A milkman’s son, as the title of his just-released autobiography attests, Brian Wheat has gone on to achieve much more than just the daily doorstop delivery. A founding member of Tesla, the bass player and song writer has gone on to sell more than 14 million albums in the United States alone, in a career spanning more than three decades. Releasing such classic albums along the way as ‘Mechanical Resonance’, ‘Psychotic Supper’ and ‘Into the Now’, the band’s discography speaks for itself. It hasn’t however, all been plain sailing, as revealed in ‘Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life With Tesla’. We sat down with Brian for a chat about the book, and the highs and lows of life with of Sacramento’s finest. Into the now; Eamon O’Neill.
Hey Brian, how are you today?
I’m good. I’m in my house in west Texas, in Abilene; it’s the middle of the fucking desert, man! I came down here because who knows what’s happening, with the thing in Washington the other day [2021 storming of the United States capitol, 6th January 2021]. There’s people pissed off on both sides. I’m not going to say either one’s right or wrong – I think they’re both valid in their gripes. I mean, this country’s blaming all their problems on one man, and the system’s been fucking us for fucking decades. It would be really easy if you could blame it all on Donald Trump.
I’m talking to you today on what is the 30th anniversary of the passing of Def Leppard’s Steve Clarke, and I wanted to start by asking you about your memories of Steve.
Well, he was a buddy. He was a good buddy. We done a lot of touring with them on the ‘Hysteria’ tour [1987 – 1989], and we all liked Steve, and we looked up to him. He was a really sweet, gentle guy, so we were all saddened by it. We think about him all the time, and we wrote a song for him called ‘Song and Emotion’ [from ‘Psychotic Supper’, 1991], so Steve’s always got a special spot in our heart. I saw that today, but I didn’t really think about it because I was in interview mode, but now that you mention it, I’ll have to have a whisky for him today.
Joe Elliot has said that, as sad as it was, you could see Steve’s death coming; would you say that’s accurate?
Oh it wasn’t a surprise; everyone saw it coming. You know, unfortunately Steve just couldn’t get help. He couldn’t help himself, and he succumbed to it, unfortunately.
Your history with Def Leppard goes back even further, and in the book you talk about catching them on the ‘On Through the Night’ and ‘High and Dry’ tours in the early 1980s.
Yeah, on the ‘High and Dry’ tour I went back to the hotel with them and smoked some weed with them and hung out with them, and then four years later I was on tour with them, and they became my friends. I was a fan from ‘Rock Brigade’ on. I used to try to get them to play ‘Rock Brigade’ and ‘Wasted’, and they wouldn’t do it! Steve Clarke would say; “man, I can’t do ‘Wasted’ anymore! We did that when we were young; we’re more sophisticated now”. So it’s funny, yeah. Me and Frankie [Hannon, Tesla guitarist] were always trying to get them to play ‘Wasted’ or ‘Rock Brigade’ or ‘It Don’t Matter’, or ‘It Could Be You’ [sings chorus]. I played the shit out of that record; I know it forwards and backwards!
Your book ‘Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life With Tesla’ really pulls no punches in telling your story; was it difficult to write something that honest?
You know, I’ve had a lot of people ask me that, and I guess maybe it would be difficult, but I got in the mind set where I thought if I’m going to do this, I’ll just tell it - the truth – of how I saw it. I mean, I could have done it to try to make me look like some kind of hero or something, and make everyone else in the band look bad, but I said; “look, we all had our problems, and the main thing is that we’re still standing”. We survived; 36 years we’ve been a band! So, that’s a long time, and I don’t know a lot of bands that have been together that long. So that is really the underlying message of the whole book; no matter what comes at you, you just push it off, and you keep going.
You really spell out what happened with the departure of original guitarist Tommy Skeoch; how does feel to still be talking about that?
Well, I don’t really like talking about it, to be honest with you, because, quite frankly, he was given many chances, and he chose his path; no one chose it for him. And because I am the outspoken one, you know, the one who will just go; “hey, there’s a fuckin’ elephant in the room, here”, I caught a lot of his shit. And that’s just it. Someone asked me the other day if I ever thought I’d be friends with him again, and I said; “no”. And then I thought that maybe that was a bit harsh, but really, when I think about it, I don’t think I ever was his friend. I think I was a guy that was in a band with him that he dealt with because he had to, and I don’t know if anyone in that band was his friend – maybe Jeff Keith [vocalist]. So, it’s not like we went on vacation together or anything; we worked together, and at a certain point, it got hard to work together; for everybody, not just myself.
The sad thing about it is, ironically, when he was in the band from [the reunion in] 2000 on, he stayed with me all the time, and I thought we were good friends. And then he took some shots at me right after he got out of the band again, and at that point I was just like; “fuck you, dude. I didn’t do this to you, man; I tried to help you. And although I was the one that had to bring it up, you were continuing fucking up”. But I would have done it if it had been anyone else. And he eludes to the fact that Jeff was doing the same things, and Jeff didn’t get treated like that, and to a degree, maybe he’s right, but Jeff never wasn’t able to perform, or Jeff didn’t miss gigs because he couldn’t get a hold of it, or he wasn’t out trying to score, or do whatever. I mean, I’m sorry man, but the same thing would happen if it was me! So I mean, that’s just the reality of it, and I keep it real. Don’t deflect, you know; “everyone else did this and that” – own your shit! To this day I don’t really think he’s owned it.
Guitarist Dave Rude, who replaced Tommy, has been in the band for fifteen years now.
I gotta tell you man, I’ve been really happy since Dave Rude has been in the band. He’s a great addition, and he’s a great guitar player, a great guy, easy to be around, so we’ve moved on, and I hope Tommy has as well, and I wish him all the best.
Going back to the beginning of the band’s career, and for the time, there’s an unusual gap of almost 3 years between the release of ‘Mechanical Resonance’ , and ‘The Great Radio Controversy’ .
Well, we were on tour. They kept us on tour working that album, the ‘Mechanical Resonance’ album, so that was a large part of it, and then it took a while to make the second album. There was a lot of touring on that first album; we did tours with David Lee Roth, we did Alice Cooper, we did shows on our own, we did two rounds with Def Leppard, and then time flew by and it was time to do it again. The first record, essentially came out in December of ’86, so, so you can’t really count ’86 as the year; it was ’87 – ’88, and ‘Great Radio’ came out in ’89, so it’s 2 years. There was a lot longer period between ‘Psychotic Supper [‘1991] and ‘Bust a Nut’ .
In the book, you point to ‘Psychotic Supper’ as the band’s high point, despite its’ fraught creation.
Well, I think we were very creative, and it was the beginning of us asserting ourselves, really. And with that, came the thing; the troubles that came later. But, we were pretty good, that whole record and tour. It was after that tour and the success of ‘Five Man Acoustical Jam’  going on at the same time, that we started to maybe, not want to listen to the people that were working with us anymore. And, you know, we saw what happened. I tell people that I don’t think ‘Bust a Nut’ was as good as the other albums of that first run, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it – at the time I thought it was great, but looking back on the whole thing, with hindsight, I can see, and I remember that’s where we were starting to unravel. There were things going on that you could see a brick wall coming at you, fast.
One of the tracks from that album that you had a hand in writing was ‘Freedom Slaves’.
Yeah, I had the bass riff, and that’s where that started, and then I had the main riff [sings riff], and then Frank and Tommy, I think, finished off the music, and we finished off the rest of it, and Jeff had those lyrics. That diff on the D, is very Def Leppard, or Jimmy Page, either one [sings ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ riff]. I haven’t really thought of that one in a long time, and now that you mention it; yeah, that was a pretty cool song.
‘Psychotic Supper’ came out the same year as ‘Nevermind’, yet it was hugely successful, and you actually say in the book that grunge didn’t kill Tesla.
No, that’s not what killed Tesla; what killed Tesla was we were just burned out, and we were fucked up, and when you put those two things together, you don’t make clear headed decisions. Right? And we got discouraged as well, because on ‘Bust a Nut’ they were kind of saying that out career was over, and that Capitol records were going to drop us – that was the rumour, we just thought; “how could this be?”; because we’d just signed this brand new contract. And we were tired because we’d been hitting it hard all of these years, and then obviously you’ve been hitting the bottle and everything else hard as well, so it all contributed to it. I mean, really, what it turned out to be was we needed a break, and the only way we knew how to do it was to break up. Luckily, we were able to find ourselves back together four and a hail years later.
Before that though, in 1993 you contributed a song to the movie ‘Last Action Hero’, and you talk about the massive budget you had to record it, in the book.
Yeah, they gave us a lot of money to do the song, and we spent more than they gave us, and they gave us a lot! We were just going crazy at Skywalker Ranch, which is George Lucas’s film studio, where he’s got this recording studio. It was just insane! Like, no one was in control of the budget, or anything! We were just out of our mind!
The impression I get is that you don’t rate that song, at all.
No, I like it! We play it every now and again, but it’s hard to get Jeff to sing it, because he thinks it’s a bit silly. I mean, look, the riff was mine! I like the song! But the funny thing about it was, we had the title song and it wasn’t even in the movie! It’s one of the typical kind of things that happened to Tesla. We did ‘The Ocean’ for this ‘Encomium’ album [A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, 1995], and at the last minute it got kicked off! Those kind of things contributed to us getting kind of deflated at the time. But hey, look, I’m glad they happened, because they made us stronger. If I had to pick being hugely successful back then at that time and not knowing when our career would have ended, or being here today, still, 36 years later; I would pick what we have now.
The band did reconvene a few years later, and in 2004 ‘Into the Now’ was released; did you feel like you had something to prove with that one?
Yeah, I was happy with the results. You know, we did have something to prove; we had to prove that we were still capable of being the band that everyone wanted us to be, and loved. A lot of people will say it was our ‘comeback record’, if you will, and maybe if had been on a bigger label instead of Sanctuary at the time, it would have done even better than it did. It did quite well for us. It was fun because we were all back together and we were all having a good time, and we were all being creative, but personally, for me at that time, it was a little bit hard, because I forgot how to write a Tesla song because I had spent four years with my band Soulmotor, and I was doing all this heavy stuff. So, I didn’t really get to contribute that much to that album in terms of song writing except for the song ‘What a Shame’. But I think it’s a great album. I think it’s one of our better, top three albums, really. I think it’s right up there next to ‘Psychotic Supper’.
How would you rank the Tesla discography?
Oh man, that’s hard, dude! You’re asking me to rate my kids! Man, I mean, I can’t rate them. Obviously ‘Mechanical Resonance’ is the first one, so there’s that, but I wouldn’t say that’s my favourite album. My favourite album is probably ‘Psychotic Supper’, and then, I really like ‘Into the Now’, and I really like ‘The Great Radio Controversy’. You know, ‘Bust a Nut’s not one of my favourite albums, and ‘Simplicity’  is not my favourite album. I liked ‘Forever More’  a lot, and I like ‘Shock’  a lot, but some people didn’t; they said it sounds too much like Def Leppard.
‘Shock’ was an album that definitely split opinions.
We were trying something different. We had never made a record in the fashion of a Def Leppard record, and when Phil [Collen, Def Leppard guitarist, and ‘Shock’ producer] came, we did that, and I think we did a good job at it, but our hard core fans, they hated it! You got one side that really loved it, and one side that absolutely hated it, and I’d never seen that with any of our records. I’d seen with ‘Simplicity’, people say; “oh, it’s okay…”, but they would never say; “I hate it!” I’ve seen people say; “I fucking HATE this, and fuck Phil Collen”! and I’m like; “hey, fuck you! If you don’t like it, fuck off”, because they were capping on my bro! I’m like; “we put a lot of hard work into this! It’s easy for you to sit there and say what we just did was shit; YOU make your record and let ME judge it, you cocksuckers!” And I mean that in an endearing way, you know?! It’s not for everybody, but we didn’t think it was dog shit, and I didn’t like when people were saying “fuck Phil Collen”; I took offence to that and told people to fuck of, and that was the headline, obviously, on Blabbermouth.
You appeared at Download festival in 2019 in support of the album; how was that show for you?
Download's always a kick in the ass, so that was great fun! The shows we played on the 'Shock' tour were great; we played a bunch of new material, we played a bunch of old material, and they were well attended, and we were having a great time.
Back to the present day, and have you an audio version of the book on the way?
Yeah, I go next week and do it. I’ll be recording for four days or something. Then they’ve got to edit it all together and stuff, and then I don’t know when it comes out after that. You know, it’s going to be interesting. I’m not a very good reader, so I’m a little apprehensive!
There's a very telling line in the book that says that Tesla "couldn't survive without income from touring"; where does that leave you in 2021?
Well, we're on the dole, man. Right now, we are unemployed, so what can you do? Hopefully we'll get back to work soon.
Are the band working on any new music during this time off the road?
We're not really around each other, so with all that being said and done, we've just got to wait to get back together and then we'll go plan, and once we go play, we'll make another record after that.
Brian Wheat's Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life with Tesla' is available now.
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