Tesla at 40: ‘It’s Been a Bumpy Road’
Following a month-long battle with COVID which left him in a state where he could “hardly breathe,” guitarist Frank Hannon was “fired up” to finally get back out on the road with Tesla.
The band is out on its current run without drummer Troy Lucketta, who decided to “take a little time from the road to spend with family and friends” after 35 years of touring. In his place is Steve Brown, brother of former Dokken skinsman “Wild” Mick Brown. The younger Brown is “saving the day” according to Hannon.
Currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, the seasoned hard rock group continues to tour and record new music, something which is unbelievable to the veteran guitarist. “When I was 18 years old, writing that first album, man, I didn’t think about 40 years later,” he tells UCR. “I had no idea that we’d be in the future, the year 2021. I mean, that sounded like a science fiction movie to me.”
Hannon shared some insights on “Cold Blue Steel,” the newest single from the band, as well as playing shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd and some vintage memories of touring with David Lee Roth.
Let’s talk about this new song, “Cold Blue Steel.” It seems like it emerged as all good songs often do, very organically. Can you walk us through that?
I’ve been producing young artists in my studio over the past year and a half. So my production and recording was up and running. Knowing that we were going on the road in a few months with Tesla, I called [Tesla vocalist] Jeff [Keith] and I said, “Hey man, why don’t you come on over. Let’s write a song and record it. The studio is up and running and we can create something.”
He was fired up for it. We wanted to come out with something new for this tour. I was jamming in my garage on this heavy detuned [Jimi] Hendrix-y vibe thing. On the way over to my house, he had been listening to some Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Saturday Night Special.” He was cranking that up and fired up on it. Right about that time, there had been some violence on the news and so I said, “Why don’t we touch on the subject here.”
Now, the way Tesla likes to be, we’re very fair-minded. If you listen to the lyrics, they’re similar to “Modern Day Cowboy,” whereas we’re touching on a current subject. Like “USA/USSR, foreign lands, terrorist demands,” but we’re not taking sides. “Cold Blue Steel,” we touched on it the same way. The song is actually about people’s intentions.
The first verse says, “Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile/ Sick and unhappy behind a smile.” The song is about the evil intentions. It’s not about guns, really. Even though it started off that way. “Cold Blue Steel” can be an airplane you fly into a building, if you’re an evil person.
Watch The Video For Tesla's 'Cold Blue Steel
You talked about how the song starts inspirationally with Skynyrd. You’re doing some shows together. Do you know the Skynyrd folks?
We do know Lynyrd Skynyrd. We have a history with them. In the ‘90s when they did their reunion, we toured with them on The Last Rebel tour, [with] Gary [Rossington], and Leon [Wilkeson] was still around [as well as] Billy Powell. We’re great friends with Johnny Van Zant. We ran into them over in Paris. We did a festival with them last year.
But beyond that, we just love their music. They’re the kind of band that writes songs like “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Free Bird.” Songs that are from the heart. They’re one of our biggest influences. When we wrote “Cold Blue Steel,” we had no idea we were going to be doing dates with them.
It wasn’t until after that we got a phone call, “Hey, guess what, you’re going to be opening for Skynyrd.” And we’re like, “Hey, guess what from our end, we just wrote a song influenced by Lynyrd Skynyrd.” So it worked out.
What do you recall about first coming across the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd?
I recall being a 12 year old kid driving in a car and listening to FM radio. “Free Bird” was on the radio. Obviously, the guitar solos are amazing at the end. Everyone knows how great that is. But the beginning of “Free Bird,” when Gary Rossington plays that crying slide guitar, really slow and emotional. I just remember being a kid and that sound just instantly touching me and making me feel a certain way that I hadn’t felt before.
Tesla recorded the most recent album, 2019’s Shock, out on the road with Def Leppard's Phil Collen producing. How did that experience influence how you’re making the songs that you’ve been working on more recently?
It was an eye-opener to realize that it can be done. You can record an album these days anywhere. You don’t have to go into an expensive studio and we used to have the mindset that we couldn’t write songs on the road because we were too busy doing soundchecks and all of that stuff. But the truth is, you can actually get more inspiration on the road and you can actually do it if you manage your time right. What we’re going to do now is keep writing when the moment happens and keep it raw. [Tesla bassist] Brian Wheat and myself are going to set up a studio and do like we did with Shock, but on our own this time.
I saw the band on the initial reunion tour in 2001. You guys have been able to add a lot of chapters to the Tesla story since then. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
It’s been a bumpy road. It’s not an easy road. The first half of it, from ‘86 to ‘96, we frickin’ crammed and worked and never stopped and never took a break. Then it came to a head. We all got frustrated and the top blew off of it. We should have just taken a break. But we didn’t. We got mad at each other and got divorced and went through all kinds of legal bullshit.
If we had just taken a break, it might have worked out differently. We did get back together and we had to change guitar players, but [guitarist] Dave [Rude] has been with us now for over 15 years. What a solid guy, man. The team is solid.
I talked to Dave. He’s a good solid dude, as you say. It’s hard to find that kind of chemistry with a guitar player even once, so the fact that you were able to find that magic again with Dave is pretty cool.
Thanks. It wasn’t easy, bro. Before, when we were going through the hardships again with our former guitar player, I started shopping around for about a year. I auditioned a bunch of guys and I had one guy that was going to be in the spot. But he was a younger dude and he wanted to play in a band. He ended up going on to play in a band called Lit. He was more of a punk rocker and a killer guitar player named Ryan [Gillmor]. It didn’t work out with him, so I was frantically searching and searching for a long time.
I had an audition night in Sacramento at a bar and I had eight guitar players jump up with me, with my solo band, Kaleidoscope. We were playing every guitar song you can imagine. Hendrix, Rush, Aerosmith, Van Halen [and bands like that]. I had different guys coming up. In my back pocket, I had Dave Rude coming up. I had found him on Myspace and I knew he was killer, because he looked killer.
He sat in with me that night and I made a videotape of it and took it home and played it for my wife. We were both just going, “That’s the guy right there. That’s him!” [Laughs] It was such a relief. He nailed the “What You Give” solo. Tommy Skeoch’s solo on “What You Give” is really hard to play with the feeling and Dave nails it. So he got the gig.
Final bit here. Do you have a good David Lee Roth story?
I do, man. David Lee Roth was really great to us. But we never saw him. They had security so tight around him. Because he was the biggest thing since Elvis [Presley] at that time. I mean, “Yankee Rose” and Eat ‘Em & Smile, David Lee Roth was huge!
We would be in these towns like Buffalo, New York or whatever, in the middle of the day. He would go out jogging in the snow. I remember him walking into the venue with his bodyguard, just covered in snow. He looked like The Abominable Snowman, because he had been out there jogging. [Laughs]