Five years ago, Tesla -- perhaps the only band extant named for a scientist, this one being Nikolai Tesla, the father of alternating current -- became an unlikely multi-platinum success story when their version of the Five Man Electrical Band's song "Signs" was a sudden, and surprise, hit single and much-played MTV video.
It was as accidental a brush with success as any band could imagine. Usually a plugged-in, hard-rocking band, Tesla had recorded their acoustic version of "Signs" during several informal unplugged shows the Sacramento, California, band had scheduled in the midst of touring behind their second album, the 1989 release The Great Radio Controversy.
The tapes from the shows were intended only for the band members' personal libraries. Instead, the group's record label, Geffen, heard the recordings and asked the band to use them for a live disc. "Signs" was released as a single, and the next thing you knew, copies of that concert record, Five Man Acoustical Jam, were selling briskly, and Tesla seemed headed for major stardom.
But now it's a half decade later, and Tesla's profile has shrunk. The 1991 follow-up CD, Psychotic Supper, went platinum, but it was four years before the band had another release, the current Bust a Nut. While Nut has reached gold, it's been a quiet seller. And instead of playing arenas and large theaters, as Tesla did following Psychotic Supper, the group's headlining shows have been in clubs and small theaters.
"I mean, these places that we're playing and stuff are like, they're selling out in minutes flat some of them and stuff, or within very few days," Tesla singer/lyricist Jeff Keith says. "And the people are going crazy. But I guess those are the only places they've got for us to play right now. Maybe the promoters don't want to take the chance. I don't know what it is."
Keith may feel that Tesla deserves to play larger venues, but he admits that some of the fans who made Tesla a chart-topping act probably weren't thrilled when the band returned to their usual hard-rocking sound on Psychotic Supper and Bust a Nut.
"I'm sure there's a few. You know, maybe there's a few who said, 'hey, I'm getting off this train,'" he says. "I think it definitely freaked out a lot of them. They went, 'This is the band that did 'Signs'?' I'm sure it was [a shock]. It wasn't like we were trying to go way out of our way to make a point, we were just doing what we normally do. With the 'Signs' thing and all that acoustic stuff, we just had an extra night off here and there and we were just burning up time having a good time. So it happened to do well and a lot of people were introduced to us on that note. So it's like, at the same time, hey, I'm sorry if this is what you were expecting, but this is the way it is. I'm sure it was too abrupt for some of these people."
Whether Bust a Nut will get the second push it'd need to reach platinum remains to be seen. But this summer Tesla is at least playing to large crowds as an opening act on the Lynyrd Skynyrd amphitheater tour. They're also back to the full five-piece lineup of Keith, guitarists Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch, bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Troy Luccketta after playing as a four-piece on a recent club/small theater tour.
Prior to that string of dates, Skeoch had to take a hiatus from touring. Keith, not wanting to specifically name the guitarist's problem, instead uses the following description to explain the situation: "He had too many visits to the doctor or whatever you want to call it, that kind of thing. Just was, the muscles were a little bit too relaxed there, if you know where I'm coming from."
Skeoch's problems had become apparent during recording of Bust a Nut, but the band initially thought he had pulled himself together in time for the tour.
"It's unfortunate that it had to go as far as it did, but we'd explained to him that, man, we need you. We need you to be there, man, and not out of it and stuff," Keith says. "Because he was not just a guy you didn't want to be around, but he just couldn't play. So we said, 'Buddy, you can't do that. You've got to get a grip, there, Tommy, and we'll help you, whatever it takes.' And he said, 'Cool.' We were getting ready to go out for the tour, and on the plane flight out, he was just wasted again and it was just like a bummer. It was the worst experience I have ever experienced as far as within the band."
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"He just had to hit the bottom of the barrel," Keith adds. "But he's my hero, man, he pulled through."
Besides the return to the full five-man lineup, another thing that makes the current tour enjoyable is the satisfaction the band feels with Bust a Nut, Keith says. Unlike the Psychotic Supper sessions, during which the band had to overcome hesitations from management over certain songs the group wanted to include, the planning and recording of Bust a Nut was a smooth experience. Regardless of sales, Keith says the band members are proud of their efforts on the new CD.
"I don't know, this one just spoke for itself a lot more. Psychotic Supper was one of those where you just can't please everybody so you've got to please yourself kind of things," says Keith. "Where on Bust a Nut, everybody was like, 'I can dig this song being on the album. Yeah I can dig this one.' Where Psychotic Supper was, 'Come on, man, this is what we want to put on there' kind of thing. So it was easy to make. It was fun to make, man. It's fun again now."
Tesla, along with Bloodline, opens for Lynyrd Skynyrd at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 21 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets $40, $35, $25 and $17.50. Call 629-3700 for info.