t try to be the latest fad at different times when different styles of music get thrown out. We’ve always stuck to our roots, which is just hard-working, blue-collar, rock and roll, bluesy band. And so we’ve always stuck to that, and I think our fans appreciate that and I know that we appreciate it, to never try to be something that we know we’re not.

ANTIHERO: Everybody’s got a lot of extra free time, particularly at the moment. I just wondered how you, Jeff, how do you spend your downtime when you’re not performing in the studio or on stages around the world? What do you do in your spare time?

Jeff Keith: Well, I’ll tell you what, Mark, I’m brushing up on my English language and grammar, and sharpening up on my math skills and all this stuff that we get. Between me and my wife, we’re homeschooling a nine-year-old son. So I’ll tell you what, that’s a challenge in itself, because all schools are shut down so everybody has to homeschool. And we just have our youngest daughter who is just graduating from Chico State. She’s graduating out of college. Our oldest daughter is giving us a grandson and we got another grandson coming in August. And so just enjoying time with the family, but having to stay quarantined makes it tough. And, like I said, the homeschooling, whew. That’s a challenge in itself, because I’ll tell you what, I think I’m getting better 40 almost 50 years later at stuff that I never was that good at back then.

So, this homeschooling is a challenge. But hey, we all have to do what we have to do. We all got to come together and as a world and do what we got to do and homeschool our kids until things can get back to somewhat of a norm. And so, we’ve tried to break the monotony, and go out in the backyard. We have a yard big enough where we live and to break out the baseballs in the back and the gloves and play some baseball and do some bicycle riding. Do some dirt bike riding even in the backyard. And so we’re fortunate to have a lot of little toys like that. But I can only imagine for some people that are just cooped up in a lot smaller space. It must really be tough because I know it’s tough and we have all those kinds of luxuries to be able to do with the size of property that we have here at home.

But it’s tough. It’s not easy, Mark. And we’re going to, like I said, try to do that thing on the social media thing where we’re playing live. So that’ll be a new challenge to try and I know some people are doing it. So, we might be trying to take a shot at that. And just we’re all in hopes that we can get back to get out there and rock and roll and have these theatres and these arenas packed and playing to an audience that’s hungry for some live music.

ANTIHERO: Just the final one then, Jeff, if you could. You’ve done many, many interviews over the years, I’m sure. But if the roles were reversed and you could sit down and interview somebody, somebody that’s inspired you, maybe a personal hero, who would that person be?

Jeff Keith: Ah, man, I got a lot of heroes. I mean I grew up on so many different varieties of music. But I’d have to say my top number one inspiration was Bon Scott. My first concert was ‘Day on the Green’ number three at Oakland Coliseum in 1978 and we had never heard of AC DC. And they’d been out for four years. So to see Bon Scott live, no shirt, just rocking out, Angus is all over the floor in that schoolboy outfit, and see him rocking, stepping up to that mic, and just sing in the background and just jamming on that guitar. Oh. And of course Aerosmith, there’s so many bands that were inspiring to me. And like Rolling Stones, bands like that, Led Zeppelin, I have never seen live. But to see Bon Scott up there, and to be a singer in a band, that would have to be my biggest inspiration of all. Bon Scott.

ANTIHERO: That’s great Jeff. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to chat to you. Tesla were actually one of the first bands I saw way back, maybe ’85, ’86. You supported Def Leppard two nights in Belfast.

Jeff Keith: Oh yeah. We started out the Hysteria Crew over in the UK.

ANTIHERO: Thank you very much. Thank you very much for chatting.

Jeff Keith: I appreciate it. I appreciate your time, Mark.

ANTIHERO: Cheers, Jeff.

Jeff Keith: Let’s hope that we get out of here soon and things open back up so we can get back to doing what we love to do most.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. Thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your day. Cheers.

Jeff Keith: All right. Thank you, Mark.

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Mark Dean

I'm a 40+ music fan. Fond mostly of rock and metal - my staple musical food delights. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am now based in the UK-Manchester. I have a hectic musical existence with regular shows and interviews. Been writing freelance for five years now with several international websites. Passionate about what I do, I have been fortunate already to interview many of my all-time musical heroes. My music passion was first created by seeing Status Quo at the tender age of 15. While I still am passionate about my rock and metal, I have found that with age my taste has diversified so that now I am actually dipping into different musical genres and styles for the first time.

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