Tesla is hands down one of my favorite bands from the 80’s. The band was very much a working class hard rock band whose roots were deeply embedded in the heart and soul of American rock n’ roll. In a time where most of their peers were making then trendy and now somewhat forgettable music, 30 years later Tesla’s music sounds timeless and classic. The band continues to put out new music and to tour pleasing both old fans and new fans alike.
On a recent tour stop, lead guitarist/songwriter Frank Hannon took some time out to talk with me about the band’s new album, touring, why it’s important to continue to make new music, and all else in between. Frank was a truly fantastic person to talk with and it was an honor to get the chance to speak with one of my all time favorites. Enjoy!
Frank, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview today!
No problem at all, Don. Thanks for having me.
Tesla has really experienced quite the renaissance over the past few years and I have to say that it’s been great to see you guys getting so much love.
Thanks. Yeah, the past couple of years we’re really built up a lot of momentum and it’s been going really good.
I had the pleasure of talking to Jeff the last time so I’ll tell you the same thing. I wish I could go back to my 15 year old self and tell me that I’d be talking to you today.
[laughs] That’s great, man. Thank you.
I have to ask you. What is one question that you get asked so much that if you hear it again you’ll scream?
Oh shit, probably “How’s the tour going?” [laughs] Actually, “How did you get the name of the band?” I mean, by now I would think that by now people would sort of know that we named our band after Nikola Tesla, the inventor [laughs]. Now there’s a car named after him. He was an electrical genius.
Along with Iron Maiden and their literary references, you guys definitely earned me a lot of extra credit in high school with my knowledge of Nikola Tesla.
[Laughs] Right on. The thing about it is that we had never heard of Nikola Tesla. When were in the studio working on our first album, one of our friends had a book about Nikola Tesla called Man out of Time. The fact that Nikola Tesla had changed the world and he had been written out of the history books was so fascinating to us. There’s a lot of stuff they don’t teach you in school and a lot of stuff they do teach in school is pretty bogus but that’s a whole other subject [laughs].
The last time Tesla was on the road, you guys were touring for the album, Simplicity which was definitely a return to form for you guys. What was it about that album that found you going back to where it all began?
We worked on that album with Tom Zugat and he really encouraged us to keep everything organic and simple. He was the A&R guy at Geffen Records who first signed us to the label when we were first starting out so he really took us back to our roots. He encouraged us to keep it live in the studio. He was also a guy that encouraged us to do the album Reel to Reel which was keeping it real and recorded live in the studio to tape. That was kind of his direction.
Was it a comfortable direction for you?
Yeah. For me, it’s the direction I personally like; playing live and jamming in a room and keeping it simple and spontaneous.
How is that direction changing now that you are working on a new album with Phil Collen (Def Leppard guitarist)?
It’s funny that we segued into this question because the direction that we’re going in with Phil is totally different. It’s great, in a way, because I do love a challenge and I love to learn. Phil has learned a lot of recording techniques from their producer Mutt Lange who’s one of the greatest producers in the world. The approach that we’re taking on this new record is almost the opposite of what we were just talking about. It’s a lot more detailed and a lot more tedious in detail but it does produce a sound that is very pleasing to the ear. It’s perfectly in tune and polished so it’s a whole different direction that we’re taking on this new record.
Sometimes change can be good though and keep things interesting for you.
Exactly. Life can be fun that way. You can’t just be closed minded and stick to one thing. You’ve got to be able to be willing to try learning different things. As long as you’re alive you’ve got to keep learning.
So is this change more from the sonic side of the production or has this change also bled into the songwriting for this new album?
It’s just coming into the entire aspect of the songwriting. Like, we’ll have a song idea that will start in one place and by the time the band and Phil gets a hold of it and trying different things and taking the time to actually develop it into something, it’s definitely a more developing process on this record and it’s affecting the whole thing. It’s different and it’s pretty cool. It’s still a learning curve for me to try not just settle for something.
I also love that Tesla is still very much a thriving, creative band as opposed to a full on nostalgic band like a lot of your peers.
Thanks. Yeah, I’m always writing and recording stuff. I bought a little digital 8-track to work on stuff in my hotel room. We are very hungry and we are still creative. The new album, like I said, is a challenge and a step away from the last album, Simplicity. There’s no quitting creativity in this band that’s for sure.
After nearly 30 years of Tesla, what is it that keeps you doing this?
I think it’s an appreciation we have for each other. We came from the humble beginnings and while we never had a huge mega hit, we’ve always been a hard working band. We realize how lucky we are to be able to continue to do this 35 years later. It’s been 30 years since we released our first album and it’s been 35 years since we started playing together. We’ve been through a lot of hard times. We broke up in the ‘90s, we hit rock bottom and you’ve got to go through it to get through it. The hard times definitely make you appreciate the good times.
The last time Tesla was here in Atlanta for the Simplicity tour at the Tabernacle, you guys nailed. It was an amazing crowd, an amazing show; definitely not a band just going through the motions.
Thanks, Don. We’re going to be doing a headlining tour soon. Right now we’re opening for Poison and Def Leppard in these really big venues. It’s hard to play only 7 or 8 songs in a set when you’ve got such a catalog of music so it’s going to be fun to be headlining again doing our full 2 hour show with all of our diverse material.
On the Def Leppard/Poison tour, does the audience tend to differ a bit more from what Tesla usually sees as a headliner?
Well, when we play a show like this, we’re talking like 15,000 people in the big Enormodome [laughs]. We’re winning over a lot of fans that maybe had forgotten about us so we basically play our biggest hits like, “Signs”, “Love Song”, “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Little Suzi”; songs that are familiar to people. When we do our headlining set we can play the deeper tracks.
What is one song that when you look down at your setlist, you can’t wait to play it?
“Modern Day Cowboy” was the first song that we had played on Headbanger’s Ball and it’s still a crowd favorite. We usually play it as the last song of the set. It’s amazing that the lyrics seem to continue to touch a reality nerve with the politics and the stuff that’s going in the world between the USA and Russia and now with North Korea. “Modern Day Cowboy” still touches that nerve. Plus it’s got some killer guitar riffs [laughs]. It’s still one of my favorites.
Finally, what is up with Tesla for the rest of 2017.
The Def Leppard/Poison tour ends in June and then in July/August through the end of the year we’re going to do our headlining tour. The production is being developed now with video screens behind the band which goes along with the music so when you see “Edison’s Medicine”, you’re going to see lots of cool Tesla footage.
Frank, thank you so much for doing this interview today and best of luck out there on the road.
Thank you so much, buddy. We’ll see you in Atlanta soon.